Murshid Ali insists that Muhammad himself engaged in purely defensive wars: “He was defending himself against his enemies. The Prophet himself; he didn’t kill anyone.” (More lies from the cameleers and the Sufis of Broken Hill, scroll down!)
Yes. I could swear by the beard of the profit that they don’t mean ‘inner struggle’.
“We are planning to give Kenyan non-believers a true taste of Jihad in the next few days and weeks.” Nor do they mean, contrary to the nonsense peddled by the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), that they’re going to take Kenyan non-Muslims to the gym, or drop them off at school. It is also worth noting that they’re threatening to step up jihad attacks during Ramadan, a month in which Muslims are supposed to rededicate themselves to prayer and the service of Allah. Clearly, as far as al-Shabaab is concerned, killing Kenyan non-Muslims is a holy act, service to Allah of the highest order.
Australia would have a better chance of defeating terrorism and extremism if it was compulsory for students to learn about all religions, including Islam, according to international academic and Muslim peace activist, professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi.
Inner Struggle was once a really beautiful and enjoyable religion…
…and Muhammad never killed anyone, says Murshid Ali, the liar of Broken Hill.
Unfortunately, in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. Suddenly, everyone was a born-again Muslim. From a conveyor belt, children of five years of age were appearing dressed in black like little buns.
Shaykh murshid ali, dressed in a grey-green salwar kameez embroidered at the collar, takes my hand, pressing it between two large, cool palms, and welcomes me to Broken Hill.
“Assalamu alaikum [peace be upon you],” he offers, with a mild yet searching gaze.
I felt I was on holy ground – there was a kind of living spiritual energy.
For two decades, Murshid Ali and his Sufi community of Australian converts flourished in Hobart. But things were never the same after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and in 2005 a reading room at the central Hobart Sufi centre was gutted by fire. While the Sufis rebuilt the library, they took the blaze – in their view, never adequately explained by police – as a sign. It was time to move on.
Murshid Ali, who was born in Libya, directed his followers, students of what has been called the “spiritual heart” of Islam, to this unlovely russet landscape clad in mangy stands of bluebush and mulga. He had, he felt, been called to revive a long-lost spiritual bond with the early Afghan camel drivers who lived in camps on the outskirts of Broken Hill. The Sufi students began arriving from Hobart in late 2010, and one of their first stops was a rusted corrugated iron mosque, built in 1887 on the outskirts of town. Two years later, their leader followed.
Broken Hill might be in the middle of nowhere, but it sits atop what was once the world’s richest deposit of silver, lead and zinc ore. Traces of the town’s former prosperity in a late 19th-century silver boom are preserved in a suite of grand Victorian buildings, with their luxuriously deep verandas offering welcome shade. A new mine shaft, recently opened on the grey mound of mining overflow rising castle-like above the town, is once again pulling wealth from the ground.
Eventually, about 10 Sufi families followed Murshid Ali to the birthplace of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company, today’s BHP Billiton. In the process, a spiritual tradition has been revived. The Sufis take their bearings from the Koran, with a mystical focus. To the Sufi tradition belong the whirling dervishes and literature of spiritual desire, crafted by Persian poets such as Hafez-e Shirazi, author of lines like:
What’s sweeter than a garden and good talk,
When spring’s new flowers appear?
What’s keeping that young boy who serves our wine?
Tell me why he’s not here.
Before meeting Murshid Ali, I look around the Almiraj Sufi and Islamic Centre on a street corner of central Broken Hill. Its book shop is an Aladdin’s cave of religious and philosophical literature, Middle Eastern delicacies – pomegranate molasses and halva – and stuff you might find in a Turkish bazaar. The store window displays Arabic waterpipes, or hookahs.
“I came here to Broken Hill first in 1974,” Murshid Ali recalls. “The old mosque on the outskirts of town was built by cameleers and they were of a Sufi order,” he says in a slow, measured rhythm.
When the red centre opened up to settlement, trains could only penetrate the infernal landscape so far, and roads hardly at all. From about 1860, Afghan camel drivers began threading their way across the desert, heading sleepy camel trains carrying water and provisions between small towns that were serviced by rail and the remote properties that weren’t. They brought their families, their meagre possessions – and their beliefs.
When he first saw the town’s old Sufi mosque, Murshid Ali was struck by a sensation of profound peace. “I felt I was on holy ground – there was a kind of living spiritual energy,” he explains. “It’s as if all the work had been done and you had the electricity, but nobody had turned the lights on.” He resolved that one day, he would flick that switch. There was also the attraction of the vast desert landscape and its great vault of God-filled sky. All the world’s monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were dreamed into being when desert people traced the patterns of the firmament and thought of one God, one truth.
When Murshid Ali chose to strike roots at Broken Hill and connect with the town’s Islamic past, he was quite unaware of that history’s darker shading.
It was a little over a century ago, on january 1, 1915, that two Afghans – Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mahomed – opened fire on a train crammed with locals dressed in their finest trundling out from Broken Hillfor a New Year’s Day picnic at nearby Silverton. The pair killed four people. Abdullah was a camel driver and Mahomed, the younger of the two, an ice-cream vendor. The Broken Hill jihadists – Australia’s first – flew a home-made Turkish flag, an emblem of allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate, as they fired at the train. A local militia later cornered the two men, gunning them down. A copy of the Koran was found at their side.
Angela Bailey, the manager of the town’s Mining & Minerals Museum, where the Turkish flag flown by the jihadists is preserved, believes that the town, to its great credit, looked with some sympathy on the plight of the Afghan cameleers and their alienation from society in the decades following the incident.
She shows me an article written in a local newspaper 50 years ago arguing that “some of the blame for the incident must be attributed to the Broken Hill people themselves”. The “Battle for Broken Hill”, as it has become known, provoked no lasting enmity towards the cameleers or their religion. And in the past five years, the Sufis have settled peacefully in town without so much as a xenophobic “boo” from the locals.
Abdullah and Mahomed may have taken succour from the Koran, as have untold jihadists since. But Murshid Ali insists that Muhammad himself engaged in purely defensive wars: “He was defending himself against his enemies. The Prophet himself; he didn’t kill anyone.”
I mention that, while browsing in the Sufi book shop, I had picked up a copy of the Koran and turned, at random, to a passage describing a horrific punishment inflicted on women for the crime of “lewdness”. Men, in contrast, were granted freedom to repent.
“There are many beautiful things for women in the Koran,” he says, slightly nettled. “In fact, Muslim women often do not know what is written for them and do not study their rights. Then you get tribal traditions mixed up with Islamic traditions – and out of it come things like the ban in Saudi Arabia against women driving. Where does the Prophet say women should not drive?”
Within the fold of Islam, the Sufis have a natural antagonist – if not predator – in the fundamentalist Wahhabi strand, whose heartland is Saudi Arabia. “We and the Wahhabists,” explains Murshid Ali, “are butting heads.”
Murshid Ali’s full name ends with the suffix ElSenossi, identifying him as a member of the same Sufi order as Libya’s former king, who ruled until Muammar Gaddafi’s coup of 1969; clearly Sufism, despite its spiritual, esoteric, contemplative dimension, has its worldly side. A year after Gaddafi came to power, Murshid Ali arrived in Australia via Egypt. His first Sufi centre was in Perth, opposite a liquor store. “We used to joke that you could have this spirit,” he says, face easing into a broad smile, “or that spirit.”
Murshid Ali recalls how Libyan Sufism before the Gaddafi days was “part of everyday life. The coffee shop on the corner of the street was like a Sufi centre; Sufism was so deeply rooted in society. It’s the last place in the world I expected to see a civil war. But 42 years of Gaddafi changed many things.
“Islam was a really beautiful and enjoyable religion right up to 1979,” he continues. “That was the year Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. Suddenly, everyone was a born-again Muslim. From a conveyor belt, children of five years of age were appearing dressed in black like little buns.
“The Shiite and Wahhabis are hijacking Islam. My Islam – the Islam that I grew up with – is a connection between the human being and a supreme power that governs this universe. That is not a theory, it is fact. You can taste it on your tongue: the beauty, the solace, the tranquillity, the companionship with the brothers and sisters, the recognition of one another.”
Murshid Ali invites me to prayers in a lower ground floor of the Broken Hill Sufi Centre. On the walls are photos of the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the shelves are lined with books in Arabic and English. The floor is covered with beach-towel-sized carpets, and the focal point is a painted niche in a shade of green that is meant to evoke paradise.
The woman serving at the Sufi Centre, Rabia Reid, who I’m later told is Murshid Ali’s wife, bustles in a little after the chants and prostrations have begun. She takes up position behind the men in a section bordered with a diaphanous white curtain.
Afterwards, I ask the group’s Australian-born “spiritual caretaker”, who has taken the name Dawud Abu Junaid Gos, about the reason for the gender apartheid at prayer time. He explains it as a function of the “movements” of the prayer. These involve lowering the head and raising the rump – repeatedly. Dawud recites a few lines of prayer in Arabic. “If the women were in front of us, it might sound like this,” he says, repeating the prayer in an excited tone a few octaves higher.
The next day, i return to the Sufi centre for a second appointment with Murshid Ali – I’d asked for time to talk about his youth in Libya and his own path into Sufism – but he’s a no-show. Instead, Dawud, a baker by trade, with close-cropped hair and a serious Muslim beard, agrees to take me and a few students to the old Sufi mosque. Once the heart of an open-air Muslim ghetto, it lies at the fringe of town, on a wedge of land surrounded by suburban properties.
More than a century earlier, a visitor would have seen scores of camels in the dust, their limbs folded beneath them, and cameleers and their families going in and out of humble iron shacks; a visitor would have heard the call to prayer, the steady incantations, the cries of children, the barking of dogs. Some traces of the old life, such as the washing troughs used before prayer, and the heavy wood and iron wagons pulled across the desert by camel power, still remain.
It’s midday and a stiff breeze has whipped up from the south-east, banishing much of the cloud of the past two days. The wind tugs at the mosque’s old iron roof, which moans and murmurs a little eerily. Though a humble house of prayer, befitting the status of the cameleers, the corrugated iron structure incorporates some sheets of pressed tin to give it a touch of Ottoman filigree.
Dawud proudly shows me the visitor’s book with his first entry, in November 2010. As he disappears into a prayer room that has a bowed floor crying out for repair, I turn to the museum displays at the entrance. There are camel bells and saddles, traditional headgear from the Pakistani province of Balochistan, a glass showcase with a walking stick belonging to the last mullah of Broken Hill, and faded photographs of the camel trains and their drivers. Prominent are portrait photos of two handsome, neatly dressed dignitaries by the names of Sultan Aziz and Shamroze Khan.
I’ve been told that Shamroze Khan’s son still lives in town. I set up a meeting with Bobby Shamroze that afternoon at his home: a prim little cottage next to an industrial-size shed and several water tanks guarded by a pack of yappy black poodles.
The 75-year-old Bobby, dark-skinned and with those same fierce gimlet eyes as the old cameleers, welcomes me at the door and leads me into the kitchen. He is, it soon emerges, the custodian of the mosque – the keeper of one of only four keys – and he is not too happy with what he sees as the encroachment of the Sufis.
“What’s happening at the moment is that they’re trying to take over,” says his wife, Janet. “They keep pushing to use it for prayer but it’s a historical place, heritage-listed, and quite fragile. They can use it for prayer, but not all the time.”
Bobby’s father came to Broken Hill in the 1880s as a camel driver and trader. By the time Bobby was born, his father had started working in the mines, and in time Bobby did, too. When old Shamroze Khan died in the early 1950s aged 75, his body was washed and perfumed in keeping with Islamic custom and he was buried in the “Muhammadan section” of the local cemetery in a polished jarrah coffin, protected from contact with the earth.
Bobby says that he also wants to be buried in the “traditional” way. “The old customs are the only things he sticks to,” explains Janet. “He doesn’t have the religion.”
“The old man never taught it to me,” Bobby adds. “I was only 12 when he died. He never spoke a lot about religion.”
Four years after Bobby’s birth, his parents’ marriage broke up; his mother had been 36 years younger than his father. Bobby takes out a box of photographs, books and letters from his research into the camel drivers’ story – a farrago of black, white, sepia and grey – and places it on the table. “My father had another woman down in Victoria,” he says. “He had two sons with her.”
“There were quite a few wives,” chimes in Janet. How many? “Well, three that we know of,” she says with a boisterous laugh.
Bobby remembers childhood trips to the site of the mosque. “I’d sit among the old blokes. There was still a lot of old camel drivers and Afghans at the mosque in those days. They’d give us a feed, a curry – it was hot, too. But they also had a lot of spaghetti on. Boiled eggs, gear like that.
“They used to walk everywhere, day after day, through the desert,” he adds in a reverent tone. “They never rode those camels.” Cameleering disappeared from these parts in the 1930s and many of the men returned to Afghanistan. Others, like Shamroze Khan, married in Australia, fathered children, assimilated.
As I rise to leave, I count several camel ornaments – ceramic, brass, fluffy or bejewelled – around the Shamroze house. When I ask the couple if they hadn’t become a bit dotty about the dromedary, Bobby reaches down his neckline and pulls out a silver camel necklace. “I’ve even got this,” he grins.
Bobby offers me a lift back to the centre of town and we corkscrew up the new road to the top of the mine above Broken Hill. An open-air exhibition of mining equipment lies at the top of the hill, along with a monument to the many miners who died at this and other sites.
Below us, at the railway station, is the slender silver tube of a passenger train, throwing up a glare like alfoil beneath the fierce afternoon sunlight.
It’s The Ghan, Bobby explains, named after the Afghan cameleers whose memory seems to anchor him and fill his days, and whom he intends to honour, finally, in death. And above it all is the great vault of desert sky. A sky full of God.