Bulleh Shah (1680 – 1757)(Punjabi: Shahmukhi: بلے شا, Gurmukhi: ਬੱਲਹੇ ਸ਼ਾਹ), whose real name was Abdullah Shah, is believed to have been born in the small village of Uch, Bahawalpur in modern day Pakistan. His ancestors had migrated from Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan, in 1680. He was a Punjabi Sufi poet and a humanist. At the age of six months, his parents relocated to Malakwal. There his father was a preacher in the village mosque and a teacher. His father later got a job in Pandoke, about 50 miles southeast of Kasur. Bulleh Shah received his early schooling in Pandoke, and later moved to Kasur for higher education, to become a student of the prominent professor, Ghulam Murtaza.
A large amount of what is known about Bulleh Shah comes through legends, and is subjective; to the point that there isn’t even agreement among historians concerning his precise date and place of birth. Some "facts" about his life have been pieced together from his own writings. Other "facts" seem to have been passed down through oral traditions.
Bulleh Shah practiced the Sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry established by poets like Shah Hussain (1538 – 1599), Sultan Bahu (1629 – 1691), and Shah Sharaf (1640 – 1724).
Bulleh Shah lived in the same period as the famous Sindhi Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai (1689 – 1752). His lifespan also overlapped with the legendary Punjabi poet Waris Shah (1722 – 1798), of Heer Ranjha fame, and the famous Sindhi Sufi poet Abdul Wahad (1739 – 1829), better known by his pen-name, Sachal Sarmast (“truth seeking leader of the intoxicated ones”). Amongst Urdu poets, Bulleh Shah lived a mere 400 miles from Mir Taqi Mir (1723 – 1810) of Agra.
The verse form Bulleh Shah primarily employed is called the Kafi (Refrain), a traditional style of Punjabi poetry used by Punjabi Sufis and Sikh gurus (such as Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh). In Bulleh's time, Sufi poets often did not adopt the classical languages of Persian and Urdu, instead choosing to write their verses in Punjabi, Saraiki, and Sindhi – languages of the commonfolk amongst whom they lived. Although the number is disputed, Bulleh Shah is credited with authoring anywhere from 50 to 150 Kafi, 1 Athwara, 1 Baramah, 3 Siharfi, 49 Oeodh and 40 Gandhan. This appears to be a large body of work; however, this oeuvre is small enough that one could read it all in a few weeks.
What is most striking about Bulleh Shah’s poetry and philosophy is his audacious, almost egotistical critique of the religious orthodoxy of his day, particularly the Islamic religious orthodoxy. His poetry is filled with direct attacks on those who claim control over religion, to the point of comparing mullahs to barking dogs and crowing roosters.
Sufis typically spend their lives trying to penetrate the meaning of life while searching for God. Those among them who were poets articulated this exploration through their poetry. ‘Who is the Creator?’ ‘What is the truth?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘How can one find God?’ ‘Who am I?’ These are some of the questions Sufis have tried to answer, by dissociating themselves from worldly activity, and moving onto a saintly field where they are no longer bound by conventionally interpreted holy or material boundaries.
Bulleh Shah studied Arabic, Persian and the Quran under his traditional teachers. After that, in an attempt to move to the next level (of mystic realization), he searched for a spiritual guide. Ultimately he found his murshid, in the form of Inayat Shah Qadri. Inayat Shah Qadri (or Shah Inayat, as he is referred to in Bulleh Shah’s poetry) was a Sufi of the Qadri order, who authored many Persian books on mysticism. He was from the Arian cast and grew vegetables to earn a living. Paradoxically, Bulleh Shah was of the much higher Syed caste. Yet, in defiance of tradition, Bulleh Shah accepted Shah Inayat as his spiritual master, and subordinated his life to his lower-caste murshid. Much of Bulleh Shah’s verses about love are addressed directly to his spiritual guide, Shah Inayat.
Despite being very critical of religion, Bulleh Shah does not denounce religion as a whole. Nor does he appear to be pushing any other structure of thought to supplant religious notions. His ideas, therefore, cannot be placed into the category of secularism or atheism. In reality, Bulleh Shah seems somewhat critical of all persons in authority - including intellectuals, academicians and jurists - who create obstacles and needless complexities for common people in discovering love, and through love, discovering God. Bulleh Shah preaches a uncomplicated conception of humanity, as the common connection through which persons of all faiths, creeds and opinions can attain a superior and more pure existence, eventually coming closer to God.
Bulleh Shah’s writings represent him as a humanist, someone providing solutions to the sociological problems of the world around him as he lives through it, describing the turbulence his motherland of Punjab is passing through, while concurrently searching for God. His poetry highlights his mystical spiritual voyage through the four stages of Sufism: Shariat (Path), Tariqat (Observance), Haqiqat (Truth) and Marfat (Union). The simplicity with which Bulleh Shah has been able to address the complex fundamental issues of life and humanity is a large part of his appeal. Thus, many people have put his kafis to music, from humble street-singers to renowned Sufi singers like the Waddali Brothers and Abida Parveen, from the synthesized techno qawwali remixes of UK-based Asian artists to the rock band Junoon.
Bulleh Shah’s popularity stretches uniformly across Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, to the point that much of the written material about this Muslim thinker is from Hindu and Sikh authors.
In 2004, Rabbi Shergill successfully performed the unlikely feat of turning the abstruse metaphysical poem Bullah Ki Jaana into a Rock/Fusion song, which became hugely popular in India. Another version was performed by Lakhwinder Wadali titled simply Bulla. Junoon, Asia's biggest Sufi rock band, has also rendered such poems as Aleph (Ilmon Bas Kareen O Yaar) and Bullah Ki Jaana. Bulleh Shah's verses have also been adapted and used in Bollywood film songs. Examples include the songs Chhayya Chhayya and Thayya Thayya in the movie Dil Se.