In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India
By Rana Safvi
Hachette, India
ISBN: 978-9393701114
432pp.

It is a Thursday evening and the dargah [shrine] of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi beckons. I am not the only one negotiating the narrow lanes full of vendors selling roses, incense and chaddars [covering of fabric or flowers] [that are] the regular purchases of devotees. As I walk barefoot on the cold stone, I think of those who walked here centuries before me…”

The captivating opening sentences of Rana Safvi’s new book come as no surprise, because — despite its academic title and research-mapping of centuries of socio-communal history across a gigantic span of geography — In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India is a tapestry of endearing love and pulsating vivacity about one of the Subcontinent’s greatest legacies: Sufism.

Safvi’s findings weave a boundless, unconditional and universal collective that has morphed into a centrifugal spiral of amour and succour. By the time we reach the end of the book, this quintessential love, irrespective of religious divides and powered by a belief in Divine intercession, conquers all.

In this, Safvi’s book is committed, perhaps unconsciously, to highlighting the Sufi tradition as the single most powerful humanistic binding force that transcends religious diversity, political machinations and pluralistic cultures that have built up the Indian social fabric since time immemorial.

Sufi shrines dot India’s vast landscape, drawing devotees of every hue, colour and social status, with women leading the count. The devotees come like moths drawn to a lamp, each for their own self, succour being the ultimate end. They come for physical healing, to win power politics, for answers to childlessness and for inner peace.

Merging the personal and the public, this highly readable book will appeal to serious academics and to shrine culture’s die-hard devotees

How and from where did this unique fascination with Divine intercession originate? What have been its exponents’ trajectories? Why did certain saints settle at a particular place? What are Sufi silsilas [lineages or schools of thought] and how different in practice, yet similar in teaching, are they?

How and why did India, specifically, come to be the melting pot of Sufism? How diversely do human beings connect to this phenomenon? What is the Divine experience and how is it expressed? How has oral fable travelled down centuries in all its hues, from the presence of djinns as healers working under the patron saint, to the myriad celebratory rituals peculiar to each dargah?

Safvi, a practising Muslim, travelled the Sufi circuit of India in minute detail, visiting dargahs and khanqahs [meeting halls] across the land with an eye on not just the apparent — for the apparent was just that: tinsel-trimmed cloth chaddars covering centuries-old graves; the scent of rose petals and incense; the bowing, bending and prostrating people; the cacophony of qawwali singers and musical instruments.

Instead, with every step she treads, Safvi merges the personal and the public into a highly readable text that will appeal to serious academics as well as to die-hard devotees of shrine culture, to inquisitive plain Janes and Johns standing on the peripheries as well as the critical thinkers who deem Sufism a digressive element in Islam.

Rose petals in hand, Safvi rejoices in personal experiences, such as the memory of being handed sweets by an unknown woman in reply to Safvi’s childish pleas that had gone unheeded by her mother, who was immersed in praying at Maula Ali’s mausoleum.

She socialises with an amazing spread of humanity, observing the convergence of pluralistic belief systems, enjoying the soulfulness of boundless energy that these places radiate. She is jostled by the “gender embargo” — male dictates on how far inside a tomb she may go, whereas men have unfettered entry to all hallowed portals. She meets the human “mediums” of djinns. And she recounts with dry humour how the sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, would crawl to a saint’s grave on his hands and knees, all four appendages well swathed in cotton pads, of course!

She socialises with an amazing spread of humanity, observing the convergence of pluralistic belief systems, enjoying the soulfulness of boundless energy. She is jostled by the “gender embargo” — male dictates on how far inside a tomb she may go. She meets the human “mediums” of djinns.

Little anecdotes such as her childhood visit to a dargah where she received her first lesson in Sufism, stray conversations, snatches of overheard prayers, casual observation of uninhibited and unrestrained shows of nascent devotion and the contagion of experiential bliss make the book read like a personal encounter with Divinity. Herein lies the endearment.

Starting with a preliminary introduction to Sufism — that vast “ocean of mystical thought” which fulfilled the “quest for realising Allah in one’s self”, because a time came after the advent of Islam where a need arose for an experiential relationship with the Creator — In Search of the Divine invests heavily in the core Islamic belief of the Ahl-i-Baet [the family of the Prophet (PBUH)] as the fount of the Divine nexus.

This fount is repeatedly emphasised to prove that Sufism — as some detractors hypothesise — is not tangential to Islam. And also, to argue that Sufism is above sectarianism. Safvi’s book is to be celebrated perhaps most for having clarified the above two delusions with its pithy synopsis of Islamic history and nonpartisan exposition of the Shia-Sunni genesis. The author straightens the record with a near scientific strain, making this section a take-off point for the main text.

To establish Sufism’s authenticity as an Islamic concept, In Search of the Divine connects the sabr [the patience whose pinnacle was reached at the battle of Karbala] and tawakkul [a basic Islamic tenet meaning absolute trust in Allah, that made it possible for the Prophet’s family to take on an enemy as powerful as Yazid] practised at Karbala. It then traces the carry-over of that prophetic ideology across the Subcontinent.

The author writes that Sufism came to India concurrently with the Muslim invasion and was encouraged by the political expediency of later rulers, who built khanqahs at a time when unrest in Central Asia had become non-accepting of spiritual largesse.

What originated in Makkah and Madinah with the Ahl-i-Baet, found strength in Baghdad through the teachings of Junaid Baghdadi, Mansur Hallaj and Sheikh Syed Abdul Qadir Jilani. Ultimately, it surged into the Subcontinent via Muslim conquests, through Ali Hajveri and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, to become an intrinsic part of the cultural landscape, an enchanting cross-fertilisation of esoteric knowledge with local ideas.

I am no placard-wielding woman-libber — I had everything laid out for me on a platter, despite being born the third daughter in a row — but Safvi must be applauded for her book’s closing chapter, ‘Separated by the Screen’, about female Sufis and the traditional restrictions imposed on female visitors.

Women have always been cast in roles of dependence in recorded Sufi literature and experience, so does this mean there were no women Sufis? There certainly were, but most went undocumented, despite acknowledgement from religious leaders and writers as being women of substance and, in some cases, being awarded the special powers of a patron saint.

As for traditional restrictions, very few, if any, writers on spirituality and divinity have questioned the derogatory smokescreens that prevent female devotees going into the inner sanctums. It bears repeating that women make up the larger percentage of shrine visitors, yet — barring some shrines of female saints — the inner sanctums of most dargahs are a no-go area for fear that women might “pollute” them.

Safvi’s call for “separate sections/ arrangements for women”, on the plea that “Allah established a just social order through the Quran whereby women and men are equal in spiritual endeavour”, is a strong case for gender parity in shrine culture. In fact, her book could start a conversation simply on the basis of her quoted reference to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who said: “When a wild animal comes into an inhabited area from the forest, no one asks Is it male or female?”

It is quite a pity that, either because of diplomatic constraints or simply being overwhelmed by the sheer number of Sufi shrines in India, Safi did not venture into Pakistan’s dargahs and khanqahs. Discourse about India’s Sufi heritage will remain enigmatic unless and until connected to the Sufi heritage in Pakistan, because Lahore, Multan, Sindh and lower Punjab hosted so many spiritual greats. Some of them stayed; others moved on. Nevertheless, the connectivity remains.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme. She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2023

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