The Master-Narrative of the Human Condition in Persian Mystical Poetry
The Roshan Center for Persian Studies
University of Maryland
* The original version of this article was presented at The Twelfth Reza Ali Khazeni Memorial Lecture in Iranian Studies at The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah on September 10, 2004.
In September 2007, at the University of Maryland’s International Conference on Rumi, Amin Banani ended his keynote address on the Persian mystic poet Rumi with an impassioned plea to his colleagues to rewrite the history of Persian poetry with Rumi at its center. His paper, titled “Rumi the Reluctant poet,” painted a vivid portrait of the major differences and distinctions that separate Rumi’s notion of, and approach to, poetry from the poets he attacks as mindless (hollow-brained to be precise), too preoccupied with the craft and outward trappings of poetry, and much too formalistic to make poetry the arena for the expression of the innermost emotions lying latent in the recesses of the human soul.
A different kind of history of Persian poetry, one which would take sufficient note of the internal systemic changes in this amazingly rich aesthetic tradition, has been a part of this researcher’s agenda for over three decades, and this essay addresses another aspect of that project. It is based on the fundamental contention that the classical tradition in Persian poetry is one of the most illustrative instances of gradual evolution of an aesthetic tradition over time and it argues that there are clear advantages to foregrounding the internal history of the changes that have occurred in that tradition. Fully acknowledging the sociality of all literature, it nonetheless reiterates that such an approach, while giving full and due consideration to the ontological status of literature as an aesthetic system, elucidates more clearly the complex systemic changes that the tradition under examination has gone through over the centuries. It thus further advances the argument, begun elsewhere, which states that the aesthetic system underlying the expressive devices of the Persian poetic tradition began to take shape in the ninth century CE 1 in response to momentous yet specific socio-cultural events and that it remained qualitatively unchanged up until the middle of the nineteenth century when it was challenged and eventually recast by the Persian-speaking world’s encounter with Europe and Russia. 2 Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries this system gradually became more and more elaborate, a development that has been observed and acknowledged but, in my opinion, not yet fully explained, analyzed or understood. It reached its zenith of complexity and the height of its beauty in the genre of the ghazal, or short love lyric, as practiced in the century or so that separates the poetic careers of Rumi (1207-1273) from that of Hafez (1320-1388), and most particularly in the works of these two master ghazal composers.
Historians of Persian poetry have traditionally articulated this evolution in terms that are informed neither by close readings or discussions of stylistic nuances and close textual analyses, nor anchored in an understanding of generic conventions, diachronic developments, or a historical understanding of the nature of change in aesthetic systems. Their work, essentialist in conception and vague in its articulation, posits western and eastern regional poetic styles or school in the Persian poetry of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, anchors this distinction largely in dialectal differences in the Persian language, and produces to ossified stereotypical notions contrary to our modern understanding of constantly changing social phenomena. Zabihollah Safa, who in many ways epitomizes this trend in traditional scholarship, envisions an initial Khorasani (i.e., eastern Iranian) period style or school gradually changing first into an Eraqi (i.e., western Iranian) style followed by an Indian or Esfahani style. 3
He bases his discussion of the later transformation – that which occurred following the devastations wrought by Mongol and Tartar invasions of the thirteen the fourteen centuries, gradually devolving into an Indian period style – on many events external to the literature itself, such as the officialization of Shi`a Islam in Iran, paucity of court patronage in the Iranian heartland and the resultant emigration of many poets of Iran to northern Indian cities and courts. Characterized stereotypically as featuring a bombastic diction, distorted or exaggerated metaphors and conceits, and ever lengthening chains of far-fetched similitudes or resemblances, this last development is said to have turned Persian poetry into a riddle-like discourse understandable to and interpretable only to a shrinking elite, presumably separated from the masses who are assumed to have been intended audiences of poetry in centuries past. This succession of period styles is then viewed as having begun to change with the Literary Return Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eventually making room for a modernist aesthetics whose essence and contours are still being debated.
This essay, premised as stated above on very different assumptions, works toward the type of history that attempts to anchor observable changes in the tradition to demonstrable textual differences; it ultimately extends the line of thinking in my previous work to an earlier transition, namely the changes that occurred in the period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. 4 A central contention of the essay’s argument rests on the view that what has been seen as stylistic differences rooted in geographic or regional characteristics (Khorasani, Eraqi, or Indian) were indeed temporally driven – i.e., the result of concrete historical changes in the aesthetic ad intellectual milieus of the Persian-speaking world. As such, they ought to be understood as expressing themselves along the diachronic dimension. This is particularly visible when we compare changes that occur within the generic boundaries of a particular type of poetry, such as the short love lyric known as the ghazal. In the case at hand, certain characteristics and capabilities of the Persian language, the primary system on which Persian poetry stands, coupled with the rise of Sufism and emergence of mystically inclined poets in the period under consideration converged to make possible greater systemic elasticity, complexity and cohesion at the level of signification and communication on the part of the poets, which in turn paved the way for remarkably higher hermeneutic fluidity and enhanced interpretability on the part of readers.
Historically, at least three major processes contributed to the growth of complexity and elaborate expression in the Persian poetry of the period. First, a node conceived and executed by the best court poets of the Ghaznavid era and evolving throughout the twelfth century, between the lyric and the panegyric genres. To begin, because the Persian language is gender-free, it was and is possible to cloak lyrical expressions in ambiguities and equivocations wherein the lover and beloved, the patron and the poet, or man and God, could conceivably be imagined by the mere grammar of the language involved as male or female. This is not to say that other linguistic or poetic allusions do not clarify this point; they often do. Long tresses, pomegranate breasts, silvery palms and forearms, and numerous other lexical elements describing the body parts or facial expressions of the entity textually occupying the position of the beloved combine to determine the extent to which classical – or modern – readers end up reading gender into the Persian ghazal. Add to this the complementary gestures of total needlessness and absolute authority vested in the position of the beloved as opposed to that of the lover, characterized by utter helplessness and total submission to the will of the beloved, and you have behavior matching the appearance to complete the picture of actants and agents in the poem that could be seen as a woman facing a man, a despotic king facing the port (or his mouthpiece in the poem), or God almighty facing the creatures into whose souls he has breathed life. In short, a single entity of unidentified or unidentifiable gender can be loved, worshipped, praised, appealed to, cajoled, educated, even criticized in one and the same textual space, at least as far as the genre of the Persian ghazal is concerned.
That third textual entity – God – appeared in the text of the Persian ghazal as a potent, and I might add ultimate, referent only after the Persian Sufi poets began to direct the expressive resources of their tradition to religious or philosophical purposes. Because their ideology encouraged them to articulate the relationship between God and man as governed primarily by love rather than by fear, and because their language and poetic system allowed them to do so in the lyrical mode, they could and did so. This development made it possible to compose poems in which, to limit ourselves to instances of apostrophic rhetorical postures, the speaker and the addressee could be seen simultaneously as the lover addressing the beloved, the poet appealing to the patron, and the Sufi seeker speaking to God. This change suited the purposes of the Islamic mystics and mystical poets especially well, as they tried to distinguish themselves from the orthodoxy in the way they articulated the relation between man and God, and do so through positing an eternal, everlasting and unchanging love, more a sign of God’s unalterable grace than the vicissitudes of man’s capacity.
Historically concurrent with the gradual ascendance of Sufi institutions and power structures and the rise of Sufi poets throughout the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a second process was underway, one marked primarily by a grand internalization of poetic machinery in the Persian aesthetic culture. Mystically inclined philosophers, theosophists, and poets redirected many archetypal and primordial mythical and historical figures of the pre-Islamic Persian past to their purposes, making narratives, anecdotes, even images qualitatively different from that which marked them in the epic and romantic traditions. It is through Attar, most illustratively, that the figure of Simorgh changes into the non-existent, yet ever so passionately sought-after, bird living on top of the mythic Mount Qaf. 5 Let us recall that in the Shahnameh Simorgh – the word connotes initially a bird the size of thirty birds put together – is a real, albeit supernatural creature. She nurses and raises the hero Zal and leaves her feather with him to set on fire if he needs help. When he needs her to heal the mortal wounds of his son Rostam, she appears at his behest, the wind from her feather moving the dust into an all-encompassing cloud. Everything in this articulation privileges the mythical bird’s corporeality as a manifestation of her matronly nature. 6 In Attar’s mystical narrative, Manteq at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds), written about a century and a half later, this mother of all birds turns into an ethereal creation of the human imagination that the other birds long for and seek, only eventually to be faced – at least the thirty most steadfast ones who survive the ordeals of the avian quest – with a mirror-like surface that reflects their own likeness.
The transformation, achieved in a coup de grace that plays on another aspect of the same connotation of the word si-morgh, is the most illustrative among myriad textual maneuvers that the poet, a master of many meaningful puns in the Sufi discourse, harnesses in the service of his own story. Instead of using the number thirty (“si” in Persian) in the way it has been used by Ferdowsi to denote a very big bird, Attar uses it to correspond with the number of the birds, very few indeed when compared with the thousands of birds that set out on the journey, who have managed to survive the rigors of the journey to the top of Mount Qaf. Their quest then comes to correspond with the path which every novice Sufi must tread on in order to deserve to be called a Sufi-ye Safi (a pure mystic). Attar thus redirects the connotation of the word “si” toward the attainment of a condition of spiritual purity and enlightenment that only a few are capable of obtaining through the rigors of the Sufi path and practice. This internalization in turn makes it possible for him – and in various ways for many other Persian Sufi poets, to conceive and describe the battle for the purification of one’s soul as by far greater than that which may have wounded Rostam in his desperate old-age encounter with the young invulnerable prince and hero Esfandiar. 7
Articulated in the fullness of their significance, strategies of this internalization of poetic machinery, most based on word plays that Persian Sufi poets are known to delight in, are too many and too varied to even allude to here. One that must be mentioned here, because it bears on my argument in this paper consists of the shift in the semantic realm of the archetypal crystal ball known as Jam-e Jam (Jam’s cup), a sort of crystal ball into which legendary King Jamshid, or as we have it in the Shahnameh, the enlightened monarch Kaykhosrow), is said to have peered to see the workings of the world. The mystical discourse ascribes this capability to the heart of the illuminated Sufi. When utterly polished by constant remembrance and repeated utterance of the name of God, it is polished to the extent that it becomes a mirror into which the adept Sufi looks to see the whole of human history and destiny. The equivocation through which this transformation is achieved is illustrative in its utter simplicity and iron-clad certainty. Here’s Sana’i’s articulation of the node:
Qesseh-ye Jam-e Jam basi shenavi
v-andar an bish o kam basi shenavi
beh yaqin dan keh jam-e jam del-e to-st
mostaqarr-e sorur o gham del-e to-st
chun tamanna koni jahan didan
Jomleh ashya dar an tavan didan 8 (You will hear many tales about Jamshid’s cup
The kind of equivocation we have here, “know this for certain: Jamshid’s cup is your heart,” is a hallmark of the makers of the Sufi discourse in Persian poetry. What facilitates the node produced by it is a two-stage process that works first through a readjustment of the hermeneutic apparatus assumed to be already in operation in the mind of the reader, that which depicts the cup as an actual object in the material world. The initial acknowledgment of the diversity of the tales about the object prepares the mind for a plunge from that which the tellers of the tales may add to or omit from their version of the story, the “bish o kam” (more or less) of the second hemistich, to a non-material realm where the true meaning of the cup, now divorced from the various narratives, can be tied to a sense that is independent of all external narration. In light of that initial divestiture and the subsequent reinvestment of the word with a novel sense, the emphatic iteration, “beh yaqin dan” (know for certain) begins to make its impact as a true statement based on a plane of understanding separate from, and superior to, all the stories that one may hear about the cup as a material object.
The other maneuver that is often at work in the process of internalization of poetic devices has to do not with equivocation but with the outcome of the act of seeing. Someone looking into Jamshid’s cup may be expected to see a picture of the external world or of some event – past, present or future – that may be actually happening in the world. That at least is the use that personages of epic and romantic tales have made of Jamshid’s cup. What Sana’i’s wording suggests has to do not with the act or object of seeing but the effect that the process of seeing produces in the person looking into it. With impressive deftness, the poet buttresses that meaning when he speaks of the heart as the seat of joy and sorrow. Indeed the word “mostaqar” Persian of Arabic origin meaning “seat,” connotes the resting spot, the point at which human emotions like joy and sorrow appear to settle as a result of that which one has seen or contemplated. While the hero or king seeing flames of war or the likeness of a beautiful woman in Jamshid’s cup, the Sufi wayfarer looking into his heart may see that which causes him to “feel” joy or sorrow. The subtle distinction becomes most consequential in the later generations of Sufi poets and those who adopt the language of Sufi poetry even though they may not be Sufis in practice, particularly in a master of poetic diction like Hafez. When he wants to wish shame on his cruel beloved for listening to those who may have tried to badmouth him to her, Hafez evokes the injustice that Prince Siavash, a Shahnameh hero, suffered in the hands of the impressionable and cruel Turanian King Afrassiab, because of those who felt themselves overshadowed by the Iranian Prince gave malicious reports about him to the king:
May he/she feel shame for the injustice handed to Siavush!) 9
In alluding to The Shahnameh episode, he bypasses the narrative to focus on the feeling that recalling the story should give rise to in the heart of his beloved: shame! What fortifies this sense is the phrase “Shah-e Torkan,” which, in his discourse, is the perfect analogue for the immensely impressionable and utterly cruel despot of the Persian epic. 10 Such signification strategies became predominant only after the full fruition of a third all-important process, namely when mystical reorientations of ancient Persian legends and the exegetical activities performed selectively on certain Koranic passages demonstrated the vast potential of a plethora of narratives as sources of poetic enrichment and layering. From these two sources – namely reorienting the narratives of pre-Islamic legends toward esoteric interpretations and of mystically inspired exegesis of the Koran and the Hadith Persian Sufi poets harnessed the aesthetic potential of their tradition’s most foundational texts to develop ideas that served their cause very well. In doing so, they gave rise to a new understanding of the human condition from the day of creation to the mystical ascent and immediate union with God that the Sufis believed awaited them upon departure from the material world. For instance, Shohab al-Din Sohravardi, known as Shaikh al-Maqtul (the assassinated Shaikh), did much to re-channel a whole array of Persian legends toward mystical readings. Most famously, in his Aql-e Sorkh (The Red Intellect), he offers a reading of the episode of Zal and Simorgh in which the Koranic notions of miracle, of divine providence, and of free will come together to make a narrative of human existence. There, we have an allegory put in the mouth of an angel that is at the same time a guide to the narrative’s central personage, itself an eagle. 11
Such interpretive strategies, increasing manifold through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, provided the Sufis and the Sufi poets with numerous episodes and vignettes, themes and motifs to internalize the assets of the heroic and romantic tales in novel ways capable of moving connotations based on them to an abstract level capable of accommodating the dynamic concepts of the exegetical tradition as they attempted to relate the journey of the spirit toward perfection and ultimately toward the encounter and possible union with God.
To illustrate the suppleness and elasticity of this interpretive tradition, which at this stage was fast merging with the dominant exegetical mode of interpretation in that it integrated Islamic narratives as interpreted by mystically inclined commentators, I have selected Imam Mohammad Ghazali’s interpretation of a key Koranic passage central to Sufi conceptions of the process by which the human soul purifies itself. Here are the verses which will form the focal point of my argument:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His light is as if there were a niche
whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it.
Light upon light.
God doth guide whom He will to His light.
God doth set forth parables for men
And God doth know all things. 12 All intricacies of Koranic verses and monumental translation problems aside, the passage bears all the marks of the endless potential for interpretation that many mystic commentators saw and showed in it. Invariably, they were drawn to verses like this because the poetic potential enshrined in their abstract wording enabled them to move from the surface to what they considered the kernel of the Koranic utterances and exhortations. In fact, their vision of the surface of the Koran veiling layer upon layer of “true” meanings available only to the initiated and the adept was a main point of contention between them and the orthodox theologians who frowned on giving primacy to certain interpretations. 13
Ghazali begins his plunge into the esoteric by distinguishing not just between light and darkness but between a physical or terrestrial sphere for light on the one hand and a spiritual or celestial sphere on the other, distinguishing many gradations in each sphere. According to him, in the above verses human faculties or spirits find their correspondences in the niche, the glass, the lamp, the tree and the oil. The niche is the sensory spirit, whose lights come through the eyes, ears, nostrils, etc. The glass is the imagination; for it is made out of opaque substances, but is clarified and refined until it becomes transparent to the light of the lamp. The lamp itself is what can be called the intelligential spirit, which gives cognizance of divine ideas. The tree is the rational spirit which typically begins with a single proposition and branches into two, which become four, and so on. Ghazali then works through a series of equivocations that apply this complicated conception of light to the Koranic verses. What is symbolized by the niche, the glass, the lamp, the tree and the oil are the human faculties, the niche being the sensory spirit, the glass the imagination, the lamp is the intelligential, and the tree the discursive. As for the oil, he sees it as the type of transcendental prophetic spirit, absolutely luminous and clear, which reveals the Word of God to human beings. 14
A note of caution before we proceed: my use of the concept of equivocation, rather than symbolism, and my emphasis on the verb “is” rather than “stands for,” relate to my view that it would be erroneous to state that the niche symbolizes sensory perceptions or that the oil represents the prophetic spirit; indeed, the niche or the oil partake of a single substance with what they are equated with; they are not external to them. Ghazali develops an elaborate scheme of shared properties between the objects in the Koranic verse and the ideas they epitomize. The niche, he says, is sensory perception because, as a recess in the wall high from the ground, it spreads light from the lamp through the chamber, minimizing the shadows at the same time. If it is whitewashed, its wall also acts as a reflector. The lamp is the core of the niche, the niche being nothing without it. In fact, God has created the senses in us solely for the purpose of spiritual illumination in the same way that niches are used solely for lamps to be placed in them.