Book Notes

Listening to Allan Faqir today while I did some work, and just came across this passage in Ayesha Jalal’s Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 about the great Sufi saint and poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, whose poetry Allan Faqir sang/recited. Posting here for reference.

In Sindh, the land of many distinguished Sufi mystics, the vernacular poetry hums in unison with the local environment, unconstrained by the proximity to political power or the narrowness of a purely communitarian worldview. The poetry of Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Sharif (1689-1752) conveys his deep attachment to Sindhi soil and recounts the lives of ordinary rural folk weighed under by exploitative landlords and moneylenders. An iconoclast who acknowledge no authority which encumbered his thought, abjured religious orthodoxy and lashed out at what he regarded as social injustices, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai is among the finest exponents of resistance poetry in a region with a long and rich history of the genre. Bhitai firmly believed in the doctrine of wahdat-ul-wujud, or the unity of existence. This made him a renegade for those subscribing to the orthodox, transcendentalist point of view. Yet Bhitai’s poetry, compiled from what has been related by a chain of local bards in his magnum opus, Shah-jo-Risalo, or the book of Shah, is not the less Muslim for its rejection of social conventions devoid of aesthetic qualities. It is divided into a number of chapters called surs, or melodies, each of which represents Sindhi culture in its different locales. The message covers a wide spectrum, a moralism and a code of ethics based on the poet’s own interpretations of the Quran, the self-pride of the folk heroine Marvi and a sense of fellowship with humanity. According to folk belief, Bhitai as a young lad refused to learn beyond the letter alif, the ultimate symbol of the unity of God.

It was an early display of passion that was to seize him for the rest of his life. Immersed in the Sufi concept of tasawwuf, or contemplation of God, Bhitai’s poetry is deeply spiritual, articulating a philosophy of love which places him in the same league as many other Muslim mystics removed both in space and time. This commonality, however, is punctuated by local nuances in which Bhitai is as much a Muslim as he is a Sindhi. Yet at the same time the poetry displays a wide-ranging humanism based on its principle inspiration, the idea of Divine Love. All these features combined in one make Bhitai the leading cultural protagonist of Sindh in ways only those versed in the vernacular can truly appreciate. (19-20).


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