Rana Safvi explores Islam, sufism and sainthood in her latest book
he acclaimed historian, author and translator Rana Safvi’s latest book, In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India, explores Islam, sufism and sainthood and the many ways these elements have impacted local communities.
According to Safvi, the book is “the result of a lifelong practice of Islam and a decade-old journey into its sufi traditions. It is the outcome of a personal and academic search of people’s experiences of divinity in sufi practices, focusing on its entire corpus of thought and discursive traditions, meditative and ritual practices, ethics of love and compassion, devotional poetry, music, art and architecture.” The book also highlights the Islamic concepts of ihsan, iman and akhlaq.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled Islam and Sufism, familiarises readers with Islam, sufism, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and his family as sources of mystical practices. The following section, Saints and Silsilahs, signifies the dawn of sufism in India; how it spread, the need for and the concept of sufi orders, and the chief sufi silsilahs, with a gestalt of the essential saints. The book’s third section, Shrines and Devotees, portrays sufi shrines as places of devotional worship and healing, highlighting social relations, gender, and people’s experiences. It also describes the popular dargahs of India. Finally, the book ends with an enlightening section dedicated to significant historical dates.
In Search of the Divine is a thorough research of conversations with devotees and pirs, descendants of the saints who run the shrines, spiritual guides and religious experts. Safvi has emphasised the changing character of the dargahs and the crucial role saints play as waseela (intermediaries) – the saints who, even after death, continue to thrive in the shrine.
The term sufi is often confused with a casual cult that cabinets the secular spirit of Islam; worse, it is sometimes seen as something outside the realm of Islam. This book is an endeavour to showcase that sufism is, in fact, firmly rooted in Islam. The author achieves this by describing it as a rigorous meditative discipline in its historical context, highlighting every aspect of the tradition.
There has been a new wave of widespread interest in sufism. Indeed, many sufi orders (silsilahs) are flourishing. While not everyone can follow the intellectual and spiritual rigour that becoming a sufi requires, numerous people visit dargahs daily, seeking comfort, peace, healing, care, love and compassion. Although not a sufi herself, Safvi mentions in the book that she often visits shrines and dargahs, a journey reflected in her writing. It has “enriched me as a person,” she says.
Some of the other prominent books written by the author are Where Stones Speak, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi and Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi. Safvi began this journey from Delhi; a city sometimes called baees khwaja ki chaukhat (the threshold of 22 saints). She witnessed locals visiting shrines, offering flowers and burning incense sticks and candles every Thursday. Her travels took her as far as Pandua and Kolkata in West Bengal, which are important centres of medieval sufism; shrines in Srinagar and Charar-i-Sharif in Kashmir; shrines in Thanesar, Hansi, Bathinda, Sirhind, and Malerkotla in the Punjab and Haryana; the dargahs of Uttar Pradesh in Makanpur, Ayodhya, Dewa Sharif, Kakori, Lucknow, Bareilly and Agra; Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad and Pirana in Gujarat; shrines in Bijapur, Gulbarga and Hampi in Karnataka; shrines in Burhanpur and Raisen in Madhya Pradesh; shrines in Khuldabad, Aurangabad, Pune and Mumbai in Maharashtra; the shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan; and the shrines of Hyderabad in present-day Telangana. All of these visits are vividly described in the book.
The book is an illuminating and compelling textual piece that delves into the many strains of qawwali, the reverent crowds and the fragrance of incense around shrines. It also calls attention to women’s incontestable, but frequently overlooked, contributions to sufism.
While Muslims are frequently seen as fanatical and intolerant in the modern-day world, works like In Search of Divine bring forth the exemplary conduct (akhlaq) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) that the sufi saints sought to emulate.
In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India
Author: Rana Safvi
Publisher: Hachette India, 2022
Pages: Kindle, 579
The reviewer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi