A SCENT OF WISDOM. Moin Mir is a London based writer of Indian origin. His work is influenced by his grandfather, who was a scholar of Sufism. Moin Mir’s most recent book The Lost Fragrance of Infinity is an inspirational story about the rebuilding of a young man’s life, conveyed through Sufi metaphor and symbolism.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Moin Mir, I understand that you are an obsessive traveler. Why?
I experience a sense that I would never experience just being closeted at home. Getting myself out there, putting myself in the footsteps of some of the finest philosophers, poets, writers and artists, invigorates and injects a sense of curiosity that I get only when I’m on the road.
Where do you travel?
My wife organizes our travel. We go all over India, to interior parts which usually many people don’t really go to, for example the villages in Gujarat which have been a point of great inspiration for me. We travel extensively within Europe, and spend a lot of time in Puglia and in Rome, and in the countryside in England. We travel extensively in Egypt and in the interiors of Anatolia too.
Where have you been unable to go?
I would have loved to have gone to Iran and Afghanistan, but unfortunately the political situation is such that one cannot. We trace our ancestry to a very small village called Chisht, on the borderlands of Iran and Afghanistan. Chisht now finds itself in Herat, and Herat is now in Afghanistan. 350 years ago Herat was the pride of Iran.
You write in English and speak Urdu and Persian fluently, yet you are Indian?
We’ve been in India for a couple of hundred years. My grandfather spoke Farsi and Urdu. Urdu emerged in the 18th century as a language of court in the twilight of the Mughal Empire. It reflected this fantastic mosaic that was India, because Urdu is 60% Farsi, 20% Arabic and another 20% Hindi. Many people don’t realise that Persian was the official language of India till 1857, not very long ago, and as a court language Urdu was not only for Muslims. Some exquisite mystical poetry as well as prose in Urdu is from Hindus. Munshi Premchand is a shining example, and Gopi Chand more recently. Urdu was amply spoken in undivided India.
Were you ever tempted to write in one of the other languages?
Very much so, but the British colonial heritage of writing in English has left its indelible mark on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. I hasten to add that there are some fantastic writers who continue to write in Urdu, Persian and Hindi. In fact, the work that is coming out from these languages is brilliant. I happened to go to an English school in Mumbai, and then happened to come to England and study, but there is literature that is coming out in these native languages. You won’t get to read them because they don’t get translated that often into English, French or Italian.
Aside from English, what other languages are spoken today?
India has close to 100 languages. Every state has its own language. Maharashtra has Marathi. Gujarat has Gujarati. It’s a melting pot.
Where are you from?
I was born in Delhi and brought up in Mumbai. I came to study communications and writing in England in 1996 and then I stayed, but every year my wife and I go back to India. My parents are still there, and my two daughters – although now they’re embarking on their own careers.
“I’m looking at the concept of The One and Unity, and how it brings about the best or the worst in mankind.”
Moin Mir, you are published in India and in the UK and your second book Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince: Defeat of the East India Company in the House of Commons was a critically acclaimed work of non-fiction, but recently you published a novel called The Lost Fragrance of Infinity. What is the difference for you between writing fiction and non-fiction?
I co-authored my first book with my father; we translated into English the prose of Mirza Ghalib, Mughal Delhi’s greatest 19th century philosopher poet. My second book was about the rise of the British East India Company in Western India and the story of an Indian prince who takes them on in the House of Commons. I always believed that I would be a non-fiction writer, but I was consumed to write something about Sufism and realised that if I wrote a non-fiction book on Sufism it would be confined only to someone who was interested in a form of philosophy and who would pick it up only when he or she had to do research. I wanted it to be a story that could, through the lens of a particular human being, show the philosophy of Sufism, and as I worked with my publishers on this concept the one thing that they came back to me with, time and time again, was you have to address this as a novel. Initially there was a lot of resistance from my part, but eventually I realised that a novel would be the best approach.
Sufism is a word that many people are aware of, but probably not many people know what it means to be a Sufi. Can you explain what Sufism means for you, and why you wanted to write about it in a novel?
It is a word which takes a fair bit of understanding. I still am learning more about it. I still read and I still try and understand it. The word Sufi is also used rather loosely. It irked me, if I may say so, that one of the finest Sufi philosophers and poets, Jalaluddin Rumi, is seen in America as some hippy poet and he’s become a part of pop culture, whereas Rumi was a far deeper thinker. He was a deeply philosophical man. It was so irksome to me that I flung myself into studying and restudying the works of my grandfather, to really understand the philosophy of Sufism. Sufism is the mystical side of Islam. It is about understanding what is creation, the oneness of this creator, and how you are part of that one creator through an inward perspective, an inward esoteric journey. That would obviously then manifest itself into various different forms, where man starts understanding his relationship to science, his relationship to mathematics, which Omar Khayyam did so brilliantly. That brought about a sense of curiosity: to know the unseen, to know the super creative force that has put all of these things in the world.
How do you write such things into a novel?
I decided to create a character immersed in the craftsmanship of tile making, a trade you can see all the way from the Alhambra in Andalusia. You see it in Istanbul, in Izmir, in Samarkand and in Delhi. The geometric perfection of those Islamic tiles is absolutely fantastic.
What has this to do with Sufi?
A lot of these craftsmen were inspired by Sufi philosophical thought, and a large number of the khanqahs of the Sufis, places of spiritual retreat, were the places where these tiles were made. The Chishti order and the order of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi in Konya have tile makers still making these fantastic tiles. When I was in Bursa, a small town in Anatolia which used to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire, I had the most extraordinary experience. I walked into the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami), which is by far the finest example of geometric tile work, and I see this man sitting outside and get talking to him. He happens to be a practicing Sufi and he tells me to look at these geometric tiles and asks me what do you see? And I said, I see a square, a triangle, a hexagon, all beautifully crafted. And he says, no, look deeper. And I didn’t have an answer. And he said, look, these are the different shapes of mankind. This is a different race. This is a different creed. This is the different races of mankind all coming together, and right in the middle is the star of enlightenment. So, if we interlock as mankind together, we will be an enlightened lot. That just completely blew me away, because if you see the pattern of these geometric tiles, the star in the middle and all the geometric patterns around it, they repeat this design time and time and again, so it becomes the pattern of infinity; or the design of infinity; or the tiles of infinity.
Is this a religious practice?
No, it’s an art. A practicing Sufi is someone who is devoted to God, a theologian who understands the philosophy of the likes of Ibn Arabi and Rumi and Nizamuddin Auliya, and puts that into practice in terms of worship. From there emerges the curiosity towards science, towards art and architecture, and this particular tile craft is a manifestation of that.
“Look, these are the different shapes of mankind.”
Moin Mir, are you a Sufi?
I’m not. My grandfather was a practicing Sufi but it takes a lot of discipline to become a Sufi and I’m, by far, nowhere close. I’m just very deeply influenced by it because I’ve seen it influence my life as a child. It is about man and God. It is about your relationship with yourself. And it’s about how you can better yourself under the banner of being a thoughtful Muslim.
Does a Sufi pray in the mosque and read the Koran?
Absolutely. With regards to Rumi, his actual title is Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi. He was a Mawlana – a practicing Muslim, a preacher if I can use that word. What made him different, and what makes the Sufis different, is that they are an exceptionally curious lot, driven to innovation by the joy of experiencing beauty, through curiosity and being creative.
What happens to the character who makes these exceptional tiles in your book, The Lost Fragrance of Infinity?
The book starts with his life in Delhi in 1739 at the twilight of three fading empires. The Mughal Empire is sinking in India, the Safavids in Persia have already declined dramatically, and the Ottomans have lost Belgrade and Budapest and they’re retreating. These three ginormous empires that spanned from Belgrade to Bengal are diminishing in luster, and so the protagonist finds himself in Delhi where he’s influenced by an enormous amount of Sufi poets that actually existed in Delhi in 1739. When an empire sinks, that’s when the cultural effervescence stands out, and that’s what’s happening in Delhi in 1739. Then Nader Shah, the king of Persia, invades his peaceful life and shatters it, and I use that invasion and the massacre of Delhi, where 30,000 people were put to the sword by Nader Shah, as a metaphor for him to go within and rebuild his life through travel. He flees Delhi equipped with this skill of tile making that a Sufi teaches him, and makes his way into Samarkand and from there he finds himself in Andalusia.
You are working on two new non-fiction books. Please tell me something about these new projects or they are secrets?
Both of them are secretive between me and the publisher, but I can let you into one of them. There was a fabulous Roman philosopher with an Egyptian and Greek heritage whose name was Plotinus. He lived in Rome in the 3rd century and his greatest desire was to visit India and study Indian philosophy. He attached himself to the Roman army and the Emperor whose idea was to defeat Persia, so that then he could make his way to India. Unfortunately he has to retreat, but he is so deeply influenced by Aristotle and Plato that he pens a book called The Enneads. I’m writing a travel book and I’m travelling in his footsteps through Egypt, Greece and Rome, and I hope to fulfil his dream of taking him to India. Through this journey, I hope to show the beauty of his writing.
How will you do that?
The most important thing is to read his work, and it is absolutely fantastic. What he wrote is by far one of the most astonishing pieces of philosophical work that I have read till now. Basically Neoplatonism is because of Plotinus. He’s taken Plato and he’s refined his thought to such an extent that it is readable and relatable. So, it’s reading his work and then travelling in his footsteps, and understanding his work in terms of art and architecture, and understanding his basic concept, which is that there is only one creator and it is called The One. I’m looking at the concept of The One and Unity, and how it brings about the best or the worst in mankind.
This concept of The One is the basis of the monotheistic thinking of the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims. Was this rarer at the time of the Romans?
Yes, Plotinus doesn’t claim to be Christian but his writing of The One is so compelling, and when you juxtapose it against the times that he was living in you can see how Rome eventually becomes Christian, because he has this fertile mind and it’s all been cross-pollinated in his mind. The more he’s reading the more he’s understanding, and I’m sure Christian thought has penetrated his mind at that time.
When you talked before about Sufism and said one of the aspects was mathematics or geometry isn’t that also true of Pythagoras and the Greek philosophers?
Ibn Arabi, who is considered the Greatest Sheikh (Doctor Maximus) – and who is head and shoulders above basically any Sufi – was deeply influenced by Aristotle and Plato. Greek philosophy has influenced the Sufis enormously, and the Greeks’ foray into mathematics and science inspired them to push the limits even further.
Is your work a metaphor of the events of today, using the past in order to help us think about what we’re going through now?
Anyone who pulls back and looks at what’s happening, it’s absolutely catastrophic the way mankind is plunged in despair and violence, but at the same time I look at the concept of Unity and the concept of The One that has come down from generations. Whether it was Abraham or Moses or Aristotle or Plato or Christ or Mohammed, I try and look at them as philosophers rather than people who brought in religion. If you look at them purely from a philosophical point of view, the message that they brought was pretty much the same about The Oneness. A lot of despair remains, but at the same time there is a fair bit of hope and I’d like to elaborate a little bit on this. So: I put on my television set and hear the most jarring voice of Vladimir Putin saying Ukrainians and the Russians are one people; and in the name of that oneness or that one unity or that one identity for humanness, if you wish, he unleashes hell, devastation, war. On the other hand: a year ago I’m sitting in front of my television set and I put on CNN and there is a fantastic voice that crackles through. It’s the spaceship landing on Mars, and the voice that is crackling through, giving the signal to a machine that is millions of miles away to land on another planet named after a Roman God, is a woman with an Indian accent. As the camera turns and you look at the NASA headquarters you see an Indian scientist, a Chinese scientist, a French scientist, an American scientist and a British scientist, at the head of Project Mars, landing a machine there which is going to begin its journey on another heavenly body. That’s an example of mankind coming together as One, and excelling with such degree that it can dazzle your mind.
The geometric tile and woodwork which can be seen all the way from Alhambra in Spain – this example is in Cordoba – to Delhi was a craft that many Sufi khanqahs encouraged. The different shapes represent the diversity of mankind, all interlocking and coming together in quest for enlightenment which is represented by the star.
Geometric tilework in the Alhambra, Spain
Geometric tilework in the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, Turkey
Geometric tilework in the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, Turkey
Geometric tilework in the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, Turkey
Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya, Turkey
“We need literature festivals literally in every town in India, to get that kind of influence that writers have.”
Moin Mir, India is a very old world, but many of the most extraordinarily sophisticated engineers in technology or medical doctors are Indians. Can you explain that?
It would be a miracle. It’s almost impossible to explain India. It’s a country that bedazzles one with such splendor, that gave the world the Upanishads, one of the greatest philosophies that came out nearly 3000 B.C.. When Dara Shikoh, the Mughal Crown Prince of India who was a Sufi, read the Upanishads he said this is a philosophy that every human being should read. That is how ancient India is, in its grand sweep of history which dates back nearly 7000 years, and it’s a living, breathing civilisation. The layer upon layer upon layer of history is just unimaginable. You see the beauty of Hinduism, the beauty of Buddhism, the beauty of Islam, the beauty of Christianity in Goa. India’s taken it all within its realm and come out with such beauty.
Many writers in the English language are from South Asia and their work has become part of English literature?
Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi writers are putting across literature which is not just rich in terms of thought, but also in terms of sharing. Through our written work or through some of our brilliant filmmakers we are able to share a culture and bring not just a bit of exotic East but a sense of this is who we are, this is what we think. This is what we have thought in the past. This is what we are thinking now. That encourages cross-pollination of thought in Western societies, where you have Sadiq Khan as a mayor of London and the politician Sajid Javid with origins in Pakistan, Rishi Sunak and all of that. This is happening because the West is also reading us, understanding us, thinking about us, because of our literature, our poetry, our painting. We are coming in quite boldly.
How do you feel about this constant threat of terrorism that comes into Europe and America?
It’s appalling, a great tragedy. It brings me to a point of despair, because when you see the beauty of Sufism, when you experience and immerse yourself in that beauty, when you read the works of a great Sufi who said treat Christians like angels, when you read Rumi’s poetry, when you read the fact that when he died the people to lead his funeral were Greek Orthodox Christians, when they asked a Jew who was carrying Rumi’s body for burial and the Islamic rites were being read, what do you have to do with this man and he said, this man was bread and I was hungry, have you ever seen a man run away from bread? It’s tragic what’s happening in our world. It drives me to despair.
Are writers, even today, somehow listened to, of some influence?
The influence of writers in India is seeing a new life. I visit India every year for a couple of weeks and there is a resurgence to read good quality literature, particularly in non-fiction. The emergence of some very interesting publishing houses is giving encouragement to young writers and scholars to not be afraid to put the manuscripts out. Also of great importance are some really good quality literature festivals that are coming up in India. Jaipur Literature Festival is one of the largest literature festivals in the world. In Kolkata there is a literature festival which is brilliant. Those literature festivals are becoming the media vehicles for writers to get out there, to put their word out there, to get youngsters into a festival, to engage with writers. We need literature festivals literally in every town in India, to get that kind of influence that writers have. A lot more work needs to be done.
What is the role of a writer?
The writer mirrors his times. He has to show what is happening in his times and he has to be that mirror, and he has to leave the reader with a soulful question at the end that strikes so deep that you shatter every possible wall of hatred. I hope to bring people together, and that at the end of reading my book a reader puts it down and goes within and questions himself, or questions even day to day politics, and really tries to understand as to why hatred prevails over good time and time again, and questions his actions on a day to day basis.
Perhaps that has happened since the very beginning of the world?
When I was writing my proposal for my upcoming book, I was sitting in the London Library and just looking out the window. I had finished the first draft and was doing nothing and there was a Scientific American magazine in front of me and I flipped through the pages and saw this image called the Pale Blue Dot. We sent out the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s and a great astronomer called Carl Sagan was at the forefront of that mission. As the Voyager was leaving the solar system he commanded it to turn around and take a final last picture of the earth as it left. It shook me, that picture. We are nothing. Nothing but a pale blue dot. Google it. That photograph is something that every human being should frame and keep in his house and see every morning.
Why did you devote your life to being a writer?
To understand. Actually not to understand, because Plotinus says unlearn and unknow, because that’s the only way you can learn. It’s a deeper thought. What pushes me is to write things that I feel which will bring people together. It’s as simple as that.
Moin Mir, thank you very much for being with me today.
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