'Sufism is Not an Abstract Philosophy, but a Way of Life'

Medha Dutta Yadav
15 Oct 2022
'Sufism is Not an Abstract Philosophy, but a Way of Life'

New Delhi: Rana Safvi’s In Search of the Divine (a Hachette presentation) delves into the fascinating roots of Sufism. Safvi, a renowned writer, scholar and translator, is a passionate believer in India’s unique civilisational legacy and pluralistic culture which she documents through her writings, podcasts and videos.

She has published nine books so far. This unique treatise examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future. Excerpts from an interview:

This book weaves facts and popular legends, ancient histories, and living traditions. How challenging was putting it all together?

The book took shape as I wrote it since I was studying academic texts, visiting shrines, and talking to devotees. It changed considerably from its original format as I delved deeper and realised that how devotees interact with their favourite Saint and his/her shrine is very dynamic. It was very challenging to put down metaphysical concepts, people’s understanding of them, and the history of the shrines in a very engaging and easy-to-understand way.

How would you interpret Sufism for the layman?

Sufism is not an abstract philosophy but a way of life and worship which leads to ethical and spiritual perfection as exemplified by the Prophet with his emphasis on ihsan (doing beautiful deeds) and akhlaq (exemplary character traits) and devoting oneself to the contemplation (of Allah)—a stream of interpretation emphasising the interior path of mystical love and knowledge of God.

Sufism boasts inclusivity. Does the modern world have a place for Sufism?

Today more than ever we need inclusiveness. And the crowds in Indian dargahs that I see are a testimony to the warmth and inclusiveness that people feel there.

If the divine is within us, why are we searching for the divine?

We are caught in a web of ritualism and thus forget that the Divine is within us. This book is aimed at connecting us to our spiritual side.

The title is derived from Kabir’s doha:

Mo ko kahan dhoonde hai re bande

Main to tere paas mein

Where do you search for me?

I am within you

Sufism talks of God’s mercy. Is that what attracts people to it?

In a world where the emphasis is on punishments, especially in the afterlife, it is important to talk of God’s mercy which encompasses all rather than His wrath. God’s eternal beauty and not His wrath is a very attractive concept, and that I think is what attracted people to Sufism and Bhakti movements.

You say Sufism is firmly rooted in Islam, yet many thinkers have differentiated between the two. How did this misrepresentation come to be?

This misinterpretation came from limited knowledge and no meaningful engagement with the religion and was fuelled merely by news coverage of fanatical factions and Islamist militia. Thus, for many Islam was/is regressive and fundamentalist and Muslims are made out to be ‘fanatical, violent, and lacking tolerance.’

Did the Bhakti Movement and Sufism interact in India?

At the same time as the spread of Islam in Arabia and Central Asia, a new movement started in South India in the eighth century, which has been named the Bhakti movement. The word Bhakti means devotion, love and worship of the divine. It signified the devotees’ deep emotional connection and love for a personal god.

By the eighth century the mystical movement—Sufism—had started in Islam that was also focused on the love of the divine. Somewhere in its second phase from mid-13th to 17th century these two movements met in North India and influenced each other.

When love for the divine consumes one heart and soul, true bhakti or devotion emerges and that love is all-consuming. Whether fana in Sufism or nirvana in the Bhakti movement—the end result is the same: spending your life in remembrance of the divine and annihilating self in it.

Did the adaptation of Indic traditions into Sufism help its spread in India?

Sufism had already been influenced by the Christian ascetics in its initial stages and Buddhist monks. In fact, the woollen coat or suf from which the name was derived was similar to the one worn by the Christian ascetics.

Breathing practices like habs e dum, and dhyan or meditation were practices probably assimilated from Buddhism. While practices, such as the upside-down 40-day chillahe makuz (ultisadhna), were adopted from Hinduism.

Use of the vernacular in poetry and literature generously sprinkled with Indic idioms and metaphors helped to connect to the people.

Could you elaborate on the importance of pluralistic culture and where it stands today?

India’s unity in diversity, a phrase we grew up learning as children came from the years of migration to the fertile plains of India of people from different countries in Asia. And over the years a unity developed from this coming together of different ethnic, cultural and religious communities.

Today, this is being challenged where it is felt that one culture subsumed the other but that is a misconception. Composite culture is based on reciprocity and overlapping of different cultures which facilitated the expression of different cultures with a foregrounding for equality between them rather than assimilating them into one singular entity.

Which is that one Sufi shrine you would suggest all visit and why?

This is a difficult question as I have many favourites but for ease of visiting since it is in the capital and very centrally located I would suggest Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah in Delhi, especially during ‘Basant’ celebrations to catch a glimpse of our syncretic traditions.

And one must visit Qutub Sahib’s dargah during the celebrations of ‘Phool Waalon Ki Sair’ which epitomises Hindustan for me.

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