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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Sufism -- Book Review

By the early thirteenth century Delhi had emerged as the beating heart of the Sufi movement that had sprung in Central Asia and swept across much of north India. Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1210-35) had set himself up as the ruler of Hindustan and established his capital at Delhi. Central Asia and Iran had fallen to the Mongol hordes and a virtual exodus had begun --- of scholars, holy men and wandering mendicants. While Ajmer and Nagaur remained important centers of the Chistiya silsila, Delhi was fast gaining popularity as the axis of the Islamic east. And it was to Delhi that they came – to set up hospices, to gather the faithful around them, and to spread the word about a new kind of Islam. In the years to come, the Islam of the Sufis spread faster than the Islam of the sword in India. Soon it became the popular religion of the masses as opposed to the orthodox, often puritanical Islam of the theologian. So much so that medieval scholars referred to Delhi as Qubbatul Islam (the Cupola of Islam).

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that a woman from Delhi, especially one who revels in her appropriation of the city in every conceivable way, should write a book on Sufism. For over 25 years Sadia Dehlvi (her family name means ‘one belonging to Delhi’) has been writing about different aspects of this city: its food, culture, language, manners and mores. Her latest offering, a book on Sufism: The Heart of Islam, traces the history of Sufism, the major Sufi silsilas or Master-Pupil chains, the early Sufis, the essence of the Sufi ‘experience’ and the foundation of Sufism in faith or deen. And the repository of deen, she repeats, is the Revealed Book. Scornful of those seeking spirituality without faith, she writes: ‘New Age spiritual gurus sell package deals offering Zen without Buddhism, Vedanta without Hinduism – and now we have Sufism without Islam.’ Citing historical reasons that have perpetuated the myth of Sufism being beyond the fold of Islam, she makes an impassioned plea to both Muslims and non-Muslims: to view Sufism through the prism of Islam to truly appreciate its many-splendoured hues.

Given the increasing interest in Sufism across the world, there has been the need for a book that provides a historiography of Sufism for the general reader. For far too long, the study of Sufism has been the study of the esoteric and the other-worldly with some writers making it pedantic and polemic, others reducing it to the exotic or (worse) quaint! For equally long, writers on Sufism have done one of two things: either talked down to readers from the high pedestal of academia, or reduced Sufism to coffee-table kitsch. There has been, to my mind, a long-felt need to detach the word ‘sufism’ from the binaries of the intellectual and the unlearned, the savant and the dilettante, and place it where it belongs – among the ordinary people.

Dehlvi’s book does all this and more. While claiming few pretensions to writing a scholarly book, Dehlvi speaks with passion and clarity. She leavens her narrative with personal observations, insights and experiences. The history of Sufism becomes intertwined with Dehlvi’s personal journey; the weft of history knots with the woof of the individual to make a wonderful tapestry that is bold and honest but also warm and inviting. The book, then, becomes a rite of passage of a convent-educated cosmopolitan woman’s arrival at a full-blooded consciousness of being a Sufi. In fact, this seamless inter-weaving of the personal and the pedagogic makes Sufism an absorbing book.

Dehlvi also takes great pains to prove the imaginary separation of Islam and Sufism to be wrong and, in a sense, alien to the spirit of Islam. While Islam is the current that runs through Sufism, love for the Prophet its bedrock. In the Preface entitled ‘Tryst with Sufism’ Dehlvi states her position, a position she clarifies, reiterates and builds upon all through the book:
“The most common response on hearing the title of my book has been: ‘But what has Sufism got to do with Islam?’ I realize that Islam is perceived as a faith with harsh laws, whereas Sufism represents wonderful poetry, dance, art and an appealing form of universal love. It is difficult for some Muslims and most non-Muslims to accept that Sufism is the spiritual current that flows through Islam. Sufi Masters are called ahl e dil, ‘people of the heart’. They teach that religion has no meaning unless warmed by emotions of love, and interpret Sufism as being the heart of Islam.”

The book’s sub-title – The Heart of Islam -- runs as a sub-text all through, refuting the belief among some sections of Muslims that Sufism is bid’at or innovation, a sinful practice picked up from idol-worshipping cultures. The significance of such an assertion in an age of rising Wahabism with its call for a stern Unitarian Islam shorn of even the merest hint of ritualism is noteworthy. Dehlvi makes her strongest and most cogent case against the opponents of Sufism (the ‘literalists’ as they are called) in the chapter entitled ‘Disharmony within Islam’. She writes:
“In the rejection of classical scholarship and jurisprudence, radical modern ideologues have turned spiritual Islam into pragmatic political activism. Such stringent behaviour has created confrontational attitudes towards both non-Muslims and Muslim communities. Contrary to popular perception, the majority of Muslims worldwide practice a version of Islam which is moderate, deeply personal and spiritual. Sufi orders, veneration of Prophet Muhammad and seeking Sufi intercession are major themes from Muslim pockets ranging from China to Morocco, representing over 80 per cent of the Muslim population in the world.”
Dehlvi’s own understanding of Islam, Islamic history and events that have shaped the Islamic world is deeply influenced by the traditional Sufi interpretation of the world, that is, by wahdat ul wujood, the oneness of all existence. In a world torn by sectarian strife, the voice that speaks of harmony deserves to some attention and the pen that writes of moderation must not be ignored.


Sufism: The Heart of Islam, Sadia Dehlvi, 2009, HarperCollins, p 384

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