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The universality of Shah Latif's poetry

January 10, 2012

Sindhi musicians performing at Bhittai's shrine. - File Photo.

KARACHI: Syed Mazhar Jameel in his book 'Mukhtasar tareekh-i-zaban-oadab: Sindhi' has quoted Ali Nawaz Vafai as saying 'Latif is Sindh, Sindh is Latif'.

Here 'Latif', of course, means Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689/90-1752), one of Sindh's foremost Sufis and poets, who commands great respect not only of the lovers of Sindhi poetry and his devotees but also of scholars of different languages. However, taking the literal meaning of the word 'latif' into account would also help understand both the poetry and the person. The word 'latif' literally means fine, delicate, tender, subtle, elegant, light, gentie, benevolent, etc.

Studying Shah Latif's life and his poetry makes one feel that he was a sensitive, gentle and kind soul. A Sufi in true sense of the word and very pious, Shah was unassuming and unpretentious, a trait that has been the hallmark of Islamic mysticism. Shah was a Sufi first and then a poet.

In true Sufi spirit, he never bothered to write down his verses and had it not been for his disciples (who would learn his poetry by heart), it would have been really difficult to trace his works.Once some of his disciples collected his verses and presented to him the manuscript while he was meditating by the famous lake; he threw it into the water.

Later, on disciples' request he allowed them to collect his poetry, the famous 'Shah jo risalo'.

Like all Sufis, his approach was humanistic, his message universal and his point of view unbiased. As a poet, he was deeply rooted in the world around him. With a tender heart in love with the Creator, he sang paeans of Him but never forgot His creation.

With a keen observation of people and hardships they suffered, Shah Latif depicted the common people and the common world around him. From the forest and deserts of Sindh to hills and streams and cattle, from rulers to women, nothing escapes his keen eye.

Like all great poets, he knows that it is the tragedy that nurtures the soul. Like all great poets, he knows love is the emotion that transcends all boundaries. Ishq-i-majazi (worldly love) is abundant in his poetry but it is only an allusion, a metaphor for ishq-i-haqigi (real love or God's love). And it makes his message universal.We know that ishq (love) or ishq-imajazi in Sufi poetry is but a metaphor for ishq-i-haqigi and firaq or hijr (separation, disunion) is also an allusion which refers to the anxiety a Sufi feels until he meets his lover (God). This separation, this grief, depicted in terms of worldly love, is in fact the tragedy that makes the soul grow tender and delicate.

Rumi, one of the greatest poets of the world, begins his masnavi with the couplet that says the flute cries because it has been separated from the reed but it knows that to achieve the perfection this separation, this pain is inevitable. In Shah Latif's poetry the anxiety and grief that Sassi or Marvui experience only refer to a Sufi's true love and it shows a Sufi's desire to see his beloved (God) and how he yearns for the final union.

Also, in Shah Latif's poetry we can see the pain he feels for the common people, for human beings. These traits of sympathy, compassion and love for God's all creations, great and small, are something that make his poetry sublime and universal. His message is: 'Love God's creations if you love the Creator'.