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).

One comment

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

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