The Return… Reply


Wow! It seems like I’ve been gone for a while. I’m sorry to have been gone so long, though the good news is that I have a enormous amount to post…

For those of you that have been wondering where I have been, I have been researching a project I am writing on the way property norms transcend property law — that is, how we transfer our expectations of private property into areas where the law won’t protect private property. I am looking forward to sharing much of my work in the next few weeks. But, to give you some hints, I have been riding metro-trains, sitting on surf boards, hanging out with the homeless, visiting roach coaches, visiting mosques, talking to street performers, and more.

In the mean time, to make up for my absence, here is a poem by Ezra Pound…

The Return

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
Wavering!

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Inviolable.

Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!

Sufi Poetry–I 3


 

“The Arabic world abounds with poetry festivals. Iran’s heritage of great love poetry is close on the lips and in the hearts of a large percentage of Iranians. Throughout much of the classical Islamic world, poetry is at the center of cultural life.”—Michael Sells

Having completed our propaedeutic for poetry and Islam,* in this series of posts I’ll share some representative poems from the Islamic mystical tradition, that is, Sufism. These will be prefaced by introductory biographical sketches designed in part to shed light on the specific subject matter of the poems. Ideally, of course, one would have some familiarity with the Islamic religious tradition generally and Sufism in particular, yet it’s often been said these poems can be appreciated and enjoyed absent such knowledge, if only because they are constructed from words possessing both an indispensable exoteric or outward (zāhir) meaning and an esoteric or inward (bātin) meaning, a contrast that should not be construed as simply coextensive with the difference between the literal and the figurative. All the same, I believe the ideal reader will benefit from an acquaintance with a handful of essential Islamic terms and a basic Sufi vocabulary.

*  *  *  Our poems are in English translation (largely from Arabic and Persian) and it therefore seems appropriate to say a thing or two about issues invariably raised with the translation of literature and especially poetry. Here I’ll defer to the sensitive and sensible observations of the Palestinian poet, translator, and critic, Salma Khadra Jayyusi. In introducing her edited volume, Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (1987), Jayyusi is rightly impressed by “how very similar poetries are, and how unprejudiced and competent poets easily assimilate and interpret the verse of other poets of a completely different language and culture. In this sense it is possible to say that poetry has many tongues but a single language.” Nevertheless,

“Some critics believe that since perfect equivalence in translation is not attainable, there is no point in attempting the task of translation at all. But what a loss it would be if no one could come to know the great poets of the human race who wrote in languages different from their own! In most cases, the only way to read the poetry of other cultures is through the medium of translation. This makes the task of translation not only a major aesthetic undertaking, but also a crucial cultural responsibility: poetry is the main vehicle for expressing the emotional experience of a people, and for revealing their deeper consciousness of the world, and it may bring the reader into a more intimate knowledge of other people’s actual life situations. [Poetry is thus like mythic literature or modern fiction, all of which communicate truths of a kind and different kinds of truth having to do with the human condition, questions of value and meaning, and the motley nature of the human character.]  If we think about it, even when poets read a foreign poetry directly in its original tongue, they tend to go through a process of translation in order to benefit from this poetry in their own work. What usually happens is that they translate this poetry in their own minds, often as they are reading it. In short, the process of translation goes on, in one way or another, all the time.”

*  *  *  The following will suffice as an introduction to a few fundamental Sufi concepts:

The Sufi Path has been described by some as primarily “a path of love,” one in which “the human soul searches out God, and if the grace of God falls upon the searcher, then he or she finds fanā’ (annihilation) in God and ultimately baqā’ [‘abiding’] or eternal existence in the consciousness of God” (Jamal, tr. and ed. 2009: xx). I’m inclined to disagree with arguments on behalf of the primacy of love in Sufism, however accurate the definitions here of fanā’ and baqā’.  Fortunately, I can appeal to one of the foremost experts on Sufism in our time, the Iranian born Islamic philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, for a different characterization, one that posits instead the primacy of “gnosis,” all the while recognizing a prominent role for love in Islamic spirituality:

“According to Sufism, the supreme goal of human life is to attain Truth, which is also Reality, the source of all reality, and whose attainment, as also stated by Christ, makes us free, delivering us from the bondage of ignorance. Although deeply involved with love, and also on a certain level with action, Sufism is at the highest level a path of knowledge (ma‘rifah in Arabic and ‘irfān in Persian), a knowledge that is illuminative and unitive, a knowledge whose highest object is the Truth as such, that is, God, and subsequently the knowledge of things in relation to God. [….] The knowledge of the Truth is like the light of the sun while love is like the heat that always accompanies that light” (Nasr 2007: 30).

And now we can proceed to account for the relation between the attainment of fanā’ and baqā’ and this Truth, this Reality, or God. Fanā’ is the spiritual experience of loss of individual identity or sense of self in the unity and oneness (tawhīd) of God. God is, so to speak, and in the end, the only (or ultimate) Reality. Fanā suggests the end of purely individual awareness, a condition later symbolized with the metaphor of the Black Light, “the light of bewilderment; when the divine light fully appears in the mystic’s consciousness, all things disappear instead of remaining visible (medieval and Renaissance mystics in Germany would speak of the überhelle Nacht). Such is the experience of fanā’—a blackout of everything until the mystic perceives that this blackness is ‘in reality the very light of the Absolute-as-such’…” (Schimmel 1975: 144). Baqā, on the other hand, “refers to the paradoxical experience of surviving an encounter with the divine,” an encounter which results in the utter effacement of individual identity (Renard: 21) (in which case we might ask, ‘who’ or ‘what’ is having the mystical experience?), and is seen as the complementary correlative of fanā. Such subsistence in God finds the soul “travers[ing] ever new abysses of the fathomless divine being, of which no tongue can speak” (Schimmel 1975: 306), reminding us of what philosophers of mysticism have labeled “pure consciousness events” (PCE), the alleged “’emptying out’ by a subject of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception, and sensuous images” (Jerome Gellman), as well as the theological rationale for apophatic mysticism.  Nasr proffers the following description: “to be fully human is to realize our perfect solitude and to remove the veil of separative existence through spiritual practice so that God, transcendent and immanent within us, can utter ‘I’” (Nasr: 13). Subsistence in God has also been defined as “the annihilation of annihilation” (fanā’ al-fanā’). It is this summit of mystical experience that is said to be responsible for spontaneous ecstatic utterances (shathīyāt) on the order of Hallāj’s notorious proclamation, “I am the Truth.” Nasr explains: “It is through al-fanā’ that human beings gain the ‘Truth of Certainty’ (haqq al-yaqīn). The person in whom such a truth has become all-pervasive is called muhaqqiq, literally, the person in whom Truth has become realized [This sounds remarkably similar to Gandhi’s unconventional conception of avatāra in Hinduism, which is traditionally understood to mean a divine ‘descent’ or ‘incarnation,’ but which Gandhi interpreted to indicate man’s wish to become like God. In the words of Margaret Chatterjee’s discussion of Gandhi’s account, ‘It is possible for every human being to become perfect, as God is, and it is necessary for us to aspire towards it.’] ; this person has become embellished with the Qualities of God…” (Nasr: 135-136). The Qualities of God are equivalent to the “names of God” as well as the “character traits” (akhlāq) of God, as in the hadīth attributed to the Prophet: “Assume the character traits of God” (takhallaqū bi akhlāq). And yet “these states are granted only to the saintly and God-graced few. For most, the Path is a path of loving God through his manifestations [what Hindus call ‘bhakti yoga,’ the path of love and devotion to God most accessible to the masses, the path of knowledge or wisdom, jñāna yoga, being the prerogative of the few]. This is the message Sufism conveys to the common believer: love God, love God’s creation and praise Him and remember Him all the time” (Jamal: xx). Profane or romantic love, that is, the “love of created things” (‘ishq-e majāzī), while in the end illusory, is no less important insofar as it can serve as a bridge to true love, that is, the love of God.

*  *  *  Rābi`a al-`Adawīyya, our first poet, was born in Basra, the city of date palm forests and salt marshes at the head of the Persian Gulf, in 95/714 or 99/717-8. She died in the former garrison town in 185/801. Rābi`a represents the pinnacle of the Basran tradition of women’s ascetic spirituality within Islam. Within Sufism, she is one of the (if not the) earliest exponents and dramatic exemplars of “love-mysticism.” As John Renard notes in his Historical Dictionary of Sufism (2005), “She is one of the few women who consistently merited a place in hagiographic anthologies over the centuries.”

Aptly described as an “ascetic of extreme otherworldliness” (Smith 2001: 105), Rābi`a’s life was bound by an ascetic triune of prayer, poverty (faqr) and seclusion that encompassed the threefold prescription of Sufi conduct: “little food, little sleep, little talk.” Her uncompromising and lifelong ascetic regimen required periodic desert sojourns and the construction of a simple hut for devotional retreat. She defined for the Sufi novice the requisite path of renunciation, the underlying rationale for which is a single-minded and wholehearted love (mahabba) of God.

Physically frail and frequently ill, Rābi`a was no less renowned for the rigors of her asceticism (both ill-health and longevity have been attributed to her vigilant asceticism!). She is reputed to have refused several offers of marriage, preferring the celibate life. Although no school was founded in her name, women and more often men, came for spiritual advice and instruction in deference to her informal mastery of early Sufi doctrine and practice.

The picture of a “highly-strung and emotional recluse” painted by an early biographer suffers in comparison with Sulamī’s portrait of her in his Dhikr an-niswa al-muta `abbidāt as sūfiyyāt (Memorial of Female Sufi Devotees) as “a rational and disciplined teacher who demonstrates her mastery of important mystical states, such as truthfulness (sidq), self-criticism (muhāsaba), spiritual intoxication (sukr), love for God (mahabba), and gnosis (ma`rifa)” (Cornell 1999: 62).

No matter how wondrous, God’s works are but veils obscuring His beauty and essence, obstacles in the way of eventual union of the lover with the Beloved. Thus Rābi`a’s conception of repentance (tawba) is more than mere remorse for sinning and the corresponding resolve to sin no more: repentance denotes the determination to turn away from all save God. Yet, perchance paradoxically, for Rābi`a tawba is a “gift [of grace] from God.” As such, it is a prelude to or necessary condition for a host of psycho-spiritual virtues and emotional dispositions; but most importantly, tawba allows for the abnegation of personal will in the will of God (theologically derived from tawhīd, the acknowledgement and awareness of the oneness of God). In addition to the longing of the lover for the Beloved (shawq), or the yearning of the soul purged of nafs (baser passions, selfish desires) to experience intimacy with God (uns), Rābi`a’s love mysticism therefore entails utter acquiescence of the lover in the will of the Beloved (ridā’, lit. contentment or satisfaction). Not surprisingly, ridā’ signifies God’s satisfaction with his loving servant’s obedience, which is metaphysically if not logically prior to the subjective experience of ridā’, that is, the lover’s contentment with her lot in life, her share of misfortune, adversity or suffering. Like the God of the Hebrew Bible, Rābi`a’s God is a jealous God “who will suffer none to share with Him that love which is due to Him alone” (Smith 2001: 131), hence the prohibition of idolatry (shirk in Islam, the theological converse of tawhīd). Finally, disinterested love of God means the obedient servant is ideally motivated by neither hope for eternal reward (Paradise), nor fear of eternal punishment (Hell). In a theistic variant of Euthyphro’s question, Rābi`a asks, “Even if Heaven or Hell were not, does it not behove us to obey Him?”

While a foretaste of the union of the lover with the Beloved is possible in this vale of tears, only death can bring about kashf, the final unveiling of the Beloved to his lover(s). And it is thus mahabba that, in the end, makes possible knowledge (ma`rifa) of God. Ascetic practice serves both to heighten the sense of separation from, and intensify the longing for, the Beloved: acute awareness of the sin of separation assuming the form of grief and sorrow in Basran mysticism. Such lamentation was often vividly expressed—Rābi`a included—through incessant weeping (bukā’), the prolonged practice of which sometimes led to blindness (Cornell 1991: 61).

Although love for the Creator turned her away from love of created things, she faced her separation from the Beloved with a patience (sabr) and gratitude (shukr) that transcended any feelings of grief and sorrow, befitting one enthralled by a vision of eventual union with the Divine.

Rābi`a’s poetry illustrates the fact the “early Sufis were mystics and philosophers first and poets second. Their greatness, in other words, lies not in their poetry but in their lives and utterances” (Mahmood Jamal). Most Sufis would no doubt prefer to be remembered for “their lives and utterances,” but several later Sufis, most conspicuously and deservedly, Rūmī, are best known in the first instance as poets.

 

You Have Infused My Being

You have infused my being

Through and through,

As an intimate friend must

Always do.

So when I speak I speak of only You

And when silent, I yearn for You.

 

If I worship You

O Lord, if I worship You

Because of fear of hell

Then burn me in hell.

If I worship You

Because I desire paradise

Then exclude me from paradise.

But if I worship You

For Yourself alone

Then deny me not

Your eternal beauty.

 

My Rest is in My Solitude

Brethren, my rest is in my solitude,

And my Beloved is ever in my presence.

Nothing for me will do but love of Him;

By love of Him I am tested in this world.

Whereso I be I contemplate His beauty;

He is my prayer-niche; He mine orient is.

Died I of love and found not His acceptance,

Of mankind I most wretched, woe were me!

Heart’s mediciner, Thou All of longing, grant

Union with Thee; ‘twill cure to the depth.

O Thou, ever my joy, my life, from Thee

Is mine existence and mine ecstasy.

From all creation I have turned away

For union with Thee mine utmost end.

(Martin Lings, tr.)

 

In My Soul

In my soul

there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church

where I kneel.

Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.

Is there not a region of love where the sovereignty is

illumined nothing,

where ecstasy gets poured into itself

and becomes lost,

where this wing is fully alive

but has no mind or body?

In my soul

there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church

that dissolve,

that dissolve in God

(Daniel Ladinsky, tr.)

*Our earlier introductory posts on the subject are found here, here, here, and here. 

Please Note: The poem, “If I Worship You,” is virtually identical to a prayer attributed to St. Francis Xavier, which I discovered in reading James Kellenberger’s discussion of motives for religious belief in The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives (1985: 125). Unfortunately, Kellenberger does not provide us with a reference. Another version, much longer, but containing the same religious sentiment regarding heaven and hell, is found here. Many of the poems of Rābi`a have not been authenticated, so it’s possible that this is properly attributed to St. Francis Xavier, although he lived and died in the sixteenth century (and visited parts of the Islamic world in his extenstive missionary travels) and Rābi`a in the ninth, so perhaps the borrowing runs in the other direction! I’ve yet to come across any discussion of this in the scholarship on Rābi`a.

References:

Cornell, Rkia E., tr. Early Sufi Women—Dhikr an-niswa al-muta `abbidat as sufiyyat, by Abu `Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999.

Jamal, Mahmood (tr. and ed.). Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi. London: Penguin Classics/Books, 2009.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. Modern Arabic Poetry: An Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Renard, John. Historical Dictionary of Sufism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005. 

el-Sakkani, Widad. First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra. London: Octagon Press, 1982.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Smith, Margaret. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rābi`a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2001.

Cross-posted at ReligiousLeftLaw.com

Islam & Poetry: Addendum 1


In the final introductory post on Islam and Poetry (Part 3), I wrote in response to several lines from Sanā’ī’s Hadiqa al-haqīqa (Enclosed Garden of the Truth) that what Sanā’ī “lack[ed] in aesthetic unity [he] makes up for in rather proud religious purpose.” My original and somewhat sarcastic response to the quoted passage is akin to the manner in which others have reacted to the following final verses from Farīd al-Din ‘Attar’s celebrated mystical epic, the Mantiq al-tayr  (The Conference of the Birds):

This book is the adornment of time, offering a portion to both elite and common.

If a frozen piece of ice saw this book, it would happily emerge from the veil like the sun.

My poetry has a marvelous property, since it gives more results every time.

If it’s easy for you to read a lot, it will certainly be sweeter for you every time.

This veiled bride in a teasing mood only gradually lets the veil fall open.

Till the resurrection, no one as selfless as I will ever write verse with pen on paper.

I am casting forth pearls from the ocean of reality. My words are finished and this is the sign.

If I praise myself a lot, how can that praise please anyone else?

But the expert himself knows my value, because the light of my moon is not hidden.

These lines are in fact missing from the well-known English translation of the epic poem by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis (1984). In the Introduction, Davis notes that they have translated the entire poem “with the exception of the invocation and the epilogue. The invocation, a traditional prelude to long narrative poems in Persian, consists of praise of God, of the Prophet [Muhammad] and of the founders of Islam. [….] The epilogue, again a traditional feature of such poems, consists largely of self-praise and is a distinct anticlimax after a poem devoted to the notion of passing beyond the Self.” One wonders if that is sufficient justification for omitting the end of the poem (and the invocation for that matter!).

In his essay, “On Losing One’s Head: Hallājian Motifs and Authorial Identity in Poems Ascribed to ‘Attār,”* Carl Ernst well captures the puzzlement that inevitably follows reflection on such lines from renowned Sufi poets like Sanā’ī and ‘Attār. Discussing the aforementioned epilogue from the Mantiq al-tayr, Ernst writes that

“This passage is remarkable for the boast it contains in which ‘Attār claims that no one has ever annihilated his ego as successfully as he. Conjoined as it is with a bold advertisement of the quality of ‘Attār’s literary works, this paradoxical boast of ego-annihilation raises a difficult question regarding the nature of authorship of Sufi writings. If the goal of the Sufi is the annihilation of the self, what sort of self may be ascribed to the authors of the central writings of Sufism? As ‘Attār himself remarked in comparing Hallāj’s utterances with Moses’ encounter with the burning bush on Sinai, it was not the bush that spoke, but God. ‘Attār’s declaration is a specimen of the rhetoric of sainthood which permitted the spiritual elite to engage in a boasting contest (mufākhara) to demonstrate the extent of God’s favours to them.”

Familiarity with this “boasting” rhetoric of sainthood should temper if not eliminate the reaction I had to the lines from Sanā’ī’s Hadiqa al-haqīqa as well as help one appreciate why the omission of the epilogue from the Mantiq al-tayr might be troubling. With Ernst, we need to consider the extent to which the Sufi tradition incorporated the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition of mufākhara into “its earliest dialogical pronouncements,” a fact “explicitly recognized in early Sufi manuals of conduct,” and thus “what is distinctive about the Sufi rhetoric of sainthood is that unabashed boasting is permitted and even encouraged as a means of indicating one’s direct contact with God” (From Ernst’s Ruzbihan Baqli: Mysticism and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism, 1996: 45 and 146 respectively). Thus what at first glance appears as grandiose self-praise, the very antithesis of selflessness, turns out to be a refrain from the traditional rhetoric of sainthood, one in which it could be said that we witness “the flickering of the authorial ego in the storm of divinity.”

Finally, yet another perspective is provided by the following lines from ‘Attār’s Mantiq al-tayr, reminiscent of the disparaging comments Rūmī came to write about his own poetry:

With his dying breath that sage of faith [Sanā’ī] said,

‘If only I knew long before this

How more honorable is listening to speaking,

When would I have wasted my life with words?’

If words were as fine as gold,

Still, they would be inferior to unuttered words!

Doing it is the lot of true men!

Alas, my fate was just talking about it.

Such sentiment, held in common by both the “practical” man and the true mystic, arguably contains an implicit critique of the limitations of reason, in particular of the, in the end, spiritual constraints of both theology and philosophy (especially a rationalist metaphysics), when viewed in the supernal light of Divine silence. Put differently, words, or reason, can only “point” or indirectly refer to that kind of mystical experience which has, I think, been properly characterized as a “pure consciousness event”  (i.e., consciousness without an object), involving a non- or para-cognitive form of “knowing” or awareness said to encompass one’s entire being and thus beyond the realm of subject-object duality.

*In Leonard Lewisohn and Christopher Shackle, eds., Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight (London: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2006: 330-343). This essay is also found online here.

The (original) image is here.

For an illuminating analysis of Habīballāh’s painting (the image above) as a “complete visual rendition of ‘Attār’s entire cosmology,” please see Michael Barry’s essay, “Illustrating ‘Attār: A Pictorial Meditation by Master Habīballāh of Mashhad in the Tradition of Master Bihzād of Herat,” in Lewisohn and Shackle, eds., pp. 135-164.

Brief biographies of both Sanā’ī and ‘Attār (the former penned by yours truly) can be found in Oliver Leaman, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy, 2 Vols. (A-I and J-Z) (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2006).

Islam & Poetry (Part 3) 1


 

Rābi‘a al-‘Adawīya (c. 95/714—185/801) of Basra was an ascetic and mystic who penned poetry dominated by the themes of ‘suffering in love’ and ‘selfless love’ (of God). Hers was a mystic vision enthralled by the prospect of eventual union with the Divine:

 

O Beloved of hearts, I have none like unto Thee,

Therefore have pity this day on the sinner

who comes to Thee.

O my Hope and my Rest and My Delight,

the heart can love none other but Thee. (Qtd. in Smith: 78-79)

While not great poetry, Rābi‘a’s rather austere love mysticism set the tone and temper for much of the Arabic poetry that immediately followed her in the tradition of sober Sufism. The high watermark of mystical love poetry in Arabic is found in the work of ‘Umar ibn al-Fārid (576/1181—632/1235), an Egyptian Sufi fond of solitary life in the deserts of Egypt and the Western Arabian Peninsula. Crowned by Renard as the ‘master of the Arabic mystical ode’ and compared by Homerin to ‘another great poet of mystical love, the Spanish monk John of the Cross (1542—1591),’ Ibn al-Fārid is renowned for his Wine Ode (al-Khamrīya), and the Greater T-Rhyming Ode (at-Tā’īyat al-kubrā), otherwise known as the Ode on Spiritual Sojourning (Nazm as-sulūk), the former relying on the imagery of wine, love and the beloved as metaphors artfully combined with the act of recollection, and served up as an elaborate mystical code operating tantalizingly beneath the surface of a poetic language shorn of any overt mystical (Sufi) references.

Other forms of Islamic verse are unabashedly didactic in function, the best-known genre of which is the mathnawī, exemplified in the Persian poetry of ‘Attar, Rūmī, Mawlāna ‘Abd ar-Rahmān Jāmī (817/1414—898/1492), and Abū’l-Majd Majdūd Sanā’ī (d. 525/1131). Rūmī’s Dīwān-i Shams-i Tabrizī  (Collected Poems of Shams al-Dīn of Tabriz) gathers together all of his lyric poetry (ghazals, tarjī‘āt, and rubā‘īyāt), described ‘as a collection of individual and separate crystallizations and concretizations of spiritual states undergone on the path to God. The overall “feeling” of the Dīwān is one of spiritual intoxication and ecstatic love’ (Chittick: 6). By contrast, Rūmī’s Mathnawī is comparatively sober, addressed to those with a temperament for contemplative reflection upon existential and metaphysical questions, in effect, providing the reader with a rational elaboration of the theoretical and practical dimensions of Sufi spirituality in a palatable because poetic guise. Thus the ever-popular Mathnawī is in part a sophisticated commentary in poetic form on the mystical ‘states’ (hāl/ahwāl) and ‘stations’ (maqam/maqāmāt) unique to Islamic mysticism.

Perhaps the first mystical work in the didactic genre was Sanā’ī’s The Hidden Garden of Ultimate Reality and the Revealed Law of the Path (Hadīqat al-haqīqa), a poem with considerable influence on both ‘Attār and Rūmī. Although Sanā’ī manages to cover a motley of topics and while the organizing narrative principle has been generously described as on the order of a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ the aesthetic whole, in this case, is not greater than the sum of its parts, thereby revealing a risk intrinsic to didactic poetry (religious or not): pedagogic function may trump aesthetic form (Donald Kuspit makes this argument with regard to the ‘post-aesthetic’ art world in which the work of art becomes a ‘bully pulpit’ rather than providing us with an ‘aesthetic and contemplative alternative’ to ‘the ugliness and injustice of the world’ in The End of Art, 2004). And while not equal in poetic excellence to, say, Jāmī’s Yūsuf and Zulaykhā, what he lacks in aesthetic unity Sanā’ī makes up for in rather proud religious purpose:

Of all the poets major and minor

Only I know the words of the Prophet.

My poetry is commentary on the religion and the law,

And that is what the truthful poet does.

Of all the poets, only I

am the Prophet’s, by Almighty God…

I am the slave of the religion, obedient to piety,

A truth telling poet am I, coveting nothing. (Qtd. by Dabashi in Lewisohn: 171) 

In fairness to Sanā’ī, we might consider Schimmel’s assessment that his “poetic skills are much more conspicuous in his lyrics and his panegyrics on the Prophet, a genre which he seems to have introduced into Persian literature,” as well as Mahmood Jamal’s reminder that Sanā’ī “was probably the first poet to use such verse forms as the qasidah, the ghazal and the masnavi to explore Sufi ideas.”

The foregoing is but an introductory ‘taste’ (dhawq) of the role and meaning of poetry in the Islamic tradition, with no mention of the works of such incomparable or inimitable Sufis as Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallāj (244/857—309/922) (with whom Sufi poetry, according to Schimmel, ‘reached its first climax’) or Muhyī ad-Dīn ibn al-’Arabī (560/1165—638/1240) (whose poetry, in Schimmel’s words, is marked by a ‘theosophical’ or ‘gnostic’ rather than a ‘voluntaristic’ approach ). Nor have we broached the subject of Islamic poetry not of Arabic or Persian provenance: for example, in Turkic dialects, or Urdu, Bengali, Malay, and so forth. Also untouched is modern and contemporary Islamic poetry (or modern ‘secular’ Arabic poetry, for that matter, which is not unrelated to its religious counterpart), such as that produced by the remarkable Indo-Pakistani polymath, Muhammad Iqbāl (1877-1938) (who, one suspects, is insufficiently appreciated outside the Indian subcontinent).

References & Further Reading:

  • Anun-Nasr, Jamil M. Muslim Communities of Grace: The Sufi Brotherhoods in Islamic Religious Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Adonis (‘Alī Ahmad Sa‘īd) (Catherine Cobham, trans.). An Introduction to Arabic Poetics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.
  • Allen, Roger. The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of Its Genres and Criticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Attar, Farid ud-Din (Afkham Darbandi, trans.). The Conference of the Birds. London: Penguin Books, 1984.
  • Badawi, M.M. A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • Banani, Amin, Richard Hovannisian, and Georges Sabagh, eds. Poetry and Mysticism in Islam: The Heritage of Rūmī. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Black, Deborah L. ‘Al-Fārābī,’ in Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996: 178-197.
  • Browne, E.G. A Literary History of Persia, 4 Vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. ‘Historical Conditions of Persian Sufism during the Seljuk Period,’ in Leonard Lewisohn, ed., The Heritage of Sufism, Vol. 1: Classical Persian Sufism from its Origins to Rumi (700-1300). Oxford, England: Oneworld, 1999: 137-174.
  • de Bruijn, J.T.P. ‘Comparative Notes on Sanā’ī and ‘Attār,’ in Lewisohn, ed. (above): 361-379.
  • Fideler, David and Sabrineh Fideler, trans. and ed. Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2006.
  • Goodman, Lenn E. Islamic Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Homerin, Th. Emil. From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Fārid, His Verse, and His Shrine. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.
  • Ibn al-Fārid, ‘Umar ibn ‘Alī (Th. Emil Homerin, trans.). ‘Umar Ibn al-Farīd: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.
  • Iqbal, Muhammad (Mustansir Mir, trans.). Tulip in the Desert: A Selection of the Poetry of Muhammad Iqbal. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999.
  • Jamal, Mahmood (trans. and ed.). Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi. London: Penguin Classics/Books, 2009.  
  • Jayussi, Salma Khadra, ed. Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. 
  • Leaman, Oliver. Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
  • Lewis, Franklin D. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West—The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalāl al-Din Rumi. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2000.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard and Christopher Shackle, eds. Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight. London: I.B. Tauris, in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2006.
  • Massignon, Louis (Herbert Mason, trans.). The Passion of al-Hallaj, Mystic and Martyr of Islam, 4 Vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Lings, Martin. Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society (bilingual ed.), 2005.
  • Mir, Mustansir. Iqbal (Makers of Islamic Civilization). London: I.B. Tauris, in association with the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 2006.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
  • Nicholson, Reynold A. Studies in Islamic Mysticism. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1994 (1921, Cambridge University Press).
  • Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn (A.J. Arberry, trans.). Mystical Poems of Rūmī 1: First Selection, Poems 1-200. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
  • Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn (A.J. Arberry, trans.). Mystical Poems of Rūmī 2:Second Selection, Poems 201-400. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Gabriel’s Wing: A Study into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1963.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. I am Wind, You are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1992.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalāloddin Rumi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993 (1978).
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2nd ed., 2001.
  • Singh, Iqbal. The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Margaret. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rābi‘a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2001 ed. (1928).
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1971.
  • Upton, Charles. Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi‘a. New York: PIR Press, 1988.
  • Vitray-Meyerovitch, Eva de (Simone Fattal, trans.). Rūmī and Sufism. Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1987 (1977 in French).

Forthcoming: Poems from the Sufi tradtion of Islam.

I’m Leaving on a Trip Today Reply


I am heading out from where I am, to a new place for a few days. Its not home, though I will see friends and enjoy nice drinks around a different table of sort. Here is a poem that will tell you where I’ll be. I have omitted the title and the author — props to the person that can figure it out.

What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow, stem thee!
What curious questioning glances–glints of love!
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal–thou arena–thou of the myriad long-drawn lines and groups!
(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades, tell their inimitable tales;
Thy windows rich, and huge hotels–thy side-walks wide;)
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself–like infinite, teeming,
mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

Avoid the temptation to use google, if you can! I’ll post the title and props to the first.

Islam & Poetry (Part 2) 1


The preferred poetic form of the jāhiliyya was the qasīda (ode), one of the three principal types of lyric poetry, the others being the ghazal (short lyric love poem) and the rubā‘ī (or quatrain), each of which underwent the spiritual transformation of secular topics and themes typified by the qasīda:

“The classic genre begins with a section (nasīb [the amatory prologue of this polythematic ode]) in which the lover expresses a longing for the departed beloved…. Then the poet describes the subject’s quest and concludes with the lover boasting ironically of how he has succeeded in exiling her from his memory. Muslim poets transformed both the themes and the three-part structure of the qasīda form, adapting the genre to specifically religious and mystical purposes.” (Renard, 1996: 110)

Islam is emphatic that Muhammad, as God’s Messenger and Seal of the Prophets, was no tribal bard moved by the jinn (s. jinnī, intelligent, usually invisible beings), those fiery spirits thought to have inspired, in the manner of the Greek muse, pre-Islamic Bedouin poets. And Muslims rightly argue the Qur’ān’s literary qualities transcend those of even the best poetry. The need for the Qur’ān to distance itself from pagan poetry was quickened by the fact the Arabic word for poetry (shi‘r) comes from a verb that means ‘to know’ and ‘to perceive.’ So while we might interpret this to imply that all knowledge is, in some sense, poetry, for Muslim authorities this meant rather that the knowledge revealed in the Qur’ān was in direct and urgent competition with the poetic articulation of the Bedouin worldview. And it hardly helped matters that poets were often the most dangerous and implacable foes of the Prophet. Still, and strictly speaking, poetry is not forbidden in Islam, although ‘as a patterned mode of discourse where pattern is a vehicle of art and art can militate for autonomy and for control of content, poetry is clearly suspect’ (Goodman: 34).

From a sūra in the Qur’ān titled ‘The Poets,’ we learn that ‘only those who are lost in error follow the poets’ (26: 224), and elsewhere that ‘We have not taught the Prophet poetry, nor would he ever have been a poet’ (36: 69), hence in spite of the transparent and eloquent poetic qualities of the Qur’ān, its words are unequivocally ‘not the words of a poet’ (69: 40-41). Yet, and importantly, the Qur’ān also refers to those poets ‘who believe, do good deeds, and remember God often’ (26: 227). Hadīth (pl. ahādīth, reports or traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) literature is less nuanced, tending to view poetry with prima facie suspicion or questionable acceptability. Muhammad himself was not above finding wisdom in poetry, nor immune from enchantment by its aesthetic elegance. What is more, the Qur’ān effects a transition from the poet’s oral culture of inexplicable intuition and improvisation to a literary culture that privileges study and contemplation, a reasoned scrutiny of culture’s contents (as Oliver Leaman reminds us, ‘There are many references to the importance of reason in the Qur’ān, and Islam seems to take pride, at least in its early years, in presenting itself as highly rational.’). This transition might also be seen as a change ‘from a point of view which made contact with the pagan surface of existence to one which reached into its metaphysical depths’ (Adonis: 37). It’s no small irony that Qur’ānic exegesis and studies gave birth to a vigorous literary criticism and incipient science of religious aesthetics, all the while indirectly stimulating poetic production and opening up new vistas in poetry.

Poetry finds philosophical sanction in the work of the first truly systematic thinker in Islamic philosophy (falsafa), Abū Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī (c. 256-7/870—339/950). Al-Fārābī’s Peripatetic and Neoplatonic infused Islamic philosophy understands the music of poetic speech as ‘superior to all other music in its evocative powers and the effects it produces’ (Adonis: 24). The philosopher’s views on this score have family resemblance to a Confucian perspective on The Odes, and Plato’s rationale, in the Laws, for making music an integral component of education (padeia) in the widest sense, insofar as its pleasurable nature is essential in the training of children to become habituated to virtue (aretē). Specifically, in The Great Treatise on Music (Kitāb al-Mūsīqā al-Kabir), al-Fārābī argues that

“Because many moral stances and actions are the result of the emotions and of the visions conjured up by the imagination, these perfect tunes have a beneficial effect on attitudes and morals and encourage listeners to acquire all the mental attributes,  such as wisdom and knowledge of the sciences.” (Qtd. In Adonis: 25)

Al-Fārābī proceeds to accord poetry a unique epistemological end: takhyīl, or calling to mind the imaginative depiction of an object:

“This theory of imaginative evocation was to become the cornerstone of subsequent Islamic interpretations of poetic imitation, and through it psychological…underpinnings it became the means whereby the emotive and cognitive appeal of poetry and poetic discourse could be explained, and its role in philosophy and religion established.” (Black in Nasr and Leaman: 182-183)

In short, poetry is, like prophecy, and for the philosopher, a product of the interplay between intellect and the mimetic capacities of imagination, although only philosophy provides the syllogistic (logical) demonstration of truths that prophecy and poetry communicate by symbolic and figurative means. What’s compelling about this theory is that it permits what are otherwise rarefied truths known with “certainty” by the philosopher to be communicated to masses possessing neither the taste nor the talent for philosophy. The intuitive reason and vision of the heart central to the poetic enterprise is now blessed with Islamic philosophical vindication, whatever a democratic epistemic sensibility may conclude about the possible condescending or patronizing character of such an approach.

Islam & Poetry (Part 1) 2


As Grace should be said before meals, many thanks to WE for inviting folks to share in the banquet at the Literary Table. In addition to posting poetry from the traditions mentioned in the warm welcome to the Table, I hope to offer contributions from such literary luminaries as Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Matthiesson, Gary Snyder, Iris Murdoch, Pico Iyer and Simone de Beauvoir (well, they come quickest to mind, so there’ll be others too).

Before posting a few poems by Sufis in the Islamic tradition I’d like to introduce the role of poetry in Islam generally. This is the first of three posts that will constitute our introduction. The last post will include the references.

Any discussion of the role of poetry (shi‘r) in Islam must perforce treat the importance of poetry during the jāhiliyya (the pre-Islamic period of ethical and spiritual ignorance), the Arabic word used by Muslims to designate their history prior to the advent of the Qur’ānic revelations. In the jargon of social science, the meaning and function of poetry was, and to some extent still is, contested. This accounts for its apparent ambiguous status in Islamic history, such ambiguity in turn traceable to poetry’s exalted standing during the jāhiliyya.

Pre-Islamic poetry is animated by the Bedouin ethos of the desert in which the tribal poet (shā‘ir) is a ‘singing witness’ to the collective’s customs and traditions, to its wars and heroic exploits. The poet provides the tribe with a somewhat idealized mirror image of itself. The poet’s inventiveness therefore is concentrated in the manner and diversity of expression, as the poem’s subject matter remains constant and predictable:

“In the earliest stages of the literary tradition the emergence within a tribe of the Arabian peninsula of a truly gifted poet was a cause for great rejoicing, as ibn Rashīq notes; the presence of such a figure was a matter of supreme importance, in that words were the most effective of weapons. The poet would rouse the tribe with eulogies (madīh) extolling the chivalry and generosity of its leaders and men; would remind them of the fallen heroes in elegies (marthiya), a category in which women poets seem to have played a prominent role; and, deadliest of verbal weapons, would cast aspersions on the qualities of many tribes, their leaders and womenfolk, in vicious lampoons (hijā’).” (Allen: 109)

Eulogies during the jāhiliyya celebrated such virtues as valor, endurance, patience, loyalty and generosity, as well as the preeminent tribal virtue: solidarity (‘asabiyya). The panegyric to tribal leaders was often peppered with aphorisms (hikma, s. hikam) that reflected the largely secular worldview of tribal life. So-called vagabond poets (su‘luk) performed on the periphery of tribal society, expressing preferences for antinomian if not misanthropic beliefs and behavior, including the privations of solitary life in an unforgiving desert environment. Lastly, we find itinerant court poets whose number and importance increased as Islam flourished in cultural centers beyond the Arabian peninsula: in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Qayrawān, Fez, and Cordoba, for example.

For some Muslims, however, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was emblematic of ‘the days and ways of barbarism’ (Goodman). Whatever degree of truth in this characterization, it should not preclude an appreciation of continuity in poetic expression and themes after the jāhiliyya, even if the Bedouin poetry of the Arabian desert was subject to an Islamic transformation and transvaluation that belies whatever Muslim animus was aimed at poetry as such. For instance, pre-Islamic poetry was born in song and its fundamental orality was nurtured within a predominantly audio-visual culture (for an explanation, see Adonis). Poetic recitation is frequently compared to singing birds, and its meter, rhythm and melody to birdsong. Thus it is not surprising the Khūrāsanī poet and hagiographer, Farīd ad-Dīn ‘Attār, uses birds as metaphors for spiritual experience and the mystical quest in his delightfully didactic and allegorical mathnawī (lit. ‘doubled,’ rhyming couplets), The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-tayr). After ‘Attār, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (604/1207—672/1273) writes of the falcon as a symbol of the soul; the equation soul=bird is, however, hardly unique to Islam.

A transvaluation of the vagabond poets’ ‘truest friends,’ namely the wolf and the hyena, might be inferred from Indian and Persian miniatures that show the Muslim saint or mystic sleeping or sitting among (now) tamed wild animals. More conspicuously, the language of profane or erotic love was used by poets like Muhammad Shams ad-Dīn Hāfiz (726/1325—791/1389) and Rūmī, and before them, by Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya  (95 [or 99]/714 [or 717-8]—185/801), to poetically convey the relationship of love between human beings and God, between lover and the Beloved. Rabi`a represents the pinnacle of the Basran tradition of women’s ascetic spirituality within Islam and within Sufism she is considered one of the (if not the) earliest exponents and dramatic exemplars of ‘love-mysticism’ (for a succinct analysis, see Leaman: 99-104).

The Art of the Pseudonym Reply


How do you create a good pseudonym? I’m not sure, but lets pay homage to perhaps the best collection of pseudonyms on television — Seinfeld. Props to those that can place the character with the correct pseudonym.

Martin Van Nostrand
H.E. Pennypacker
Art Vandelay
Kel Varnson
Dylan Murphy
Paloma

Speaking of Van Nostrand, I found today in flipping through an old copy of Rayford Logan and Michael Winston’s The Negro in the United States Volume II an order card for D. Van Nostrand company the publisher. Was Seinfeld paying homage to a past publisher?

Pseudonyms enjoy the time of mystery. Without mystery, wouldn’t life be less than complete. Here is a poem by W.h. Auden.

If I could tell you
By W.H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

There’s a Seat at the Table… and A Semi-Revolution Reply


Please join us at the Literary Table! The conversation is good and the requirements are none. Send me an email at warren[dot]emerson[at]gmail[dot]com. You may blog out in the open or under pseudonym. I only ask that you identify the persons sitting around your literary table in your first post. You may post critique and commentary, works of fiction, works of poetry, etc…  Have a short story that you want to post, do it here.  I am looking forward to reading your contributions.

A Semi-Revolution
By Robert Frost

I advocate a semi-revolution.
The trouble with a total revolution
(Ask any reputable Rosicrucian)
Is that it brings the same class up on top.
Executives of skillful execution
Will therefore plan to go halfway and stop.
Yes, revolutions are the only salves,
But they’re one thing that should be done by halves.

Published in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.

Weekend Poet Reply


Prairie Harvest
by Robert Penn Warren

Look westward over forever miles of wheat stubble
The road of the red machines is gone, they are gone.
Their roar has left the heartbeat of silence. The bubble,
Enormous, red, molten, of sun, above the horizon.

Apparently motionless, hangs. Meanwhile, blue mist
For uncountable miles of the shaven earth’s rondure arises,
And in last high light, the bullbats gyre and twist,
Though in the world’s emptiness the sound of their cries is

Nothing. Your heart is the only sound. The sun,
It is gone. Can it be that you, for an instant, forget
And blink your eyes as it goes? Another day done,
And the star the Kiowa once stared at will requite

Man’s effort by lust, and lust by the lead-weighted eyes.
So you stand in the infinite circle, star after star,
And standing alone in starlight, can you devise
An adequate definition of self, whatever you are?

Published in the Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Ed. John Burt).