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Shah Latif’s message of wisdom

“Learn to distinguish between the flickering light of a night lamp and the shining rays of the rising sun”. So said Shah Latif, the polymath poet of Sindh urging people to understand the difference between the forces of darkness and the forces of light – or the enlightenment.

As he put it: “To jo diyo bhaaenyo, so suraj suhae”. “If you do not develop the ability to recognize the forces of light from darkness, you would be groping around like the blind, and it would make no difference whether it is night or day (and your problems would remain as they are).

He repeats his call for pursuit of knowledge and highlights the perils of ignorance in another one of his iconic verses “Paani mathe jhoopra moorakh unj maran” (look at the ignorant fools who are dying of thirst, even when they are living in the huts over the water!).

Empowering people by equipping them with knowledge and unshackling their minds to be able to solve their problems is what Enlightenment was all about. And this spirit of enlightenment is repeatedly reflected in his verses.

In the first part of this series (The genius of Shah Latif, The News, 10 Sept, 2022) we discussed the other enlightenment values he promotes: hard work, respect for time, tolerance, fraternity, and open and enquiring mind and search for excellence.

But, it is the tragedy of the colonized mind that indigenous wisdom – however good and great – is overlooked until it gets a certificate of approval from the colonial masters, old or new. This has been the case with our indigenous sources of enlightenment: Shah Latif, Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid and others. The genius of Tagore had also remained ignored until a collection of his poems ‘Gitanjali’ was translated from Bengali to English and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Sadly, there were no Nobel Prizes awarded in the 18th century, however brilliant the indigenous enlightenment of Shah Latif was, so he did not receive his legitimate international recognition, and locally his message of enlightenment has largely remained on the back-burner.

But the intellectual foundation of indigenous enlightenment was laid by our poet philosopher about the same time (late 17th and 18th century) as in Europe. Unlike Europe, however, it did not immediately spread out here because of technical constraints, illiteracy and absence of the printing press. During the last 75 years, those constraints have largely been removed but the continued neglect of his message of enlightenment has kept alive the forces of darkness, medievalism, feudalism and decadent model of governance, which have been keeping people enslaved in poverty, oppression and injustice – not much different than during the lifetime of the poet himself.

It is important to recognize why the Enlightenment is considered such a game-changer. It was the monumental change which separated the medieval from the modern era and introduced the ideas of development and democracy. Both- progress and representative democracy -are products of the enlightenment.

Talking of how the enlightenment led to progress, it is important to recall that it took 1000 years for the world GDP to double before the spread of the ideas of enlightenment in the 18th century. But as these ideas spread out and minds were unshackled, new products and processes were discovered leading up to a tectonic change. The Industrial Revolution was now unfolding – 12000 years after the Agricultural Revolution – and creating new sources of wealth and power. As a consequence, the world GDP now doubled in 100 years in the 19th century and doubled again in only 50 years in the 20th century!

The other by-product of the enlightenment was the birth of representative democracy. No more divine rights of kings or the clergy. And no hereditary rights either -to lord over the people. Only your merit and consent of the people to determine how high you would go.

It is astonishing to see a medieval-era philosopher of Sindh espousing the most modern and progressive idea of upholding merit as the guide to power and status in society, a value thoroughly violated in his home province of Sindh – which otherwise pays deepest respect to Shah Latif.

In one of his most revolutionary verses he says “Daat na aahe zaat te, jo wahhe so lahhe” (Your rise in status is not dependent upon your pedigree, but on your hard work and ability). How can one be more enlightened than this – and 300 years ago!

It is these ideas of enlightenment which led to French and American Revolutions in the late 18th century. And not just in Europe and America; these ideas also ushered in reforms and revolutions all around: Japan, China, Latin America or elsewhere and have transformed much of the world.

But there are two lessons from our history which we forget to our own peril.

We often talk of the Golden Age of Islam, wanting to revive that glory without realizing that one of the contributing strengths of that glory was the flourishing of the ideas of the enlightenment. In the House of Wisdom (Baitul Hikmat) in Baghdad, there were scores of scholars from many parts of the world who were translating treatises from Greek, Indian and Chinese civilizations. Obviously, it was acquisition of secular knowledge and borrowing best ideas from wherever. It was this liberalism (besides trading with other countries) which enriched and strengthened the Islamic empire and resulted in the Golden Age.

The other lesson we forget is from our own home. Have we still not realized why a small band of traders was able to conquer the mighty Mughal Empire and colonize the vastly big and rich Subcontinent of India? What gave such strength to a tiny band of traders to overwhelm 250 million Indians (the population in 1857) with vast armies and resources?

If we could move away from conspiracy theories, we would find that what enabled a tiny band of traders to overwhelm the Subcontinent were the ideas of the Enlightenment and the powers of the Industrial Revolution which empowered them to conquer and colonize this vast territory. Simply put, it was enlightenment defeating medievalism in the Subcontinent.

The purpose of this diversion is to underline the importance of the ideas of enlightenment- both in the rise and fall of nations as well as communities.

But the message of enlightenment of this polymath poet has been neglected in his home province. If there are 500 musical functions held every year in every nook and corner of Sindh, to pay tributes to Shah Latif, there are not even five serious engagements held to discuss his message of enlightenment and reforms, and transmit it to the people to awaken them. In the absence of this awareness, people’s ignorance is exploited and their trust betrayed by their leaders – and so they continue to suffer.

The betrayal of people’s trust by their leaders is aptly summed up by Shah Latif using the analogy of the betrayal of Sassi by Pannu. As she laments: “Adiyoon aan anjaan, moon sang sujane na kayo” (Oh, sisters! I was ignorant and did not wisely choose my man [leaders]! And I am suffering for it!).

By neglecting his message of enlightenment we have been keeping the people of Sindh hostage to the forces of darkness and preventing them from empowering themselves and improving their fortunes through the ideas of enlightenment.

It is long overdue to celebrate Shah Latif as the poet of enlightenment, not a poet of entertainment.

Email: smshah@alum.mit.edu

Syed Mohibullah Shah, "Shah Latif’s message of wisdom," The News. 2022-12-03.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Empowering people , Civil society , Democracy , Feudalism , Illiteracy , Shah Latif , Bulleh Shah , Japan , China , GDP