Sufi Themes and Imagery through Mawlānā’s Naynāma: Part 2

Posted  21 Jul 2020

Picking up where we left off a couple of weeks ago, Iskandar takes us through the next lines of Mawlana’s Masnavi, with a close line by line reading interspersed with discussion of the wider themes and imagery that run through the text.

 

آتش است این بانگ نای و نیست باد
هر که این آتش ندارد نیست باد

آتش عشق است کاندر نی فتاد
جوشش عشق است کاندر می فتاد

Ātash ast īn bāng-i nāy u nēst bād
Har ki īn ātash nadārad nēst bād

Ātash-i ʿishq ast k-andar nay fitād
Jōshish-i ʿishq ast k-andar may fitād

 

Nāy: i.e. nay. Classical Persian poets can be quite liberal when it comes to vowel length when a word must be used in a line but does not fit the metre. Long vowels can be shortened, and short vowels may be lengthened.

K-andar: contraction of ki andar. We have seen examples of contraction with the conjunction ki before.

Fitād: uftād ‘fell’. As the metric pattern of the Naynāma requires the second last syllable of each line to be a short, the common form uftād is changed to an alternative form fitād.

In Persian metre (عروض ʿarūż), a syllable made of a consonant and a short vowel is considered to be short, and a syllable made of a consonant and a long vowel, as well as a syllable made of a consonant, a short vowel, and another consonant are considered to be long. A word initial syllable starting with a vowel is assumed to have the consonant hamza (glottal stop) preceding the vowel. Thus, uf is understood as hamza-u-f, i.e. consonant-short vowel-consonant, therefore long, and fi as f-i, i.e. consonant-short vowel-consonant, therefore short. I will talk more about Persian metric patterns in future.

Bād: a clever play on words by Mawlānā. The first bād is a noun that learners of Persian already know at an elementary level – ‘wind’. Some translators have interpreted it as referring to human breath. In any case, it refers to something common and without importance. The second bād, however, is the optative (‘May…’) form of the verb būdan ‘to be’ and translates as ‘may (he/she/it) be’. Therefore, the two nēsts also differ in meaning: the first one is the negative adverb meaning ‘not’, and the second one is a quasi-adjective meaning ‘inexistent’. The second hemistich of the first line, therefore, translates as ‘Anyone who does not have this fire, may he (or to use the modern gender-neutral pronoun, they) be gone!’

 

Theme 3: Divine Love

Lying in the centre of Sufi thought is the concept of Divine Love, usually expressed by the term ʿishq. The Sufis think that the human is the lover and the divine Creator is the beloved, and they are eternally bonded by an eternal love that started at the very instant of creation, when God made a pact with Adam and his descendants by asking them:

أَلَسۡتُ بِرَبِّكُمۡ

ʾA-lastu bi-rabbikum?

‘Am I not your Lord?’ (7:172)

And they testified to it with an affirmative answer. This Pact of Alast (ʿahd-i alast), taken from the Arabic original which means ‘am I not?’, is central to the Sufi understanding of the relationship between human and God: it is eternal and unviolated even after humanity was exiled from God’s presence. The purpose of human-lover (ʿāshiq)’s existence in this low-world (dunyā), as I mentioned in my previous post, is the ultimate reunion with the divine Beloved (maʿshūq).

The mention of love in Sufi poetry, therefore, is ambiguous. Pious Muslims today tend to dismiss the interpretation of the word ʿishq as the love between two humans, shunning even more any suggestions that it may refer to the love between two humans of the same sex, with which classical Persian poetry is, in fact, replete, whereas western readers are only too keen on interpreting ʿishq as a secular emotion. The truth is that, in some poems it is evident that ʿishq refers to Divine Love, whereas in others, human-to-human love is described under the disguise of the form of Sufi poetry, due to the stigma of publicly declaring one’s love for another, be the beloved of the other or the same sex. Certain poems describe love in such a way that it may be understood in both ways.

 

Imagery 2: Fire

The importance of fire (ātash) to humankind is evident: it was essential to the survival and settlement of early humans. Therefore, it is not surprising that fire is considered by Eurasian civilisations to be one of the basic elements of which the animate and inanimate are made up. The deification of fire is also seen throughout the world.

Thus, fire carries divinity within itself, and plays a central role in Iranian civilisation both before and after the advent of Islam. In Zoroastrianism, fire is the concrete agent of light – the symbol of the supreme, one and only divine, Ahura Mazda. In Islam, Sufis continue to understand fire as a representation of God and Divine Love, justified notably by the Qurʾānic story of the burning bush which is common to all Abrahamic religions. According to the Qurʾānic version the story, God spoke to Moses (Mūsā) through a fire in a bush, which is mentioned three times in the Qurʾān in suras 20, 27, and 28. For example:

 

إِذۡ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِأَهۡلِهِۦٓ إِنِّيٓ ءَانَسۡتُ نَارٗا سَـَٔاتِيكُم مِّنۡهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوۡ ءَاتِيكُم بِشِهَابٖ قَبَسٖ لَّعَلَّكُمۡ تَصۡطَلُونَ. فَلَمَّا جَآءَهَا نُودِيَ أَنۢ بُورِكَ مَن فِي ٱلنَّارِ وَمَنۡ حَوۡلَهَا وَسُبۡحَٰنَ ٱللَّهِ رَبِّ ٱلۡعَٰلَمِينَ. يَٰمُوسَىٰٓ إِنَّهُۥٓ أَنَا ٱللَّهُ ٱلۡعَزِيزُ ٱلۡحَكِيمُ

 

ʾIḏ qāl Mūsā li-ʾahlihi ʾinnī ʾanastu nāran sa-ʾatīkum minhā bi-khabarin ʾaw ʾatīkum bi-shihābin qabasin laʿallkum taṣṭalūna. Fa-lamma jaʾāhā nūdiya ʾan būrika man fī-l-nār wa man ḥawlahā wa subḥān Allahi rabbi-l-ʿālamīna. Yā-Mūsā ʾinnahu ʾanā-llāhu-l-ʿazīzu-l-ḥakīm.

‘When Moses said to his family, “Indeed, I have perceived a fire. I will bring you from there information or will bring you a burning torch that you may warm yourselves.” But when he came to it, he was called, “Blessed is whoever is at the fire and whoever is around it. And exalted is Allah, Lord of the worlds. O Moses, indeed it is I – Allah, the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”’ (27:7-9)

Fire consumes one, just like love, and reduces one to the base particles of which one is made so that one may once again be reunited with the Creator. Anyone who does not understand this, opines Mawlānā, does not deserve this existence and might as well not exist (nēst bād).

 

Imagery 3: Wine

Did they drink or did they not? – Wine consumption is probably the most popular topic among lovers of Sufi poetry. Between the image of an alcoholic, hedonistic, areligious rebel fetishised by western readers and that of a pious individual for whom wine is merely a metaphor, exalted by practising Muslims, what most likely existed in history was a more sober attitude towards wine. Wine was of great importance in pre-Islamic Iran (as well as the Iranian space of Eastern Anatolia, Mesopotamia, South Caucasus, modern-day Afghanistan, and Central Asia), so the production and consumption of it by no means halted after the arrival of Islam. It was impossible that it should not have existed after the conversion of the Iranian space to Islam, given the ubiquitous mention of wine and a rich thesaurus of synonyms for the inebriating liquid – including the word may used in the second line here, the more common word sharāb, and bāda – in Persian and Persianate literatures. It is also erroneous to assume a dichotomy between being a Muslim and a wine-drinker (as well as a practitioner of other unorthodox acts), and that drinking wine necessarily represented defiance to religion among the ancients. The situation was most probably akin to mask-wearing during the current pandemic: the authorities impose or recommend wearing masks, but in practice, some people do and others do not: some wear medical masks, whereas others are content with a piece of fabric of dubious function; some wear masks on some days but not on others, whereas others never wear masks because they are not nervous about the virus; some even refuse to wear masks altogether as an act of defiance to God-knows-what. Humanity has not changed that much in terms of how we, in practicality, react to rules and authority.

Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that among the Sufi poets of the past, some always drank, some did so occasionally, and others never did, either due to a lack of interest, or a medical condition, or a conviction justified by religion. Though the mention of drinking wine in Sufi poetry is not always metaphorical, wine itself is a significant metaphor, namely for Divine Love. The Pact of Alast is concretised in Sufi discourse as the human soul drinking from the wine of God’s love, termed sharāb-i alast by the 11th-century Persian mystic Aḥmad Ghazālī in his Risāla-i Savāniḥ. As humans drank the wine of Divine Love in the presence of his beloved Creator, the earthly existence, or, more precisely, separation and exile from the Beloved, is a perpetual state of being hungover – an extension to the primordial drunkenness (khumār or makhmūr). The drinking of the earthly wine, therefore, offers a ‘taster’ of the feeling experienced by Adam when he made the Pact of Alast with God as well as a semblance of humanity’s forthcoming reunion with God. This is precisely what is referred to in the hemistich: Jōshish-i ʿishq ast k-andar may fitād – literally, ‘It is the effervescence of Love that fell inside wine’.

Apart from inducing intoxication – a spiritual experience, there is another property of wine that makes it an apt metaphor for love: its colour. The red colour of wine is comparable to that of blood, which is often mentioned in poetry as a symbol of the passion of love – more in the Latin sense of ‘suffering’ than in the sense of ‘excitement’ in modern English. Numerous lines from Persian and Persianate poetry mention the human lover’s ‘crying tears of blood’ as the imagery of his longing for reunion with the beloved Creator.

 

نی حریف هر که از یاری برید
پرده‌هایش پرده‌های ما درید

همچو نی زهری و تریاقی که دید
همچو نی دمساز و مشتاقی که دید

 

Nay ḥarīf-ī har ki az yārē burīd
Pardahāyash pardahā-ī mā darīd

Hamchu nay zahrē u taryāqē ki dīd
Hamchu nay damsāz u mushtāqē ki dīd

 

The elongated iżāfa: I have already mentioned that vowel length can sometimes be manipulated by the poet to meet the metric requirement. The iżāfa -i, in Persian poetry, is of undetermined length. It is long here in order to fit the metre.

Ki az: here, the ki does not contract with az, also to fit the metre. In fact, the more appropriate reading may be to see the i in ki as a long vowel, assuming the presence of a final consonant y, which runs on to connect with the vowel a in az.

Burīd: the verb burīdan in Modern Persian is a transitive verb meaning ‘to cut’, but in classical usage an intransitive meaning ‘to become separated from’ is also common. Here it has the latter meaning.

Parda: the word parda has many meanings, the most common one being ‘veil’ (hence the modern Persian usage ‘curtain’), and therefore ‘concealment’. In music, however, it refers to a fret on a lute, and therefore ‘melody’ by extension. Mawlānā’s clever play on words is evident here, as the first parda refers to melody and music and the second to veil and concealment.

Taryāq: often translated as ‘opium’ in modern dictionaries and also appearing in the form of taryāk, this word means ‘antidote, remedy’ in its more classical sense. It in fact came from the Greek word θηριακή (thēriakē), which meant the cure to a bite from a wild beast (θήρ (thēr) ‘beast’). In Persian poetry, it can refer specifically to the cure for the pangs of love. The proper word for opium is afyūn, but given the medicinal use of opium in the mediaeval Greek and Islamic world, it is not surprising that taryāq/k should have come to refer to opium in some contexts.

Ki dīd: here the ki is the shortened form of ‘who’ rather than the conjunction ‘that, which’.

 

Imagery 4: Veil

The veil is what stands between the lover and the (supposedly) prudish beloved. In the real world, it is either the face and body cover a woman wears to prevent her from being seen by anyone who is not a mahram, or the curtain which separates the male section of a gathering space from that of the female. The English language imported the word in the spelling form of purdah after Britain came in colonial contact with Mughal India.

In Sufi usage, it refers to the unseen nature of the God, the Divine Beloved, in this world, and is intrinsically linked to the dichotomy of ẓāhir ‘outer, apparent’ and bāṭin ‘inner, hidden’ which I talked about in my last post on the Naynāma: every creation of God is His sign on earth, and every sign of God is a veil that separates Him from the human, His lover, in exile from Him; the Sufi, blessed with true insight, sees through the veil in God’s varying signs and perceives behind them the one and only God. It can also refer, as shown in this section, to the unorthodox outer appearance of a Sufi, whose actions may be frowned upon by the religious orthodoxy who only sees and criticises him but fails to see that his unorthodox actions, in fact, translate a steadfast piousness and devotion to God. Just like the reed flute, the Sufi poet is both a poison (zahr) and its cure (taryāq) – the former being the sinful ẓāhir and the latter the righteous bāṭin. In essence, a Sufi poet is a confidant (damsāz) who offers his fellow humans, equally lovelorn and longing (mushtāq) for God, a more ‘effective’ way of godliness than orthodox religious rules. The Masnavī – itself the long song made by the reed flute, tears away (darīd) the misleading outer veil (parda) of the Sufi poet through the heartfelt melodies (pardahā) to which it is set.

 

نی حدیث راه پرخون می‌کند
قصه‌های عشق مجنون می‌کند

محرم این هوش جز بی‌هوش نیست
مر زبان را مشتری جز گوش نیست

 

Nay ḥadīs-ī rāh-i pur-khūn mēkunad
Qiṣṣahā-ī ʿishq-i Majnūn mēkunad

Maḥram-ī īn hōsh juz bēhōsh nēst
Mar zabān rā mushtarī juz gōsh nēst

 

Khūn: as I mentioned above, blood symbolises the passion of love and is compared to wine due to its red colour. This hemistich, therefore, plainly explains that the path (rāh) to union with the divine Beloved is characterised by suffering as well as drunkenness.

Majnūn: the ancient Arabian story of the unfulfilled love between Majnūn and Laylā spread through Islam. It is so well-known that it requires little explanation here. Throughout the history of Islamic civilisations, Majnūn, whose real name was Qais ibn al-Mulawwaḥ, exiled to the desert for his love for Layla, has been the archetype of hapless lovers. It is important, however, to bear in mind the literary meaning of Qais’s nickname: majnūn does not merely mean ‘mad’, but more precisely, ‘possessed by the jinn’. It is not insignificant that the Sufi poet-lovers, often shunned by society which accuses them of being unorthodox, choose this nickname as their self-reference, as the name carries the conviction that in order to be truly devoted to God, one would have to be different from the mainstream society that fails to understand their bāṭin. In many ways, the reference to Majnūn is a reclamation of a nickname with negative connotations.

Hōsh/bēhōsh: in order to have hōsh (consciousness, awareness, but here more in the sense of intellect) and understand the Sufi way, one has to become bēhōsh (unconscious). Bēhōsh is not a synonym of majnūn, but is certainly close to it in meaning, both designating the state in which one is out of one’s mind. According to Mawlānā, this is a good thing: only when one gets out of the conventional mindset can one then obtain the real awareness of Divine Love.

Mar… rā: as I mentioned in a previous post about the particle , the particle mar can be used together with to strengthen its meaning. Here, the is the genitive-dative which is like the English ’s. Therefore, mar zabān rā mushtarī is understood as mushtarī-i zabān.

 

Iskandar Ding

 

[feature image: detail from a manuscript of the Mansavi dated A.H. 894/A.D. 1488-89, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/446547]