There is a community in Sindh called ‘sheedi’. I have heard some refer to them to mean a bad person, just as in Punjab ‘majha’ is a bad word meaning ‘hoodlum’. Both words have noble origins. ‘Majha’ is from ‘Mi’raj’, a proper noun celebrating the ascension of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the sacred month of Rajab.
‘Sheedi’ is from ‘Sidi’. If you go to Morocco you will find that our honorific appellation Syed is reduced to ‘Sidi’ or simply ‘Sid’. There was a soldier of fortune in Spain who fought both Christians and Muslims to become the country’s national hero.
The 11th century conqueror Rodrigo Diaz was called ‘El Cid’ by the Muslims and ‘El Camprador’ (the champion) by his countrymen. French classical poet Corneille wrote a play titled ‘El Cid’.
In the 1960s, Sindhi nationalism focused on Hoshoo Sheedi, the martyred general of the Talpurs, who had fought the British army bravely and was buried in Pakka Qila in Hyderabad.
The gravestone of his grave was actually found in Pakka Qila, after which the call to resettle the muhajirs was made. Sindhi nationalists wanted the Pakka Qila preserved as a historic site.
In 1962, resettlement was imposed and the muhajir houses began to be demolished, especially in areas settled by late arrivals.
This led to a fight between muhajirs and Sindhis. It was the trouble at Pakka Qila — and the growing gulf between then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg — that resulted in the dismissal of the PPP government in 1990.
Who was Hoshoo Sheedi called ‘sheedi’? The original word must have been ‘Syedi’ which means ‘my lord’ in Arabic. But why should a Sindhi person be called ‘sheedi’?
Helene Basu, Associate Professor at Free University in Berlin, is a leading authority on ‘sheedis’. In medieval times, black African slaves were brought to South Asia in large numbers. Medieval Indian history refers to Ethiopian or Abyssinian slaves serving at royal courts or in the armies of imperial/local rulers.
According to Dr Basu, Sheedis are found in many states in India, but nowhere do they exceed 20,000. The largest community of Sheedis is found in Sindh: some years ago, there were 50,000 of them, ‘but that number must have trebled’.
The question is why are black people called ‘sidi’? Is it some kind of euphemism to avoid giving offence? After all, ‘maula’ (owner) in Arabic also means ‘slave’. The answer is in etymology. And a very strange etymology it is, as found in the Holy Quran.
The root is ‘swd’. It means black. It is from this root that we get ‘aswad’ the adjective we apply to hajr aswad the black stone that lies at the centre of the ritual of Hajj. Somehow the Holy Quran also uses the word for any thick collection of things.
Thickness implies blackness especially in regard to trees. The Holy Quran denotes wealth and large population by ‘sawwaad’. The leader of a large population is called ‘al saayid’, from where Syed (leader) is derived. He is rich and commands respect. We often refer to the majority population as ‘sawad-e-azam’.
It is therefore not surprising that African slaves brought to Sindh were called ‘sidis’. We made ‘sheedi’ out of that and applied it to hoodlums. Some sidis must have taken to bad ways. But the root of ‘sidi’ does mean black. It is another way of saying ‘habshi’.
Today, Sheedis live in Lyari and the coastal areas of Sindh. They are believers in the healing quality of the crocodiles of the Manghopir shrine.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2011.