Sufi Themes and Imagery through Mawlānā’s Naynāma: Part 1

Posted  02 Jul 2020

This week, let us get away from grammar points and read some real classical poetry.

Classical Persian poetry, although written in a language far more accessible to speakers of Modern Persian than Middle English texts are to speakers of Modern English, can be difficult, not only due to the grammar, but also because of the imagery and literary tropes. No matter what the New Age interpretation of classical Persian poetry has to say, this poetry is deeply rooted in Islamic culture as well as theology – or, let’s say, a particular interpretation of Islamic theology termed ‘Sufism’ in the West. Sufism is not a ‘branch of Islam’ or a rejection of Islam, but rather an attempt to reclaim Islam by rejecting artificial human religious authorities and exulting the true and absolute, one and only divine. Therefore, a good understanding of classical Persian poetry can only be gained, in my view, with a good knowledge of the Islamic religion itself and its fundamental texts, which the poets themselves would have read and committed to memory as part of the education they received.

Under the circumstances of our contemporary world, many religious references in classical Persian poetry have become obscure to the modern reader; explanations, then, have inevitably become necessary. Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn of Balkh, modern-day Afghanistan, who is commonly known as Rūmī, ‘the Roman’, as he spent most of his life in the Anatolia under the Sultanate of Rum, needs no further introduction. The poem we will take a close look at this week is the opening chapter of his famous مثنوی معنوی/Masnavī-i Maʿnavī (‘The Spiritual Couplets’). This chapter, sometimes referred to as نینامه/Naynāma ‘The Letter of the Reed’, presents a rich tapestry of Sufi imagery that is also to be found elsewhere. Persian speakers all over the world are familiar with the Naynāma, and it is therefore beneficial for learners of Persian to become familiar with it. As usual, my transliteration is based on Classical Persian pronunciation. As many translations exist for this poem, I will not provide any translation but will focus on explaining selected words and themes.

بشنو از نی چون حمایت می‌کند
از جدائی‌ها شکایت می‌کند

کز نیستان تا مرا ببریده‌اند
در نفیرم مرد و زن نالیده‌اند

Bishnaw az nay chōn ḥikāyat mēkunad
Az judā’īhā shikāyat mēkunad

K-az nayistān tā marā bubrīda’and
Dar nafīram mard u zan nālīda’and

First of all, notice the typical ghazal rhyming pattern, i.e. AA BB CC DD… of this poem. The rhyme changes with every couplet.

Bishnaw: ‘hear/listen!’ The imperative is significant. It reminds one of the imperative iqrāʾ ‘read!’ in the Qur’an:

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ

Iqrāʾ b-ismi rabbika allaḏī khalaqa.

‘Read in the name of your Lord who created.’ (Qur’an, 96:1)

… and makes one think that it is not in vain that the Masnavī is often called ‘the Qur’an in Persian’. Mawlānā, as a great sage, urges his audience – do not forget that poetry was more oral than written at the time – to pay attention to the messenger – the reed flute.

Ḥikāyat ‘tale’ and shikāyat ‘complaint’ form an internal rhyme (sajʿ), a rhetorical device prized in Arabic and Persian eloquence. The pair strengthens the rhyme of the first couplet while suggesting that there is an intricate link between these two forms of narrative.

K-az: a contraction of ki az, in order to fit the metrical pattern.

The tā here is best translated as ‘since’. For the different meanings of tā, please see my previous post about reading Classical Persian poetry.

Bubrīda’and: ‘they cut’. Some learners may be puzzled by the omission of the ḍamma/pēsh between the second b and r. Omission of short vowels and shortening of long vowels are not uncommon in classical poetry, where syllables are adapted to the metrical requirement of a particular poem. The b- prefix (here taking the form of bu- rather than the usual bi-) as I also mentioned in my previous post, is not a marker of the subjunctive but to emphasise the past tense.

Theme 1: separation

The opening lines of the Naynāma immediately address one of the fundamental themes of Sufi poetry – separation, recurrent throughout this poem. Separation in Sufi thinking refers to humanity’s banishment from the presence of the Creator, which occurred not long after creation, and marks the beginning of humanity itself. The human condition, for the Sufis, is separation from their Creator, which is the source of the multitude of sufferings human must endure in this existence – this lowly world (dunyā, which literally means, in Arabic, ‘the lower’). The Creator is usually described as the beloved, and human as the lover. The lover must go through the trial of existence in the dunyā with his mind fixated on divine love and the one and only divine beloved, yearning for the day, i.e. the Day of Judgement (qiyāmat), when a reunion (viṣāl/vuṣlat) will finally happen. Therefore, love has no cure (chāra, davā) but death – an imagery very often evoked by poets across the Persianate world.

The relation between humanity and God is symbolised by nay and nayistān, whose common lexical root nay ‘reed, reed flute’ is an affirmation that humanity has its origin where the divine beloved is, as the former was created by the latter, or, let’s say, originated from the latter. The nayistān, the ‘reed bush’, is where the reed, i.e. human, should be, but the reed was cruelly cut away from it. Therefore, the single reed flute represents separation by its mere existence as an object cut away, and is, by essence, destined to speak of separation with its plaintive melody; likewise, a true believer, i.e. a Sufi, like Mawlānā himself, is destined to suffer, to cry, and to sing of his sorrow. In the dunyā, the Sufi is a vagabond but not a lost soul – as long as he focuses his mind and his song on the one and only goal – reunion with God, as he wanders through mard u zan, telling them of their common predicament.

سینه خواهم شرحه شرحه از فراق
تا بگویم شرح درد استیاق

هر کسی کو دور ماند از اصل خویش
باز جوید روزگار وصل خویش

Sīna khwāham sharḥa sharḥa az firāq
Tā bigōyam sharḥ-i dard-i ishtiyāq

Har kasē k-ū dūr mānd az aṣl-i khwēsh
Bāz jōyad rōzgār-i vaṣl-i khwēsh

Tā: here, it has the meaning of ‘so that’, familiar to learners of Modern Persian.

K-ū: not ‘where’, but a contraction of ki ū, ‘that he’.

Imagery 1: the heart in pieces

The heart or its cage, the chest, in pieces, is a frequent metaphor for the unbearable sorrow endured by the lover in exile, which is still heard in Persian, Turkish, Urdu… pop songs today. In Modern Persian, one is more likely to say pāra pāra rather than the Arabic sharḥa sharḥa used here. The term firāq ‘separation’ (related, of course, to the word farq ‘difference’) more directly refers to the reed flute’s separation from its ancestral land and is the cause for the ishtiyāq ‘longing, yearning’ which rhymes with it. Sharḥa ‘piece, slice’ is from the same root as sharḥ ‘exegesis, explanation’, both coming from sh-r-ḥ ‘to dilate, to open, to cut, to melt, to expose’. Sharḥ has the connotation of ‘opening up, dilating’ the chest for it to receive divine inspiration, as God did for Prophet Muhammad:

أَلَمْ نَشْرَحْ لَكَ صَدْرَكَ

A lam nashraḥ laka ṣadraka?

‘Did we not expand for you your chest?’ (Qur’an 94:1)

Therefore, the term has a religious connotation – you may have come across the many sharḥ al-Qurʾān (exegesis of the Qur’an) in the Muslim world, and also the sharḥ of the dīwāns of Persian poets that help you read between the lines. The use of sharḥ as the term of the explanation of the pain of longing – the purpose of the composition of the Masnavī – is not random, given the poetic work’s deep religious connotations, nor is sharḥa an idle choice of word, as the pain of separation is rooted the Sufi understanding of creation and human existence.

Elsewhere, you may encounter quite often the similar imagery of the torn collar (chāk-i giribān), which vividly describes the sorrowful lover’s craze as he tears open his collar to expose (cf. sh-r-ḥ) his chest (sīna), as if showing how painfully he physically feels the separation from the divine beloved.

In this part, Mawlānā explains the previous metaphor of nay and nayistān openly and plainly: anyone separated from their origin will inevitably search for reunion with it – a concise, summary statement of the human condition as seen by the Sufis. A note for elementary and intermediate learners: the word bāz does not mean ‘open’, but ‘again’, which is quite a common meaning of the word. The word rōzgār has a meaning that combines ‘time’ and ‘fortune’ – you may have heard Iranians utter ‘Ey rūzgār’, which is the exact equivalent of the famous Roman writer Cicero’s ‘O tempora’.

من به هر جمعیتی نالان شدم
جفت بدحالان و خوش‌حالان شدم

هر کسی از ظن خود شد یار من
از درون من نجست اسرار من

Man ba har jamʿiyatē nālān shudam
Juft-i bad-ḥālān u khōsh-ḥālān shudam

Har kasē az ẓann-i khud shud yār-i man
Az darūn-ī man najust asrār-i man

Shudam: the two meanings of the verb shudan, which I mentioned in my previous post, are in a nice juxtaposition here: the first shudam means ‘I went’ and the second one means ‘I became’. However, the classical meaning of shudan is more ‘to go’ than ‘to be’, which – if you know Kurdish – is related to the Kurdish word chūn ‘to go’.

Bad-ḥālān u khōsh-ḥālān: the two compound words should be understood literally here. In Modern Persian khōsh-ḥāl means ‘happy’, but the etymology is clear from the compounding – ‘(one who is) in a merry state’, i.e. ‘the fortunate one’. Bad-ḥālān is, of course, ‘those in a bad state’, i.e. ‘the unfortunate’.

Theme 2: the external and the internal

That is, the ẓāhir ‘apparent’ and the bāṭin ‘inner’ – a dualistic idea much influenced by neo-Platonism. The gnostic (ʿirfān, ‘gnosis’) thinking of the Sufis hinges upon the idea that the exterior is untrue and the interior, the essence, the absolute, is true and is the ḥaqq. This has two implications. Firstly, it is a profound interpretation of the most essential precept in Islam – the tawḥīd, commonly translated as the ‘uniqueness and oneness of God’: every creation of God is an image, a reflection of Him, but is never Him; the believer’s duty is to acquire the discernment, the dīd-i jān (‘the sight of the soul’, which we shall see in the next couplet), which allows one to see through the various and variable appearances and reaches the invariable, absolute essence that is one and unique. Secondly, it is an epistemological pattern which distinguishes those ‘in the know’ from the ignorant: there is much contempt in Sufi poetry towards those who see only the unorthodox acts of the Sufis and do not have the ability to understand their purpose – the uninitiated will never understand the fact that, in being entranced by the beauty of a particular human, the Sufi is in fact entranced by the beauty of the divine which created it and is mirrored by it, or the fact that the intoxication by any earthly substance, be it wine or hashish, is in fact intoxication by the love of the divine. This is stated by Mawlānā in this section, where the nay complains of those who think they understand him but have not sought to comprehend his secrets (asrār), which are the deep love for the divine and the yearning for being reunited, for re-becoming one, with its origin, expressed through his metaphorical shape and sound. The Masnavī is a book of tales full of metaphors and symbolisms, and only those who truly see through them can understand what they refer to and be the yār of a Sufi. As Mawlānā further explains through his porte-parole – the personified nay:

سر من از نالهٔ من دور نیست
لیک چشم و گوش را آن نور نیست

تن ز جان و جان ز تن مستور نیست
لیک کس را دید جان دستور نیست

Sirr-i man az nāla-i man dūr nēst
Lēk chashm u gōsh rā ān nūr nēst

Tan zi jān u jān zi tan mastūr nēst
Lēk kas rā dīd-i jān dastūr nēst

Rā: the first rā has the genitive meaning, i.e. like the ’s in English, and the second rā is a dative one, i.e. ‘to’. Please see my post dedicated to rā for more explanation.

The internal, the hidden, though in fact not far from the appearance, is out of reach to the physical organs – the eyes and ears, which do not possess enlightenment (ān nūr ‘that (very) light’). The nay is not complaining in vain and Mawlānā does not tell the subsequent tales of the Masnavī for the sake of telling them, but for the purpose of waking up the listener to the real, hidden meaning (maʿnā) of human existence. One must obtain the insight (dīd-i jān) before being able to reach beyond the perception of the chashm u gōsh, i.e. see through the exterior, the false, represented by tan (‘body’), and perceive the interior, the true, represented by jān (‘soul’), the former being the indicator of the latter but never the latter per se. Yet such insight is not available to anyone (kas rā dastūr nēst) except those who open their chest to feel the suffering of human existence and to receive divine inspiration through the suffering (cf. the Arabic root sh-r-ḥ mentioned earlier).

We will continue our reading of the Naynāma next week.

Iskandar Ding

[featured image: reeds growing in the wetlands of Khuzestan]