Samina Quraeshi: In Search of Sacred Spaces

In the following two essays by Samina Quraeshi, the Henry R. Luce Professor in Family and Community at the University of Miami, Quraeshi examines the role of sacred spaces in Muslim societies. Quraeshi is an award-winning artist, designer and is the author of Legacy of the Indus: A Discovery of Pakistan (Weatherhill Press, 1974), Lahore: The City Within (Routledge, March 1989), and Reimaging West Coconut Grove (Spacemaker Press, 2006).

Quraeshi holds a joint appointment between the University's Schools of Architecture and Medicine. Since joining the University of Miami in 1998, Quraeshi's efforts have focused on establishing the Initiatives for Urban and Social Ecology, or INUSE, an interactive, multidisciplinary program that is the University's newest community-building effort. Quraeshi previously served as the Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she advocated design and the arts as essential to the country's cultural and economic wellbeing.

By focusing on the sacred spaces of Islam, Quraeshi sheds light on the diversity of Islam as it is practiced, experienced and lived, while bringing a message of internal plurality as a counter to monolithic stereotypes. In the accompanying slideshow, explore both Quraeshi's photography and art work that seek to further examine and illustrate these themes.

A Personal Reflection on the Sacred Spaces of Islam
In the chaotic joint-family of my upbringing, stories were a matter of survival for me. My father had three wives and ten children: eight boys and two girls. In addition, we lived with our grandmother, an aunt and her son, and various relatives who came for extended visits. In India, my father’s three households were distinct, nuclear families in different states. But the violent shock of Partition threw us together into a loving cacophony of mothers, aunts and grandmothers, each unfamiliar with the strange land of Karachi, Pakistan and unsure of her shifting role in the household. As a young girl, I was always hungry for ways to escape. I found my refuge in the servants’ quarters and in conversations with my religious tutor, Ustaniji. These conversations provided me a historical and theological framework: the layering of individual life-narratives and devotional practices that gave rise to my personal relationship with Islam and my personal journey as a Muslim.

In each part of the world where Islam has spread and taken root, the religion has adapted to its context in geographic, cultural and theological terms. Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, runs through South Asia as a deep spiritual vein inflected with philosophies and traditions from other Muslim lands and cultures as well as pre-Islamic rites and practices. Sufi mysticism is one of many nuances that complicate the all-too-common view that Islam is monolithic, unable or unwilling to recognize the internal plurality of devotion and interpretation among its faithful. Sacred Spaces: Journeys with the Sufis of the Indus Valley is a personal and artistic act of resistance against those forces—both within Islam and outside of it—that seek to deny such nuances, to silence the voices of mystics, and to distill the diversity of Islamic piety into something essential, unitary and uniform.

Pakistan is a significant pressure point in the current political and religious turmoil. Yet, when I look back at the Pakistan I knew growing up, I see a region energized by independent-minded people – a place filled with anomalies and contradictions but also infused with ancient traditions, codes of honor, and deep beliefs that were allowed to co-exist in the natural order of things. Exposure to the historical context of Islamic cultural development is the best way to counter the violent ways Islam is being redefined by fundamentalists to mean something it was never meant to mean. Exploring contemporary engagement with the sacred spaces of Sufi rites in South Asia is not intended to present a soft and sentimental foil to the reductive image of Islamic fundamentalism. On the contrary, the mystical dimension is immanent within and intrinsic to Islamic dogma.

The most important element that binds the Indus Valley Sufi tradition together and that provides the tradition with its life-blood is participation in age-old rituals. My personal quest to begin to comprehend the teachings and legacy of the mystics began by revisiting the faith-based nature of these ritual practices and attempting to understand how religious practice ramifies in unique ways in each social context, where a particular form of worship had intersected with the infinite layers of a particular local culture. I found that the unity derived from a universal love for God continues to adapt to the contemporary spiritual and physical geography of this region today, constantly reinventing what it means to recognize the mystical dimensions of Islam while respecting the generational continuity of centuries of pilgrimage and ritual.

Visiting these sanctuaries of the Indus region enlightened my exploration into the complex relationship between place, symbol, idea and the oral tradition in Islamic mysticism. I wanted to discover what aspects of Sufi tradition are relevant today, to experience how ritual practice offers a point of entry to the personal relationship with the Divine and to sing, dance, contemplate and listen to storytelling to nourish my own inner sanctuary. Poetry and song as the language of love form a bridge between dream and reality, chaos and order, and – in an artistic sense – between the mundane and the sublime, a powerful tool in helping ordinary people to understand that God created humanity in the image of the Divine.

My journey was motivated by the belief that investigating might contain clues for how to deconstruct a monolithic view of Islam. There is no Muslim World any more than there is a singular and cohesive West. Resisting the reductive view does not mean pitting good Islam against bad Islam, but rather involves celebrating the singularities immanent within a religion whose faithful span the globe.

The experience of being in sacred spaces is of being aware of the presence of the Divine. This may be the majesty, beauty and power of nature, or the association of built places that evoke the presence of holy relics, messengers of God, or the performance of religious rites. Ultimately when the world and its outward manifestations have been experienced one has to look within, purify the soul, abandon oneself to true love of the Divine to find one’s own sacred space, in the heart, in the mind, in the soul.

Samina Quraeshi, 2009

In Search of Sacred Spaces

"For your sake, I hurry over land and water:
For your sake, I cross the desert and split the mountain in two,
And turn my face from all things,
Until the time I reach the place
Where I am alone with You."

To Reach God -Al Hallaj 858-922 AD

Images of Islam accessible to the world are characterized by the sensationalism of the news media and limited by stereotypes of popular culture. On both fronts, the misunderstood voice of fundamentalist Islam comes to represent the entire Muslim community, collapsing diverse ethnic identities from Malay to Kashmiri to Moroccan into the image of a jihadist. The reality is that the Muslim world is a vast, diverse and complex civilization, made up of many ethnicities, languages and nationalities, and many different interpretations of the Qu’ran.

As the impasse in mutual understanding becomes increasingly entrenched, the technological possibility for information exchange has radically altered the social landscape. New alignments and identity coalitions have redrawn transnational boundaries while traversing national ones. The new identities that have arisen will reshape the dialogue between faith, politics, and gender in the Islamic World. Identity is now recontextualized within a network of increasingly polarized media portrayals.

Exposure to the historical context of Islamic cultural development is the best way to counter the violent ways Islam is being redefined by fundamentalists to mean something it was never meant to mean. Islam is not about violence or intolerance, but to truly comprehend its tenets, we must look to its cultural contexts. The guiding lights of Islam, the Holy Qu’ran, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, and the law which is Sharia have to be studied with religious specialists in order to reflect the diversity of resources and worldviews.

The currents of history and the deeper ones of religion are so deeply intertwined that to discover what they mean required that I embark on a personal quest that would begin with revisiting the faith-based nature of these ritual practices.

In each part of the world where Islam has spread and taken root, the religion has adapted to its context in geographic, cultural and theological terms. Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, found especially fertile ground in the Indian subcontinent, where Islam, the strictest form of monotheism, was confronted with Hinduism, the most varied form of polytheism. While the two religions reflect vastly different world-views, they share more than a common land: they share the mystics who wander it. It is the Sufis who brought Islam into the Indus region.

Islam was first propagated in the Arabian cities of Medina and Mecca. It was a religion within the monotheistic tradition of the other great Semitic faiths, Judaism and Christianity. It posited one God, whose Final Messenger is the Prophet Mohammed, and a Day of Judgment leading to an afterlife in Heaven or in Hell. It outlined an unusually detailed system of ethical conduct. Its holy book is the Qu’ran, which is believed to have been revealed by God to Mohammed in its entirety. The followers of this faith are called Muslims.

Islam spread with phenomenal rapidity among the Arabs, who were at the same time becoming a single political unit. For the first time, these desert tribes, with their traditions of oratory and sonorous poetry, became a single nation. Within a very few years their new religion was being carried to other peoples and places, most notably to the Persians. The Arab nation, new as it was, came spilling out of its borders to become an Arab empire that at its height covered Spain; North Africa; much of West and East Africa; the entire Middle East; parts of Eastern Europe; parts of Mongolia; the whole of Turkey, Persia, and Central Asia; and part of the South Asian subcontinent. There were also important outposts in Malaysia and the East Indies.

Sufism is broadly defined as a mystical Islamic philosophy seeking to develop deeper relationships with God through various forms of lyrical poesies. The never-ending quest for God is symbolized in “the path” in which the seeker is to proceed as in the numerous allegories that pilgrims profess. While it is commonly recognized that the Qu’ran is the one source of revelation, the messengers (masters, mystics, teachers) provide guidance to the faithful through religious rites adapted to the local culture and lore. It is understood that while there are many manifestations of God, the underlying essence flows from the One and in all is the same.

Transformation of the soul, through tribulation and purification, is one of Sufism’s defining themes. The ultimate goal of the Sufi is to attain the unity of the soul and the body with God in a moment of ultimate communion. The Sufis do this through constant meditations and spiritual reflection, through practice of love for fellow mortals, even for those with different creeds. We must live our time on this earth as the One wishes of us, in order to earn His love—and He wishes lives of virtue and good works; not the mere avoidance of evil, but the positive advancement of good.

To adhere to the way of the mystics expands awareness of the soul as captive in the human form, yet understands that true freedom is in the formless yet conscious relation with the one Divine.

Sufism can best be described as the inter-generational transmission of charismatic authorities. Almost all Sufi fraternities trace their spiritual genealogy back to its original master. It is the memory and spiritual grace of the original masters and of each successive master that serves as the fountainhead for the lay Sufi practitioner’s religious inspiration. The historical memory of the shaykh is available to those who link themselves to the original Sufi masters through repeated journeys to shrines and mausalea of Sufi saints.

Taken together, the sites I visited on this journey chart a circle of divine inspiration that traverses the Indus Valley to reveal one strand of the multi-dimensional spiritual ecosystem of this region.

These sacred places are symbols for people to make sense of their lives. These spiritual centers attract pilgrims who hope to have a direct experience of the sacred, invisible supernatural order either in the material aspect of healing or in the immaterial aspect of the inward transformation of the spirit. Their location not only infuses the surrounding areas with historical and spiritual significance, but also maps a trajectory of philosophy migration and cross-pollination between Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Central Asian and Indian traditions. The relationship of people to each other and to these sacred gathering places allows them to be centers of diverse points of view. It is thought that over fifty percent of the population of South Asia has some allegiance to a shrine. In their travels toward receding horizons, Sufi philosophers sought to create new forms of being out of the lessons of the past.

For more than a thousand years, the routes and practices of Sufi Islam have inspired pilgrims seeking to contemplate the deepest mysteries of the human condition. These Muslim mystics and their adherents believed that arduous journeys to remove oneself from the familiar and to free oneself from self constraint provided insight into acting according to God’s orders and laws. Their constant movement towards awakening required solitude and meditation to transcend the earthly diversions that prevent us from achieving greater spiritual unity with the divine. Their teachings served to bring about new knowledge and a greater understanding of mankind in all its diversity. Their message lives on through their writings and the oral traditions of poetry and music.

The spiritual and creative mission of the Sufi Shaykhs inspire others’ appreciation of their mission, yet the universal experiences of love, longing and spiritual quest expressed in Sufi poems and songs are what continues to draw followers to their ageless wisdom. The great Sufis of the Indus led highly inspiring, inimitable and spiritually rewarding lives. In our modern world of intense inter-religious strife, intra-religious bigotry, and general indifference towards the vatic value of religion, the Sufis of Indus can teach and inspire us in several spiritually and socially productive directions.

While the voices of these masters often go unheeded in a deeply divided contemporary global sphere, they have much to teach us. For centuries, pilgrims of all walks of life have paid homage to these teachers, seeking anything from spiritual solidarity to the fulfillment of a wish by meditating at the shrines. Some have learned their lessons by walking the spiritual and physical paths that their masters walked, often all the way to the master’s grave site. The shrines that followers built in honor of these wandering saints that were once humble places have since been embellished over the years to become centers of charity and community, notable for the bazaars that have sprung up around them and for the throngs of mendicants who populate them. Centuries of spiritual quest have infused these places with a profound mystical resonance.

Multi-layered portraits of the living traditions at shrines illustrate their importance to the intellectual and social histories of the South Asian subcontinent. The respect and devotion paid to the founding saint and his or her teachings highlights the importance of respecting the beauty and wider significance of these teachings.

Searching for the mystical and spatial nuances of a faith too often portrayed as monolithic and uniform is fueled by an interrogation of the inextricable nature of spiritual practices from the power of place.

How does religious practice manifest uniquely in each social context, where a particular form of worship has intersected with the infinite layers of the local culture? The unity derived from a universal love of God continues to adapt to the contemporary spiritual and physical geography of this region today. Constantly reinventing what it means to recognize the mystical dimensions of Islam thus respects the generational continuity of centuries of pilgrimage and ritual.

The Holy Qu’ran says “guide us on the straight path.” Sufi mystics are the teachers and guides on that path. The messages of the Sufi masters are capable of inspiring us, healing our alienation from ourselves, from community, from the world, from the Divine.

The shrines and meditation lodges represent the locus of the articulation of a Shaykh’s mystical authority. These sacred spaces are tributes mankind has created as symbolic expressions of their acknowledgment of the divine, but there are also places in nature that communicate their divinity through their spectacular beauty. Local people are aware of spiritual significance as they offered their prayers at architectural and natural sites alike. These shrines remind us of how personal an experience the inner dimension of Sufism is. The different perceptions of the divine mystery are reflected in how a Shaykh’shistorical legacy is never fixed in the imagination. Changing realities and the ever-evolving rites and practices of the devoted integrate their teachings into contemporary experiences.

This journey is a quest to seek the wisdom of the heart, to feel the great spiritual current that flows through all religions, to listen to the telling of sacred narratives that connect history and ritual to each story of seeking.

History has shaped the lives and the thought processes of the Indus Basin’s inhabitants. The pageant of many races, the varied hues and textures of many civilizations and cultures has merged to form the unique soul of this land still illuminated today by the living traditions of the poetry, literature, and music of Sufi Shaykhs of the Indus region.

Samina Quraeshi, 2009

The Art and Photography of Samina Quraeshi: Exploring Sacred Spaces.

In this series of shots and artistic pieces, Samina Quraeshi explores Islam as it is practiced, experienced and lived through sacred spaces.