About 5 km or so from the walled city of Lahore lies Mozang, a 16th century hamlet. Gradually, as the city of Lahore expanded and started spilling outside of its walls, Mozang, along with dozens of other such villages, was incorporated into the metropolis. In the heart of Mozang is the mausoleum of the 18th century Sufi, Shah Inayat Qadri.

There is nothing remarkable about the architecture of the shrine, similar to hundreds of other Sufi mausoleums scattered across Lahore. The grave in the middle of the structure is adorned with velvet cloth and fresh flowers. It is at this site that Shah Inayat Qadri once ran his madrassa. Perhaps the story of Shah Inayat Qadri, like so many others, would have slowly drowned in the ocean of history had it not been immortalised in the poetry of one of his students, Bulleh Shah.

Struggling to fit into the conservative society of his city, Kasur, because of his unconventional religious beliefs and provocative rejection of established symbols of religion, a young Bulleh Shah was sent to Lahore to study under the mentorship of another son of Kasur, Shah Inayat Qadri, who too is believed to have left the city after falling out with its ruler.

The hagiographic narrative about Bulleh Shah suggests it was under Shah Inayat Qadri’s tutelage that the true Sufi within Bulleh Shah emerged. His spiritual experience found expression in poetry, forming part of the long established tradition of Punjabi Sufi poetry that began with Baba Farid in the 12th century and travelled through Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan and Shah Hussain before reaching Bulleh Shah. Bulleh Shah the iconoclast, who has no patience for the hypocrisy of religious leaders, comes through this poetry. In his aggressive tone, he is not too different from Bhagat Kabir of Benaras, while in his direct challenge to religious dogma, rituals and symbols of authority, he is similar to Guru Nanak.

Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat Qadri

While there is disdain for the duplicity of religious leaders in Bulleh Shah’s poetry, there is nothing but love for his master. Bulleh Shah refers to Shah Inayat Qadri as his master, his beloved, his symbol of divinity. In the words of Bulleh Shah, one of the most famous Punjabi Sufi poets, Shah Inayat Qadri becomes immortal:

“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.”

While such an expression of devotion towards one’s master was accepted tradition within Punjabi Sufi poetry, it did not go down well with Bulleh Shah’s family. Bulleh Shah happened to be a Syed, who draw their lineage from the Prophet of Islam. In the popular Sufi tradition of South Asia, the Syeds occupy the highest echelon. Shah Inayat Qadri, on the other hand, was an Arain, a Punjabi agricultural caste that does not enjoy the same prestige. When his family complained to him about his association with a lower caste master, Bulleh Shah is believed to have retorted:

“Those who address me as Syed, shall be condemned to hell.”

This was not the only time Bulleh Shah challenged caste hierarchy. In another poem, he talked about how his status would not be reduced if he became a Kanjri, a caste associated with courtesans, looked down upon in conventional society and also occasionally used as a slur. Legend has it that Bulleh Shah said this when Shah Inayat Qadri was upset with him and Bulleh Shah decided to pacify him by learning how to dance with the help of a courtesan.

Caste divisions

Caste hierarchy or discrimination based on caste has no justification in Islamic theology. However, as Bulleh Shah’s poetry shows, it continued to exist within Muslim communities, particularly in South Asia. Even in contemporary Pakistan, the phenomenon persists, with caste considerations playing a pivotal role, particularly while arranging marriages.

In fact, even the case of Asia Bibi – the Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy, sentenced to death and then acquitted by the Supreme Court on October 31, resulting in protests across Pakistan – has at its essence the continuation of caste hierarchy. In Punjab, Christianity is frequently referred to as a caste as well as a religion, and many Muslims refuse to share utensils with Christians. It was Asia Bibi’s use of a utensil that led to an altercation with her Muslim neighbours, which eventually resulted in the alleged blasphemy. While the case led to a global discussion about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the caste hierarchy and discrimination based on it received no attention.

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated for his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. (Credit: Asad Karim / Reuters)
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated for his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. (Credit: Asad Karim / Reuters)

Leading the protests against Asia Bibi’s acquittal is the religio-political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. It was formed in 2015 and came into prominence after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri in 2016 for the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Mumtaz Qadri, who was Taseer’s bodyguard, shot and killed the governor for his support of Asia Bibi, which he interpreted to be blasphemy. A large section of the population hailed Mumtaz Qadri as a hero. Thousands attended his funeral. Taseer’s funeral, on the other hand, saw only a handful in attendance while the government-appointed khateeb (prayer leader) of the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore refused to lead his funeral prayers.

There are yet again several parallels between these recent events and Bulleh Shah. Both Mumtaz Qadri and Shah Inayat Qadri used the title Qadri to show their affiliation with the Sufi order of Qadri. While Shah Inayat Qadri became a symbol of defiance to religious dogma for Bulleh Shah, Mumtaz Qadri became a different kind of symbol to his followers. Symbols change and are re-appropriated with time. For many of Mumtaz Qadri’s followers, Shah Inayat Qadri would also be an important symbol of religion and his shrine an important religious centre. Bulleh Shah, too, would be treated in a similar manner, divorced from his philosophy and ideology.

Pakistanis offer noon prayers at the tomb of Mumtaz Qadri in the outskirts of Islamabad. (Credit: Aamir Qureshi / AFP)
Pakistanis offer noon prayers at the tomb of Mumtaz Qadri in the outskirts of Islamabad. (Credit: Aamir Qureshi / AFP)

In his lifetime, Bulleh Shah was called a kafir (non-believer) by his detractors, a title he proudly accepted. “They call you kafir, you say why not,” Bulleh Shah said. Popular narratives about Bulleh Shah highlight how many religious leaders refused to offer his funeral prayers for they thought of him as a kafir. Today, he is the symbol of Sufism in Pakistan, a symbol that is increasingly being appropriated by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and other followers of Mumtaz Qadri, whose grave has now became a major shrine in the outskirts of Islamabad.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: the city that is, the city that was, was released by Penguin Random House.