An Introduction

(From Shah Husayn - Within Reach by Muzaffar A. Ghuffaar)

Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar


Shaah Husayn (1538-1599) lived in the time of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. He was born in the same year as the passing of Baaba Naanak (1469-1538) another exceptional poet and the prime inspiration of the Sikh religion, and forty-two years after Kabir (1425-1496). Thus a concentration of major poets can be seen in this period. Shaah Husayn was the son of Sheikh Usmaan, a weaver, and belonged to the Dhudha clan of raajputs. His grandfather had embraced Islaam. Shaah Husayn was born in Lahore. His early education was initiated in a mosque, and areas of study included deep readings of the Quraan and Sunnah, sharah [the high road to religion, the faith, law, justice and equity, as proposed by Islaam and expounded by prophet Muhammad (m.p.b.u.h.)], tofheem and tafseer (exposition and interpretation of the Quraan), hadith/hadees (traditions and narration, examples, sayings of the prophet Muhammad (m.p.b.u.h.), fiqh (the science of Muslim law, jurisprudence; theology), religious texts, prosody, literature, histories, etc..

As a young man, Shaah Husayn became a disciple of Behlol Daryaaee of the Qaadria order of Sufism. Bhakti/bhagti (the 'way of devotion', later seen as the 'way of love'), prompted by the Bhagavad Geeta, had been synthesised with the great influence of Ibn Arabi's writings and commentaries, and an emphasis on Waahdat al-Vujood (Unity of Being) had taken hold. These developments steered people towards Sufism and bhakti, and away from the increasingly rigid positions of religionists - both Muslim and 'Hindu'. ('Hinduism' is an umbrella term devised by the British in the 18th century for the numerous cults and religions which existed).

Shaah Husayn's relationship with a young Brahman, Maadho, from Shahdara, from across the river Raavi, is well known. Maadho was 38 years younger than Shaah Husayn. It is speculated that Shaah Husayn's name was Laal Husayn (or he was so known because of the laal/red garment he is reported to have worn), and/or Maadho's name was Maadho Laal. If both their names were Laal then the composite name by which the poet is also known - Maadho Laal Husayn - would be a public declaration that they were 'one item'. And laal is also the colour symbol of the mature love in Sufi lore. Or the love of haqeeqat (reality). [The neophyte's colour is green, that of the one on the path (with love for this world) is yellow]. Laal, with a different  spelling in Punjaabi  (Laa'/}  means  'ruby'.  It  is  a  symbol  of something precious, therefore often used to refer to a beloved child.

Only in one kaafi is Maadho directly addressed (as Laal). Maadho's fabled affection for the poet may be that of a disciple for a most revered teacher -in this case fully reciprocated by Shaah Husayn. They are buried in the same grave in Baghbaanpura, Lahore, near which, about half a century later, Shaah Jehaan had the famous Shalimar Gardens composed and constructed with environmental and aesthetic wisdom.

Tradition says that at the age of 36, Shaah Husayn, who was seeped in the Quraan and sunnah, turned away from prayer, put on red clothes and started singing and dancing in the streets of old Lahore. Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) says in, his book Shathiaat that this change came in Shaah Husayn when he was reading an aayat (verse) of the Quraan which says that the world is sport. What inference the poet drew from this is not recorded. But 'play' became a significant theme of Shaah Husayn's verse.

Another tradition says the opposite. It relates that the malaamati (self-reproaching) methodology of Shaah Husayn was also a way of dissembling to escape the king's grasp. This tradition suggests that the poet was a supporter of Dulla Bhatti who had rebelled against the king. Indeed the day Dulla Bhatti was hanged, the poet is said to have been in the same prison. But there is no documentary evidence of this.

Shaah Husayn is reported to have drawn a following, and a Husayni silsila (way of Husayn) drew many followers in Lahore and Kasur. Like Kabir, he was a weaver's son. Both poets brought imagery from the weaver's craft to their verse and raised it to become a significant metaphor of life. It is also said that Shaah Husayn gave up the life of a devout Muslim and departed from the way of shariat (Muslim religious law, and prayer, etc.). Syed Sharafat Naushaahi wrote around 1970 that Shaah Husayn wrote Risaa/a Tebniat in Persian in which the various stages of the Sufi path are discussed. If this treatise was written in the poet's later life it would indicate that he had returned to shariat.

The grave of Shaah Husayn and Madho became a shrine with attendant custodians and worshippers. Under the patronage of Moraan, a professional woman and courtesan of Ranjit Singh, a maela (fair) started at the time of Basant [Spring (festival)] later called Maela Ciraagaat} (festival of lights), or Maela Shaalimar, which is still held every year at Baghbaanpura, Lahore.


The kaafis of Shaah Husayn entered the oral tradition for which they were studiously composed. Many kaafis give the raag in which they are structured assuring us that the poet was well versed in our sudh sanqgeet (so called 'classical music'). Many rhythms, sonic qualities and several metres enrich his verse. Imagery, structure, music, rhythm, thought, and the intricate responses to the times, as well as the poet's belief system - all are creatively synthesised into verse which is arguably amongst the finest anywhere in the world.

It may be repeated here that all the poets of the Sufi tradition are most knowledgeable in Sudh Saqgeet. But there is no record of where and from whom they learnt music. Again a worthwhile ground for researchers.

The oldest available manuscript of Shaah Husayn's kaafis dates back to 1804, when the Sikhs 'ruled' Punjaab. It is in the Gurmukhi script. Thus the earliest written kaafis available were scripted two hundred years after the poet's death, in which time this verse was sung by qawwaals, who often added or deducted words, or mixed the poetry of more than one poet in their presentations. Calligraphers and transcribers sometimes let their own creative urges add or subtract words or lines. They also made errors, and wrote down what was sung. This process has both preserved and corrupted the texts.

Noor Ahmad Chishti reports in his Tehqiqaat-e-Chishti that the Mughal emperor was so impressed with the poet that he designated Bahaar Khaan to remain with the poet and to write a daily diary. It is said that the diary, known as Bahaaria, has been lost. It could have provided a most valuable source not only of the poet's life and times, but would probably also have contained more authentic versions of Shaah Husayn's verse.

Dr. Syed Nazir Ahmad's introduction to the kaafis of Shaah Husayn, published by Packages Ltd, Lahore (which this introduction also draws upon), says that the first book which drew his attention to the works of Shaah Husayn was Kaafiaaq Shaah Husayn published in 1976 by Majlis Shaah Husayn. In the introduction of this work we are informed that the kaafis are from Dr. Mohan Singh Diwaana's book Mukammal Kalaam Shaah Husayn Lahori, written in Nastaliq. This book was published in 1942 from Lahore and Amritsar by Messrs Devi Das Jaanki Daas, with a preamble by Dr. Muhammad Shafi, principal Oriental College Lahore. Dr. Mohan Singh Diwaana said that he got the works from an anthology compiled by an

unnamed Sindhi landowner. According to Dr. Diwaana that book was published in Lahore around 1900 by the Mufid-e-Aam Press and contained 138 kaafis by Shaah Husayn. The second source Dr. Diwaana gives is a manuscript written in 1804 (Punjab University Library, Lahore; manuscript no. 374). It has 25 kaafis. However Dr. Nazir located 48 kaafis in the same manuscript out of which 7 had been repeated erroneously by the transcriber. Dr. Diwaana got his kaafis printed in Nastaliq by the Lahore Book Shop, Lahore.

The well known Punjaabi scholar Mohammad Asaf Khan has said that Majlis Shaah Husayn got the same book published in 1966 and 1976. Muhammad Asaf Khan used this book and standardised the words and identified the refrain of each kaafi. We have used Mohammad Asaf Khan's book as a basic text for compiling this selection. Dr. Syed Nazir Ahmad also traced additional kaafis from various manuscripts. The last seven kaafis in these volumes are from Dr. Nazir's book. Changes, primarily to bring the metre of the kaafis into balance, have been incorporated as adopted by the Saqgat which has met every week since 1973 at the home of Najm Hosain Syed, of which this writer has been a regular attendee since late 1989. This work involves a knowledge of wa^an (poetic measure; metre) which is both musical and textural. Kaafis which are repeated or which contain a heavy dose of the infiltration of words or lines (which happens in the oral tradition and also often when transcribers become 'creative') or are repetitions or cannibalisations, or which are rather incoherent because of such badgering, have been left out. The rationale behind such editing has been to subtract a word if it negatively affects the metre, but not to add any word unless it is present in another manuscript. The 104 kaafis in this selection is a fair, but not complete, representation of Shaah Husayn's available work.

Both Dr. Nazir and Muhammad Asaf Khan have devoted a considerable section of the introductions to their books about the kaafis of Shaah Husayn, to the kaafi form. Those who wish to study the subject may read both. For our purposes perhaps what is given in the Preface to the series may suffice.

Social Context

Since the imagery of weaving is extensively used by Shaah Husayn, it may be worthwhile to review this trade. Weavers have played a most important role in society and even in the history of proto-Pakistan.

Weaver's, like all kammis (i.e., those who work) were affected by the highly structured Caste System, propagated by the Brahmans, which divided humanity on the basis of what they did. (The notions of purity and pollution which became central and made the system vertically rigid and tyrannical were added later). The word kammi meant 'worker'. It was a function-defining word. But the word picked up derogatory undertones. This happened on account of those whose 'ownership' did the earning for them, and from the closely associated Persian word kameen (deficient). Those who worked (with their hands) were thus debased. They were placed in the lower castes. This was also done by peasants who owned land or farmed it as sharecroppers (thus, in practical terms, 'half-owned' it). Ownership of land made the 'noble' profession of farming into a 'superior' trade. Peasants made the kammis the. butts of jokes, calling them simpletons and fools.

Weaving was an intricate art requiring skill and dexterity. Virtually every woman in every house was spinning yarn. Usually male weavers wove the yarn. This established the presence of the weaver everywhere. Without him, spinning would not have much of an end use. Over hundreds of years weavers realised their special social position. When they became prosperous they also took to the pursuit of learning. After the priests, weaver's families were the most learned. This seems to have been because weavers had good earnings and could afford to send their progeny to madrisaas (schools). Other kammis enlisted their children into their own crafts at an early age. (These days such passing-on-the-baton is also called 'child labour').

The economic history of the Punjaab tells us that weaving developed into an industry. Europeans were first lured to Muslim-ruled India for its spices (and gems). But textiles also attracted them. When the Portuguese, then the Dutch, the French and the British came here, weaving played a pivotal role in their prosperity. Weavers interacted with businessmen, had guilds, training arrangements (usually a small group of disciples with one master-weaver) and educated themselves in other disciplines. The book Kasab Naama Baafmdagaan (Professional Treatise of Weavers or The Work of Celebrating Weavers) had a prominent position in the weaver's life and lore.

As the weavers prospered, the peasants became more and more jealous of them. Since peasants enjoyed a superior societal position they presented the weavers as buffoons. Since weaving was done by placing the loom over a hole in the ground in which the weaver stood, derogatory lines such as the following abounded: neem tann dargor baashad, neem tann dar zindagi (half the body is in a grave, half in life). When they began to rule, the British abetted the distinction between the peasants and non-peasants as this was how it was also in their own society.

Weavers in proto-Pakistan and proto-India1 had started an industrial revolution earlier than in Europe. This happened here not because steam was harnessed by man but because spinning was most widespread with a charkha (spinning wheel) present in every home. It was also given as a part of every dowry. Weavers had developed their craft to highly refined levels. Exceptional fabrics were made from apparently crude tools and wooden machines. The craft was well developed in all of Muslim-ruled India. In Bengal a whole saari, and in Kashmir a whole shawl of shahtos (made of the hair of a deer which is found in Kashmir) could be passed through a woman's finger ring. Dyeing, printing and embroidery were highly developed and so by now was the marketing of textiles. The weaver was well-organised, well-connected, well-educated and had highly developed skills. He also understood the market. His market research was a daily check of the pulse of the consumer. Women who spun yarn also 'created' their weaves and designs, and explained what they wanted to weavers. Millions of women contributed this 'data' which remained uncompiled but entered the minds of weavers and went into weaver lore. This happened every day and led to an active contribution to the weaver's art. The spinner was the customer of the weaver as well as his supplier and design consultant. There could be no better or closer integrated customer-craftsman relationship.

Initially the British had a huge business in textiles, which they exported to Europe from Muslim-ruled India. Then they developed machines of mass production and wanted to reverse the flow of goods. Their fabric was cheaper (but cruder). A tax on the malmal (muslin) produced by Bengali weavers was introduced to make the highly refined fabric unsaleable. Weavers fought back by cutting their margins to the bare bone. The British then physically chopped off the all important 'tool' of some weavers; their thumbs. (For details see R.P. Dutt's 'India Today' and Mukerjee's 'Basic Facts from East India Company Reports'). Such atrocities were considered acceptable. When synthetic Nee/ (i.e., 'Blue', an optical agent which 'gives' the illusion of more whiteness and brightness to fabric) was developed in England, many local natural Nee/ makers were blinded. All this is much after Shaah Husayn's time.

In the times of Shaah Husayn, the weaver was a pivot of change in society. What the British did to the weaver was heinous and monumentally cruel. But society, led by the peasantry, gave weavers piques that bothered them no end. This, and its response, we shall experience in Shaah Husayn's verse.

Society worked hand-in-glove with the karrar or saahukaar/shaahukaar (moneylender/businessman/early banker). These businessman advanced money to the peasantry because the nature of agriculture required it. This is because those who farm or own the land are 'paid' only twice a year, at harvest times, and have almost never learned to pace their expenditure into six month periods. Thus they always borrowed (and still do) against the next harvest. When the crop failed, the businessman advanced enough money to the farmer to keep him going. This was the age-old arrangement. A lot of money was owed by many farmers to many moneylenders. Thus moneylenders had the power to exploit, which they used as a matter of course.

In Shaah Husayn's time a barter system was widespread. Farmers gave food grains on a specified arrangement to everyone who provided services. Carpenters and blacksmiths, etc., provided their services in return. So did weavers, who provided fixed amounts of cloth and bedclothes to farmers and to the women who provided the yarn. The village entertainer received grain from the farmer, cloth from weavers, shoes from cobblers, oil from oil millers, gur (sugar cakes) from raw sugar makers, etc.. In return he provided the services of messenger and entertainer. And so it was with the entire society. It was a homogeneous, and inter-dependent living. The poet alludes to this in his work. He also laments the corruptions of the system due to greed, especially when money came into the equation. (The pseudo-barter practiced by some East European countries is in fact no barter but only a balancing of trade. Products pass through a price equation. Real barter, as described above, did not pass through the price mechanism, and products and services were also bartered. The word barter draws its sense and action from inter-dependence. It is not just another system for trade).

The ownership of land was directly associated with status in society. The king was the biggest landlord. The whole hierarchy was land-ownership related. But weavers had undermined feudal bondage and were linked to capital and surplus. They were prospering in knowledge and wealth. They believed that they had a better status. And they had discretionary incomes. But they were considered nimanaas (i.e., low class, artless), in the minds of others.

Shaah Husayn calls himself a nimaana, partly out of humility and partly to ridicule the peasantry. 'I am not a real nimaana, I am a canny weaver', he seems to be saying. He kept calling himself a nimaana to tell us that he really is not one. This social umbrage, of being considered a nimaana, is present both in the poetry of Kabir and of Shaah Husayn. At the same time, and more importantly, Shaah Husayn's humility was the product of an Sufi ideal. To become cleansed of egotism was considered a great asset by those who wish to be 'evolved'. Thus Shaah Husayn primarily calls himself nimaana to affirm that he is devoid of egotism and arrogance. He has brought his 'I' under control. He is prideless. This indeed became the fundamental meaning of nimaana. Interdependent societies know that not having arrogance is always an asset. The Shaah in Shaah Husayn is a pronouncement that he is a faqeer. [Shaah is a term used for the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (m.p.b.u.h); for a king; for a trader or moneylender (shaabukaar)\ and for a faqeer\.

Shaah Husayn questioned all sorts of differentiation and opposed from the heart, as well as ridiculed, the Caste System. This he did not only against the most tyrannical version of the vertically rigid Brahmanic Caste System, which was not strong in the Indus basin (and dictated social interaction in the Ganges basin), but also against the divisions of humanity into castes and classes as they existed in society. 'Why is this so,' he says in anguish. 'We are all one!' The concept of Waahdat al-Vajood (Unity of Being) impelled people like Shaah Husayn, even more than the bhakti conceptions (which were also stronger in the Ganges basin than in the Indus basin), to go in hot pursuit of differentiations of caste and class. The single source of all humanity made

Waahdat al-Vajood into a concept to espouse and 'own'. It got strong support in a society where pantheistic conceptions proposed by the Upanishads and bh.akti were already present (but which had not brought the focus associated with Waahdat al-Vujood, changing the way people thought). The weavers were in the forefront of adopting this idea. It was a good strategy to be rid of the derogatory epithet kammi. And to be rid of the Caste System. Unity and oneness (and attendant human equality) became a basic theme, a foundational guide for human interaction, and for life.

Sufi thought had great mass appeal. Kabir, a Muslim weaver's son, created a situation in his area by touching a chord amongst the have-nots. He also, earned the opposition and wrath first of the Paqths (religious orders), then of the Brahmans (Hindu religious scholars), and in the end of the administration. Shaah Husayn was in a similar situation in the Punjaab.

In Shaah Husayn's time the king (as different from his operatives) had a separate status. He was the biggest landlord. He was also the state. He was not only the warrior and commander-in-chief but also the peace-maker and provider of justice. In Mughal times he employed mansabdaars and zamindaars as a part of his system of revenue collection and administrative control, but he kept them on a leash. The king wanted agriculture and trade to flourish (these were the primary sources of revenue and employed huge populations). He supported both. He put a focus on justice. He would not brook any uprisings so he 'nipped them in the bud' or quelled them with a ruthless iron fist. He made sure people earned and lived reasonable lives as such a situation ensured revenue from taxes, and also resulted in lesser expenses on administration and control. The king knew that self-control was a product of people living reasonable lives. There was plenty of strong-armed persuasion to propagate this thesis: people must learn to, and be able to, pay taxes. The king built roads, dug wells on trade routes, provided protection for caravans. When monarchies became stable, the king also worked to reduce the tensions between various religionists, classes, etc.. Proto-Pakistan, proto-India and proto-Bangladesh witnessed a golden age from the Sultanate period onwards as a time of relative stability. This golden age started with strong kings who repulsed new invaders and brought comparative peace to the land. This period of considerable stability continued throughout the Sultanate period and the epoch of the Great Mughals. In this period artisans and arts prospered. In the forefront of this prosperity were the weavers.

Shaah Husayn saw all this, and it is reflected in his poems. His hereditary profession and the trade he grew up with was 'a natural' for his imagery. The inter-dependence of society found a perfect metaphor in fabric, made via the warp and woof, the spinning and design skills of women, and the labours of farmers and craftsmen. He was only partly egalitarian because he was from a socially deemed 'lower' class. He also propagated unity partly because that at least ideologically removed differentiation. These approaches fitted in well with the conceptions of Waahdat al-Vujood.

His simple, defiant lifestyle, acute perception, exceptional poetry which spoke of the problems and attributes of the spiritual and material have-nots (including a loud questioning of why all this is so), his great emphasis on an alternative view of religion, all virtually created a new religion. A Mazhab Husayni (Husaynistic religion) flourished for a time in the Lahore-Kasur area.

Shaah Husayn was 'owned' by the people. Unlike Baaba Fareed and Baaba Naanak before him, he had no children but there were Husayni gaddis (seats) and other corruptions which people are wont to achieving. This is a product of history and no fault of Shaah Husayn. The gift of Baaba Fareed, Baaba Naanak, Shaah Husayn and the later masterpoets is a popular genre of poetry with meaning as well as music finely integrated into it. Though music is built into Baaba Fareed's verse, and Baaba Naanak repeatedly called himself a Hhaadi (i.e., bard, singing minstrel) and went from place to place singing his verse, singing and dancing in the streets is associated more with Shaah Husayn. He was Punjaab's first major urban poet and brought non-agrarian imagery into Punjaabi verse.

In the Kaaft genre, used primarily by the Muslim poets of Punjaabi, and later of Sindhi, usually the first line is a refrain, which returns after every succeeding verse, (something probably picked up from folk songs). The antra (verse) may be a single line, or several. It also has another purpose. While the verses talk of what 'may have been', the refrain keeps reminding us, 'but this is how it has always been!' Najm Hosain Syed in his 'Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry' applies this thought to the music and rhythms in the verses where the dholki (a small two-sided drum) with its insistent beat keeps pulling us back from the possibilities proposed for man and his relationships, to 'but this is how it has always been!'

The refrain of a kaafi is called rahaao. This is a most interesting word with a wide range of meanings lending it great richness (versus 'refrain' or asthaai). Rahaao means to repeat, but also, to 'keep with you'. In Saraaeki rahaavan means to win over, assuage, soothe, coax, appease, and to invoke (upon God), etc. Thus the rahaao has to be coaxed and won over or it will not come into our grasp. A bride returning to her parent's home for a few days after marriage is also on rahaao. (The idea is that she too has to be coaxed back by the husband).

The first line of every kaafi is a rahaao, but in some presentations (such as Muhammad Asaf Khan's edition of Shaah Husayn's works) the rahaao is only presented once, at the beginning of the kaafi, (with the word rahaao added after it), reminding us that this line is the rahaao. However, if it is presented after every verse (as Shaekh Sharif Sabir and others have done in their editions of the works of Bulleh Shaah) we tend to read the rahaao after every verse. If we don't read the rahaao after every verse we do not read the kaafi in its totality, as it was composed by the poet. These volumes present for the first time the rahaao after every verse of Shaah Husayn's kaafis. Perhaps kaafis should always be printed with the rahaao repeated after every verse with the recognition that the rahaao is also a musical composition and the bard or singer may alter the sequence of words for better musical effect when the kaafi is sung. Often the metre of the rahaao is different from the antraas (verses). A few examples of how the rahaao may be composed in words for a homogeneous blending into singable verse have been offered with several kaafis in these volumes.


1. The name India has created great confusion. It was coined by the Europeans (from Idtt, the Greek name for the Sindhu/Hindu river). It then became Inde, and finally India. Pre-Muslim 'India' was not called so. 'India' had no existence as such. There were many kingdoms and chiefships. In earlier periods, under the Buddhist kings Ashok' and Kanishk', etc., much of Central Asia, and all of Afghanistan was in a single kingdom, later named 'India' by European historians. The geography of 'India' has undergone many changes. Under Muslim rule, Afghanistan remained a part of the Sultanate and the Mughal kingdom. British 'India' included Ceylon and Burma, and excluded Afghanistan. Current India has a constitutional name, Bharat. It does not include Pakistan and Bangladesh. The epithets proto-India and proto-Pakistan should focus on this problem of nomenclature and lead us to an understanding of the situation. And the words Bharat-India define present 'India' more correctly.