The ‘Sheedi’ of Sindh

Published: October 25, 2011
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The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore 
khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Raja Islam
    Oct 25, 2011 - 8:40PM

    The analysis is correct, however, the word sheedi does not refer to hoodlum, but is simply the Sindhi version of the word negro.

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  • Natu
    Oct 25, 2011 - 9:01PM

    Agree Raja Islam. There’s a historic masjid in Ahmedabad, India that’s built by an Assyrian & that’s called Sidi Syed mosque.

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  • Village_ Idiot
    Oct 25, 2011 - 9:26PM

    I have many Sindhi friends and they use to tell us,’Sheedis jokes’, especially the Sheedis from Pir Mango. And all of us know, what those jokes would have been about…. but apart from these jokes, my friends from interior Sindh were not insulting toward Sheedi Community. But I second the suggestion of Khalid Sahib that Sindhi people do consider Sheedis, a bit of dull mind-wise. But Sheedi is not suggestible degrading name, but it simply means….a black man.

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  • Ali Tanoli,
    Oct 25, 2011 - 11:02PM

    Sheedi also called DADA in karachi and most of there population based in Makran area of
    Baluchistan.

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  • Fahd Ali
    Oct 26, 2011 - 12:41AM

    I agree with Raja Islam and Natu above. Back in 2001 I was in interior Sindh for a month interning in an oil company. One of the field supervisors was a Sheedi – and he was called sheedi by the locals because he was black! And not because they considered him a hoodlum.

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  • Cynical
    Oct 26, 2011 - 2:01AM

    @ Village_Idiot

    Does it indicate that we have a black aspect in our past?
    I think we have.

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  • MQ
    Oct 26, 2011 - 6:38AM

    Interesting article Khaled sahib.

    There are a number of Siddis in Hyderabad (Deccan) also – the descendents of negroes.

    Regrading people with African roots coming into the Indian sub continent – after the Mughal empire declined the Nizams (subedars of the Mughals) started ruling Hyderabad. They also later imported negroes from Africa for their armies. An area of the city is still referred to as “A C Guards” (short for African Cavalry Guards). Another area is called “Habshiguda” (“guda” being a local suffix for “place” or “village”). Lately there a re a lot of African students and young people who have started coming to Hyderabad for education and for getting trained, specially in software and IT companies.

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  • observer
    Oct 26, 2011 - 9:35AM

    Sir,

    A similar community called ‘Siddis’ or ‘Sidis’ is found in parts of India too, mostly in Gujarat (old Junagarh State) but also in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad Deccan). Their physical features are distsinct and even though they have lost their original language they do preserve some other cultural traits like dance forms etc.
    Historians agree on three distinct sources of their arrival in India, (a) as slaves with the Turkish, Iranian invaders, (b) as slaves brought by the Portugese and (c) voluntary migrants. Siddis prefer to stay in small tight-knit communities.

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  • Natu
    Oct 26, 2011 - 3:50PM

    Btw, Most of the Siddhis (Sanskritised approximation of Sidis) in Ahmedabad live in old city, in and around that famous Sidi Syed masjid. They have separate mosques. I observed their mode of prayer in my recent visit. It is strange. It’s not azan at prayer times but a huge drum (the types we find in shrines of Sindh) that’s is beaten so wildly, camphor is burnt and the women, children, & men stand in front of the grave of a holy man (looks like sanctum sanctorum of Hindu temples) & pray while standing. The whole process looks similar to Hindu mode of worship (where men, women & children stand in front of idol while temple bells are ringing), not like typical evening prayer in mosques.

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  • Gul
    Oct 26, 2011 - 6:57PM

    Please refer to these two paragraphs of this article:

    1) “In 1962, resettlement was imposed and the muhajir houses began to be demolished, especially in areas settled by late arrivals.”*

    2) “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.”

    The above two paragraphs do not make any sense and is distortion of the historical facts. No resettlement was imposed in 1962, neither any muhajir houses began to be demolished. Its just a naked lie.

    Secondly how the writer of this article connects the 1962 non events of Pako Qilo to 1990 events to topple the then PPP govt. is a sheer dishonesty. Much has since been written on why and how the then PPP government was sent home. It just has nothing to do with the Hosho Sheedi or the Sheedi of Sindh- the subject matter of this very write up.

    Pako Qilo was just a drama staged by the Mirza Aslam Beg, who addressed in support of the terrorists publicly there and next day Nawaz Sharif distributed Rs. 50 million to terrorist in 1990. Thanks to the effective police action in Hyderabad in 1990, that Hyderabad has remained relatively peaceful till date. Otherwise before it, Hyderabad was as violant as Karachi or even more. If the all powerful establsihment plays the neutral role and let the Sindh Police act with free hand to maintain law and order in Karachi. Karachi would soon return to peace and normalcy.

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  • peace lover
    Oct 26, 2011 - 10:32PM

    will the columnist turned etymologist tell for the benefit of all which punjabi dictionary traces majha to miraj. Recommend

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