FOLK literature is a strange phenomenon in the sense that it offers humanistic and universal notions that transcend time and borders.

“Folk” literally means people. And “lore” is the body of lore and knowledge about a subject, says Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Thus, folklore is the sum total of the traditional beliefs, customs and stories of a people passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Folklore includes intangible cultural heritage as well as material culture, such as artifacts and art forms.

The term folklore covers a wide range of things, such as customs, rites, rituals, poetry, legends, tales, fables, proverbs, riddles, jokes, songs, dances and many other traditional phenomena — even games, curses, swear words and superstitions.

Folk stories and verses are usually very popular among native speakers of a specific language, but not all popular stories or poems can be called folk. Popular literature has certain characteristics and one of them is indeed popular among the natives of a specific region. The other particularities of popular literature are: the oral tradition transmitted through the centuries, the representation of the local culture and the local environment, a deep sense of the life of the inhabitants told through historical or quasi-historical legends in a local dialect, therefore popular literature records and preserves the language. , also.

Apart from these characteristics, there are other commonalities in popular literature written in Pakistani languages. These common traits are explored and recounted with evidence by Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik in his new book Spiritual Heritage of Pakistan: Sufi Poetry in Folk Idiom. Just published by Sang-i-Meel Publications, Lahore, the theme of the book is the mystical heritage of Pakistan as reflected in poetry written in Pakistani languages ​​and the author believes that “Sufi poetry is a part essential part of the literary and cultural heritage of Pakistan”.

Malik discovers some remarkable attributes of Pakistani folk poetry, for example, as he insists that the Sufis and their message were rooted in the communities they served and that a local touch is always present, the universality of the message in Sufi poetry written in our languages ​​cannot be overlooked. Sufi saints spread the message of love for all humanity and strived to create a just, plural and inclusive society. “Sufis opposed religious orthodoxy and were, in turn, shunned and ridiculed by local clerics. They also actively challenged local power structures,” says Malik. As a result, in many cases popular literature and Sufi poetry became a narrative of political resistance. “This challenge is best represented in the poetic struggle of the Sindhi saints,” he adds.

Malik mentioned in the book’s preface that these were notes and reflections that served as the basis for the lectures he gave as Iqbal’s professor at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Berlin. He admits, in his usual humble style, that some chapters of the book may seem more developed while others may feel like “reflections”. Despite its modesty, there is an incisive critique that makes the reader understand some essential attributes of Sufi poetry in Pakistani languages, which, says Malik, is steeped in the long history of Islamic mysticism and tied to the timeless themes of moral philosophy.

The book has 12 chapters, describing Sufi poetry and its essential themes, in Pakistani languages, with reference to certain colossi and their poetry. As noted in the preface, “Each chapter included in this volume focuses on a distinct Sufi poet who operated in the region that now constitutes Pakistan”. Sufi saints and their poetry discussed in the book include: Baba Farid, Lal Shahbaz Qalanadar, Baba Guru Nanak, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Rahman Baba, Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Sachchal Sarmast, Baba Siar and Mast Tawkkali.

This indeed does not include all Pakistani languages ​​as the number of languages ​​spoken in Pakistan is quite high, but it does reveal some characteristics which are surprisingly common in all areas, be it Kashmir or Sindh, Punjab or Balochistan or the KPK.

Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik is a seasoned scholar and critic known and respected for his work on a wide range of subjects, particularly Urdu literature, Iqbal, Pakistan and Pakistani culture. Interestingly, Malik is known for his leftist leanings and his sympathies for leftist political parties have never been a secret, but he has always conducted objective, unemotional, research-based literary and cultural analyses. So much so that he often criticized his contemporary left-wing writers and Marxist intellectuals — some close friends among them — for their dogmatic and assertive approach to literary issues.

The book can serve as a useful guide for those who want to understand the philosophical message behind the popular poetry of some Pakistani Sufi poets.

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Posted in Dawn, May 2, 2022