Prime Minister Modi Hoists the Banner of Sufism for All The World

March 17-20 several hundred Sufi shaikhs and scholars gathered in Delhi for the first Sufi World Forum. Syed Salman Chishti, one of the key organizers of the event, said to me, "Sufis have been gathering in small communities all over India and Pakistan, all over Africa and the Middle East, without knowing much about each other and without uniting their efforts. I want these people to meet and realize that this is a worldwide movement, that our voices need to be heard today when a counter movement is gaining in strength. One hundred years ago most of India was Sufi."

I had just finished giving a plenary talk when a young woman came to me and said, "Please, can I have just five minutes with you. It is urgent and I am desperate. I have traveled all the way from Kashmir to meet someone from Rumi's tradition."

"I am a university student and I want to be a writer, but I have no one to talk to at home. The situation is very bad. The Salafis have increased in the last five years, especially. They are everywhere. Even many of my friends have been convinced by their propaganda." This was just one of many encounters that made me more aware of the spread of militant pseudo-Islam in certain parts of the world, especially among the young and impressionable who feel that a war is being waged against Islam. Most Americans are unaware that before 9/11 the extreme political parties of Islamism were being marginalized throughout the Muslim world. The knee-jerk, or some might say engineered, "War on Terror" changed all that and has given extremists an excuse to propagate hatred and violence.

I was still in the glow of the previous night's address by Prime Minister Modi. Yes, glowing from what would in the end be one of the best talks at this event, delivered by a man that I had little sympathy for previously. In fact I had the impression that Narendra Modi was a Hindu fundamentalist who had presided over massacres of Muslims in Gujarat and who was selling India out to global corporations while traditional, sustainable lifestyles were being decimated by GMO agriculture, privatization of water, and so on. I'm not an expert on these matters, but that was my impression.

The talk that the Prime Minister gave would have been worthy of the most articulate Sufi shaikh both in its criticism of religious fundamentalism and in its spiritual depth. At the very least, he had found a superb speechwriter (I would eventually meet the young man who crafted some of these words) and to his credit it was a message of global significance. It remains to be seen how this talk will be walked.

The following are some selected passages from his address to the Forum: "You represent the rich diversity of the Islamic civilization that stands on the solid bedrock of a great religion. It is a civilization that reached great heights by the 15th century in science, medicine, literature, art, architecture and commerce. It drew on the immense talents of its people and also Islam's engagement with diverse civilizations--ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Africa; the Persian, Central Asian and Caucasian lands; the region of East Asia; and, with Buddhism and Indian philosophy and science. As it enriched itself, it also enriched the world. It set, once again, an enduring lesson of human history: it is through openness and inquiry, engagement and accommodation, and respect for diversity that humanity advances, nations progress and the world prospers.

"And, this is the message of Sufism, one of the greatest contributions of Islam to this world. From its origins in Egypt and West Asia, Sufism traveled to distant lands, holding aloft the banner of faith and the flag of human values, learning from spiritual thoughts of other civilizations, and attracting people with the life and message of its saints.

"Sufism reflected the universal human desire to go beyond the practice and precepts of religion for a deeper unity with the Almighty. And, in that spiritual and mystical enquiry, Sufis experienced the universal message of the Almighty: That perfection in human life is reflected in the qualities that are dear to God. That all are creations of God; and, that if we love God, we must also love all his creations. For the Sufis, therefore, service to God meant service to humanity.

"Just as it once came to India, today Sufism from India has spread across the world. But, this tradition that evolved in India belongs to the whole of South Asia. That is why I urge others in the region to nurture and revive this glorious heritage of ours. When the spiritual love of Sufism, not the violent force of terrorism, flows across the border, this region will be the paradise on earth that Amir Khusrau spoke about.

"This is an extraordinary event of great importance to the world, at a critical time for humanity. At a time when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer, you are the noor, or the light of hope. When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals.
"Terrorism divides and destroys us. Indeed, when terrorism and extremism have become the most destructive force of our times, the message of Sufism has global relevance."

These days if a few extremists enact some atrocity, we will hear about it. The strategy of terror is to create the maximum horror through random, isolated acts. But if two million loving souls gather annually in Tuva, Senegal, you very likely have never heard of it. Nor are we aware of the millions of souls who annually flow through the shrines of the great Sufi saints, at Rumi's dergah in Konya, at the tombs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer Sharif, or that of Nizamuddin Awlia in Delhi, experiencing an energy of solace, peace, and love.

As Rumi said, "Come, and keep on coming, even if you have broken your vows, come yet again; our is not a caravan of despair." Or in the words of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, "The Almighty holds dear those who love Him for the sake of human beings, and those who love human beings for the sake of the Almighty." Or in the words of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, "Of all the worships, the worship that pleases the Almighty God the most is the grant of relief to the humble and the oppressed."

In all the different lands where Sufis of different cultures quietly pursue their work of spiritual realization and service to humanity--Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan, India, the Arab world, Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America--Sufis are becoming more aware of each other and realizing the urgent need to transform the ideologies of hatred and violence with the spirit of love.

The four-day World Sufi Forum, inaugurated by the Prime Minister and attended by delegates from 22 countries, concluded with the declaration of the 25-point agenda by the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board before an outdoor gathering of an estimated quarter million people.

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