Happy May Day! 1

The Chimney Sweeper (from SONGS OF INNOCENCE, 1789)

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl’d llke a lamb’s back. was shav’d: so I said
”Hush. Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight,
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned or Jack.
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river. And shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.


The Chimney Sweeper (from SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, 1794)

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? Say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

─William Blake

For more on May Day, please see here.

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.

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).