A Sympathetic Listener

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Religion is a major topic at talkfests these days, and the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival was no exception. There was a panel titled "In Defence of God", conversations on neurology and religion, and, of course there was an address delivered by leading evangelical atheist, Christopher Hitchens.

And then there was William Dalrymple, whose latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, explores religion in contemporary India by telling the stories of a range of people, from Jain nuns to Hindu storytellers to the devotees of Sufi Muslim saints. Dalrymple curated a concert of South Asian devotional music at the festival, based on the themes of his book.

In her on-stage conversation with Dalrymple, Sally Warhaft said that she would have liked to see him discuss religion with Christopher Hitchens — Dalrymple’s empathy versus Hitchens’ wholesale condemnation. It was a scenario that I found tantalising, too. I had lunch with Dalrymple at the same tapas bar as David Hollier interviewed Hitchens, and I have to say that if the experience of newmatilda.com writers is anything to go by, Dalrymple is a lot more fun. I would have expected Hitchens to have a head start in the "fun" stakes, because he is prepared to be entertainingly nasty about such a wide range of people. Dalrymple manages both "fun" and "nice" — not an easy combination.

I asked him whether he had ever shared a platform with Hitchens. "No, I never have," he answered. "I had a drink with him last night, and liked him very much. He’s an interesting and complicated man. He is someone who fought very hard for the Palestinian cause, during the time when it was least fashionable. But since 9/11, his sympathies have moved to the right. I don’t agree with his politics very often, these days, but I think he’s an amazing writer. I admire his early work, very much."

Dalrymple had also intersected with another famous atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when she attended the Jaipur Literary Festival — which he co-founded. The festival organisers were criticised for providing Hirsi Ali with a platform, given the volatile nature of subcontinental religious sensibilities and her strident views on Islam. "I strongly disagree with her views on Islam," said Dalrymple. "They’re the kind of things I’ve fought against in print — but then, I haven’t had a clitorectomy. She is a very intelligent woman, with a sense of humour, and she has a right to express her opinions. And I have the right to disagree with her."

Religious division can take many forms: the divide between atheist and believer, the divide between members of different faiths. But divides within religions can be just as wide, and easily as violent. Dalrymple’s book describes various forms of popular religion and those communities in which religious practice is embedded in folk traditions and performances that have absorbed elements of other religious traditions and local beliefs in magic. This form of faith is both resilient and fragile: resilient because of its capacity to absorb new influences in the face of changing circumstances; fragile because the communities in which it is based are being shaken to their foundation by the forces of globalisation, economic development, and, in the case of Pakistan, civil conflict.

Nine Lives explores the capacity for popular religions to endure as the social landscape that sustains them changes almost beyond recognition. He focuses not on the religion of texts and institutions, but on religion as it is transmitted through rituals and practices that are generated by its worshippers — often in defiance of sanctioned religious authorities.

I have always found this form of religion both fascinating and elusive. In Lahore, I asked the son of a family in the Old City to explain to me the significance of the lamps that his family lit every Thursday night, a common Sufi practice. Arif usually had a gift for answering such questions, but on this occasion, words failed him. "It is impossible for me to explain this to you."

Instead, he took me to visit the local shrines to various Sufi saints, on the strict condition of secrecy. "You have some rich friends — they’ll make trouble for me, if they find that I’ve taken you to these places." And so he took me to line up with the women as they lit lamps, sang, distributed sweets, and tied threads at the saint’s tomb — and afterwards, like Arif, I found the experience impossible to explain or even describe.

Dalrymple had a good shot at describing this form of religion, both in his book and in conversation. Nine Lives positions Dalrymple as the sympathetic listener, while allowing the voices of monks, nuns, "sacred prostitutes" (Devadasis), artists and performers to play the primary role.

Dalrymple also draws upon his own religious background in seeking to understand other faiths — in particular, the Sufism that I had found so elusive to grasp. He had visited Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, like those that I’d visited with Arif, and found familiar resonances.

"I was brought up a Catholic and one of the reasons I respond to Sufism is that the Catholic tradition, in many ways, would be the equivalent. We have saint shrines, we have a cult of saints — the holy waters of Lourdes is pure Sufi. This is something that I’ve grown up with. There’s a divide between my own rational analysis of saints and my pleasure at seeing faith in action, at seeing people coming for healing. I wouldn’t justify it on rational grounds, but it’s very vital."

He continued, "what I find very attractive about Sufism is that it mixes the high with the low. It’s certainly true that popular Islam as practiced in Sufi shrines includes a great deal of superstition — but the superstructure of Sufi thought contains some of the most profound religious writing — Rumi, Kabir.

"All belief systems have their popular superstitious expressions, which to me doesn’t invalidate the profundity of the philosophy at its core. And the members of the three religious communities gather together at these shrines. It’s very moving, when you see these adherents of all different faiths, praying together — it’s a form of religion that unites people, rather than divides them."

In some regards, Osama Bin Laden and Hitchens share a similar concept of God as an inflexible, authoritarian bully — the major difference is that Bin Laden thinks that He exists, while Hitchens does not. And those who adhere to a fundamentalist concept of God are at least as hostile to religious hybridity as they are to atheists. The Sufi shrines of Afghanistan and Pakistan are under attack at the moment from forces who seek to cleanse Islam of this "impure" form of religious practice.

I ask Dalrymple whether he thinks that Sufism can survive this violent attempt at repression. "I think it will survive — with the onslaught of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will be under pressure, but it’ll survive underground. My impression is that there’s just so much love for those shrines. And it’s very complex. Two years ago, I visited a little shrine devoted to three al-Qaeda jihadists who were shot by the side of the road. These guys presumably were out and out Wahabis and yet even in Pakistan there’s a little shrine to them, and the villagers have started tying threads.

"And then," he says, "I’m a firm believer in the power of the ordinary people to see off the nutcases."

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