Bridal Symbolism in Sultan Bahu’s Poetry
Dr. Tanvir Anjum | March 20, 2013
One of the Punjabi siharfi or bayt of Sultan Bahu may be translated in English as such:
Everybody recites the kalima (or the basic formula of Muslim faith) verbally, but only the ‘āshiq (the lovers) recite it from their hearts, and they are very few. It is my mentor who has taught me how to recite it from the heart, which has made me sadā suhāgan (or the eternal bride).
It is this very concept of sadā suhāgan or the eternal bride which is the central theme of the present paper, with a particular emphasis on the symbolic or metaphorical usage of concepts related to bridehood in the poetic compositions of the Sufis, with particular reference to Sultan Bahu, in a historical perspective.
Sufism is called the way of love,[i] because Love for the Absolute, the Supreme Being, or God, is one of the core principles of Sufism, and it has also been a consistent theme in Sufi writings, particularly poetical works. Although the English term ‘love’ does not convey the Sufi concept of ‘ishq, which refers to intensified love coupled with passionate longing, the term ‘love’ has been used in this paper for convenience. Coming back to the notion of Divine love, the Sufis believe that the Divine love is reciprocal, and that is why they emphasize the Divine attribute of being ‘the Loving One’—al-Wudūd, which is one of the ninety-nine names of God.
Historically speaking, the notion of unconditional love for God was articulated for the first time by an eighth-century Sufi woman named Rābi‘ah al-‘Adawiyah of Basrah (d. 801) in her poetic compositions. She urged the people to worship God out of love, instead of owing to the fear of hell or greed for paradise. She taught that a Sufi must love God for Himself alone.[ii] The theme of Divine love was further elaborated by the great Sufi masters of subsequent times. The thirteenth-century Andalusian/Spanish Sufi master, Muhiyy al-Din Muhammad b. ‘Ali Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240) and Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 672/1273) elaborated on the theme of Divine love, which is based on the notion of the separation of the human soul from its Divine source of origin.
The Sufis believe that the higher and subtle truths of Sufism, or the ‘mysteries of Divine love’, revealed to the accomplished Sufi masters are essentially incommunicable, particularly the state of fanā fi Dhāt or fanā fi Allah, i.e. the spiritual union or the unitive experience. However, these truths and mysteries of love can only be articulated through rich symbols, often employing metaphors, allegories and similes. Their symbolic representation through twined expressions does not make them objectionable in the eyes of the religious establishment, and may not mislead the lay persons.
The Sufi poets have represented the Real Love or Ishq-i Haqīqī through the language and terminology of Ishq-i Majāzī or human love. In other words, the Divine Love is often articulated in human terms by borrowing expressions from the phenomenon of romantic love between a man and a woman. Therefore, the Sufi poets have used gendered imagery in their works, and have presented themselves as ardent lovers, and portrayed God as the Divine Beloved. Sometimes, the metaphor of husband or bridegroom is also evoked for God, whereas wife or bride is used as a symbol of the human self.
Such bridal symbolism is common in many other mystical traditions of the world. It can be identified in the Old and the New Testaments,[iii] in Catholicism, in Jewish mystical literature as well as in Hindu and Bhakti mystical traditions. One striking example is that of the renowned sixteenth-century Rajput saint and poetess of Rajasthan, Mirabai (d. 1547) vividly portrays herself as the bride of Lord Krishna.[iv]
In Sufi tradition, the bridal symbolism metaphorically suggests the notion of spiritual marriage. The ninth-century Persian Sufi, Bayazid of Bistam (d. 874) referred to the Sufis as the brides of God for the first time.[v] Bridal symbolism is also evident in works of Ibn al-Arabi and Rumi. It is worthy of note that such symbolic expressions are characterized by gender reversal, since the male Sufi poets identified themselves with the feminine. Switching of masculine and feminine positions is a common characteristic of Sufi poetry.
It is interesting to note that the term ‘urs literally means wedding in Arabic, and it is traditionally used to refer to the death anniversary celebrations of Sufis. These death anniversaries are not merely observed, they are celebrated by the disciples and devotees like wedding occasions, and that is why there is much festivity and rejoicing. In symbolic sense, it denotes the idea of spiritual wedding, i.e. union of the soul of the departed Sufi with God—the Primordial Beloved. The Sufi is considered the bride of God, who has left for his eternal abode, i.e. the house of Divine Groom.
Bridal symbolism is a consistent theme in South Asian Sufi poetry in Indo-Persian, Hindavi, Urdu, as well as vernacular languages like Sindhi, Punjabi and Gujarati. Traditionally speaking, in South Asian cultural context, the relationship of a wife to a husband is like the relationship of a Sufi to God, which is characterized by extreme submission and intense devotion.[vi] Moreover, according to South Asian cultural traditions and norms, a husband is supposed to be kind and considerate to his wife, whereas a wife is expected to be loyal, faithful and devoted to her husband. The bridal symbolism in Sufi poetry was indigenized by the Sufi poets of South Asia by employing the concepts of suhāg and suhāgan in Sufi poetry. In Hindi language, the term suhāgan refers to a happily married lady (who has achieved the love of her husband), whereas suhāg means a state of marital bliss or wifehood.
The fourteenth-century Chishti Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) evoked the bride and groom metaphor in his Persian, and particularly Hindavi, poetry. He used the bridal symbol for explaining his spiritual relationship and emotional bonding with his murshid Shaykh Nizam al-Din Auliya of Delhi (d. 1325). Khusrau conceived of himself as a suhāgan, and also referred to the concept of suhāg. Here one may recall a statement of Baba Farid (the murshid of Shaykh Nizam al-Din Auliya) in Fawaid al-Fuad wherein he likened/compared a Sufi Shaykh to a mashshata,[vii] i.e. the hairdresser of the brides, who adorns and prepares them before their final meeting with the bridegroom. In a symbolic sense, to Baba Farid, it is the murshid who cleanses, embellishes and beautifies the human soul, and prepares it for its possible union with the Divine.
In the fifteenth-century a Gujarati poet, Shah Ali Muhammad Jiw Jan (d. 1515) used the metaphor of a longing bride to symbolize the longing soul. Through the use of bride-groom symbols in his poetic compositions, he tried to explain the mysteries of Wahdat al-Wujūd.[viii]
Here one may recall the poetic compositions of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who also uses the bridal metaphor, and evokes the concept of suhāg. According to a shabd (a hymn) of Guru Granth, Nanak symbolically classifies the human beings or souls in two categories: duhāngan and suhāgan. In a literal sense, duhāngan refers to those unlucky women, whose love remained unfulfilled, who failed to achieve their love, or are deserted by their husbands, whereas suhāgan refers to those lucky women who enjoy union with their husbands, achieve their love and thus, reap the fruit of their past actions.[ix] Symbolically, in spiritual terms, duhāngan are the unlucky souls who fail to achieve the Divine love, whereas suhāgan are the lucky ones who achieve it.
Bridal symbolism is evident in the poetry of Shaykh Farid ‘Thani’ (literally the Second; 1450-1554) is a celebrated sixteenth-century Sufi poet of the Punjab. He employs the bridal metaphor for the human soul and God in his poetry. In sixteenth-century Shah Husayn (1538-1599) of Lahore used bridal symbols in his poetry. He referred to the triumphant human soul as a suhāgan or suhāganī,[x] happily married woman, enjoying marital bliss. Shah Husayn expanded the use of bridal symbolism by using the concepts of dāj [xi](dowry) for good deeds, dōlī for coffin, maika and sasurāl to symbolize the life, and life after death respectively.[xii]
In seventeenth-century Punjab, Sultan Bahu (1629-1691) further indigenized the concept of suhāgan, particularly in his Punjabi siharfīs or abiyāt. As pointed out earlier, Sultan Bahu also evokes the bridal metaphor in his poetry, and he states that people recite the kalima verbally, but only the ‘āshiq or the true lovers of God recite it from their hearts. He acknowledges that it is his murshid who has taught him to recite it from the heart, and this very fact has made him sadā suhāgan or the eternal bride.[xiii]
The concept of sadā suhāgan is borrowed from Hindi-Sanskrit literary tradition. It indicates a married woman’s state of being suhāgan or married till her death, i.e. the wife dying before her husband’s death. In other words, it refers to a wife whose husband never dies in her lifetime, and thus she never becomes a widow. The concept of sadā suhāgan employed by Sultan Bahu represents the idea that the Sufi has no fear of widowhood or being divorced, having married to an Eternal Husband, i.e. God. It is important to note here that Sultan Bahu had studied Vedantic philosophy, since in his times the Vedantic and Vaishnava influence had penetrated the Punjab.[xiv] The soul-bride and Lord-Husband symbolism is evident in Vaishnavite tradition in Hinduism, and it is invoked with reference to Lord Krishna and the desired goal of human submission before Him.
After Sultan Bahu, the bridal metaphor was employed by Bhitai in Sindh and Bulhe Shah in the Punjab. Shah Abd al-Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) in eighteenth-century Sindh urges the people in his Shah Jo Risalo to be a good wife or achhī suhāgan in relation to the Divine Husband or Groom.[xv] Bhitai also composed poetry in the honour of the Prophet of Islam from a feminine perspective. In many poems of Risalo, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has been portrayed as a beloved.[xvi] Bhitai ingeniously used the metaphor of a bride or bride-to-be for human soul, waiting and longing for the grace and favour of the Prophet (PBUH), who is represented as a husband or bridegroom.
Later, Bulhe Shah (1680-1758) in the eighteenth-century Punjab further expanded the use of bridal metaphor in conceptual terms. He used the metaphor of Groom or Husband for God as well as his murshid Shah Inayat Qadiri. He viewed his murshid as his groom, and also compared him to a bride-dresser. He likens the good deeds to dowry and used the symbol of ghunghat,[xvii] or the face veil for ignorance and vanity, which hinder the vision of the Divine.
In addition to poetic expression, the bridal metaphor has found expression in South Asian Sufi practices as well in the form of cross-dressed Sufis.[xviii] For instance, a certain 15th –century Sufi of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, named Shaykh Musa Shahi ‘Suhag’ (1415-1475), the founder of Suhagiyya Silsilah, dressed himself like a woman, and wore glass bangles in arms. As his epithet shows, he considered himself the bride of God. His followers and devotees also dress up as females. Since wearing bangles by women is seen as a symbol of being married in South Asian cultural ethos, one comes across malangs and other Sufis of the so-called be-shar‘ (non-conforming to shar‘iah or the law of Islam) variety who wear iron bangles or dress up like women to symbolize their spiritual marriage with God.
To sum up, the bridal metaphor is considered a ‘perfect’ vehicle to convey the higher truths of Sufism, and the intricacies and subtleties of Divine love.[xix] Though the impact of the Sufi poetical tradition of Persia on South Asian literary traditions cannot be denied, the bridal symbolism was indigenized by the South Asian Sufi poets who used the concepts of suhāg, suhāgan or suhāganī but Sultan Bahu further indigenized the metaphor by using the concept of sadā suhāgan, probably for the first time in South Asian Sufi poetry. Sultan Bahu used this metaphor because it could go well with the local cultural ethos. It was in line with the literary conventions of his age. Moreover, like other Sufi poets, Sultan Bahu identified himself with women, and wrote from a feminine perspective. This gender reversal seems quite significant in context of the patriarchal social structure of South Asia, wherein masculinity as a social and cultural construct is seen as a source of honour and pride for men.
[i] The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 10, art. Mysticism by Louis Dupre’ (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 245-61.
[ii] Margaret Smith, Rābi‘a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984 rpt., first published 1928), pp. 96-110. For a brief note on her views regarding Sufism, see Abū ‘Abd Ar-Rahmān As-Sulamī, Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta‘abbitdāt aş-Şūfiyyāt, ed. and Eng. trans. Rkia Elaroui Cornell (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005; first pub. 1999), pp. 74-81; for a detailed study, see also Widad El Sakkakini, Nabil F. Safwat and Doris May Lessing, First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra (London: Octagon Press, 1982). For her poetic utterances, see Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabia, Eng. trans. Charles Upton (Putney, Vt.: Threshold Books, 1988).
[iv] See translators’ notes on Mirabai and her teachings in Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, Eng. trans. Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), pp. 1-6.
[v] Carl W Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 1997), p. 60.
[vi] In the words of Metcalf: “This element of a feminine ideal is explicit in what one could call an extreme or intense expression of cultural values.” Barbara Daly Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 190.
[vii] Amir Hasan Ala Sijzi of Delhi, Fawā’id al-Fu’ād (Malfūz of Shaykh Nizam al-Din Auliya), ed. Khwajah Hasan Thani Nizami Dehlavi (Delhi: Urdu Academy, 1992 rpt., first pub. 1990), p. 44.
[ix] As cited in Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 79.
[x] See, for instance, Kāfian Shah Husayn, Urdu trans. in Verse Abd al-Majid Bhatti (Lahore: Punjabi Adabi Academy, 1961), pp. 102-3.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 58-59, 60-61.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 24-25.
[xiii] See kāfī beginning from Urdu alphabet (ڒ) in Aks-i Bāhū (The Poetic Compositions of Sultan Bahu with Urdu Translation by Masud Qureshi), (Islamabad: Lok Virsa, 2002), p. 114.
[xiv] Sadhu Ram Sharda, Sufi Thought: Its Development in Panjab and its Impact on Panjabi Literature, from Baba Farid to 1850 A.D., New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1974, p. 142.
[xv] See, for instance, Risala Shah Abd al-Latif Bhitai, Urdu trans. in verse Shaykh Ayaz (Karachi: Sindhika Academy, 2009; first pub. 1963), p. 542.
[xvi] See, for instance, Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Eng. trans. in verse Ameena Khamisani (Bhitshah; Hyderabad: Bhitshah Cultural Centre Committee, 1994), see vāī on pp. 59-60, section II, pp. 238-39. See also vāī in Risala Shah Abd al-Latif Bhitai, Urdu trans. Ayaz, pp. 537 (vāī), 541-42 (dāstān). These poems rendered in versified form in Urdu by Shaykh Ayaz are not included in Risalo’s English translation by Ameena Khamisani.
[xvii] Kuliyat-i Bulhe Shah, edited and introduced by Faqir Muhammad Faqir (Lahore: Al-Faisal Publishers, n.d.), pp. 262-63 and 264. See also the English translation of a poem titled “Don’t hide in veil beauteous one; I hunger for a Vision” in Ghaffaar, Bulleh Shaah Within Reach, Vol. II (Lahore: Ferozsons, 2005), p. 251.
[xviii] Tanvir Anjum, “The Eternal Brides of God: Cross-dressing as a Symbolic Practice among South Asian Sufis”, Unpublished paper. The case of Shaykh Musa Shahi ‘Suhag’ has been discussed in detail in it.
[xix] Ali S. Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002), p. 66.
This article was originally presented in International Hadrat Sultan Bahoo Conference arranged by MUSLIM Institute