. . . . . .  

First of all I would like to thank the Culture & Tourism Department for the invitation to speak at this, the Second Sufi Conference, today. My special thanks go to Mr Abdul Hamid Akhund, who always accords me more honour than I deserve. I would need a hundred years to repay his kindnesses.

At the outset, I have to make an admission. I am not a Muslim.  But before the Government of Pakistan revokes my passport – or even worse, before the Government renews it – I should clarify that, when I say that I am not a Muslim, what I mean is that I am not a good Muslim. While I believe, I do not demonstrate my faith or follow its tenets as faithfully as I should.

As an imperfect Muslim, therefore, I stand primarily disqualified from even approaching Sufism. Why, then, am I daring to talk on it?

The only justification I can offer (Hamid Akhund’s invitation apart) is that I am a human being with a soul. And that soul has failed, over the past seventy-odd years of my life, to make the imperfect vehicle of my body travel in the right direction.  By now, particularly after seven decades, mind should have mastered matter. Instead, matter has made my mind its slave.

Since this is the second such Sufi Conference, and one out of hundreds convened on this subject, I know there will be nothing new that I can offer you, no fresh pearls pried out of the countless oysters of knowledge. All that I have available to offer you today is my own experience, my own perception, my previous hopes, my present disappointments, my own experiments in the laboratory of Life in search of the formula for achieving osmosis with God.

Who said it would easy?

In his Masnavi, Maulana Rumi warned me:

 If the spiritual universe and the way to it were shown,

 None would remain in this world for a single moment.[1]

But I am in this world and of this world, an imperfect being in an imperfect world.  I am reminded every day – from global trade, global warfare, global warming - that I am more than a common man: I am a global citizen, the product of a planet that modernity has shrunk into a global village.  

Carl W. Ernst analysed the impact of modernism on Sufism:

‘The globalization of the economy has been paralleled by globalisation of culture that had redefined spiritual traditions such as Sufism. Sufi leaders, if they are not to choose privacy and obscurity, necessarily engage with what we call the modern world. There are thus a number of additional characteristics we can see in contemporary Sufism that would not have been found in pre-modern Sufis. As in the case of the characteristics of early Sufi leaders just mentioned these additional modern qualities are not all found in every contemporary Sufi movement but overall, they furnish a distinctive profile of Sufism that can be commonly observed today - covering religious, scientific, technological, and socio-cultural modes of modernity.’[2]      

So where is Sufism to be found within this matrix of socio-cultural modes? Everywhere, or nowhere?

Interestingly, as early as the ninth century, Abu’l Hasan Fushanji commented on the amorphousness of Sufism: ‘Today Sufism (tasawuf) is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name.’ This was echoed a hundred years later by Hazrat Ali Hajwairi, whom we know as Data Ganj Baksh, the patron saint and protector of Lahore. He reiterated Fushanji’s view with this remark:

‘In the time of the Companions of the Holy Prophet and their immediate successors this name did not exist, but its reality was in everyone. Now the name exists without the reality.’[3] 

My dilemma as a Sufi novitiate parallels that of the customer who walks into a spiritual supermarket and sees brand names on the shelf but no visible products, discerns labels to vessels that are without content. 

As a Muslim, I am fortunate. I can rely upon the guide provided to me by my faith – the Holy Quran.  A contemporary scholar Shaikh Fadhlalla Haeri has described how ‘the outer divine laws have been revealed in different formats over a period of time according to the needs of the age, and this process was completed in its totality 1,400 years ago.’ He explained that ‘this master plan from the unseen, from the source of all creational realities, is part of its love and mercy upon people so that we are not left without guidance. The prophets and messengers revealed what was essential and necessary for the human condition.  The law and blueprints which they brought culminated in the final blueprint, which is the Muhammadan [Muslim] code.’[4]

I am not sure how many of you have heard the name of Mr. Ved Mehta. Born in pre-1947 Lahore, he went on to study at Oxford and Harvard, after which he became a staffer for the New Yorker magazine. He has authored a number of books. I have been honoured to be his friend since our first meeting in 1978.

A few years ago, I happened to be in New York visiting him. He began a discussion on religion by asking me about Islam. I confided in him that one of the aspects I found disconcerting was why the Holy Quran had been assembled according to the lengths of the ayats, not in the chronological order of their revelation.  His reply floored me. “Why do you expect God to follow a man-made order of chronology?”

And in that one response, Ved (a failed Hindu) put me (a flailing Muslim) on a path of renewed self-awareness. That is when I understood the meaning in A. J. Arberry’s observation, embedded in his book on Sufism:

‘The manner in which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad is naturally of great interest to the Sufi, for is it not a visible proof that God speaks to man?  And since it is his ardent desire himself to hear the voice of God, he must be concerned to know how it came about that the Founder of his faith was so privileged as to be throughout his prophet-hood in constant touch with his Creator. ’[5]  

All of us have had moments when our faith has been dramatically, irrevocably reaffirmed. It occurred in my life when during one Umrah, I was seated in the Masjid-e-Nabvi, as close to the grave of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as the Saudi shurtas would allow. I picked up one of the copies of the Holy Quran kept there by courtesy the Saudi Government.  I opened it at random. It fell open at the Sura Al Maida. I looked down and read the words: ‘To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it’. Time had telescoped. I felt as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation between God and his last prophet.

When you think about it, it took almost the same period of time – about 1200 years – for the Holy Bible and later the Holy Quran to become accessible in print form to their respective adherents. Carl Ernst described the knock-on effect this had for example on Sufism in an age of mass media:

‘Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the emergence of Sufism as a topic in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the publicizing of a previously esoteric system of teaching through modern communications media. Today, Sufi orders and shrines in Muslim countries produce a continual stream of publications aimed at a variety of followers from the ordinary devotee to the scholar.’


Ernst continues:

‘Just as the recording industry democratized the private rituals of sama’ for a mass audience, the introduction of print and lithography technology made possible the distribution of Sufi teachings on a scale far beyond what manuscript production could attain.  As has been noted in the case of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Arabic works, when they first emerged into print in the late nineteenth century, suddenly a work that had existed in at most a hundred manuscripts around the world (and thus difficult to access) was now made easily available at a corner bookstore through print runs of a thousand copies.’[6]          

In effect, thanks to the media, Sufism has become a sort of spiritual Do It Yourself exercise, like videos on yoga or television programmes on gourmet cooking.

Now, we all know that not to be true.  Sufism is not about reading the right books, however informative they may be. In fact, Shaykh Haeri cautions against undue reliance on books: ‘The whole Sufi way of life is about giving up attachments, and the greatest and the worst attachment happens to be knowledge.’ He then quotes Al-Ghazali ‘s anecdote about the robber who waylaid a traveller and stole only books. The loss of those material books proved to be a gain for traveller’s immortal soul. Otherwise, Al-Ghazali tells us, ‘he would have remained the slave to those books and would not have discovered the real “Book” of knowledge that is within everyone’s heart.’[7]     

As a person who has learned life through books, I found this disconcerting. I am the product of an earlier age when books were revered in society. I live in a world in which teachers are being replaced by terminals, books by I-pads, knowledge by information, and transcendental spiritual experience by repetitive religious ritual.   

Had I been a better, more muscular Muslim, I would not need Shaykh Haeri’s unarguable advice:

‘It is erroneous to imagine that a Sufi can end up with the fruits of Sufism, which are inner light, certainty, and the knowledge of Allah, without having maintained an outer protective shell, which is based upon adherence to the requirements of the outer laws.  The correct outer behaviour – physical behavior – is based on making supplications and doing the prayers and all the other ritual acts of worship established by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in order to achieve watchfulness of the ‘heart’, with its accompanying moods and states.’[8] .

But, being a fallible Muslim, I ask myself the reasons why I have not been able to become a Sufi. Again, I am deluded into a false sense of dependency on outside help.  Shaykh Haeri in effect reminds me that I live in an age of specialists:

‘The right teacher turns up at the right time if a person has sincerity and the right courtesy. The correct courtesy is patience and recognition of the need, and it is by divine mercy that the right answer comes at the right time for the seeker.  A true spiritual teacher must have the paper basic qualities, just as a physician is supposed to have fulfilled primary basic requirements before he can practice medicine.’[9] 

One of the first lessons I would expect my teacher to teach me is to love my fellow man. All of us know that is easier said than done. ‘We have just enough religion to make us hate each other but not enough to love one another’, the 17th century British satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote.[10] More recently, Dr Jonathan Sacks (once UK’s Chief Rabbi) posed this question: ‘Can we find, in the human ‘thou’, a fragment of the Divine ‘Thou’? Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image?’  Living and preaching in the UK, he deplored the change that western modernity had wrought: ‘The global age has turned our world into a society of strangers.’ [11]

Dr Sacks' thought-provoking book The Dignity of Difference addresses the divisive issue of Difference. He spelled out his conviction in the form of a question:

‘The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine?  If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his. Can Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucians, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants make space for anyone another in the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kosovo and the dozens of other places in which different ethnic and religious groups exist in close proximity?’[12]   

The history of the 20th and 21st centuries has shown us that differences accentuate mankind’s isolation within itself. They prevent us coalescing into one global community.

When I look into my soul, I realize that I can still be a more pious Muslim, observe the mandatory rituals, and even love my fellow human beings. What burns me, what sears my soul, though, is being asked to forgive my fellow human beings. I can survive without Love; I cannot live without Hate. Love needs the characteristics of a sprinter; Hate has all the stamina of a long distance runner. 

As the American poet Ogden Nash once wrote: ‘

No man ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.’[13] Persons who did, a whole community that did, an entire nation that did, were South Africans who, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, conducted not war trials for crimes against humanity, but public acts of forgiveness. Never in the history of mankind have perpetrators and their victims confronted each other in hate and departed in absolution.

I had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Tutu in Johannesburg. He is a short, ebullient, modest man. I told him that in my mind’s eye, he was more of a Christian than Jesus Christ had been.  That startled him. I explained why. Jesus Christ forgave his enemies only once, and that too after he had been nailed to die on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they not what they do.’[14] Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission over months and months of heart-tearing testimony forgave the White murderers of South African Blacks every single day.      

How many of us here would have been able to relive our equivalent traumas this way, and then have the generosity of spirit to forgive? The MQM, the PPP, the PML-N, the Pakistan Rangers? Al Qaeda? ISIS?

And yet, forgiveness is the only balm that an injured spirit can apply to itself.  Dr Sacks, a Jew and over-familiar with the trauma of the Holocaust, is the most impassioned advocate of forgiveness. ‘Forgiveness,’ he preached, ‘breaks the chain.  It introduces into the logic of interpersonal encounter the unpredictability of grace.  It represents a decision not to do what instinct and passion urge us to do. It answers hate with a refusal to hate, animosity with generosity. Few more daring ideas have ever entered the human situation. Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability of live with the past without being held captive by the past.’

Dr Sacks continues: ‘It would not be an exaggeration to say that forgiveness is the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is about the action that is not reaction.  It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance. It represents our ability to change course, reframe the narrative of the past and create an unexpected set of possibilities for the future.’

He concludes with this compelling argument: ‘Forgiveness is the counter-narrative of hope. It is not a moral luxury, an option for saints. At times it is the only path through the thickets of hate to the open spaces of coexistence. […]  Hate, resentment and a sense of grievance weigh us down. They stop us thinking of anything else.  We may feel righteous. Indeed there is none so self-righteous as one who carries the burden of self-perceived victimhood. But it is ultimately dehumanizing. More than hate destroys the hated; it destroys the hater.’[15]        

How I wish I could apply it to my own life!

That is why I confess that I can never be a Sufi. I have not found the right Master; I am too irregular in my religious observances; I seek knowledge in books more than I do from esoteric experience; I cannot love mankind without discrimination; and I cannot forgo the self-pity of victimhood and forgive my enemies.

I confess I am a lost soul. That is hardly surprising. I am lost because I know not from whence I came, nor what is my destination?  Or in Rumi’s finer words: ‘Why are we surprised that a human spirit cannot remember where it came from, where it came into being and resided before it was born? In this dream-like world, the human spirit is shrouded by a veil as clouds block out the stars, so it can no longer see its former spiritual abode.’

‘The task of the human spirit,’that sage Maulana told us, ‘is to purify its heart to enable it to see through the veil and focus on the spiritual realm.  The heart must pierce the mystery of this life and see the beginning and the end with unclouded vision.’[16] 

I have reached the twilight years of my life when my horizon is within view, but lies below the line of my clouded vision.

I have no time left to be a practicing Sufi. But I am consoled by the awareness that, in my advanced age, l am closer to God physically now than I have ever been spiritually in my greener years.  I shall be meeting God soon enough.  And if he forgives me with His infinite grace, admits me into His limitless Being, I will have succeeded in death what I ought to have spent my life doing – achieving Oneness with the only One.   

Until then, here is a poem I have composed while I wait out my remaining years in this waiting room called Life:

Are you the God I am searching for?

How will I know it is you?

You revealed yourself to Moses once,

Then hid by saying: “I am who I am.”


Prophets have been privy to your light.

We sinners are denied that sight.

Our souls struggle tirelessly

To find our place in Your eternity. 


You promise every faith salvation,

A carrot-ended stick of damnation.

Our lives are a daily examination,

A five-time test of our devotion.


Why did you make me flawed, ignorant,

Illiterate in your divine dialect? 

Untutored, I pray this monologue,

Accepted, convert into a dialogue. 




April 2016.

[1] Rumi, Masnavi I, 2101, quoted in Juliet Mabey, Rumi: A Spiritual Treasury (Oxford, 2000).

[2] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (Boston, 1997),221-2.  

[3] Martin Lings, What is Sufism? (Lahore, 1975), 45, quoting Ali Hajwairi, Kash al-Mahjub, Ch. III.

[4] Shaikh Fadhlalla Haeri, The Thoughtful Guide to Sufism (New Delhi, 2006),63. 

[5] A.J. Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (1950), 13.  

[6]  Ernst, op. cit.,215.

[7] Haeri, op.cit, 48.

[8] Haeri, op.cit.,13.

[9] Haeri, op.cit.,43. 

[10] Quoted in Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London, 2002),4.

[11] Sacks, op.cit,, 17. 

[12] Sacks, op.cit.,201.

[13] Sacks, op.cit.,178.

[14]The Holy Bible,  Luke 23:24.

[15] Sacks, op. cit., 179.

[16] Rumi, Masnavi IV, 3632-6, quoted in Mabey, op. cit.,67.  

11 April 2016
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