One ceremony, many readings – Inayat Khan’s ʿurs and its participants

2.3 Universal Sufism in Nizamuddin: The Dance in a Different Context

As has been described above, most devotees of Universal Sufism come from North America and Europe. One of the central rituals of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Ruhaniat Society in the USA, the UK, France, Holland, Germany, Australia and other “Western” countries are the Dances of Universal Peace (s.a.), videos of which are posted by different members on video platforms such as YouTube. Many of the comments posted show that, while the Dances of Universal Peace make extensive use of Islamic forms of invocations (e.g., Arabic names for God), they contradict the expectations of some Muslim viewers. This can be illustrated by two comments on one video, one of which states: “What a devil is this? Muhammad s.a.w25, his companions & people after them never never teach this. Looks similar Christian style”26, the second one: “What is that supposed to be? New religion mixed with Islam?”27 The frequency of such statements shows that the ‘Islamicity’ of the Dances of Universal Peace is an important issue for certain viewers.

Video 1

Next to highlighting the vivacity of such controversies, the Dances of Universal Peace also constitute a good example for the continuity between the Universal Sufis’ ritual activities in America and Europe and those they perform during the pilgrimage. Already during the evening preceding the ʿurs, i.e., on the first day of the five-day-programme, one such Dance of Universal Peace was performed in front of Inayat Khan’s shrine in the same manner as it is done in the USA. The group travelling with Shabda Kahn performed the dances every evening for two hours in a separate room in their hotel. After the pilgrimage, two videos showing the dances at the shrine were posted on YouTube.28 This underlines the importance given to the dances by the Ruhaniat group.

Video 2

These two videos, one from the USA and one from Delhi, indicate the continuity between the performances in the USA and in India. In a next step, it is interesting to situate them in the Islamic neighbourhood of Nizamuddin:

This part of Delhi, named after the Sufi Niẓām ad-Dīn Awliyāʾ, is marked by a high density of centres of different religious groups. Adherents to the Niẓāmī branch of the Chishtiyya make up the biggest part of the quarter’s inhabitants, as well as of the many pilgrims who annually visit Niẓām ad-Dīn’s shrine. However, there are also many other important graves of Sufis as well as nobles who were buried in the vicinity of Niẓām ad-Dīn’s tomb. Furthermore, the famous shrine area and the qawwālī-performances on Thursday nights and festive occasions attract a growing number of tourists.

Located only minutes away from the shrines of Niẓām ad-Dīn Awliyāʾ and Inayat Khan is the ‘world centre’ of the Jamāʿat-e Tablīgh, a “reform-minded group”29 which takes an at least ambivalent position vis-à-vis many practices of Sufism. The centre provides the starting point for tablīgh (missionary) activities all over South Asia, and attracts missionaries from all over the world, some of whom also “come to study at the adjoining madrasa, which provides Ḥanafī teaching associated with Deoband.”30

The dargāh of Hazrat Inayat Khan, which includes a shrine, a garden, rooms for events, a library and some guest rooms, is one of the spiritual centres built in recent decades. One regular activity taking place in the dargāh are qawwālī performances held on Friday afternoon. Attached to the dargāh premises is the ‘Hope-Project’, an NGO founded by Inayat Khan’s son, Vilayat Inayat Khan, in 1980, focusing on philanthropical work, especially on health care and education.

Considering the differences spelled out in the YouTube comments quoted and the religious environment at Nizamuddin, it might at first be expected that the ʿurs celebration could be received as controversial. While keeping in mind that controversy might, for different reasons, not be articulated publicly, one reason for this might also be that the ʿurs festivities are characterised by the combination of different rituals, as this combination allows the respective groups – the Universal Sufis and the local Chishtī-adherents31 – to identify with their respective ritual tradition.

The combination of different rituals leads to indeterminacy and, in doing so, also to an inclusive basis. Both the inclusivity and the ceremony’s indeterminacy result from the same structural condition. While they cannot be equated, they are, however, linked to each other: This is, on the one hand; because the unfamiliar elements are perceived as undetermined, and therefore can fade into the background (but do not necessarily have to) that the participants’ identification with those perceived as determined is facilitated. On the other hand, if the ceremony’s structure’s function was reduced to merely allowing for such identification, a further function of the structure - offering potential connections - would be dismissed. The text’s indeterminacy gives rise to blanks., i.e., “vacanc[ies] in the overall system of the text, the filling of which brings about an interaction of textual patterns” resulting in a “need for combination.”32 The ceremony’s indeterminacy can therefore be understood as enabling not merely incidentally – but maybe even expressly – a particular perception and experience, as will be described in the following.

25. S.a.w. is a common abbreviation for the Arabic eulogy to the prophet Muḥammad, which can be translated to English as “May Allah honour him and grant him peace.”

26. Comment by user ibni11 on [last accessed on November 3rd, 2010].

27. Comment by user 1AnsarService on [last accessed on November 3rd, 2010]. It was originally posted in German: “Was ist denn das? Neue Religion mit islam vermischt?” Translation by the authors.

28. The spiritual leader of the Ruhaniat International, Shabda Kahn, has posted a total of five videos of the pilgrimage 2010 so far [November 2010]. Besides the two videos showing the Dance of Universal Peace on the evening preceding the ʿurs, three videos of him performing Indian Ragas on the day of the ʿurs can be found.

29. Ernst, Lawrence (2002), op. cit., p. 78.

30. Hermansen (2009), op. cit., p. 33.

31. Further research would be desirable to understand the interplay between the two groups (each of which is of course itself very heterogeneous). This article avoids making statements about the involvement of the usual attendees at the shrine of Niẓām ad-Dīn during the festivities, but focuses instead on the pilgrims of Universal Sufism.

32. Iser (1978), op. cit., p. 182.

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