Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1989 Volume 3. Shaikh-ul-Mahshaikh Mahmood Khan. "Murshid’s Words"

A lecture by Shaikh-ul-Mahshaikh Mahmood Khan at Summer School, Katwijk, 1989

Murshid speaks not only as an illuminated mystic, but with the joy and the powerful intuition of a poet.

When Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1920 left England for the continent, it meant that he took leave of not only the English language area, but also of the Indian community living in England, whose religious interests and occupations were being rapidly politicized under the pressures left by the First World War. That was a current that he definitely did not wish to be involved in, which also ran completely counter to his ideal of religious unity, since religions were falling apart during nationalist influences. And he entered a new circle in France, which also meant that his teaching was aimed at a western view, where the contact with eastern countries, especially with India, was far less. In continental Europe's contacts with the colonial countries of the day, they were facing different languages; North Africa was French speaking, Indonesia was Dutch speaking, there was not that meeting with people from the east, acquainting themselves with Murshid's teaching in English and raising questions.

Now, this you know, all of you, today, it is completely changed. All of you, in whatever Sufi centre you are, may be approached by people coming from India, coming from any Islamic language area, and asking you, well, what does this mean, what does that mean? And then you have to be able to give a sensible answer. Because after all, if one is a mureed, one becomes a representative of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Sufism, and at least these kind of immediate questions that come up ought to be answered.

Now, I'm coming to a wonderful illustration of this, which many of you will recall from previous years, the name of the prayer, Saum. When anybody from the east reads the word Saum for that prayer, they say, 'What is this? We know Saum as a religious duty, fasting. Saum is 'fast.' Now, what has this prayer to do with fasting?' Well, you can say this prayer invokes a certain religious duty, it is one of the obligations which, in religion, have their own place, give the identity to that religion. But then of course, in the first place, Saum is a very meditative prayer, it is not so much a religious prayer as a mystical experience, and in the second place, well, what about this name? Does it mean that you have so much to turn inward, away from the world that that prayer becomes a kind of a fast of its own or something?

Well, here we have to remember that in works like Gayan, Vadan, Nirtan, Murshid speaks not only as an illuminated mystic but also with all the joy and the powerful intuition of a poet, and indulges in a word play with a word like 'saum,' evoking on the one hand the religious observation, of whatever kind never mind, the religious observation of prayer, but on the other hand, the English word 'psalm,' a sung prayer, as you find in the Bible, so that you have psalm from English, mixed with saum from Arabic, to produce this word which we find in the Gayatri above the prayer, which therefore is a word play.

Now, the term 'Gayatri' itself... As you know, the whole terminology of the Gayan, Vadan and Nirtan derives from the Indian musical tradition; here again Murshid's musical and poetic joy of expression finds very beautiful and very stimulating expression. I think most of these names don't offer any particular reason for comment. This is one point I would like to impress on you though: what is called Gayatri, really 'that which is sung,' 'that which is recited,' therefore the prayer which you address to God, has another name outside India. Murshid chooses this name, typically Indian and typically musical and typical of Hindu religious tradition, but you find its counterpart outside of India in Sufi orders elsewhere, in the so-called order prayers, the prayers particular to a special order, mostly deriving from the one who founded that order, or another honoured or venerated soul who was part of it, and there it is called 'wird,' with plural 'awrad.' It will be useful for you if people from outside India come and ask you, ‘Now what does this mean, this Gayatri, what is that supposed to mean? We see some kind of thing, this looks like some kind of prayer, and you call it Gayatri, now what does this mean, what is this supposed to be?' Then, if you tell them it is a 'wird,' they are 'awrad,' it will be perfectly clear what is meant by that in this context. Wird, that's the typical, special mystical prayer, not a ritual or a symbological prayer, no, it is typically that esoteric prayer, that inward prayer, as done in the mystic orders. Wird, with plural, awrad.

Now, there is one instance of Murshid's poetic understanding which is a very interesting one in the very first verse in the Gayan. Let me read it to you. You know the first chapter heading in the Gayan is Alapa. Alapa means 'extemporization.' It is a kind of introduction with which every Indian musical piece starts.

When a glimpse of Our image is caught in man,
When the heaven and the earth are sought in man,
Then what is in the world that is not in man?
If one only explores him, there's a lot in man.

Now, if you read this, there are two curiosities in this. First, that the rhythm is very uneven, and, one would have thought, quite unnecessarily so, because there is the possibility here of putting a word here or a word there, and you would have, well, a very evenly running rhythm, and we know that Murshid, we can see that from the original texts, we know that Murshid drafted and redrafted many of these sayings as they are in the Gayan, you find them in the notebooks, all done and tried out, so why did he leave this rhythm to run so unevenly? So unevenly, in fact, that the first person, I think it might have been Murshida Green, who wrote an introduction to this book, writes very apologetically, 'you know of course, Inayat Khan, well, English was not his language,' and then she said very elegantly, 'which will sometimes be apparent by the slight loss of the rhythm, a slight unevenness of the rhythm.' So she feels she must really apologise for what Murshid was doing there, otherwise that he might have done it better.

That’s one thing. Now, the second thing, let me take that at the same time, is that in this poem, the first three sentences are very stately in expression, the feeling is that all the majesty of God is infused in these words, and then the fourth sentence comes, ‘If one only explores him, there's a lot in man,’ well, that's not only, with that note of exploration, really rather nineteenth century matter-of-fact, but 'there's a lot in man' is actually a very popular way of expressing. Of course Murshid loved popular expressions, but he knew very well to distinguish between the very elevated utterance of the first lines and this very popular utterance of the last lines.

Why is it? Well, now, this is one tradition you find in first Arabic, and then therefore much Islamic literature, where there is a stately poetry of three lines, and ended in an extremely popular punch line in the popular tongue. That's called 'muwasha,' especially developed in those societies where you spoke two languages. Muwashas are especially famous, for instance, in the European context in Arab Spain, in Moorish Spain, where they love to make a poem of four lines, three lines in highly classical Arabic, and the fourth done in very popular, very amusing Spanish, and I mean, really popular language, after these three stately lines before. You can imagine what effect this kind of thing has in love songs, either human or divine. So, the point is, that this poem of Murshid's, with its surprising mode of expression, faithfully follows one of the oldest literary traditions we know.

That’s one thing. Now, why that irregularity of the rhythm which worried Murshida Green so much? Well, what is an alap? An alap is, exactly, the introduction to a piece of music which does not yet include the rhythmic part. That's a purely free improvisation on the theme it’s going to introduce, and, I don't know if all of you have heard that, but the tablas are not yet being played, there is just the soloist, the instrumentalist or the singer, who just improvises along. Now, if you don't deliberately spoil the rhythm of your poetry, it’s not going to be an alap. For it to be an improvisation, you must be very careful that it has no rhythm.

So, there you are. No reason for apology. It only requires an understanding of what Murshid was doing. In many cases when people ask, and we do ask it quite a bit when we work on researching these texts, why did Murshid say what he did? Well, quite often, he did mean to say what he did, and it’s just we who no longer understand what he intended. The playfulness of his utterance, the poetic taste of his mode of speech, also sometime the combination of a somewhat nineteenth century, somewhat philosophically tinged English expression suddenly included in his Indian English utterance, all make Murshid's speech very stimulating, but also require a great deal of attention in order to really understand the background from which he spoke.


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