gay pride

From Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain to Amir Khusro, same-sex references abound in Islamic poetry

The uneasy relationship between homosexuality and the Muslim world is exemplified in the life and works of many Sufi saints.

“I think Bulleh Shah is fascinating but I fail to understand his relationship with his murshid,” said a 14-year-old student of mine who was acting in a school play on the life of Bulleh Shah. The play was an English adaption of Shahid Nadeem’s Bulla that has been performed on the platform of Ajoka several times and has received critical as well as mass acclaim. The play chronicles the life of the mystic poet from Kasur, using his poetry and folk tales about him, to present a semi-biographical account that revolves around his relationship with his murshid – his spiritual master, Shah Inayat.

I could understand the confusion of my student. To be honest, the relationship also baffles me. This is primarily because we live in a different time, and we understand Islam and its traditions in our own modernistic way. Modernism requires rigid categories, of sexuality, religion, identity, et cetera. Gay, straight and bi, are all distinct categories that do not overlap, just like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Bulleh Shah of course had pre-modern notions of sexuality and religion. For him the rigid categories between religion, gender and sexuality did not exist. For example in the following verses he has no scruples in incorporating a Hindu deity into his Muslim ethos, blurring the distinction between Muslim and Hindu concept of God.

Krishna plays the magical flute
O Ranjha with the flute –
O cowherd Ranjha!
You are in tune with all of us!
You make your delights
Chime with your consciousness
Krishna plays the magic flute

Just as in devotional Bhakhti poetry Krishna symbolises God, in Sufi Islamic poetry Ranjha becomes a symbol of God. In other poems Bulleh Shah dissolves gender identities when he presents himself as a woman, appearing before her lover.

Remembering Ranjha day and night
I’ve become Ranjha myself.
Call me Dhido Ranjha,
No more I be addressed as Heer.
I am in Ranjha and Ranjha is in me
There is no distinction left.

Addressing her beloved Ranjha as Heer, Bulleh Shah then blurs the distinction between the lover and beloved, as Heer is consumed in Ranjha’s love.

It is perhaps his treatment of sexuality that has the potential to offend the sensibility of a modern reader. In his poetry, Bulleh Shah regularly refers to his murshid as his beloved. Some of these references are loaded with sexual innuendos. For example at one point Bulleh Shah says:

Inayat will come to my nuptial couch;
I am in great delight.

And:

Bullah has fallen in love with the Lord.
He has given his life and body as earnest.
His Lord and Master is Shah Inayat
Who has captivated his heart.

It was of course this sexuality exhibited by Bulleh Shah towards his murshid that my student was finding so hard to fathom. At one point in the play, dressed up in red as a bride, Bulleh Shah is embraced by “her husband” Shah Inayat.

Homoerotic references

Sufi poetry is rife with such homoerotic references. Another prominent Sufi saint, Shah Hussain, is believed to have fallen in love with a Hindu boy, Madho Lal. Buried together in Lahore and even referred together in one name – Madho Lal Hussain – the two symbolise a divine love. Like Bulleh Shah, in Shah Hussain too it is Heer addressing the beloved as Ranjha, while he also refers directly to Madho Lal in some of his poetry. At one point he says:

O Madho! I have been greatly defamed!
After drinking last night from my cup of sorrows,
I have wandered from morning till evening.
What can I say that I had drunk of?
People say it was the forbidden wine!
All here call me an infidel and accuse me of transgression!
They turn back their faces from me and abuse me!
Wails Hussain O Madho fast send my prayer to my Master!

I find Shah Hussain’s relationship with Madho Lal even more intriguing than Bulleh Shah’s with Shah Inayat, primarily because of the age difference between the two, as Madho Lal was but a boy. This is an even a graver onslaught to our modern sensibility. Even at that time, this relationship seems to have caused a controversy but the reason for it is cited as their belonging to different religions and not that they happened to of be of the same gender or the age-difference between them.

The story of Sarmad Kashani is also quite similar to that of Shah Hussain. An Armenian merchant, Sarmad is believed to have fallen in love with a Hindu boy, Abhai Chand, while travelling to India for trade. Sarmad abandoned his trade and started living with his beloved at Thatta, taking him on as a student. Eventually the couple moved to Delhi as then Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh invited Sarmad at his father’s court. After Aurangzeb was victorious in the war of succession, he had Sarmad arrested and tried for heresy – Sarmad was eventually put to death by beheading in 1661 and lies buried in the shadow of the Jamia Masjid of Delhi. Sarmad says:

I know not if in this spherical old world
My God is Abhai Chand or someone else

Any mention of Sufism and Delhi is incomplete without the mention of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusro. Amir Khusro was a spiritual devotee of Nizamuddin Auliya and, like Bulleh Shah, used to compose verses in the honour of his beloved – Nizamuddin Auliya. In his poetry too there is sexual innuendo towards his murshid:

Khusro has given himself to Nizam
You made me your bride when our eyes met

How are we to understand these relationships today? Are these references in poetry metaphorical or is there some other inspiration behind them? What was the exact nature of the relationship between Shah Hussain and Madho Lal, or Sarmad Kashani and Abhai Chand? Unfortunately, it has become impossible to have an informed discussion on the nature of these relationships.

Firstly, these Sufi poets are seen as saints, hence any discussion on their character or sexual preference is seen as an affront to religion. The second problem of course is that the terms homosexual, gay and lesbian today are loaded and come with pre-packaged attitudes that leave no space for negotiations. These relationships in today’s context might appear as anomalies, yet they are celebrated by the devotees of these saints. Perhaps, in this way, they represent the uneasy relationship between homosexuality and the Muslim world.

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

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