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.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Sufi Poetry–I « The Literary Table

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s