May Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 8 years ago

Samina Quraeshi’s Sacred Spaces is a wonderfully illustrated and evocative journey through the shrines of Sindh and the Punjab. Employing a collection of essays and a rich tapestry of images, the author introduces her audience to an alternative world of sages and mendicants. But the book is more than just a visual treat. It is also a humble, personal quest to follow in the path of Sufis and soak up thebarakat and wisdom that they so generously shared with the common people. In the current climate, books such as this are more important than ever to remind ourselves of Pakistan’s pluralistic heritage and of the messages of love and tolerance which are the real cornerstones of our faith. Too often we are forced into the roles of apologists, arguing against the violent and corrupted face of our religion that is thrust to the fore. As Sacred Spaces clearly illustrates, the benevolent Islam of the Sufis is what the masses of our country have embraced for hundreds of years. The rest is a recent and politically motivated phenomenon.

The book opens with an essay by Ali S. Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim culture at Harvard. He points out that South Asia houses the largest concentration of Muslims and goes on to discuss the message of the Sufis that reverberates in folk culture. Indeed, the mystics used music and parables to spread their influence, and this body of mystical work has enriched our lives in the subcontinent. In fact, Bhitai’s Shah Jo Risalo is considered the epitome of literary achievement. He offers an interesting insight into the imagery used in Sufi lore to signify the yearning of the soul for its Creator, the woman-soul symbol. With this perspective, the tales of Sassi-Punnu, Heer-Ranjha and other loves immortalised in folk tradition, are understood in a different light.

An essay by Carl W. Ernst, professor of religious studies, follows, which seeks to establish the importance of the subcontinent in the Islamic tradition. He cites an interesting account written by Ibne Batuta, describing his pilgrimage to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Here was the site where Adam had been cast out from Heaven and pilgrims had to trek up a hillside to get there. One path led to the grotto of Khizr, the mysterious friend and guide to saints and prophets. Ibne Batuta’s religious fervour is strong and the intense spiritual moments he experiences here are proof of the importance awarded to this holy site by mainstream Muslims. Ernst also quotes Indian scholar Azad Bilgrami, who talks about the Muslims of Al Hind who made important advances in the arts and sciences of their time. So this region was always viewed with respect by the Arabs of old. Ernst also touches on the dilemma of the Pakistani Muslims who are torn between their identities as inheritors of a multicultural heritage and as citizens of an Islamic state.

The third essay in the book is by the well-known architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz, who speaks of the design philosophy and the special considerations that govern the construction of Sufi shrines. Trained in the western tradition of architecture, Mumtaz speaks of how he had to unlearn certain dictums and embrace the humility to follow designs laid down by earlier masters, denying his ego the all-important accolade of originality. Mumtaz informs the reader of the technical concerns that guide the design as well as the spiritual element that must infuse any effort to construct a sacred space. He also speaks of the integral role played by the artists and artisans, who adorn the construction with calligraphy or embellish it with delicate floral and geometric patterns — a recurrent theme in Muslim art and architecture. He relates his own experience of constructing a shrine for a recently deceased saintly person, commissioned by a pair of his devotees. He describes the remarkable moments when he felt that the work was being guided by a higher power and of the hundred stone carvers who appeared out of nowhere to take up a task that had earlier proven extremely arduous.

With all this background information presented to the reader, Quraeshi then embarks on her personal journey. She speaks of her early childhood and her growing years, all of which were infused with the gentle glow of the Sufi message, where religion was an important but personal matter, and where love and humility were valued more highly than righteousness and condemnation.

The photographs in this book, most of which are taken by Quraeshi herself, speak eloquently and have been presented without captions as indeed none are needed. In the words of the author, “Do photographs in an album need captions?” These images allow the reader a glimpse of the aura that surrounds these shrines, the human fervour, the all-embracing spirit that welcomes the wealthy, the destitute, the deranged, the marginalised — the entire tide of humanity that surges here. Besides the rich descriptions and interesting personal anecdotes, the book also fills us in on the origins of the saints, their influences, and is peppered with fascinating anecdotes about their lives.

The book is a timely reminder that Islam was spread through the subcontinent by the Sufis, and not by conquerors as is often portrayed in history books which stop at Mohammad bin Qasim and even the rapacious Mahmud Ghazni as the torch-bearers of the new faith. The saints embraced local cultures and worked alongside the existing religions to spread the message of love and tolerance. In fact, the author informs us that the beloved saint Madho Lal Hussain of Lahore was named after his most devoted disciple, the Brahmin Madho Lal, whose name became inextricably linked with that of Shah Hussain. Then again, the saint Mian Mir was so respected by the fifth Guru Arjun of the Sikhs that he asked the learned Sufi to lay down the foundation stone of the Golden Temple.

Starting with the Data Darbar in Lahore, Quraeshi travels to shrines spanning India and Pakistan which, regardless of geographical boundaries, share a spiritual link. After all, the qawwalis that create sama in a shrine in Pakistan have their roots in Ajmer Sharif and Delhi. It was in Delhi that the venerated saint Nizamuddin Auliya won the hearts of thousands and it was his spiritual grace which inspired Amir Khusrau to compose the immortal qawwali. And these personalities were the spiritual heirs of Khwaja Mueenuddin Chishti, whose followers, devotees of the Chishti silsila in Pakistan, have produced some of the greatest qawwals anywhere.

At the shrine of Bhitai, the haunting lament of the faqirs’ stringed instruments speak of the soul’s desire to be reunited with the beloved, while the imposing architectural impact of the tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam elevates visitors to another plane. In Kasur, Bulleh Shah’s influence lives not only at his shrine, but his spirit permeates the entire rural community that hosted this most popular of saints.

The author opens each chapter with a few lines from the Quran or hadith and this sensitive selection clearly echoes the wisdom of the Sufis, proof of the Divine Truth, if any was needed, to the hardliners among us.

The book is actually the centerpiece of an exhibition of mixed media works by Quraeshi, currently on show at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Although the book stands on its own, the writer is keen for it to be viewed along with her earlier books and artwork as separate parts of a complete effort. She is currently engaged with another book on Sindh. The physical journey in Sacred Spaces ends with the sublime verse of Bulleh Shah at Kasur. But clearly, the quest is far from over.

Read an interview with Samina Quraeshi here.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications. She is currently Newsline's website editor.