In popular culture—and possibly, due to the immense popularity of qawwalis—Sufism is often defined by its music. For many, it is the poetry and the mysticism that holds sway, but as historian, writer, scholar and translator Rana Safvi explains in her new book, In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India, Sufism is a rigorous discipline.
Safvi, who spent six years on academic and field research and visited close to 100 shrines and dargahs across the country, delves into the religion’s roots in the country, exploring the history and practice of Sufism, while also highlighting the contributions of women. She meets devotees and pirs, gaining insights into the distinct ways Sufism is experienced across different states. Each state, for instance, has its own form of devotional music, literature and ways of revering the saint and his shrine, she explains. A qawwali in Delhi, is known as jikr in Assam; in the Deccan, people visit dargahs on amavasya or the day of the full moon, while in the north, it is the new moon of Thursday, nauchandi jumeraat, which draws devotees.
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It’s these practices, experiences and anecdotes that make her book not just an academic endeavour but a people’s history of Sufism. Safvi, who has previously published nine books on the culture, history and monuments of India and four accounts of 19th and 20th century Delhi, discusses her new book with Lounge. Edited excerpts from an interview.
You write that Sufism is an “act of following a mystical path and a quest for ethical and moral perfection as one tries to realise that Allah is in one’s self”. What prompted you to embark on this journey visiting shrines and dargahs in different states to understand Sufism as it is practiced across the country?
Shrines in India—and there are many all over the country—see countless visitors daily. They come to seek different things: Some want answers to questions, solace, peace; others come in supplication for the saint’s intercession. That does not make them a Sufi. Becoming a Sufi is a very rigorous discipline that entails taking an oath, and traversing four stages. The first is shariah, when initiate concentrates on reading and learning the Quran and hadith, and learns Islamic laws as the basis of Sufi teachings. The tariqah (mysticism) stage teaches disciples how to worship God with awareness. This is a tough stage with many rules, and not many are able to last the course. The haqiqah or truth stage is when one can feel the divine presence as desire has been conquered and the heart and mind is filled with God. Marifah is the final stage of knowledge of spiritual truth, and only the messengers, prophets, and saints reach it. Very few reach the third stage and even fewer the fourth.
I was intrigued by what each visitor has come to seek in a dargah and how this quest has changed over the centuries. I focus on the changing character of the dargahs, and the crucial role saints play as waseela (intermediaries), a link between the devotees and God.
This book took six years of academic and field research. My travels took me from Pandua in West Bengal, to Charar Sharif in Kashmir, to shrines Punjab and Haryana, to the dargahs of Uttar Pradesh, to Bijapur, Gulbarga, and Hampi in Karnataka… all over the country. If books enriched my mind, the visits and interviews with devotees enriched my heart. I found that people engage in many ways with the saint and his shrine.
You explain in the book that Sufism is firmly rooted in Islam. How do you see certain attempts to delink Sufism from Islam?
As I write in the book, the term ‘Sufi’ is bandied about casually as a kind of cool cult that showcases the secular spirit of Islam, or worse, it is seen as something that is outside Islam. This book is an attempt to show that Sufism, on the contrary, is very much rooted in Islam. I try to do this by describing it in its historical context and as a rigorous meditative discipline, highlighting every aspect of the tradition.
There is a chapter on women devotees and important women Sufis in your book. What has been the contribution of women to Sufism and why do you write women have been denied their due place?
If we understand the beauty of Sufism as a personal experience of God, which can take myriad forms, then it is to Rabia al-Basri, the 8th century saint from Basra, Iraq, that we owe this. She gave expression to the concept of pure love, and, according to scholar Margaret Smith, is “the representative of the first development of mysticism in Islam”. There were many other important women such as 8th century Mariam from Jerusalem, 9th century Fatima of Nishapur, Iran and Dhakkara from Baghdad, to name a few. Closer home we have the 12th century Bibi Amma from Bihar, 13th century Fatima bin Sam or Delhi’s Rabia, Mughal princess Jahanara Begum (1614–1681)… Yet, today we rarely talk of them and the reason is the patriarchy that invisibilizes women.
In times of increasing polarization, how can Sufism bridge religious divides, bringing people together towards a shared spirituality? What role did Sufis play in fostering a composite culture in India?
Sufism has developed over many centuries, and has adapted to the local customs and traditions of each country in which it has flourished. One has only to listen to a qawwali to see how local idioms and symbols are used to explain concepts. The language used in the songs is Awadhi or khariboli, the symbols are Indic, the tune to which it is set is Hindustani ragas and the idioms are all based in local folk songs.
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Sufism attracted the local populace because it spoke of love and inclusiveness—dargahs became spaces where many came, and still to do, irrespective of faith, class and gender. It was this belief and faith of the local populace in the saints and later their shrines that foregrounds the role of the Sufis in fostering a composite culture in India. If Eids are celebrated in the dargahs, so are Basant, Holi and Diwali. Dargahs are welcoming spaces where people of all religious affiliation gather in search of the divine and fulfilment of their wishes. As Hazrat Nizamuddin said: Har qaumrastrahe, deenwa qibla gahe (Every community has its right path and right faith).
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist