Sufi Themes and Imagery through Mawlānā’s Naynāma: Part 3

Posted  19 Oct 2020

Picking up where we left off a few weeks ago, Iskandar returns to guide us through the Naynama, dealing with various themes and images as we go, from fish in water, to infinity.

 

در غم ما روزها بی‌گاه شد
روزها با سوزها همراه شد

روزها گر رفت گو رو باک نیست
تو بمان ای آن که چون تو پاک نیست

 

Dar gham-i mā rōz-hā bēgāh shud
Rōz-hā bā sōz-hā hamrāh shud

Rōz-hā gar raft gō raw bāk nēst
Tū bimān ey ān ki chōn tū pāk nēst

 

Imagery 4: Day and Night

 

The dualistic alteration of day (light) and night (darkness) is an enduring topic in Iranian/Persian civilisation ever since pre-Islamic times, with light praised and worshipped for its divinity, symbolising anything that is good (نیک nēk, N.B. bear in mind that the word خوب khūb in Classical Persian means ‘good’ more in the sense of ‘beautiful’, comparable to the Greek term καλός kalós) and pure (پاک pāk), and darkness condemned and cursed for its wickedness, symbolising anything that is evil (بد bad). The Iranian celebrations of یلدا Yaldā and نوروز Nawrōz are representative of the religio-cultural significance of light and darkness: Yaldā marks the beginning of increasing daylight, whereas Nawrōz celebrates the end of the night’s length being greater than the day’s (although Nawrōz is not mentioned in the Avesta and was likely an adoption from a Mesopotamian tradition when the Iranians migrated from the Central Asian steppes to West Asia, but this is separate topic). Islamic Persian poets continue to elaborate on the dualism of day and night, using the pair to symbolise the vicissitudes of time and instability of fortune, as well as the cruel passing of human life.

 

Bēgāh: This word is particularly interesting, as it has multiple layers of literal and metaphorical meaning. In Classical Persian, this word designates the approximative concept of ‘evening time’, which can range from before sunset to after sunset. In fact, although bēgāh with this meaning is rarely in current use in Iran, it is well alive in Tajikistan, where it is actively used in colloquial speech to designate the exact same time concept – if you enquire about the time something will happen there and you get an answer with bēgāh, you should basically have a Plan B for the evening to kill time. In classical literature, metaphorically, bēgāh often means ‘untimely, unseasonable’ and therefore ‘ill-fated, unfortunate’.

 

But aside from ‘the time period when darkness slowly replaces light’, bēgāh is interesting from an etymological point of view: Zoroastrians divide a day, from dawn to dusk, into five time periods in summer and three in winter, and each time period is called a gāh. Each gāh has a specific prayer with specific rituals. There is almost certainly a connection between the five daily prayers in Zoroastrianism and those in Islam, and I do wonder whether this has to do with the fact that, in classical Iranian maqām/dastgāh music, there are only five suites named with the word gāh (yakgāh ‘one-gāh’ remains in the Turkish repertoire, dūgāh ‘two-gāh’ stays alive in Central Asia, and segāh/sigāh ‘three-gāh’, chahārgāh ‘four-gāh’ and panjgāh ‘five-gāh’ have survived in all Persianate cultures with maqām music). Considering the etymology, then, bēgāh here can be understood as ‘without any gāh’, i.e. ‘outside of the chronological framework’, which means ‘unregulated’ and therefore ‘confused, confounded’ – when someone is confused about the stages of day (rōz), we can imagine the extent of their sorrow (gham), which is physically felt as a burning pain (sōz) and blends with day itself (rōz-hā bā sōz-hā hamrāh shud), rendering it dark like the evening. The only comfort (bāk nēst ‘[there is] no fear!’) therefore, is the eternal divine light that is the symbol of purity, which remains when day has become night.

 

هرکه جز ماهی ز آبش سیر شد
هرکه بی‌روزی است روزش دیر شد

در نیابد حال پخته هیچ خام
پس سخن کوتاه باید والسلام

 

Har ki juz māhī zi ābash sēr shud
Har ki bērōzī ast rōzash dēr shud

Dar-nayābad ḥāl-i pukhta hēch khām
Pas sukhan kōtāh bāyad va-s-salām

 

Imagery 5: Fish in Water

 

Fish in water is a rather frequently employed metaphor in classical Persian poetry, where the fish refers to the lover and its natural habitat, water, symbolises the beloved and love. The fish cannot survive outside of water and, as Mawlānā explains here, can never have enough of water, just as the lover will only perish without the beloved and can never be bored of love. The union of the lover and the beloved is as natural as the fish living in water, just as, if we recall the beginning of the Naynāma, the reed flute (nay) can only live organically in the reed bush (nayistān).

 

This imagery is extrapolated by the mention of a person without his daily sustenance (bērōzī), whose day is long (dēr, N.B. in Modern Persian, this word means ‘late’). The etymological word-play between ‘day’ (rōz) and ‘(daily) sustenance’ (rōzī) is ingenious.

 

Non-lovers, i.e. non-Sufis, will never understand a Sufi-lover’s way, as the ‘raw’ (khām) will never comprehend the state of the ‘ripe’ (pukhta). In Persian linguistic culture, the words ‘raw’ and ‘ripe’ go beyond their literal designations and very often refer, metaphorically, to states of maturity and levels of acquired wisdom. The uninitiated – therefore ignorant – will not understand the enlightened, i.e. those who are privy to Divine Love; there is consequently no need to waste time and words on those who do not understand. This complacency – at least on a discursive level – is prevalent among Sufi poets. Here, I cannot help but recall Hāfiz’s famous line:

 

ما در پیاله عکس رخ یار دیده‌ایم
ای بی‌خبر ز لذت شرب مدام ما

 

Mā dar piyāla ʿaks-i rukh-i yār dīdaʾēm
Ey bēkhabar zi lazzat-i shurb-i mudām-i mā

 

‘(Know that) I have seen in the wine-cup the reflection of the Beloved’s face
O you who are unaware of the pleasure of my continuous drinking’

 

, which addresses those who do not know of, or do not conform to, or criticise, the Sufi-lover’s way. The pronoun here (also cf. the first two lines of this week’s section) is most likely the ‘royal we’ frequently employed in Persianate literary cultures, but may also not be and refer instead to a group of like-minded fellow Sufis whom the poet represents in solidarity.

 

Va-s-salām: ‘farewell’, with the original Arabic pronunciation. Many non-Muslims may not be aware that the Arabic expression as-salām ʿalaykum ‘peace be upon you’ can be used both as a greeting and a goodbye expression. Its use upon departure from a person is illustrated here. The letter ل l in the Arabic definite article ال al– takes on the pronunciation of the following letter when it is a so-called ‘sun letter’ (a simple search on Google will clarify this term), hence the double sin this expression. It is important to pronounce the double s for the metre.

 

بند بگسل باش آزاد ای پسر
چند بند سیم و بند زر

گر بریزی بحر را در کوزه‌ئی
چند گنجد قسمت یک روزه‌ئی

Band bigsal bāsh āzād ey pisar
Chand band-i sīm u band-i zar

Gar birēzī baḥr rā dar kōzaʾē
Chand ganjad qismat-i yak rōzaʾē

 

Bigsal: In Persian poetry, unstressed short vowels in some verbs are routinely omitted in order to meet the metrical requirement. As the first rukn of the each hemistich here has the syllable structure of long-short-long-long (fāʿilātun), having the original reading of band bigusal would create a long (ban)-short (də)-short (bi)-short (gu) pattern which does not fit the metre. Therefore, the original form bigusal ‘Break!’ becomes bigsal. This also happens frequently to words such as می‌گذرد mēg(u)zarad ‘he/she/it passes’, بگشاید big(u)shāyad ‘may he/she/it open’, etc.

 

Imagery 6: Gold and Silver

 

Gold (zar) and silver (sīm, N.B. in Modern Persian, the Arabic word نقره nuqra (Iranian pronunciation: noghre) is preferred, and the native Persian word sīm has come to mean predominantly the string on a musical instrument) refer, of course, to wealth and riches, which is a frequent metaphor in classical Persian poetry symbolising worldly concerns, which chain up an individual and limit their pursuit of and reunion with the infinite divine.

 

Theme 4: Attachment

 

Attachment to the present world (dunyā) is frowned upon by Sufis, according to whom the real believer must not be distracted from complete devotion to the one and only God, the Absolute (حق ḥaqq), where one, having released oneself from one’s self (khud, khwēsh), becomes self-less (bēkhud), i.e. reaches the state of annihilation (فنا fanā) of self in God and obtains subsistence (بقا baqā). The abandonment of all worldly attachments, including the attachment to one’s self and anything that the self is concerned with is the first step towards the right path – the Sufi path, the path of the Lovers. As Mawlānā puts it in his Dīvān-i Shams:

 

هم خویش را بیگانه کن هم خانه را ویرانه کن
وآنگه بیا با عاشقان هم‌خانه شو هم‌خانه شو

 

Ham khwēsh rā bēgāna kun ham khāna rā vayrāna kun
V-āngah biyā bā ʿāshiqān ham-khāna shaw ham-khāna shaw

 

‘Make your self a stranger and destroy your house
Then come with the Lovers and share a house with them’

 

Imagery 7: Ewer

 

The ewer/pitcher (kōza) is a common household object in the Persianate world. The typical ewer in this geography is long-necked and with a long and curved spout, traditionally made of clay. The clay ewer, therefore, shares the same origin as humans, as the first human, Adam, was also made from clay. Khayyām explores this connection in a few of his rubāʿīs, for example:

 

بر کوزه‌گری پریر کردم گذری
از خاک همی نمود هر دم هنری

من دیدم اگر ندید هر بی‌خبری
خاک پدرم در کف هر کوزه‌گری

Bar kōzagarī parīr kardam guzarē
Az khāk hamēnamūd har dam hunarē

Man dīdam agar nadīd har bēkhabarē
Khāk-i pidaram dar kaff-i har kōzagarē

 

‘I passed by the ewer-maker’s the day before
[And saw] art appearing from dust at every moment

I saw, even though the unaware did not –
That my ancestors’ ashes were in the ewer-maker’s palm’

 

The human, like the ewer, is limited. Just as the ewer cannot contain even one day’s pouring of water, the human’s limited self and existence cannot measure the infinite divine. It is only when the ewer is in its primordial form, i.e. clay/dust/ashes, that its particles can join the infinite amount of other particle, and it is only when the human abandons the limited existence that reunion with the infinite divine can be possible. This leads us to the next theme.

 

Theme 5: Infinity

 

The concrete form, be it the ewer or human existence in this world, no matter how beautiful (cf. Khayyām’s hunar ‘art’ above) it may be, is ultimately limited and selfish. Khayyām also muses:

 

هرچند که رنگ و بوی زیباست مرا
چون لاله رخ و چو سرو بالاست مرا

معلوم نشد که در طربخانهٔ خاک
نقاش ازل بهر چه آراست مرا

 

Har chand ki rang u bōy-i zēbā’st marā
Chōn lāla rukh u chō sarv-i bālā’st marā

Maʿlūm nashud ki dar ṭarabkhāna-i khāk
Naqqāsh-i azal bahr-i chi ārāst marā

 

‘Although I am pretty in appearance and pleasant in smell
Like a tulip my face is, and like a tall cypress [my stature]

It is unknown that, in this earthly pleasure-dome
For what the Eternal Painter adorned me so’

 

Infinity, on the other hand, is the nature of God and characteristic of divine existence. The Qurʾān mentions that God:

 

لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ

 

lām yalid wa-lām yūlad (112:3)

 

‘neither begets nor is born’

 

, which is to say that infinity rejects concrete forms and is intrinsically incompatible with the finite earthly existence. To the Sufi-lover determined to be reunited with the infinite divine Creator, therefore, any pleasant shape and form in this world is futile and creates attachment and selfishness. The infinite divine is often compared to the sea/ocean (baḥr), which is perceived as limitless and includes and absorbs – most importantly – an infinite number of limited drops (قطره qaṭra) of water, which are indeed a common metaphor for human individuals. The finite water drop can only avoid being dried up exist eternally when it abandons its finite form and joins the infinite ocean, just as the limited human can only achieve subsistence when the earthly self is abandoned and any attachment to it is relinquished. As Shabistarī puts it:

 

بخور می تا ز خویشت وا رهاند
وجود قطره با دریا رساند

 

Bukhwōr may tā zi khwēshat vā rahānad
Vujūd-i qaṭra bā daryā rasānad

 

‘Drink wine so it may release you from your self
And join the existence of a drop with the sea’

 

With this, I shall end this week’s post. We will continue our reading of the Naynāma next week, and I promise I will write a post exclusively on the topic of wine in the near future.

 

Iskandar Ding

 

Image: dish with fish motif, Iran 16th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O79412/dish-unknown/