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Sufism in the Literatures of Muslim Nations

Sufi literature, both in Persian and Arabic and in its poetic and prose forms, in addition to its didactic dimensions, covers a range of metaphoric and lyrical themes, which at times are reminiscent of non-mystical genres, a generalization which may not necessarily apply to all the various modes of this literature. 

Tasawwuf and `irfan have given rise to a vast body of didactic, symbolic and lyrical literature among the Muslim peoples of various tongues, the oldest ones being Persian and Arabic. Turkish and Urdu are among the most heavily influenced languages by Sufism. Prominent examples of didactic works include al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah by Abu ’l-Qasim Qushayri, Kitab al-Luma` fi ’l-tasawwuf by Abu Nasr Siraj Tusi, Manazil al-sa’irin by Shaykh al-Islam Khwajah `Abd Allah Ansari Harawi, and `Awarif al-ma`arif by Shihab al-Din `Umar Suhrawardi, in Arabic, and Kashf al-mahjub by Hujwiri, Sharh ta`arruf by Abu Bakr Mustamli Bukhari, Kimiya-yi Sa`adat by Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazzali, Mirsad al-`ibad by Najm al-Din Razi, and Misbah al-hidayah by `Izz al-Din Kashani, in Persian. Major works containing the accounts of the lives and experiences of great Sufi masters include Asrar al-tawhid fi maqamat al-shaykh Abu Sa`id on Abu Sa`id Abu ’l-Khayr, Firdaws al-murshidiyyah on Shaykh Abu ’l-Hasan Kazaruni, Sirat shaykh al-kabir Abu `Abd Allah b. al-Khafif al-Shirazi, Maqamat Shaykh Ahmad Jam, Mqamat Awhad al-Din Kirmani, and Risalah Sipahsalar and Manaqib al-`arifin on Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balhki Rumi. To these should be added works containing the sayings and treatises of prominent Sufi masters. 

In terms of works of a hortatory and edifying nature – calling for avoidance of worldly attachment and exhortation to divine love – mention should be made of the treatise attributed to Khwajah `Abd Allah Ansari, the books of Shaykh Ahmad Jam, the Sawanih of Shaykh Ahmad Ghazzali, the Tamhidat and Zubdat al-haqa’iq of `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani, and the treatises of `Aziz Nasafi. 

As regards Sufi poetry in Arabic, the Divan of Ibn Farid (d. 633 AH) is worthy of mention, especially his Khamriyyah Mimiyyah Ode and his two Ta’iyyah Odes, known as Kubra (Major) and Sughra (Minor). The foremost, didactic and inspirational works of this genre belong to Sana`i, `Attar and Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. 

In his Khamriyyah Ode, Ibn Farid deals with the issue of divine love, while in both of his Ta’iyyah Odes, in addition to this subject, he provides a glimpse of his own mystical experience. Though, an undercurrent of didacticism runs through all of Ibn Farid’s poems, and some are alleged to betray a belief in the theory of the unity of existence, the predominant theme of his works is lyricism and symbolism. In fact, the title of Sultan al-`Ashiqin (the Sultan of Lovers), by which he was known among his Sufi peers, is a clear indication of the literary aspect which imbues the majority of his works. His Major Ta’iyyah is more intelligible in the context of a personal Sufi ode rather than a didactic work on Sufism, a point which makes it more of a literary work rather than one intended to convey Sufi teachings. This observation is further borne out by the emphasis placed in the commentaries on the Khamriyyah Ode which focus predominantly on the literary merits of the work rather than on its elaboration of mystical feelings and experiences. 

Ibn al-`Arabi is next to Ibn Farid in terms of the superiority of his Arabic poems. His Kitab al-Mi`raj is especially worthy of notice, since it appears to have exerted an influence on Dante’s Divine Comedy, a point first hinted at by Asin Palacios and later bolstered by further research, which seems to have removed all incredulity. 

Another great figure, with clear influence from Ibn al-`Arabi, is `Abd al-Karim Jili (d. 832 AH), the author of the seminal book al-Insan al-kamil, who appears to have been under the influence of Uthulujia, as well. His poetry is marked by a high degree of innovation and creativity, to the point that some consider him as the last great Sufi poet in the history of Arabic literature. 

Sufi love poetry as well as its didactic type, which is mainly tinged with lyricism, has a long tradition in Persian literature. The oldest examples belong to Abu Zar`ah Buzjani, Rabi`ah Bint Ka`b, and those whose poems were recited in the gatherings of Shaykh Abu Sa`id, who himself is alleged to have composed a collection of quatrains, an attribution based on less than solid evidence. In an even brief discussion of Sufi poetry one is obliged to make mention of Sana`i, `Attar and Mawlawi, though Maghribi Tabrizi and `Abd al-Rahman Jami are also worthy of notice. The inclusion of Hafiz in this list, in spite of the mystical tones of some of his poems, and his characterization as a Sufi poet would be hardly justifiable. 

Sana`i Ghaznawi is not only considered as the founder of lyrical Sufi poetry in Persian, his didactic mathnawis, such as Hadiqat al-haqiqah, are deemed as the first and the most interesting experiences in the elaborating of mystical teachings within a lyrical and symbolic framework. His short mathnawi of Siyar al-`ibad il al-ma`ad, which is considered by some as a precursor to Dante, is vitiated by its panegyric to a ruler of his day. 

Farid al-Din `Attar, whose poetry is devoted entirely to the elaboration of mystical themes, appears to have breathed a more authentic air of Sufism than his predecessor Sana`i. None the less, his lyrical poetry was less well received than his didactic mathnawis. Among the vast bodies of mathnawis, whose number has caused some critics to view him as a poet with unbridled artistic creation, only four are of dubious authenticity. However, contrary to the view of some contemporary critics, `Attar’s works are not bereft of poetic subtleties. In addition, `Attar employs poetry as a powerful vehicle for the elaboration of mystical concepts, one whose simplicity and lucidness is impossible to find in any other poet of this genre. 

Among his four mathnawis, Asrar Namah is reminiscent of Sana`i’s Hadiqah. Its chapters open with edifying sermons, containing accounts of the shuridagan (the seemingly deranged, i.e. made insane by divine love) and other short instructive anecdotes. His mathnawi of Ilahi Namah is an extensive conversation between a caliph and his six sons, which serves as a background for a string of tales filled with moral points. The caliph asks his sons about things which they value the most, which, in turn, are said to be the daughter of the king of paris (fairies), the power of sorcery, the Jam-i Jam, the water of life, the ring of Solomon, and the knowledge of alchemy. The caliph goes on to expose the truths lying behind the appearances of these symbols and concludes that the only object worthy of desire is the love of God, which is only attainable through asceticism and severance from worldly attachments. Thus, the work of `Attar attempts to inspire a sense of spirituality in his reader and to encourage him to ponder the symbolic meanings of the tale. 

His other mathnawi, which is also a series of stories presented within the framework of the main story, is Musibat Namah, which chronicles the journey of a spiritual wayfarer through various worlds, including his encounters with the prophets. 

The long and arduous journey finds the spiritual traveler exhausted in his search for truth, which is finally brought to a fruitful conclusion through the mediation of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who satisfies his, and his master’s (i.e. intellect), quest for truth. The source of the plot has been a matter of controversy. Some believe that `Attar received the inspiration for his symbolic tale from a prophetic hadith (the Hadith of Shafa`ah), however, it appears likely that he was influenced by the metaphors in the stories of Ibn Sina, Ghazzali and Suhrawardi. 

`Attar’s most famous mathnawi is that of Mantiq al-tayr, which appears to have been inspired by a symbolic story by Abu Hamid Ghazzali, entitled Risalat al-tayr, via its Persian translation from Arabic by Ghazzali’s brother, Shaykh Ahmad. The theme is once again that of spiritual journey, framed in the form of the flight of a flock of thirty birds in search of Simurgh (the legendary bird who dwells on Qaf Mountain). Finally, after an exhausting journey and after traversing the seven stages of suluk, the birds find themselves in the presence of Simurgh (literally, si murgh, i.e. thirty birds). Here, the birds are eventually freed from their state of bewilderment and arrived at the station of proximity to God. However, there remains a final barrier between them and God which is never to be removed, thus, `Attar’s depiction should not be interpreted as what is referred to as the stage of fana’ (annihilation in God) or wahdat (union with God), as is believed by a group of Sufis. The final stage of the journey is what is called by `Attar as baqa’ ba`d al-fana’ (subsistence after annihilation), which he considers as ineffable. According to him, a true understanding of the story is contingent upon an experience of inner pain and personal quest, impossible to be expressed in words. 

These mathnawis contain secondary stories, which comprise cryptic or didactic tales and which may be considered as independent units. One such tale is that of Shaykh San`an, in Mantiq al-tayr, whose source is a matter of dispute. The tale of the chaste lady in Ilahi Namah, which is reminiscent of the character of Constance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is among the most delightful stories in the whole of Persian literature. Of equal importance are his many stories narrated by the “lunatic wise” throughout his mathnawis, which amount to over 115 tales, both in terms of Sufism’s view of this group of people and the idée fixe which dominates their state. 

Mathnawi Ma`nawi by Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 672 AH), is the most magnificent masterpiece of Islamic mysticism and the greatest work of Sufi didacticism in the history of Persian literature. In fact, it has been claimed by some as being the greatest mystical work of all time. The collection of his lyrical poems, Divan-i Shams, named after his spiritual master, Shams al-Din Muhammad Tabrizi, appears to be of the same quality, in terms of Sufi lyrical poetry. The meeting between Shams Tabrizi and Mawlana in the Anatolian capital of Quniyah (Konya), in 642 AH, which resulted in the absorption of Mawlana in the personality of Shams, is among the greatest events in the entire history of Sufism. The upshot of this encounter was the transformation of Mawlana from a religious preacher and teacher, in the position of the mufti of Quniyah to a Sufi who spent the rest of his life in composing poetry and engaging in sama’ and mystical contemplation. The account of this metamorphosis, or second birth, and Mawlawi’s works and disciples, who later established a Sufi order (Mawlawiyya) named after their master, calls for an extensive discussion, beyond the scope of the present work. 

The research carried out on mathnawi, by Iranian scholars and those of other countries, has only succeeded in bringing to light certain aspects of the great spiritual significance of this timeless work. The same applies to the vast body of commentary produced on mathnawi, in Persian, Turkish and Arabic, which span the period little after Mawlana’s death up to the present. The Divan-i Shams, known as Divan-i Kabir, is also an unrivalled work of Islamic literature, replete with accounts of mystical experiences. These two great works, while resembling similar works of literary import, are distinct in terms of their contents, which, like the works of Ibn al-`Arabi, are a compendium of mystical teachings based on the Qur’an and Hadith. They are de facto encyclopedias which, while colored by the personal experiences of Mawlana, none the less, comprise a body of mystical instructions, which, more than the works of Ibn al-`Arabi, call upon the reader to exert himself in the contemplation of their contents. 

The short didactic manzumah (prose collection) (approximately 1,000 distiches) of Gulshan-i Raz, composed by Shaykh Mahmud Shabastari in response to the questions posed by Amir Husayn Harawi, in spite of its concision, is a treasure trove of mystical subtleties which, as was ascertained by some travelers, was considered as a précis of mystical doctrines during the Safavid period, and was the subject of study and commentary, as was Fusus al-hikam of Ibn al-`Arabi. The great value attached to the poem is reflected, especially, in the many commentaries which were written on it throughout the centuries. During the classical period of Persian literature, poetry was so influenced by tasawwuf that almost all great poets were Sufis, or all Sufis were considered as poets.

 source: Zarrinkoob , Abdol Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.481- 483


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