Islam’s story of Equality; Sayyid and Non-Sayyid

By Usama Naeem Toor

Sufism, or the mystical version of Islam, rose to prominence from the 9th century and became a driving force of conversion since then. Its acceptance was widely appealing to the Non-Arab population, the most famous of which would be the Persians and the Turkic Tribes of central Asia, who would later go on to establish the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires. The very fact that the Non-Arab Muslims widely accepted Sufism was one of the major indications of why it gained prominence. Sufism rose as a counter to the Umayyad Empire’s brag about the Arab identity, as being the “Superior Muslim.” For them, being the first to accept Islam and being the conquering nation meant that they were God’s chosen people, just like the Israelites believed, and had to be accorded for a higher status amongst the Muslim Ummah. This notion, however, was against Islam, the very component upon which they boasted their identity. The Prophet of Allah, Muhammad (A.S) said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.” While Islam outrightly renounced any classification amongst humans based on religion, race, colour, ethnicity, the conquering Arabs in their arrogance had forgotten the Islamic message. Unfortunately, the harm of such a perception was far more extensive than what might have been expected.

Sufism in India rendered a very significant role in the acceptance of Islam amongst the wider population. It was the various Sufi Tariqas (Orders) and Murshids/Pirs (Masters) who led the Islamization of people in India which by the time of the partition would account for 1/4 of the entire Indian population. Unfortunately, even under these Sufi Masters, who advocated the message of Humanity amongst the people, the concept of Arab superiority rose, and classification of humans on the basis of means other than piety and righteousness still maintained ground. A popular and comprehensive form of this notion was observed in the case of Sayyids and Non-Sayyids, Sayyids being the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). Being a Sayyid held immense value, so much so that Sayyids sometimes refrained from marriages outside the family, fearing of having marital relations with Non-Sayyids, a course that still continues till today in modern-day Pakistan and India. While it is true that Sayyids hold a respectable position amongst the Muslims, it does not permit discrimination against the Non-Sayyids. This phenomenon was countered brilliantly by two Sufis of the 17th century, the Master, Shah Inayat Qadri, and the student, S Abdullah Shah, famously known as Baba Bulleh Shah. Their relationship of Mentor-Apprentice would be rival to that of Shams Tabrizi and Mevlana Rumi, and Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrou, respectively.

Legend has it that Bulleh Shah, after completing his formal education in Islam, departed for Lahore in search of a Sufi Master, as was the trend in those days. Having found Shah Inayat Qadri in Lahore, Bulleh Shah accepted him as his Murshid or Master to guide him on his spiritual endeavour. However, difficulties for Bulleh Shah began for his acceptance of a Non-Sayyid Murshid. Bulleh Shah’s family were relentless in not accepting Shah Inayat as his Master; a Sayyid guided by a Non-Sayyid was deemed to be a huge embarrassment. Reason being that Shah Inayat was an Aarain, an indigenous Hindu Caste and recent converts to Islam. In those days, indigenous Muslims of India had a lower social status than that of Muslims from Arabia, Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan, and in the case of Sayyids, this was a more outrageous circumstance. Nonetheless, Bulleh Shah remained faithful to his Master as he had become his discipline by his own personal conviction. As a counter to the criticism by his family, Bulleh Shah wrote a Punjabi Shair/Poem, destined to become popular amongst those seeking equality in the newly converted lands;

Bullay Noun Samjhawan Ayaan

Bheynaan Tay Bherjaiyaan

Man Lay Bulleya Sada Kena

Chad Day Pala Raiyaan

Bulleh Shah’s sisters and sisters-in-law came to convince him,

Listen to us Bulleh Shah and leave the company of the Aarain (Shah Inayat Qadri).

Aal Nabi Ullad Ali Noun

To Kyoun Leekaan Layaan

“Jeyra Saanoun Sayyid Saday

Dozukh Milan Sazaiyaan”

Why do you insult the name of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali’s lineage (The Sayyids)?

To which Bulleh Shah replies,

The one who pronounces me as Sayyid will suffer the punishments of Hell,

Raain, Saain, Sabhee Thaain

Rab Deyaan Bay Parwaaiyaan

Sohniyaan Paray Hatayaan Tay

Koojiyaan Lay Gall Laiyaan

Aarain and Masters are born at every place, God doesn’t discriminate,

Beautiful people (with bad heart) are put aside, while the ugly ones (with good heart) are embraced

Jay To Loorain Baagh Baharaan

Chaakar Hoo Ja Raiyaan

Bulley Shah Dee Zaat Kee Puchni

Shakar Ho Razayaan

If you desire the gardens of Heaven, be the servant of the Aarain

Why do ask the lineage of Bulleh Shah? Instead be grateful in God’s will.

(While the translation provided is from the author’s knowledge of the Punjabi language, the translation is different in various places; the meaning, however, remains the same)

Bulleh Shah’s confidence, and poetic response, would go on to pursue his family to let him remain under the Mureedi or Guidance/Teaching of Shah Inayat Qadri. His sincerity and truthfulness for his cause and loyalty to his Master became the reasons for such a development. Even Bulleh Shah’s sister went on to support him in his spiritual journey. Later on, it is said that Shah Inayat got furious with Bulleh Shah to such an extent that the annoyance lasted for 12 years in which Bulleh Shah adopted several methods to convince his Master. To redeem his Master’s love, Bulleh Shah became a part of the lowest members of the society, based on social class, for 12 years, eventually succeeding in his task of obtaining the love of his Master. For his Master, in another one of his poetry, Bulleh Shah proclaimed,

“Listen to the tale of Bulleh Shah, he has found a spiritual guide and shall have salvation. My teacher, Shah Inayat, he will take me across”.


Usama Naeem Toor is a student of Economics and Business at Simon Fraser University. Born and raised in Pakistan, Usama’s main interest is understanding the central intricacies of the socio-economic situation of Pakistan, and to find its solutions. However, Usama possesses an interest in a wide range of subjects including World History, Islamic Philosophy and Jurisprudence, and current affairs. In his free time, Usama likes to read books, play videogames and sports such as Football, Cricket and Table Tennis, and hang out with friends.