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In Search of the Divine

By Bhaskar Parichha

Title: In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India

Author: Rana Safvi

Publisher: Hachette India

Sufism was a liberal reform movement within Islam. It had its origin in Persia and spread into India in the 11th century. Most of the Sufis (mystics) were persons of deep devotion who disliked the display of wealth and degeneration of morals following the establishment of the Islamic empire.

 The word ‘Sufi’ is derived from ‘suf’, which means wool in Arabic. It also means ‘purity’.Sufism or mysticism emerged in the 8th century, The early known Sufis were Rabia al-Adawiya, Al-Junaid, and Bayazid Bastami. It was a well-developed movement by the end of the 11th century. Al Hujwiri is regarded as the oldest Sufi in the sub-continent. By the 12th century, the Sufis were organized in Silsilahs.

In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi is by far the most comprehensive history of this belief system. As a scholarly book, it does more than just explain Sufism. The book elucidates how the practice is influential 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, and symbols of faith.

Says the blurb: ‘Sufism, called the mystical dimension of Islam, is known for its inclusive nature, as well as its ethics of love and compassion, its devotional music, art, and architecture. In India’s syncretic culture, Sufism developed a distinct character, and harmoniously embraced the Bhakti traditions of North India.’

A renowned writer, scholar, and translator, Rana Safvi is a passionate believer in India’s unique civilisational legacy and pluralistic culture which she documents through her writings. Author of nine books on the culture, history, and monuments of India, her A Folk Tale and Other Stories: Lesser-Known Monuments of India is a commendable book.

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 customs 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.”

She delves into the fascinating roots of Sufism, with its emphasis on ihsan, iman, and akhlaq[1], and the impact it continues to have on people from all communities. Safvi relies not only on textual sources but also on her visits to dargahs across the country, and the conversations she has with devotees and pirs alike. 

Safvi says dargahs aren’t 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 colors 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 colors come from Allah. Which color 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[2].”

The book suggests in intense detail the sacred atmosphere she encountered: 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 wide-ranging study is contemporary and also a tribute to the rich and textured past.

The book doesn’t just explain Sufism to the lay reader, it coagulates the affinity shared between Sufism and Islam. Safvi’s book lends dignity to the millions of worshippers who otherwise inhabit an Islam-loathing world.

Apart from a historical account, the books deal with the oral narratives, the status of women, and the Prophet’s family who laid the foundation for faith as Muslims know it. The elegant study emphasises the power of faith, not just in a universal capacity but also as 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.”

Safvi’s work does not make the case that Sufism is independent of Islam. She says it 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.

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

Rana Safvi’s In Search of the Divine is dignified, powerful, engrossing. Weaving together facts and popular legends, ancient histories and living traditions, this unique treatise running into more than four hundred pages examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future.


[1] Spiritual excellence, faith, act of goodness or virtue

[2] At my Khwaja’s home, there is jubilant colour
Today there is jubilant colour

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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