Weaver, mystic, fakir, Shah Hussein continues to command great reverence in Punjab as a poet-saint more than 400 years after his death. His urs, or death anniversary, is still celebrated at his shrine in Baghbanpura, Lahore.
In the inner sanctum of the shrine, buried right next to Hussein, is his young beloved and disciple, Madho (pronounced Madh-oh) Lal. The fact that Hussein literally fused his name with Madho’s and came to be known as Madho Lal Hussein is not only testament to the enduring legacy of love, but also illustrates an essential tenet of Sufism, the merger of the lover and the beloved…
To understand the subversive wisdom of Hussein’s kafis (singular kafi, the stanza-length poetic form preferred by most Punjabi and Sindhi mystical poets) and his unconventional lifestyle practised in sixteenth-century Punjab, we must delve into the scant biographical sources available.
Hussein’s father, a Rajput from the Kalsrai clan, converted to Islam during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) and took on the Muslim name of Sheikh Usman. As a boy, Hussein joined the local mosque which also functioned as a madrasa, where memorising the Quran by rote was the main method of learning.
Being a prodigious student, Hussein caught the attention of an itinerant dervish and scholar, Sheikh Bahlol Dariai, who took him under his wing. The Sheikh was a learned man, having travelled across the wide expanse of the fifteenth-century Islamic world, including Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia and Afghanistan. He broadened the parochial horizons of his young ward, daring Hussein to fathom the unconventional ways in which traditional texts could be interpreted.
Later, at the age of thirty-six, while studying with another respected scholar of the time, Sheikh Sa’ad Ullah, Hussein paused at the following verses from the Quran:
Harken, Ye Folks, the world is a play and a show, a display of pageantry, pride, and boasting between yourselves, and competing with one another for greater wealth and number of children.
Sura Al-Hadid 57: 20
The words resonated so deeply with Hussein that he broke into a spontaneous dance of self-liberation. From this point onwards, he would not play the game for the sake of any success in the world, material or spiritual, but would rather become the amused player who treats the world as what it is: an ephemeral playground.
It was only a matter of time before Sheikh Bahlol Dariai heard of the promising young student turned malamati – one who seeks disgrace and censure – leading his pack of revellers through the town. The Sheikh returned to talk some sense into Hussein, and he received his due reverence despite Hussein’s radically altered lifestyle. When asked to lead the prayers, Hussein complied. In the middle of the prayer, Hussein broke into laughter and ran away when he recited these Quranic verses:
Did We not open your heart, and ease your burden which weighed down your back, and exalted your fame?
Sura Ash-Sharh 94:1-4
In time, Hussein acquired quite a reputation: a rebel fakir dressed in all red, bearing a wine flask in one hand and an earthen bowl in another. This popular figure did not make for an exemplary model to enforce the moral codes based on the puritanical values of the religious elite. And yet the swelling numbers of his followers could not have gone unchecked since Akbar had temporarily shifted his capital to Lahore.
According to legend, the emperor was unimpressed by the wine-to-non-alcoholic-drinks miracle performed by Hussein when he was brought before Akbar for interrogation, and sent him to prison. While Hussein was in the dock, his likeness showed up in the harem attended upon by the royal ladies. Mystified by the miraculous feat, Akbar acknowledged Hussein’s credentials as a saint, and set him free.
Sorrows are our completion, I tell you,
aches and scars compose a being
Those busy turning millions to billions
remain greedy as ever
Your white robe is fuel for fire
You may have been better off
with a dervish’s grimy cloak
Those who keep the company
of the plain and simple
stay out of harm’s way and arrive
at fuller wisdom
Says Hussein, the Sain’s fakir,
People leave unfulfilled
My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
the approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
once it seeps into your bones
Why dig a well in brackish soil?
Why sow a seed in sand?
You, who are making giant leaps,
one day you’ll be leapt over, my man!
Says Hussein, the humble fakir,
look into the lover’s eyes, and let
the gaze remain interlocked
O God, I hid my weaver’s tools
You are merciful, Sain
With rings on my finger
how can I do any labour?
With my red velvet shoes
how can I sit still and weave?
For the sake of warming the stove
I sweat for the five measly kaseeras
How can I pay for the expenses?
Inside I’m a den of hens, outside
the serenity of a peacock
Says Hussein, the Sain’s fakir,
the good weaving girl got
kidnapped by the robbers
Be fearful as long as you live
In the bazaar of love, poor monkeys
put to bizarre tricks. Not easy, I tell you,
to entertain the whims of the beloved
Don’t be a stubborn colt, bow down
Lovers risk life and reputation
Grab the flame through the fire
Sighs ‘n’ sobs, that’s not the way
Out in the field you discover love
Not easy to catch a glimpse. Pluck out
the heart at the glint of love’s blade
The real lover first finishes off the body
Not easy starting up passion, but once started
better not tell anyone. Without the beloved
it’s a false game of a gossip spun world
Don’t seek the temporal out of truth
Don’t ignore one or the other
Says Hussein, the beggar fakir,
what can you do if he remains indifferent?
Let him sort what he started. Look!
Here comes the wedding party
Excerpted with permission from Verses of a Lowly Fakir, Madho Lal Hussein, Translated from the Punjabi by Naveed Alam, Penguin Books.