In times of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, what we can learn from the 'zikirs', Assam's songs of unity

Saba Naqvi
Saba NaqviFeb 13, 2019 | 13:06

In times of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, what we can learn from the 'zikirs', Assam's songs of unity

I do not make any distinction between a Hindu and a Muslim,

O Allah When dead a Hindu will be cremated by fire

While a Muslim will be buried under the same earth.

-- a zikir composed by Azan fakir, a 17th-century saint of Assam.

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, recently visited Assam and spoke passionately in defence of the citizenship amendment bill mooted by his government, that essentially makes a distinction between Hindu and Muslim migrants.

In spirit, the bill, I believe, goes against the Indian Constitution.

modi-assam-copy_021219114124.jpgRecently in Assam, PM Modi spoke passionately for the citizenship amendment bill mooted by the BJP. (Photo: PTI)

It is controversial in the state of Assam where the distinction the Assamese seek is between them and Bengalis. It is on the issue of this bill that an NDA ally, the AGP, broke ranks with the BJP and walked out of the coalition.

In the course of his speech, the PM also spoke of successive regimes ignoring Bhupen Hazarika, the late legendary singer, writer and composer of Assam, for the Bharat Ratna that the BJP government now intended to bestow on him posthumously. His son, Tej Hazarika has, however, in effect snubbed the PM when, after such a speech, he came out with a statement about the “widely unpopular bill” that he said went against his father’s documented positions.

Bhupen Hazarika sang often of equality, peace and unity between religions and humanism. In that, he was reiterating an aspect of Assamese culture where cultural and linguistic links thrive between people of different faith. Years ago, I had occasion to collect material from Assam on the surviving syncretistic traditions in the state.

bhupen-copy_021219114320.jpgBhupen Hazarika sang of equality, peace and unity between communities and religions. (Photo: India Today)

I would learn that the language, dress and food habits of Assamese Hindus and Muslims were virtually identical and they celebrated common festivals like Bihu. But perhaps the most abiding symbol of Muslim-Hindu synthesis in the state that I found were the zikirs (short devotional songs) composed by a Sufi known as Azan Fakir in the Assamese language.

Here is the legend, as I recorded it: Shah Milan, who later came to be called Azan Fakir, was generally believed to have come to India from Baghdad. After stopping at Ajmer and Delhi, where he was initiated into the Chisti order, he set off for Assam.

The Sufi saint’s first stop in Assam was the tomb of Ghiasuddin Auliya in Hajo, near Guwahati. He is supposed to have spent considerable time here, mastering the Assamese language. From Hajo, he went to Gargaon, the capital of the Ahom kingdom. The Ahom king is believed to have accorded him a warm reception and gave him some land near Sibsagar, where he eventually settled down after marrying a local Ahom woman.

His mazar now stands on the confluence of two rivers in Saraguri Chapari village in Sibsagar district.

Azan Fakir composed hundreds of zikirs in Assamese, derived from the Arabic word 'ziqr' which means ‘remembering Allah’s name’. Though the main purpose of zikirs was to spread the message of Islam, what is remarkable about these compositions is that they are closely modeled on local folk songs known as 'Deh Bicarer Geet' and the devotional songs of the Vaishnav Hindus. Moreover, though Azan Fakir was a devout Muslim, he respected all religions and many of the zikirs preach a secular message.

Take the following composition, for instance:

The Quran and Puranas teach the same thing

Understand O Mahatma

That for the wise man

Different scriptures preach the same truth.

azan-pir-copy_021219114549.jpgAzan Fakir composed hundreds of zikirs in Assamese. His mazar stands on the confluence of two rivers in Sibsagar. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These lines reveal that Azan Fakir encouraged the incantation of God's name which was also the essence of the Vaishnavism preached by Sankardev, the great Bhakti reformer of Assam.

In a sense, the Islam preached by Azan Fakir was compatible with the dominant Vaishnav faith of region.

Though dancing is often considered taboo for Muslims, Azan Fakir believed that the zikirs would lose much of their rhythmic tempo and appeal if dancing were to be banned. Moreover, many of the compositions used Hindu imagery when they refer to the harp of Kailasa or to Sankardev and Madhavdev, another great Bhakti reformer. In some zikirs, later composed by others, even Azan Pir is referred to as Azan Deva Fakir.

I collected most of my information on zikirs from Syed Abdul Malik, the well-known Assamese writer, who had won both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to the language (he passed away in 2000). In 1952 Guwahati University asked Malik to do research on the saint and collect all the surviving zikirs. Malik eventually published his collection of zikirs in an Assamese book.

In his Jorhat home, Malik told me the following that I would record for my first book, In Good Faith, on India’s plural traditions: “The zikirs are perfect blend of Islamic and Hindu ideals. Just as the tunes and structure of the zikirs are based on Vaishnav Kavyas, the zikir dance is also adapted from local folk forms..”

citizen-copy_021219114921.jpgWhile the politics rages, it is important to remember Assam's tradition of love and respect for other religions. (Photo: PTI)

If Azan Fakir had based his zikirs on Vaishnav songs, Abdul Malik had gone a step further and written an entire book on the life of Sankardev, a bestseller that sold thousands of copies and is kept in many nam-ghars, the main centres of Vaishnav worship. “This is the tradition of Assam. Here, I, a Muslim has written a major work on the most important Hindu saint, Sankardev. Similarly, some of the earliest books in Assamese on the life of Prophet Mohammad have been written by Hindus,” Malik would say.

The first book on Prophet Mohammad here was indeed written by well-known Assamese writer Mahadeb Sharma. Another early work on the Prophet was written by a politician: no less than Gopinath Bordoloi, a legendary chief minister of Assam. Writer Tarun Phukan was the first to translate the fateha of the Quran into Assamese verse. Similarly one of the best known short stories in Assam titled Shiraz, written by Lakshmi Dhar Sharma, tells the tale of a Muslim who married a Hindu widow and allowed her to continue practicing her faith.

In the midst of its many troubles, this is also the tradition that Assam inherits.

Yes, there are problems on the Bengali migrant issue that has often taken on a violent dimension and now pose a legal and constitutional challenge to the foundational ideas of the Indian Republic.

But there are powerful voices for unity that still make sure they are heard in Assam, as Bhupen Hazarika always will be. These are the lovely melodies of the Brahmaputra.


Last updated: February 13, 2019 | 17:31
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