By Riaz Missen
March 29, 2016
The UN chief, Ban Ki-Moon, recently hailed Bulleh Shah’s poetry as message of oneness, peace and compassion, of understanding and harmony, as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan enthralled audience with the verses of the sage buried in the Kasur district of Pakistan. Bulleh Shah, who saw times of anarchy, civil wars and foreign invasions, stood for connecting the people regardless of their castes, creeds and colours — something Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah advocated in his August 11 address to the first Constituent Assembly.
Diversity, which marks human existence particularly in the regions bestowed with abundant water resources, is the most immediate cause of the collapse of order if not delicately handled. Pakistan offers the best case in this regard — not now but since centuries. Society, from Himalayas down to the Arabian Sea, is an amalgamation of the people with diverse stocks of population practising different cultures and having narratives of their past. Vision may clash and the same can be reason of discord. But don’t miss the point of unity in diversity. There exists a doctrine, shared across the regions, to live in peace.
If the last millennium is marked with the Indus Valley becoming an integral part of the subcontinent, the reality of its being a trade corridor needs to be given a detailed thought. The cultures of the area were cultivated with certain norms of peace that also gave a sense of connectivity. From Baba Farid onward the tradition of compassion with the Sufi poets seems particular; they healed the wounds of violent occupation and conquests brought to the people from outside regions.
Bulleh Shah (1680–1757) lived through the times of chaos following the downfall of the Mughal Empire. Punjab, in the 17th-18th century, had become subject of invasion and occupation. Its rulers changed as fast as in Persia and Afghanistan. The era of stability, which marked the Mughal rule, seemed to be lost. The foresightedness of a learned scholar like Bulleh Shah made him invoke sense of unity by transcending racial and religious frontiers. Bulleh Shah reacted to the invasion of Ahmad Shah Abdali and he condemned the clergy for supporting subsequent loot and plunder in the name of religion. He, actually, reached to the point of rebellion when he took his spiritual leader from a local caste and danced to the tunes of Dhol to earn his favours.
Belonging to the Syed clan, Bulleh Shah simply assured of his fidelity to the land he belonged to. He felt the pain of being attacked, molested and ravaged by invading armies. He cried foul when ethnic and tribal prejudices tried to conceal tyranny under the carpet. Mullah, the person who embodied the lowest of human passions, was his subject of criticism.
Bulleh Shah clearly understood the problem of diversity and its proximity to the problem of order and justice. One has not to challenge and oppose an entity merely for the reason that it is non-understandable. Mix and mingle with it. It is about overcoming one’s prejudices if one has to understand the difference between reality and appearance. True, diversity creates confusions and is likely to blur the vision of the ignorant. One has to penetrate and go deep to search the truth. And it is same to search the world outside as looking one’s own inside. The passage may be difficult but to do that you need a ‘leader’ and the right passion: Ishq (true love). Truth does not make one behave like the ignorant clergy do. It brings humility rather than arrogance.
It is noteworthy that the Sufi tradition, which flourished in the regions comprising Pakistan, evolved a particular methodology to handle religious diversity — it is something that connected the people of the Indus Valley and Gangetic region during the Sultanate or Mughal rule. The Sufis emphasised on civility as the common ground for coexistence of diversity. They projected the image of Islam that respects life and cultural practices. They focused on harmonising value systems rather than insisting on uniform dress codes and cultural practices. The strategy attributed to Baba Farid Ganj Shakar did wonders as it attracted the tribes, particularly Rajputs and Jats, to Islam right from the mountainous regions down to floodplains and deserts.
The credit certainly has to be given, and the wisdom and sagacity of the sages is a source of learning given their role in resolving the problem of order for the dynasties and empires. The challenge for the Bulleh Shah was the unique times in which he lived. The source of trouble was the collapsing of central authority, and Punjab left to the loot and plunder of the invading Persian and Afghan armies.
One may find a difference in the tone and messages of the sages in the regions outside Central Punjab — Rahman Baba (1653–1711), Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai ((1689 –1752), Sachal Sarmast (1739 –1829), Mian Muhammad Bakhsh (1830-1907) and Khawaja Ghulam Farid (1845–1901) – though all were followers of the same school of thought. Bulleh Shah is eloquently critical on fast declining standards of civility rather than displaying the sense of ecstasy.
The particular Sufi tradition, which flourished after the Ghaznavi invasion, is a doctrine of life worth considering for those conversant with politics, for it contains the secret of peace. Statecraft, for sure, falls in the domain of wisdom rather than soldiery. It needs a narrative on protecting life and respecting diversity. Law, if it needs to be respected, should confirm to the customs and traditions of its subjects. If the barrel of gun has to decide the direction of society, rest assured, Bulleh Shah is still a strong voice against repression and tyranny.
Bulleh Shah is loved and respected by conscious and considerate souls across Indo-Pak divide. His wisdom and sagacity has earned praise during the times Pakistan underwent bigotry and violent extremism. During the whole period of authoritarian rule he was feverishly sung, with a high sense of devotion by music legends from all provinces. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan will be especially remembered for conveying the true voice of the silent majority, which embodies the verses of Bulleh Shah, at home and abroad.
The worth of Bulleh Shah’s message for peace in human affairs has now been acknowledge by the United Nation, as his message is as universal as that of the sages of any great religion of the world. If the question of human survival is linked with human ability to understand and co-exist with nature, the sages like Bulleh Shah have a lot to say how to resolve the problem of order in diverse societies like Pakistan.
Riaz Missen is Director at the Center for Policy and Media Studies