Poetry and Sufism: A Few Generalities

By Dana Wilde

[Here is a draft, a sort of outline of ideas toward a basic understanding of the relationship between Sufism and poetry, with an exposition of basic ideas about what poetry is and does, and might do. – Dana]

It’s not surprising that Sufis place so much emphasis on music and especially poetry in their teachings and their understanding of the Way to salvation or reunion with the Divine. The general Sufi sense of what reality consists in is inherently poetic; it seems not only to parallel the cosmos that a poetic imagination, in the most general terms, conceives, but really seems to embody that version of reality.

Let me make some observations about what poetry is, actually, and then we can see how it aligns and intersects with the Sufi view of the world. Much of what follows is apt to seem painfully obvious, or self-evident. But my experience is that it’s always of vital importance to keep the basic underpinnings, the basic facts and understanding of your subject, clearly in view at all times when working out more complex problems; otherwise, the complexities take on lives of their own and begin to detach themselves from their sources — which mystics say is our essential problem.*

All poetry is inherently mystical. In the first and most basic way, its primary aim is to communicate at nonrational levels. This idea is easy to grasp rationally, on the face of it, but tricky to grasp in practice or as a matter of fundamental understanding because of the way we learn to read and think of poetry in the modern age. That is, as dutiful and well-trained followers of the scientific method, we learn to analyze poetry using primarily logic and rationality and to frame verbal summaries of what a poem “means” based on these rational analyses. Analysis no doubt has a place in understanding poetry because poetry is made of language and language requires us to create categories to communicate; that is, especially in the modern (not to say, English-speaking) world, we think of language as an instrument that conveys practical, sortable, down-to-earth “meanings,” which implies meanings we can grasp at pragmatic, rational levels, concrete or abstract. So since poetry is made of everyday words, our natural disposition is to try to grasp its rational, utilitarian meanings.

Lots of people who read poetry in this analytical framework get frustrated very quickly. This frustration sets in because poetry’s rational, utilitarian meanings are sometimes hard to grasp and even harder to paraphrase. These meanings often do not seem self-evident and often seem obscure or veiled, and even when they are eventually grasped, they can seem trite or useless, and one wonders why in the hell there should be so much work to understand such a simple thing, a thing that could be said much more directly.

Actually, there is an answer to this objection: The poem whose rational meaning seems trite probably (if it’s a truly worthwhile poem) was meant to convey a whole different range of meaning — the kind of meaning I’ve called nonrational. In other words, while analysis of a poem’s meaning has its place, it is unfortunately the least appropriate method of understanding poetry because poetry’s major meanings are nonrational.

To say this in yet other words, the meaning you can think of is usually not the most powerful or affective (sic) meaning the poem conveys, or builds up — let’s begin to disperse the subject-object understanding of what happens when you read or hear a poem. Instead, the poem through its verbal impact spurs you to “feel” or “sense” meanings rather than “think” meanings.

It does this in two general ways: through image and metaphor, and through its sound.

If you are still with me in this overly abstract discussion, then you probably begin to see why Sufism devotes itself to poetry. There is more to say about this.

Metaphors exist to convey, or evoke, or create sensibilities that cannot be conveyed or created using direct terms. For our purposes, this means metaphors evoke “feelings” in the range of emotions, but also sensibilities, in the range of intuitions, and of moral and spiritual senses of meaning which are very difficult or impossible to express directly. For a simple example, Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem most Americans are familiar with, evokes through its imagery a sense of gorgeous winter beauty and peace, inside which is a certain friction or tension. Now, the poet could have expressed this feeling in direct terms by saying: “A man was struck by the beauty and peace of the snowy woods, but he felt a certain tension because he had to continue on his way.” Even this sentence contains helpful imagery, but it in a way encapsules the rational gist of the poem. But the imagery of the poem creates in the reader the actual feelings of peace, beauty and tension; these actual feelings make up a range of experience entirely different from the experience of the rational thought that sums up the poem.

In other words, metaphors make you feel a meaning rather than think it. They circumvent the limitations of rational analysis and expression, and aim at the heart, to use an old-time metaphor. When you read a poem and have no idea what the rational meaning is, and yet you feel an emotion of some kind aroused by the images or events in the poem, then your inability to paraphrase or summarize the poem is of no account, really; you have grasped the poem by feeling the emotion. The emotion is the meaning.

In keeping with the mystical sense that there are levels or stages of reality, poems build up not only emotional responses, but also (let’s say) intuitive, moral and spiritual responses. If you are sufficiently self-aware, you can distinguish in your reading or hearing of poetry different qualities of experience which are distinct from basic emotions like sadness or humor, but clearly real in your psyche. For example, in reading or hearing the story of Jesus’ Passion, emotions of regret or sorrow or joy may arise, but also, deeply moral responses are also triggered in people, and if you push this, you can see that the Passion can catalyze a deep inner response of faith; it is virtually impossible to say what “faith” is, but you can certainly feel it, even though it is not an emotion like anger or happiness (although it may entail such emotions). So the experience of faith can be expressed directly in sentences like, “It’s important to have faith,” or “Faith is very powerful,” but the feeling itself – beyond emotion — can actually be evoked through the story and figures in the Gospels. (Similarly for the story of the Prophet and the hadith.) Words can catalyze deep inner sensibilities and experiences. This is what poetry is. This is why I say poetry is inherently mystical: because it aims to evoke and create deep inner experiences that can (and should?) culminate in spiritual experiences. All poetry has the potential to trigger spiritual experience.

Now I said that one way poetry has its effect is through imagery and metaphor; and the other way is through its sound, or really, its music. Nowadays, because of our reliance on print (and electronic) media, it takes a little work to grasp the fact that only in the last hundred years or less have people thought of poetry as primarily a private, silent reading experience. Before our time, poetry was spoken aloud – more accurately, it was chanted or sung, in all cultures. (There is an early, early recording of Tennyson reciting his poetry, and though very scratchy, the sound of it is astonishing: He chants, declaims the poems in a chilling, almost supernatural thunder of half singing, half saying.) The “reasons” poetry was chanted or sung are manifold, all the way from the simple fact that when poetry was first composed there was no such thing as writing, up to the more complex observation that language has musical properties.

The important thing to observe here is the universal feeling that music is meaningful. More: Pure music — like a Mozart sonata or a Mevlevi arrangement of drums and instruments without voice — is meaningful to virtually everyone despite the fact that it conveys no rational message at all. In listening to music, one feels the rhythms and hears the sounds, the tones, chords and melodies, and responds in one’s own way. Language in its sonic form does the same thing as music. Words can be built up in powerful rhythm patterns; alliterations, assonances and rhyme sequences can be created that are not only pleasing to the ear, like melodies, but also powerful in ways that reach the body the same way instrumental music reaches through the body and touches the psyche. Music can be hypnotic, and so can poetry. The sound of words is very powerful because it is musical.

So the music of poetry creates nonrational meanings in the same way as instrumental or vocal music. Moreover, poetry uniquely combines music and imagery, and can shape specific meanings, or experiences. At this point it is important to recall that we are speaking almost strictly of only nonrational meanings: Poetry’s primary shaping of meaning occurs at nonrational levels through music and imagery. And then, as a bonus, poetry also can utilize the aspects of language which reach for the rational mind, as well.

Poetry’s primary meanings are nonrational. This poses problems for discussions of poetry in college classrooms, because college lays almost all its emphasis on rational understanding.** But on the other hand, poetry’s unique ability to reach beyond the rational and into the nonrational lends itself directly to Sufi teaching.

Sufi teaching addresses the inner human being. One aspect of the inner human being is the rational mind, and so in Sufism we find complex statements concerning metaphysics and cosmology, and we find certain philosophical explanations and analyses. But these texts are clearly less important to Sufism than is poetry. And the reason must by now be clear: Poetry addresses — or better, shapes the emotional, moral and spiritual faculties or elements of the inner person. The expressed aim of Sufi teaching is to help the individual align him or herself with the Divine, to “perfect” himself – which means, to purify his inner self (we can refer to terms like “nafs” — the “animal soul” — at this point) so it is worthy of “the beloved,” or indeed simply capable of being there, so to speak.

There is a sentence in Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching which seems deeply Sufic to me; Wilhelm interprets: “All that is visible must grow beyond itself into the realm of the invisible.” In Sufism and most of the mystical tradition, there is a sense that every individual is in fact perpetually in touch with the Divine, and his or her task is to find that spark or element of the Divine, which (in many forms of mystic expression) is to say, to find the true self, the self that is the Divine as opposed to the false, or worldly, or detached and apparently isolated self. In all mystical traditions, there is said to be a “way” to do this; there is a path that can be followed back to our origin, a way from the visible to the realm of the invisible.

The “way” varies in scope and detail from culture to culture, religion to religion. Some religions and mystical traditions prescribe the same purgative activities for all disciples, such as Buddhism, which in essence (apparently) trains everyone in the same methods of meditation. But in Sufism, the way is highly personal: The master assesses the needs of the individual and assigns the work appropriate to those particular needs. One might say, the Sufi master shows the individual the right trail among many possible trails. The aim is to awaken (to use a classic mystic metaphor) the individual to his or her state or level and to help him find the right methods of purgation (the second step along the mystic way) that clear away the fogs of our material existence — the “visible” world.

Somehow, in other words, the Sufi master has to make the student aware of his inner self, the self that is an element of, or is the Divine. Poetry and music touch the inner sensibilities — the emotional, intuitive, moral and spiritual parts of the inner self. They open the person living in the visible world to the realities of the invisible world.

Sufism places emphasis on metaphor as a key to understanding because it conveys or creates meanings that are beyond the visible world — which is also to say beyond the limits of logic, analysis, rationality — and touches the emotional, intuitive, moral and spiritual worlds. Hence poetry.

Sufism places emphasis on music for the same reason: Music’s meaning lives at supra-rational levels. Again – hence poetry.

Poetry is an instrument of awakening and instruction. It is a way of opening the mind to the divine reality, a way of helping people to grow out of the visible into the realm of the invisible. To broaden the point a little, this is the reason religious liturgies are chanted and often seem filled with “mystery”: The liturgy, which is in fact a form of dramatic poetry, creates the emotional, moral and spiritual atmosphere for the Divine to be present; the sound and rhythm (or music) and in many cases the imagery of the liturgy open the worshipper’s mind to the possibility of some sort of contact with the Divine.

Now there are a couple more basic points to be made about this. One is that the mystical traditions all focus their attention on the relation of the individual self to the Divine (in a very general sense, the “true self”). In some versions of the Way, the activities necessary for the traveler to make his way back to the spiritual origin are generalized to all wayfarers (as in the example of Buddhism). But in Sufism, there are many different kinds of training, and many different ways for many people with different spiritual needs. This aligns in a way with the inescapable fact that any given poem has multiple meanings; there are as many meanings of a poem, it has been said, as there are readers.

This is a way of saying that the individual shapes his or her own spiritual experience in the same way that he or she shapes the meaning of a poem. There is no poem acting in one way on all readers, giving one meaning and one meaning only; and this is because the act of reading — or better, hearing — is not a subject-object activity, one thing acting on another: Reading or hearing is a collaboration of a force of words and the listener’s shaping imagination. Each person brings a different set of experiences, understandings, dispositions, interests to each poem, and hence finds different meanings than other listeners.

But as with spiritual experience, which has a single source in the Divine, each hearer of a poem meets a single source — the poem, which if well-wrought has the capacity to create specific inner effects, open specific emotional, intuitive, moral, spiritual doors. Whatever is revealed in that opening will look different, or feel different, to different listeners, but if the poem is well-made it will be the same revelation. Sufism naturally uses poetry because the apprehension of a poem is an analogue for the apprehension of, or maybe a glimpse of the actual contact of the Divine: That glimpse or apprehension or contact is the same for all and different for all.

To recall a maxim of Western mysticism, each person creates his own heaven or hell.

The same varying apprehension of meaning is derived from music, naturally, music and poetry being similar if not essentially the same.

In Sufi poetry, there are a couple of metaphors which do not align immediately with the figures, and the categories of figures, in other mystical literature. To place this statement in a more specific context, most depictions of the Way insist in one sense or another on the moral virtues, most clearly delineated for us, maybe, by Socrates, who named temperance, courage, justice, wisdom, honesty and piety, among others. I mention temperance first because it is a virtue (to retain the Platonic term) stressed repeatedly in the Socratic dialogues and also in Christianity and Islam. But in Sufi poetry, paradoxically, intemperance seems to be represented as a virtue; intoxication and erotic longing are metaphors of certain human relationships with the Divine.

Now there is a reason for this, and it is figured – or actually, embodied — in Sufi poetry. This whole article has been pointing at the fact that poetry and music are used to open the inner self to its own reality, and to its relation to the Divine. When I noted above that poetry and music can be “hypnotic,” I meant in a general way that poetry and music can create an “altered state of consciousness” (to use a phrase current a few decades ago) and that some form of altered consciousness is needed to awaken an individual to the reality of who he or she “really” is and what that self consists in. This awakening and subsequent state of consciousness looks to the everyday world like insanity, and to the experiencer it is sometimes represented in Sufi poetry as a delicious bewilderment — seemingly the antithesis of Platonic, Christian or Islamic temperance.

Now paradoxically, this sense is not peculiar to Sufism, but is found in other mystical literature — the prime example being Socrates himself, perhaps, who in the Allegory of the Cave describes the mystic climbing out of the cave into enlightenment, and then upon returning is thought to be insane by the cave dwellers because he tells them the shadows on the wall are unreal and urges the dwellers to unshackle themselves. The enlightened man is seen as insane.

The theme of divine madness is treated in more detail in Plato’s Phaedrus. Significantly, one of the kinds of madness Socrates questions there involves words, their power, and the use and misuse of that power. Although Socrates operated largely along very rational lines, it is significant that in the last hours of his life he began writing poetry, at least partly because he felt it was an obligation to the gods that he had not yet discharged — but we may also note that he deliberately chose to put himself in a poetic, nonrational frame of mind just as he was to pass on. In other words, he sought the madness, the “altered state,” or indeed the intoxication that poetry evokes, or creates.

Poetry can literally be intoxicating. A brief anecdote, one among many that might be told: Years ago a couple of friends and I were reading poems of Robert Frost aloud in the living room, and although we were very temperately drinking black tea (not beer or wine as we well might have been), I began to feel quite tipsy, the early sweet fuzzy stages of drunkenness that incite one to intensify the pleasure by drinking more. Only a few moments after I silently noted this strange tipsiness in myself, one of my friends said with bewilderment, “Man, these poems are making me drunk.”

The Sufi metaphor of intoxication as a spiritual state is partly figurative but partly literal. Intoxication is a metaphor for madness, and madness is a metaphor for the spirit’s condition, or transformation, or unfolding into reality, in the presence of the Divine. But amazingly, where poetry and music are involved, intoxication is not only a poetic figure, but is also a literal condition of the body as well as the mind. Poetry’s music and imagery affect the body and the mind — the exterior and interior — alike, as if they were the same thing.

This is exactly what Sufism, and indeed all the mystical traditions (or all that are not strictly gnostic, let’s say), seek to reveal: that the cosmos is a unified whole, one, or One. The music of poetry and the images and metaphors of poetry intoxicate the body and mind — together they change the state of outer and inner awareness of the hearer. Poetry affects the whole human being. It’s not surprising that Sufis place so much emphasis on music and poetry in their Way to reunion with the Divine.

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Footnotes

*I am making some vast generalizations here, all of which surely are not universally true. But I’ll ask you to understand these generalities as observations of tendencies, some very strong, and to accept them either as self-evident, or as a matter of trust in my judgment, or as propositions to entertain and play along with.

**A pedagogical question arises (tangential to this discussion) about how to teach the nonrational elements of poetry, how to approach and discuss them in the classroom, if they’re so important, without the discussion degenerating into a chaos of personal anecdote and wild, egocentric misreadings. I have no concrete answers to this question beyond advising: Always read poems aloud. I can only sum up the difficulty by recalling a scene in Star Wars in which Obi Wan Kenobi sternly tells Han Solo he wants “to avoid any Imperial entanglements,” and Solo replies, “Well that’s the trick, isn’t it?”

Humility

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A sagacious youth of noble family landed at a seaport of Turkey, and, as he displayed piety and wisdom, his baggage was deposited in a mosque. One day the priest said to him: “Sweep away the dust and rubbish from the mosque.”Immediately, the young man went away and no one saw him there again. Thus, did the elder and his followers suppose he did not care to serve. The next day, a servant of the mosque met him on the road and said: ‘Thou didst act wrongly in thy perverse judgment. Knowest thou not, O conceited youth, that men are dignified by service?” Sorrowfully, the youth began to weep. “O soul-cherishing and heart-illuminating friend!” he answered; “I saw no dirt or rubbish in that holy place but mine own corrupt self. Therefore, I retraced my steps, for a mosque is better cleansed from such.”

Humility is the only ritual for a devotee. If thou desire greatness, be humble; no other ladder is there by which to climb.

The Bustan of Sadi, tr. by A. Hart Edwards,

Beneath a Canopy of Stars

Navigators Reverie: Beneath a Canopy of Stars: This is work in progress a new series of images which incorporates some fresh photography juxtapositioned with images of vintage celestial maps.

 Let us be like
two falling stars in the day sky.
Let no one know of our sublime beauty
as we hold hands with God
and burn
Into a sacred existence that defies –
That surpasses
Every description of ecstasy
And love.

Hazrat Hāfez-e Shīrāzī r.a

Flowers every night

Blossom in the sky;

Peace in the Infinite;

At peace am I.

Sighs a hundredfold

From my heart arise;
My heart, dark and cold,
Flames with my sighs.

Hazrat Maulana Jalal-ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (r.a)

 

The hidden banner is planted in the temple of the sky; 
there the blue canopy decked with the moon 
and set with bright jewels is spread.
There the light of the sun and the moon is shining: 
still your mind to silence before that splendour. 
Kabîr says: “He who has drunk of this nectar, 
wanders like one who is mad.”

 The Songs of Kabir, tr. by Rabindranath Tagore

Sufi Poets

Sufi Poets A wonderful collection of powerful words and thoughts

Hazrat Rabia al Basri r.a (717–801) is one of the first female Sufi Poets who helped to leave a rich teaching of Divine love through her mystical poetry.

Not much is known about Rabia al Basri, except that she lived in Basra in Iraq, in the second half of the 8th century AD.  She was born into poverty. But many spiritual stories are associated with her and what we can glean about her is reality merged with legend. These traditions come from Farid ud din Attar a later Sufi saint and poet, who used earlier sources. Rabia herself though has not left any written works. However, her oral poems were later written down, they frequently express themes of intense Divine Love.

Without You — my Life, my Love –
I would never have wandered across these endless countries.
You have poured out so much grace for me,
Done me so many favors, given me so many gifts –
I look everywhere for Your love –
Then suddenly I am filled with it.

– Rabia al Basri, (excerpt from, My Joy)

After her father’s death, there was a famine in Basra, and during that she was parted from her family. It is not clear how she was traveling in a caravan that was set upon by robbers. She was taken by the robbers and sold into slavery.

Her master worked her very hard, but at night after finishing her chores Rabia would turn to meditation and prayers and praising the Lord. Foregoing rest and sleep she spent her nights in prayers and she often fasted during the day.

There is a story that once, while in the market, she was pursued by a vagabond and in running to save herself she fell and broke her arm. She prayed to the Lord .

“I am a poor orphan and a slave,  Now my hand too is broken.  But I do not mind these things if Thou be pleased with me. “

and felt a voice reply:

“Never mind all these sufferings. On the Day of Judgement you shall  be accorded a status that shall be the envy of the angels even”

(follow link to read more)

 

The Seven Veils (ḥujub)

 … And verily We created above you seven paths … The Holy Quran [23:17]

That is, the seven veils (ḥujub) which veil [a person] from his Lord, Mighty and Majestic is He: the first veil is his intellect (ʿaql), the second his knowledge (ʿilm), the third his heart (qalb), the fourth his fear (khashiya), the fifth his self (nafs), the sixth his wish (irāda) and the seventh his will (mashīʾa). The intellect [is a veil] in its preoccupation with the management of the affairs of this world (tadbīr al-dunyā); knowledge because of the vainglory (mubāhāt) [it breeds] among peers; the heart in its heedlessness (ghafla); fear because of its disregard for influxes [of grace from above] (bi-ighfālihā ʿan mawārid al-umūr ʿalayhā)3; the self because it is the haven (maʾwā) for every tribulation (baliyya); the will because it is directed towards this world and turned away from the Hereafter; the wish due to its pursuance of sins.

~ Tafsīral-Tustarī by Sahl b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Tustarī | Great Commentaries on the Holy Qurʾān | Translated by Annabel Keeler and Ali Keeler

Conference of the Birds : A Seekers Journey to God by Farid ‘ud-Din Attar

Written in the 12th Century, Farid ad-Din Attar’s Allah be pleased with him metaphorical tale of birds seeking a King (God) has inspired readers across time and around the world. In this edition, from R.P. Masani’s 1923 translation, noted Sufi scholar and spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey sets the scene. ” The allegorical framework has the stark, luminous simplicity of Islamic calligraphy. You may believe you are reading a witty, dazzling allegory. Very soon, however, if you reading with attention, you will realise you are being drawn into a vision of a mystical path of the greatest depth.”

Like the birds, we may anticipate our pilgrimage until we realise that we must relinquish our fears and hollow desires. One by one, the birds – and the different types of humans they represent – begin to make excuses. Conference of the Birds is not for the faint hearted. Yet, if we want to know God and our own true and best selves, reading and
re-reading these stories reveals the path.

Strive to discover the mystery before life is taken from you.
If while living you fail to find yourself, to know yourself,
how will you be able to understand
the secret of your existence when you die?

The Valley of the Quest

“When you enter the first valley, the Valley of the Quest, a hundred difficulties will assail you; you will undergo a hundred trials. There, the Parrot of heaven is no more than a fly. You will have to spend several years there, you will have to make great efforts, and to change your state. You will have to give up all that has seemed precious to you and regard as nothing all that you possess. When you are sure that you possess nothing, you still will have to detach yourself from all that exists. Your heart will then be saved from perdition and you will see the pure light of Divine Majesty and your real wishes will be multiplied to infinity. One who enters here will be filled with such longing that he will give himself up completely to the quest symbolized by this valley. He will ask of his cup-bearer a draught of wine, and he has drunk it nothing will matter except the pursuit of his true aim. Then he will no longer fear the dragons, the guardians of the door, which seek to devour him. When the door is opened and he enters, then dogma, belief and unbelief–all cease to exist.”

The Valley of Love

“The next valley is the Valley of Love. To enter it one must be a flaming fire–what shall I say? A man must himself be fire. The face of the lover must be enflamed, burning and impetuous as fire. True love knows no after-thoughts; with love, good and evil cease to exist.

“But as for you, the heedless and careless, this discourse will not touch you, your teeth will not even nibble at it. A loyal person stakes ready money, stakes his head even, to be united to his friend. Others content themselves with what they will do for you tomorrow. If he who sets out on this way will not engage himself wholly and completely he will never be free from the sadness and melancholy which weigh him down. Until the falcon reaches his aim he is agitated and distressed. If a fish is thrown onto the beach by the waves it struggles to get back into the water.
“In this valley, love is represented by fire, and reason by smoke. When love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love; love gas nothing to do with human reason. If you possessed inner sight, the atoms of the visible world would be manifested to you. But if you look at things with the eye of ordinary reason you will never understand how necessary it is to love. Only a man who has been tested and is free can feel this. He who undertakes this journey should have a thousand hearts so that he can sacrifice one at every moment.”

The Valley of Understanding

“After the valley of which I have spoken, there comes another–the Valley Understanding, which has neither beginning nor end. No way is equal to this way, and the distance to be traveled to cross it is beyond reckoning.

“Understanding, for each traveler, is enduring; but knowledge is temporary. The soul, like the body, is in a state of progress or decline; and the Spiritual Way reveals itself only in the degree to which the traveler has overcome his faults and weaknesses, his sleep and his inertia, and each will approach nearer to his aim according to his effort. Even if a gnat were to fly with all its might could it equal the speed of the wind? There are different ways of crossing this Valley, and all birds do not fly alike. Understanding can be arrived at variously–some have found the Mihrab, others the idol. When the sun of understanding brightens this road each receives light according to his merit and he finds the degree assigned to him in the understanding of truth. When the mystery of the essence of beings reveals itself clearly to him the furnace of this world becomes a garden of flowers. He who is striving will be able to see the almond in its hard shell. He will no longer be pre-occupied with himself, but will look up at the face of his friend. In each atom he will see the whole; he will ponder over thousands of bright secrets.
“But, how many have lost their way in this search for one who has found the mysteries! It is necessary to have a deep and lasting wish to become as we ought to be in order to cross this difficult valley. Once you have tasted the secrets you will have a real wish to understand them. But, whatever you may attain, never forget the words of the Koran, “Is there anything more?”
“As for you who are asleep (and I cannot commend you for this), why not put on mourning? You, who have not seen the beauty of your friend, get up and search! How long will you stay as you are, like a donkey without a halter!”

The Valley of Independence and Detachment

“The there comes the valley where there is neither the desire to possess nor the wish to discover. In this state of the soul a cold wind blows, so violent that in a moment it devastates an immense space; the seven oceans are no more than a pool, the seven planets a mere sparkle, the seven heavens a corpse, the seven hells broken ice. Then, an astonishing thing, beyond reason! An ant has the strength of a hundred elephants, and a hundred caravans perish while a rook is filling his crop.

“In order that Adam might receive the celestial light, hosts of green-clad angels were consumed by sorrow. So that Noah might become a carpenter of God and build the ark, thousands of creatures perished in the waters. Myriads of gnats fell on the army of Abrahah so that that king would be overthrown. Thousands of the first-born died so that Moses might see God. Thousands of people took to the Christian girdles so that Christ could possess the secret of God. Thousands of hearts and souls were pillaged so that Muhammad might ascend for one night to heaven. In this Valley nothing old or new has value; you can act or not act. If you saw a whole world burning until hearts were only shish kabab, it would be only a dream compared to reality. If myriads of souls were to fall into this boundless ocean it would be as a drop of dew. If heaven and earth were to burst into minute particles it would be no more than a leaf falling from a tree; and if everything were to be annihilated, from the fish to the moon, would there be found in the depths of a pit the leg of a lame ant? If there remain no trace of either of men or jinn, the secret of a drop of water from which all has been formed is still to be pondered over.”

The Valley of Unity

“You will next have to cross the Valley of unity. In this valley everything is broken in pieces and then unified. All who raise their heads here raise them from the same collar. Although you seem to see many beings, in reality there is only one–all make one which is complete in its unity. Again, that which you see as a unity is not different from that which appears in numbers. And as the Being of whom I speak is beyond unity and numbering, cease to think of eternity as before and after, and since these two eternities have vanished, cease to speak of them. When all that is visible is reduced to nothing, what is there left to contemplate?”

The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment

“After the Valley of Unity comes the Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment, where one is a prey to sadness and dejection. There sighs are like swords, and each breath a bitter sight; there, is sorrow and lamentation, and a burning eagerness. It is at once day and night. There, is fire, yet a man is depressed and despondent. How, in his bewilderment, shall he continue his way? But he who has achieved unity forgets all and forgets himself. If he is asked: “Are you, or are you not? Have you or have you not the feeling of existence? Are you in the middle or on the border? Are you mortal or immortal?” he will reply with certainty: “I know nothing, I understand nothing, I am unaware of myself. I am in love, but with whom I do not know. My heart is at the same time both full and empty of love.”

The Valley of Deprivation and Death

“Last of all comes the Valley of Deprivation and Death, which is almost impossible to describe. The essence of the Valley is forgetfulness, dumbness and distraction; the thousand shadows which surround you disappear in a single ray of the celestial sun. When the ocean of immensity begins to heave, the pattern on its surface loses its form; and this pattern is no other than the world present and the world to come. Whoever declares that he does not exist acquires great merit. The drop that becomes part of this great ocean abides there for ever and in peace. In this calm sea, a man, at first, experiences only humiliation and overthrow; but when he emerges from this state he will understand it as creation, and many secrets will be revealed to him.

“Many beings have missed taking the first step and so have not been able to take the second–they can only be compared to minerals. When aloe wood and thorns are reduced to ashes they both look alike–but their quality is different. An impure object dropped into rose-water remains impure because of its innate qualities; but a pure object dropped into the ocean will lose its specific existence and will participate in the ocean and in its movement. In ceasing to exist separately it retains its beauty. It exists and non-exists. How can this be? The mind cannot conceive it.”

~ Manteq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) Translated by C. S. Nott

Hazrat Farid al-Din ‘Attar r.a (1142-1221)

One of the greatest sufi poet, Farid al-Din ‘Attar was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran, in 1142. Attar reached an age of over 70 and died a violent death in the massacre which the Mongols inflicted on Nishapur in April 1221.[1] Today, his mausoleum is located in Nishapur. It was built by Ali-Shir Nava’iin the 16th century.

There is little information on the formative life of the poet other than he was the son of a prosperous pharmacist and that he received an excellent education in medicine, Arabic, and theosophy at a madrasah attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad. According to his own Mosibat Nameh (Book of Afflictions), as a youth, he worked in his father’s pharmacy where he prepared drugs and attended patients. Upon his father’s death, he became the owner of his own store.

Work in the pharmacy was difficult for young ‘Attar. People from all walks of life visited the shop and shared their troubles with him. Their poverty, it seems, impacted the young poet the most. One day, it is related, an unsightly fakir visited the shop. The way he marveled at the opulence of the store made ‘Attar uneasy; he ordered the fakir to leave. Looking the owner and the well-stocked shop over, the fakir said, “I have no difficulty with this, pointing to his ragged cloak, to leave; but you, how are you, with all this, planning to leave!”

The fakir’s response affected ‘Attar deeply. He pondered the fakir’s reply for many days and, eventually, decided to give up his shop and join the circle of Shaykh Rukn al-Din Akkaf of the Kubraviyyah order. His new life was one of travel and exploration, very much like the fakir who had inspired him. For a long time, he traveled to Ray, Kufa, Mecca, Damascus, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi shaykhs, learning about the tariqah, and experiencing life in the khaniqahs.

When finally he felt he had achieved what he had been seeking in travel, ‘Attar returned to Nishapur, settled, and reopened his pharmacy. He also began to contribute to the promotion of Sufi thought. Called Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints), ‘Attar’s initial contribution to his new world contains all the verses and sayings of Sufi saints who, up to that time, had not penned a biography of their own.

Regarding the poetic output of ‘Attar there are conflicting reports both with respect to the number of books that he might have written and the number of distichs he might have composed. For instance, Reza Gholikhan Hedayat reports the number of books to be 190 and the number of distichs to be 100,000. Firdowsi’s Shahname contains only 60,000 bayts. Another tradition puts the number of books to be the same as the number of the Surahs (verses) of the Qur’an, i.e., 114. More realistic studies consider the number of his books to have been between 9 to 12 volumes.

‘Attar’s works fall within three categories. First are those works in which mysticism is in perfect balance with a finished, story-teller’s art. The second group are those in which a pantheistic zeal gains the upper hand over literary interest. The third are those in which the aging poet idolizes the saint Ali. During this period there is no trace of ordered thoughts and descriptive skills.

One of ‘Attar’s major poetic works is called Asrar Nameh (Book of Secrets) about Sufi ideas. This is the work that the aged Shaykh gave Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi when Rumi’s family stayed over at Nishapur on its way to Konya, Turkey. Another major contribution of ‘Attar is the Elahi Nameh (Divine Book), about zuhd or asceticism.

But foremost among ‘Attar’s works is his Manteq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) in which he makes extensive use of Al-Ghazali’s Risala on Birds as well as a treatise by the Ikhvan al-Safa (the Brothers of Serenity) on the same topic.

Led by the hoopoe, the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh. Their quest takes them through seven valleys in the first of which a hundred difficulties assail them. They undergo many trials as they try to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Once successful and filled with longing, they ask for wine to dull the effects of dogma, belief, and unbelief on their lives.

In the second valley, the birds give up reason for love and, with a thousand hearts to sacrifice, continue their quest for discovering the Simurgh.

The third valley confounds the birds, especially when they discover that their worldly knowledge has become completely useless and their understanding has become ambivalent. They cannot understand why both the mihrab and the idol lead to understanding. Devoid of their earthly measures, they lose their ability to distinguish right from wrong.

The fourth valley is introduced as the valley of detachment, i.e., detachment from desire to possess and the wish to discover. The birds begin to feel that they have become part of a universe that is detached from their physical recognizable reality. In their new world, the planets are as minute as sparks of dust and elephants are not distinguishable from ants.

It is not until they enter the fifth valley that they realize that unity and multiplicity are the same. And as they have become entities in a vacuum with no sense of eternity. More importantly, they realize that God is beyond unity, multiplicity, and eternity.

Stepping into the sixth valley, the birds become astonished at the beauty of the Beloved. Experiencing extreme sadness and dejection, they feel that they know nothing, understand nothing. They are not even aware of themselves.

Only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh. But there is no Simurgh anywhere to see. Simurgh’s chamberlain keeps them waiting for Simurgh long enough for the birds to figure out that they themselves are the si (thirty) murgh (bird). The seventh valley is the valley of depravation, forgetfulness, dumbness, deafness, and death. The present and future lives of the thirty successful birds become shadows chased by the celestial Sun. And themselves, lost in the Sea of His existence, are the Simurgh.

~ by Iraj Bashiri