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Romy Tuli – ‘Baba Bulleh Shah and Walt Whitman’

A Comparative Sufi Analysis

Sufi literature has always been a source of fascination not only among the Arabian countries but also the countries like India and Pakistan. It encompasses various other fields such as Philosophy, Literature, Mysticism and Society. “Sufism is often seen as the spiritual muse behind much of pre-modern verse in the Islamic world” (Elias 595). Though, Sufism is related to basically Persian and Urdu tradition but even then, a Sufi is one who denies worldly forms and does not belong to one religion, caste or creed. The person is free from the restrictions of society and roams freely above the individualism. A Sufi believes in the view of the world as a one whole. “Annemarie Schimmel defines the spiritual current in a wider sense and holds that it is the consciousness of the one reality that can be called Wisdom, Light, Love or nothing. Mysticism is the love of the Absolute – for the power that separates true mysticism from mere asceticism is love” (Anjum 227). As far as Mysticism in Sufism is concerned, it “is generally believed to be associated with mysterious phenomena. The words ‘mystic’ and ‘mystery’ have common etymological roots, being derived from a Greek word ‘myein,’ meaning ‘to close the eyes’” (Anjum 223). In Sufi tradition, there is a deep respect and wonder for the Almighty.

American Transcendentalism poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), if seen on the grounds of Sufism, is a poet who has broken all constrains of society whether they belong to class, gender or individualistic issues of morality within his poetry. American Transcendentalism is based on the idea that there is a soul on the earth and likewise, there is also an upper soul which guides the actions of the souls present on the earth.

Though, Transcendentalists and Sufism are two different branches belonging to entirely different geographical set up but even then, the essence of Sufism can be traced in them.

Walt Whitman is one of the famous poets of American Romanticism who has been an essayist and a journalist as well. Whitman participated in American Civil War as a nurse, supplying water to the wounded with no distinction of friend and foe. In his works, he has written about everything and everyone regardless of gender, colour, nationality and everything. He has been termed as a humanist as well.

Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri, pen name Baba Bulleh Shah (1680-1758), is a renowned Sufi poet of Punjabi Language. He is a philosopher and a humanist. Many of his works are there in Urdu as well. He has written against the orthodoxy of religion and politics of that time. He is famous for his Kafian and Dohre.

The reading of Baba Bulleh Shah, a Punjabi Sufi poet in comparison to Walt Whitman not only flourishes the works of the three but along with that, the Sufi Principles can be observed in them. Baba Bulleh Shah, in his ‘Kafian ‘Ao Fakiro Mele Chaliye’ says;

‘The Almighty name has many colours and He has various forms. The calls that He has given to us are assimilatory to everything and everyone, friend and foe. Without the efforts of Saints, this celebratory fair of unity with Him is useless like the loss of interest along with the principal. The journey of Saint is tough when path is of love. Let us unite to Him in his music.’

The persona talks in celebratory tone in order to join the Supreme soul, that is, the Almighty. He longs to attain one whole without any distinction between friend and foe.

Likewise, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collaboration of such poems which makes him a Sufi Poet. In his poem - One’s-Self I Sing - the persona’s attitude towards the society is that of detachment and at the same time, he sings for everyone. “One’s Self I sing, a simple separate person” (1). It means that he represents everyone present and thus, the concept of everyman is observed. Like a Sufi poet, Whitman believes in one whole, without any restriction even within the self when he says–

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the
Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing. (2-5)

Here, the persona talks about the united being, a complete body. He says that he sings for both male and female. The same is seen in Baba Bulleh Shah’s case that he talks about every being without any distinction. The celebratory idea can be seen in Whitman as well when he says in the same poem –

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine (6-7)

Here, the idea of cheerfulness and passion in the divine laws can be seen in Bulleh Shah when he talks about the varied colours of the Supreme Being.

One of the key features of Sufi Literature is Mysticism. Sufis state that their journey is spiritual and so are their paths. They need to meet the optimum truth which has a fair judgement and that the truth is divine. There are many similarities between Islamic Sufism and Christian beliefs on the grounds of mysticism.

Bulleh Shah’s ‘Saaiyo Hun Mai Sajan Paiyo Ee’ describes the mystic elements when the persona says –

‘Lord, your appearance is immortal. Your presence is everywhere and in every being. Every human being is blessed by you. … Mates, I now I have achieved the name of God.’

The above lines describe the usage of mysticism and the persona expresses the idea that the super soul is present everywhere in every being.

As far as Whitman is concerned, in his ‘To the soul,’ he says –

All is for thee
Life and Death are for thee
The Body too is for thee (1-3)

Though there is not clear indication in the poem that to whom “thee” refers to, but if it is viewed thoroughly that the persona is offering his Life, Body and Death to “thee,” it presents the idea of mysticism in Whitman.

In one more Manuscript Fragment by Whitman, ‘Spirituality, the Unknown,’ he says –

Spirituality, the unknown, the great aspiration of the soul, the
Idea of justice, divinity, immortality. (1)

Here, like Bulleh Shah, Whitman admits the immortality of the “Spirituality” which indicates the presence of the Almighty. He also describes the idea of justice and divinity in that of spirituality just as has been done by Bulleh Shah.

The tone of Bulleh Shah is celebratory and of affirmation that he admits the presence of Supreme Being everywhere whereas that of Whitman is of offering to the Super Soul.

There is a mismatch between the Spirituality followed by the Sufis and the notion of morality. Though the moralistic attitude is individualistic and social, the path followed by Sufis is free from the chains of society. In Bulleh Shah’s ‘Aa Mil Yaar Saar Lai Meri,’ he says –

‘These are the thugs of the world who have bounded from all sides. They name Hatred as Religion, they chain the beings. Love does not believe in Casts and Creeds. Love is the enemy of Hatred.’

The persona talks about the piousness of love, the spiritual love which maintains distance from the constructed social norms.

Whitman, in his ‘One Hour to Madness and Joy’ expresses –

To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! To love free! To dash reckless and dangerous! ...
To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me! (17-20)

The notion of love of the persona of Whitman is quite comparable to that of Bulleh Shah. The similar idea when the persona wants to get unchained from the social constricted norms is seen in both. Whitman’s want to “drive free” and “love free” and Bulleh Shah’s want to break the taboos of Castes prevailing in Punjabi society amount to the same.

In Sufism, there is an urge to reconcile with the Supreme Being, that is, God and the knowledge which they long to get is also spiritual rather than worldly. “Instead of identifying himself with his empirical “I” he fashions that “I” by virtue of an element which is symbolically and implicitly non-individual” (Burckhardt 11). The quest for identity is not the quest for oneself but the quest to unite a Sufi’s identity with that of the Almighty.

Bulleh Shah, in his ‘Ab Hum Ghum Hue, Prem Nagar ke Shehar’ has described a similar expedition as –

‘Now I am lost in the city of Love. I am finding myself without having knowledge about anything. I have lost my Identity Card myself … Bulleh Shah belongs to both the Worlds, no one is a stranger.’

The Persona needs to search his own identity when he is lost in the Spiritual Love. But at the same time, he expresses the idea that when he has united to the Supreme Being, he has acquired his identity in every being and every soul and no one is stranger to him.

Whitman, in ‘That Shadow My Likeness’ describes –

That shadow my likeness that goes to and fro seeking a livelihood chattering, chaffering:
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits,
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
But in these, and among my lovers, and caroling these songs,
O I never doubt whether that is really me. (1-5)

The notion of identity by Whitman, if seen in the context of Bulleh Shah, is comparative enough as both of them end their search in the pious love and when they attain this spiritual and mystic knowledge, they find themselves present everywhere.

Music plays a vital role in Sufism. ‘Devotional music or sarna’ is considered by a large number of Sufis to be a source of ecstasy and a method of spiritual realization, and hence, permissible. Devotional music and ecstatic dance were meant to arouse spiritual ecstasy and rapture” (Anjum 253). It provides a platform to mysticism as with the sweet chords of music, a Sufi achieves the meditative pleasures. In Sufism, the reaching to the Almighty is generally accompanied with psychological involvement of the beings. Kashmiri Sufis worship Lord Shiva and for that they consume some Hemp or other such drinks. The merriment they attain can be viewed in both Bulleh Shah and Walt Whitman.

Bulleh Shah, in ‘Ab Lagan Laagi Ki Kariye’ has expressed this idea of harmony as –

‘Now I am in merriment, what can I do? Neither I can live nor die. Please listen [to] my woes. I have peace neither at day nor at night. Now I cannot withstand without the Almighty.’

A similar idea of contemplation can be viewed in Whitman in his “The Singer of the Prison” when he says –

Rang the refrain along the hall, the prison,
Rose to the roof, the vaults of heaven above,
Pouring in floods of melody in tones so pensive sweet and strong the like whereof was never heard,
… … …
Making the hearer’s pulses stop for ecstasy and awe. (1-7)

Here, the feeling of ecstasy and surprise is similar to that of Bulleh Shah and Whitman’s persona also talks about the meditative verse and music which pleases the soul and provides food for them.

Thus, the comparative framework of both Bulleh Shah and Walt Whitman describes that how both of them, though belonging to different nationalities and having no connection to each other throughout their lives, can be seen as dealing with spirituality which is found in Sufism. The quest for identity and later finding it within the Supreme Being, and the merriment attained by the name of God through music, meditative verses and dances, distancing the soul from the social norms of being civilised and affirmation of the idea that the whole course of the universe is present due to the blessings of the Supreme One are seen in both the poets.


  • Anjum, Tancir. 2006 ‘Sufism in History and its Relationship with Power’ in Islamic Studies, 2006, pp 221-268.
  • Buckhardt, Titus. 2008, Introduction to Sufi Doctrine. Bloomington: The Spiritual Classics Series.
  • Elias, Jamal J. 1998 ‘Sufism’ in International Society of Iranian Studies, 1998, pp 595-613.
  • Shah, Bulleh. ‘Kafian (Poetry) Baba Bulleh Shah.’ (Date of Access- 07 March 2017).
  • Whitman, Walt. 2001. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, New York, Michael Moon.


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