A SAINT OF OUR TIMES: Shah Abdul Latif of Bhitai

by Ayesha Gilani

“Shah Latif was the finest flower in a garden of poetry. His poetry is not that of a pioneer, it is the poetry of fulfilment; it is not the poetry of experiment or innovation, it is the poetry of gracious benediction. Shah Latif did for the Sindhi language and literature and the Sindhi people what other world-poets have done for their own languages and countries in their own particular ways; Hafiz for the Persian lyric, Dante for the “illustrious vernacular” of Italy, and Tulsidas for the Hindi language and literature.”
History of Sindhi Literature by L.A. Ajwani

Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit was born in 1689 in a Syed family (meaning that they were descendants of the Prophet of Islam), his father Shah Habibullah being one of the best-known holy men of the time. According to Tuhfat-al-kiram, Shah Habib was often plunged in meditation so that he sometimes did not know what was happening around him. He would not recognise his own son at times, so abstracted was he by his devotions. Nevertheless he seems to have been a tender and loving parent and if anyone could claim to be Shah Latif’s guide in the spiritual arena it was his father.

Shah Latif’s father was, according to tradition, a holy man but his great grandfather, Shah Karim of Bulri, was a much more renowned and revered personage. Shah Karim’s holiness was such that it has overtaken his very genuine claim to being a poet and permitted some devotees to think of him solely as a holy man. In truth Shah Karim was the greatest poet in Sindhi before his great-grandson arrived on the scene. Shah Karim knew neither princes nor their courts, but Shah Latif enjoyed the high regard of the Kalhora rulers and the powerful people of the time.

It is said that, as a boy, Shah Latif was sent to learn the alphabet from Akhund Nur Mohammad Bhatti but refused to continue after the first letter alif to the next letter bai, saying that there was nothing beyond alif, the One or Unity. He was then withdrawn from school. Long afterwards, Shah Latif said in a verse that has become well known:

Read one letter, alif, the only One
The rest you can all forget
Let thy spirit have a cleansing
No other study for you next

Shah Latif lived the life of a Dervish and wondered over the hills and dales, rivers and lakes, deserts and wildernesses of his native land to settle at last in Bhit, the sand dune in the region of Lake Kirar.

He is not only the greatest of Sindhi writers but has a dear place in the hearts of the people of Pakistan and beyond. Shah Latif represents the greatest of a magnitude of poets who formed a “nest singing birds” in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Shah Latif preached against feudalism and religious exploitation and revolutionised Sindhi society through the message of love, tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

Anyone who reads his “Shah-Jo-Risalo” (Shah’s poetical works) will find it teaches them gentleness of manners, universality of sympathy and breadth of vision. He was a poet who had a darshan or vision of God Almighty and tried to pass on that vision in ecstatic words to his hearers.

Shah Latif remained a patriot and was proud of Sindhi tradition, which is why he has an appeal even today for the Hindus of the region who still turn to “Shah-Jo-Risalo” with nostalgic sentiment as to a holy scripture. The Bhit region of Sindh where this revered saint is buried is famous in the Sindhi annals, for every Sindhi has heard of Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit and Bhit was the most famous cultural centre in Sind.

In spite of his popularity among Hindus, he was by birth, upbringing and ancestry a Muslim. He had particular reverence for the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him and his family) and a deep admiration and affection for the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, and Ali’s son, Hussain, who was martyred at Karbala in Iraq. He longed to travel there on a pilgrimage but this was one wish that was left unfulfilled. The scene of the tragedy of Imam Hussain and his devoted companions was a place to which Shah Latif was deeply attached.

Although he conformed to the tenets of his faith he was not a doctrinaire Muslim, bound by dogma or ritual. Here are some of his most famous lines:

It were well to practice Namaz and fast
But love’s vision needs a separate art

There is a legend that when Shah Latif was asked whether he was a Sunni Muslim or Shia, he said he was neither, he was in-between. And when someone said: “There is nothing in-between” he replied, “Then I am nothing.”

One thing is true of Shah Latif, that he was a Dervish, a man who could put on the clothing of Hindu Yogis, wander with them for years and make pilgrimages to Hinglaj, Dawarka and other sacred places of the Hindus. It is worth noting that one of the closest and dearest of his friends, Madan, a Hindu, and the two musicians who comforted his soul, Atal and Chanchal, were also Hindus. It is therefore evident of that Shah Latif had a huge respect and affinity with Hindus and their religion.

The two most important aspects of his poetry were his mysticism and, of course, his proud Sindhi-ness being, as he was, the widely-accepted voice of Sindh.

Shah Latif had a huge veneration for the Sufi mystic, Jalal Ad’Din Rumi, and for Rumi’s “Masnavi”, a bible of the Persian mystics, a copy of which was presented to him by the Kalhora ruler of the time. While Rumi’s method is to relate an entire story in sequence to bring out its Sufistic moral and meaning, Shah Latif’s method is to throw out darts of meaning and suggest spiritual points in tales well-known to all his readers.

Throughout Shah Latif’s verses he observes a remarkable consciousness of nature and of Man. He minutely observes the women working at their spinning wheel, as well as the common crow, a bird that defiles the place where it sits and flies from place to place, making it an ideal messenger. Shah notices the luminaries in the sky, the thunder and the rain in the bazaar. He observes the blacksmith at his anvil, the goldsmith and the pearl merchant with their precious wares and the potter at his wheel. All of his poetry has a deep meaning attached to it and the life of the desert-dwellers , like that of the river-farers and the sea-farers, furnishes him with valuable lessons.

Shah Latif’s greatness is not in long-drawn-out passages but rather in the minute coruscations his pen throws out in all directions. He did not compose poems in his study for his verses were sparks or little bits of revelation.

As he said of himself:

These be not verses as you think
But revelations that abide
They turn your mind inward
And take you to His side.

In the course of his travels he encountered many people. A famous encounter Shah Latif had was with a solitary hermit who was chanting one line frantically to himself in a dense forest between Hinglaj and Tatta:

Alone alone, wending towards Punhoon

As soon as the desolate lover got the complete verse, he fell down and died. Shah Latif had to dig his grave and bury the poor man but he could never forget the yearning and all-consuming love of the deceased for the object of his devotion.

The top grandee of Kotri Mogul was Mirza Mogul Beg, a member of the house of Arghuns who ruled over Sindh a century before Shah Latif was born. Once it happened that the adolescent daughter of the Arghun fell seriously ill. Worried, the father went to Shah Habib, whom he knew, and regularly asked for amulets and prayers for times of difficulty and danger. Shah Habib was himself unwell, so he asked his son Shah Latif to go instead with the Mirza. When Shah Latif reached the house of the Arghun he was taken to the bed where the invalid lay. He was 20 at the time and blessed the young woman who was wearing a veil. After that meeting Shah Latif was in love and for four years he suffered the pain of unsatisfied emotion before she was offered to him. He attained earthly paradise when she entered the gateway of his house. With this marriage Shah’s life became full and sweet although not fruitful. His spiritual journey had turned his mind inward and taken him from ishq majazi (physical or carnal love) to the path of ishq haqiqi (spiritual love). Shah Latif soared all the way from carnal love to the sublime height of spiritual or divine love.

In spite of his humility Shah Latif had an exceedingly commanding personality. His tall, handsome exterior impressed everyone. He was never known to have been boisterous or convivial but was sociable to an extraordinary degree. He is remembered as having had a high regard and affection for his fakirs or devotees. On one occasion when his wife was pregnant, she felt a craving to eat pala fish. A follower of Shah Latif took a distant journey to bring a pala for his master’s wife. While the man was still returning with the present, Shah found him panting and foot-weary. On being told that he had been away to satisfy a demand of his wife’s Shah Latif exclaimed, “What use is it to have a child if it brings agony to my fakirs even before it is born?”

Finally, Shah Abdul Latif Bhit is remembered as being a great patriot and a voice for the common man. You only have to read “Sur Marui” to know what love Shah bore to the land of his birth. He loved the toiling masses of Sindh, the potters, the blacksmiths, the poor peasants, the weavers and fishermen, all are celebrated in his verses.

Shah immortalised simple Sindhi heroes and heroines in his verse and gave shining permanence to Sindhi folklore and legends. His work became classic in his own lifetime and ever afterwards his pre-eminence as the greatest of Sindhi poets has remained unchallenged, even in India. That is Shah Abdul Latif, a man who rules the hearts of all those who know what love is.

The author is a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan

Image taken at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai by Iqbal Khatri.