The urs [death anniversary] of the sonorous Sufi poet of the 18th-19th century, Sachal Sarmast, starts in just a few days on the 13th day of Ramazan, in the small, glowing village of Daraza Sharif near Khairpur.

This linguistically variegated poet, who belonged to the depth of the rural Indus Valley, has been called ‘The Attar of Sindh’ — Attar being the rather well-known Central Asian Persian Sufi poet of Nishapur, who died some 600 years before Sachal.

With his birth-name Abdulwahhab Faruqi, Sachal has many other appellations, including Shayir-i-Haft Zabaan [septualingual poet] given his competence in seven languages, including Urdu. He is also called ‘Aashkaar’ [open/ unveiled/ manifest], since this is the descriptive title that was effectively given to him by none other than the ruling moon of Sindh’s poetic galaxy, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai.

Tradition has it that when our Shah Saaeiñ met the young Abdulwahhab, he pronounced a resounding foresight. “This boy,” Bhitai is reported to have said, “will open the cover of the pot which we have kept closed.” Hence, Sachal’s takhallus [nom de plume] Aashkaar.

Indeed, if we take Sachal’s mystical pedigree back to its first rung, he is ultimately connected to (Ibn) Mansur Hallaj, the grand Sufi-martyr whose open, ecstatic cry “Ana ul Haqq” [I am the Truth] lifts the cover from the pot boiling in love with God so that he renders aashkaar his perceived unitive identity with the Divine, finding no duality between himself and his Creator.

‘Ana ul Haqq’ amounts to proclaiming ‘I am God’. This public cry of Hallaj was a dangerous thing to do which, among many other charges against him — essentially of a political nature — led him in chains to the gallows, where he was most mercilessly slain in front of a stone-pelting crowd in Abbasid Baghdad in the year 922.

The gruesome, blood-drenched spectacle, unprecedented in Muslim societies, was supervised by the city’s ruler himself. The shadows of this spectacle are found lurking all the way down to Faiz Ahmed Faiz — moving shadows appearing quite graphically and with historical accuracy in his “aaj bazaar mein paa-bajolan chalo” [let’s walk in the marketplace in chains].

The status of Hallaj has remained ambiguous among the Sufis — some vehemently censoring him and even declaring him to be a sinister sorcerer and trickster, others placing him on the pedestal of mystical heights and calling him the greatest Sufi and yet others, such as Ali Hujweri, our Data Sahib of Ghaznavid Lahore, in his Kashf al Mahjub [Unveiling of the Hidden] vacillating between approval and dismissal.

One receives with a degree of incredulity the historical truth that Hallaj had reached the inner depths of Sindh and is found in its vast folk culture.

Then comes Attar from the Persianate world. It was this poet who actually brought about what is called a ‘spiritual renaissance’ of Hallaj’s ideas. Attar is, so to speak, soaked in the blood of Hallaj. We hear Sachal say:

Mansur cried, “I am the Truth” and was pulled on the gallows
The sword of his love came suddenly to Attar …

And, as for himself, Sachal admits:

The same fire which had fallen into Hallaj
Has also fallen into my life.

Attar’s clever poem Mantiq al Tayr [Speech/ Conference of the Birds] is rather well-known, having been translated into Urdu more than once. But this Nishapuri poet has written a great deal about Hallaj exclusively, too, for example, in his Tazkiraat al Awliya [Accounts of Muslim Saints]. And whereas the Sufi-martyr had cried “I am the Truth”, Attar is one step ahead in his loud refrain “I am God, I am God” (man Khudayam, man Khudayam, man Khuda). This daring, ecstatic and joyous exclamation is echoed in Sachal.

These days, we live in a postcolonial world, with colonised societies severed from their intellectual legacy. Now, cultural continuities have been pulverised into hastily manufactured ‘nation states’. And so, it is hard for us to imagine the open lines of communication and active Sufi networks that existed between Muslim societies of India, Iran, Afghanistan, Transoxiana and much of the Levant, without the vicious borders that exist today.

Indeed, one receives with a degree of incredulity the historical truth that Hallaj had reached the inner depths of Sindh and is found in its vast folk culture. Note that, while Attar was from the Khorasanian region in the 13th century, Hallaj was slain in Baghdad in the 10th century and lived largely in its environs, whereas Sachal lived in the small town of Daraza in the 18th-19th century.

This continuity would surprise us today. Yes, there are precursors of Faiz in rural Sindh, for we also hear the voice of 13th century Lal Shahbaz Qalandar from Sehwan:

I am Usman Marwandi, the friend of Mansur [Hallaj]
People blame me and I dance upon the gallows.

Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Risalo is replete with Hallajian motifs of the affliction of lovers and of the joy of surrendering one’s life at the threshold of the beloved. “The gallows are the first ornament of the lovers,” Bhitai said already in the opening chapters of the Risalo. The Hallajian motif of Iblis [Satan] also figures in Shah Saaeiñ, as it does in Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

And what of the big names — Shah Saaeiñ, Sachal Sarmast, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shah Inayat, Bedil of Rohri — there is a massive plethora of lesser known figures in the Sindhi rural poetic tradition who have, to quote Attar, “performed ablution with blood.”

Note: I have benefitted from the studies of Husamuddin Rashidi, Louis Massignon and Annemarie Schimmel in the preparation of this article.

The columnist is currently teaching at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. His book on Hallaj is expected to be published soon

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 2nd, 2023

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