Writing that speaks to the heart
An interview with Shabbir Banoobhai

 by R.K. Bijuraj

This interview, conducted by Bijuraj Kochi with Shabbir, contains interesting views by the poet on social and political issues as well as on his writing style. It covers a diverse range of topics such as apartheid,racism and the new South Africa, religious tolerance, and the place of the spiritual and the political in writing. R. K.Bijuraj is a journalist in India.

As a reader, I find your poems to be deeply rooted in Sufism. Do you agree with this observation?

Before I respond to this question, Bijuraj, let me first thank you for caring to read my work and for finding out more about it. Most people who read my work make the same observation about it that you have just made. There may be some truth to it, but personally I am reluctant to consider my work in the same category as that of those who have true closeness to the Divine. My own love for the Divine is weak. I see myself simply as a very fortunate human being with a gift for understanding the spiritual.

Again, as a reader, I found your writing has a soft touch. Perhaps I should say you are a writer who speaks to the heart with the heart. Is this an influence of your religious outlook? Whether it is or not, what is your philosophy and religious outlook?

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 beliefs are 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 the same – to help us see the Divine everywhere, both within and outside ourselves, to love the Divine always, to be compassionate towards all, and to serve all of creation – men, women, children, animals and trees.

I would like to see greater understanding
amongst communities and nations

References to love and God are often present in your poems. 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 emphasised 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 more people, especially in this age of technology. This is the reason why so many writers have their own websites. You have, I know, seen my own website: www.veilsoflight.com

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 others, so it is essential that we make an effort to know others and their deepest values and have the humility to learn from their wisdom.

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 intimate self to others. In such instances, the language the writer uses reflects the state of his or her soul. This indeed applies 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 therefore are effectively only revealed to only the most sensitive readers. This itself affords the writer some protection, as these sensitive readers have a spiritual kinship with the writer while less sensitive readers, effectively, only access that part of what the writer is saying that the writer is comfortable sharing with such readers.

South African writing is taking
its rightful place internationally

What about South African literature? What are the new trends? How do you compare South African literature with international literature?

South African literature is currently flourishing. Both old and new writers are writing new stories. Many of the new writers are telling the stories of their lives and the history of their communities. Most 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; and some of it is critical of the new elite for forgetting the less fortunate so soon. A South African writer, J.M. Coetzee, recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, the second South African writer to do.South African writing is taking its rightful place internationally!

You mentioned that you enjoy a good friendship with the great South African, Fatima Meer. Say something more about that. How does she look at your writing and what influence has she and other writers had on your own writing?

Fatima Meer is a great South African activist, writing about and speaking tirelessly against oppression in all its forms – both against apartheid and the global oppression of the poor by the rich. Recently, she has been campaigning for the cancellation of Africa’s monetary debt to Western countries. I first met her when I was a student leader at the college where I trained to become a teacher. She introduced me to one of South Africa’s finest poets – Douglas Livingstone – who became my poetry mentor and, ultimately, a dear friend. Others who helped me in my early days include a lecturer of English at a University in Durban, Mike Kirkwood, who later left the university to become a publisher. His company, Ravan Press, published my first book of poetry.

While studying in college you were a revolutionary. What were your political beliefs? Have you since changed them?

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 that we have a duty to be compassionate to every living creature, to take care of others. I believe that God has given us the earth as a trust, so we have to respect and protect it; the earth’s resources are not to be abused or used selfishly. My political beliefs have not changed over the years because my spiritual beliefs have never wavered.

there is a strong desire
for the new South Africa to succeed

South Africa was known as a land of racism. What is the current position there? Does racism still exist? How much Black Consciousness is there now? Can you say more about that movement?

Racism, thankfully, is no longer promoted legally and consequently racism has decreased considerably since we gained our freedom in the first democratic elections of 1994. But 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 are very fortunate; we have been dealing with our differences for centuries and there is a strong desire for the new South Africa to succeed. There is also great pride in our 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 regarded as non-people in many ways. The Black Consciousness Movement – and especially Steve Biko, its charismatic leader who was murdered by the security police of the apartheid era – made black people proud of their blackness and mobilised them 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.

Black power in South Africa is currently being seen as rotten as the power earlier. For example, there have been many allegations against Winnie Mandela. 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 and stopped.

Recently there have been many attacks against and a great deal of criticism towards Islam. Is that also happening in South Africa? What do you have to say about religious fundamentalism? How do people react to this in your country?

Religious fundamentalism, whether espoused by Muslims or by persons of any other faith, is ultimately destructive. Not only does it adversely affect the image of that religion, but it taints all adherents of that religion. And yet the adherents of the religion on the whole may be as good as or better even than their counterparts in 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.

South Africans don’t feel threatened by
some of the minor issues that trouble the West –
such as schoolgirls wearing the hijab or scarves!

Presently, Muslims in South Africa do not have to contend with the same kind of negative perceptions of Muslims or Islam affecting Muslims in (mainly) Western countries. South African Muslims, like people from all faiths, contributed to the downfall of apartheid. People of all faiths are treated equally before the law. South Africans are relatively well-educated and this positively influences 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 rights of all its members to protest peacefully against injustice. South Africans have been living with their differences for hundreds of years, unlike the citizens of European countries who are facing waves of new immigrants to whom they have not learnt to relate. So South Africans don’t feel threatened by some of the minor issues that trouble the West – such as schoolgirls wearing the hijab or scarves!

In the news, 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 in South Africa?

South African activists are starting to intensify the struggle against imperialism, global exploitation and HIV-Aids. It is interesting to note that the South African government supports a number of causes that most Western countries and some South Africans still find difficult to accept, such as support for the Palestinians. However, many Muslims feel the South African government is not doing nearly enough. South Africa’s quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe is also causing concern to many people who feel we should be taking a tougher stance against Robert Mugabe’s government. This type of public activism cannot, though, be regarded as mass struggle in the same way as mass struggle developed against apartheid.

Gandhiji fought against racism in Durban, the place where you were born. How do you connect to this? What do you have to say about Gandhi’s philosophy?

I am very proud to have been born and to have lived in Durban, the place where Gandhiji first encountered and resisted oppression. I hold Gandhiji’s thoughts and values in high esteem and try to live up to many of his ideals.

I am proud of my Indian heritage

Although you were born in South Africa, your parents were born in India. How much has Indian culture influenced you?

I am proud of my Indian heritage. My family’s culture is still Indian in many ways. The food we eat, the clothes we wear on special occasions such as weddings, 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!

Are you familiar with Indian or Malayalam Literature?

I love reading novels and other literary work by Indian authors and, in fact, look for books by Indian authors almost every time I go into a bookshop. I have read books by many Indian authors but unfortunately, I am not familiar with Malayalam literature.

Have you any plans to visit India again? What were your feelings when you were there?

I have visited India only once, in 1980. I loved it! At that time, my uncle (my father’s brother) who lived there was still alive. He has since passed away. But, I would like to visit his family again. When my wife – Ruxanna – 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 that I wanted to 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 such a meeting would be almost impossible today, considering the security-conscious world we are now living in.

Since your family hails from Gujarat, you are probably aware of the recent tragic happenings there and in Ayodhya. How do you react to this violence and destruction?

What happened in Gujurat was a great tragedy, as was the recent bombing of commuter trains in Mumbai. To prevent this in future there is much that needs to be done:

– by religious leaders, who should promote in all their constituents the highest ethical behaviour towards every human being, not just towards those with whom they share similar beliefs – this is about behaviour that does justice to the Divine essence in all of us;

– 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 that must ensure that the historic injustices of the past towards minorities are pro-actively, consciously and conscientiously reversed at every level – social, economic, political and educational; and

– by an education that not only focuses on teaching us how to achieve material prosperity, but also 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.

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


You are a Sufi-like poet. We talked about this earlier. But Sufism has faced attacks from some Muslims themselves since very ancient times, including attacks from the Mughal king, Aurangaseb. 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; for it can help us to sustain our goodness when we are tested in a crisis.

The name ‘Sufism’ or any other name 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 being able to see the blessings in many of our differences? This is what would make Sufism or any other spiritual practice good – not its name.

If a spiritual practice leads to inner transformation, to 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 criticize us! If our practice leads us to both inner and outer goodness, to active caring, we should not worry about who is criticizing us, even if that person is the most powerful person in the world!

Intolerance seems to be the sign of the present age. Taslima Nasrin and Sakkir Hussein, amongst others, are currently 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. Sometimes, it is the result of ignorance or some genuine misunderstanding of another’s beliefs. Sometimes, some perceived criticism is simply the expression of scholarly difference, with no malice intended. Often, it reveals cultural differences, for instance, in some cultures, there is nothing truly sacred (sacred in the sense that a believer from another culture might understand it as sacred). In a culture such as this, the right to ridicule the sacred is, perhaps, in itself regarded as sacred.

we cannot protect a loved one’s honour
by becoming dishonourable in the process
of protecting the loved one’s honour …
we cannot become undignified in the process
of protecting the dignity of our faith!

Even when responding to a deliberate, provocative or malicious insult or to an 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. We cannot become undignified in the process of protecting the dignity of our faith! A violent response is simply unacceptable.

Recently, you sent a copy of your latest book to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Tell us how you felt when doing this, compared to when you presented a copy of your first book to Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

The second ‘presentation’ occurred twenty seven years after the first. It was done via a friend when Mrs Sonia Gandhi recently visited Cape Town. The first book was given personally to Mrs Indira Gandhi at her residence in Delhi. Of course, that made a much bigger impression on me.I was much younger then.

I enjoyed telling the story of the second (unplanned) presentation to my family – how I gave a friend who was going to meet Mrs Sonia Gandhi a copy of the book to give to her and how I asked my friend to ask her to try to look for the first book in Mrs.Indira Gandhi’s library. It was just a pleasant interlude in a fairly busy day!

Please tell us more about water would suffice and your forthcoming work, a mountain is an upside down valley, and, perhaps, something about your other published works.

water would suffice: reflections of love, my eighth book, published in 2007, is a companion volume to wisdom in a jug: reflections of love, my third book, published in 1999. Both contain brief reflections of spiritual love. My first two anthologies were echoes of my other self, published in 1980 by Ravan Press and shadows of a sun-darkened land, published in 1984, also by Ravan Press.

I am currently in the process of preparing a mountain is an upside down valley for publication. It contains a volume of poetry, a set of essays and brief reflections on love. In essence, it is a collection of three books that could have been published independently. The reflections, in a section sub-titled beauty has two faces were written over several years. Most of the poems in the section sub-titled today there are no words were written during Ramadan of 2003. The essays, in the section sub-titled knowing questions unknowing answers were mainly written in 2007.

Two other published works (also written during Ramadan) are lightmail (written in Ramadan 2001) and published by Africa Impressions in 2002 and book of songs (poems inspired by the great mystic Jalaluddin Rumi), written during Ramadan 2002 and published in 2004 by Wits University Press.

inward moon outward sun, a volume of poetry, was published in 2002 by Natal University Press. And in 2006, I published if i could write – Ramadan letters that can be read at Christmas or on any other day, a book of philosophical meditative letters to my daughters, written mainly over Ramadan 2004–2005.

© R. K. Bijuraj and Shabbir Banoobhai. All rights reserved.