Posted in islam, religion

The origin of the art of Islamic calligraphy is attributed to Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib


“The beauty of writing is the tongue of the hand and the elegance of thought.”
Ali ibn Abi Talib

Blue Qur'an Bifolium from the “Blue Quran,” dated North Africa, 9th-10th century. Sura al-Furqan (The Criterion), 25:55 – 64. Aga Khan Museum

From the Greek kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write), calligraphy is the art of beautiful writing. Although the development of sophisticated calligraphy as an art form is not unique to Islamic cultures, it has been used to a much greater extent and in varied ways, and in all art forms and materials in Islamic civilisations.

Sources credit Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam of the Shia, as the developer of the Kufic script. This is the oldest style of Quranic calligraphy, named after the city of Kufa in Iraq, where the script is believed to have originated. Hazrat Ali taught that each letter of…

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Posted in culture, happiness, islam, poetry


No Nauroze is complete
without making some art
blossoming flowers and the garlands
pearl set on the wrist
brush strokes over the egg shell
pen replaces the sword
warrior horses have adorned the ankle bells


The army of piety
choose your cause wisely
be the ambassadors of peace and love
sans discrimination
we all are sons and daughter
of mother earth
conserve our relations
with all things natural


First ray piercing through clouds
on the wishing pond
where gold fishes dance
amid glitter, coins and gold
O dervish, let us whirl in joy
old is ever-new; new ornaments the old

Posted in beliefs, history, islam, lessons, pluralism, reflections, religion

Paris, I love you – Charlie Hebdo attack and the bottom line

I wanted to write whole argument on why people think that religion is dividing and actually how myopic is our understanding of violence and fanaticism. The reason for addressing these two issues were both the cartoon and the horrific massacre by the terrorists. However, I will skip it for another day as in crisis, we need more time to reflect and try to simplify the complex without corrupting the beauty of its complexity. It is the time for analysis, conclusions can wait.

The following is a perfect response by a friend and her wisdom:

How can a cartoon or a video destroy and mess with your faith and how can murder save and avenge it?

I would like to include other beliefs such as sexual diversity or human dignity or equality because apparently both the publication house (in terms of an institution) failed big time in salvaging their own ego and fanaticism through a display of hate speech in disguise of satire, and terrorists I believe they are godly as I highlighted previously in this post – It is NEVER okay. In short, cartoonist and staff members did not deserve it despite of whatever they expressed.

Paris is the worst place for this kind of subtle media fanaticism (with forced freedom) and apparent religious fanaticism. France is revered for love, democracy and human rights in historical and cultural narrative.

In connection to the particular cartoon, Muslim are fighting a tough battle internally and at global level (illustration) and this is the time for everyone to practice empathy and compassion – we do not need more oil in the fire. At the same time, LGBTQ community world over is trying every day to get their voice heard and fighting for identity in vulnerable situations and this is the time for everyone to practice empathy and compassion – they do not need more oil in the fire especially with backlash from religious fanatics.



Response after some initial responses from other channels: In discussions, I believe everyone should condemn the terrorist attack but then you are forced to advocate freedom of speech in its current defunct status. People all over the world, who are neither terrorists nor fanatics but moderate religious individuals are victimized through insult of such media content and the expectations of accepting it with a pinch of salt or displayed a populist standard of sense of humor. There is no empathy for receivers. Press had its voice but where is the voice of people who felt offended and never resorted to violence. Participation is never taken seriously, it is judged miserably. One ratified forced response is the only thing accepted – you can not lie on a continuum, you cannot question the sanctity of press. Where does free speech goes then?

The initial reflections above were not to equate in terms of moral equivalence of the both acts – their degree of fanaticism and approach of exercising is very different. For me, it is not fair that if I have to condemn one then I have to the take side of another. There are always more than two sides – the coin metaphor does not fit all.

In the start of this blog post, I clearly said it is not the right time but I guess we need to address the multi-dimensionality of the issue. Being an avid art practitioner and advocate, I am all for responsible use of freedom of speech and expression – it is not an alien concept and much possible, as exercising moderation in whatever you do is seen as a natural law. We all have desires but we find the appropriate place and approach to satiate them. We do not curb our expression but find the right spot. I am not pro-forced freedom rather it is important to foster positive interdependence (it is not simple as a clause on free speech in constitutions because blasphemy laws can be equally dangerous to freedom). Why – simply because most people will choose autonomy over freedom and autonomy can not be exercised in isolation – it needs positive interdependence. At the same time, I am completely against banning; I am pro-debate in public. I guess, as an institution, this publication has failed big time – nothing less than subtle fanaticism for me (even we remove the horrific massacre that followed). Moreover, there is no justification and tolerance for attacking or killing someone.

At this moment, my heart goes to the families of victims – May the souls of departed rest in eternal peace.

Posted in islam, music, pluralism, poetry, religion

One and Many: The pluralistic expressions In Sufi poetry

Originally published at Aaj News Blogs.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field; I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

When one reads the Persian mystic Rumi allegorically, it feels as if both the creator and the created are speaking. As if Truth is saying that He dwells beyond the fields of paradise and hell, essentially everywhere and the creation shows readiness to indulge in love and praise of HIM. If this talk of sacredness is outside the measures of right and wrong then Rumi here is inviting us to embrace pluralism while appreciating God’s creation.

The notion of love is presented as a cornerstone for developing pluralistic spirit in the poetry of two most eminent mystic poets of Persia and Sindh, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai respectively. The paper elucidates the concept of love as described by these two mystics, the Ihsani traditions which have emerged from these concepts and the way these traditions promote the pluralistic practices.


Sufism is seen by many scholars as the esoteric and mystical dimension of Islam. While most Muslims aim and hope to become close to God in Paradise, Sufis believe that it is possible to draw closer to Divine Presence in this life. The basic principles which form Sufi thought are Unification (Tawhid), Faith (Iman) and Beauty (Ihsan). Sufi’s idea of Tawhid in rooted in the belief that God is incomprehensible and His attributes only represent a slice of His reality (Chittick, 2007).

Sufi thought has been mostly propagated through the poetic works of its masters. Rumi is considered as one of the greatest mystic of Islam and his poetic collection of Mathnawi has been praised by the title of Persian Quran by another poet Jami. Rumi was the ambassador of love, compassion and peace. His poetry is eclectic. “He drew from sources outside Islamic culture, including those of Neo-platonic, Christian, Jewish, Persian and Hindu belief. Possessed by such an overwhelming vision of love, he was unable to confine himself to any one spiritual discipline for his inspiration” (Cowan, 1992).

A poet from Sub-continent who refers Rumi repeatedly is Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. He was a Sindhi mystic saint, poet, and musician. His collected poems were compiled as Shah Jo Risalo. Hossein Nasr described Shah Latif as a direct emanation of Rumi’s spirituality in the Indian world (Nasr, 1974).

The whole creation seeks Him,
He is the Fount of Beauty, thus Rumi says:
If you but unlock yourself, you will see Him
– Bhitai

In his final years, he settled in the town of Bhit Shah where his shrine is located. The major themes of his poetry include unity of God, love for Prophet, religious tolerance and humanistic values. Both of these poets take influences from many cultures and religions which itself speaks of their advocacy of pluralistic values (Iqbal, 2009, Schimmel, 2003).


Pluralism in epistemology is the position where there is not one consistent set of truths about the world. According to this worldview, one’s religion or sect is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, thus truths and true values also exist in other religious traditions. al-Wasi (The All-Embracing) which is one of God’s glorious names is heart of this discussion because He through his Divine Love embraces all. He does not discriminate between color, race or religion when he is bestowing blessing. He is unity but at the same pluralism personified.

Rumi has demonstrates the same idea as “How many paths are there to God? There are as many paths to God as there are souls on the Earth”. When we see world, its creations, its religions and its truths, we usually use our deductive reasoning. In this way, differences is what we typically observe, which focuses on the multiplicity and diversity. However, intuitive thinking about God tends to see the unity established by God’s presence in all these apparently different things including humans (Chittick, 2007). Therefore, human’s self, beliefs and emotions also are seen in sanctity. The concept of same unity in multiplicity is highlighted by Bhitai,

The Echo and the call are same,
if you sound’s secret knew
They both were one, but two became
only when ‘hearing’ came.
-Sur Kalyan, Bhitai (Kazi, n.d.)

This unity is not established in the personal relation of the worshipper and the God but also among fellow humans. In one of the surs (chapters/songs) of Risalo, Bhitai gives the reference of Attar’s Conference of the birds and says that though apparently different birds are nothing but part of the same lake.

The lakes are same, but different birds
now in their waters lave…
Ah… those with graceful necks, who gave
sweet songs, flew far away.
-Sur Karail, Bhitai (Kazi, n.d.)

The Rumi conceives that if all is one then what is said about to the assumed ‘other’ would also affect the person. “If you speak well of another, the good will return to you. The good and praise you speak of another you speak in reality to yourself. …If you accustom yourself to speak well of others, you are always in a ‘paradise’” -Fe ma fi, Rumi. It is observed that mostly when a person speaks negative, s/he is encountered with an angered response. Conversely, the positive words always welcome a heartfelt conversation, a discourse. His Highness the Aga Khan also shares in his LaFontaine lecture how the act of embracing diversity can lead to discourse,

“In that light, the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us – not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another – rather than something to fear. In this spirit of humility and hospitality – the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued – or ignored.” (Aga Khan IV, 2010)

When unity is seen in multiplicity, one cannot help but see all paths converging into a broad landscape. Thus, such loving and pluralistic attitude welcomes diversity of perspectives, practices and people. As Rumi expresses,

Come, come wherever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times.
Come, Come yet again. Come.
– Rumi

However, in Sufi poetry, love is not another emotion or an attitude to be adorned. It is deeply rooted in metaphysics, Islamic sacred sources and philosophy of cosmic pluralism. God says “I was a Hidden treasure so I loved to be known. Hence, I created the creatures.” Rumi describes the act of creation as an emanation of God’s self-love,

The creatures are set in motion by love,
love by God in all eternity –
The wind dances because of the spheres,
the trees because of the wind.
– Rumi

Therefore, the creation is always into the motion to express its love. It is the love to fellow humans that closes gap between God and human (Chittick, 2007). Therefore, pluralistic attitude blooms through the love of God and seeing everything as part of God’s greatest being.


Ihsan is therefore quality of being good and beautiful or to do and make beautiful. Quran also advises that “Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful.” (2:195) Sufis ground themselves in Hadith Gabriel in which Prophet Muhammad explains, Ihsan is “to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.”

In the trance of love and a constant effort to do the beautiful, one does not remain cognizant of the bounties of heaven and fire of hell for him/herself, how would that person be judgmental about others. In this complete submission, “recitation of the Koran gave rise to the arts of the voice, copying the Koran gave rise to the arts of the pen, and embodying the Koran gave rise to the arts of the ritual environment” (Murata & Chittick, 1996, p.298)

Therefore, through accepting Ihsan, we also accept varied methods of worship, each beautiful in their own right. Sufi’s practice of Sama is also about reflecting upon the signs of God and beautifying this reflection as a ritual practice. The whirling dervishes points the fingers upwards symbolizing the bond with God, they whirl to imitate the movement of heavenly bodies, the recite holy verses and give birth to music and dance. The fakirs at Bhitai’s masoluem are no different. They also sing the surs of Risalo while their fingers dance over the strings of musical instruments. The buildings have beautiful calligraphy depicting the fluid and subtle nature of God. Through embracing these various forms of worship and arts, masoluems become the visible spaces of pluralism.

“When we heard ‘Be’ in our state of nonexistence, we heard a marvelous song we delighted in its melody and danced into the created world. Ever since, each of us has been dancing and reveling in that music.” (Murata & Chittick, 1996, p. 79)


Poetry of both Rumi and Bhitai gives us the message of Love. Through love, we not only see God as unity through seeing his reflection in other creations but also transcend beyond the realm of right and wrong. Pluralism is then accepting everything which is beautiful and at the same time, creating beauty by doing beautiful things. Moral beauty then is accompanied by a visual and auditory beauty where pious conduct is when writing is beautiful and speaking is beautiful such as calligraphy and music (Murata & Chittick, 1996). Moreover, it is through dialogue that we learn about ourselves, about others, and, in so doing, perhaps also about God.

Aga Khan IV (2010). The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture. Toronto: Canada.
Chittick, W. C. (2007). Sufism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: OneWorld.
Cowan, J. (1992). Rumi’s Divan of Shems of Tabriz: Selected odes. Rockport: Element
Iqbal, A. (2009). The Life and Work of Jalaluddin Rumi. Islamabad: Oxford University Press.
Kazi, E. (n.d.). Shah Jo Risalo, A selection.
Murata, S., & Chittick, W. (1996). The Vision of Islam. London: I.B. Tauris.
Nasr, S. H. (1974). Rumi and the Sufi Tradition. Studies in Comparative Religion, 8(2).
Schimmel, A. (2003). Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publicatons.

Posted in history, islam, lessons, reflections, religion

Rethinking Sacrifice

“It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches God: it is your piety that reaches Him: He has thus made them subject to you, that ye may glorify God for His Guidance to you and proclaim the good news to all who do right”. [22:37]

This Eid, like every year, thousand of animals will be slaughtered. The rationale behind the ritual is apparently the spirit of sacrifice which unfortunately has gone completely haywire over the centuries, so much so that it has become a mockery which laughs at its own grandeur. The festival traces back its origin to Abrahamic tradition where the idea was to sacrifice what is most dear to you, for Abraham: his son Ishmael. Traditionally, monotheists especially Muslims (largely belonging to nomadic and agrarian societies) pet their animals for years and at Eid, sacrifice the one which was dearest to them. This act can be categorized as one of the most humbling human expressions. In this day and age, it is neither possible nor relevant to practice the tradition in a similar manner. Therefore in our times, the concept behind sacrifice becomes greater than the sacrifice itself and is needed to be understood in its complexity.

Sadly, this ritual which should be conducted with spiritual zeal has been reduced to a display of shameless pomp and it seems that the essence of sacrifice has either been forgotten or perhaps had never been understood in the first place. What people don’t realize is that the prayer (Namaz-e-Eid) is obligatory and not the sacrifice itself or more precisely the physical one. Offering an animal in sacrifice is only proposed for those who have the means, yet many people feel forced by societal pressures to do so.

The biggest animal sacrifices in terms of quantity are carried out by two groups the locally rich individuals or pilgrims (Hajis at the Hajj). It is known observation for former – many of them if not all – it has become a symbol of status. The more the merrier, obviously fatter the better. Sacrifice can only be complete with inherent feelings of thankfulness and submission. When you forgo something dear, especially if it’s a big animal, you aren’t supposed to set up a show where whole neighborhood is enjoying the slaughter with claps or hoots and children are exposed to bloodshed. People prefer to keep the best of the meat for themselves and some even buy additional freezers to preserve; no wonder greed has no limits. Deprived people who actually wait for this day throughout the year as they can’t afford the luxury of meat on a daily basis are conferred with bad parts and wished with Meat Mubarak! Besides, there are mass scale wastage in sacrifices at Hajj and also internationally across the Ummah. Governments or civil society also doesn’t have any system in place where more effective use and distribution of meat can be done. Not to say that every sacrifice is carried in such manner but mainly we need to remind ourselves that God likes humility so He also dislikes wastefulness. The issues of sacrifice then have implications on national level and ummah. Not to forget that Islam always talks about the collective to balance and supplement the personal responsibility.

In all this drama, Eid-ul-Adha becomes a mere exoteric ritual with little sense of sacrifice itself. All this is not unknown but it becomes a greater sham by the occurrence of incidents like recently when an ‘educated’ host on some television channel’s Eid special comments on how the goat which one only buys a day before the Eid has no emotional value so those who really want to sacrifice, should do so by giving away their handbags and diamond rings which one loves dearly. In such a state, I personally think that we don’t have ANY right to whine about situations we face in most developing country when the individuals who can contribute towards change do not stand up, rather relax over their recliners and blab the pseudo-intellectual statements. How would a country progress where the income disparity in the country is so large, where we haven’t invested in sectors like education and health, where we haven’t nurtured our glorious tradition of scholarship in religion? Where we blame everything upon extremists and foreign involvements while assuming no accountability over our own lacking? How many of us are committed to share than accumulate whether its money, skills or knowledge? Is sacrifice really running in our blood?

To understand the essence of sacrifice we not only need to refer back to the history but also reflect upon the context. Prophet Abraham was the one who brought a paradigm shift from paganism to monotheism. Human sacrifice was a major facet of pagan practices where the first child was slaughtered to obtain blessings from the pagan god. Modern scholarship and likes of Karen Armstrong believe that the story of the sacrifice of Abraham highlights that God does not need the flesh of humans and therefore it was replaced with a sheep. Sheep was an alternative – a sign; it was an imperative. It emphasizes on the sanctity of humanity and human life which was ignored by the primitive religions where human sacrifice was a established ritual. Briefly, all you can offer to God is your love and devotion. Later on in the history, the problem with the Arabs was not limited to Idol worshipping or oneness of God but worshipping their own selves as the most powerful and therefore exploiting the deprived; absence of humility disrespects the principle of Tawheed – the primary principle which Prophet Mohammad wanted to preach. Islam’s purpose is not only to enlighten us about divine but also install ethics of acceptance and sometimes even forgiveness, love and compassion. It also reminds me of a speech that I read where His Highness Aga Khan said, “The shared destiny of the ethos of the Abrahamic tradition that unites Christians, Jews and Muslims is governed by the duty of loving care to help nurture each life that is born to its God-given potential.”

Any ritual has two powers, one is to inspire if the learning reflects back in your daily ethics or else the power of making you immune to blind imitation, whatever the devotee chooses. In current trying times, we need to revisit our religion and rethink our practice of the whole ritual and notion of sacrifice. Is it only limited to slaughtering animals? The answers would vary but whatever they maybe, they should be based on proper knowledge and informed action. We also need a different kind of sacrifice working hand in hand with the traditional. In my opinion, putting millions on food, shelter and education is much more needed. It would need time and effort but the question remains that are we really ready to sacrifice?

[The piece was written last year. The only change is that now we have sacrificial cows named after Star Plus characters. Pratigya, what should one suppose? a hindu cow for a muslim sacrifice? This can begin a whole new debate on cultural sensitvity.]

Posted in history, islam, lessons, reflections, religion

What Muslims need today?

Muslims at the height of their civilization were one of the major contributors of arts and sciences. People like Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi were first to recover and translate the Greek philosophy and introduced this wisdom in Spain and Europe. Avicenna and other Muslim intellectual’s treatises on philosophy, medicine and other sciences were part of western curricula. There was no fragmentation of disciplines and nor was a distinction between worldly and spiritual. Science flourished with and in light of religion. [for reference, see comments below]

In contrast, when there were internal conflicts among Muslim dynasties, where they fall into prey of politics and orthodoxy, the decline was inevitable. There wasn’t any more the pluralistic mindset of Fatimids and no intellectual honesty like the one which was nurtured in Al-Azhar mosque which later flourished into university. Such dogma had roots in misinterpretation of Islamic ethics. Ethics which should have served as a bridge between faith and society1 but forsaking the use of intellect for ethical considerations, its roots became so feeble that it lost practically. Therefore, there was no desire left to improve upon (to imagine, discover and enlighten); there was only a quest to cling upon the past.

The historical accounts of our heritage can serve for us as windows of interpretation to regain the rightful place of Umma on world map. The major inspirations can be: healthy civil society partnerships, intellectual honesty, pluralism and compassion for service, to list a few.


It is known fact that intelligentsia is only developed when there is security and economic development. Democracies in developing countries have not been successful in past; therefore it is civil society initiatives which might create difference. One such web of institutions is Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). AKDN’s mandate with the ethics of inclusiveness, poverty alleviation, and self-reliance are those benchmarks which NGOs can adopt for bridging the gap between wealthy and marginalized, giving them ample opportunity to progress. Muslim nations also need to administer their wealth for the common good.

Civil society will need leadership which will be capable of taking up the challenges and solving them with their knowledge grounded well in ethics. For this we not only need to have a vision of years ahead but invest time, wealth and energy for developing a knowledge society. During the days of Fatimids, there was an intellectual honesty among Muslims under the leadership of Imam. They were not hesitant for exchange of knowledge about different disciplines with Christians and Jews and were well equipped for addressing the needs of their time.

Today students need the same understanding of the fields of knowledge most required in their regions; moreover a deep understanding of diverse cultures and values is essential. Moreover, we need both encouragement and material support. Muslim individuals who are at respectable positions can give their expertise towards educating the institutions.2

These tasks cannot be complete without respect for pluralism. The diversity that Muslim cultures entail have strength of assorted skills and the synergy it can provide both intellectually and spiritually can be awe-inspiring. Being Muslim should not mean to impose your belief on others nor can you demand the rest of the world to follow your rules. The axiom holds true for intra-Muslim community in regards to sectarianism.3 We should resort back to our tradition of leading by action, where world got inspired from our dealings and knowledge.

Thus today when Muslims are being termed as terrorists, we need to reflect urgently about the image we want to project towards the world and preparing ourselves to be the best role-models. Prophet Muhammad’s life, compassion of Islamic ethics and creative expressions can be stepping stone for such change. Moreover, dilemmas concerning past should be seen as inspiration for future but in no sense a literal and blind imitation.


1- Keynote Address by Aga Khan IV at the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference on ‘Leadership & Diversity’ on May 19, 2004 (p. 3) Source: IIS

2- An address by Aga Khan IV at Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel, London, United Kingdom, October 19, 2003. (p. 3) Source:

3- There is no evil in sects, if they live and let live; each to it’s own and pure intentions for and by all.