Finding one's path to the divine: Is the renewed popularity of Sufism in India here to stay?
A decade ago, a mysterious fire gutted the three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old ornate wooden shrine dedicated to Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, an 11th-century Sufi saint popularly known as Dastageer Sahib in Srinagar Kashmir.
While the exact reasons for the destruction of the shrine largely remain unknown, many believe that it had provoked conservative advocates of Islam for whom Sufism is a sinful practice.
The destructive incident had repercussions for millions of faith, most of which followed a gentle, mystic tradition, Sufism, a spiritual discourse that blossomed in South Asia sometime during the 11th and 12th centuries.
"Entering a shrine-dargah one leaves behind one’s customary identity of caste, creed, and religion, with this syncretism at the heart of Sufi practice in South Asia"
Older media reports inform women devotees both Hindus and Muslims letting it out with the loss of their shared space of venerations, grieving by ways of wailing as men had broken into impromptu street scuffles.
Today the shrine has been restored to its glory, standing tall in its beautiful façade in downtown Srinagar.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2022 and the shrine of Hazrat Sheikh Alauddin Ansari popularly known as Ladle Mashaikh in Aland of Kalburgi district, Karnataka is threatened by right-wing Hindutva supporters.
Aland dargah as locals call it has been an epitome of communal harmony. A 14th-century shrine patronized by Bahmani Kings of Deccan, it has generationally been a go-to place for worship and reverence not only for Muslims but for different strata of Hindu demography including the Dalits, Lingayats and other castes. It remains the same today.
Though the two incidents are spaced apart by years, they do have a common thread running through them; firstly they affirm the absence of organized religious practice, and secondly, they represent the plurality of India’s past.
Entering a shrine-dargah one leaves behind one’s customary identity of caste, creed, and religion, with this syncretism at the heart of Sufi practice in South Asia. Neither the orthodox advocates of Islam nor the right-wing nationalist supporters of Hindutva have been able to remove this despite their multiple attempts.
In the past, Sufism has been one of the central philosophical thoughts across the Indian subcontinent. However, the mystic tradition started getting side-lined post the Partition-independence of India and Pakistan.
Some of the associated heritage structures of Sufi practices like dargahs continued to function, but others were often repurposed or occupied by encroachers.
Its message of divine love, pluralism, and peace seemed to fizzle out.
Things became complicated over the last few years, as the emergent Hindutva design was to omit imprints of Muslim history. Orthodox Muslims only added to this complexity. And yet adherence to Sufism remained somewhat unfettered.
But now it seems that Sufism has returned to the public realm much more definitively and the signs of its revival are reflected in more than one way, through well-known authors, heritage activists or the experiential lives of millions whose belief system is untarnished despite the face of divisive 2023 India.
It is this history that Rana Safvi’s work seeks to explore.
Rana's book In Search of the Divine’ – Living Histories of Sufism in India is the result of a decade-long journey across India to explore the lived history of Sufi mysticism in India, seeking to refute the notion that Sufism is a bygone practice.
In doing so, Rana explains the tenets of the actual faith system: ishaq, iman and ikhlaq as well as how Sufism came to be a central practice throughout the Indian Subcontinent. The book enumerates Safvi’s countless travels to the remotest corners of the country bringing to the fore India’s multicultural past, a stark contrast to present-day India which has embraced its saffronised self, changing names of public institution places, banning certain food, and the enforcing of dress code.
She tells The New Arab “I have been documenting not only Islamic but Hindu and Buddhist monuments, including the oldest architectural remains of the earliest rock-cut caves of India”.
By doing so, Rana touches upon the central thought of Sufism: love and tolerance for all under the divine. Rana's conviction is therefore unruffled by the changing atmosphere of the country. She quips “As long as there are believers in this land, they are going to visit Sufi shrines, and shrines will persist, be it small roadside tombs of veneration or the massively represented shrines of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer or Hazrat Nizamuddin Auwliya’s at New Delhi”.
Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author, and columnist.
Follow her on Twitter: @Peachtreespeaks