A tall minaret can be seen from afar. In the labyrinth streets of the city of Kasur in Pakistan, this tall minaret of the mosque becomes our guide. It takes us right to the shrine of 18th century Sufi poet and philosopher Bulleh Shah. The actual shrine is a modest structure compared to the imposing mosque. This is yet another symbol of appropriation. Bulleh Shah rebelled against the religious establishment of his era, which was backed by the religious orthodoxy. In one instance he is recorded to have said:

Dharamsal dhardwaye rehnde, Thakar daware thug,

Wich maseet kosete rehnde, ashiq rehan alag

Partisans live in Dharamsalas, cheats in temples,

Butchers reside in mosques; while lovers live apart. 

The grave of Bulleh Shah is located in the middle of an open courtyard. Verses of his poems are inscribed on the wall. Just like at other Sufi shrines around the country, women are forbidden from entering the main shrine. The irony is unmistakable. During his lifetime, Bulleh Shah took up residence in the house of a courtesan to learn dance, and was not defiled. But today, his shrine will be become impure with the feet of his female devotees!

Weird coincidences

It is also ironic how now the shrine is located in the centre of the city of Kasur. At the time of Bulleh Shah’s death in 1757 CE, the political and religious establishment did not allow him to be buried in Kasur’s graveyard. He was a blasphemer and an infidel they said. His impure body could not enter the pure earth of Kasur, they said. Leading the charge against him was the Pathan family of Kasur, who felt threatened by the rhetoric of the Sufi poet. This tribe moved to India with the Mughal forces of Babur and helped him win the decisive battle of Panipat in 1525 CE, which laid the foundation of the Mughal Empire. Initially they were settled in Bengal but later, during the tenure of Akbar, they moved to Kasur.

Buried under the shade of a Waan tree in the courtyard of Bulleh Shah’s shrine is the grave of Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, one of the most important contemporary descendants of the Pathan family of Kasur, who once ostracised Bulleh Shah from the city. Muhammad Ahmad Khan was shot near Fawara chowk at Shadman in Lahore in 1974. In 1979, the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the kangaroo courts of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq for Muhammad Ahmad Khan’s murder. The coincidences of history only get weirder from here.

In 1931, the British wanted to hang freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and his comrades for the murder of John Saunders, a British police official, and the bombing of the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi in 1929. However, by this time Bhagat Singh had become a household name and no magistrate was willing to supervise the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades in Lahore jail. It was honorary magistrate Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, who finally agreed to do so. On March 23, Bhagat Singh, and his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged at the same Fawara chowk where almost 40 years later the honorary magistrate was shot and killed.

Blasphemer to patron saint

Where once, the ruling family of Kasur ridiculed Bulleh Shah calling him a blasphemer, he is now seen as a patron saint of their city. Tradition has it that at the time of Bulleh Shah’s death the religious and political establishment of the city refused to offer his namaz-e-janaza or funeral prayers because they regarded him to be a blasphemer. The task was taken up by his devotees. Over the years as the poetry of Bulleh Shah captured the imagination of the people, and the city slowly grew to gather around his shrine, the ruling classes too started appropriating him as the saint of Kasur. Generations of family members from Kasur’s ruling family are now buried within Bulleh Shah’s tomb’s courtyard.

Bulleh Shah was a devotee of Shah Inayat Qadri, another Sufi saint from Kasur, who settled in Mozang, Lahore, where his shrine is now located. Bulleh Shah spent several years at the madrassa of Shah Inayat in Lahore. Together, Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat represented a rebellion against religious orthodoxy. They mocked the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and championed the cause of poor people. Legend has it that Bulleh Shah once risked his life to protect a Sikh man under attack by a Muslim mob.

However today, both Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat have been appropriated by the same religious orthodoxy and establishment they once challenged. Shah Inayat belonged to the Qadri Sufi order. So did Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for Taseer’s murder on February 29. His funeral procession in Rawalpindi was attended by thousands of people. Compare this to Salman Taseer’s funeral, which was attended by a handful.

Like Bulleh Shah, Salman Taseer too was accused of blasphemy and the state appointed maulvi of the Badshahi masjid refused to offer his namaz-e-jannaza. Not so long ago, it was Shah Inayat and Bulleh Shah who were symbols of the Qadri sect. Today their biggest symbol is Mumtaz Qadri. What happened in between these two Qadris?

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.