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Red Wool Sky


Allah dyed the wool of the sky a brilliant red the day that Shah Hussain born.

Perhaps better to say Shah Hussain woke up to provide no offense to the labors of his mother given he was thirty-six at the time. Having memorized the Koran at age ten, he'd been at a twenty year labor studying in the madrasas of the city where he'd been born. Going sleepless nights in austere contemplation of the flow of the Ravi River and no coins for a journey to far off Mecca.

Currents of Hindu and Muslim kings had traded the city back and forth, and all that time he'd struggled to understand the laws that must govern the spirit of his life.

Many of the statements made by Shah Hussain are pulled from his poetry.

Reference Material

Years ago, there was a writer's challenge to write stories with positive representations of Muslim characters and exchange them on Eid (the celebration at the end of Ramadan). This year with Eid occurring the same weekend as Pride, I thought I'd repost this story here, which focuses on the real historical figure, Shah Hussain. Any mistakes are my own, but here's some of the reference material I used:


Allah dyed the wool of the sky a brilliant red the day that Shah Hussain born.

Perhaps better to say Shah Hussain woke up, which will then provide no offense to the labors of his mother given he was thirty-six at the time. Having memorized the Koran at age ten, he'd been at the twenty year labor studying in the madrasas of the city where he'd been born. Going sleepless nights in austere contemplation of the flow of the Ravi River and no coins for a journey to far off Mecca.

Currents of Hindu and Muslim kings had traded the city back and forth, and all that time he'd struggled to understand the laws that must govern the spirit of his life.

Like every son in his tribe, Shah Hussain had been burdened with the name of Shah by his parents. It was the name all the men of his tribe took as part of their conversion. He was the fourth Shah Hussain who lived on his street. But he was not the blacksmith or the potter. He was not the stone mason or even the weaver, as his father had been. He was Shah Hussain Sweeper. He swept and studied. Questioned.

That night, as so many, he didn't sleep. He watched Allah spin the red wool clouds into gold and black into blue. The spinning dance of the birds as they skimmed the water for insects.

He was wide awake when the call for prayer rang out. He said the words by rote and contemplated the joy of the birds. He walked through the streets of his city past courtyards and listened to women and men at the rituals of their day.

He came to the madrassa by the Taxali Gate, and sat before his spiritual teacher, Shaikh Sadullah. The others gathered. His teacher began his lesson from a commentary. Overhead, birds flew in the sky.

"Sa, sa," said Shaikh Sadullah. "Hussain, do not be distracted by the birds and the sky. Pay attention to what I am saying."

"Yes, teacher," said Hussain.

His teacher read words. They flowed like the river along the banks of Hussain's ears.

It was the moment before the dawn. When the sleeper doesn't even realize that they were still sleeping.

Shaikh Sadullah said, "The life of this world is nothing but a game and a sport."

Those words echoed like a long forgotten dream. Like the stones of a dam in the river that forces a new course. The birds wheeled over the gathering flow. Hussain said, "Teacher, what does that mean?"

Shaikh Sadullah waved a finger. "It means we must turn away from the world. This life is meaningless."

"No," said Shah Hussain waking with laughter. "It means that the dew drop pearl of the world is fleeting and we must rejoice in play."

He ran to the market and purchased a red robe, for that was his favorite color, and whirled in dance. He made such a fool of himself that his teacher followed him.

He had Shah Hussain read aloud from the Koran. But when Shah Hussain reached the passage, "And thus we opened your heart," he ran away dancing in his red robe.

He became a beggar in the market. He begged for laughter. He would say to the people there, "Whirling around, play in the home yard. This is the worship which brings the Absolute near you." He would smile at an old woman with her baskets and say, "Oh mother, let me play," he raised a hand to the sky and asked the blue blanket, "who will play my game after me? The night just passed by us without playing."

He drank wine. It was a scandal. He drank it from a clay cup that he named sorrow. He would hold out the cup to any who came to listen to him and say, "This world is gone in an instant. If you want to study it with me, know your own ridiculousness. Shave your head and drink from the cup." He taught, but rejected the name teacher. Still, people came to listen.

He was standing in the market, surrounded by those who followed him, when one day, Allah plucked the weft of his weave and folded him over.

Which is to say, Shah Hussain saw a beautiful Brahmin boy-man upon a fine horse ride through the market. Which is to say, he fell in love.

One moment, Shah Hussain stood in the middle of a crowd. In the next, he was gone. Perhaps running. Perhaps he was simply not there. Certainly, in an instant, he was far up the road waiting for the man-boy with a cup of sorrow. He held it up as a shining heart approached. He said, "What is your name? I wish to be your servant. I will hold all the ridiculousness for I have fallen in love."

"You're drunk," said the boy-man. "I know who you are. I've been listening to you in the market."

Shah Hussain put his hand over his heart. "I have given my heart to an uncaring beloved, who will not give me his name."

The boy shook his head. "I'm Madho."

"Madho Lal, where are you going? I want to follow." Shah Hussain gestured down the road.

Madho Lal gave a startled laugh. "How did you know my Mother calls me Lal?"

"Because it means red," Shah Hussain plucked at his sleeve, "which is my favorite color. It also means beloved."

Madho kicked his foot in the stirrup. "It hardly matters. I'm going home and my Mother and Father will not let you in the house." He set off down the road.

"Then I will follow you to the door." Shah Hussain walked next to him and over the bridges to the fine house by the river where Madho lived.

Madho's mother greeted him like this, "What are you doing here, madman? Aren't you that crazy teacher who teaches spinning in the market? Leave my boy alone. He's is not old enough for drunkenness. He will never be old enough."

Shah Hussain found himself brushed off. He hardly noticed the way home. His mind was filled with poetry. He sang in the market in the morning.

He sang louder still when Madho rode up on his horse and said, "I am old enough to come to the market and listen to you if I want."

Shah Hussain handed him a cup and a dozen poems, until Madho was laughing. It would have been hard to tell from which.

There was not a day from then that one of them did not seek out the other.

This was not to say that Madho fell onto Shah Hussain's offered arms, or teachings.

Madho studied with his father. He was a Brahmin, as his father before him. He wanted to be groomed for great service to the king. Whichever king ruled in the palace.

He once said to Shah Hussain, "Go home. It's the festival of Holi. This isn't for you."

Shah Hussain said, "How long I am going to be called Shah or pious? I am going to sing the song of happiness." He threw red powder in Madho's face and said, "Lal, play with me."

Madho chased him with yellow powder. They ran through the streets laughing. This was how it went when Madho tried to send Shah Hussain away.

Not that this was so very often. For Madho was just as often drawn across the bridges to see Shah Hussain as Shah Hussain braved the lonely dangers of the bridges.

Now a mullah of the city, came to Shah Hussain while he walked with his followers and said, "You are too close to that boy. Everything that you do with him is wrong. Remember what is written about Sodom."

"You mean the sin of rape and turning on a guest." Shah Hussain sighed into his beard. "The only guest in my house is separation, and as to the other, I know the Prophet's words as well as you. I am still presenting the terms for Lal's agreement." Shah Hussain poured the contents of his skin into his cup. "While some people are bent upon fighting us to save my honor, o Lord. They should look to their own."

The mullah reached out to cast the cup aside, but there was no wine in it when it fell. Only red powder that dusted the air with bright color and dusted the white of his robe.

The mullah was forced to go home to wash. Shah Hussain's followers went through the city singing songs about wine into red dust.

Now it came that Madho's parents were more than a little concerned about the madman their son was a friend with, and a Muslim besides. A madman with thousands of followers. They decided to take their son on a pilgrimage to the blessed city of Haridwar.

But when the day came to leave, Madho said, "Shah Hussain has promised if you let me stay a day or two that he will send me to greet you just as you arrive at the gates of Haridwar."

Madho's mother thought it was foolish, but his father insisted that this was the only way for their son to see the truth about Shah Hussain. They left their son in their home with strict instructions to their servants to see that he returned each night.

Madho spent the days with Shah Hussain in the city streets. They spent the nights sitting by the river that flowed by Madho's home watching the sky.

On the second day, Madho said, "My parents must almost be there."

Shah Hussain put down his cup. He put his hands on Madho's shoulders and said, "That is so. Close your eyes." He stamped his foot and Madho found himself standing at the gates of Haridwar, where he greeted his astonished parents. His kissed one and the other. He thanked his father for his teaching and set off on foot for Lahore.

When he arrived, he went directly to the home of Shah Hussain, who greeted him saying, "From this day, I am Madho Lal Hussain."

"That will get confusing replied Madho. "Perhaps, we should both just be Lal." They went into Shah Hussain's house together and closed the door.

Now Madho's relatives, hearing that Madho was sleeping in the bed of Shah Hussain, became incensed. They raced for Shah Hussian's house. Intent on separating them. Shah Hussain's followers watched as they searched and searched for the door to the house, but couldn't find it. As they left, after a weary hour, one of Shah Hussain's followers said, "Have a good evening. Let's go with you. There are tigers who haunt the bridges. Someone should see you safely home."

There's more that could be told. Joyful play. Spinning in the golden afternoon. Festivals of Lights and a feast for Eid.

Perhaps it would be this.

The new young king, Akbar, fresh in his belief in the way things must be, sent soldiers to arrest Shah Hussain for his lifestyle. For which sin, it would be hard to say. Perhaps that the people called him the Beggar King.

There was no moment when the King's soldiers were presented with a hundred thousand followers each claiming to be Shah Hussain. His followers quite courteously gave directions to Shah Hussain's house. The soldiers simply could never find it in the warren of streets in Lahore.

They went to where he was teaching surrounded by thousands, but could never see him. Dust would rise up and strike boulders in their eyes.

The leader of those men returned to his king and said, "My most humble apologies, Your Majesty, but my men go blind when they seek out Shah Hussain."

King Akbar might have done more than tap his fingers on the hilt of his sword if word had not come that the people in their fields were rising up against him.

So it was at the hanging of Dullah Bhatti, who had led that rebellion, that King Akbar himself saw Shah Hussain standing off to one side. He held the hand of a Brahmin. King Akbar almost thought he recognized the young man as a clerk in his counting house. But his eyes were only for Shah Hussain in red.

Shah Hussain wept as he looked to the clouds and said, "This was a pre-written destiny by the Creator from eternity." He raised his hands imploringly, "Can you reverse it; o my mother? Please."

King Abkar had been to battle. He was prepared to do what he ordered men to do. He drew his sword and approached Shah Hussain in his brilliant red robes. He said, "I don't know how my men could not see you when you are dressed like that."

Shah Hussain lowered his hands and bowed to King Akbar. As he did so, the fabric of King Akbar's turban unraveled in an instant. The threads fell to the dirt. So much white thread in brown dust. As the sun shone down on his bare head, Shah Hussain said, "Kings are managing their kingdoms, money lenders are making collection, while I only desire the name of our Lord."

King Akbar felt his hair blowing in the breeze. He felt the heat of the brilliant sun in the sky. He put away his sword. He sent back a cleric to follow Shah Hussain around and write down what he said.

So it was through the years.

Now when Shah Hussain had reached the end of his years, he reached out with a hand loosely fleshed from age and took the hand of his best beloved.

By the light of a dozen oil lamp burning merrily on the flat roof terrace of their home, he smiled up at Madho's tear stained face. "Madho Lal! My dear what is this trust on life?" He waved down the courtyard. "You fly out in the morning and become a stranger, to take on an unknown road!" He coughed and shook his head. "Those that have pleased our Master in this life do they have to fear death which is the hereafter?" He pulled both their hands to rest over his heart. "Says Hussain, the prideless mendicant, cast off this body of ashes!"

Madho squeezed Hussain's hand. He whispered, "Beggar King." He creased a finger over Hussain's right eyebrow. The one grown wild with white wiry hair. "Royal sweeper. I know very well that you didn't just write that."

"Which is why the King's scribe is not here to write it down." Shah Hussain's whisper rattled a cough in his chest.

Madho gently raise Hussain's clay cup of sorrow to his lips. "He follows you around to see that you don't cause trouble."

Hussain swallowed his sorrows in a shallow sip. "Then his wish will soon be granted. I alone go to be a martyr. For I die at the feet of my beloved." He glanced down to where Madho was sitting. "Perhaps your side."

"Hussain," Madho took both of his best beloved's hands and pressed them to his lips, "give me another miracle. Stay another day."

"Madho Lal, I've never performed a miracle." Hussain cast his eyes out on the city. "No more than these. See how the people have lit up the city. I have always loved the Festival of Lights."

Madho looked away from his love for just a moment. When he looked back he saw that his beloved had gone. He said, "Ah, love, now who is the one who has become a stranger?" He kissed his love's eyes closed and went to tell Hussain's followers gathered in the streets below with candles.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps the story is the forty-five years nearly unwritten that Madho Lal Hussain led his best beloved's students. Lighting candles in the spring for the Festival of Lights. Breaking fast in the dark of the blue evening for Ramadan as the spirit moved them.

Forty-five years. A blink of the eye. Spending all the years he was meant to spend on the earth, Madho Lal Hussain joined his beloved in his tomb. Two bodies with one name. No twining flowers or vines were needed as the mark of their love.

Only adults running around the gardens by their tomb like children. Throwing colored powder even out of season.