Rana Safvi’s new book on Sufism is dignified, powerful and heart-touching

Rana Safvi’s book In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India published by Hachette India does more than just explain Sufism. The book clarifies how the practice is powerful and yet possesses a quiet dignity.

The general perception of Sufism for those uninitiated is perhaps reduced to paintings and images of saints, in cascading gowns steeped in reverence for the Almighty. The images, while powerful are deeply reductive. Like with most other things, Sufism has been reduced to images, motifs, symbols of faith.

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Rana Safvi’s book In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India published by Hachette India does more than just explain Sufism. The book clarifies how the practice is powerful and yet possesses a quiet dignity. After reading Safvi’s book, the reader understands Sufism as the process of becoming God, not attaining him. This “becoming of God” isn’t a form of arrogance, nor is an access to power but simply, the deep seated belief that the best way to arrive to the Almighty is to completely annihilate oneself.

Safvi quotes from a Kabir poem in her book which reads,

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“Jab main tha Hari nahi jab Hari hain main nahi
Prem gali ati sankri tame do na samaahi.”

“When I was there, God was absent; now God is there and I am missing;
The lane of love is very narrow – two cannot fit in it at the same time.”

Safvi’s choice to use a Kabir couplet which speaks of Hari in a book on Sufism’s history could not have been an oversight. If anything, it showcases that when Sufism arrived in India, it took on the hues of other faiths and its practices.

The general tone of honouring our dead, revering those among the dead who imparted to the community guidance, is coated throughout Safvi’s book. She also dedicates a major chunk of this volume to prominent (and lesser known) Dargahs across India.

History of Dargahs in India

Dargahs aren’t, as Safvi reminds, spaces meant to accommodate the Muslim community alone. Sufi saints insisted on religious harmony. In the 18th chapter of the book titled Celebrating with the Saint, she quotes an oral account of tolerance and acceptance.

“Some Muslims were once passing through an area where Holi was being celebrated. Perhaps as a shararat (mischief), perhaps unwittingly, the Muslims got Holi colours on their clothes. This led to a flight among Hindus and Muslims. The news reached the darbar (court) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The Muslims complained that they had been defiled.

‘How would they offer namaz now?’ said Fareed Bhai.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya told them: my people, all colours come from Allah. Which colour is that, that does not come from Allah?

Then Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya told Hazrat Amir Khusrau to capture this in a couplet. And Hazrat Khusrau wrote the (following) lyric:

Aaj rang hai ri
Mere khwaja ke ghar rang hai ri, aaj rang hai.

(The house of my Beloved is swirled in colours today.)

Safvi writes, “As numerous mystics came and settled in the subcontinent, they drew from local Hindu influences and developed a unique form of Sufism here. There was a great and constant refertilisation of ideas. With their understanding, acceptance and integration of local custom and influences, they carved their own unique space in the hearts of locals of every faith, class and caste. They could speak the local language, and dialects and as tales of their Karamat (miracles) grew, so did their followers.”

Chronicling accounts of popular dargahs across the country, Safvi does more than to present a history of shrines (dargahs). She propels the reader, irrespective of her faith, to wonder about the necessity of a space which can offer solace.

While writing about Dargahs in Karnataka, she writes about the Karaga Utsava Samithi wherein she remarks, that despite alleged appeals by Hindutva workers to skip the dargah halt, the organisers decided to uphod inter-faith unity.

This particular account of women at Dargahs in Kashmir is highly evocative.

“In the dargahs of Hazratbal, Dastgeer Sahib, and Makhdoom Sahib, the separate spaces reserved for women were full of heart rendering sights. Women of all ages were sitting there, praying and sobbing. In a state gripped by terrorism and unrest, I could only guess that they were crying fortheir loved ones. I sat thre praying for them to find solace. Unlike my experiences in dargahs of other states, this was very traumatic for me as I came up—here more than anywhere else—against the real anguish of women who are often the collateral damage of any conflict.”

Safvi’s writing and the breaking down of symbols

Whether intended or not, Safvi’s book presents a quiet, almost blissful rebellion to how little symbols matter in the face of true understanding of a complex yet solemn practice.

Earlier this year in February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a chadar (shawl) at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah on the Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. This symbolic act by the representative of the Indian Union is hardly new as other representatives before him have done the same. But as Kurt Vonnegut Jr remarks in his work Breakfast of Champions, “symbols are beautiful, sometimes.” The adage “sometimes” is crucial to note in the context of Safvi’s account of Sufism as sometimes symbols are limiting and hence dangerous.

Safvi’s work does not make the case that Sufism is independent of Islam. As she records in her earlier chapters, that was a myth solidified by Western academics. She clarifies that a lot of Sufi followers do consider Prophet Muhammad to have spearheaded the practice. The connection with Islam is unmissable and yet it took on the shades of other faiths in praxis.

Why this comprehension is necessary

Safvi’s writing through out the book reminds one of those poems which stick like a toffee, haunt like a dream. The book perhaps even makes one dispossessed of faith wonder if the materiality of the world is enough for the soul’s sustenance.

The necessity to understand Sufism isn’t so that we can take on the responsibility of un-fetishizing a practice. It is if anything to better understand how this practice accommodates mourning and propels one to find comfort in the fact that Allah’s mercy is far more powerful than his wrath.

The book doesn’t just explain Sufism to the lay reader, it solidifies the kinship shared between Sufism and Islam and with each line Safvi pens, she gives back dignity to the millions of worshippers who otherwise inhabit an Islam hating world.

Aside from the historical account, the oral narratives, the status of women, the Prophet’s family who laid the foundation for faith as Muslims know it, In Search of the Divine does another remarkable thing. It emphasizes the power of faith, not just in a universal capacity but also in a personal one. Along with the book meant for review, Safvi writes in a note, “This book has been a deeply enriching experience for me.”

Her exploration isn’t in anyway, a means to legitimise Sufism. Safvi is humble enough to recognise that she doesn’t have to. If anything, her writing is to shed light on values of peace, austerity, benevolence which often miss the eye’s mark when religion is discussed in a politically charged world.

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