If you are spiritually inclined, or even have a passing interest in Sufism, Song of the Dervish is a book for you.
Apart from Rumi, who came from Koyna in Turkey yet whose influence was international, Nizamuddin Auliya was perhaps the best known Sufi saint in the world. His tomb and shrine happen to be very close to where I live in Delhi, so I feel a certain affinity to him, even though I do not claim to be among his many devotees.
In fact, the entire area in and around his tomb is named after him and his shrine attracts hundreds daily, not all of them Muslim nor Indian. As this book points out, with real-life histories of some devotees, his appeal cuts across boundaries, religions and cultures. Clearly, his life and teachings have touched many.
Nizamuddin lived some seven centuries ago. It was a turbulent time. The dreaded Mongols made repeated and bloody forays into the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. A series of Sultans ruled Delhi and its surrounding regions. Muhammad Ghori, Qutab ud din Bakhtiyar, Iltutmish, Alauddin Khilji, Muhammad bin Tughluq, were some of the better-known rulers of the time. Many of them were unspeakably cruel and ruthless: Blindings by taking out eyeballs with razors, poisoning, trampling under the feet of elephants, were among the common ways of the Sultans dealing with their rivals, or those who were threats. Strangely, in this milieu or conflict and numbing violence, the spiritual tradition of Sufism flowered. Perhaps not so strange: Violent times often produce an antidote that is infused with peace and religion.
Nizamuddin’s family came from Bukhara and they were prosperous until the hordes of Genghis Khan descended on the city and sacked it, killing thousands mercilessly. The family managed to escape and fled to Lahore and eventually to Badaon, where Nizamuddin was born in 1244. The family eventually moved to Delhi at a time when the Turkish aristocracy held sway there. Indeed, the region was a melting pot of ethnic groups from central and west Asia.
Not too far away, Abul Hassan was born. Later, he would be known as Amir Khusro, the greatest poet of his era, whose verses are still sung and recited widely. His family, too, had been ousted by Genghis Khan. Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro would become very close to each other, Khusro regarding himself as Nizamuddin’s disciple.
The two were, however, very different characters. Khusro was brought up amidst riches and was a favourite of the Sultans. Nizamuddin, on the other hand, lived in penury in his early years. When he would ask his mother for food, she would say, “We are the guests of God today, Nizam.” Which was a poetic way of telling him that there was no food. Even in the better days, Nizamuddin preferred to stay away from all things material. “Grandeur and opulence lived side by side with poverty and penitence,” writes the author. “Nizamuddin saw both worlds. He lived in one and had no desire for the other. He was content being hungry. His mother had shown him other riches: trust in the Maker and His ways.”
Song of the Dervish focuses on the lives and teachings of these two fascinating characters, along with another one, Baba Farid. The author’s format is unusual. He juxtaposes recent real-life stories of several persons who find solace at the shrine of Nizamuddin, with a history of the Sufi saint and his turbulent times. There are “as many paths to the Maker as there are grains of sand,” Nizamuddin liked to say. Also, “Music was prayer” to him, which is why the great tradition of Qawwali music sprang up in this period.
The book will be an enlightening read for those with the same bent of mind. However, this reviewer has some reservations.
The black and white photos accompanying the text are of poor quality and one wishes the author had dealth with some of the more contentious issues in present-day Islam. There is only a passing reference to Wahhabism—the very puritanical sect which originated in Saudi Arabia, and which was the antithesis to Sufism—and none to why the Islamic world is tearing itself apart, with Muslims killing each other in the name of orthodoxy. And why no reference to the greatest Qawwali singer of our times—the late NusratFateh Ali Khan?