Though much has been written on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and his Sufi poetry, there are some misconceptions about him and his poetry. One of the reasons for this misunderstanding is that due to a dearth of good books on him in Urdu and English those who do not know Shah's native Sindhi cannot reach the heart and soul of his poetic works. His poetry, truly a great piece of literary heritage, is deeply rooted in Islamic Sufism that shunned narrow, bigoted approach towards religion and welcomed everyone with open arms regardless of their colour, caste or creed. And this kind of all-embracing openness is not limited to Shah Sahib alone but almost all the Sufi poets of the sub-continent practised what they preached and wrote about humanity, love and approbation.
Some are under the false impression that Shah Abdul Latif was a reclusive Sufi who uttered couplets under trance which his disciples wrote down as he himself was not literate. Many underrate his works and do not grant him a position beyond the status of a folk poet and think that the focus of his themes and poetry is Sindh alone. Manzoor Ahmed Qanasro has strongly dispelled these misconstrued impressions in his recently published book, 'Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai hayaat-o-afkaar', a book written in Urdu and backed by considerable research.
Compiled with a view to understanding Shah's message of humanity and love against the backdrop of his contemporary social and political milieu, the author has devoted a good portion of the book to highlight Sindh's history and the events that surrounded Shah's life and ultimately exerted their influence on his poetry. Qanasro has also cast some light on the hitherto little-explored aspects of Shah's life and his poetry and that include the 'bhit' or the mound, Shah's tomb, the famous Lake Karar, the rituals performed at his tomb, the tradition of 'sama'a' or qawwali music, genres of Sindhi poetry, the folk tales and folk characters that appear in Shah's poetry with symbolic and allegorical connotations. Some colour photographs of these places and characters adorn the book.
Qanasro says Shah was not only properly educated but also knew many languages including Arabic, Persian, Seraiki, Punjabi, Urdu/Hindi and Balochi, not to mention Sindhi. In Shah's poetry, there are scores of metaphors and allusions that refer to the Quran, Hadith and Mathnavi of Maulana Rumi. He used to carry with him all the time, says Qanasro, a copy of the Quran, the Mathnavi and 'Bayan-ul-arifeen', a collection of Sufi poetry of Shah's great-grandfather Shah Abdul Karim of Bulri. According to Ernest Trump, the famous scholar who first published the collection of Shah's poetry 'Shah jo risalo' in 1866 from Germany, his poetry is enough evidence to prove that Shah was an educated and well-read person, writes the author.
Shah was not only a great poet or a great Sufi, he was also a great connoisseur of music. Though he never played a musical instrument in his life, his entire poetry is based on classical ragas and is sung according to the decorum these ragas demand. Qanasro has given the details of the ritualistic music-playing and singing at Shah's mausoleum and has described the significance it carries.
What makes the book more adorable for the readers of Urdu is the Urdu translation of Shah's selected poetry along with the original Sindhi verses and the Sindhi pronunciation mentioned in Urdu script, thereby closing in the gap between the speakers of the two languages that has, unfortunately, existed till today. The author has done another favour to the readers by giving the abstract of every chapter first, explaining the metaphorical and symbolic meanings of the verses that follow. Prof Sahar Ansari is right when he says in his intro to the book that Qanasro has not only opened the vistas of new meaning for modern readers but has tried to decipher 'the meaning of the meaning' in Shah's poetry. Agha Saleem, in his foreword, stresses that we have lost our cultural identity and the re-discovery of our poets like Shah Abdul Latif, Baba Fareed, Bulleh Shah, and Sachchal Sarmast etc will lead to our own rediscovery.
In Shah's poetry we find certain symbols that denote metaphysical ideas. Love in Shah's poetry does not necessarily refer to worldly love and the material world may be an allusion to the spiritual. For instance, in 'Omer Marui' in 'Shah jo rislao', during her imprisonment Marui constantly focuses her thoughts on 'Marus', her fellow tribesmen, and according to Anne Marie Schimmel, “the plural form 'Marus' is used here, as elsewhere, to denote the One True Beloved who manifests Himself in the most varied forms while still eluding all concrete description”. In other words, Shah Sahib, like many other Muslim Sufis, believed in 'wahdat-ul-wujud', a kind of Islamic pantheism. This invariably resulted in the belief that everybody should be loved since everyone and everything is but a manifestation of the One True Beloved, a thought well-presented in Sufi poetry.
Sufi poetry has a long and unbroken tradition in the sub-continent and it, therefore, is surprising for some that a society that had a continuity of Sufi thought that has stressed peaceful coexistence and religious harmony to the point of loving virtually everyone has become so extremist as to shun everything except its own brand of religious faith. For a better understanding, let me quote Schimmel again who says “... simple Quranic precepts have been interpreted more and more narrowly over the course of time. Moreover, customs and attitudes lacking any and all Quranic foundation have become increasingly rigid”. But, then, she is equally aware of the sensitivities of Muslim societies and points out “On the other hand, we have to be careful not to look upon our ideas that stem from a liberal, frequently from an 'uninhibited' interpretation of the concept 'freedom', as ideals applicable and valid for all the world. We have to be equally wary not to dismiss or condemn outright as being old-fashioned customs and habits we happen not to like. Muslims easily reject the transposition of certain 'modern' ideals onto the Islamic world as being just another new attempt to colonisation. Such perceptions do little more than engender sharp resistance”.
Somehow I feel that this aspect of Muslim sensitivity has largely been ignored, igniting a sharp resistance.
Published by Karachi's Sindhica Academy, the book is just a reminder that Sufi poetry is a voice against extremism.