Sufi Mysticism of the Indus Valley

 Hassan N. Gardezi


From the tyranny of religious dogma
Love will set you free.

  _ Fakir Bedil (A Sindhi Sufi)


        The rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism in conjunction with  geo-political conflicts in different parts of the non-Western world has become the major focus of media and scholarly comment for the last few decades. What is being lost sight of in the process is the existence of a vibrant tradition of Islamic Sufi mysticism which still informs the daily lives and shared understandings of millions of ordinary Muslims around the world, with its message of love, tolerance, peace, equality, and respect for all creation.  

        The association of the words Sufi and Sufism with the English usage of the term mysticism often leaves the impression on those not too well acquainted with the Sufi way that it is some kind of a mysterious cult centred around enigmatic figures called Sufis. This impression may be reinforced if one approaches Sufism as a system of abstract ideas, but when encountered in real life  the Sufi way turns out to be a body of  practical wisdom or knowledge employed by people to live harmoniously with one another, with their natural environment and the world beyond. In contrast to the  monolithic and doctrinaire projection of orthodox Islam the Sufi tradition exists in a rich variety of real life expressions blended with local cultures, and their semiotics, imagery and symbolism. The way of the Sufi can be best understood by looking at how it is articulated within a specific culture, country and climate (Shah, Idries,  p. 9).  

        This paper will attempt to introduce the Sufi way by exploring one of its specific traditions that has taken shape over centuries, outside the mosque and the academy, in the Indus valley which  now constitutes the heartland of Pakistan. The exponents of this tradition are a long line of  Sufi poets of few pretensions but much wisdom who have made a creative use  of the native languages of their land to establish a shared universe of  discourse which brings close together people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. But before we explore the content of this poetic tradition and its significance for the contemporary human communities, a few words about the geophysical and cultural history of the Indus Valley  will be helpful to visualise the setting.  

      The Indus Valley  The hing from the north-western foothills of the Himalayas to the Arabian sea in the middle of which  the mighty Indus river has for  centuries run a meandering course in a multitude of channels. The shifting landscape around the Indus also varies greatly ranging from verdant farmlands and orchards to forbidding deserts and barren mountain folds. In  these constantly changing natural habitats have flourished and blended  many cultural traditions since time immemorial. There are scattered throughout the land several sites of a neolithic urban civilization dating  back to c3000 B. C. Mass migrations and invasions since 1500 B. C. brought into the Indus valley a great diversity of human races and cultural traditions including the Vedic Aryans, Greeks, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Afghans and Arabs. During the middle ages of Islam many contemplating and religious minded persons were attracted to the towns and cities of the Indus valley for their reputation for peaceful life and respect for the learned, thus setting the stage for the emergence of a rich tradition of  Sufi poetry that has served to unify and synthesise the diverse cultural  heritage of the people and their folk wisdom.

A  Pioneer  

A pioneering  sage to compose Sufi poetry in Siraiki, one of the oldest native languages of the Indus valley  was Shaikh Faridudin Shakarganj popularly known as Baba Fareed. A Sufi of the  Chishti order, Fareed was born in c. 1175 A. D.  of parents who had immigrated from Persia. Today a substantial part of his verse is incorporated in Adi Garanth, the most sacred book of the Sikh religion. He preached that the path to Divine Union that all Sufis seek lies in love of fellow human beings irrespective of colour creed or status. The following verse in Siraiki captures the motto of his life and the essence of his spirituality.  

        Every human heart is a pearl

        If you seek the beloved, do not break anyone's heart  

No religion has monopoly of the path to God, neither do prestige and status  make one human being  superior than the other. This theme finds expression in a verse with much simplicity which is the hallmark of his style.  

        In  conceit, I have  kept the turban on my head free of dirt

        Forgetful that my very head is to be consumed by dirt one day.  

The metaphor of a clean turban is used here to debunk the illusion of  prestige and superiority over others in the face of a common fate awaiting all human beings.  

 The Golden Age 

What might be called the Golden Age of the Indus valley Sufi poetry spans some three hundred years beginning with the verse of  Madhu Lal Hussain or Shah Hussain (c. 1539-1594 A.D.) who lived during the time of  Moghal Emperor Akbar.  From here on a succession of renowned  Sufis composed poetry of rare beauty in the native language of the valley, Sindhi, Siraiki, Balochi and Punjabi to spread their message of love and  tolerance.  Although many of these poets came from a background of rigorous instruction in orthodox Islamic tradition and were well-versed in Persian and Arabic, they chose native languages of  ordinary peasants and  workers, as a medium of their literary expression.  Unlike the Arab and Persian Sufi poets who use a great deal of complex symbolic expression, these poets use the straight idiom of their people.  Their poetry is composed in lyrical forms set to the tunes of local folk music.  Their  mission is to reach the hearts of ordinary men and women.  The similes and metaphors that they  do employ are drawn from the vocations of the largely rural people, their domestic industries, kinship relations and social customs.  For example, charkha, the spinning wheel, is a common symbol for this world, and the poets's persona is represented as a maiden whose work of spinning cotton stands for good deeds.  The "good deeds" in turn represent any time spent in contemplation of the Divine Beloved, the "God" of the monotheistic religions or the supreme deity of any religion, also represented as Truth or Eternal Reality.  It should be noted here that the male Sufi in this tradition uses the female gender for himself or his surrogate and male gender for the object of his love.  This tradition is consistent with the conventions of the ancient Indus Valley civilization where females were not dominated by men. Down the ages Hindus have celebrated the love of Radha for Krishna, and the legendary heroic lovers in the Punjabi and Sindhi folk-tales have been women; Heer pursued Ranjha, Sasi and Sohni gave their lives trying to unite with their male beloveds, Punnu and Mahiwal.  Symbolically the beloved stands for God, the supreme deity of any religion or Universal Spirit, but in its human manifestation the male beloved in the Sufi poetry is a highly sensuous person of real life. This extends the appeal of Sufi love poems much beyond the circles of the initiated. `The love of another human being and divine love are not mutually exclusive. The love of another human being can be conceived as a bridge that leads to  love of the Divine. Conversely a person who hates other human beings is devoid of true religious or spiritual experience and  can never hope to receive divine blessing, no matter how much time spent on ritual prayers and worship.  

        Central to the understanding of the content of  Sufi poetry being  reviewed here is the unique cosmology or the theory of origins of the universe in which it is embedded. The centrepiece of this cosmology is the Sufi belief in wahdat-ul-wajud, the oneness of all beings. The poet's message of universal fraternity, love and respect for all creation  is firmly rooted in this pivotal concept. The God of the Muslims, according to this view is the symbol of this Oneness, variously perceived as Universal Beauty, Truth or Eternal Reality from which all creation emanates, just as light radiates from the sun. If one cultivates the love of God, or the Beloved of the Sufi poetic parlance, His reflection can be seen in all creatures including in one's own self. Conversely, it is the destiny of all creation to be reunited with Him, the source of all beauty, growth and knowledge. Shah Hussain, for example, portrays such a union with the Beloved through a poetic rendering of the famous Punjabi folk tale celebrating the love of Heer for Ranjha.  Says Heer in the words of Shah Hussain:  

      I have become Ranjha.

      Call me Ranjha everyone

      Not Heer any more.

      For so long have I yearned for my beloved

      Called his name so many times

      Now I have become  Ranjha myself and Heer is no more


 Through this rendering of the folk tale the poet is conveying the idea of union with the beloved. The religious act becomes the act of love for the Beloved, rather than ritual prayer offered to an impersonal deity. Shah Hussain , the most latitudinarian of these Sufi poets used to drink,  dance and sing freely in the streets of Lahore and was deeply in love with Madhu Lal, a handsome Brahman boy whose name he appended to his own to become known as Maddhu Lal Hussain. The strict moral code of Islamic shari'a would of course prohibit such acts, yet to this day his shrine is the site of an annual pilgrimage and fair where Muslim villagers from far and wide gather to celebrate his vision and sing his poems.

        All Sufi poets portray the pangs of separation from the Beloved with whom all creation was once united, but none excels the pathos of a  rare poem composed by Madhu Lal Hussain. He says in the voice of a young  maiden separated from her beloved  

        O' Mother to whom shall I tell the story of my separation's grief.

        The fire lit inside me by the teacher smolders and smokes

        As I stir the ambers, I see the red Jewel

        The pain of separation has driven me mad

        Suffering is the bread I eat

        Pain is my curry dip, sighs of grief my cooking fire

        I roam the jungles and deserts in vain

        Says Hussain, the God's fakir:

        How happy I will be to find my prince  

Shah Hussain's antinomianism is matched by the anti-authoritarianism of another Sufi poet, Sultan Bahu (c. 1631-1691 A. D.). Bahu's father was a strict Muslim and a noble who was warded a jagir (estate) by the Moghal court, yet Bahu exhibits a special aversion to the secular and religious authorities. The religious clerics and priests come under censure in particular as Bahu says  

        Lofty are the gateways to religions

        But the way to God is a narrow path

        Better to hide from the pandits and mullas

        They kick their heels and stir up conflicts

        For the compassionate is the song of union (with the Beloved)

        The place to live is where no pretenders be  

Bahu reminds those who are enchanted by this-worldly power that religious rituals will not wash away their heartless deeds, as in the following verses  

        Gone are my worries since the teacher handed me the cup

        What good are your unguided nightly vigils?

        What use your nights of prayer and days of tyranny?

        The vocation of the fakir is true kingship

        This-worldly throne is only an illusion  

Here the poet is alluding to the actions of the reigning Emperor Aurangzeb, known in history as a staunch orthodox Muslim and a ruthlessly cruel ruler who used to spend his nights in prayer. As for Bahu himself who was brought up with rigorous religious instruction and was known for       his scholarship in Arabic and Persian, we get only a few disclaimers in his Siraiki poems, such as  

        I am not knowledgeable, nor a learned man

        Neither a Jurist, nor a qazi (judge)

        No desire for hell in my heart, nor heaven do I seek

        I do not keep the thirty fasts or say the five prayers

        Without union with Allah, this world is an illusory game  

        According to the Sufi belief, God as Truth and Beauty is the Eternal Reality. Eventually emanated from this Reality the infinite physical forms found in the universe today ranging from the lowliest of all creatures to  the most elevated saints , prophets and deities of all religions. Another Sufi poet, Bulhe Shah (1680-1758 A. D.) captures this thought in the following Punjabi poem        

         Now I see the beautiful Friend

        When the One was alone by itself, sending no light to view

        There was no God, Prophet or Allah

        No Omnipotent or the Wrathful

        The One was without any likeness or simile

        Without any shape or form

        Now he appears in shapes galore

        Now I see the beautiful Friend  

These poets articulate a cosmology which bridges gaps between Greek Gnosticism, Judaic- Christian-Islamic monotheism, Hindu Vedantism and ancient animism.  Sufi's God is not the God of institutionalized religions, feared more often by humans for their sins  than loved.       Neither is the Sufi God, a mere metaphorical abstraction.  Sufi God or Beloved is the all pervasive spirit which manifests its glory in the physical beauty of a human face or body, now in the person of a murshid, (the teacher), again in a Hindu deity, Krishna, or the various attitudes       of Lord Buddha. Sufi God is a playful beloved who appears so close at times, yet evades one's attempts at union.  Bulhe Shah, perhaps the greatest of the Punjabi Sufi poets, sees his beloved appearing at various times as Krishna, Rama and Allah as visualized in the following verses  

        How long this hide-and-seek

        You are the Cowherd in the Jungles of Bindraban

        You are the Victor in the land of Lanka

        You are the Pilgrim coming to Mecca

        How lovely the colours you change

        How long this hide-and-seek  

Bulhe Shah finds the conventional labels of good and evil, clean and unclean too static and perverse to describe different forms and levels of existence, for all existence reflects the same Divine Beloved. Pondering his own being Bulha muses:  

        Bulha, how can I tell who I am?

        Neither am I a true Muslim in the Mosque

        Nor am I in the ways of paganism

        Neither among the pure, nor the unclean

        Neither am I the Moses, nor the Pharaoh

        What do I know who I am?Neither in happiness, nor in sorrow

        Neither in sin nor in purity

        Neither of water, nor of earth.

        Bulha, how can I tell who I am?


        I am the first and the last

        None else do I recognize;  none wiser than me.

        Bulha who is the true master here?  

After all the questions, the state of being defined in the last lines of this poem points to the ultimate stage of union with the Beloved or Eternal Truth.  No Indus valley Sufi poet  claims to have reached that state of union in this life, although Buhla comes very close.  Mansur Al-Hallaj of Baghdad was one of the first to claim such a union by declaring annal-haq, I am the Truth (God).  The Qazis (Muslim judges) of Baghdad convicted him of blasphemy and he was hanged in the 9th century A.D. only to make him immortal in the folklore of  the world of Sufis. It is this concept of oneness of all manifest reality, even in its apparently contradictory forms, out of which flows the Sufi poet's message of fellowship, tolerance and love transcending colour, caste, creed and status.        

For Shah Abdul Latif. (1689-1752), one of the most popular of the Indus valley Sufi poets who composed highly lyrical poems rich in local imagery and always set to the tunes of prevailing  musical notes, the many different ways in which the supreme Deity is conceived in different       religions makes little difference because in their own ways they have visualised the same One. He illustrates this by invoking some familiar sensory experiences as in the following verses: 

        The echo is the call itself

        If you understand the puzzle

        One sound but heard twice

        Many doors and windows opening into one palace

        Where ever I look, the same God I see  

Latif, just as the other Indus valley poets, draws upon the many popular folk tales of love and passion that abound in the region. The belief that one can see the reflection of the beloved in one's own self, if freed from false illusions, is conveyed in the following lines of a poem about the love of Sasui for Punnu. Latif addresses Sasui, who is said  to have scorched herself to death while in hot pursuit of her beloved's camel on foot on the mid-day sands of the Sindh desert, in the following verses: 

        The loved one that thau suffereth for

        Of very sooth resides in thee

        Why go to Wankar, if not here

        Thou searchest thy Belov'd to see?

        Go with thy heart towards thy love

        Cease, Sasui, wanderings of thy feet

        Ask not the sand how lies the path

        To travel soul-fully is meet

                (Translation in verse by H. T. Sorley)  

None other among  these Sufi poets has had as deep and as pervasive an influence on the character of the ordinary people among whom they lived as did Latif. A senior British civil servant who worked in the province of Sindh for a long time and translated Latif's poems into

English, observed a widespread "conviction of the tenets of tolerant Sufism" and noted the extraordinary fact that Latif's poems steeped in Islamic mysticism were "loved in Sind by Hindus as much as Muslims (Sorely, H. T. , p. 216).  

The list of renowned Sufi poets of the Indus valley is very long,  but we will refer to only one more of their line who carried this tradition into the dawn of the 20th century. Khawja Ghulam Fareed (1845-1901) who composed poems in Siraiki is unique in using a highly sensuous imagery for his Beloved. In one of his poems Fareed speaks as a female lover who attempts to lure her beloved into her house by extending compelling temptations. Says Fareed  

        If for once you stepped into my humble place

        I'll pull down the shades and serve your pleasure

        I'll surround you with flowers and feast you to your heart's content

        Will bathe you in rose water and massage your body

        Make you colourful with applications of henna

        Dress you as a bridegroom and seat you in front

        If just for once you stepped into my humble place  

Timeless Ethics        

Whatever the poetic style, the Sufi believes that without the spark of love no true knowledge of oneself or the external reality can be achieved, and above all it is love that teaches higher       values, cures alienation of humans from themselves, their fellow beings and all that exists in nature. Although the Sufi way, as knowledge and practice, predates the breath-taking scientific discoveries and mechanical and social innovations that have modernized and changed the face of the planet Earth,  much can still be learned from some of the insights  found in the simple poems of the Indus valley sages composed centuries ago and transmitted as an oral tradition which is still part of the daily social life of the people of the region.  

What is notable is that  the Sufi cosmology articulated in these poems is not incompatible  with the modern science of astrophysics and evolutionary biology. Both point to the essential unity and time-mediated interconnectedness of all existence and life forms. However for modern scientists no moral precepts flow  from this central maxim, while the Sufi invites people to read into it a message of profound reverence and love for all manifestations of life and nature. The pursuit of dispassionate, value-free knowledge has created a spiritual void in the institutions of formal education. Scientific knowledge in our commercialised world has become a mere tool of exploitation of the Earth's resources and promotion of consumerism at the expense of environmental integrity and human development.  

On the other hand the onslaught of globalization is leading to an unprecedented trend of  people withdrawing into the shelters of their narrowly defined ethnic and religious identities, breeding prejudice and triggering wars of mutual hatred.  Under these circumstances  the Sufi message of respect for all creation, tolerance and love articulated in the little known Indus valley tradition assumes a real contemporary and global relevance. The assessment of the place of people in our universe elucidated clearly and coherently in the Sufi poems reviewed shows how important it is to live in harmony with nature and how un-divine and destructive of human spirit are the many lethal conflicts still being waged in this age of enlightenment and mastery over nature in the name of  religious and ethnic loyalties.  

 Lessons For Pakistan        

It is ironic that Pakistan's ruling elite have had to rely on the very hypocritical, power hungry, orthodox clergy against whose spiritual bankruptcy and political ambitions the Sufi poets of the Indus valley have warned for centuries. The sectarian bloodshed, honour killings of women, abuse of blasphemy laws, repression of labour and authoritarian rule are only a few consequences  of abandoning the values inherent in Pakistan's own indigenous spiritual heritage, and instead following an alien Islamic orthodoxy in the name of national ideology. It is a sad situation that the  power elite of Pakistan are not even literate in the native languages in which the Sufi poets of the land expressed their wisdom.  


Since the Indus valley Sufi poets quoted in this paper rarely, if ever, wrote down their verse for publication, the existing anthologies of their poetry give different versions of the same poems. This, however, is a matter of diction, rhyme and style rather than content. 

Not all poems quoted here are in their entirety. 

The English translations are literal as far as possible.  Closest English idioms have been used where a literal translation from the original language of composition would make little sense in English.


The following anthologies and critical works have been used as source materials:  

1. Kafian Shah Hussain, Islamabad, National Institute of Folk Heritage, 1977.

2. Kalam Bulhe Shah, Lahore, Pakistan International Printers Ltd., n.d.

3. Kafian Buhle Shah, Islamabad, National Institute of Folk Heritage, 1975.

4. Kuliat-e-Bahu, Lahore, Aina-e-Adab, 1978.

5. Devan-e-Farid, Bahawalpur, Maktaba Azizia, 1963.

6. Lajwanti Rama Krishna, Punjabi Sufi Poets, Karachi, Indus Publications, 1977  (Reprint).

7. Syed Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, Wahdat-ul-Wajud Te Punjabi Shairi, Lahore,  Pakistan Punjabi Adabi Board, 1977.  


Shah, Idries, The Way of the Sufi, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974.  

Sorley, H. T., Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit: His Poetry, Life and

Times, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1966.