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 alfanā’ 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.


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


  1. isbn;978-1-60911-248

    I have a degree in philosophy&Religion and I studied sufism which is the mystical branch of Islam. My journey was deeply inspired by the mystical absolute truth and knowledge of Sufism and sufi dancing too!


  2. Pingback: Our first year… « The Literary Table

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