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“In Search of the Divine”: Rana Safvi’s book delves into the fascinating roots of Sufism

Ajmer Sharif Dargah
  • The book “In Search of the Divine” by Rana Safvi relies not only on textual sources but also on her own visits to dargahs across the country, and the conversations she has with devotees and pirs alike.

  • The book evokes in vivid detail the sacred atmosphere she encounters – the reverent crowds, the strains of qawwali and the fragrance of incense, as well as highlights the undeniable yet often forgotten contributions of women in Sufism. The resulting text is at once modern and a tribute to the rich and textured past.

  • Weaving together fact and popular legend, ancient histories and living tradition, this unique treatise examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

‘Sufism today is a name without a reality, whereas it was once a reality without a name.’ – Abu al-Hasan Fushanja

The term Sufism was first introduced in a Latin work by a German – F.A.G. Tholuckin – in 1821, as an anglicized version of tasawwuf. It was later popularized by British Orientalists describing those aspects of ‘oriental’ culture that Europeans found attractive. Thus, as mentioned earlier, there was an insistence on placing Sufism outside of Islam, which was believed to have the ‘essential characteristic of harsh legalism’; Sufism, on the other hand, was considered to be ‘indifferent to matters of religious law’.

The first Orientalist to assert that Sufism was based on the Quran and the hadiths was Louis Massignon (1883–1962). A French Catholic scholar, Massignon greatly influenced the way Islam was perceived in the West through his work. Since then many Sufi texts have been translated and studied. Scholars such as Carl Ernst, Annemarie Schimmel, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Sayyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Bruce Lawrence and Raziuddin Aquil, to name a few, have written on Sufism, highlighting its historical and religious context.

Carl Ernst asks how it is possible to tell what Sufism is, questioning what it means to be a Sufi. The answer he arrives at is as follows: ‘In Arabic and Persian, there are dozens of terms for Muslim mystics with distinct and sometimes conflicting meanings, all of which are subsumed by the English word Sufism’ but concedes that ‘Sufism has now become a standard term, whether we like it or not.’

Due to an increasing stress on sociology and ideology in the study of religion, in his view, Sufism was perceived as:

[A] kind of mystical philosophy found in Muslim countries, which can include figures on the margins of society (dervishes and fakirs) along with politically important mass movements. This descriptive approach to Sufism contrasts sharply with the use of the term Sufi in Sufi texts. There we find a prescriptive use of the term which sets forth goals of ethical and spiritual perfection.

There are many claims regarding the origin of the term ‘Sufi’. Some say it comes from Ahl al-Suffa/Ashab-e-Suffa or ‘people of the porch’, a phrase describing the Prophet’s companions who stayed on the porch of the Masjid-e-Nabvi, his mosque in Medina, and studied religious science there. Some believe it comes from the Arabic word safa, meaning pure, for while ritual purity is essential for all Muslims, inner purity is a requirement for mystics. Yet others claim its origins lie in the Arabic word suf or wool, since the early Sufis, like ascetics of the far east, wore woollen cloaks. The coarse woollen cloak signified the humble, ascetic, and unmaterialistic spirit of the Sufis. It is now widely believed that this last theory is probably closer to the truth and it is indeed the word suf that led to the name, while the Arabic term that was translated as Sufism, tasawwuf, literally means ‘the process of becoming a Sufi’.

Today the term Sufi encompasses many different types of mystics and saints. However, it was used infrequently in medieval texts; the popular words used then were abid (worshipper), zahid (ascetic), salih (righteous one), salik (traveller), siddiq (sincere one), ahl-e-dil (masters of the heart), and mazjub (the intoxicated).

The terms for a spiritual master were sheikh, pir, or khwaja, while the disciple was known as a murid. Just as temporal kings appoint their successors, so do the spiritual kings. The successor of a sheikh/pir/khwaja was called a khalifa. Highly acclaimed saints were given the title of qutb (polestar; a centre of sorts), qutb al-aqtab (chief of the qutbs, denoting their rank in the spiritual hierarchy), or ghaus (helper/redresser of complaints). Terminology aside, the emphasis for Sufis is not on external rituals but on the experience of the inner self leading to the discovery of truth. This truth is achieved in three ways: one is obtained ‘from’ God, through the Quran and shariah (the Muslim code of religious law), which are obligatory for all Muslims; one is obtained ‘with’ God, on the mystical path; and the last truth is obtained ‘of’ God, and is called ilm-e-marifat (gnosis) – the knowledge possessed by prophets and saints, and is the final goal of all Sufis.

At the final stage on the spiritual path, the Sufi’s heart becomes empty of everything except the remembrance of God; it is to be annihilated (fana) to become immortal (baqa) with Allah. Since God is always with us, and as close as our jugular vein, it is not a question of reaching Him, but recognizing His signs. The signs are always present everywhere and inside us. As one popular hadith puts it: ‘My earth does not encompass Me, nor does My heaven, but the heart of My servant, the man of true faith, does encompass Me.’

Thus, only He is worthy of worship and love, and to him will we return.

And the Sufi’s (herein the lover’s) love for God (the loved one), and closeness to Him has to be reflected in their conduct, which is a manifestation of Him. This sentiment comes across beautifully in Rabia al-Basri’s immortal words:

If I adore You out of fear of Hell,

Burn me in Hell!

If I adore you out of desire for Paradise,

Lock me out of Paradise.

But if I adore you for Yourself alone,

Do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.

Excerpted with permission from In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India, Rana Safvi, Hachette India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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