Malamatiyya: the Great Sufi Tradition

The Malamatis were a mystic Sufi group that formed in the 9th century in the Greater Khorasan region, otherwise known as northeast Persia. I discovered them through a verse written by Mir Taqi Mir, one of the greatest Urdu poets of all time who lived during the Mughal Era. The verse shocked me at first. Poets that lived during the Mughal Era were pretty liberal as far as blasphemous remarks are concerned. But this was out of the ordinary:

What can I tell you about Mir’s faith or belief ?
A tilak on his forehead in a temple he resides, having abandoned Islam long ago

Having abandoned Islam? Ghalib, his successor, was shunned for his poetry. Surely Mir must have been lambasted by the Orthodoxy of the time. There must be some other reason as to why Mir wrote such a controversial verse. Upon further research I found a footnote that said that Mir wrote this in the Sufi tradition of Malamatiya. The word ‘Malamah’ in Arabic means ‘to blame’. It means the same in Urdu, my first language, but it’s pronounced as ‘malamat.”

The basis of the tradition is destroying the ego, much like many other sects of Sufism and other mystic traditions of other religions. But the Malamatis proceeded to do this through self-blame. Malamatis would denigrate themselves through associating themselves with what society shunned or considered wrong. The process was to create a voice from the outside and barrage the ego with what it can’t stand. In the case of Mir, this was being an infidel. What would be more destructive to an ego that feeds on other people considering an individual pious? And so, Sufis who participated in the tradition would not claim to be pious or lovers of god. They were men of sin.

The tradition revolved around owning taboos in an effort to tackle hypocritical asceticism and mysticism. The claim is that a man who prays five times a day and does it for show is as bad as the man who visits the pubs and bars. And so Malamati poetry is full of references to cup, pub, gambler etc. The point of Malamatti poets was to change the way words were perceived. They would also try to distort the meaning of words like beard and rug; words which were associated with piety. Here is an excerpt from the Sufi poet Sanai of Ghazni, who lived in the 11th century:

A cup of poison is better for me than penitence in the world
Hearken my groan oh thou cupbearers help me with a cup
Oh thou, Old Zoroastrian’s (master) girdle me with a Zonar
I have put rosary out of my hand and Aba off my shoulder

During my research, I also realised Bulleh Shah, the great 17th century Punjabi poet, was also influenced by this tradition. I could not find any proclamation by Bulleh Shah or any other researcher that connected the two, but much of Bulleh Shah’s poetry was about destroying the ego and criticising hypocritical asceticism. This is shown in verses like this:

(I was unable to find a translation online so I’m just going to translate it myself. It’s not reliable because my Punjabi is rusty at best. But I hope it gets the message across.)

Rab rab karde budhe ho gaye, Mulla Pandat saray,
Rab da khooj khurra na Lubha, Sajde kar kar haare,
Rab te tere andar wasda. Wich Qur’aan ishaare,
‘Bulleh Shah’! Rab unho milsi jhehra apne Nafs nu mare..

All the clergy aged as they repeated ‘God! God!’,
But were unable to find a trace of God, useless were the prostrations,
God resides within you, and within the Quran are the signs,
Bulleh Shah! Those who find God are those that kill their ego.

Apart from all of this, it was also interesting to note how a tradition travels from one rich region like Nishapur in the Great Khorasan to Lahore, Multan and Delhi in the Indian subcontinent. Sufism was adopted with much zeal in the Punjab region in what is modern day Pakistan but it’s roots were in Persia. Even Qawwali, the great music genre that is rooted in Sufism, traveled all the way from Persia where it was called Sama.

Perhaps we need such poetry today more than ever.


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