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Defining the Sufi – Heart and Soul

Intoxicated by the Wine of Love.

From each a mystic silence Love demands.

What do all seek so earnestly? ‘Tis Love.

What do they whisper to each other? Love.

Love is the subject of their inmost thoughts.

In Love no longer ‘thou’ and ‘I’ exist,

For Self has passed away in the Beloved.

Now will I draw aside the veil from Love,

And in the temple of mine inmost soul,

Behold the Friend; Incomparable Love.

He who would know the secret of both worlds,

Will find the secret of them both, is Love.

Fariduddin Attar – Translation by Margaret Smith

In the beginning there was Love.

Love, light, longing and the dearly Beloved – the Friend of all. All those who love Him. Sufism enshrines itself as a form of expressing an ancient Covenant: the  Sufis being friends of Allah who strive to leave worldly desires behind and show loyalty to their beloved by engaging in perpetual ‘remembrance’ and ‘zikr’. Synonymous with the ideals of higher ecstatic ‘states’ or ‘ahwal’, the heart of the Sufi longs for final ‘survival’ that is ‘baq’a’ of his ideals.

Sufism is not a simple word to define. Its forms are culturally determined while its traditions have undergone transformations through the centuries and the various nations who came in contact with it. Perhaps it would be simpler to say what it is not.

It is not a form of Islam or a derivative of the Holy Qura’an but there is no doubt that it was an important means of bringing the masses closer to Islam in early days. Sufis were initially approached with something between awe, curiosity and ridicule and later as their influence grew, they managed to capture more than just attention. They captured and captivated hearts.

Sufism cannot even be defined as a religion. Unlike structured religions, while it has a ‘pathway’ or ‘tariqa’ it does not have a single rigid doctrine. Its followers have their own brotherhoods and while they are divided in spirit and practices, their object is the same – the love of Allah.

It is also not a ‘union with God’ as many sources claim, as it gives the idea of ‘the  realization of God’s uniqueness’ rather than a blending or forging. Most Sufis reject the idea of finding Allah within oneself. They rather view the contemplation and appreciation of His beautiful creations as a means of reaching Him.

Some sources have shown the influence of Christian, Hindu practices on Sufism and said that it is an evolution of the desire to mould the oft viewed stern Islamic practices and provide a softer outlook. Yet, there is a major difference. The historical context shows that while the Sufis may have indulged in seemingly libertine practices, they never were dubbed as clergy, or believed in the trinity or in incarnation. Much has been lost in translation. Julian Baldick, the author of several books on Comparative Religion refers to the word ‘Saint’ which, according to him, has been liberally used in translation by British writers for Muslim mystics. While the term has a completely different connotation of heroic piety in Christianity, the closest counterpart is ‘Wali Allah’ which means ‘friend of Allah’ and the patron of those at a lower level of contemplation of His supremacy.

Another reference looks at the etymological roots of the word Sufi, calling it the Islamic continuation of Greek philosophy or the Sophists. There is incidentally quite a bit in common between both Sophists and Sufis. Both strove to teach and were elitist in nature. However, that is where the similarity ends. While Sophists  never tried to reach the masses and remained in minority, rejecting the common’ man, the Sufis did just the opposite by making sure that their message was  comprehensible to all.

An offshoot sometimes confused with the Sufis, takes the form of a Hellenized Islamic Philosophy and is called ‘Hikmat al Ishraq’ or the wisdom of Oriental Illumination. Here the contextual difference is vast. The Sufis, immersed in their ideal of togetherness or a strong bond with the Creator and lacking interest in worldly affairs, have no desire for immediate escape either. The other side lacks interest in attaining the love of the Creator and instead focuses on an ordered perception of the Universe dominated by a mysterious Angel. Their escapist ideology, of ascension and integration into space by means of purifying their thought to gain heights of Spiritual mastery not apparent to other mortals, deviates far from simplistic Sufi notions of life.

So then, what is Sufism and what do the Sufis themselves have to offer as an explanation. The answer lies in the metaphorical content of their sayings and  writings. Sufism is a mystical tradition that has been taken as one of the highest forms of living the ideal of a life filled with ‘tasawwuf’. Tasawwuf – literally ‘wearing wool’ was a term initially used to pinpoint those who were not interested in the material world. Wool in its raw rough form being used to  fashion a rather crude basic tunic or garment known more for its resilience than its comfort. According to the historian Ibn e Khaldun, “This knowledge (Tasawwuf) is a branch of the sciences of Sacred Law that originated within the Umma. From the first, the way of such people had also been considered the path of truth and guidance by the early Muslim community and its notables, of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), those who were taught by them, and those who came after them.” Another connotation lies with the term of ‘As’hab e Sufah’ or the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) who led simple lives and spent their time learning from him and in prayer.

Hence, Sufism has its leanings towards dedication with a pure heart. Be it the soulful stirrings of poetry sublimated in ‘ishq e ilaahi’ and the ‘love of Allah’, deliberate self abasement in the slightest wrongdoing or even a bid to give up all worldly distractions, Sufism binds the Sufi heart and soul with his Maker. A bond that is only strengthened with time and the only definition it needs is ‘belief’ and ‘intent’.


Baldick, J. (2000) Mystical Islam – An Introduction to Sufism.  Tauris Parke Paperbacks. London, New York.

Keller, N. H. M. (1995) The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional  Islamic Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm

Sieny, M.E. (1989) Muslim Heroes. International Islamic Publishers Ltd. Karachi, Pakistan.

Wahiduddin. Intoxicated by the wine of love. Retrieved from http://wahiduddin.net/sufi/sufi_poetry.htm

Becoming Robert Lee Frost

Freud mentions sublimation as the primary defense of poets and prose writers alike. The defense that keeps them upright in life. Even a slight dissention would result in the convenient label of denial. However, be it the poets of the Indian subcontinent with their focus on tragic matters of the heart or poets of the west, some saying of Freud come back to haunt us. While the Romantics and the Victorian poets depict the pathos of their times and lives, American poets like Robert Lee Frost also deserve more than just a mention. His life shows much of his ‘will’ to live while his work showcases sensuality packaged in pastoral simplicity.

Frost had “miles to go” in every sense. Emotional upheavals interspersed with outstanding successes shaped his life. Born to a teaching couple on March 26, 1874, he was orphaned at 11 when his gambler, drinker and authoritarian father passed away. His married life was punctuated by frequent bouts with poverty, uncertain health, financially unproductive though creatively fruitful immigrations and tragic or unnatural deaths and institutionalisations of his children. Despite such personal turmoil, his fame and triumph of 4 Pulitzer prizes during his lifetime remains unparalleled by any other American poet. He passed away on January 29, 1963.

While his mother made Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others his fodder throughout childhood, Greek and Latin held its sway during high school, which along with an interest in botany and astronomy influenced his poetry. The psychologist William James known as the father of American psychology, however, became Frost’s ‘greatest inspiration’. This may have led to the spiritual undertones in Frost’s work and the idea of ‘will’ in his life.

For many reviewers Frost’s charm lies in his simplicity. While, Edward Thomas recognized his originality, Ezra Pound felt he knew more about farm life and effectually ‘Life’ itself after reading Frost, and Jarrell described him as the “the subtlest and saddest of poets”.

Deeper analysis reveals his subliminal sensual appeal. His formulation of the “ear” being “the only true writer and reader”, made him experiment using the “sound of sense” with vernacular speech. Another aspect of sublimation perhaps? Thus, his poetry makes demands on the reader’s vigilance for cadences and dramatic effects of silence.  He, like his ‘Oven Bird’ remained earthbound, singing of worldly matters, didactic and argumentative by turns. Overall, his witty treatment of issues in light verse composition gave a surface gloss to inopportune facets.

Among his best-known shorter poems are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “Mending Wall”, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, “Acquainted With the Night”, “The Pasture”, “Fire and Ice”, and “The Road Not Taken”.

Throughout, he astutely remained in the public eye, being feted by the literary worlds of both Boston and New York. His practice of public readings with a sprinkling of his own comments and reflections about the world served only to enhance his popularity with the masses.

Though primarily a poet, Frost was also a dramatist. When hard pressed for money he also wrote articles for poultry journals by night while working his farm by day. His letters to wife Elinor and friend Sidney Cox “Forty Years of Friendship” are in book form and served to release him after a decade from the ‘monster of egotism myth’ when his personality faced the brunt of his self-appointed biographer Thompson’s hostile pen.

Frost was prolific. Hundreds of unearthed works are still being published posthumously such as The Notebooks of Robert Frost (January 2007).

He had a “lover’s quarrel with the world” and like a lover, gave his tribute to ‘tragic America’ transformed artfully into ‘pastoral and peaceful America’.

* An abridged version of this essay has been published earlier in the box features section of Daily Dawn Newspaper, Karachi. Pakistan.

*Image courtesy: http://www.google.com.pk/imgres?imgurl=http://students.ou.edu/E/Kelly.A.Edson-1/robertfrost.jpg&imgrefurl=http://students.ou.edu/E/Kelly.A.Edson-1/project.html&usg=__kf5sCVZyyZ4SUJJgaUz4FTvqDU0=&h=258&w=258&sz=62&hl=en&start=0&zoom=1&tbnid=6xQsqEmogJQPgM:&tbnh=138&tbnw=159&ei=o5TSTaKdM5CksQOS3r2wCQ&prev=/search%3Fq%3Drobert%2Blee%2Bfrost%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DX%26rlz%3D1T4GGHP_enPK418PK418%26biw%3D1093%26bih%3D466%26tbm%3Disch%26prmd%3Divns0%2C209&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=844&vpy=67&dur=2675&hovh=206&hovw=206&tx=150&ty=103&page=1&ndsp=13&ved=1t:429,r:12,s:0&biw=1093&bih=466

Religion, Rushdie and the Red Rag…

Do I see a red rag?!

I have just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s article in which he is quite vociferous in denouncing Pakistan as a terrorist state and all Pakistani bureaucracy and government agencies as allies of the fundamentalists.

‘Fundamentalists? The word itself is a misnomer and a huge one at that. Islam as a religion and a way of life is based on fundamentals and if you remove those the essence is lost.

Rushdie’s sentiments are strongly pro-Indian and equally anti-Pakistan. Below the article is a stream of supportive comments from all around the world. The article in question in addition is being circulated widely amongst international facebook and twitter users. There are very few who (judging by the feedback) hold back their passions rather than leapfrogging into a dynamite like rhetoric against ‘terrorism’, jihadis, fundos, beards and the like.

Let us for a moment leave religion out of this debate. What is left then? Salman Rushdie as one human denouncing a whole country full of millions of other humans on the basis of  something that was or was not done by the ruling powers – that is shield Osama Bin Laden?

Alright, let us also suppose that they did shield him… and succeeded… on their own?

If Rushdie’s claim is correct, suddenly I feel like giving Pakistan a pat on the back! We succeeded in shielding OBL from the eyes of Big Brother? I’m dumbstruck.

Does anyone notice that the common man in Rushdie’s fantasia of a terrorist state has also been suffering due to intermittent bomb blasts and attacks? Does anyone care that several areas in the north ofPakistan had become no-go areas and that it is only recently that the army, which certain intellectuals have been denouncing repeatedly, has managed to clear those areas partially using its manpower – again the common man soldiers?

Religion happens to be one concept that ironically evokes passions in the breasts of even those who do not believe in any religion. Yet when Muslims protest against defamation of their ideals, it is taken as something akin to a stereotypical illiterate, uncouth, barbaric version of Conan the Barbarian.

Pronouncing judgement on a country never creates dialogue – it only creates hatred which in turn breeds more. Suddenly we have a rise of two clearly distinct viewpoints on the web. One professes the kill all the bearded ones hate tirade and the other sticks  to its see what they are like? – Get-them-before-they-get-you part of the conversation.

And every debate has an audience. The ‘humans’ are watching and waiting – for judgement or Judgement day…

Blowing ‘Bubbles’ in Pakistan

“…And now a bubble burst, and now a world.”

All around us in Pakistan, there is chaos waiting to happen nowadays. At times it is an accident, a politically motivated murder or even a suicide bombing. The deeper level outcome of this is at the end, the bubbling up of various aspects of the economy.

One of the implications can be directly seen in the oil and gas sector where again at present we can see a sharp incline. Petrol and gas prices increase almost every month – and the ceiling apparently has not been reached yet. There will come a time when the masses can take it no longer and perhaps this is a slump waiting to happen…

The cost of living is also high and increases by the day. The domino effect latches on to the property market where the bubbles are the most prominent. There are several who want to live in better places but do not have the buying power.

Among economic bubbles, a property bubble or real estate bubble is the inevitable product of speculative investment. It occurs cyclically in both local and global real
estate markets. Typical characteristics include rapid increases in property valuations followed by a severe ‘crash’. This occurs when prices have reached unsustainable levels relative to incomes etc.

Presently we are experiencing local bubbles or a little froth at least, in several parts of the
world including Pakistan. According to the Economist(2005), “the world wide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history”.

Economists have developed ratios and indicators for fair valuation of residential areas. A few indicators might be pointed out courtesy of economists striving to identify bubbles before they burst:
  1.  Bubbles can be identified by comparing current levels to previous unsustainable levels.
  2. The valuation component measures affordability relative to current prices by mainly looking at the price to income ratio that is the ratio of median house price to median familial disposable incomes.
  3. The debt component measures the debt incurred by households and bank loan accumulation by buying such property. When the ratio increases that is home ownership costs increase, households start depending on property values to service their debt or expenditure.

In case of real estate bubbles, the reality of experiencing one may not be as important as the slow and sure but difficult to identify tragedy of an impending house price crash. Some important points to keep in mind about price crashes are:

–      After a bubble, the crash is a slower process, as sellers do not sell their own homes.

–       Due to inflation in nominal terms prices stay flat for 3-5 years before a fall, which makes it trickier to spot the crash.

–       Office, hotel and retail sectors share the same trend as residential sectors.

Pakistan’s macroeconomic foundations seem shaky. Developing countries following inward growth oriented approaches have faced crashes. Growth needs to be sustained
through exports and manufacturing than an obsession with volatile property markets. The select hundred thousand of the main beneficiaries are by and large exempt from the brunt of taxation. Levying tax would surely burst the bubble, but at the same time increase affordability for the masses. Only the landowners get rich when property prices go up while a nation can get rich only when the labour prices (salaries) go up.

After all, the bigger the bubble, the harder it bursts.