In an interview with BIJURAJ, South African poet and
activist Shabbir Banoobhai on religion, writing and freedom
poems seem deeply rooted in Sufism...
Most people who read
my work make the same observation about it that you have just made. Therefore
there must be some truth in it. Personally I never consider my writing
as being rooted in Sufism, though in some way it might be. The reason
for my reluctance to do so is that I do not consider myself worthy of
being considered in the same company as those who have true closeness
to the divine. My own love for the divine is still weak and fallible.
I see myself simply as a very fortunate human being with a gift for understanding
the spiritual, but my own spiritual development has far to go!
writing has a soft touch. You are a writer who speaks to the heart, with
the heart. Is this an influence of your religious outlook?
I suppose since
the over-riding theme of my writing is love (the essence of every spiritual
belief), it is understandable that you would make such a comment. I once
wrote that the journey of love is a “journey of the heart, in the
heart, from the heart to the heart”. My formal religious belief
is Islamic – I am a Muslim – and I try to be a good one –
but my understanding, not only of Islam but of all religions, is that
their source is one and their goal is the same - to help us see the divine
everywhere (both within and outside us); to love the divine always; to
be compassionate towards all; and to serve all of creation - men, women,
children, animals and trees.
Can a writer
change social thinking? Or have the ability to lead social change towards
God and Love. Where would you want society to move in this respect?
I have already
commented on the place of love and the divine in my life and in my writing.
A writer can certainly cause social change. How effectively depends on
the visibility his or her writing is given. Initially when this visibility
is low the impact the writer makes is generally limited to a small circle
of readers. But given time (and the building of a critical mass of writing)
it is possible to influence many people, especially in this technological
age. This is the reason why so many writers have their own websites. You
have, I know, seen my own website: www.veilsoflight.com
As for where I would like to
see society moving, I would like to see greater understanding amongst
communities and nations. But this can only happen if there is meaningful
communication based on respect for one another; so it is essential that
we make the effort to know others and their deepest values and furthermore
have the humility to learn from the values and wisdom of others.
You are a
Sufi-like poet. But Sufism has faced attacks from some quarters among
Muslims themselves from very ancient times, including from the Mughal
King Aurangazeb. Do you think Sufism can bring people together? How would
you respond to its attackers?
I think all ethical
behaviour is good. Having a deep and profound understanding of who we
essentially are, and why we are on this earth, is good. Translating that
understanding into compassion (into active transformational love), is
good. Being good, without even totally understanding why it is good to
be good, is good. But understanding why (it is good to be good) is better,
as it can help us to sustain our goodness when we are tested (in a crisis).
The name (‘Sufism’,
or any other) we use to identify this process of inner transformation
is immaterial. What matters is the outcome of the transformation –
does it make us truly enlightened, more caring, non violent, more respectful
of others, able to resolve differences peacefully (as well as able to
see the blessings in some of our differences) – this is what would
make Sufism or any other spiritual practice good – not its name.
If a spiritual practice
leads to an inner transformation, to an inner goodness, that itself is
good; but if it helps us to lead a life of active caring for others, that
is better. If it does neither, then our practice is deficient. If our
practice is deficient we should become critical of it ourselves, before
others criticise us! If our practice leads us to both inner and outer
goodness, to active caring, we should not worry about who is criticising
us, even if that person is the most powerful person in the world.
seems to be the defining quality of the present age. Taslima Nasreen and
MF Hussein, amongst others, are facing attacks by ‘fundamentalists’.
What do you say about this kind of intolerance?
Very often, the adherents
of a religious community are faced with the challenge of having to respond
to those who they believe (rightly or wrongly) are denigrating their culture,
or beliefs, or revered books and personalities. Sometimes the criticism
is indeed simply malicious, or vindictive. At other times it is the result
of ignorance, or the result of some genuine misunderstanding of another’s
beliefs. Sometimes, some perceived criticism is simply the expression
of a scholarly difference, with no malice intended. Often, it reveals
cultural differences – where, in some cultures, there is nothing
truly sacred - (in the sense that a believer in another culture might
understand the sacred) – where the right to ridicule the sacred
itself (perhaps) is sacred.
When responding (particularly to a deliberate, provocative, or malicious
insult, or act of defamation) we should bear in mind that we cannot protect
a loved one’s honour by becoming dishonourable in the process of
protecting the loved one’s honour; and cannot become undignified
in the process of protecting the dignity of our faith! Any response that
is violent or designed to hurt another is therefore simply unacceptable.
What is your
attitude towards poetry? How much can you expose of yourself in it? What
is writing for you?
I love poetry because
it is such a wonderful combination of art and music. In any art that expresses
deep truths, the writer often bares his own intimate self to others. In
such instances the language the writer uses itself reflects the state
of his or her soul. This may, indeed, apply not only to writers but to
all of us. There is always risk associated with every kind of communication
but writers (knowingly or unknowingly) often both reveal and conceal simultaneously
– the deepest and most sensitive things are effectively only revealed
to the most sensitive reader – this itself affords the writer some
protection as the sensitive reader has a spiritual kinship with the writer
– while the less sensitive reader effectively only accesses that
part of what the writer is saying that the writer is comfortable sharing
with someone with such sensitivity.
in college you were a revolutionary. What were your political beliefs?
Have you changed your political views later on?
My political beliefs
mirror my spiritual beliefs. I believe that we are all essentially divine.
I believe therefore that we should not discriminate against people because
of their race, religion or gender. I believe moreover that we have a duty
to be compassionate towards every living creature and a duty to take care
of others. I believe that God has given us the earth to live on as a trust
that we have to respect and protect; and the earth’s resources are
not to be abused or used selfishly. My political beliefs have not changed
over the years because these spiritual beliefs have never wavered.
Africa was notoriously racist. What is the current situation there? Does
racism still exist? How much 'Black Consciousness' is there now?
is no longer promoted legally – and consequently racism has decreased
considerably since we gained our freedom in the first democratic elections
of 1994. However racism has not been completely eradicated. This will
take at least a generation as the older generation still lapses into racist
practices from time to time. However we in South Africa are very fortunate
as we have been dealing with our differences for centuries and there is
a strong desire for the new South Africa to succeed; and there is great
pride in South Africa’s new constitution which protects individual
and group rights better than do many countries in the Western world.
The black consciousness
movement arose during the era of apartheid when it was necessary to uplift
the spirit of, and offer hope to, Black people who were almost regarded
as non-people in many ways. The Black consciousness movement (and especially
its most charismatic leader Steve Biko, who was ultimately murdered by
the security police of the apartheid era, made Black people proud of their
blackness and mobilised Black people to rise against the apartheid regime.
Of course all South Africans are now equal before the law so Black Consciousness
is not needed as a mass movement any longer. The pride of all South Africans
now mostly comes from being South African and no longer from being black,
white or brown.
power in South Africa is being seen as rotten as its predecessor. For
example there have been many allegations against Winnie Mandela and other
rulers. How do you react to this?
Abuse of power is
inevitable wherever people exercise power. But this abuse is presently
concentrated around specific individuals (sometimes well-known and in
high places!) but it is nothing like the systematic abuse of power practised
by the apartheid state and backed by its military might. Of course all
abuse has to be exposed ad stopped.
South African literature? What are the new trends? How do you compare
South African literature to international literature?
literature is currently flourishing at every level; both old and new writers
are writing new stories; many of the new black writers are telling the
stories of their lives and the history of their communities. And most
other writers are also finding something new to say. Some writers are
still searching for something as powerful to write about as apartheid
- the system that has just been dismantled; some of the new writing celebrates
our new freedom, some of the new writing is critical of the new elite
for forgetting the less fortunate too soon. A South African writer J.M.
Coetzee recently won the Nobel Prize for literature so South African writing
is taking its rightful place internationally.
have been many attacks against and a great deal of criticism towards Islam.
What do you have to say about religious fundamentalism? Is that also happening
in South Africa? How do people react to this?
whether espoused by Muslims, or by any other person of any other faith
is ultimately destructive – not only does it adversely affect the
image of that religion but unfortunately taints its adherents as a whole;
and yet these adherents on the whole may be as good as (or better than)
than their counterparts belonging to other faiths. Negative publicity
is understandable if anyone commits an atrocity in the name of his or
her religion; but not understandable where the publicity is relentlessly
negative towards an entire community based on the misguided actions of
a few of its adherents. When this happens it calls into question the bona
fide nature of the criticism.
in South Africa do not have to contend the same kind of negative perceptions
of Muslims or Islam affecting Muslims in mainly Western countries. South
African Muslims, like people of all faiths, contributed to the downfall
of apartheid. People of faiths are treated equally before the law. South
African are relatively well educated and this lessens emotional responses
to problems relating to religious differences. Within the Muslim community
there are many strong activists who respond strongly but peacefully to
unfair criticism. South African society has learnt to encourage and protect
the right of all its members to protest peacefully against unfairness
and injustice. South Africans have been living with their differences
for hundreds of years unlike the citizens of European countries facing
waves of new immigrants they have not learnt to relate to; so South Africans
no longer feel threatened by some of the minor issues that trouble the
West – such as schoolgirls wearing Hijab or scarves!
We hear that
an anti-imperialist struggle is emerging in different parts of South Africa.
Is this correct? What is the position of mass struggle?
African activists are starting to intensify the struggle against imperialism,
global exploitation, and AIDS. It is interesting to note that even the
South African government supports a number of causes that Western countries
and many white South Africans still find difficulty accepting –
such as support for the Palestinians - though many Muslims feel the South
African government is still not doing enough. However South Africa’s
quiet diplomacy regarding Zimbabwe is causing concern to many people who
feel South Africa should be taking a tougher stance against Robert Mugabe’s
government. The public activism cannot yet, though, be regarded as mass
struggle in the same way as the mass struggle that developed against apartheid.
your family hails from Gujarat, you are probably aware of the happenings
in Gujarat. How do you react to the violence, destruction and massacre?
What happened in
Gujurat was a great tragedy; as was the bombing of commuter trains in
Mumbai. To avoid this in future there is much that needs to be done:
– by religious leaders,
who should promote the highest ethical behaviour in all their constituents
towards every living thing, not just towards those who have different
beliefs - a behaviour that does justice to the Divine essence in all of
– by politicians, who
should be vigorously restrained from using communal and religious differences
to achieve narrow political goals – goals that are short-sighted,
divisive, and (often) essentially immoral;
– by the legislature, ensuring that the historic injustices of the
past towards minorities are pro-actively, consciously, and conscientiously
reversed at every level – social, economic, political and educational;
– by an education that
not only focuses on teaching us how to achieve material prosperity but
how to become refined and compassionate human beings, caring for others,
honouring those of other faiths, and protecting the weak or the helpless:
especially women and children, the newly born, and the not-yet-born.
How much has
Indian culture influenced you?
I am also proud of
my Indian heritage. Our broader family’s culture is still very Indian
in many ways. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the language we speak
to our elders are all strongly influenced by our Indian heritage. We keep
in touch with events in India by reading and following the news. Naturally
we listen to Indian music and watch Indian movies, which have a strong
following in South Africa!
your feelings when you were here? Have you any plan to visit India again?
I have visited India
only once, in 1980. I loved it. At that time my uncle (my father’s
brother) was still alive. He has since passed away. But I would like to
visit his family again. When my wife and I were in Delhi on our last visit,
one of our abiding memories was meeting India’s Prime Minister,
Mrs Indira Gandhi. I had just had my first book published and decided
I would like to present her with a copy. She was not in her office so
we were directed to her home. When I explained to her staff who we were
and what I wanted to do (present her with a copy of my book) they went
to ask her if she would meet us and she did! So my book gained me a meeting
with India’s Prime Minister. I think it is almost impossible, considering
the security-conscious world we are living in today, that something like
this can ever happen again!