Hazrat Rahman Baba
Urdu: حضرت عبدالرحمان بابا
Silsila: Qadria Chishtia
Date of Wisaal: 1711 A.D.
Date of Urs: 1st Week of April
Peshawar, Pakistan

Read the Segment: Loosing Identity (The Bomb blast of the Dargah)

Abdul Rahman Mohmand aka Rahman Baba (b.1653- d.1711) was called the Nightingale of Pakhtoonkhwa, the Pashto speaking region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rahman Baba is a legendary Pashto Sufi poet. His poetry places him alongside Khushal Khan Khattak for his contribution to Pashto poetry and literature.

Early life

Qareeb ur Rahman claims was of the Sarban tribe, who are recognized as the 'true Afghans' because they can trace their ancestry back to the eldest son of the putative Pashtun ancestor Qais Abdur Rashid. The Sarban tribe migrated into the Peshawar valley in modern North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century.

Rahman was a Mohmand, of the Ghoriah Khel (tribe), who lived in a small pocket of Mohmand settlers on the outskirts of Peshawar. From 1550 CE the Yusufzai tribe had come to dominate the area, following the defeat of the Ghoriah Khel in the battle of Sheikh Tapur. Rahman apparently lived peacefully in the area, and never mentions his involvement in these inter-tribal conflicts.

Opinion is divided about Rahman's family background. Several commentators are convinced that his family were village Maliks (chieftains). However Rahman Baba did not perceive himself to be of a powerful family.

Religious Background

Rahman Baba was an ascetic but various unfounded theories have been made about who Rahman's guide may have been, and to which order he was attached. Sabir suggests that Rahman had a Naqshbandi Sufi tariqa initiation in Kohat, as well as training from the sons of Pir Baba. Schimmel and Saad Ahmed Baksh casually assign Rahman to the Chishti order. Aqab, himself of the Qadiriyyah order, claims Rahman was a Qadiri.

Published work

Rahman Baba's only work is his famed Diwan. The Diwan of Rahman Baba is now considered one of the most defining bits of Pashtun literature ever published. Despite its fame amongst Pashtuns it has only recently been fully translated into the English language.

Attack on Baba's shrine

Suspected militants in Pakistan blew up on Thursday, 5 March 2009 the mausoleum and the Mazar (Tomb) of Rahman Baba in Peshawar. "The structure of the shrine has been badly damaged but there were no casualties," said police officer Zar Noor.

Recommended reading

  • Robert Sampson and Momin Khan, The Poetry of Rahman Baba
  • Jens Enevoldsen, The Nightingale of Peshawar: Selections from Rahman Baba
  • H. G. Raverty, The Gulistan-i-Roh: Afghan Poetry and Prose
  • H. G. Raverty, Selections from the Poetry of the Afghans, from the 16th to the 19th Century

COURTESY: Wikipedia

From The Rahman Baba's Poetry Website

Rahman's life

Despite the persistence of enchanting oral traditions, Kamil's comment that "the circumstances of Rahman Baba's life lie very much in the dark" is still the most apt summary of what we know about the life of Abdul Rahman Baba. The uncertainty about his life is increased by the lack of any eyewitness accounts, and is compounded by the enthusiastic cultivation of hagiographic legend.

The legend portrays Rahman as a reclusive poet, scratching his poems in the mud of the Bara river, while strumming a rebab. At times he is overcome by a single note, and falls unconscious as tears wound his cheeks. Rahman is found in the company of a young boy named Mujnoon, with whom he elopes. Some of these oral traditions have become enshrined as accepted fact among Pushtuns, and many are repeated in books without consideration of their authenticity. Below is some information about Rahman Baba that is based on evidence from the Diwan.

Rahman's Background

Lineage is of great importance in tribal societies, and Rahman leaves us in no doubt about his own Pushtun pedigree. Rahman claims to be of the Sarban tribe, who are recognized as the 'true Afghans' because they can trace their ancestry back to the eldest son of the putative Pushtun ancestor Qais. The Sarban tribe originated in Kandahar, and migrated into the Peshawar valley from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. This period of history was characterized by a fierce rivalry between the different branches of the tribes.

Rahman was a Mohmund, of the Ghoriah khel (tribe), who lived in a small pocket of Mohmand settlers on the outskirts of Peshawar. From 1550 A.D. the Yusufzai tribe had come to dominate the area, following the defeat of the Ghoriah Khel in the battle of Sheikh Tapur. Rahman apparently lived peacefully in the area, and never mentions his involvement in these inter-tribal conflicts.

Opinion is divided about Rahman's family background. Several commentators are convinced that his family were village maliks (chieftains), while Aqab finds no evidence for this view. Whether malik or not, Rahman describes himself as a poor man:

May no one be without life and livelihood,
As I am lifeless and penniless.

Though the wealthy drink water from a golden cup,
I like this clay bowl of mine.

There is no specific mention of family members in the diwan, but there has been speculation about the identity of Aziz Khan, who has been variously identified as Rahman's brother, or the Malik of Bahadur village. Other unsupported stories claim Rahman's father was named Abdul Sattar, and that offspring of his own daughter's family are still living in the village today.

Rahman's Village

There is agreement that Rahman lived and died in the area to the southwest of Peshawar, along what is now the outer ring-road of the city. His birth-place was Bahadar village, but he also lived in Hazarkhani. Oral tradition maintains that he moved to Kohat, and that he wandered as far as India.

As several have noticed, internal evidence from the diwan refutes the view that Rahman traveled. It seems likely that Rahman spent his whole life in his own village, as he himself claims:

I can swear to the fact that I do not move from my place, nor am I
thankful to any creature whatsoever for anything.
Neither have I seen countries down or up.
My home is in the village, I don't consider it a home, but a desert grave.

Rahman's Dates

Since Rahman lived in relative obscurity, the exact dates of his birth and death are not known. Approximate dates can be deduced from two historical events mentioned in the Diwan. Rahman's date of birth can be calculated from his mention of the end of the reign of the Mughal king Aurangzeb (1659-1707 A.D.). In D46/24 he mentions his age as being 'past 55', and later in the same poem he refers to the accession of Shah Alum to the throne:

This was the name of Aurangzeb, a chapter eaten by a cow.
Now is the turn of Shah Alum, a different time and style.

Since Shah Alum took the throne in 1707 A.D., and as Rahman is as he states 'at least 55', that would put Rahman's birth at no later than 1652 A.D. It would be speculative to guess just how old 'past 55' implies, but it would seem to rule out the date of 1632 A.D. given in Puta Khazana. If Rahman had been born then, he would have been more likely to have said 'past 75'. In a similar vein, the birth-date of 1653 A.D. given by Enevoldsen is wrong by at least a year (by simple subtraction). It is unlikely that Rahman was over 60 when he claimed to be 'past 55', and if this assumption is correct, then his birth date lies somewhere between 1647 and 1652 A.D.

The date of Rahman's death is linked with poem D 102. In it he tells of the brutal revenge killings of Gul Khan and Jamal Khan, who were burnt alive with an entire wedding party. According to Raverty this event took place around 1711 A.D. Many commentators assume that Rahman's death was also around this time, though there is no evidence that he died then. All that can be said is that he was still alive in 1711. He could well have lived for several more years. A reasonable conclusion from these two events in Rahman's life, is that his dates are approximately 1650 - 1715 A.D.

Rahman the Sheikh?

Rahman's diwan itself provides the best evidence to disprove Andreyev's view that the "highly illiterate Pashtun tribal society...lay far away from the centres of Muslim scholarship and was not directly influenced by sophisticated intellectual traditions."

Rahman's diwan displays a subtle use of several languages including Pushtu, Arabic and Persian, as well as a wide knowledge of history, philosophy and theology. Particularly relevant to this study is the certainty that Rahman must have been trained in both fiqa (jurisprudence ) and tasawwuf (sufism) to have been capable of writing as he did. Though apparently at odds with each other, the teaching of both disciplines may have been the norm during his era, and it is recorded that other poets like Sadi (d.1292 A.D.) had received both. Rahman would not have had to have gone far to get this training, as Peshawar was starting to gain a reputation as a centre for religious learning that was later to make it a rival to Bokhara. Pata Khazana claims that Rahman's teacher was known to have been Mullah Mohammed Yusafzai.

Rahman was anything but the uneducated Mullah that Aqab claims him to have been. Rather than suffering from too little education, Rahman complains that "learning drove me mad." His thorough education is in keeping with Lewis' view that "Sufism is essentially the work of sophisticated and highly literate urban men of learning."

There can be no doubt that Rahman was a practicing Sufi, but was he attached to a particular order, either as a murid (follower) or a sheikh? Practitioners of Sufism were known by their patched cloak, which Hujwiri describes as the 'bondage of aspirants to Sufism.' Likely from personal experience Rahman complains of the "service of the Fakir's cloak," and of the need to " wash the bluish cloak.". Although Rahman calls himself a Sheikh, it seems unlikely that he ever performed in this role, or that he was associated with any particular order.

A tradition states that a guide is needed for training in tasawwuf. Perhaps in response to this need, various unfounded theories have been made about who Rahman's guide may have been, and to which order he was attached. Sabir suggests that Rahman had a Naqshabandi initiation in Kohat, as well as training from the sons of Pir Baba. Schimmel casually assigns Rahman to the Chishti order perhaps basing this on Raverty's incorrect assumption that Sufis practicing musical sam? were Chishti by default. Aqab, himself of the Qadiri order, claims Rahman was a Qadiri.

There is no overwhelming evidence to prove any of these claims. If Rahman had been a member of one of the Sufi orders, modern followers of that group would no doubt claim him as one of their own. Such is not the case. It is more likely that Rahman was independent, with an individualistic practice of Sufism similar to that of Shah Abdul Latif in the Sind. It is even possible that he was a uwaysi after the pattern of Pir Roshan, as is hinted at in several lines: "Those who have perfect intention of heart are guided without the guidance of a Pir" and "On the path which I travel to see my love, make holy Khizer and Ilyas my guides."

Rahman in Crisis

The reverence with which Rahman is honoured by Pushtuns today is no reflection of how he may have been regarded during his lifetime. The issue was Rahman's neglect of the outward practices of Islam. There is a popular tradition that is still held by some Pushtuns, that Rahman's pursuit of God outside the mosque led to confrontation with the established religious hierarchy. His quest for God made him a solitary mystic with little interest in formal religion. Hughes records that in 1883 one old man still knew the tree under which the villagers said Rahman used to sit and compose his poems. Rahman relates his dereliction of duty this way:

Ever since I took up the work of love in my hands, I have withdrawn from any other work.
If this is not the passion of love, then what is it? Otherwise who would bandon their customs?

Other lines from the diwan suggest that Rahman's activities might have further inflamed the village Mullahs:

I got nothing from being a sheikh or from my righteousness.
From now on it is my turn, to do whatever I can at the tavern.
I washed my hands of piety when the musician picked up the rebab.

Though no date is given for confrontation with the religious establishment, D 242 points to Rahman's clear choice to no longer sit under the Tooba tree and instead to pursue tasawwuf with reckless abandon:

Rather than the unacceptable worship of the hypocrite, I prefer to be drunk on Saqi's wine.
Whether knowledge, rosary or recitation, I am happier asleep than awake with these.
I don't like the Tooba tree's shade, but prefer to be burnt like a kebab in the flames of your face.

Kamil suggests that "Rahman Baba reached such a profound abandonment to God, that he also abandoned all religious and worldly duties". Afghani states that Rahman not only left the mosque, but that a kufr fatwa (death sentence for apostasy) was passed on him by the local mullahs. Raverty reports that he was later reconciled back into the community. Again, there are no written records to corroborate these events, but there is some evidence from the diwan that suggests that the tension may have been peacefully resolved:

I couldn't find peace in my search for him.
It became unlawful for me to be careless in my religion.

From: Pushtoon Post

Attacking The Pashtun Identity

The recent brazen attempt to blow up the shrine of great Pashto poet Abdul Rehman, commonly known as Rehman Baba, has stirred widespread anger and condemnation. The continued attack on shrines is another gory dimension of the ongoing militancy in the NWFP and Fata. It also manifests the decreasing level of religious tolerance in our society. The militants, using an improvised explosive device (IED), tried to damage the shrine of the legendry poet - located on the outskirts of Peshawar - on March 5. The shrine of Rehman Baba (1632-1707), rebuilt in 1994, is always crowded by devotees and followers, both men and women.

Being a poet of peace, tolerance, religious harmony and nationalism, Rehman Baba is an acknowledged cultural symbol of the Pashtun society. He is admired and respected by all shades of the Pashtun society. Due to his versatility, he has been owned by various Sufi schools of thoughts, such as Naqshbandiya, Chishtiya and Qadiriya. Therefore, the majority of the Pashtuns considered the attack on his shrine as an attack on the Pashtun identity and culture.

Aggrieved by the attack, scores of Rehman Baba's admirers are visiting the shrine and paying homage to the legendry Pashtun mystic poet. Condemnation meetings and protest rallies against this heinous act are also been organised. The attack has been condemned not only by the people of Pakistan, but also by the Afghan government. It is not the first time that the militants are attacking shrines. On many occasions in the past, they have carried out attacks on shrines in the NWFP and Fata. But the desecration of the shrine of the greatest Pashtun poet did not go unnoticed and triggered widespread anger.

The attack on Rehman Baba's shrine marked another aspect of the rigid Wahhabi agenda of the militants, who want to enforce it at any cost. Purification of religion is one of the main components of their agenda, and culture and education are becoming their main targets besides women mobility. Having dissenting views is fine, but forcefully imposing ones' beliefs or ideas on others is not allowed in a civilised society. For the militants, visiting shrines is apostasy and saying prayers at the mosques attached to them is un-Islamic. They are also very critical of the women visiting shrines for spiritual healing.

The Sufis played an important role in the spread of Islam in our part of the world; therefore, the popular religious culture has been traditionally represented by them. The popular Sufi religion is a mixture of music, chanting and meditation; and one can see this at weekly sessions and annual festivals at Sufi shrines throughout the country.

The devotees visit these shrines and holy places not only for spiritual guidance and healing, but also for outing and recreation. This has led to the development of a new form of tourism: pilgrim tourism. Thousands of people visit these places, in most cases in groups with either friends or family members. This kind of tourism is very common and popular in Pakistan, especially in Punjab and Sindh.

Due to its non-violent, tolerant and moderate nature, Sufism does not fit in the ideological scheme of militancy, which is increasingly becoming violent and intolerant towards other sects. The militants' worldview is a mixture of various ideologies, but judging from their core beliefs and actions one can easily observe the dominant trend of Wahhabism in their ranks..

Wahhabism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam attributed to Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, who advocated a return to the practices of the first three generations of Islamic history. Abdul Wahhab, whose name is the source of the word 'Wahhabi', founded a religious movement in the Arabian Peninsula during the eighteenth century (1703-1791) that sought to reverse what he perceived as the moral decline of his society. It is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, but its influence has considerably extended to other Muslim countries through generous Saudi funding to mosques, religious schools and Islamic movements. Of late, Wahhabism has also started serving as a powerful ideological and political tool of Saudi diplomacy, helping it strengthen its influence and counter the Iranian influence in the Muslim world.

While denouncing many popular Islamic beliefs and practices as idolatrous, Wahhabism advocates returning to the pure and orthodox practice of the fundamentals of Islam, as enshrined in the Holy Quran and in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). The Wahabi puritanical philosophy is in conflict with other popular Islamic practices, such as saint veneration, celebration of the Holy Prophet's birthday, core Shia traditions and some practices associated with the mystical teachings of Sufism.

During the Afghan war, Wahhabi scholars started propagation of 'jihad' and since then militancy has become one of its main features. The attempts to politicise and militarise Islam in the 1970s and 1980s led to the introduction and emergence of more militant and extremist forms of the religion in Pakistan. One of the reasons for the phenomenal rise of Wahhabism in Pakistan was the Islamisation drive by General Zia-ul-Haq, which coincided with the use of religious card first for containing communism and later the Iranian Revolution by some western powers in the 1970s and 1980s.

During this period, the country witnessed mushroom growth of madrassas (seminaries), most of which were financed by Wahhabi missionaries from the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The increase in Wahhabi madrassas and unchecked flow of Wahhabism-influenced volunteers for the Afghan war played an important role in the indoctrination of the youth. Consequently, it polluted the religious environment in Pakistan; the militant and extremist forms of the religion strengthened and gained dominance, while the poplar non-violent and tolerant forms were pushed in the background.

It sowed seeds of militancy and further strengthened extremism, which from time to time manifested itself in sectarian clashes and anti-Ahmadi movements. Due to this ideological onslaught, the egalitarian Pashtun society, presenting an exemplary model of religious harmony and having no record of sectarian clashes, is witnessing extreme acts of intolerance. Even the rival sect's mosques, scholars, and religious and funeral processions are not spared and are brutally targeted. The growth of sectarianism and extremism is in direct proportion to the growth of Wahhabism in Pakistan. Since the mid-1970s, there has been a phenomenal increase in the influence of Wahhabism and the subsequent growth of sectarianism and militancy can be explained in this context.

The militant Islam was not only suited to the Pakistani establishment, but also to its western masters who extensively used it for furthering their strategic interests in the region, and countering and containing their rivals.. The militancy - fathered by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, 'midwifed' by the CIA and nurtured by Saudi petro-dollars, is getting out of control. Once the genie of militancy and extremism is allowed to come out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back again.

Being close to the people, the Sufi tradition and culture is deep-rooted; it airs the aspirations and feelings of the people. The Sufis extensively used music, dance and poetry for popularising their teachings and religious message. Despite tough resistance and opposition by the orthodox clergy, the Sufi poetry and music are still a great source of inspiration. The fusion of poetry and music with the religious beliefs brought by the Sufis represents our rich heritage. Keeping in view its ideological roots, the non-violent and moderate Sufism can be used to counter extremism. Sufism is more deep-rooted and has stronger ideological basis than the political Wahhabism. Thus, there is need for revisiting our Sufi heritage - the heritage of love, peace, tolerance and harmony.

The writer is an Islamabad-based political commentator.