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A way of life and existence

Columns 2023-01-22, 1:43pm


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

From the days of earlier traders to the present, India has remained an intriguing destination of multicultural diversity, and complexity. The traders and invaders while serving their self-interests enriched the ancient land with various linguistic, religious and spiritual cultures, turning the land into a contested landscape for cross-fertilization of ideas for peaceful co-existence in a caste ridden society. Spiritual essence and mystical impulses have In Search of the Divine long been in vogue in the country, the Bhakti movement being a significant milestone propelling non-theistic wisdom traditions during the medieval period. It seems the advent of Sufism in 7th century was perfectly timed to create a composite culture.


In search of the divine

Situating the living traditions in the contested history lends it a contextualized social relevance for the present. Sufism as a way of life and worship had found resonance with the prevailing socio-spiritual revival of the time, creating its own space and following for developing emotional and ecstatic aspects of salvation. In presenting a living history of Sufism, explores its core idea and ideals, its origin and spread, and its strengths and contradictions. Inspired by her lifelong practice of Islam and backed by a decade-old journey into its Sufi traditions, author Rana Safvi connects the personal with the profound in making a case for the age-old traditions to offer a ray of hope for the future.

For the uninitiated, the author makes it clear upfront that Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but it is no different from the religion either. Reason being that Prophet Muhammad initiated the concept of tasawwuf , the Arabic term from which the word Sufism is derived, which thus remains rooted in Islam. In fact, Sufism and Islam are often used interchangeably and remain the primary link to all later silsilahs (order), a genealogy for the transference of the spiritual tradition. Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, where the seekers traverse the spiritual path to connect with their inner self, the God within. India’s syncretic culture could easily embrace this concept.  

However, the spread of Sufism in medieval period wasn’t always easy as it was attacked both from inside and outside Islam for being ‘indifferent to matters of religious law’. Had there not been the patronage of state and its elites, the Sufi tradition may not have sustained itself in the region.  While the role of Sufis in fostering a composite culture gets highlighted, the role it played in the conversion of large sections of local population to Islam is mentioned in the passing. This aspect may have been beyond the scope of the book, but for discerning reader it will remain a crucial miss in the rendition of ancient histories of living traditions. 

All said, Sufism has long fascinated people across borders and generations. It involves praying in such a way that one can experience the divine personally. Sufism evolved as a reaction to the growing materialism and worldliness, and with its insistence on knowledge, self-introspection, and gnosis produced many great scholars. However, in recent times most devotees visit dargahs for seeking divine blessings for good health and material possessions. Though beset with conflicts, dargahs and shrines are an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape. Rana Safvi’s visits to dargahs and shrines across the country provide vivid details of the its sacred atmosphere. The reverent crowds, the heavy smell of incense, and qawwalis in the courtyard extend a mystical experience.  

The Search for the Divine is a spiritual journey through many splendored hues of Sufism. It is an ambitious undertaking on a subject that has much to offer by way of peace and salvation. Considered a deeply secular tradition, Sufi poetry and music has greater following despite some of the fundamental debates on its beliefs and mystical dimensions. At a broader level, the book positions itself to address the emerging discourse of anti-Islamism in a global context. 

Sufism as a spiritual practice has survived nearly two millennia, the hope for emancipation being the umbilical link between the devotee and the shrine. Rana Safvi successful situates dargahs as centres of cosmopolitanism and a place for spiritual recluse for the troubled minds. The popular expression of zikr, qawwali, dhamaal and khayal only enrich its mystical dimensions. The book has as much for the believer as for the sceptic.

In Search of the Divine 

by Rana Safvi

Hachette, New Delhi 

Extent: 415, Price: Rs. 599.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma if a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India.)

First published in Deccan Herald on Jan 22, 2023.