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India’s Sufi History

Embark on an epic quest to rediscover the long lost Sufi Saint who guided Hazrat Inayat Khan to travel from Hyderabad to New York and unite the east and west through Sufism. Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn is a remarkable documentary bursting with motivational experiences, dazzling lights and calming harmonies. 

by Sarah Khurshid

Who’s Abu Hashim Madani?  

This is what I thought when I read the summary for the film, Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn on Alchemiya. I’m not an expert on Sufism or the practice of Islam in the Indian subcontinent, so I ended up googling Madani to find out more about him. It turns out Google didn’t know much about Madani either! Then again, the fact that I knew nothing about this Sufi influencer gave me all the more reason to press the play button. 

What I can tell you about Madani is that he was a Sufi teacher based in Hyderabad, India. The Chishti Sufi Order was his domain and Madani was Hazrat Inayat Khan’s teacher. 

When Madani was on his deathbed in 1907, he asked Khan to spread Sufism and its teachings on love, harmony and beauty from East to West. This means that Khan is now known for being a pioneer of bringing Sufi thought to the west. Khan was also a legendary musician who toured the world and collaborated with Russian composer Sergei Tolstoy (eldest son of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy). Khan was later called the ‘Tansen of Hyderabad’ after the great 16th century musician and originator of classical Hindustani music Milan Tansen.

However, despite Madani’s pivotal role in Khan’s life, it’s crazy that Madani seems to have dropped through the cracks of all modern histories of Sufi Saints. It seems that Khan fulfilled Madani’s dying wish completely but I still wanted to know more about why Madani wanted to spread Sufism. 

Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn

Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn is a bright and information-packed documentary created in 2014 by graduate filmmakers, Fazil NC and Siddharth Ojha. Viewers are taken on a journey to uncover the action-packed history of Sufism and its influence on culture in India. More importantly, these contemplative filmmakers are on a mission to reinvigorate Madani’s legacy.

It begins by exploring the rich history of Sufism in Hyderabad. The Sufi poet Hoshang Merchant, explains that Sufi travellers from the Middle East arrived in the Deccan region and imported Sufi practices that had influenced spiritual worship for decades. The documentary celebrates Sufi observances such as upbeat Qawwali, whirling Dervishes and Dargah gatherings. 

On the other hand, the documentary also explores controversial debates regarding the authenticity of these practices, including the nature of music and whether music is haram. The documentary provides agency for one scholar who points out that sometimes authentic Hadiths sometimes contradict the opinions of ‘imperfect’ Mullahs. The documentary makes a thoughtful contribution to debates that have divided Muslims for generations.

Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn

There are so many moments in this documentary that enriched my knowledge. For example, the narrator interviews the famous Qawwali group, the Nazimi Brothers, who believe that poetry is a beautiful medium for connecting different generations of Muslims in a spiritual understanding.

One narrative follows an institution using Islamic teachings on compassion and community to feed the poor and unemployed migrants daily. There’s another storyline about a lady who has sacrificed her familial relationships and livelihood to dedicate herself to serving God. 

We see how the sublime architecture of Dargahs and the influence of music has transgressed religious borders in India and the extent to which Sufism has contributed to the culture. 

I began with the question: who is Abu Hashim Madani? I have been taken on a journey I could not have anticipated and Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn is a must watch for anyone also intrigued to uncover the lost history, and mystery, of this remarkable Sufi Saint.

Dervish: A Spiritual Sojourn
'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.
'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.

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