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4. The Poets

Eastern Iran had been hospitable to Ṡūfism, and with the development of Persian vernacular literature from the eleventh century onward, Ṡūfī poets made an immortal

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contribution to Islamic literature. This was particularly true wherever Persian became the literary language--chiefly those areas where Arabic was not (Persia, Turkey, India, Central Asia), and with the devastation of the Eastern Islamic world by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and the career of Tīmūr (Tamerlane) in the fourteenth this tendency became stronger; Ṡūfism succeeded in offering men a vision of beauty and some consolation in an exceedingly chaotic and cruel time, and some of Persia's greatest poets wrote in the age of the Mongols.

A younger eleventh-century contemporary of Abū Sa‘īd ibn Abī Khayr was ‘Abdallah al-Anṡārī (died A.H. 481/A.D. 1088), the patron saint of Herat in Khurasan. Pīr-i-Anṡār, as he is better known, composed the earliest Persian devotional poetry known, though not all the verses ascribed to him by later generations are his.


Thou, Whose breath is sweetest perfume to the spent and anguished heart,
Thy remembrance to Thy lovers bringeth ease for every smart.
Multitudes like Moses, reeling, cry to earth's remotest place
"Give me sight, O Lord," they clamor, seeking to behold Thy face.
Multitudes no man hath numbered, lovers, and afflicted all,
Stumbling on the way of anguish, "Allah, Allah" loudly call.
And the fire of separation sears the heart and burns the breast,
And their eyes are wet with weeping for a love that gives not rest.
"Poverty's my pride!" Thy lovers raise to heaven their battle-cry,

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Gladly meeting men's derision, letting all the world go by.
Such a fire of passion's potion Pīr-i-Anṡār quaffing feels,
That distraught, like Layla's lover
  through a ruined world he reels.

Oh God, accept my plea,
And to my faults indulgent be.
Oh God, all my days have I spent in vanity,
And against my own body have I wrought iniquity.

Oh God, do Thou bless
  for this is not given to any man,
And do Thou caress,
  for this no other can.

Oh God, though succory is bitter,
  yet in the garden with the rose it blends;
And though ‘Abdallah be a sinner
  yet is he among Thy friends.

Oh God, Thou saidst, "Do this," and didst not let me;
Thou badest, "Do this not," and didst permit me.
Small profit was my coming yesterday:
Today life's market's not more thronged or gay.
Tomorrow I shall go unknowing hence.
Far better were it to have stayed away.

Know that God Most High has built an outward
  Ka'ba out of mud and stone,
And fashioned an inward Ka'ba of heart and soul alone.
  The outward Ka'ba Abraham did build,
The inward Ka'ba was as the Lord Almighty willed.

Oh God, in gold and silver the rich take pride:
The poor resign themselves to We do decide. (Sūra 43:31)

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Oh God, all other men are drunk with wine:
The wine-bearer is my fever.
Their drunkenness lasts but a night,
While mine abides forever. 36


Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār: A native of Nishapur, ‘Aṭṭār is usually believed to have perished in Genghis Khan's invasion of Khurasan, in A.H. 617/A.D. 1220. He was a druggist, who collected the sayings and teachings of Ṡūfī saints, and is credited with a very considerable literary output. His Persian poems show great story-telling ability, as well as devotion to the memory of al-Ḥallāj and, in common with other later Persian mystic poets, a clear pantheistic bias. It is not always clear how much of this is conviction, and how much poetic license; how much philosophy, and how much edifying literature; the poets and their admirers frequently found it advisable to leave that undefined. The following is the culmination of his long mystical epic, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr.


The sun of my Perfection is a Glass
Wherein from Seeing into Being pass
All who, reflecting as reflected see
Themselves in Me, and Me in them, not Me,
But all of Me that a contracted Eye
Is comprehensive of Infinity.
Not yet Themselves; no Selves, but of the All
Fractions, from which they split and whither fall.
As Water lifted from the Deep, again
Falls back in individual Drops of Rain--
Then melts into the Universal Main.
All you have been, and seen, and done, and thought,
Not You but I, have seen and been and wrought;
I was the Sin that from Myself rebell’d,
I the Remorse that tow’rd Myself compelled:

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. . . Sin and Contrition--Retribution owed
And cancelled--Pilgrim, Pilgrimage, and Road,
Was but Myself toward Myself: and your
Arrival but Myself at my own Door:
. . . Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside 37


In this poem, ‘Aṭṭār gives a new meaning to the bilā kayf of the orthodox--the doctrine that certain mysteries of faith must be accepted "without asking how."



His beauty if it thrill thy heart
If thou a man of passion art
Of time and of eternity,
Of being and non-entity,
    Ask not.

When thou hast passed the bases four,
Behold the sanctuary door;
And having satisfied thine eyes,
What in the sanctuary lies
    Ask not.

The Heavenly Tablet and the Pen
Are certainly thy tongue and brain:
Do thou the pen and tablet know,
But of the Pen and Tablet, O
    Ask not.

Thy breast is the Celestial Throne
And Heav'n the heart that it cloth own.
Yet but a cipher are the twain
And what the cipher is, again
    Ask not.

When unto this sublime degree
Thou hast attained, desist to be:

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But lost to self in nothingness
And, being not, of more and less
    Ask not.

Be thou a particle of shade
Whereon the sun's light is displayed
And when thou shalt no longer be,
Of happiness and misery
    Ask not.

‘Aṭṭār, if thou hast truly come
Unto this place, that is thy home,
In thy enjoyment of the Truth
Do thou of anguish and of ruth
    Ask not: 38

Ibn al-Fāriḍ: A contemporary and friend of Ibn al-‘Arabī was ‘Umar ibn al-Fāriḍ of Cairo (died A.H. 632/A.D. 1235), the greatest mystical poet who wrote in Arabic, the only one who can compare to the great Persian Stiff poets. He was venerated as a saint during his lifetime, and like other mystics is said to have written as the result of ecstatic inspiration. His odes, like those of St. John of the Cross, are tender and rapturous addresses to God as Absolute Beauty; at times, his imagery seems almost Keatsian.


Where eyes encounter souls in battle-fray,
I am the murdered man whom 'twas no crime to slay.
At first look, ere love in me arose,
To that all-glorious beauty I was vowed.
God bless a racked heart crying,
And lids that passion will not let me close
And ribs worn thin,
Their crookedness wellnigh to straightness shaped
By the glow within,
And seas of tears whence I had never ’scaped

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But for the fire of sighing!
How sweet are maladies which hide
Me from myself, my loyal proofs to love
Though after woeful eve came woeful dawn,
It could not move
Once to despair my spirit: I never cried
To Agony "begone!"
I yearn to every heart that passion shook
And every tongue that love made voluble,
And every deaf ear stopped against rebuke,
And every lid not dropped in slumbers dull.
Out on a love that hath no melting eyes!
Out on a flame from which no rapture flies!

Though he be gone, mine every limb beholds him
In every charm and grace and loveliness:
In music of the lute and flowing reed
Mingled in consort with melodious airs,
And in green hollows where in cool of eve
Gazelles roam browsing, or at break of morn;
And where the gathered clouds let fall their rain
Upon a flowery carpet woven of blooms;
And where at dawn with softly-trailing skirts
The zephyr brings to me his balm most sweet;
And when in kisses from the flagon's mouth
I suck wine-dew beneath a pleasant shade 39

. . . O happy, happy night in which thy vision
I hunted after with my net of waking!
The full moon, being thy copy, represented
To my unslumbering eye thy face's image,
And in such alien form thine apparition
Cooled mine eye's fever: I saw thee, none other,
Thus Abraham of old, the Friend of Allah,
Upturned his eye, what time he scanned the heavens.
Now is the pitchy gloom for us made dazzling,
Since thou thy splendour gav’st me for my guidance;
And when thou from mine eye in outward seeming
Art gone, I cast it inward, there to find thee.

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The beauty of all things seen tempted me, saying,
"Enjoy me," but I said "I am beyond thee.
Beguile not me, thyself by my Beloved
Distraught, in whom thou seem’st but an idea.
. . . My heart confessed His love One: then my turning
To thee were dualism, a creed I like not." 40


Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī: Rūmī (died 1273), the theologian of Persian poetry, came of an East Persian family which emigrated to Konya, the Saljūq capital of Muslim Anatolia (Ram), shortly before the Mongol invasions devastated Persia and Iraq. As it passed through Nishapur, the family is said to have visited the aged ‘Aṭṭār, who predicted the infant Jalāl al-Dīn's future greatness.

In Konya, Jalāl al-Dīn succeeded his father as professor in a madrasa, or college for training of ‘ulamā’. Already something of a Ṡūfī, he came under the powerful influence of the Ṡūfī Shams al-Dīn Tabrīzī, who visited Konya and who played Socrates to Rūmī's Plato. Rūmī left off teaching and became a changed man. His devotion to this eccentric and enthusiastic friend and master out-raged his disciples, and they forced Tabrīzī to leave the city. At the pleading of Rūmī he twice returned, and was finally killed by an angry mob. In acknowledgment of the debt he owed him, Rūmī called his own collection of poems (Diwān), The Diwān of Shams-i-Tabrīz.

But Rūmī's greatest work is his Mathnavī, "The Qur’ān of the Persian Language," a vast poem containing fables, allegories and reflections on Ṡūfī thought. While it has little artistic unity, being apparently written in periods of inspiration over a long space of time, it is a poetic work of unquestioned genius, erudition and deep religious feeling.

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Rūmī also founded the Mawlāwī or Mevlevi brother-hood, the "Whirling Dervishes," whose mystical dance in the samā‘, to recall the order of the heavenly spheres, is a sedate gyrating. Sections of the Mathnavī or the Diwān such as the superb opening "Song of the Reed Flute," from the Mathnavī, which plaintively tells of the soul's longing for God, the Source of its existence, were chanted at these sessions.


Listen to the tale of the reed flute,
Complaining of the pain of separation:
"Since they tore me from the reed-bed,
My laments move man and woman to tears.
O, for a bosom torn like mine with the wound of severance,
That I may tell it of the pain of longing!
He who is far from his place of origin
Longs for the Day of the Return.
In every company I tell my wailing song.
I have consorted with the unhappy and the joyous;
Each one becomes my friend for his own sake;
None asks the secrets of my heart.
My secret is not far from my plaint,
But eye and ear lack light to discern it."
Body from Soul and Soul from body are not veiled,
Yet to none is it given to see the Soul.
A fire is this noise of the reed-flute!
May whoso has no fire be nought.
The fire of Love has caught the reed;
The ferment of Love has changed the wine.
The reed is comrade to him who has lost his Friend,
Its strains rend the veil from our hearts. . . .
It tells of the mystic path of blood,
It recounts the love of Majnūn for Layla.
In our woe life's days are grown untimely;
My days move hand in hand with anguish.
Though they pass away thus, let them go!

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Thou remainest, Incomparable Purity. . . .
Yet he who is raw cannot understand ripeness,
Therefore my words must be brief:
Arise, oh my son, burst thy bonds and be free!
How long wilt thou be fettered with gold and silver? 41


From the Diwan of Shams-i-Tabriz

What is to be done, O Moslems? for I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew nor Gabr nor Moslem.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature's mint, nor of the circling heavens.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of the Kingdom of ‘Iraqain, nor of the country of Khorāsān,
I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of hell.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
He is the first, He is the last, He is the outward, He is the inward.
I know none other except "Yā Hū" [O He!] and "Yā man Hū."
I am intoxicated with Love's cup; the two worlds have passed out of my ken.
I have no business save in carouse and revelry.
If once in my life I spent a moment without thee,

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From that time and from that hour I repent of my life.
If once in this world I win a moment with thee,
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph forever.
Oh Shamsī Tabrīz, I am so drunken in this world,
That except of drunkenness and revelry I have no tale to tell. 42

Up, O ye lovers, and away! 'Tis time to leave the world for aye.
Hark, loud and clear from heaven the drum of parting calls--let none delay!
The cameleer hath risen amain, made ready all the camel train,
And quittance new desires to gain: why sleep ye, travellers, I pray?
Behind us and before there swells the din of parting and of bells;
To shoreless Space each moment sails a disembodied spirit away.
From yonder starry lights and through those curtain awnings darkly blue
Mysterious figures float in view, all strange and secret things display.
From this orb, wheeling round its pole, a wondrous slumber on thee stole:
O weary life that weighest naught, O sleep that on my soul dost weigh!
O heart, towards thy heart's love wend, and O friend, fly toward the Friend,
Be watchful, watchman, to the end: drowse seemingly no watchman may. 43


Jāmī: The Mongols were driven from Iran by the terrible Tīmūr (Tamerlane) in the fourteenth century--a Transoxanian Turk who was as great a catastrophe for the Muslim lands he ravaged as the early Mongols had ever

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been. However, in the fifteenth century his descendants, the Tīmūrī dynasty in Eastern Persia, patronized a brilliant revival of Persian-Islamic culture, the "Tīmūrī Renaissance." One of the chief ornaments of the Tīmūrī court in Herat was the last great mystical poet to write in Persian, Mulla Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Rahmān Jāmī (died A.H. 898/A.D. 1492). By 1507 the wild Uzbeks of Central Asia had destroyed the Tīmūrī power (although a prince of the Tīmūrī line was to found the Great Mughal dynasty of Delhi).

A practicing mystic, deeply influenced by the ideas of Ibn al-‘Arabī, Jāmī was also a scholar, a biographer and a poet of great and varied accomplishment.


Notwithstanding his piety and mysticism, Jāmī had a sharp tongue and was ready at repartee. Thus on one occasion he was repeating with fervour the line:

So constantly art thou in my stricken soul and sleep-less eye
That whosoever should appear from afar, I should think it was thou.

An irreverent bystander interrupted him with the question, "Suppose it were an ass?" "I should think it was thou," replied Jāmī 44."


On another occasion, Jāmī thus silenced a poet of the court who had accused his fellow poets of plagiarism.

We poets, Sāgharī maintains,
Steal his ideas and pen them.
It must be true--I've read his poems:
There's not an idea in them. 45

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The following is from his long poem Yūsuf and Zulaykhā.

Each speck of matter did He constitute
A mirror, causing each one to reflect
The beauty of His Visage. From the rose
Flashed forth His Beauty, and the nightingale
Beholding it, loved madly. From that Light
The candle drew the lustre which beguiles
The moth to immolation. On the sun
His Beauty shone, and straightway from the wave
The lotus reared its head. Each shining lock
Of Leylā's hair attracted Majnūn's heart
Because some ray divine reflected shone
In her fair face. ’Twas He to Shīrīn's lips
Who lent that sweetness which had power to steal
The heart from Parvīz and from Ferhād life.

His Beauty everywhere doth show itself,
And through the forms of earthly beauties shines
Obscured as through a veil. He did reveal
His face through Joseph's coat, and so destroyed
Zulaykhā's peace. Where’er thou seest a veil,
Beneath that veil He hides. Whatever heart
Doth yield to love, He charms it. In his love
The heart hath life. Longing for Him, the soul
Hath victory. That heart which seems to love
The fair ones of this world, loves Him alone.
Beware! say not, "He is All Beautiful,
And we His lovers." Thou art but the glass,
And He the face confronting it, which casts
Its image on the mirror. He alone.

Is manifest, and thou in truth art hid,
Pure Love, like Beauty, coming but from Him,
Reveals itself in thee. If steadfastly
Thou canst regard, thou wilt at length perceive
He is the mirror also--He alike
The Treasure and the Casket. "I" and "Thou"
Have here no place, and are but fantasies
Vain and unreal. Silence! for this tale

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Is endless, and no eloquence hath power
To speak of Him. 'Tis best for us to love,
And suffer silently, being as naught. 46


168:36 A. J. Arberry, Islamic Culture (India, 1936), pp. 369-389.

168:37 Edward Fitzgerald, Mantiq al-Tayr in Collected Works, p. 196.

168:38 ‘Aṭṭār, Diwān, trans. by A. J. Arberry in Immortal Rose (London, 1948), pp. 32, 33.

168:39 From his Diwān, trans. by Nicholson in Studies in Islamic Mysticism, pp. 175, 176.

168:40 Ibid., p. 174.

168:41 Editor's translation.

168:42 R. A. Nicholson, ed. & trans., Divānī Shamsi Tabrīz (Cambridge, 1898), p. 125.

168:43 Ibid., Appendix II.

168:44 E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia (Cambridge, 1928), Vol. III, p. 511.

168:45 Quoted in Browne, op. cit. Editor's translation.

168:46 E. G. Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (Cambridge, 1926, 1950), pp. 137 ff.

Next: 5. The Dervishes