Islam and Sufism have attracted numerous scholars, both academic and popular, in the last half a century. Books written from the perspective of western academics, sometimes, place Sufism on the threshold of Islam or as a mystical dimension. Others attempt to separate Sufism from Islam and present it as a reaction to the formalist and more recent radical tendencies in Islam. Academic scholarship in the Indian context has presented Sufism as a deeply secular tradition. On the other hand, popular works deeply appreciate Sufi poetry and music. The study of Sufism, therefore, looks like a jigsaw puzzle and its relationship with Islam remains, at best, peripheral.
Rana Safvi’s book connects these varied strands and narrates a living history of Sufism. Divided into 19 chapters, this book explores some of the fundamental debates, ideas and ideals of Sufism; its origins, spread, branches and shrines spread across the subcontinent. The introductory chapters address the emerging discourse of anti-Islamism in a global context. There is a detailed discussion exploring the rise of Islam, emphasising the significance of rooting tasawwuf in the core tenets, and how Delhi emerges as a ‘threshold of 22 saints’.
It is important to note that despite the terrible human tragedy on the eve of Partition, the power of a saint’s body and shrine to grant boons and healing has remained a salient feature of popular veneration. Rana Safvi argues that this broad reception of Sufism is also rooted in Prophet Muhammad’s commitment to religious tolerance and peace-building.
This association is fundamentally connected to the spiritual inheritance of Islam. Therefore, it is not the political forbearers of Islam who extended caliphates in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and Asia who are celebrated in the Sufi traditions. Rather, it is Prophet Muhammad and his family — Bibi Fatima, Hazrat Ali, Hassan and Hussain — who are most revered. This ‘Shia’ dimension of the Sufi lineage is centred in the structure of the book and narrated through the Persian and Urdu poetry and anecdotes associated with Hazrat Ali. He occupies the prominent place of a maula, the first Muslim, who, along with the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, were the first to read kalimah. This spiritual and political dimension also, apparently, gave rise to the Shia and Sunni schism in Islam, leading to the Battle of Karbala.
Rana Safvi presents tasawwuf as a process of becoming a Sufi, a path or a journey which enables a direct personal experience of God. Narrating her own travels to several places of pilgrimage in India, the Middle East and Iran, she foregrounds Prophet Muhammad as the first Sufi and the primary link of all later silsilahs, a genealogy that is critical to the transference of the spiritual tradition. Hazrat Ali, who is the inheritor of this tradition, also becomes its transmitter to Chishti, Qadiriya and Suhrawardi silsilahs who considered him their Khalifa.
A major part of the book focuses on this transference and arrival of saint mystics in India, leading to the establishment of silsilahs. Sufism’s spread in medieval India wasn’t always easy as its ritual practices of offering chadar, sama and qawwali were at odds with the class of the ulemas. Nevertheless, the patronage of state and non-Muslim elites to Sufi saint shrines and their successors provided both sustenance and protection from the onslaught of the religious orthodoxy of the time.
The historical evolution of Sufism in India also coincides with the rise and migration of Turks and Mongols from Central Asia. Mongols’ devastating raids in Persia and Afghanistan pushed a lot of mystics towards India and they found a safe haven in the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century. This led to the rise of saint hagiographies, devotional poetry and malfuzat literature. This literature became a guiding script of rituals, music, poetry and Sufi path, promoting both classical Persian and vernacular languages.
The survival of Sufism today can be attributed to the connectedness of saint shrines to devotees and their ordinary lives. Thus, Rana Safvi situates saint shrines as centres of cosmopolitanism and underlines their ability to adapt in a local context. This popular expression of zikr, qawwal, dhamaal and khayal is intrinsically rooted in what Annemarie Schimmel calls the mystical dimensions of Islam.