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Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature – Schimmel

Thanks to a friend on Twitter I rediscovered this essay by the great Annemarie Schimmel which I had read in the pre-internet times. The essay entitled Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature is a remarkably panoramic review of how the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice are central to Islamic faith and Sufi principles. Schimmel looks at the older Persian poets, traces the evolution of Karbala motif in Sindhi Sufi poets such as Bhitai and later Urdu poetry of Ghalib. The essay moves to Iqbal and the commentary by Schimmel is most insightful as it puts his poetry and vision in the spiritual perspective. I hope this is widely read and popularised for this view is essential to countering the popular, ideological narratives on appropriating his poetry for Islamist ascendancy and hypernationalism in Pakistan.

 I still remember the deep impression which the first Persian poem I ever read in connection with the tragic events of Karbala’ left on me. It was Qaani’s elegy which begins with the words:

What is raining? Blood.
Who? The eyes.
How? Day and night.
Why? From grief.
Grief for whom?
Grief for the king of Karbala’

This poem, in its marvellous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and of the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.

The theme of suffering and martyrdom occupies a central role in the history of religion from the earliest time. Already, in the myths of the ancient Near East, we hear of the hero who is slain but whose death, then, guarantees the revival of life: the names of Attis and Osiris from the Babylonian and Egyptian traditions respectively are the best examples for the insight of ancient people that without death there can be no continuation of life, and that the blood shed for a sacred cause is more precious than anything else. Sacrifices are a means for reaching higher and loftier stages of life; to give away parts of one’s fortune, or to sacrifice members of one’s family enhances one’s religious standing; the Biblical and Qur’anic story of Abraham who so deeply trusted in God that he, without questioning, was willing to sacrifice his only son, points to the importance of such sacrifice. Iqbal was certainly right when he combined, in a well known poem in Bal-i Jibril (1936), the sacrifice of Ismail and the martyrdom of Husayn, both of which make up the beginning and the end of the story of the Ka’ba. […]

November 24th, 2012|Religion, Sufi poetry, Sufism|2 Comments

River Indus: Flow of life – Part II

By Raza Rumi:

From ancient Vedic times to stories told by Sufi saints, the Indus continues to play a central role in the legends and folklore associated with the region. Even today, the shrine of Uderolal, a composite Hindu-Muslim place of worship and the cult of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar are rooted and nurtured by the Indus and its magic. Not long ago, both Hindus and Muslims believed that the flow of Indus was determined by the saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is also referred to as Jhule Lal, or the god of waters. Some Hindus also referred to him as Raja Bharati.

The Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 brought with it a new shape to the politics and cultures of the Indus region

Current beliefs and practices still reflect continuity with the past. Sehwan Sharif, where the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s is situated was the site of a Shiva centre. It is said that the name Sehwanistan has been derived from Sivistan, city of Shiva. Moreover, there is a striking similarity between the dressing of contemporary faqirs and Shivite yogis as both dress in ‘torn clothes with matted hair.’

The Mohanas (fisherfolk) have been displaced and driven towards alternative livelihoods

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As noted above, Uderolal is a curious tomb: Muslims believe that a saint named Shaikh Tahir is buried here; while the Hindus consider this place to be the shrine Jhulelal or Uderolal. In common parlance, he is also known as Zindapir (Living Saint). Uderolal is one of the places where the Indus is still worshipped by Hindus and Muslims. It is also worshipped in another part of Sindh, near the town of Sukkur.

Shrines of Sufi saints are situated along the riverside in Sindh. It is believed that 125,000 holy men are buried ‘in the yellow sandstone necropolis at Thatta’ alone, writes Samina Quraesihi in her book on Sufism. All year round, a great number of people continue to visit the tombs as a way to show their respect and receive blessings. Just like Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Khwaja Khizr is also referred to as Zindapir and ‘ pani ka badshah‘ (Water King). The devotees still believe that he lives under the water and the river flows the way that he commands. As recently as the late nineteenth century, Hindus and Muslims also worshipped side-by-side at the Zindapir’s shrine in Sukkur. Moreover, many of the saints have said to have caused miracles in the region through their powers over the Indus.

Mangroves are vanishing and the boat-communities are struggling for their survival

Such meta-religious beliefs and practices can also be understood with reference to Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo. This is a sacred Sindhi book put together by Latif. It is given equal reverence by both Hindus and Muslims, and contains excerpts from the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Persian poetry and Sindhi folklore. It does not focus on any one form of authority and includes doctrines from various sects in Islam. On the whole it represents the similarity in spiritual beliefs related to Hinduism and Islam as practiced in the region. Moreover, it is still a symbol of this peaceful co-existence between the followers of the two religions. […]

River Indus: Flow of life – Part I

By Raza Rumi:

Along its 1,800-mile course, the Indus joins cultures from the steppes of Central Asia to the arid plains of the South Asian subcontinent. It affects patterns of thought and behavior, shapes expressions of culture and provides inspiration for art. The hopes and aspirations of its people are reflected in stories and elaborate myths, transmitted through the consciousness of successive generations by bards and story-tellers. It is important to mention that the Indus Valley Civilization originated in the fertile plains of the Indus River, in the third and fourth millennium BC. This civilization, or the Harappan Culture, was coeval with the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is recognized as the third major civilization in the history of humankind. Mohanas, the boat-people of the Indus valley, still live along its banks, near the shrine of Khwaja Khizr and elsewhere. They traverse the mighty river on boats which have remained essentially similar in design to those depicted in the art of the Indus Valley Civilization thousands of years ago.

To the Sindhis, it is known as “Purali”: the capricious river whose floods can make and destroy civilizations

Alice Albinia in her excellent book Empires of the Indus: the Story of a River reminds us how the Indian subcontinent derives its very name from the great river. The ancient Sanskrit language referred to the Indus as “Sindhu”. Later, the Persians entitled it the “Hindu” and through the subsequent eras, it finally came to be known as India. Albinia has painstakingly researched how the Indus region excited the imagination of Europeans from early antiquity. The lure of the Indian subcontinent had reached the West even in the time of Alexander the Great, and ever since then, exotic tales of this enchanting land have spurred on the ambitions of many a great conqueror.

Sohni meets her tragic end in the Indus which up till recently had been a facilitator in her love-story, but suddenly becomes the ultimate obstacle in allowing it to continue

The multitudes of peoples who live along the banks of the Indus know it by a number of names. To the Sindhis, it is known as “Purali”: the capricious river whose floods can make and destroy civilizations. Further up the course of the river, the Pashtuns refer to it as the ‘Nilab’ (blue water), ‘Sher Darya’ (Lion River) and ‘Abbasin’ (father of Rivers). The mountain people of Baltistan know it as ‘Gemtsuh’ (the Great Flood), or ‘Tsuh-Fo’ (the Male River). […]

Imagined homeland

It irks me when I hear simplistic platitudes on Pakistani society, state or people. The heterogeneity of Pakistan is by itself an anthropologist’s dream, a planners’ headache and a sociologist’s challenge. Despite the sixty-one years of drumming the uniform nationalism mantra, Pakistan’s regions and their peoples refuse to toe the line sponsored by the official textbook masters. This is why one minute there is a delightful speech on being a Pakistani and the other minute caste, tribe or ethnicity raise their discrete heads and the linear formulae dissolve into thin air.

Recently I was in Karachi and discovered that the drawing room chattering there was vastly different from that of Lahore’s. The immediate urban crises of the Sindhi capital overshadow discussions that the Punjabi heartland loves to indulge in. The war mongering that has been a recent pastime on TV channels and in influential quarters of Lahore, is looked at with suspicion and, dare I say, contempt by many Karachi wallahs. It was refreshing to be reminded that, much in line with South Asian history, Pakistan is a diverse, multifarious place. That this country cannot be boxed easily and therefore appointed labels dissipate easily. […]

February 5th, 2009|Arts & Culture, Published in The Friday Times, Sindh, Sufism|2 Comments

Love Stories of the Risalo of Shah Latif – Noori Jam-Tamachee

Contribution by Naveed Siraj

The Risalo of Shah Latif is divided into chapters called Surs which are composed on the lines of musical notes. Each sur is based on symbols taken from stories which are part of Sindhi folklore. Sur Kamod in the Risalo of Shah Latif is based on the love story of Noori Jam-Tamachee:

Noori Jam-Tamachee

King Jam Tamachi was a Samo ruler of lower Sind at the end of the 14th century A.D. While on a shooting expedition, he chanced to see a fisher girl named Noori, falling madly in love with her and offered to married her, his love for her blind to the social disparity between them.

When they returned back to his capital, he was made aware of the general disapproval of this match. He merely observed that the detractors did not know her as much as he did. In order to display her character and appease the cynics, one day, he announced to his queens, that he would take one of them for a ride on an outing. […]

May 1st, 2008|Sindh, Soul, South Asian Literature, Sufi poetry, Sufism|6 Comments

Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai

If you are seeking Allah

If you are seeking Allah,
Then keep clear of religious formalities.
Those who have seen Allah
Are away from all religions!
Those who do not see Allah here,
How will they see Him beyond?

Let us go the land of Kak
Where love flows in abundance,
There are no entrances, no exits,
Every one […]