When the life of a human being is cheaper than that of a cow, when the state absolves itself of its primary responsibility of protecting the weak against the violence of the muscular and when even a mosquito can attack and kill, it is time to take refuge in the past and seek some lessons from it. Politics in the past could, at times, have been as obnoxious as the one in the present, but there were also powerful voices which spoke for sanity. For a society to change for the better, peace and justice for all is the minimum expectation from those in power and authority; creating a harakiri in the society will be to its own nemesis. While some men of religion are deployed for the justification of the politics of hate, yet others invoke the language of love and tolerance.

In the Islamic tradition, submission to the will of God (islam) forced by jurists, faith (iman) as preached by theologians (ulama), and to do beautiful things (ihsan) are three dimensions through which one can make sense of Muslim cultures historically. The third dimension, ihsan, especially constitutes the heart of religion marked by sincerity, love, virtue and perfection, which medieval Sufis aspired for. Their main objective was to seek nearness or union with a merciful and loving God, through prayers, remembrance, meditation and spiritual exercises, including music. The question of legitimacy of listening to music in mahfil-i sama or qawwali was a major source of confrontation between the theologians and Sufis, and, despite opposition, Sufi orders such as the Chishtis used music for meditation and spiritual ecstasy.

For the foremost Sufi Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, there were four kinds of musical practices: halal (lawful), haram (forbidden), makruh (abominable) and mubah (permissible). If the connoisseur was fairly attracted towards the divine, then his practice was permissible; if he was inclined more towards majaz (this-worldly concerns), then it was abominable; if his interest was entirely for this-worldly object of love, then it was forbidding; and if he was fully devoted to God, sama was halal for him. The practitioner of music (sahib-i sama) was expected to be capable of understanding these distinctions.

The singer should be an adult male, and not a boy or woman. The heart of the listener should be full of love and devotion for God. The content should not be vulgar. Musical instruments such as chang and rabab should not be used. Nizam-ud-Din emphasised during his conversations with disciples that whatever was being heard was for remembering God and, thus, a valid act (halal). He is also reported to have outlined the adab or norms for sama: it should be held at an appropriate time when the heart is free from any anxiety; it should be organised at a place where the environment is soul-refreshing; the participants should belong to the same group of male adults known for their addiction (zauq) for sama, which in practice was a blend of poetry, music and dance. At the time of settling down in the musical assembly, one should wear a neat and perfumed attire.

In the high Chishti practice, sama should be attended to with full attention. The participants should not look at each other or be conscious of each other’s presence. Clearing one’s throat and yawning should be avoided. The heads should be lowered and completely lost in contemplation. There should not be any movement of the body and one should keep one’s nafs (the sensual aspect of one’s being) in control so that dancing and clapping are avoided. However, if one is so lost or moved while listening to music that one suddenly starts crying, shaking or dancing, and his intention is not marred by any sense of ostentation or hypocrisy, then his actions will be treated permissible. For, crying and wailing drown one’s sorrows (gham), and dancing is equivalent to surur (cheerfulness, exhilaration) which is a valid emotion. Among the recommended norms is included the suggestion that if a fellow participant stands up in wajd, moved or transported in an ecstasy of love for God, then others should follow him in standing up to be by his side. And, while dancing in ecstasy (raqs), he should maintain a certain degree of grace so that others are not put off by his vulgar movements and intention.

Nizam-ud-Din is also reported to have said that the body movement that is generated in remembering God in ecstasy is mustahab, a recommended or allowed practice, and if the intention is for some carnal pleasure, then it is haram. However, if a person gets really ecstatic and even tears his clothes, he may be treated as one overpowered by ecstasy and should not be questioned. But those who pretend to be lost in ecstasy just to show off their spiritual bent of mind will be apprehended. Sufi circles did identify the pretenders who would be the cause of embarrassment, especially when the ulama were ready to interrogate any one departing from norms of proper conduct.

Nizam-ud-Din’s followers were often reported to be part of musical jamborees where not only instruments were invented and used, but also women were present. It might appear that Nizam-ud-Din maintained some ambiguity in the matter, or at least let the followers decide for themselves what was good for them. Historically, whether in the Arab world, Iran or India, female singers (alima) of the poetry of love have always mocked at the self-appointed guardians of Islam, with widespread support from the connoisseurs of art and culture.

The conscience-keepers of religion would also come to observe the majlis organised by Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Looking at the manner in which the Khwaja would be standing at one place, crying silently and wiping his tears, even as the singers were reciting heartrending Persian poetry, theologians would fall at his feet and accept as legitimate what they would otherwise condemn as un-Islamic. Despite being deeply touched by the poetry of love being recited by the singers and all but lost in the thought of the divine, Nizam-ud-Din would not only come out of the hall, taking a break at the time of prayers, but also keep a watch on the activities of other participants. He once noticed Amir Khusrau raising his hands during raqs as a Sufi would do, and asked him not to do so as he was attached to this-worldly concerns, being a court-poet and not a full-time Sufi. Thereafter, Khusrau would dance with his hands down and palms closed, appearing as if his hands were tied and, unlike the Sufi, unable to break free to reach out for God.

Nizam-ud-Din’s interest in music and particular verses which touched his soul and created ecstasy in him would become very popular in the large circle of his followers. Some very good singers attached themselves to his hospice, spending a lot of time to train themselves, compose new ghazals, create new ragas, and took the art to newer heights. Further, not only sophisticated Persian poetry, but also Hindi couplets or a nicely written love-letter from a soul-mate would create ecstasy in the Sufis.

Thus, these holy-men were able to fill the hearts of the followers with love for God and his creations, irrespective of caste or creed in which they may have been divided. On the other hand, historically and as in the present, some people are ready to kill and die in the name of religion. God’s mercy be upon them.