The works of Bulleh Shah and Rumi echo the emotions of a growing global audience

We are the mirror as well as the face in it (Rumi)

The need to be understood has always remained integral to human existence. It is through the expression of “humanness” and the commonality of existential experience that we truly relate to each other. The visible revival of the Sufi idiom in Pakistan, expressed through an unlikely medium – pop music – is not an unexpected event. It is a reaction to mainstream orthodoxy and the realisation of an enhanced cultural space in contemporary Pakistan. Above all, it reinforces the continued relevance of the Sufi message, which is centred on humanistic values and the attainment of divine love through self-knowledge and the love of fellow human beings.

When I returned to Pakistan in 2002 after a sojourn abroad, the first image to hit me at the Karachi airport was a supreme ishq number: Bulleh Shah’s “ Teray ishq nachaya kar thaya thaya ” (Your love makes me dance with abandon), the music and video of which were produced by Shoaib Mansoor. It was a soulful composition, visually delightful and definitely catchy, as I noticed that many a passerby were mesmerised by the images. I almost thanked God that Shoaib Mansoor had changed tracks. His previous discovery, Junaid Jamshed, has joined the tableegh- merchant brigade and virtually disowned his music in public interviews. However, this ‘conversion’ is not an isolated incident.

The capture of Pakistan’s cultural space by the orthodoxy has increased over time. In 1947, within a split second of history, the Islamists shed their opposition to Pakistan’s creation and became the greatest defenders of its ideological frontiers. While the tableeghi movement is a different entity altogether, its avowedly ‘non-political’ stance effectively strengthens the supremacy of the orthodox cultural discourse. This discourse is uncomfortable, and in some cases outrightly hostile, to the local ethos comprising mystical Islam, music and alternative healing gained through adherence to the Sufi way – or whatever remains of it. It may be worth wondering why the tableeghi network is converting the already-converted Muslims, while it has little to say against militancy and unpalatable sectarianism.

Ironically, General Musharraf’s current regime has created an unprecedented space for alternative voices to flourish and sing. Since the deregulation of the media, we have witnessed a glasnost that surprises even the hard-boiled cynics in the country. True to Pakistan’s contradictions, while the Hasba law is tabled in the provincial legislature, Sufi pop plays on privately owned electronic media channels that also churn out much that could not be transmitted just five years ago. Junoon and other exponents of the Sufi-pop genre have created an incredible fusion between the old and the new and instantly popularised Sufi poetry amongst the MTV/Indus generation that otherwise might not have discovered this aspect of our heritage and its perennial cross-currents.

In this milieu, the iconoclasm of Bulleh Shah is a fascinating polarity – bringing out the ‘other’ discourse in full public view. Ajoka theatre’s landmark production “Bullah” is another cultural milestone that continues to reinvent and reintroduce Bulleh Shah within and beyond Pakistan. In particular, the revival of Bulleh Shah in India is a direct result of Ajoka’s various performances in the different Punjabi-speaking states and other parts of India. Ajoka’s work was a seminal attempt to trace the life and progression of Bulleh Shah in a truly subaltern format. Almost in quick succession we heard Rabbi, the new pop sensation in India, launching his video “ Bullah ki jana mein kaun .” Rabbi’s voice has a timeless quality and its rendition in the rock mode made the song an instant hit. The video director wove into the images a modern translation of the lyrics, thereby making the poetry comprehensible to millions of people worldwide. The translations appeared quite terrific in context of the caste-ridden, geography-obsessed and conflict-laden South Asia. Clubs across India play “ Bullah ” with a fervour that may have surprised Bulleh Shah himself!

Bulleh’s revival, admittedly on a limited scale, is comparable to the fascinating ascendancy of the 13th century poet-mystic Jalaludin Rumi in the West, particularly the United States. According to the Christian Science Monitor , Rumi ranked as America’s bestselling poet in 1997. It is true that the likes of Deepak Chopra have transformed Rumi into a love-therapy icon, but his popularity has led to a full scale launch of Rumi in the fields of academia and journalism. In fact, one of the antidotes to Islamophobia in the US has been Rumi’s songs of love – a glimmer of discernment in the often ignorant and McCarthian world of mainstream Western media. The internet hosts thousands of sites that translate, sell, offer and package Rumi for all kinds of audiences.

It is no mere coincidence that this Bulleh-Rumi resurgence is taking place in two very different contexts. At a fundamental level, albeit for different reasons, the resistance to formalism and packaged consent is finding a voice:

“ Bulleh! To me, I am not known

Not a believer inside the mosque, am I

Nor a pagan disciple of false rites

Not the pure amongst the impure

Neither Moses, nor the Pharoah

Bulleh! To me, I am not known ”

And the desire to be free of all trappings of identity, convention and routine:

“ In happiness nor in sorrow, am I

Neither clean, nor a filthy mire

Not from water, nor from earth

Neither fire, nor from air, is my birth

Bulleh! To me, I am not known

Not an Arab, nor Lahori

Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri

Hindu, Turk (Muslim), nor Peshawari

Nor do I live in Nadaun

Bulleh! To me, I am not known ”

The striking similarity is that four centuries prior to Bulleh’s outpouring of emotion, Rumi sang the story of abandon. The poem below has proved very popular in the US:

“ What is to be done, O Moslems? For I do not recognise myself.

I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Moslem.

I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;

I am not of Nature’s mint, nor of the circling heaven.

I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;

I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.

I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin

I am not of the kingdom of Iraqian, nor of the country of Khorasan

I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell

I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan. ”

The identity of the messages in these poems speaks a common language of existential anguish. Confronted by racial profiling, wars and the bonfire of vanities, ordinary humans relate to the subtext of a transcendent spiritual yearning regardless of their backgrounds and nationalities. Three strands of mystical poetry are clear: conflicts of identity wear people down; at the end of the day, the illusions of adherence to creed do not solve anything; and the overplay of the ritual and formal is at the expense of inner peace.

Is it not the case that an ordinary Muslim in Pakistan feels unsafe in a mosque and the simple act of worship has become a political minefield? In the West, a similar adherence to corporate hegemony, the dominant discourse of ideology, war and greed has left thousands and millions wondering who they really are. Why would Rumi’s poetic collections sell more than 500,000 copies in recent years?

Since 9/11, Rumi’s message is even more relevant in an America confronting post-industrial emptiness and a media-fed neurosis of fear and ignorance regarding the “other.” 700-year old poetic texts are doing what the current crop of Muslim scholars and thinkers is unable to do – deflect stereotypes. Coleman Barks, academic/poet and chief translator of Rumi in the US, states that the religiously ecstatic nature of Rumi’s poetry resonates with Americans seeking this very quality. Rumi’s poetic question: “Where do I come from and what am I supposed to be doing?” speaks to countless Americans with strong spiritual yearnings – including Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Donna Karan, Martin Sheen, Debra Winger, Rosa Parks and the composer Philip Glass. The German poet, Hans Meinke, remarked some years ago that Rumi’s poetry was “the only hope for the dark times in which we live.”

Meanwhile, Bulleh’s timeless verse thrives in Pakistan.

The voice against the orthodoxies of our times echoes in Sufi poetry, even though the essential conflict – between illusions of greed and the quest for inner peace – remains unresolved. Therefore, Sufi-pop and poetry will continue to reverberate in a tumultuous and splintered world driven by the damaging ideologies of power.

Read more articles about baba bulleh shah:

What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?

On Kabir, Bulleh Shah and Lalon Shah

Baba Bulleh Shah’s gift

Urs of Bulleh Shah in Kasur

Four poems by Bulleh Shah (new translations)

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sings Bulleh Shah