Facing Skepticism, Interfaith Prevails
Expect Miracles in Ajmer
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. – Mahatma Gandhi
Expect to find miracles in Ajmer.
Ajmer, in India, is the city most sacred to Sufi mystics in South Asia.
In the heart of the city sits a sprawling central mosque and the burial site, Dargah, of the revered Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishty – responsible for bringing Sufism to this part of the world hundreds of years ago. One of the branches that grew out of his lineage – probably most familiar to Americans – includes Hazrat Inayat Khan, the great Indian Sufi master and musician, his son Pir Vlayat Khan, and his grandson, Pir Zia, currently the head of the Inayati Sufi Order in the U.S.
The fifth largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan, with a population of about 100,000, Ajmer is nestled between two well-known cities: Pushkar, site of the largest annual camel festival in the world and home to the only Brahma Temple in India; and to the north, Jaipur, one of the most dynamic cities of Rajasthan, known for its military conquests and its refined culture of art and music. Once a prominent maharajah named Jai Singh, a true romantic, instructed his artisans to design a bedroom with 10,000 mirrors to capture and reproduce the light of one candle 10,000 times.
By contrast, Ajmer is a city of great religious devotion, home primarily to Muslims and Hindus, with a small Christian population as well. You can immediately detect a visual difference between Ajmer and the rest of India. Most of the men here wear knitted white skullcaps and long galabiyas (loose shirts that reach the knee). The Muslim women are dressed in colorful saris like their Hindu sisters, but they tend to keep their hair and faces covered more frequently. You can also spot a significant number of women dressed in a full black Abaya, with only a thin slit revealing their eyes.
Against the Odds
Ajmer is also the home of the Sufi Saint Secondary School for children ages 4-15, founded by the Sufi Sheikh Hazrat Inam Hasan Gudri Shah Baba the fifth. His name goes before him, revealing his distinguished lineage, but in person he is humble and understated.
In the early 1990s, perturbed by the rise in violence in India between the Hindu and Muslim communities capturing headlines round the world at the time, the Sheikh was moved to create a school in Ajmer that would provide an education for impoverished children and simultaneously inculcate them with the values of Sufism, which stress unity, brotherhood, and love. He donated a piece of family land on which the school was built and where it still stands today.
- To establish universal brotherhood
- To act as a forum for all mystics of the world, belonging as they do, to different countries and religions
- To observe standards of morality and ethics in everyday life
- To create a fellowship of the world, irrespective of religion and nationality
- To insist on love, truth and harmony
- To diffuse mystic knowledge and impart mystical training and culture
At the outset, conservative Hindus and Muslims vigorously opposed the idea of his school. They laughed at him and thought it was a joke, he recalled. “Even my own mother thought I was mad. She predicted that no one would show up.”
But the Sheikh could not be dissuaded from his purpose, however far-fetched it seemed. To everyone’s surprise – except his, perhaps – some 40 students showed up on the first day. More than 25 years later, they enjoy a student body of about 400, with 25-30 per class and 18 teachers. The skeptics slowly started to come around, and the school was officially recognized by the government in 1993.
When asked how many students have passed through their doors, the answer always is “many, many, too many to count.” Unlike the Western tendency to keep careful statistics and fixate on the economic “bottom line,” at the Sufi Saint Secondary School the ‘bottom line’ relates to character development, helping children become confident about themselves, and teaching the value of service to community.
They proudly point to the fact that many of their students have gone on to become lawyers and professors. Abdul Rashid, 22, for example, is from a family of Muslim farmers outside of Ajmer. He attended the Sufi school for four years and recently completed Government College with a BA in history, political science and the study of Urdu, one of the many languages that is spoken in India and the prime language of Pakistan.
Artfully Interfaith Education
The school’s curriculum follows standard government educational requirements, including the teaching of Hindi and Sanskrit. The first year is free to poor children. But more recently, attracted by the quality of education and the positive Sufi message, affluent parents also wanted to send their children there, so the school began to charge tuition for those who can afford it. They also receive contributions from their many Sufi supporters around the world, from Germany, Holland, England, Lithuania, and the U.S. The school eschews all financial support from the Indian government, the Sheikh emphasized, because of potential corruption that has been known to plague government-supported projects. That was one minefield he never wants to enter.
Although Ajmer is home primarily to Muslims, and the school’s founder is a Sufi, Islam is not formally taught in their classes. Instead they teach the children to be close to their own religion, whatever that might be. Their extra-curricular activities favor the arts: dance, music, drama, and painting. Once a year they put on an elaborate Festival for World Peace to highlight the “Sufi philosophy of love, harmony, universal peace, and brotherhood irrespective of caste, creed, color, religion, or gender.” The older students perform songs and dances illustrating the country’s colorful history, culture, religious diversity, and the transcendent value of interfaith harmony.
Among last year’s special guest performers were members of the Yuval Ron Interfaith Ensemble from California, an internationally known and much loved group of musicians and singers representing many nationalities and cultures. Israeli-born Yuval and Sajida Ben Tzur, a Sufi from Ajmer, organized a special tour to highlight the unique music and dance of Rajasthan, including Qawwali (Sufi devotional music of South East Asia), gypsy rhythms, Rajasthani folk music and classical Indian music. The 40 tour participants were also invited to attend a musical performance at the Sufi Saint School in Ajmer, a rare opportunity to witness interfaith education in action. Dressed in elaborate, colorful regional costumes, the students paid tribute equally to Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism.
In the audience, in addition to the parents of the performers and the younger students, multiple local dignitaries arrived to give speeches and lavishly praise the work of the school and its visionary founder. It was clearly a satisfying day for Sheikh Hazrat Inam Hasan Gudri Shah Baba the fifth, but he is not one to rest on his laurels.
“My dream is not complete,” he confessed. “I want to be able to establish similar schools devoted to interfaith harmony all around the world.”
Another crazy idea perhaps, but this time no one is laughing.
Header Photo: Festival for World Peace 2016 at Sufi Saint Secondary School in Ajmer – Photo: Debra Jan Bibel