Book Review: Great Sufi Wisdom of Bulleh Shah
By Dr A. Khan
Chicago, IL

Bulleh Shah (1680–1757) is a radiant star in the galaxy of the great Sufi poets of Pakistan and India. During the past two decades, translation of Bulleh Shah’s mystic poetry into many European languages has rekindled a new interest in studying his message of love, humanity and wisdom.

Bulleh Shah followed the tradition of Sufi poetry established by poets like Shah Hussain (1538–1599), Sultan Bahu (1629–1691), and Shah Sharaf (1640–1724). Bulleh Shah was a contemporary of famous Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752). His lifespan also coincided with other Sufi poets like Waris Shah (1722–1798), Sachal Sarmast (1739–1829) and Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810).

Bulleh Shah is part of “Great Sufi Wisdom” series of books, authored by Professor Saeed Ahmed. The other books in the series authored by Professor Saeed Ahmed include the titles of Baba Farid , Sultan Bahu, Warish Shah, Mian Muhammad , Shah Hussain, and Khawaja Ghulam Farid . In Bulleh Shah the author presents the English translation of Bulleh Shah’s mystic poetry with a commentary. One unique feature of the book is that Bullah Shah’s poetry is reproduced in Shahmukhi script (used in Pakistan) as well as in Gurmukhi script (used in India) along with its transliteration in English.

In the introductory remarks, the author presents a short biographical profile of Bulleh Shah.

His real name was Abdullah Shah. He was born in 1630 at Uch Sharif , a city known as the city of saints. The city has another claim to fame; it was one of the spiritual places of the ancient Indus Valley . Uch Sharif is located about nine miles from Punj-nad , the place where all rivers in Punjab merge with the Indus River. Bulleh Shah’s family moved from Uch Sharif, Bahawalpur, to PaaNDo-kay, a village near Qasur. His father, Sakhi Shah Mohammad Darvesh, was a Syed (a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH). Bulleh Shah received his early education in PaaNDo-kay, and later he moved to Qasur to acquire higher education by becoming a student of prominent scholar Ghulam Murtiza. After spending his early life in Kasur he came to Lahore and became a disciple of Shah Inayat , a prominent saint of Silsila-e-Qadriyaa (a well-known Sufi school of thought). Bulleh Shah’s murshid or spiritual guide belonged to the AraaiN family, who were considered to be of a lower rank than Syeds. Bullah Shah vehemently rejected such societal rankings and differences. In his poetry he preaches love, humanity, tolerance and wisdom. Reflecting on the societal differences in one of his kafis Bulleh Shah says:


Chalo Bullhyaa othey chaliyey, jithey saarey annhey

naa koee saaOee qadar paCHaaNey, naa koee saanooN manney.


O’Bulleh Shah! Let us go to the land of the blind

where no one could recognize us or pay tribute to us.


The author observes that Bulleh Shah's poetry highlights the philosophy of a reunion with God. He believes that Man (creation) and God (Creator) are inseparable. He says that the Beloved is not apart from me. Without the Beloved there is nothing. But there is no eye to judge. Doing good and serving humanity is in fact serving God. Bulleh Shah preaches divine love, and for delivering his message of love to the reader, he employs a genre of poetry called Kafi. The author notes that o ne of the great Sufi poets, Mian Mohammad Bakhsh , paying a glowing tribute to the kafis of Bulleh Shah, observed:


Bulleh Shah dee kaafee suN’k, truTdaa kufr under da,

wahdat dey daryaa de aNdar, oh vee vatyaa tardaa.


Listening to the Bulleh Shah's kafi shatters inner infidelity

And he (Bulleh Shah) himself swam through the river of Oneness

(seeking union with the Divine).


The author also expounds on the meaning of ishq -e-haqiqi. He observes, ” Ishq-e-Haqiqi means divine love or divine wisdom which leads to a virtuous and honest way of living. Love of God illuminates the mind of that individual who makes fair and honest decisions not only for himself but also for others. If someone makes unfair and dishonest decisions for the sake of a bribe (greed) or due to fear then by doing so he puts himself in the foul smelling marsh forever. Even if he sits in a holy place. Fear is linked with possessions. As much as you build up large amounts of wealth then you increase your worries by the same amount. So it is better to share your wealth among needy fellow human beings around you or in far off regions of the world. It reduces diseases/feelings of jealousy and frustration amongst people. Happiness is found in sharing and giving. So please try it and be happy.”

The author has translated and expounded on the meanings of thirty-five kafis of Bulleh Shah. During the past three centuries, Bulleh Shah’s poetry has been preserved mostly by oral tradition. Commenting on the variations in the text of the kafis that exist in literature, the author observes, “I have gone through many books on Bulleh Shah compiled by our well-known Punjabi writers such as Dr Faqir Mohammad Faqir, Sharif Sabir, T. R. Shingari, Asif Khan, Syed Nazir Ahmad, Maqsood Saqib, Anwar Rohtaki, Manjit Singh Rattu, etc. I have also examined the work of C. F. Usborne who versified 35 kafis of Bulleh Shah in English in 1905. No doubt they have produced some excellent work, even then, I am compelled to write as it is not a simple task to find the exact and true texts of the Kafis of Bulleh Shah. After studying the books compiled by the above writers my humble opinion is that there is an urgent need for a detailed scholarly study of the poetry of Bulleh Shah.”

Bulleh Shah’s kafi "ilmoN baskareeN O’yaar" is the magna opus of his mystic poetry. In this kafi, Bulleh Shah reveals the true sense of knowledge. Bulleh Shah like many other Sufi poets, regards Alif, the first letter of the Arabic language,as a symbol of Allah - the Divine Creator who created everything (living as well as non-living) out of Himself.


ikko alaf teyrey darkaar

ikko alaf teyrey darkaar, ilmoN bas kareeN O’yaar.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’Friend.

(Stop learning useless knowledge, knowledge which takes you away from the right path).


You read and write heaps of books

Sacred books are piled up all around you

Surrounded by light, you carry darkness within you

You have no self-knowledge at all.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’Friend.


Your vast amount of reading has made you

Shaikh-Mashaikh (a religious master)

You eat excessively and sleep profoundly

When the time of Death arrives - you weep and cry bitterly

All this repentance is in vain. You drown in

the middle of the river - neither reaching one bank or

the other. (You drown under the huge weight of your sins.)


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’Friend.

You say prayers upon prayers.

You scream and yell loudly.

Sitting on the pulpit, you deliver sermons

Greed has brought disgrace upon you.


One 'Alif is all you need

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’ Friend.

By means of acquiring knowledge Mullahs

become Qazi (religious judges).

God has no concern with such knowledge

You refresh your greed day by day

Your inner-self is always seeking gains.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’ Friend.

You deliver homilies (sermons) everyday

You eat the food of suspicion and doubt

You preach something and act inversely

Inwardly - you are corrupt but

outwardly, you are pious - a liar hidden in the garb of truth.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’ Friend.

Such knowledge has created many problems

Those with the gift of sight are totally blind

As with the help of such false vision they cannot find and see the Truth

They capture innocent people and let thieves escape

In both worlds they are disgraced.

With such knowledge you are called Mian Ji (the

Title of respect for a person who is superior to others in

Age or knowledge).


You tug up your shalwar (baggy trousers) and go to the market

You start killing brutally even for a farthing (coin of a very little value)

You have excessive affection for the butchers.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’Friend.

When I learnt the lesson of Love, I dived into the River of Unity

I was caught up in its whirlpools

Shah Inayat (my murshid) helped me to cross it.


One 'Alif is all you need.

Forget the pride in your knowledge, O’Friend


In another Kafi “ik alif paRho chhuTkaaraa ey”, Bullah Shah further expounds on the knowledge of Alif, he says:


ik alif paRho chhuTkaaraa ey


Reciting just one Alif will liberate you

(from all worries, woes and subjugations)

T wo , three, four came out of One and then

multiplied into millions and billions

and ultimately became countless.


The mystery of this Alif is a marvel.


Why do you read piles of such books?

You carry the pack of sins, agonies and tortures

Now you look like a hangman

The path ahead (in the Hereafter) is full of hardships.


Reciting just one Alif will liberate you

(from all worries, woes and subjugations).


The author also cites another poetic pearl of wisdom, where Bulleh Shah says:


bullhaa shah asaaN marnaa naaheeN,

qabar peyaa koee hor


Bulleh Shah! I will never die.

Someone else is lying in the grave.


The author observes that Bulleh Shah says that by being one with God, he has become immortal. He will never die. The dead body in the grave does not belong to him. It belongs to dust, matter, and earth. Soul is universally superior to the body. The Body is the dress of soul. So the main emphasis should be on purifying the soul. It must not become impure. Anger, lust, greed, jealousy, enmity, bad behavior, pride and hatred make it impure.


In another kafi “Meyree bukkal de wich chor, nee meyree bukkal de wich chor,” Bulleh Shah delves on the unity of mankind.


There is a thief in the fold of my shawl

O’ there is a thief in the fold of my shawl

Who should I groan to?

There is a thief in the fold of my shawl

He escaped secretly and there is clamor all over the world.


There is a thief in the fold of my shawl.

O’ there is a thief in the fold of my shawl.

Muslims are afraid of cremation places and

Hindus are afraid of graves .

Ultimately after death both (Hindus and Muslim)

are brought here.


There is a thief in the fold of my shawl.

O’ there is a thief in the fold of my shawl.

Somewhere It is Ram Das, somewhere It is Fateh Mohammad.

Since long that conflict is keeping them in quarrelsome condition

The difference between both has ended up as

something else has appeared.


The author observes that in this kafi, Bulleh Shah points out the idiocy of Hindus and Muslims in fighting over petty differences. Both are wrong in their bigotry and narrow-mindedness. In reality, they are one progeny of one Adam and the creation of one God. This Kafi also illustrates Bulleh Shah’s deep feelings about the unity of mankind. He concludes that God dwells in the hearts of the followers of different religions. So one has no right to kill or hate others in the Name of God.


In another kafi “ulTey hor zamaaney aey, taaN meyN bheyd sajaN de paey,” Bullah Shah expounds on the mysteries of changing times. The author says that this kafi teaches us that when things deteriorate God re-adjusts the world.


What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries

Crows started to pounce on hawks

And sparrows are feasting on eagles.


What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries

Horses graze on dirty piles of wastes.

Donkeys are offered lush green grass.


What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries

Those who went ahead took all the rations (the

supplies of an army).The followers had to spread rugs.

What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries.

Rough blanket wearers became Rajahs (kings).

And the Rajahs became beggars.

What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries.

Bullhyaa, the declaration for this reversal has

come from the Almighty. Who can reverse it?

What strange times have come?

This has helped me know my Beloved's mysteries.



Commenting on the power and potential of Bulleh Shah’s poetic wisdom, the author observes, “I firmly believe that Bulleh Shah's poetry can help to bring about a tremendous change in our part of the world where unfortunately we habitually and traditionally magnify hatred and differences. As a result we have hindered the progress of the whole region. Bulleh Shah breaks all such types of barriers. He is among the very few poets who are equally popular amongst all faiths of this region. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians as well as non-believers love his poetry. Due to his humanistic poetry he can be called a poet of South Asia or of a modern world in search of peace. I also believe that the day will come when the great thoughts of our Sufi poets will be recognized and valued by all honest caring members of humanity, regardless of race or creed. There has never been a more urgent need in the history of the world to find the common ground on which societies can rebuild tolerance, trust and a shared desire to end the suffering of those least able to protect themselves. Life's rich tapestry has become fragmented; it must not be destroyed with weaponry, but should instead be repaired stitch by stitch to glorify this world - a place in which people could share the wealth and beauty with each other. Those who attempt this ideal should be honored and respected. One such member of humanity is Bulleh Shah.”

The Great Sufi Wisdom: Bulleh Shah is wonderful read for all those who yearn for love, peace and wisdom.

Book Title: The Great Sufi Wisdom - Bulleh Shah

Author: Professor Saeed Ahmed

ISBN: 969-8714-0749

Publisher: Adnan Books, Rawalpindi (Phone: 051-4417813)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.