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One and Many: The pluralistic expressions In Sufi poetry

By: Raheel Lakhani, Uploaded: 11th June 2012

Rumi poetry

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 and Sufi Poets

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).

Love as a manifestation of Pluralism

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 and Pluralistic Practices

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)

Make peace with the universe .Take joy in it.
It will turn to gold.
Resurrection will be now. Every moment,
a new beauty


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.

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Story first published: 11th June 2012






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