“Ye ishq ne dekha hai, ye aql se pinhan hai…”

“It is revealed to love, reason can’t see it…”

The opening line of this ghazal by 19th century poet Asghar Gondvi is perhaps an apt encapsulation of the essence of Sufism, for this mystical path of Islam is, after all, a path of the heart. Overtly different from the jurisprudential face of Islam, which seems to be all about strict adherence to the shariah, Sufism is languid and fluid.

A great stream of traditions big and small, Sufism has flowed through the Indian subcontinent for centuries, bringing all manner of people into its fold. In her latest book, In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India, Rana Safvi takes a close look at this esoteric clutch of Islamic beliefs and practices, also known as Tasawwuf.

Safvi is a prolific writer, having close to a dozen books to her name, many of them being on historical and Islamic themes. Safvi plays to her strengths in this book too, examining Sufism from the point of view of history and Islam. However, what is special about this endeavour is that she weaves in elements of her personal faith, allowing her readers a glimpse of the person that she is.

The seed and the sowing

At more than 400 pages, In Search of the Divine is a sizeable volume divided into 19 main chapters and four ancillary sections. The 19 chapters are classified into two broad categories, with the first being ‘Islam and Sufism’, and the second being dedicated to ‘Saints and Silsilahs’.

In the first section, comprising three chapters, Safvi lays the historical groundwork for Sufism, which shares an essential overlap with the history of Islam. In chapter two, in particular, Safvi offers a lucid account of the Shia-Sunni schism and consequent sectarian developments, useful – especially to non-Muslim readers – for laying out the context.

In these initial chapters Safvi also emphasises Sufism’s strong connection with Islam, seeking to dispel the notion often perpetuated by staunch traditionalists that it is un-Islamic. This notion exists on account of the joyous practices of music and dance adopted by many Sufis – things that are considered by many believers to be haraam or forbidden.

However, Safvi reiterates that among believers in Sufism, the Prophet Mohammed is considered the inspiration for all Sufi practices. Similarly, members of the Prophet’s family, the Ahl al-Bait, are considered to have exemplary virtues by Sufis and Muslim believers alike. The Shia sect, in particular, shares a strong connect with the Sufis on account of many early persecuted Shia Imams and practitioners seeking refuge in Sufism.

Safvi traces the beginnings and trajectory of Sufism as a distinctive movement, especially in the third chapter. From a brief account of Abu Hisham of Kufa, who is recognised as the first Sufi, to the female Sufi saint, Rabia al-Basri, who introduced the concept of ecstatic love, the author plots many firsts in the story of Sufism. She writes on how Sufism started as a practice of extreme asceticism, and slowly gave way to mysticism.

Sufism made its way into India along with the early Arab traders around the 7th and 8th centuries CE, but found its footing only when the Chisti and Qadiriya silsilahs flourished under the patronage of the Sultanate rulers, and, later, when the Mughals patronised the Naqshbandi and Suhrawardi silsilahs. Safi highlights how the pertinent growth of Sufism is often ignored when the growth of Islam in India is discussed. It is a continuation of the problematic colonial framing, in which Orientalists “consistently projected ‘Muslim India’ of 1000-1700 CE as a period of oppression and fanaticism from which colonial rule had finally liberated the grateful Hindus.”

Where Sufism is spoken of, only its syncretic side is put on the table. Safvi objects to that kind of oversimplification too, reminding the reader that the formation of the dargah and khanqah culture in India was also a long and complex process, and that it came with its share of ‘assent and conflict’. But the greatest contribution of these spiritual centres was undoubtedly the way in which they doubled as social centres, becoming a melting pot for India’s multitudinous cultures.

The watering and the blooming

Through the subsequent section on ‘Saints and Silsilahs’ comprising chapters four through 19, Safvi continually points to political nuance where necessary. But it is clear to see that her heart lies in the spirit of the matter. The spiritual aspects of Sufism also make for compelling reading, given how Sufism in India has such charming and often surprising syncretic traditions.

One may read of a Sufi hymn invoking Krishna somewhere, and elsewhere, one may find an account of a Sufi festival that mimics the Hindu Holi. In fact, the success of Sufism in India is owed to its egalitarian approach, which borrowed liberally from Hinduism, and was thereby embraced liberally by Hindus.

Safvi names many major and minor silsilahs or mystic orders in India, including the most prominent ones like the Chistis, Suhrawardis, Qadiris and Naqhbandis, and the smaller or lesser-known ones like the Sabris, Firdausis, Shattaris, Kubravis, Warsis, Madaris, and Kazmiya Qalandaris. After an overview of these in chapter four, Safvi dedicates one chapter each to the major silsilahs and their noteworthy saints from chapters five through nine.

Each chapter contains the names and brief biographies of its founding preceptors, the landmark dargahs associated with them, their unique philosophies, their notable religious practices, their succession protocols, and even their relationship with the royalty of the time. These chapters underscore how the royalty and clergy have always been co-dependent, and show us how it was much the same in the medieval Muslim era as it is in India today.

Chapters 11 through 15 are what may be called ‘directory chapters’, given how each comprises lists and locations of the most important dargahs of India. Starting with holiest dargahs containing relics of the Prophet Mohammed and his family, Safvi moves on to listing and describing popular dargahs in the north, east, central and west, and south of India. Each chapter showcases the unique flavour of the Sufi culture in those respective regions.

However, when read in succession, they are so information dense that one may lose their way (and interest) in the litany of names and descriptions. Each chapter starts sounding like the one before it, leaving the reader with a giant blob of facts from which little or nothing stands out. These chapters, however, are a precious resource for anyone approaching them as a researcher.

The most fragrant flowers

Safvi saves the best for the last, packing in the greatest punch in the last four chapters. In the 16th chapter, ‘The Possessed and the Dispossessed’, she writes about an important but seldom discussed function that dargahs perform. The belief that insanity is caused by being possessed by jinns drives many people to dargahs, seeking divine intervention as cure. As much as she understands faith as the driving force, Safvi rues such practices over and over, stressing the importance of professional mental health care for such cases.

She also elaborates upon Islamic lore on jinns, from where these malpractices stem. In chapter 17, ‘Expressing the Divine’, the author makes an interesting segue into the domain of literature, the arts and culture, through which means Sufism has found its most popular expression in India. She touches upon many literary, poetic and musical forms in India that were launched from the mothership of Sufism. These include forms such as the Ghazal, Rubayi, Qasida, Masnavi, Qawwali, Qaul, Qalbana, Tarana, Naksh Gul, and so on.

While forms like the Naksh Gul are lost today, the Qawwali continues to be immensely popular in the subcontinent, with performances being held at all major Chistiya dargahs on major occasions in the Islamic calendar. The sama mehfil (a spiritual congregation at a dargah) is, of course, the most defining Sufi feature, often associated with whirling dervishes. Qawwalis performed at samas involve high energy singing and clapping by musical masters that often induce a trance-like state in the faithful, who then get up and dance to the holy music. Safvi talk of attending such mehfils, which leave her feeling both energised and pacified.

The penultimate chapter, ‘Celebrating with the Saint’, deals with the many festivals that are associated with dargahs in India. The urs or death anniversary “celebrations” are particularly notable for their popularity among the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Other commemorations include birth anniversaries of Sufi saints (Ghusl Sharif), the Prophet Mohammed (Eid Milad un-Nabi), and Imam Ali (13th of Rajab), The Night of Ascension (Shab e-Miraj), and, sometimes, even Hindu festivals like Basant Panchami.

The final chapter, ‘Separated by the Screen’ is both, a literal and figurative culmination of the book. As a woman of faith and education, Safvi’s reckoning with the matter of gender segregation is a reflection of the struggle even modern Muslim women must go through. However, the author remains equanimous in her account of places that have allowed and those that have barred her from entering the sanctum of the dargah.

Notwithstanding a few flawed patriarchal and religious norms, Sufism continues to flourish in India, attracting thousands of the faithful each year, not just from Muslim communities but other faith traditions too. Devotees come in search of good fortune, cures for ailments, redressal for domestic and business problems, and sometimes just communion with the faithful and a sense of peace.

These free-for-all dargahs are reflective of the egalitarianism and catholicity of Sufism, which makes people feel welcome even hundreds of years after the passing of the Sufi saints entombed in them. Savfi’s book is a timely and welcome account and reminder of this precious syncretic tradition of India, lest it drown in the sea of saffron conceit.

In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India

In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India, Rana Safvi, Hachette India.