‘Jaan main sabq Ishq da parhya, Masjid kolon jeyorra darya
poch poch thakur dowrey warrya, Jithey wajdey naad hazaar’
(The day I learn the lesson of Love, I was scared of the mosque and dreaded fasts I looked around and entered a temple, Where sounded many a drum-blast)
This is Bulleh Shah, the sufi saint from the seventeenth century. His real name was Abdullah Shah. He was a Punjabi Muslim Sufi poet, a humanist and a philosopher.
Bulleh Shah is believed to have been born in 1680, in the small village of Uch, Bahawalpur, Punjab, now in Pakistan. His ancestors had migrated from Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan.
Bulleh Shah received his early schooling in Pandoke, and moved to Kasur for higher education. He also received education from Maulana Mohiyuddin. His spiritual teacher was the eminent Sufi saint, Shah Inayat Qadiri. Bulleh Shah’s family was directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH).
A large amount of what is known about Bulleh Shah comes through legends, so much so that there isn’t even agreement among historians concerning his precise date and place of birth.
Bulleh Shah practiced the Sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry established by poets like Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu,,and Shah Sharaf. Bulleh Shah’s lifespan overlapped with Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai, Waris Shah (of Heer Ranjha fame) and Abdul Wahad alias Sachal Sarmast. Amongst Urdu poets, Bulleh Shah lived 400 miles away from Mir Taqi Mir of Agra.
The verse form Bulleh Shah primarily employed is called the Kafi, a style of Punjabi, Sindhi and Siraiki poetry used not only by the Sufis of Sindh and Punjab, but also by Sikh gurus. Bulleh Shah’s poetry and philosophy strongly criticizes Islamic religious orthodoxy of his day.
Bulleh Shah’s time was marked with communal strife between Muslims and Sikhs. Baba Bulleh Shah was a beacon of hope and peace for the citizens of Punjab. While Bulleh Shah was in Pandoke, Muslims killed a young Sikh man who was riding through their village in retaliation for murder of some Muslims by Sikhs. Baba Bulleh Shah denounced the murder of an innocent Sikh and was censured by the mullas and muftis of Pandoke. Bulleh Shah maintained that violence was not the answer to violence.Bulleh Shah also hailed Guru Tegh Bahadur as a ghazi (Islamic term for a religious warrior) and incurred the wrath of the fanatic muslims at the time.
Banda Singh Bairagi was a contemporary of Bulleh Shah. In retaliation for the murder of Guru Gobind Singh’s two sons by Aurangzeb, he sought revenge by killing common Muslims. Baba Bulleh Shah tried to convince Banda Singh Bairagi to renounce his campaign of revenge.
Bullleh Shah’s writings represent him as a humanist, someone providing solutions to the sociological problems of the world around him as he lives through it, describing the turbulence his motherland of Punjab is passing through, while concurrently searching for God.
His poetry highlights his mystical spiritual voyage through the four stages of Sufism: Shariat (Path), Tariqat (Observance), Haqiqat (Truth) and Marfat (Union). The simplicity with which Bulleh Shah has been able to address the complex fundamental issues of life and humanity is a large part of his appeal. Thus, many people have put his kafis to music, from humble street-singers to renowned Sufi singers like the Waddali Brothers, Abida Parveen and Pathanay Khan, from the synthesized techno qawwali remixes of UK-based Asian artists to the rock band Junoon.
Bulleh Shah’s popularity stretches uniformly across Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, to the point that much of the written material about this philosopher is from Hindu and Sikh authors.