Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of Salman Taseer (the assassinated Pakistani Governor of Punjab), recently wrote a poignant Guardian CiF article about her father’s murder which also mentioned Bulleh Shah:
“My father was buried in Lahore on 5 January under high security. Cleric after cleric refused to lead his funeral prayers – as they had those of the sufi saint Bulleh Shah – and militants warned mourners to attend at their own peril. But thousands came to Governor House on that bitterly cold morning to pay their respects. Thousands more led candle-lit vigils across the country. But the battle is not going to be over any time soon.”
Bulleh Shah (1680 – 1757) is one of the most famous and revered Sufi Muslims in South Asian history; he was also one of the historical role models of the late Pakistani Sufi Muslim singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his family, who have themselves been Sufis since the medieval period. The saint’s shrine is in the Punjabi city of Kasur, now in Pakistan, and can be seen in the photo at the top of this article.
The opponent of Islamist extremism
Bulleh Shah was a Punjabi Muslim whose family claimed direct descent from the Prophet Mohammad. He was also a member of the Qadiri Sufi order; as recently discussed in the Pickled Politics article about the Mughal crown prince Dara Shukoh (Part 1, Part 2), this is the same order that Dara’s religious tutor Mian Mir belonged to. Mian Mir laid the foundation stone of Sikhism’s Golden Temple in Amritsar upon the invitation of the Sikh Guru at the time. Dara himself was similarly involved in numerous activities to promote friendship, religious moderation and understanding between people of different faiths.
Bulleh Shah lived in Punjab during the period of escalating military conflict between the Sikhs led by the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh and the Mughal administration headed by the fanatical Islamist emperor Aurangzeb, who had seized the throne decades earlier by overthrowing his father Shah Jahan and killing his brother Dara Shukoh.
Later, Bulleh Shah’s own Sufi mentor Shah Inayat was executed by a member of Aurangzeb’s administration. The emperor spent most of his long reign systematically persecuting liberal Muslims as well as Sikhs and Hindus, which eventually resulted in civil war breaking out on all sides. Bulleh Shah was a fierce critic of Aurangzeb’s fundamentalist regime and was particularly vocal in his hostility to the ultraconservative mullahs. He is also recorded as having credited Guru Gobind Singh with playing a major part in preventing Aurangzeb’s aim to convert the entire Indian population to the emperor’s extremist interpretation of Islam.
The onslaught from Persia
During Bulleh Shah’s lifetime there were other major events such as the devastating invasion of India by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah, who had seized power by overthrowing the remaining members of the Safavid dynasty. The Mughal Empire was already steadily disintegrating due to the continuing fall-out of Aurangzeb’s destructive 49-year reign, and Nadir Shah took advantage of the empire’s increasingly weakened state. In 1739, the Persian forces swept through Punjab, attacking Muslim and non-Muslim Punjabis alike; after defeating the Mughal army in a huge decisive battle, the Persians captured the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, effectively holding him hostage.
There was much worse to come. During the Persians’ subsequent occupation of the Mughal capital of Delhi, some Indian civilians killed a few members of the Persian army. Nadir Shah retaliated by ordering a general massacre of Delhi’s population. In March 1739, he watched from the rooftop terrace of a local mosque while his soldiers indiscriminately slaughtered 30,000 Muslim and non-Muslim Indian civilians in a single day.
Nadir Shah forced the horrified Muhammad Shah to empty the imperial treasury; the city’s inhabitants were also stripped of their wealth. Furthermore, Nadir Shah also carried off the famous Peacock Throne built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, along with massive quantities of looted jewels and precious metals. According to some accounts, the scale of extorted valuables was so huge that Nadir Shah subsequently didn’t have to tax the Persian population for 3 years. Thousands of Muslim and Hindu women were also captured, with the intention that they would be enslaved in Persia’s harems. However, during the Persians’ journey back through Punjab, their vast caravans were attacked by the Sikhs, who freed the captured women and made arrangements for them to safely return home.
“Sacrificing pride, let us sit together….Let us walk the road of peace”
Bulleh Shah firmly believed in the inherent unity and equality of mankind, and opposed sectarianism, division and prejudice based on religious affiliation or race/ethnicity. The following example of his poetry eloquently demonstrates his message of love and compassion for all:
“Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.”
Bulleh Shah similarly opposed adherence to superficial religious piety and ritualism at the expense of genuine inner spirituality, something which – then, as now – fanatics from multiple religions are frequently guilty of:
“Tired of reciting the Vedas and the Quran,
Kneeling and prostrating with my forehead down,
God neither in Mathura, nor in Mecca resides,
Only those who can see the Light can find Him.”
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang a superb traditional qawwali based on Bulleh Shah’s poetry; Bulleh Shah had some particularly forceful things to say about egotistical, ultraconservative Islamic mullahs along with their Hindu counterparts, as can be seen in the translated extract below. Nusrat’s phenomenal performance can be heard in the video immediately afterwards.
“Going to Mecca is not the greatest matter, even if hundreds of prayers are offered.
Going to the River Ganges is not the greatest matter, even if hundreds of cleansings are performed.
Going to [the holiest Buddhist site] Gaya is not the greatest matter, even if hundreds of worships are performed.
O Bulleh Shah, the greatest matter is when the “I” is removed from the heart.
[He] Read a great deal and became a scholar, but [he] never read himself.
[He] enters the temple and the mosque, but [he] never entered his own heart.
O Bulleh Shah, he reaches for things flying in the sky, but he doesn’t reach for the one who is sitting at home.
Religious scholars stay awake at night, but dogs stay awake at night, superior to you.
They don’t cease barking at night, then they go to sleep in yards, superior to you.
They don’t leave the beloved’s doorstep, even if they’re beaten hundreds of times, superior to you.
O Bulleh Shah, get up and reconcile with the Beloved, otherwise dogs will win the contest, superior to you.”
Kamal Khan, an Indian Punjabi Muslim who recently participated in the Indian equivalent of “The X Factor”, performed a qawwali based on a slightly different musical composition of the second half of the qawwali above. Kamal subsequently went on to win the contest a few weeks later, as voted by the Indian public. As before, the lyrics are directly based on Bulleh Shah’s writings; this song was originally performed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and is one of his most famous qawwalis. I will let the music speak for itself; as the Persian Sufi Rumi said, “Follow the music and it will show you the way.”
Supplementary reading about the escalating crisis in Pakistan
Readers may be also be interested in the following articles:
· The Lahore-based Pakistani writer & policy expert “Raza Rumi” has written a number of articles about Salman Taseer’s assassination and the implications for Pakistan on his excellent website, which includes numerous articles about Bulleh Shah too;
· A review in The Economist about a new book by the Indian Muslim writer M.J. Akbar titled “Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan”. Both the article and the book itself are quite provocative, and the article includes some pertinent remarks about Salman Taseer’s assassination;
· A very outspoken article titled “The Real Blasphemers”, from the Pakistani blog “Café Pyala”.
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Filed in: History,India,Muslim,Pakistan,Religion