Kabir Edmund Helminski is the director of the Threshold Society and has been working within the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism for about thirty years. Kabir who has translated many volumes of Sufi literature, including numerous works of Rumi, and is the author of two books, Sufism: Living Presence and A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self was present at the World Sufi Forum and spoke to Firstpost about his journey from being a Catholic to a follower of Sufism and Islam.
In popular discourse there are so many distortions regarding Islam. This, to an extent, is because of the violent acts of extremism and terrorism attributed to it. How can this be corrected?
It is finally a time to raise a banner of Sufism for people to see and for Sufis to learn how to communicate better about what their values are. There is also an urgent need for us to address the distortions of Islam that have come through the actions of extremists, who are often manipulated for political purposes and are often proxies — ignorant and motivated by their rage. They are victims too and they do not understand Islam. They have received one-dimensional and misinterpreted views of Islam. There are many such ideas. If you look at what Salafis have to say. They have lot of external details, but in terms of anything for the spiritual life of humanity, they have very little to offer.
Sufism, on the other hand, has such a rich treasury of wisdom and it is so diverse. But at the same time, it is so unified and coherent. At centre of all the great Sufi writers' conscience there is something very divine because Islam itself, if properly understood, has a very harmonious message.
When I meet Sufis from India, Bosnia, Malaysia, and Russia or in California, we meet on the same page. I don’t need an external authority to control our thoughts and beliefs. There is a very natural unity because of a very deep coherence and this is beautiful. You can find universal brotherhood.
Many Muslims today surprise me as they are reaching out to different communities and faiths, and welcoming them. This is the original Islam. Because originally, Islam was a radical inter-faith movement and people do not know this as they do not know the history. In the beginning, Islam spread like wildfire in its first 100 years.
It spread to most unknown parts of the world from Europe to Asia, because it integrated in itself Christian sects, Judaism and Zoroastrian sects, and said that if you believe in the divine, if you want to live a just life and you are not going to be subject to untamed passion and religious privileges, then you are one of us. It was an inclusive inter-faith movement. We can get back to that now and say that we are one as a humanity. The diversity in culture and religion is part of the divine plan. This is Quranic.
God's plan is not to have monopoly on truth. Muslims understand this today.
There is so much in Islam that can attract people to live a life of compassion and love, and still, the youth drift towards organisations like the Islamic State (IS). Why is it happening? How can it be stopped?
It is a tiny population in a world where civil society is destroyed; where children are growing without traditional Islamic values and beautiful traditions of Islamic culture. They have become nihilistic. There is a similar phenomenon in Central America today, I expect it has no religious justification. You think IS is about Islam? No. It was rather consciously modelled on a secret communist police structure and then has an overall Islamic link. So it is nihilistic and is totally opposed to Islam.
It has just the packaging of Islam and people mistake packaging for essence.
Most of the religions have customs that perpetuate gender discrimination; one among them being disallowing women form certain places of worship. Dargahs are places where people from all faiths are allowed. But at some places, they too restrict the entry of women. Why does Sufism — that is so accommodating — allow this?
This is a cultural phenomenon and not intrinsic to Islam. There is nothing in Islam that supports it. It is a cultural phenomenon particularly in South Asia and the Arab world, but in other places, it is not quite like this. There is a certain kind of Islam that is spreading — the fundamentalist Islam that is puritanical and misogynistic that has spread with the wealth of the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. But it is not intrinsic to Islam and one day we will get rid of this.
Please tell us about your journey through Sufism and Islam.
Well, I was a seeker, born as a Catholic, experimented with Buddhism but eventually found Sufism as a beautifully integrated spirituality in which you live a practical useful life and at the same time, you are like a monk in everyday life as you are remembering your God. It is such a beautiful way of integrating the highest spiritual consciousness with a practical life. So it is a very experiential path that does not need much belief: You just live it and I feel westerners are very open and receptive to it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi Spoke about Islam and Sufism at length at the inaugural function. To what extent do you agree with the points he made?
The points he made were beautiful, clear and very positive, and it gave me a lot of hope — not just for the India, but for the whole world. It is heartening to see that a leader of his magnitude was able to speak all these spiritual truths publicly and give this message to the Muslim community and the Sufi community. This was a historic event in the history of Sufism.
It was remarkable.