Sufi dargahs all over India draw more worshippers than mosques. The mosques are for
congregational prayers, with larger attendances at set times on Friday and religious days such as Eid
ul Fitr, Eid ul Azha and Eid e Milad un Nabi, than on other days.
Sufi dargahs have worshippers coming round the clock and besides Muslims, draw Hindus and
Sikhs in large numbers. Indeed, in Indian Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, besides the Muslim
caretakers (mujawirs) appointed by the Waqf Board, worshippers are almost entirely non-Muslims.
I believe this strange anomaly is due to the fact that people go to mosques to offer namaz (prayers)
as prescribed by the tradition set by the holy Prophet (sunnah). They visit Sufi dargahs to beg for
favours: the sick come to be healed, women to beg for happy married lives and to be able to bear
children, while some even come to beg for success in cases pending before law courts.
Clear evidence of this phenomenon is offerings of ornate coverings (chadar) to drape the grave, and
the red strings tied on the marble trellis around tombs as wishes (murmur) with promises of giving in
charity—the most popular being provisions for the community kitchen (langar) where the hungry are
fed free of charge. One has only to visit the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Gharib Nawaz
(Patron of the Poor) and see the huge cauldrons in which rice and lentils are cooked to feed
thousands who come to be fed. As mosques are most frequented on Fridays, dargahs draw larger
crowds on Thursday afternoons and evenings where there are qawaalis, at times spontaneous
dancing and people passing out in a trance (hal).
Orthodox Muslims of the Wahabi or Deoband beliefs disapprove of qabar parasti (worshippers of
tombs) as un-Islamic. You will see that all dargahs are built around the graves of Sufi saints. It is their
names that are invoked by seekers of favours.
Reverence of the Sufi saints continues even after their life. Most Muslims like to be buried close to
where their patron saint rests. In Delhi the two largest graveyards are around the tombs of Hazrat
Nizamuddin Auliya and Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. Muslims believe that on the Day of
Judgement their Pir (spiritual mentor) will intercede on their behalf with Allah.
An aspect of Sufism in India must always be kept in mind. It was not Muslim invaders who
converted millions of Indians to Islam by the sword, as many historians tell us, but the gentle
preachings of Sufi saints who opened their hospices and welcomed men and women of all castes and
creeds to join their brotherhood. And they did so in large numbers, of their own free will. Of the
dozen or so Sufi silsilas (orders) the most prominent was the Chishtiya to which most of the saints
mentioned in Sadia Dehlvi’s compilation belonged.
Another important aspect of Sufi teachings was its impact on the saints of the indigenous Bhakti
movement in northern India. It included saints like Kabir, Namdev, Tukaram, Nanak and the Sikh
gurus. No better evidence is to be found of the phenomenon than the inclusion of their hymns in the
Sikh holy scripture Granth Sahib, compiled by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev. This was installed in
the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar whose foundation stone was laid by the Sufi Mian
Mir of the Qadriya silsila. There are 134 hymns by Baba Farid Shakarganj (1173-1265 AD). I
quote one of the most popular among Sikhs:
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.
However, I do understand that Sufism has come to mean something quite different in the language of
the New Age. Disillusioned with religion and the problems associated with it in secular democratic
societies, people tend to mix and match elements from various religious traditions that personally
appeal to them. In the following narrative I have attempted to explain how Islam and Sufism are
inseparable. The Quran informs us that Islam is not something that began with Prophet Muhammad
se some 1400 years ago, but with the creation of the universe in which Adam was the first Prophet.
Sufism is the timeless art of awakening the higher consciousness through submission to the Divine
Will. The Sufi doctrine goes far beyond history and is rooted in the primordial covenant all unborn
souls made with their Creator.
Many friends view my visits to dargahs, Sufi tombs, as senseless medieval superstition. Some
orthodox Muslims even insist that Sufism is an innovation in Islam—a sinful practice that our
ancestors picked up from Hindu idol-worshipping traditions. They reason that since most of our
ancestors were Hindus, some of us are still using pagan methods like singing to please the gods.
It is true that like most Muslims in the subcontinent, my ancestors professed the Hindu faith. I have a
family tree that goes right up to someone called Om Prakash Arora. My forefathers settled in Delhi
during the mid-seventeenth century when it was under Mughal rule. We belonged to a
Saraiki-speaking community from the district of Bhaira, close to the city of Multan. According to
family legend, a group from the community was travelling to Hardwar for a dip in the holy Ganges.
On the way they met the Sufi Shamsuddin Tabriz (not to be confused with Rumi’s master) who
asked them if they would accept Islam if he brought the Ganges right before their eyes, The miracle
took place and each one of them converted to the Sufi’s faith.
Delhi was chosen as the city to migrate, and many families still use the Sufi`s name Shamsi for a
surname. Despite entering the fold of Islam at the hands of a Sufi, the majority of the community hold
extreme Wahabi beliefs and dismiss those of us seeking intercession to God through Sufis, as
heretical ‘grave worshipping people.
My grandfather, whom we called Abba, added Dehlvi (one belonging to Delhi) to his name, which
became the family title. Abba was a successful man who began life in a modest way He published
Shama magazine, which grew to become the country’s leading film and literary publication. Eight
more magazines followed, which established our family as one of the leading publishing houses of the
time. Despite the riches and glory that followed, Abba remained humble and attributed his life’s
success to the blessing of God and the Sufis. He was a hafiz, memorizer of the Quran, and each
dawn the house resounded with his recital of its verses. Ever since I can remember, he visited the
dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya every Sunday and the dargah of Hazrat Shah Farhad every
Thursday. He had huge cauldrons of food distributed at these places. Even during the last days of his
life when he was bedridden, he requested to be taken to both these dargahs on a wheelchair. I
accompanied Abba on his last trip and saw him weep like a child at the threshold of the Sufis.
My grandmother, Amma, did not accompany him on these visits to the dargahs and did not believe in
Sufi intercession. Amma and Abba lived in matrimonial harmony, never letting their varied beliefs
hamper their love and respect for each other. As children we were taught the basic Islamic values but
were largely left to discover our own path. The pattern continued with my parents except that my
mother went the Sufi way while my father along with his siblings, followed their mother’s beliefs. In a
way my family represents the fundamental difference of uqeeda, creed, between Muslim
Throughout his life, Abba remained steadfast in prayer and charity during his life, we knew no
trouble. Following his demise, the family landscape changed where everything began to collapse.
Family relationships deteriorated and one by one the magazines closed down. Two decades later all
our fortunes vanished and the huge ancestral house in which we lived had to be sold. My father who
sometimes visited Sufi dargahs, discontinued the tradition and could no longer afford carrying on the
extravagant charitable activities of his father. The troubles increased and it felt like all of us had lost
our protective cover. I began to read something awful into the way our lives were turning. I believed
we had forgotten the path Abba had consistently walked on.
When we sold our house in Diplomatic Enclave, Delhi, I wanted to live near the dargah of Hazrat
Nizamuddin Auliya and considered myself lucky on finding a flat there. Each Thursday I light a
candle for my beloved grandfather and seek the blessings of Delhi’s patron Sufi. I would also like to
share the miracle of my son’s birth. The best of infertility specialists had categorically told me that
due to various complications it appeared virtually impossible for me to have a child. I was 32 years
old, with the biological clock ticking away I wanted a child desperately but the doctors were not
hopeful. My mother reprimanded me for giving up hope and despairing upon Gods Gods graces.
She advised me to go to the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti popularly called Gharib Nawaz,
Patron of the Poor. I travelled to Ajmer and pleaded for his blessings, vowing to come back for
thanksgiving if the prayers were granted. In Delhi, I regularly visited the dargah of Hazrat Shah
Farhad and lit candles for the grant of a child. I had seen dozens of childless couples being blessed
with babies through the many years that I had been going there.
My prayers were answered and a few months later there was an embryo kicking away in my womb,
causing boundless joy my son Arman Ali was born in Karachi through a Caesarean section and while
being wheeled away after the operation I faintly heard the doctor comment on the miracle birth.
According to the Islamic calendar, Arman is born on the sixth of Rajab, a date that marks the annual
years, death anniversary of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz. The sixteen-year-old lad is a musically talented
child, a gift that I believe is from the Sufi Master.
Each year we both make an annual pilgrimage to Ajmer for the years and bow our heads in gratitude
to Khwaja. Along with thousands of other aashiqs, lovers, I queue for long hours to touch the
threshold. After offering a chadar, sheet, on the tomb, I pour my heart out to Khwaja. Sitting in the
Begum Dalan, the pillared marble porch constructed by Jehanara, the eldest daughter of the Mughal
Emperor Shahjehan, I listen to qawaalis and try absorbing the nur, radiance, flowing from the
gumbad, dome. Every sunrise and sunset, thousands of little birds miraculously arrive from all
directions on the tree adjacent to the tomb in time for the prayers and then fly off again, never
shedding their droppings on Khwaja’s white dome. I envy their ability to fly across the desert hills
each day to sing praises of Khwaja e Khwajgaan, the Master of all Masters.
Sufism essentially consists of a path that teaches how to free oneself from the ego and rise to higher
spiritual levels. The road is endless and how far one wishes to travel is largely a matter of personal
choice. The Sufi way contains a method of guidance and transformation that is not an easy route. I
must admit that writing this book has changed me completely I began working on the manuscript at
the lowest ebb in my life. A time when one was battling with feelings of guilt, betrayal, grief, and
desperately low levels of self-esteem. Witnessing the collapse of family fortunes and relationships, life
had fallen like a pack of cards around me. Amongst the rubble I searched for the lost values of
respect, love, trust, honesty, and loyalty, and sought the strength of my family with whom I had
grown up. The only life I knew was over and I couldn’t find the courage to make a new one.
For years I cried in my sleep, haunted by ghosts that made me feel sad and bitter. While researching
the biographies and discourses of the Sufi Masters, I slowly began to understand traumatic
experiences as both nourishing and necessary for those who truly seek to purify and liberate the
mind, body and soul. A particular passage from the Chishti Master Baba Farid’s life impacted me
deeply. The Sufi blessed his disciples with the prayer, ‘May God endow you with pain?
Although I had been initiated in the Chishti Sufi order more than two decades ago, my levels of faith
often fluctuated with my mood swings. At times I did not wish to believe in anything anymore.
Flashes of a turbulent life forced me into self—reflection. Slowly, I managed to unravel the mysteries
of pain and how it confronts you with your own arrogance. From a “why me’ attitude, my emotions
changed to, `why not me’ I discovered that spiritual endeavours leading to states of ecstasy were
usually rooted in grief. God, by His own admission to Moses, revealed that He lived in broken
hearts. All Sufis believe that both affliction and bounties are the blessings of God. Something stirred
my soul and I began to see myself as blessed rather than cursed by God. It changed my relationship
with Him from one of animosity to one of friendship and love.
I made a conscious, sustained effort to apply some basic principles of Sufism to my shattered life. I
vowed to develop rida, resignation to the will of Allah; tawakkul, trust in Him; sabr, patience; and
mohabba, love. I found that it soon provided me the strength of a lioness and the flight of a falcon. I
no more fear life or death, for I see life as an endurance of God’s will, and death as something that
unifies us with the Creator.
Regarding more mundane matters, I do not particularly agree with the usage of the word
“fundamentalists’ and its interpretation by society at large and by the media in particular.
Nevertheless, if we go by its definition of being anti—modern, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and
Buddhism all have almost 20 per cent of followers who could be called fundamentalists. Similarly
Muslim orthodoxy flowing from the Wahabi, Salafi and Ahle Hadith ideologies that remain opposed
to Sufi intercession, exceed no more than 20 per cent in the world. Their voices are louder and
therefore we do not get to hear enough from the silent majority of Sufi followers.
Regretfully, the non-Muslim and particularly Western perceptions of Islam barely acknowledge its
spiritual aspects. Hostility to the Muslims peaked in the twelfth century when horrific villainous
pictures of the Messenger as a crafty politician were propagated. Some objective studies were done
in England and France during the Renaissance period, but even these writings carried medieval
biases that continued to caricature Prophet Muhammad as the spirit of darkness and a wicked
impostor. In such an environment the Prophets spiritual brilliance, mystic experiences and humanistic
ideals were completely ignored. The prejudices of over a thousand years have blinkered people’s
vision, and those uninitiated on the Sufi path are often startled to hear that the Messenger of Islam
remains the primary source for Sufism.
Many authors continue writing derogatorily of the Prophet with an arrogant indifference. Some are
even honoured by state governments for their warped creativity such writers present dramatic
examples of the extremes to which an image can be destroyed, corrupted and then popularized
globally. It makes sincere efforts of interfaith dialogue and mutual respect practically impossible.
Negative writings on Islam have resulted in a lack of appreciation of its history and
culture—particularly in the understanding of the passion and veneration Muslims have for their
Prophet. Devout Muslims will never utter the name of Prophet Muhammad without following it with a
durood, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, “May peace be upon him In print the blessing is usually
abbreviated after the mention of his name, or calligraphed as in this book. The tradition is based
upon a Prophetic saying, “Whoever utters a blessing for me is blessed by the angels as often as he
recites the blessing, be it often or rarely’
I have been deeply concerned about the extreme voices within the Muslim community. Islam
increasingly seems to have been hijacked by the discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage. In
attempts to enquire of the crisis, I began the journey of trying to understand Islam and read the
Quran with scholarly guidance. I turned to the traditional Islamic teachings of Imam Junayd of
Baghdad, Imam Ghazalli, Imam Nawawi, Imam Mawlud and other recognized classical scholars.
Through the internet I heard lectures of the American Islamic scholars Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Shaykh
Nuh Keller, the British scholar Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad) and Dr Tahir ul Qadri of Pakistan.
I learnt that Islam was clearly about moderation and reflection, and how Prophet Muhammad had
warned us of extremism. What I love about the Quran is that it constantly urges us to reflect and
reassures us that Humanity is the best of creation. It reminds us that Mercy and Compassion are the
foremost of Allah’s attributes. The answers to many issues facing Muslim communities can be found
in revisiting the scholarship of the Sufis. These Masters have established traditions of knowledge
transmission that go back all the way to Prophet Muhammad § who said, “Pass on knowledge from
me even if it is only one verse?
In a world where the debate on ‘clash of civilizations threatens to rage on, it is essential to dismantle
the old myths and propaganda about Islam. I have written this book so that readers may have some
understanding of Islamic traditions. I have used verses from the Quran not to establish Sufi linkages
with Islam, but because Sufism cannot be understood without references to the holy book. I would
have preferred to use modern translations of the Quran but chose Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version for it
remains the most widely accepted translation in the world, first published in 1938 simultaneously in
Lahore, Cairo and Riyadh.
I have presented the book in traditional styles used both orally and in textual Muslim discourses. It
begins with a verse from the Quran, Hamd, a poem in praise of Allah, followed by Naat, verses
honouring Prophet Muhammad. All chapters begin with the calligraphy of the words ‘Bismillah hir
Rahman air Rahim’—In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. I have used the
internationally accepted spellings for Arabic words, for example dhikr for what is usally pronounced
zikr in the subcontinent, mohabba for mohabbat, rida for reza, tareeqa for tareeqat, haqeeqa for
haqeeqat, Sharia for Shariat and marifa for marfiat. Since this book aims at a wide readership, I have
refrained from using diacritical marks and hyphenations in the proper names.
My Sufi Master Shah Muhammad Farooq Rahmani was the principal Khalifa of Shah Inam ur
Rahman Qudoosi of the Qadri, Chishti, Nizami and Sabri Orders. He emphasized that Sufis are
torch-bearers to the path of righteousness. He believed that for those unable to seek the sohbat,
company of Sufis, reading and being aware about their life and teachings are blessings. The mystic
began each discourse with the words, 'Those who are true in their intent, those who have complete
faith and those who seek the Truth are the ones who successfully achieve their goal? He lamented
that the biographers of the Sufis focussed more on their miracles than on their inner struggle,
character and teachings.
Prophet Muhammad § said, “I swear by the God who controls my life, He loves those who awaken
the love of Him amongst the people? Another Prophetic tradition affirms, 'The ink of the scholar is
more sacred than the blood of the martyr? These words sustained my efforts through the four years
that it has taken to complete the manuscript.
I am not a scholar and since this is my first book, it probably has many shortcomings. All the
weaknesses in the book are mine; all praise is His. I hope readers find it beneficial and that some of
the contents ignite their hearts with the love of the Lord. I seek the blessings of the Blessed, those
whose life and teachings are recorded here. I pray that the Lord grant me guidance, providence and
may He bless us all.
Back of the Book
Sufism, says Sadia Dehlvi, is the preserved spiritual path that forms the heart of Islam.
In this engaging narrative dealing mainly with the subcontinent, she draws on a range of
Muslim texts and traditions to show that Sufism is not an innovation, but the continuity of a thought
process that links Muslims to their religious predecessors all the way to Prophet Muhammad.
The book delves into the remarkable lives of the early Sufis, their literature, and their
philosophies that emphasize the purification of the heart. It highlights the major Sufi orders, their
popularity in the subcontinent and the impact of the teachings of the Sufi Masters on the devotional
aspect of Islam.
From the early days of Islam to the modern-day concerns of militant ideologies, the
author picks up each strand of religious debate to explore its history and its implications for human
civilization, and in the process offers an insightful assessment of the complex relationship of Sufism
with both Muslim and non-Muslim societies.
‘A refreshing look at Islam through Sadia Dehlvi’s personal journey in discovering her
faith. This timely book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand Islam in general or
Sufism in particular. In a blend of history, politics, sociology and spirituality, the book urges you to
reflect on the sensitivities of a religion that is impacting the world today.’
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