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That laughing son of a weaver – Shah Hussain (1538-1599)

Shah Hussain was the son of a weaver called Nusikhia (apprentice) Sheikh Usman who belonged to the Dhudha clan of Rajputs. Some historians assert that his grandfather or great grandfather had converted to Islam but Dr. Jeet Singh Seetal has affirmed through quoting several sources that it was Shah Husain’s father who converted to Islam during King Feroz Shah’s era. Sheikh Usman moved to Lahore and entered the weaving profession. It is possible that he was treated as an outcast in his community and had to move to Lahore.


Emperor Jahangir ordered one of his officials to write a diary of whatever Shah Husain did or said every day

As we know, most of the conversion to Islam in Punjab had occurred among the lower castes that belonged to the artisan or working classes and not among the merchants, bureaucracy or aristocracy of Hindus. The immigrant ruling classes from Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia or Arab lands treated the low-caste converted Muslims just the way the upper caste Hindus had been doing. They were like “chuhRas” (sweepers) who converted to Christianity during the British Raj but their social status remained the same. The immigrant ruling class used the word ‘jolaha’ instead of ‘chuhRas’ for low-caste converts. In one kafi Shah Hussain refers to this class setting, though the verses can be interpreted in other ways as well:

I am [royal] court’s chuhRi (sweeper)… The treasurer and the revenue official know this…

According to the Lahore Gazetteer, the bulk of Muslims were artisans and workers in the city even in the 1940s. And, one can imagine that in the 16th century, almost three centuries back, other than the conquering-immigrant ruling class, most of the Muslims in Lahore must have been comprised of the working classes. In this perspective, Shah Hussain, the pioneer of the kafi form of Punjabi poetry, seem to be the first and probably the only major classical Punjabi poet who belonged to the working class. Bhakti movement’s most renowned poet Bhaghat Kabir (1440-1518) was also a weaver but he wrote in Hindustani. Other Sufi poets were Syeds, the highest caste of Muslims, or descendents of socially privileged immigrant families or at least belonged to the class of educationists, clergy, etc.


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Shah Hussain started his education in Abu Bakar’s madrassa in Taxali Gate of Lahore. He had started memorizing the Quran when he was initiated onto the spiritual path by Shah Bahlol Dariai of Chiniot. Afterwards, he finished memorizing the Quran in a short period of time and went into rigorous worships including spending nights standing in the River Ravi. By his mid-30s he became Sheikh Saad Ullah’s pupil who was considered to be the teacher of elites. According to several sources, at age 36, while taking a lesson on tafseer (interpretation), when he heard “This world is a place to play” Shah Hussain ran out laughing and totally abandoned the path of organized religion. After that he was always seen dancing in a red dress with wine surahi (bottle) and piala (earthen cup) in his hand.

How long I am going to be called Shiekh or pious? We are going to sit home and sing the song of happiness. We are going to eat by begging (the bread). This is the work in which we are going to be committed.

According to the story when his mentor Bahlol Dariai heard about this he traveled to Lahore, chided Shah Hussain and ordered him to lead the prayers. However, in obedience when Shah Hussain was leading prayers, reciting Quran, and reached the verse “Alam Nashraa la ka sadra ka” (And thus we opened your heart), he ran away laughing again.

Qazi and Mullah give advice and wise people point out the right path but love has nothing to do with the path.


In Shah Hussain’s poetry, history is a determined course and humans can only enjoy authentic living by realizing or utilizing the fact of the limited time they have

Shah Hussain fell for a Brahman boy, Madhoo, and that became his lifelong love. Their love was so strong that Shah Hussain’s name was changed to Madhoo Lal Hussain forever. Madhoo became the leader after Shah Hussain’s death and was buried next to his lover-Guru: Shah Hussain was buried in Shadhra on River Ravi but 13 years after his death-it claimed that Shah Hussain had forecasted it before dying-his grave was arranged in Mughalpura. Whichever way we interpret the relationship between Shah Hussain and Madhoo one thing is clear: they were openly in love and the society accepted it. However, from his verse‘Some people are bent upon fighting us and save my honor o Lord’ it appears that it was not a smooth sailing for him as portrayed by some.

Shah Hussain, the Imam of Malamti (self-deprecation) sect, is said to have more than a hundred thousand followers with 20 Khalifa. One historian of Sufism, Sarhandi, writes that if someone came to Shah Hussain to be initiated he would say, “muna ke aa apne aap noon te tothi pee” which meant “shave your head and drink an earthen cup of wine with me.” If the person would fulfill these conditions he was taken into the fold, otherwise he was refused. Once a Mullah came for initiation and Shah Hussain refused him by saying, “My magic does not work for people like you, why do you want me dishonored?” Despite a mammoth following and thousands of devotees who used to remain in his attendance, Shah Hussain disliked the title of ‘peer’ (spiritual guide). That is why he says in a kafi:

Shah Hussain is a faqir (God’s man with no possessions) and do not call him a peer

He cannot withstand this lie. He only seeks the Lord’s name.


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Mela Charaghan, the Urs of Shah Hussain, in Lahore

Mela Charaghan, the Urs of Shah Hussain, in Lahore

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Shah Husain had seen immense changes of fortunes during his life. He was born during the reign of Sher Shah Suri (1540-1545), who had defeated Emperor Humayun and set up a new template for civic and military administration and issued the first Rupee and re-organized the postal system of India. However, Humayun re-conquered the empire in 1555 but died after one year in 1556 as he fell from his horse. His son Akbar was enthroned but he had to fight the king Hemu, son of a Hindu priest, who later became a food seller and himself a vendor but later rose to become Chief of Army and held the Delhi throne for a very short duration. In this kafi Shah Hussain depicts the historical reality of his time:

O my mother, I am losing sanity to such a roaring noise in this world.

Some ride doli [small portable cart for bridse] or horse and some are burnt or put in the graves.

I have seen some turned to bare feet that had millions [of rupees].

Some are money lenders while others are cheaters, hermits and thieves.

Says Hussain, the humble one, animals are better than us.


Shah Hussain and Madhoo were openly in love and the society accepted it

Shah Hussain spent his last forty-some years while Akbar ruled India. As a matter of fact Akbar moved his capital to Lahore for the last 15 years (1584-1599) of Shah Hussain’s life. According to historical accounts, Prince Saleem, who later ruled under the name of Jahangir, ordered one of his officials to write a diary of whatever Shah Husain did or said every day. This diary was named as Baharia. Some argue that Amir Bahar was attached to Shah Hussain due to reverence while others claim that it was to keep an eye on him because he had a large following and could create problems.

Akbar is said to have ordered Shah Hussain’s arrest for his defiant lifestyle but could not get him till he was seen in the crowd that had gathered to watch Dullah Bhatti’s public hanging. Traditional accounts say that Shah Hussain showed a miracle and was let go, but other political factors like Shah Hussain’s popularity and his being harmless by not taking a direct part in politics may have convinced Akbar to spare him. Shah Hussain says:

Kings are managing their kingdoms, money lenders are making collection while we only desire the name of our Sain (Lord).

Akbar’s liberalism and secularism is overstated in many ways though it could be termed better than what was unleashed by Aurangzeb. Many historians have shown that Akbar’s good governance meant more organized plundering of the peasantry which was worse off during his time. Dullah Bhatti was hanged because he led a peasant revolt against excessive levies imposed by Akbar. The urban classes, including the historians of that period, benefited because of huge agricultural surplus brought to the city and were happy with Akbar. Similarly, Akbar’s Deen-e-Ilahi intended nothing but to unite the Muslim and Hindu ruling elites. On the contrary, Shah Hussain’s union with Madho was a metaphor for the people’s unity. Najam Husain Syed has tried to portray the dynamics of the relationship between Akbar, Sheikh Saad Ulah, Shah Hussain, Dullah Bhatti and other classes of society in his play ‘Takhat Lahore.’ Whether the relationship between rebel Dullah Bhatti and Shah Hussain was factually true or not, for the people it was real because both were perceived to be fighting against the same system.

Sikhism was trying to find its feet during Shah Husain’s time: Guru Arjan Singh had undertaken the compilation and editing of Guru Granth Sahib. It is said that Shah Husain along with other three Sufi-Bhagats, namely Peelu, Chajja and Kahna, went to see Guru Arjan Dev in Amritsar and presented their poetry for inclusion in the Granth but with no success. Baba Farid and Bhagat Kabir’s poetry was included in the Granth. Some historians believe that the Gurus included the poetry of only those Sufis who had fulfilled the duties of family; so they ignored Shah Husain and even Mira Bai who could not fulfill this condition. Another school asserts that Shah Hussain had a huge following while Guru Arjan Dev was still struggling and, therefore, it is least likely that Shah Hussain would have traveled to Amritsar. Dr Jeet Singh Seetal has shown that many verses in Guru Granth are identical to Shah Husain’s poetry.

One has to appreciate Shah Hussain’s poetry in the context of the historical and socio-economic conditions of the time and from the perspective of his own class background. In Shah Hussain’s poetry, history is a determined course and humans can only enjoy authentic living by realizing or utilizing the fact of the limited time they have. This and many other kafis highlight the limits of human will to transcend the socio-historic boundaries.

This was a pre-written destiny by the Creator from eternity; can you reverse it, O my mother?

The KhaiRas are taking me away in doli and I have no excuse or power to stop it.

Shah Hussain is referring to Heer’s forced marriage with Saida KhaiRa pointing out that it was pre-determined that Heer, daughter of the Chief of Sial tribe, was not going to be married with hired herder Ranjha. Furthermore, Shah Hussain is the first major classical poet who used the Heer-Ranjha metaphor as expression of Supreme being-as in Wahadat-ul-Wujood and Advaita Vedanta – and for the unity of opposites (Ranjha and Khaira), It became common for his successors to use these metaphors very frequently in explicating the finer points of Philosophy. Shah Hussain does not blame Kaido or anyone else but destiny for the tragedy of Heer-Ranjha, which means the determined circumstances of class and caste. However, after talking about destiny, Shah Hussain immediately brings back the human soul which keeps on yearning for freedom in the third line of the kafi:

Ranjha has wrapped me in hooks and secretly pulls the strings.

Shah Husain takes an existentialist stance by refusing to be defined by any single social category.

O ni Hussaino is a weaver

He is a principal that earns no interest, neither is he a devout Muslim nor a pagan

Neither was he engaged nor married, neither were his wedding messages sent or received

He is what he was (or has been). 

Recognizing the determinants of history and nature and of human yearning, Shah Husain stresses that authentic living can be achieved if life is taken as joyous play. Therefore, in most of his kafis, playing is a central notion; he invites everyone to play and laments for the period that was lost in not playing. Living by societal bindings is an impediment to play.

Whirling around [dances], play in the home yard 

This is the worship which brings the Absolute near you

Oh mother, let me play, who will play my game after me?

The night just passed by us without playing

Probably, Shah Hussain was the most defiant intellectual of Punjab even by contemporary standards. Through his family he had personal experience of the fact that no organized religion emancipates a common human being. Similarly, the social system also perpetuates the oppressive system and thus he negated all religious and social institutions through his mode of life. He was also very aware of the class structure where some are too poor and some too rich as in one verse he says, “Some are craving for half bread loaf while others have too much to go around.” However, like Baba Farid and Guru Nanak he did not condemned the Mullahs with harsh words like his successors, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah did. His tone, following his predecessors, was more of delegitimizing the Mullah/Qazi rather than outright condemnation. It is possible that the Mullahs and Qazis up till the 16th century were not as oppressive and corrupt as they became in the later period.

To hell with your white sheet (that mullah wraps around), the blanket of God’s men is better

Shah Hussain’s language is urban and very close to present-day expressions. Baba Farid’s metaphors and expressions reflected a simple semi-desert life that was around him: most of Punjab was semi-arid with thinly spread trees and shrubs. Baba Farid’s frequent use of the wild tree of ‘ wan’ as a metaphor changed into ‘chanan rukh’ in Shah Hussain. Guru Nanak employed the terminology mostly popular with Sadhoos (He wrote in their language Sadhokri) and used terminology mostly used by officialdom with a new meaning. Shah Hussain, being a Lahorite urban, drew upon more complex, intricate and subtle, even softened expressions. More often, Shah Hussain uses WaihRa (home yard), charkha (spinning wheel), its different parts and spinning processes as symbols.

Whirl around the spinning wheel of my Lord, be blessed she, who is spinning you.

My spinning wheel is red, it is charming red.

The charkha is used in a rural self-sufficient society as well as in the urban manufacturing sector and, hence, it is more universal. Furthermore, weaving is the most sophisticated skill in contrast to cultivation, etc. and by using this as a poetic symbol Shah Husain elevated Punjabi poetry to another level.

Shah Hussain did not denounce the world either, rather he had a deep feeling for it, calling it a ‘pearl-like dewdrop’ that is beautiful but short-lived. See the following verse:

Says Hussain, the devotee of his Lord that the world has been passing as half [of its potential]

Shah Hussain expressed deep humility in his poetry; however, he cleared the concept by saying:

Shah Hussain’s humility is like a sharp axe. 

Finally, Shah Hussain acknowledges the limitation of the world that is incapable of recognizing the truth:

Sir, the truth is not even heard

How can the truth be heard when half-truths [immature ideas] have been absorbed in the bones?

Only those whose being started burning heard the truth.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a Washington based writer, literary critic and well-known Pakistani columnist


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