The Ecstatic poetry of the Sufi’s

The best selling poet of America in 2006 was not Whitman, Dickinson, Frost or Emerson but a Sufi mystic; Jaluddin Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, on the borders of the Persian Empire (Iran). Rumi is one of the best known Sufi poets but digging deep into the realms of Persian literature we find a wealth of Sufi poetry which even today retains a universal and timeless appeal.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. It has its roots in the Qu’ran and the Islamic tradition, but at the same times encompasses the universal mysticism that we see in other spiritual traditions. The essence of Sufism is the simple path of loving God. The Sufi Masters sing of the all pervading love which inundates their being when they become one with their ‘beloved’. If there is just one goal of Sufism; it is to overcome the attachment to the binding ego and attain liberation through realising one’s identity with God. And thus the Sufi poets speak of dying to be born again, a concept similar to other mystical traditions.

Often the great Sufi poets lived during times of religious fundamentalism. The authorities censored them, because they openly taught that man could have a direct contact with God. As a result poets such as Hafiz developed an increasing array of metaphors and synonyms to describe God. Frequently we come across references such as Friend, Beloved, Father, Mother, the Wine seller, the Problem giver, and the Problem solver. This ambiguity in describing God served a dual purpose. Firstly it made it difficult for his poetry to be censored for its unorthodox mystical ideas. It also illustrates the inherent difficulty a poet has in describing the nature of God. The infinite is beyond all name and form, how can the poet describe that which is beyond words?

“In love, nothing exists between heart and heart. Speech is born out of longing, True description from the real taste. The one who tastes, knows; the one who explains, lies. How can you describe the true form of Something In whose presence you are blotted out? And in whose being you still exist? And who lives as a sign for your journey?”

- Rabia al Basri [1]

 

However, despite the difficulties of describing their experiences, the words of the Sufi Seers still tease, cajole and inspire us to look beyond the page and into our own hearts. For those who love words, it is necessary to have poetry, which can take us beyond the domain of the intellect. Hafiz beautifully describes the purpose of a poet.

‘A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy heart.’ [2]

Frequently the Sufi poets use worldly imagery to describe their mystical experiences. Hafiz talks of visiting the wine seller to become inebriated with the overflowing cup of wine.

‘Look! There is wine in the glass eye of the Winebringer That intoxicates reason and leaves you with a hangover of happiness!’ [3]

Here the wine refers to the nectar of divine ecstasy. The wine seller is the Giver of Divine Grace. Madness is merely a reference to the inner ecstasy of communion with God. It is delightful paradox that the Sufi’s use worldly imagery to describe that, which is beyond the world.

The Sufi masters believed that outer religious forms were useless, unless they inspired the inner devotion. Poetry was their tool to poke fun at the pompous and arrogant. They took great delight in exposing hypocrisy, pride and vanity.

‘O hypocrite, you are so perfect, why do you criticize the lover of wine? Don’t worry, the sins of others, won’t count against you in the Good deed book of God.’ [4]

Their poetry is also a reflection of their unconventional, direct approach to God. The poems of many Sufi’s follow no obvious course. They have not been planned by a thinking mind; they flit effortlessly from one subject to another. We not do feel we are reading about a personality of say Hafiz or Rumi. We feel we are reading only about an inebriate devotee of God. The opinions of the world leave no effect on the poet who has transcended the norms and conventions of society. The poetry is a living expression of the timeless nature of the mystic. It comes from the source of all inspiration and requires no explanation to expand upon it.

‘A mystic knows without knowledge, without intuition or information, without contemplation or description or revelation. Mystics are not themselves.’ [5]

- Attar

An overriding theme of Sufi poetry is the expression of the relationship between lover and beloved. It is strongly reminiscent of the devotional bhakti tradition of Hinduism. At times they express the pain and agony of separation, at other times we get a tantalising insight into the unimaginable bliss of divine communion.

‘I have found nothing in all the world that could match his love’

- Rabia al Basri. [6]

‘All year round the lover is mad, unkempt, lovesick and in disgrace. Without love there is nothing but grief. In love.. what else matters?

- Rumi [7]

 

The Sufi poets combined a rare combination of lyrical eloquence with a profound mystical revelation. There words are timeless, appealing to the hearts of those aspiring for truth and beauty.

To be or not to be Is not my dilemma. To break away from both worlds is not bravery. To be unaware of the wonders That exist in me, That Is real madness!

- Rumi [8]

 

References

[1] Rabia al Basri – ‘Reality’
[2] Hafiz The Subject Tonight is Love – daniel ladinsky.
[3] In Wineseller’s Street by Thomas Crowe p.57
[4] In Wineseller’s Street by Thomas Crowe p.38
[5] Attar – The Hand of Poetry – 5 Mystic Poets of Persia – Lectures by Inayat Khan, Translations, Coleman Barks p.59
[6] Rabia al Basri ‘Brothers, my peace is in my loneliness.’
[7] Rumi – Whispers of the Beloved – Maryam Mafi and Azima Koln p.20
[8] Rumi – Whispers of the Beloved – Maryam Mafi and Azima Koln p.48

 

 

Article by Tejvan Pettinger

Richard is a meditation student of Sri Chinmoy and webmaster of Poetseers.org

 

Other articles on Sufi Poets by Richard