Rebel Sufis of the Punjab — Ishtiaq Ahmed

The News: December 02, 2006

The Sufi brotherhoods that arrived in South Asia from the Middle East and central Asia had already been influenced by the pantheistic traditions of South Asia, and in some cases the result was theist fusions or unitarian views of God. It is, however, important to point out that some Sufi orders were quite conservative such as the Suhrawardia and Naqshbandia. They had a strong presence in the Punjab. The Naqshbandi Sufi, Ahmed Sirhindi or Mujadid Alf-Sani, who lived during the 16th century and is buried at Sirhind in the Indian East Punjab, played an important role in the revival of strict Islam in the Mughal Empire and indeed in the Punjab.

On the other hand, non-conformist philosophical and theosophical ideas and movements emanating from Islamic and Hindu roots gave birth to interesting syntheses and syncretism. Some individual Sufis evolved radical non-conformist positions that decried the dogmatic forms of religion, whether Islam or Hinduism. The basic idea that gained acceptance in such circles was that ultimately there is one Great Spirit or God holding together the cosmic and earthly systems. Therefore, they conceived humanity as one great family with its different manifestations in terms of religions and cultures.

In practical and symbolic terms this is illustrated rather well from the 16th century by the close friendship between the Sufi poet, Hussain of Lahore (b. 1538), and the Hindu Brahmin youth, Madho Lal, from the nearby village of Shahdara. To this day an annual festival, the Madho-Lal Hussain Mela, is held on the outskirts of Lahore to commemorate their union. They are buried in the same tomb, to which thousands of people flock on this ceremonial occasion.

Hussain broke away from orthodoxy. He danced and drank wine and lived a life of defiance. The Mughal Emperor Akbar was in power at Agra at that time and he too weakened the hold of dogmatism. Therefore this was a period of Hindu-Muslim symbiosis both at the level of the Mughal state -- of which the Punjab was one possession -- and among the common people.

Sultan Bahu (born 1639) was another Sufi who continued to question the compatibility of orthodox and the non--conformist worldview of radical Sufism. He was a prolific writer, whose message displayed the inevitable tension between a rigid worldview dichotomising social reality into Islamic and non-Islamic categories.

Such a train of thinking reached its apogee under Bulleh Shah (1680-1758). Bulleh Shah's murshid or spiritual master, Shah Inayat, belonged to the Qadriyya Shattari School: known for its close affinity with yoga and other meditative practices.

One day some rich but God-fearing man had deposited a great deal of wealth with Shah Inayat with the supplication that he should distribute it among needy people. Shah Inayat told Bulleh Shah, 'Distribute this wealth among the poor and needy in accordance with the law of God'.

A crowd of needy people had gathered at the spot in the hope of getting something. Bulleh Shah told one of them to take everything and to the rest he gave nothing. Such a decision caused a stir and people began to complain and agitate. Shah Inayat too was perplexed by this decision.

He asked Bulleh Shah admonishingly to explain what he had done. Bulleh Shah said, 'You told me to distribute the wealth according to the law of God. I did exactly that. Just look around. There are a few rich people and the vast majority are poor and dispossessed. So, I followed the divine law which works in this world'.

Shah Inayat Qadri could not deny the force of the argument put forward by his disciple. Thus began a long association between the two but the disciple developed even more radical non-conformist views. Some of Bulleh Shah's verses are worth quoting:

Masjid dha de, mandir dha de, dha de jo kucch dainda

Par kisi da dil na dhain, Rab dilan vich rehnda

Tear down the Mosque, tear down the temple

Tear down every thing in sight

But don't (tear down) break anyone's heart

Because God lives there

Then he writes:

Gal samajh laee te raolaa keeh

eyh Raam, Raheem te Maulaa keeh?

Why all this commotion if you claim understanding?

Why this fuss about calling Him Ram, Rahim or Moula?

(Ram is a Hindu god; Rahim and Moula are Allah's designations)

About priests in general Bulleh Shah writes:

Mulla tay mashaalchi dohaan ikko chit

Loukan karday chananan, aap anhairae vich

Mullah and the torch-bearer, both from the same flock

Guiding others; themselves in the dark

The rebel Sufis were cosmopolitans. They lived simple lives and shunned the company of the rich and powerful. The ruling elite therefore always looked upon them with suspicion and perhaps even fear. However, such Sufis remained rebels in intellectual terms. They were not social revolutionaries.

The enlightened and composite tradition of the Punjab remained firm and steadfast well into the 19th and 20th centuries, when power had passed into the hands of the British. Mian Muhammad (1830-1904) and Khawaja Ghulam Farid (1841-1901) continued to preach universal peace and brotherhood. Many Hindus and Sikhs were disciples of Muslim Sufis.

In January 2005 I met a Hindu gentleman at Patiala, Amrik Chand Ahluwalia – 80 years of age -- who told me his family were disciples of a Muslim Sufi whose shrine was located on the border of Punjab and Balochistan. As a child his family and he had travelled to that place to perform ziarat. He told me that his family ate meat (goat and chicken) but only if it was slaughtered according to Islamic ritual. Some Muslims had continued to live in Patiala despite the exodus of 1947, and more from the neighbouring states of Haryana and UP had settled in Patiala afterwards and now getting halal meat was no problem.

This revelation was quite interesting. I pondered if a comparable Muslim adherence to Hindu values can be discerned in our Muslim Punjabi environment. It occurred to me that in our West Punjab homes eating beef was never popular and even now nobody relishes eating beef or serving it to guests.

So a fusion of Hindu and Islamic beliefs and practices has survived into the current period despite nearly 60 years of the partition of the Punjab. For this we must thank the syncretism of the rebel Sufis of the Punjab.

The writer is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University in Sweden. Email: