Bulleh Shah – A voice against religious bigotry

8th of September, 2011 marks the commencement of three-day celebrations of 254th Urs of Baba Bulleh Shah in Kasur. The man who had been 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 Bulleh Shah in Kasur 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 Bullah’s life and the efficacy of his teachings.

Because of his pure life and high spiritual attainments, he is equally popular among all communities. Scholars and dervishes have called him “The Sheikh of Both the Worlds,” “The man of God,” “The Knower of Spiritual Grace” and by other equally edifying titles. Considered as the greatest mystic poet of the Punjab, his compositions have been regarded as “the pinnacle of Sufi literature.” His admirers compare his writings and philosophy to those of Rumi and Shams-i-Tabriz.

Bulleh Shah is believed to have been born in 1680, in the small village of Uch, Bahawalpur, Punjab, in present day Pakistan. Bulleh Shah practiced the Sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry established by poets like Shah Hussain (1538–1599), Sultan Bahu (1629–1691), and Shah Sharaf (1640–1724).

Bulleh Shah’s times were out-of-joint. The 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 Sarhand 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 the Punjab. Bulleh Shah’s was a major voice against injustice. He called Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, a Ghazi. 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.


It needed a great deal of courage for a Muslim to say all this during the times Bulleh Shah lived in. It was, therefore, highly bold of Bulleh Shah to have challenged the mindset of the bigoted Muslims of his time:

The Mullas and Qazis show me the light
Leading to the maze of superstition.
Wicked are the ways of the world
Like laying nets for innocent birds
With religious and social taboos
They have tied my feet tight.

Be that as it may, Bulleh Shan maintained:

Shariat is my midwife, Tariqat is my mother
This is how I have arrived at the truth of Haqiqat.

Despite this, when he was denounced as a heretic, Bulleh Shah shouted back:

A lover of God?
They’ll make much fuss;
They’ll call you a Kafir
You should say -yes, yes.


He does not differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim. He sees God in both of them. When he decides to ridicule them, he does not spare either:

Lumpens live in the Hindu temples
And sharks in the Sikh shrines.
Musclemen live in the Muslim mosques
And lovers live in their clime.

Sick of the sophistications of the academicians, he would rather be happy in the company of the uneducated. He preferred simple folk with faith to the so called enlightened of his day:

Enough of learning, my friend
For it there is no end.
An alphabet would do for me,
No one knows when one’s life would end.


It is said that Bulleh Shah knew the text of the Holy Quran by heart. The way he quotes the Islamic scriptures in his verse speaks volumes for it. Says Bulleh Shah:

Understand the One and forget the rest,
Shake off your ways of a non-believer
Leading to the grave and to hell, in quest.

He hears the call of the Muezzin in the flute-strains of an idol worshipper:

Pour not on prayers, forget the fasts.
Wipe off Kalma from the sight.
Bulleh has found his lover within,
Others grope in the pitch-dark night.

What a spark of knowledge is kindled –
I find that I am neither Hindu nor Turk.
I am a lover by creed;
A lover is victorious even when swindled.

In the tradition of the saints of the Bhakti Movement, Bulleh Shah styles himself as the bride. God is the bridegroom:

How many knots should I tie for my wedding?
My learned friend, advise!
The marriage party must come on the prescribed date,
Will forty knots be wise?


Bulleh Shah was no less conscious of reforming his society. He was a severe critic of the clergy whether Islamic or Brahminic. He ridicules them for the way they exploit the people and mislead them with false promises. He calls them thugs:

The thugs with their mouths full of froth
Talk about life and death
Without making any sense.
With the fundamentalist, he is more severe :
If you wish to be a ghazi,
Take up your sword :
Before killing the Kafir
You must slaughter the swindler.

Bulleh Shah’s mysticism is the assertion of the soul against the formality of religion. He came to believe that it is possible to establish a direct link with God. His is the eternal yearning of the human soul to have direct experience of Divine Reality.

Bulleh Shah’s Sufism was no doubt Quranic to start with. But the Shariat has relevance as long as duality persists; the moment duality disappears, one is liberated from all bonds. This is exactly what seems to have happened with Bulleh Shah. He qualified himself to Tariqat. He became liberated. He became a part of the Divinity. He sees himself in everything around him.

Before the Sufi cult arrived in India, it had crossed many a bridge. The Saint tradition of the Bhakti Movement was yet another influence which it imbibed and gave birth to a distinct variety of Sufism which is rooted in the Punjabi soil. It was a happy mixture of Sabar and Takwa, Santokh and Riazat, Takkawal and Toba, Raza and Prem. Bulleh Shah played a prominent role in it. According to Lajwanti Raffia Krishna, writing in Punjabi Sufi Poets: ‘He is one of the greatest Sufis of the world and his thought equals that of Jalal-ud-din Rumi and Shams Tabrez of Persia.’

The specter of religious bigotry has always been the problem throughout the history of mankind but these are ‘Bullah Shahs’ of different ages who have stood against it and rejected the violence in the name of religion. Today, as the region has fallen into horrible chaos of fundamentalism, religious bigotry and orthodoxy, there’s utmost need of revival of the indigenous culture and traditions that are marked with the message of peace, humanity and inter-faith harmony.

Note: This post has been compiled with material from a, b & c



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