Review – Sufism: The Heart of Islam

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.

sadiaBy 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.

About Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil is the media and cultural coordinator at Jamia Millia Islamia. Her latest book is 'Invisible City: Hidden Monuments'.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review – Sufism: The Heart of Islam

  1. M Naqqaad says:

    The very statement that the Islam of Sufi’s, whatever that means, spread faster than that of sword is a lie and unnecessary one. All the Muslims are by default Sufi’s who by compulsion need to follow the greatest Sufi of this universe that is the Prophet (PBUH) and his immediate followers as well. We very well know that the battles for survival during his time are misused as a military-economic adventure by the very people who used arm forces to export so called ‘civility’. Let us remember that the total casualties during all the battles of the Prophet was less than the innocent killed by the follower of Jesus Christ after his claimed crucification. Similarly, Ms Sadia’s and that of the reviewer’s statements can be taken as a proof by the communals that Islam indeed spread with the sword and not the Word. It is irresponsible writing simultaneously with proposal of different strands of Islam which is not Islam but diversions by the claimants and followers who have divided themselves into Wahhabis, Deobandis and Sufis etc. Now to ascribe this as version of Islam is blasphemous. Let me remind Ms Dehlvi and her type is that do not promote any thought as a version of Islam. In the current scenario more so because the pliable group who claims to be following the great ulema (scholars and practitioner) of Islam like Hazrat Ghareeb Nawaaz and Hazrat Nizamudden (ra) though all the non-sense happens at Ajmer Shareef. If you dismiss their misdeeds as not following the teaching of the Hazrat, by the same token you should do it to the opposed group which you claim is non-Sufi. Another thing is that those who claim to be Sufis are not more than professional artists like Daler Mehndi or many folk singers who come from Pakistan singing qawwalis. The have ‘nights’ where the organisers serve them five stars which includes pork and wines as happens at starred hotel and start the night programme not bothering about Maghrib, Isha and the following Fajr namaaz not to talk about the tahajjud these sufiyah practiced. They themselves do not send their offspring to any Wali but to convents and so called school of repute to learn the world. Now, had they convinced about the all encompassment of world in Sufiyat albeit of their own brand, how come they are not putting their generation next on this very True Path? Simultaneously, those very people who arrange these nights for the moderate people, is some of their employees ask few minutes for namaaz, they ask the religion to be kept at home while their own ‘religious’ practice is not more than entertainment of shame and of public disorder. I remember the case of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar who campaigned for Taslimma Nassrin but as soon as she whispered about some discrimination people as if were ready with stats asking how many she want. This shows how much hate people have for any name sounding Muslim. They do not bother about which so called version you follow, Barelvi, Wahhabi, Deobandi, Ahle Hadess, Shia, Sunni, Khoja or Bohra!! To them the common cumulative target is Muslim. I am sure if Ms Sadia tells about railway station named after Hazrat Nizamuddeen to be called so in railways, where they announce it as ‘Nye-jhum-din’, she will be shouted down as was Mr Abdur Rahman Antulay (and not the usual AR Antulay), so is true of Gareeb Nazaaj Express (Ghareeb Nawaaz expres غریب نواز). You people, claimant of peace should remember that you are always saleable till the time you utility is, so do not sell with a weakness stand because nothing comes the way of weak. Being strong never means you are armed to teeth like the Zionists but it is about point of standing. Always a strong group has been more generous and free of sense of loss than otherwise. Your writings do more damage to Islam than its adversaries. May Allah give you the courage to find real Islam without rejecting any others idea as false, we never know who is right and the Day of Judgment is the only venue we’d know who was at fault. So, pray and seek Allah’s blessings in this last decade of the Ramazaan and seek His forgiveness if we have erred. There are other avenues to earn and live and He is the provider.

  2. faheemkamran says:

    What Does “Islam” Mean?

    The word “Islam” itself means “Submission to Allah.” The religion of Islam is not named after a person as in the case of “Christianity” which was named after Jesus Christ, “Buddhism” after Gutama Buddha , “Marxism” after Karl Marx, and “Confucianism” after Confucius.

    Similarly, Islam is not named after a tribe like “Judaism” after the tribe of Judah and “Hinduism” after the Hindus. The Arabic word “Islam” means the submission or surrender of one’s will to the will of the only true god worthy of worship, “Allah” (known as God “the Father” in Christianity).

    Anyone who does indeed submit to the will of Allah as required by Islam is termed a “Muslim,” which means one who has submitted to the will of Allah. Many people in the West have developed the sad misinformed trend of calling Islam “Muhammadenism” and it’s followers “Muhammadins.” This is a totally foreign word to Muslims and unrecognized by them. No Muslim has ever called his religion “Muhammadenism” or called himself a “Muhammadin.”

    What Is The Basic Concept of Islam?

    Islam teaches us that this life is a life of worship. We are placed on this earth in order to worship Allah and obey His command. During this earthly life we are subjected to a series of trials. We have the option of enduring these trials and conforming to certain laws, and our reward will be great in the next life, or we may decline to endure these trials and choose to not conform to the law, then we will be made to regret it in the next life.

    Each person will be solely and completely responsible for their own final reward. We are also told that God has designed these laws to make this life a better, safer, and more tolerable one for us. If we elect to conform to them then we will see the result in this life even before moving on to the next.
    We are told that the earthly life is a life of faith and work, and the next life is one of reward and no work. We have been placed on this earth to worship God, fast, pray, be industrious, good, kind, respectful, and a source of uprightness and morality. We are told that God has no need of our worship. Our worship can not increase the kingdom of God nor add to His power, however, it is in our best interests both in this life and the next that we do.

    Unlike some other religions which claim that God entered in a covenant with a certain group of people and that this group is genetically better than all other human beings, or closer to God, Islam on the other hand teaches that no color, race, tribe, or lineage is better than any other. Islam teaches that all humans are equal in the sight of Allah and that the only thing that can distinguish them in His sight is their piety and worship.

    “O humankind! Verily! We have created you from a male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily! the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing. Verily! Allah is The Knower, The Aware.” The noble Qur’an, Al-Hujrat(49):13.

    Learn quran because it’s the best way to feel Islam learn quran online, learn quran http://www.learningquranonline.com learn quran online, learn quran

  3. Sayed Wasim says:

    As Salamu Aliekum….

    I second with both brother M Naqqaad and faheemkamran…..

    Islam spread with the sword????… Are ma’am it’s was the sword of peace, brotherhood, righteousness, truth, humanity and so on…. whenever i read or watch or listen u on TV, i feel like debating u and ur so called sufi values… Which for u is ur real Islam…..

    Allah(SWT), will ask all those on the day of judgment who take mediators, negotiator like wali’s and sufi’s between him and themselves, to go and ask for help from them and not me, as u always chanted his name and not mine i.e. like Ya Gaus(RA), Ya Ali(RA) and so on… Allah(SWT) hate the most when we associate partners with him…

    I just hope sister Sadia will take pain to understand the real Islam from the Holy Quran and Sahi Ahadit….

    Oh! Allah please forgive us from all our sins and guide us to the path of those who received ur mercy and blessing and not on the path of those who astray….Aameen…..

    Wassalam….

  4. Ahsan Khan says:

    M. Naqqaad has made some interesting and valid points of the lack of Islamic adab among modern Sufi enthusiasts but if he had read Ms Dehalvi’s book he would have realized that she decries this very irreligiosity and attempt to delink Tasawuf from Islam. Also what is happening in dargahs up and down the country in the name of Sufism is a gross misrepresentation of what Tasawuf stands for which is simply gaining taqwa/ control of nafs and purification of the heart while remaining within the bounds of Sharia.

    Regarding the point of decrying that Islam was spread by the sword there is a clear double speak at work.I have read Zakir Naik’s refutation as well but I wish he would say the same thing in Saudi Arabia.I know what the Wahabis teach as I grew up there.The Wahabis and their Saudi sponsored “scholars” take clear pride in the view that the Islam was spread by the sword and scorn those who deny this as defeatist weak Muslims.They want to give all kuffar 3 choices- accept Islam, or live as dhimmis under Islamic rule and pay jaziya or fight.

    Here are some interesting extracts from the answer to the same question asked to a popular Wahabi website. I wonder how people would respond to this view of how Islam was/ should be spread and if they agree with it or not.

    http://www.islam-qa.com/en/ref/43087/did%20islam%20spread%20by%20sword

    “Allaah sent him – meaning the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) – with the guiding Book and the conquering sword, ahead of the Hour, so that Allaah alone would be worshipped with no partner or associate, and his provision was placed beneath the shade of his sword and spear. Allaah has established the religion of Islam with proof and evidence, and with the sword and spear, both together and inseparable.

    This is some of the evidence from the Qur’aan and Sunnah. The evidence clearly indicates that the sword is one of the most important means that led to the spread of Islam.

    1 – Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

    2 – Allaah has commanded us to prepare the means of fighting against the kuffaar and frightening them. He says (interpretation of the meaning):

    “And make ready against them all you can of power, including steeds of war (tanks, planes, missiles, artillery) to threaten the enemy of Allaah and your enemy, and others besides whom, you may not know but whom Allaah does know”

    [al-Anfaal 8:60]

    If Islam was only spread by peaceful means, what would the kuffaar have to be afraid of? Of mere words spoken on the tongue? In al-Saheehayn it is narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “I have been supported with fear as far as a month’s journey.”

    Would the kuffaar be afraid of being told, “become Muslim, but if you do not then you are free to believe and do whatever you want”? or were they afraid of jihad and the imposition of the jizyah and being humiliated? That may make them enter Islam so that they may be spared this humiliation.

    3 – When the Messenger called people to Islam, his call was accompanied by the sword, and he commanded his leaders to do likewise, so that when the people saw the serious of the Muslims in calling people to their religion, that dispelled any confusion.

    So this call to Islam was accompanied by the force of arms.

    Muslim (3261) narrated that Buraydah said: When the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) appointed a commander to lead an army or a raiding party, he would advise him to fear Allaah with regard to himself and the Muslims with him, then he said: “Fight in the name of Allaah and for the sake of Allaah. Fight those who disbelieve in Allaah, fight but do not steal from the war booty (before it is shared out), betray, or mutilate. Do not kill children. If you meet your enemy of the mushrikeen, call them to three things, and whichever one of them they respond to, accept that from them and leave them alone. Then call them to Islam and if they respond, accept that from them and leave them alone. If they refuse but they pay the jizyah, then they have responded to you, so accept that from them and leave them alone. If they refuse then seek the help of Allaah and fight them…”

    So the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) told his commanders to call the kuffaar to Islam whilst wielding their swords over their heads. If they refused to become Muslim then they should pay the jizyah with humility. If they refused then there was nothing left for them but the sword – “If they refuse then seek the help of Allaah and fight them”

    4 – The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “I have been sent ahead of the Hour with the sword so that Allaah will be worshipped alone, and my provision has been placed in the shade of my spear, and humiliation has been decreed for those who go against my command, and whoever imitates a people is one of them.” Narrated by Ahmad, 4869; Saheeh al-Jaami’, 2831.

    The fact that the sword and power were means of spreading Islam is not a sources of shame for Islam, rather it is one of its strengths and virtues, because that makes people adhere to that which will benefit them in this world and in the Hereafter. Many people are foolish and lacking in wisdom and knowledge, and if they are left to their own devices they will remain blinded to the truth, indulging in their whims and desires. So Allaah has prescribed jihad in order to bring them back to the truth and to that which will benefit them. Undoubtedly wisdom dictates that the fool should be prevented from doing that which will harm him, and should be forced to do that which will benefit him.

    Al-Bukhaari (4557) narrated that Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “ ‘You (true believers in Islamic Monotheism, and real followers of Prophet Muhammad and his Sunnah) are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind’ [Aal- Imraan 3:110 – interpretation of the meaning].” He said: “You are the best (i.e., the most beneficial) of people for mankind, you bring them in the chains that are around their necks until they enter Islam.” Can people be brought in chains except in the case of jihad??

    This is something for which Islam deserves to be praised, not condemned. The defeatists should fear Allaah lest they distort this religion and cause it to become weak on the basis of the claim that it is a religion of peace. Yes, it is the religion of peace but in the sense of saving all of mankind from worshipping anything other than Allaah and submitting all of mankind to the rule of Allaah. This is the religion of Allaah, not the ideas of any person or the product of human thought, so that those who promote it should feel ashamed to state its ultimate goal, which is that all religion (worship) should be for Allaah alone. When the ideas that people follow are all produced by human beings and the systems and laws that control their lives are all made up by human beings, then in this case each idea and each system has the right to live safely within its own borders so long as it does not transgress the borders of others, so the various ideas and laws can co-exist and not try to destroy one another. But when there is a divine system and law, and alongside it there are human systems and laws, then the matter is fundamentally different, and the divine law has the right to remove the barriers and free people from enslavement to human beings…

    Fiqh al-Da’wah by Sayyid Qutb, 217-222.

    It says in Fataawa al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah (12/14):

    Islam spread by means of proof and evidence to those who listened to the message and responded to it, and it spread by means of force and the sword to those who were stubborn and arrogant, until they were overwhelmed and became no longer stubborn, and submitted to that reality. “

  5. Ghulam Mohiyuddin says:

    Sadiya Dehlvi has to be congratulated for writing an accessible book on Sufism, a movement that softens Islam. It should not be seen as a sect but as an approach. It is an approach that may be suitable for some people and not for others. The Sufi way of thinking is a good counterpoint to the intolerance and rigidity of Wahabism and Talibanism.

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