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Bulleh Shah: A voice against religious bigotry

17 Feb,2022 05:42 PM, by: Ashif Shamim
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“Not a believer inside the mosque, am I nor a pagan disciple of false rites not the pure amongst the impure Neither Moses, nor the pharaoh” ~ Bulleh Shah

A man who was refused by the mullahs to be buried after his death in the community graveyard because of his unorthodox views, today enjoys worldwide reverence and recognition.  The tomb of Baba Bulleh Shah in Kasur (Pakistan) and the area around it is today the only place free of collective refuse, and the privileged of the city pay handsomely to be buried in the proximity of the man they had once rejected. This radical change has been possible because people have been impressed in the course of time by the holy way of Bulleh’s life and the efficacy of his teachings.

Baba Bulleh Shah is one poet who wrote in complete surrender of love. At times singing, at times dancing, and at times dressed as a woman, he also became the voice of women in Punjab.

A Sufi saint, whose philosophy of life was beyond the boundaries of worldly restrictions, his poetry is filled with praise for the stature of Baba Shah Inayat (1643–1728)

In an age of violence, materialism, and the consequent anxiety, Shah`s works carry the message of inner peace and spiritual salvation, a guide to a better state of mind. The Sufi saint is undoubtedly a matchless torchbearer of harmony, love, and, above all, humanity.

He was condemned by contemporary religious leaders for his iconoclastic and critical views regarding the prevalent culture of theocracy and fanaticism.

Bulleh Shah’s couplets have layers of meanings. He slams the religious scholars and intellectuals for their practices and what they preach in reality. He criticizes those who worship to show off in front of others rather than worship the Almighty in true essence. He was against religious clerics who he believed were doing business in the name of religion. His poetry reflects adoration and love for God and Prophet Muhammad. His poetry would definitely appeal to today’s generation who, too like him, live in an age of transition where corruption and falsehood are in abundance.

Bulleh Shah lived at the time when the Mughal Empire was collapsing and new political forces were trying to replace it. The people were most to suffer in those trying times. The poetry of Bulleh Shah has not lost its relevance in today’s world. In fact, people would find it more appealing. 

A voice against religious bigotry

Bulleh Shah’s time was marked with communal strife between Muslims and Sikhs. But in that age, Baba Bulleh Shah was a beacon of hope and peace for the citizens of Punjab.

Shah’s period was out-of-joint and the province of Punjab was particularly disturbed. There were incursions from the northwest -whether by Nadir Shah or Ahmed Shah Abdali. There were also fundamentalists like Sheikh Ahmed Sarhandi who infused much communal hatred and disharmony inconsistent with the Sufi way of life and ideology which laid emphasis on the unity of God, amity, and communal cohesiveness. They had little use for formal religion whether it was Islam or Hinduism. They sneered at meaningless rituals and ceremonials and propagated liberation of man from the stranglehold of blind faith.

What seems to have irked Bulleh Shah, and for that matter, his contemporary mystics the most was the widening gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims of the day. The root cause of the misunderstanding was Sheikh Ahmed of Sarhandi, an Islamic  scholar  who believed:

“The glory of Islam lies in ridiculing the non-Muslims. Those who give quarter to Kafirs disgrace Islam…”

Such were the times when Bulleh Shah emerged as a protagonist of communal amity in Punjab. Bulleh Shah was a major voice against injustice. He called Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, (the 6th Mughal emperor) as a Gazi (a term reserved for Islamic warrior, fighting for the faith). He hailed Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, as a protector of Hinduism:

I talk about neither yesterday nor tomorrow;

I talk about today.

Had Gobind Singh not been there,

They would all be under Islamic sway.

He gave no quarter to hypocrisy. He was particularly hard on Mulla/Quazi and Mufti in the Muslim social hierarchy. He accepted no discipline. Says he:

I am emancipated, emancipated I am,

I am no prisoner of being born a Syed,

All the fourteen heavens are my territory,

I am slave to none.

Only they shout loud while calling others to prayer

Whose hearts are not pure?

Those who go to Mecca on pilgrimage

Have little else to occupy them here.

Poetry Style & Popular Poetry Collections

The verse form Bulleh Shah primarily employed is called the Kafi, a style of Punjabi, Sindhi, and Siraiki poetry used not only by the Sufis of Sindh and Punjab but also by Sikh gurus. Bulleh Shah’s poetry and philosophy strongly criticize the Islamic religious orthodoxy of his day.

Baba Bulleh Shah wrote and narrated many poetic verses. Some of the most renowned ones are Makkeh Gaya, Bulleya Ki Jana Main Kaun, Verhe Aa Varh Mere, Main Jana Jogi De Naal, Aa Mil Yaar, Uth Gaye Gawandon Yaar, Bas Karjee Hun Bas Karjee, Tere Ishq Nachaya, Ishq De Naween Naween Bahar, to name a few.

Bulleh Shah was the rarest among rare to show immense moral courage to speak out the truth as he perceived it without considering consequences. He spared none; neither the political power nor the religious authority and therein lies the appeal of his poetry, especially for those, who have been his devotees since childhood.

Bulleh Shah personifies courage of conviction. He is a man of God, but a poet of the people. The poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah has immense love and fraternity. Along with poetry, Bulleh Shah also continued his hard work in mysticism and spirituality, which is the symbol of saints.

Shah's electric spirit which chafed at the restriction of caste and sect exposed him, during his lifetime, to the reproach of being unorthodox, but the holiness of his life effectively silenced his critics.

There is no doubt in saying that the version of Baba Bulleh Shah is not only for the time it was written but for the present and future too. It has been more than 200 years of his death but Bulleh Shah is still alive by his poetry and spiritualism.

Here's a YouTube video link to "Aik Alif "– A mesmerizing 'Sufiyana Kalam' by Baba Bulleh Shah, sung and recreated by Noori & Saieen Zahoor at Coke Studio




Reconciling Religion: Bulleh Shah, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalist Tradition By Mike Unher and Sara Bano. Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies Vol. 2, No. 1 (2010)

The Life of Bulleh Shah By: J.R. Puri and T.R. Shangari

Who was Bulleh Shah?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.

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