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Book review: Sufism: The Heart of Islam

By Kashif-ul-Huda, TwoCircles.net

Sufism is much misunderstood by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While Muslims think that Sufis are innovators in the religion and qabr-parast (grave worshipper) and therefore unacceptable, non-Muslims think that Sufism offers a peaceful alternative to violent face of Islam and therefore acceptable to them. The truth is somewhere between these two extremes and as Sadia Dehlvi aptly states in her book “Sufism: The Heart of Islam” it is “the spiritual undercurrent that flows through Islam.”

The book is an introduction to Sufism but Sadia beautifully intertwines it with her own spiritual journey making it more personal and also approachable by readers. Adorned with beautiful calligraphy the book is divided into four sections (called books) and a total of 17 chapters spread over 400 pages.

Author: Sadia Dehlvi
ISBN: 9788172238162
Cover Price: Rs. 499.00
Format: Paperback
Extent: 480 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins,

Book I provides information about origin and development of Sufism within Islam. It also gives important information about earlier Sufis and Sufi Orders. Book II is about Sufism in Indian context providing biography of famous Sufis under major Sufi orders popular in India such as Chisthi, Suharwardi, Qadri, Naqshbandi, and Rishis. Book III contains collection of Quranic verses, ahadith, selection of Sufi sayings and poetry. Book IV lists the ninety-nine names of Allah and noble names of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and an index of Sufi terms.

Sadia is against delinking of Sufism from Islam (by Western writers) or the assertion that Sufism is not part of Islam (by Muslims). Dehlvi try to convince both groups by stating that “the Messenger of Islam remains the primary source of Sufism.” She argues that “Sufism cannot be understood without reference to the Holy Book.” She says, “Although Sufism, similar to other mystic traditions, offer universal ethics and meditation practices, its internal spiritual current cannot be alienated from its outward Islamic dimensions.”

To her Muslim readers she tells clearly that Sufism emanates from the Sharia. “Sufis strictly follow the Sharia,” Sadia declares. “The Sufi philosophy is classified into three stages: Sharia, the outward law, Tareeqa, the Way and Haqeeqa, the Truth.” But elsewhere she states that “those who pursued the study of Sharia laws came to be known as jurists. The scholars who devoted themselves to the development of virtuous inner qualities came to be known as Sufis.” While all Muslims recognize Sharia, fewer people understand Tareeqa as part of mainstream Islam.

The book falls a bit short in fully convincing Muslim readers about Sufi practices being within the fold of mainstream Islam, many ahadith quoted to argue the case are without references and therefore nature of their authenticity can be suspect. More stories from Prophet’s and his companions’ lives showing the stream of Sufism as part of Islam would have been more convincing.

Miracle stories (karamat) are important part of Sufi literature but those stories are for those who are already converted. Skeptics get turned off even more by those stories of karamat that are hard to verify and even harder to believe in this day and age. But Sadia already has an answer, she writes: “I feel that the stress on rationale is misplaced. I often argue that had God been an academic trophy, the ability to know Him would be restricted to those with powers of intellect. Stringent modern attitudes, requiring a scientific basis for everything, tend to overlook the importance of the heart and sincere emotions.”

Interfaith dialogues (sulh-e-kul) and service to humanity (khidmat-e-khalq) are important aspects of Sufism, especially in India. There are many Sufi khnqahs (hospices) and dargahs that serve only vegetarian food, respecting Hindu practices. Many dargahs provide important mental and physical health services to everyone without any discrimination. Foundation stone of Golden Temple in Amritsar was laid by Sufi Mian Mir, a Sufi of Qadri Order. Sikh’s holy book Guru Granth Sahib contains 134 hymns by Baba Farid Ganjeshakar. Unfortunately, the present day Sufism in Indian sub-continent, as practiced in popular dargahs, is a caricature of its former glorious self. Author should have devoted at least a chapter to the corrupt practices in the name of Sufism to warn the uninitiated on what to expect in the real world.

The book, a labour of love, is easy to read and understand and should be required reading for anyone interested in learning about Islam in South Asia. A version of this book written for an international audience is badly needed.