About ten years ago, I started to listen to qawwali. Qawwali is Islamic mystical music from the Indian subcontinent. Through that music, I came into contact with some of the great Sufi sages and poets of the subcontinent.
One of them is Baba Bulleh Shah (Rahmatullahi 3alayh/God bless him), and this article on his life and work is a tribute to him.
“Destroy the mosque, destroy the temple; destroy everything you want to destroy. But never hurt someone’s heart, because if you hurt someone’s heart, you hurt God. Because God resides in all hearts.”
This is a poem written by Baba Bulleh Shah, a queer poet, Muslim mystic and sage.
Baba Bulleh Shah was born in 1680 (common era) as Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri, from a family of sayyids. Sayyids are people who claim to be direct descendents of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. His family gave him the nickname “Bulleh” and he took that name as a nom de plume and became famous under that name.
He received his earliest education from his father, who taught him Arabic, Persian and Qur’an, but later on he moved to another city to receive higher, formal education.
We know few biographical details about his life, but all the more about his poetry, and the following story about him meeting his master is telling.
Even before he met his master, he performed spiritual excercises and had certain spiritual powers, but nonetheless, he wanted achieve more in Islamic mysticism and went looking for a teacher.
One fateful day, he was strolling in an orchard full of mangotrees, who were laden with fruit. Scrupulous as he was, he went looking fort he owner or caretaker of the garden, because he didn’t want to steal. However, he didn’t find him, so he called upon the Name of God, and the mangos dropped from the trees.
Then all of a sudden, he saw the spiritual teacher Shah Inayat Qadri, who was in fact the owner of the orchard and also worked his own land.
Bulleh Shah rcognized him as a spiritual teacher, and eager to impress him and to test his ability as a spiritual teacher, called upon God and the mangos dropped from the trees again.
However, Shah Inayat Qadri was not impressed by the miracle, and called upon God himself, making the mangos drop from the trees and attaching them to the trees again.
Then, Inayat Shah asked him what his name was and why he had come to see him. Bulleh replied, “Sir, my name is Bullah and I wish to know how I can realize God.” Inayat Shah said “O Bulleh, what problem is there in finding God ? It only needs to be uprooted from here and planted there.”
What Inayat Shah meant with his words was that the secret of spiritual progress lay in detaching one’s mind from the world outside and attaching it to God within.
After these words, Bulleh Shah was deeply moved and knew that he had found his teacher. He became Shah Inayats student. (Shah Inayat was, btw, named “Qadri” because he was a member of the Qadiriyya-order. This order is very widespread and old, and was founded by Abdulqadir al Jilani, who came from Baghdad and was an Afro-Iraqi sage)
Meeting Shah Inayat changed Bullehs whole life, and even though he never married and remained celibate all his life, he had a deep and passionate spiritual love for his master, and wrote many poems about his love for his master, and about spirituality in general.
He sometimes expressed this love in an unconventional way.
One day, he saw a young woman who was waiting for her husband to come home, and in preparing for him to come, she was putting braids in her hair. Bulleh Shah dressed himself like that woman and put the same type of braids in his hair and went to meet his master in this garb.
However, the days of joy were not to last. Bulleh Shah was an ashraf syedi and syeds were considered “upper” caste, whereas Shah Inayat was an arain. Arains were gardeners and vegetable-growers, considered to be a “lower” caste.
When Bulleh Shahs family heard that he had chosen someone of a lower social status and caste as a master, they were furious. Even though they were pious Muslims, they had not yet reached the level to practice what the Qur’an and the Prophet preached: No-one is better than anyone else on the basis of colour, ethnic heritage, “race”, gender, sexual orientation, but only on the basis of taqwa, God-consciousness or piety.
His family began to pressure him to leave Shah Inayat and even though he was heart-broken, he obeyed. Shah Inayat only replied with the following remark: “You are not Bulleh, you are lost.”
According to my personal interpretation, this means that Bulleh had done something which clashed against his own character and views, and wasn’t himself anymore.
Heartbroken, Bulleh Shah became more and more confused. Why had he forsaken Shah Inayat? Why had he listened to his families’ words and obeyed, even though casts meant nothing to him, and his love for his master meant everything?
He realized he had made a terrible mistake and begged Shah Inayat to forgive him. But his master refused to take him back.
Desperate beyond belief, Bulleh Shah remembered that his master loved music and dances, and hatched the following plan. He joined a group of professional female dancers and lived as one of them.
Because these women were poor working class dancers of low “caste” and social status, Bulleh Shah, a privileged man from a high caste and with a worldview influnced by that status, considered it somewhat of a penance.
For twelve years, he wore women’s clothes and learned to dance, as to prove that he would give up everything – including his social status- to win his master back.
By doing what he did, he also proved that social status, gender and caste meant nothing to him. It was all about love, the love he had for his master and for God, and not about the aforemented things. He willingly gave up his privilege as an upper caste man, to chase his spiritual love, and by doing so, he embodied the Quranic principle that God doesn’t look at our outer forms, but at what is in the heart.
After twelve years he awaited his master in dancing clothes and danced for him, while singing the following poem: “Mullah, don’t make a fuss and beat me; let me rejoice in my beloved.
My honor has not decreased by becoming a dancer!
Your love has made me dance, your love has made me dance, like mad!
O healer, come back soon, or else forsaken my life will end.
Your love has made me dance, your love has made me dance, like mad!
Your love has camped in my heart, your love has camped in my heart.
I drank a cup full of poison. O perfect master, I have already crossed over!
Peacocks sing in the grove of love; my beautifull Beloved lives in the qibla and the Kaaba.
Your love has made me dance, your love has made me dance, like mad!”
After that, his master saw the sincerity of his plea, he forgave him, and they reconciled.
Bulleh Shah wrote beautiful poems, who continually stress that true spiritual growth and faith have little to do with only reading books, outward appearances or ritual, but everything with love, devotion and purity of heart.
He wrote, for instance: “Do not effortedly spin the rosary.
What’s to count in a rosary unto Him Who is Countless unto you? Why keep accounts with God?
You read to become all knowledgeable
But you never read yourself
You run to enter temples and mosques
But you never entered your own heart
Everyday you fight Satan
But you never fight your own Ego
It’s no use to fight the devil if you haven’t fought yourself
Bulleh Shah you try grabbing that which is in the sky
But you never get hold of What sits inside you.”
He also wrote: “Going to Makkah is not the ultimate
Despite offering hundreds of prayers
Going to Ganga is not the ultimate
Despite taking hundreds of dips in it
Going to Gaya is not the ultimate
Despite teaching hundreds of worshippers
Bulleh Shah, the ultimate is achieved
When the “I” is eliminated from the heart.”
(The Ganges is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, Gaya is a place of pilgrimage for buddhists)
“O beloved one:
If God were to be found by bathing and washing,
then God would be found by fish and frogs.
If God were to be found by roaming in jungle,
then God would be found by cows and buffaloes.
God is found by hearts righteous and pure.”
When Bulleh Shah died, the scholars did not want to bury him, probably because of his occasional cross-dressing and subversive spirituality. Nonetheless, he was loved among the people, and at night, he was secretly buried by a woman.
Even though he was opposed by the scholars in his day, the commemoration of his diying day, his “3urs” or wedding still attracts thousands of devotees today.
His poem “Teri ishq nachaya”, “Your love has made me dance” is still popular and is sung in great parts of India and Pakistan.
Another song he wrote “Dama dam mast qalandar” “Every breath of the wandering derwisj is drunk” that some even call it “the second national anthem of Pakistan”.
Renditions of both songs exist in almost every musical genre in India and Pakistan: From sufiana kalam and qawwali to kafi, Bollywood and even hiphop and rock.
All these songs were and are sung by famous singers, for instance the late, great qawwali-singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the almost equally famous Abida Parveen.
It is also interesting to note that the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a married man and father, once recounted the story of Bulleh Shahs life amongst the dancers and didn’t seem to have any problems with the story itself and with telling it.
The singer Abida Parwin, who often sings poems by Bulleh Shah, once said: “When I sing, I am neither a man, nor a woman. I am only a vessel for passion.”