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 her poetry is fairly pedestrian, 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.” And the unsettling characterization of Sanā’ī’s “proud religious purpose” may have motivated at least one response to the following final verses from Farīd al-Din ‘Attār’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
If it’s easy for you to read a lot, it will certainly be sweeter for you
This veiled bride in a teasing mood only gradually lets the veil fall
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 (or 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 invariably 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.”(Ernst in Lewisohn and Shackle, eds., 2006: 330-343)
Familiarity with this “boasting” rhetoric of sainthood should temper if not eliminate the descriptive reaction I had above to the epilogue from Sanā’ī’s Hadiqa al-haqīqa, enabling one to 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 Sufism 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” (Ernst 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 we witness “the flickering of the authorial ego in the storm of divinity.”
And yet alongside the boasting rhetoric of mystic poets one finds the following lines from ‘Attār’s Mantiq al-tayr, similar to 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, perhaps instinctively appreciated by the unlettered but pious and “practical” man, and arguably the perspective of the true mystic, contains an implicit appreciation 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 through the supernal light of Divine silence as understood in the Sufi tradition. Put differently, words, or reason, can only “point” or indirectly refer to that kind of apophatic mystical (or simply religious) experience which has, I think, been plausibly if not persuasively characterized as a “pure consciousness event” (PCE) or consciousness without an object (see the titles by Forman and the discussion in Gellman below), involving a peculiar form of cognitive or para-cognitive (hence not irrational) form of “knowing” or awareness (as non-propositional knowledge) said to encompass one’s entire being and thus beyond subject-object duality. Nonpropositional knowledge is quintessentially a special type of experiential knowledge, what might be called an intuitive “knowledge by acquaintance” or “knowledge by presence” (rather than ‘knowledge by description’), although not in the Russellian sense (in which case it is an immediate, non-cognitive sensual or empirical knowledge prior to conceptual articulation), but as that phrase was understood, say, by the founder of the Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī (549/1154-587/1191) (See Hossein Ziai’s essay on Suhrawardī in Nasr and Leaman, eds. 1996: 434-464).
While mystical experience on the order of a PCE is said to involve non-propositional knowledge or understanding in the first instance, it is not non-cognitive in as much as such experience is often used to affirm, or re-affirm (or rationally ‘ground’), existing religious propositions, such as “God exists.” In a non-theistic context, consider for example the Buddha’s experience of the “unconditioned,” that is, nibbāna (Skt., nirvāna), a spiritual experience that appears to exemplify a PCE. And yet this “experience” of nibbāna is what gives existential certainty or accords ontological license to (what are, after all, ‘conditioned’) religious propositions in the Buddhist tradition, propositions articulated in such doctrines as The Four Noble Truths, anattā (no-self) (Skt., anātman), and paticca-samuppāda (‘dependent origination’) (Skt., pratitya-samutpāda). Thus ex post reflection, which is necessarily connected to one’s ex ante propositional religious understanding (e.g., Siddhattha Gotama’s antecedent beliefs in kamma, samsāra, and the possibility of moksa or mukti), entails propositional presuppositions and assumptions, and typically claims of religious knowledge, at least insofar as we view the PCE as a type of “religious- or realisation-discovery” in the manner outlined by James Kellenberger:
“A part of what one discovers in making the religious discovery is that some key religious proposition is true, even though what one comes to understand with religious understanding may reach beyond the import of expressible propositions. However, allowing that a part, perhaps even the most significant part, of what is discovered cannot be expressed as a proposition should not lessen our insistence that…knowledge is attained when the religious discovery is made and at least part of that knowledge is the knowledge that key religious propositions are true.” (Kellenberger 1985: 169-170)
The PCE thus represents, as it were, a liminal space between ex ante religious understanding (the result of religious training and education) and ex post religious knowledge, serving to accord existential certainty or metaphysical conviction to religious belief(s). PCE or apophatic mystical experience is an archetypal (or at least one important) type of (religious) “realisation-discovery:”
“Those who make realisation-discoveries come to see the significance of the familiar as that which establishes what they had not thought or had not fully realised or had even denied. Their discoveries, if they are discoveries, involve gaining an appreciation of a grounding of their new or old belief, and this grounding is evidential [yet not in a scientific or conventional rational sense]. It is distinct from a psychological cause for one’s belief (such as, fear or desire), and it is distinct from pragmatic reasons for acting as though a belief were true.” (Kellenberger: 109)
It is the description of this rarefied form of mystical experience as a type of religious “realisation-discovery” or spiritual “gnosis” that enables us to agree with Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s judgment that “Sufism is at the highest level a path of knowldege” (ma‘rifah or, in Persian, ‘irfān), a knowledge at once “illuminative and unitive,” the “highest object” (so to speak) of which is God, or “the Truth.” Such knowledge is thought to be in some sense self-certifying or self-authenticating (it cannot be wholly such, given the larger epistemic context of a specific religious tradition, which routinely relies on intra-religious criteria for assessing the authenticity of claims to mystical experience), bringing with it a conviction of absolute certainty: “[T]here is the truth of certainty (haqq al-yaqīn)—or again, what can also be understood as certainty of truth—which is like being consumed by the fire and gaining the highest certainty of it by ‘becoming’ the fire” (Nasr 2007: 31). This fire is thought to consume highly individuated or personal and subjective awareness or states of consciousness, a process that is otherwise called self-denial or dying-to-self in theistic traditions, prompting the question: who or what is now exeperiencing the “certainty of truth?” One begins to confront the questions and issues that likewise arise in Advaita Vedānta epistemology and metaphysics with regard to the relation between Brahman, ultimate reality, and the individual self (jīva), the former understood as some sort of universal (hence de-individuated) consciousness, the experiential realization of which (bear in mind that brahmānubhava is not experience in the conventional sense, as it signifies a ‘context-free’ state of consciousness) is the goal of the jñāna yogi. The relevance of the comparison is made clear from an Upanisadic commentary by Śankara in which he to resorts to the (above) “fire” metaphor: “It is not possible for the knower to know the knower, just as the fire cannot burn the fire. There is no knower other than brahman to whom brahman can be a separate object of knowledge (‘a knowable’)” (Ram-Prasad 2001: 173). The Advaitic solution (assuming for the moment that ‘brahman’ is a placeholder for ‘God’) is patently anathema to Islamic theology, for the claim is made that the self of ordinary consciousness is, in the end, not different from the universal consciousness that is Brahman! We need only consider the consequences of Mansūr al-Hallāj’s ecstatic theopathic utterances (shathīyāt), most vividly, “anā’l-Haqq” (‘I am the Truth’ or ‘I am the Real’), to see the sorts of issues that arise in any extended discussion of this kind of mysticism within Islam.
The foregoing introduction is but a “taste” (dhawq) 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, as evidenced in the work of the late Abdul Wahad al-Bayati), such as that produced by the remarkable Indo-Pakistani polymath, Muhammad Iqbāl (1877-1938) who, one suspects, is insufficiently appreciated outside the Indian subcontinent.
Although it is true, as Oliver Leaman has pointed out, that comparatively little poetry in the history of the Islamic world has been religious, a “tradition of religious poetry which is genuinely successful in Islamic culture is Sufi verse, and this continues to be written and developed with variable degrees of success” (Leaman 2004: 84-85). It is to that tradition we will turn in more detail in our forthcoming posts on poetry in Islam.
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.
- Ernst, Carl W. Ruzbihan Baqli: Mysticism and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996.
- Fideler, David and Sabrineh Fideler, trans. and ed. Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2006.
- Forman, Robert K.C. Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
- Forman, Robert K.C., ed. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Gellman, Jerome. ‘Mysticism,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/mysticism/
- 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.
- Kellenberger, James. The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
- Leaman, Oliver. Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
- Leaman, Oliver, ed. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy, 2 Vols (A-I and J-Z). London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2006.
- 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. “Islamic Aesthetics,” in Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, eds. A Companion to World Philosophies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997: 448-459.
- Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
- Nasr, Seyyed Hossein and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Nicholson, Reynold A. Studies in Islamic Mysticism. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1994 (1921, Cambridge University Press).
- Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
- 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, 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.