Losing their Religion, or The Ironic Reader of Judicial Religious Temperment 1


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How should our Supreme Court justices embrace their religious preferences? In another stunning blog post on CNN Stephen Prothero confronts the tendency to think that justices of the Supreme Court lose all personal touch with the world in which they have lived — a world that largely includes religious temperaments and experiences. (We have blogged about Stephen’s other posts here). Stephen writes:

If Supreme Court justices were impersonal computers, taking in laws and facts and spitting out impartial decisions, then we would not need religious diversity on the court. We wouldn’t need racial or gender or regional diversity either. Nine old white Catholic men would work just fine. Or for that matter nine young African-American Muslim women. But the world is what it is. And it is in the real world, not the world of should and supposed to, that the flawed and imperfect human beings we call justices operate.
So here is the question I would put to my critics: Are human beings creatures of objective thought, able to click their fingers and magically set aside their biases, passions and “self-love”? Or are we creatures of subjective passions whose interests should be subject to the sorts of checks and balances that Madison so vigorously defended and a diversity of experience offers?
Judges do make decisions based on experience. Holmes’s haiku laden phrase “The Life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” begs the question of whose experience (did not know that this quote maintained a 5-7-5 structure did ye?) If the experience of the law is the collected experience of us all, then perhaps the law should be agnostic towards the individual faith. But as we know, the law’s experience has excluded as much as its included, whether by race, wealth, gender, property or sexual orientation, the law’s experience has not been all of our experiences. Why then should we expect the experiences of the whole, to be excluded because we perceive that the whole has been adequately represented. After-all, should we treat our judges as potted plants? See i.e. Richard Posner, What am I? A Potted Plant?, The New Republic (1987).

These tendencies to down play the individual experience in favor of the collected experience is revealed perhaps most acutely in one’s religion. We can see that in the exchanges during oral arguments with Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, during the Salazar v. Buono hearing. (Salazar v Buono involved the maintenance of a cross in the Mojave National Preserve erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars after World War I). Both of Scalia and Kennedy are devoutly catholic. At one point, when it was suggested that a Jewish star would more appropriately honor the Jewish soldiers that died in World War I, Scalia responded
It’s [the cross is] erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the—the cross is the—is the most common symbol of—of—of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me—what would you have them erect? A cross—some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?”

Later in the same oral argument, Justice Kennedy said:

Although certainly a Christian symbol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message . . . Time also has played its role. The cross had stood on Sunrise rock for nearly seven decades before the statute was enacted. By then, the cross and the cause it commemorated had become entwined in the public consciousness . . . Congress ultimately designated the cross as a national memorial, ranking it among those monuments honoring the noble sacrifices that constitute our national heritage . . . a symbol that . . . has complex meaning beyond the expression of religious views . . . one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion.

I want to point out that both Scalia and Kennedy seem to neutralize their religious sentiments in favor of a secularized view of the cross. Let me say, they are right. The cross serves a secular function in our country, depicting our shared national myth of a Western Christian world. But here is the ultimate question. Who actually believes the justices when they down play their religion. Scalia, more so than Kennedy created substantial commentary largely because it was so shocking to hear him, of all justices, secularize a symbol of his own religion. These justices cause us to consider whether their words are to be read through the lens of an ironic reader. Just as we might question the double meaning of Billy Budd’s “farewell to the Rights of Man” upon being conscripted aboard an English vessel, we might also question the ironic tone of Scalia and Kennedy’s remarks. Scalia and Kennedy want us to believe that they can take off their religion like a coat and commence judging, saying “farewell ye vestments of faith.” Like Prothero, I seriously doubt that they can. Like Billy Budd, I am not sure we should read them literally even if they think that they have succeeded.

6 Catholics + 3 Jews = 9 Protestants 4


Stephen Prothero, writes on CNN that the religious diversity of the current court may not be as diverse as it appears and may actually just be the same old protestant court that we have all grown to love.wpid-americanjesus.jpg

Prothero has written some interesting pieces. Religious Literacy is perhaps his best known work, but probably his best was American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon. Here is a quote:

Historians like to believe that their work is exempt from the rough and tumble of contemporary concerns. But objectivity is a concern on both sides of the Christian America debate. Participants often oscillate between the descriptive and the normative, confusing what is (or was) with what ought to be. They also routinely conflate demographic, legal, and cultural questions forgetting that a country may be Christian in one respect and secular in another. Typically those that understand the United States as a multi religious country focus on the law and cheer on religious “outsiders,” while those who emphasize its Christian character focus on demography and cast their lot with the “insiders.” While for one group Christian dominance (either real or perceived) is the problem, for the other it is the solution.

What is interesting about Prothero’s observations in the CNN column is the conflation that has occurred across religious boundaries. We seem fairly comfortable that religion has become a historical fact more than a persuasion of interests. Of course we talk about Catholic opposition to Abortion every few years, but in large measure the religious preference of a judge maintains little value EXCEPT when the other pieces of the judges activities suggest that his religion is not the sort that we want serving on the court. The mixing and blurring of religious ideology has, in short created a pluralized democracy of religiosity in which to participate one must at least have a religion to be taken seriously, but then mitigate his religion into the beliefs of the whole.

Is this a good thing? Part of me says yes (I suppose the part that defers to the law and cheers on the outsiders) and part of me says no. Like Prothero I wonder, where are the Muslim judges? Where are Buddhist, Agnostic and Evangelicals.

Why Arizona’s Undocumented Person’s law will fail — Actual Empirical Evidence — Part II Reply


Well, with our household resources being used up by additional persons that we did not count on, we knew something had to be done. We could have taken an approach that favored those that were already here. Just stop more from coming in. Instead, we decided the only solution was to purge the house of any manifestation of their presence. We went on a witch hunt burning books, destroying Dora Castles, breaking CDs. We even went so far as to completely outlaw the use of maps or spanish in the house. We would become francophonic (albeit difficult in Southern California).

Our initial decision was very popular amongst several groups. First the labor groups openly supported our decision. wpid-images.jpeg The leader of the labor party called this “a smurfingly positive step towards the establishment of equal opportunity. Other groups also saw new opportunity. For instance Toot and Puddle, two male companions that travel the world together, initially supported our decision, saying that equality should first be guaranteed for currently legal persons. Little Bill chimed in stating that this would certainly add to his popularity and therefore could not be bad.
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But not everyone was on board. One unintended consequence of our decision was that we alienated Handy Manny. Apparently, Handy Manny felt like our new decision to only extend access to non-annoying programing put him at risk of being alienated, even though he had never been annoying in the past. We were certainly at a dilemma. While Dora and her friends brought about certain characteristics that we did not care for, we did not anticipate losing out on Handy Manny. Also, very soon, Toot and Puddle and Little Bill both changed their minds about the new decision. They realized that we could very easily decide that we wanted to limit cartoons to only male and female pigs together, or even force certain cartoons in unattractive time slots at the end of the day. Losing their support made us reconsider.

But what really pushed us over the edge and back into reality was realizing who liked the law — namely the labor movement. At first, they were quite congenial. “We are just interested in smurfing work for those that are here legally.” But the more things moved along, the more belligerent they became. “They began to organize into militias, guarding the remote control, and even telling my daughter, “Don’t you Smurf with us! Don’t you even think about Smurfing with us.” I don’t even know that means I told her, but it sounded very obscene. Also, the Smurfs, did not really even bring value. We tried to build a tree house with them, but they insisted that we use their proprietary mushroom design and pay four times the cost of what it would have cost before.
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We finally realized that we messed up. We listened to the group that we should have ignored all along. I mean its not like they were not vested in seeing that our household tune away from Dora. We also realized that Dora and all her friends maybe created some inconveniences, but also brought about good things too. They made our children more diverse and open to a diverse world. And because of that, I am happy to say that Dora has been made welcome into our home again. And the costs, whatever they may be, are well worth it.

Why Arizona’s Undocumented Person’s law will fail — Actual Empirical Evidence — Part I Reply


As everyone is well aware, Arizona recently passed a law making it illegal for undocumented immigrants to be present in the state. What you may not know is that similar experiments have taken place and failed. I have first hand experience with one of those experiments.

About three years ago, my wife and I decided to ban Dora the Explorer from our house. It was a particularly difficult decision. In fact, we were quite aware of the irony that we ourselves invited Dora into our house. Frankly, the decision made allot of sense to invite her over. In Dora, we got all of the benefits of a babysitter, at approximately 1/1016 of the market rate. (If we paid $12.00 per hour for a babysitter in thirty minute blocks for twice a day for thirty days, the financial decision makes complete sense — and yes, Dora did work for us seven days a week).

To be honest, we knew that Dora came with some complications. For instance, we had to decide whether Dora would have her own television to broadcast from or whether she would have to share the community television at the times that were available. We elected the later, though we recognized that it would have been more fair for Dora to have her own access to a unique broadcast opportunity.

We also knew that Dora would come with friends. We were willing to accept that Dora’s friends Map, Boots, Tico, Benny, Swiper, and Izza. Frankly, we did not mind too much. Dora’s friends often provided added value without additional expenditure of resources. wpid-images3.jpeg

But what sent us down the road towards expelling Dora from the house was that Dora began co-opting additional resources. Not only was there the Television program once, but twice, and then three times. There were the videos. There were the books. And then there was the dora Castles, blanket, and ugly pajamas that she wanted to wear everywhere. We could not get away from Dora!

Then more started coming around. Dora’s cousin Diego began hanging around. After observing Diego we became convinced that he was involved in the illicit drug trade — I mean what nine year old has a submarine.wpid-1____images3.jpeg

We were also certain that the baby Jaguar that he kept was being trained for pit bull fighting at a later date. Investing resources in Dora was one thing. But investing in Diego — a certain drug pusher and pit bull orchestrator — could not be tolerated. And it did not stop with Diego.

Soon this new gang, which we heard came from the same places that Diego and Dora came from (the Republic of Nickelodeon) started hanging around. This gang, called the Backyardigans are a bunch of idle ne’re do wells that we believed were affiliated with the infamous M-16 gang. For instance, they are always, always, hinting that they want more food. (Always talking about getting a snack).

Their ringleader Pablo seems to be insistent that wearing a bowtie makes him respectable.

The problem is that non-white people wearing bow-ties and leading gangs leads to violence every time. Really, it makes the whole wearing bow-ties business look seedy. Just think for a moment — when have white people wearing bow ties caused the types of crises that non-white people have caused?


Well obviously what started with an innocent attempt to save money created an irrepressible circumstance. Something had to be done

Random Thoughts while Driving Through Arizona and New Mexico Reply


  1. Interstate 40 in Arizona is better than Interstate 40 in California.
  2. Northern Arizona is greener than I would have thought. However, its not as pretty as New Mexico.
  3. DON’T SPEED THROUGH THE NAVAJO NATION. Spotted twelve (yes 12) cops lined up ready to catch speeders.
  4. Finding a hotel in Albuquerque that takes dogs is difficult. I still can’t believe the Residence Inn wants to charge $100 non-refundable pet deposit.
  5. New Mexico does not know how to move traffic through construction. One hour to move five miles!
  6. At what point during a twelve hour drive do you defer to Christmas music to stay awake — apparently at the 10:30 mark. We’ll see if that changes since there will be another twelve hour day.
  7. I started the day listening to the Brothers Karamazov. Heard a line that I did not recall reading — Habitual Liberal Irony. I’ll have to think about that one — perhaps a post later.

Ok — That’s all for my random thoughts.

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).

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.

Sita Sings the Blues 2


I am at a conference this weekend, and one of the panelists was Nina Paley.  Nina is an illustrator and a very talented film maker.  If you have not seen her film Sita Sings the Blues, I have embedded the first part below.  Its wonderful.  It is one of only a few films to receive a 10 out of 10 from Rotten Tomatoes. Nina is a wonderful proponent of the creative commons and open sharing, which is described on her website.

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.
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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.