The Rise of Persian Sufi Literature

The Rise of Persian Sufi Literature

Excerpts from A.J. Arberry's monumental and universally acclaimed English translation of the great Persian Sufi, Attar's
Muslim Saints and Mystics (click on this link to read entire book online)

"The central theme of this ecstatic literature of early Persia Sufism was the yearning of the lover (the mystic) for the Beloved (God), and for a renewal of that intimate union which existed between the two before the dawn of creation. The language and imagery of old Arab erotic poetry became transformed into a rich and highly symbolical vocabulary mystical aspiration. This theme was taken up again by Ahmad al- Ghazali of Tus, brother of the more famous Hojjat al-Islam whose learned and eloquent Arabic writings completed the reconciliation between Sufism and orthodoxy. The Savaneh of Ahmad al-Ghazali (d. 1123), a series of short and very subtle meditations in prose and verse upon the trinity of Beloved, Love, and Lover, set a fashion which was followed by, amongst oth- ers, Ain al-Qozat of Hamadan (executed in 1131), the poet Eraqi (d. 1289), and the great Jami (d. 1492).
By the beginning of the twelfth century, the ghazal (lyric) had also, like the roba’i, been taken over for Sufi use by the mystical lovers of God, who combined with its erotic symbolism a bac- chanalian imagery deriving from the profane songs of Abu Nowas and his school. The qasida (formal ode), the ancient creation of the pagan bards of Arabia and originally confined to pane- gyric and satire, had been converted to religious purposes by Naser-e Khosrau the Esma’ili propa- gandist (d. 1060). The way was thus prepared for the emergence of the first major mystical poet of Persia, Sana’i, who devoted a long life (ending about 1140) and great talent to preaching in verse the Sufi discipline and doctrine.

The nightingale hath no repose
For joy that ruby blooms the rose;
 Long time it is that Philomel
Hath loved like me the rosy dell.
‘Tis sure no wonder if I sing
Both night and day my fair sweeting:
 Let me be slave to that bird’s tongue
 Who late the rose’s praise hath sung!
O saki, when the days commence
Of ruby roses, abstinence
By none is charged; then pour me wine
Like yonder rose incarnadine.

Not content with using qasida, ghazal, and roba’i in masterly fashion, Sana’i broke new ground in taking over the mathnavi (the rhyming couplet perfected and immortalized by Ferdausi in his Epic of Kings) as the medium par excellence for mystical instruction, an example presently fol- lowed by Nezami (once in his Treasury of Secrets). Attar, Rumi, and thereafter by a host of notable emulators. His Hadiqat al-haqiqa (“Garden of Truth”), divided into ten graduated chapters in which the doctrine is kindly inter- spersed with illustrative anecdotes, is in effect an adaptation in verse of the prose treatises of al- Qoshairi and Hojwiri. As a poet Sana’i perhaps did not reach the topmost heights; as a pioneer of what was to prove the mainspring of poetic inspiration in Persia (and without hi example, we might never have enjoyed the masterpieces of Rumi, Sa’di, Hafez, Jami, and how many more) he fully merit the fame which he has secured.

To historical or semi-historical anecdote, the raw material of Sufi hagiography, now came to be added the apologue, the invented parable. Credit for the perfecting of this genre in Persian Sufi literature belongs to Sohrawardi Maqtul (executed at Aleppo in 1191), a rigorous philosopher turned mystic whose beautiful myths (in which animal symbolism is freely used, harking- back to the Fables of Bidpai mediated through the Kalila va-Demna which the Persian Ibn al- Moqaffa’ in about 75 put into Arabic from the Pahlavi) mount back via Avicenna to Plato. Thus, the Neo-Platonist doctrine of the descent of the soul into the body, which had been accept- ed by the Sufis as a prefiguration of the Koranic concept of a Primordial Covenant and which found eloquent expression in Avicenna’s famous Poem of the Soul, is built by Sohravardi into a very striking an graphic myth.
A certain king possessed a garden which through all the four seasons never lacked for fragrant herbs, verdant grasses and joyous pleas- ances; great waters therein flowed, and all man- ner of birds sitting in the branches poured forth songs of every kind. Indeed, every melody that could enter the mind and every beauty that imagination might conceive, all was to be found in that garden. Moreover a company of peacocks, exceedingly graceful, elegant and fair, had there made their abode and dwelling-place. One day the king laid hold of one of the pea- cocks and gave orders that he should be sewn up in a leather jacket, in such wise that naught of the colors of his wings remained visible, and however much he tried he could not look upon his own beauty. He also commanded that over his head a basket should be placed having only one aperture, through which a few grains of millet might be dropped, sufficient to keep him alive. Some time passed, and the peacock forgot himself, the garden kingdom and the other peacocks. 

Whenever he looked at himself he saw nothing but a filthy, ugly sack of leather and a very dark and disagreeable dwelling-place. To that he reconciled himself, and it became fixed in his mind that no land could exist larger than the basket in which he was. He firmly believed that if anyone should pretend that there was a pleasurable life or an abode of perfection beyond it, it would be rank heresy and utter nonsense and stupidity. For all that, whenever a breeze blew and the scent of the flowers and trees, the roses and violets and jasmine and fragrant herbs was wafted to him through the hole, he experienced a strange delight and was curiously moved, so that the joy of flight filled his heart. He felt a mighty yearning within him, but knew not the source of that yearning, for he had no idea that he was anything but a piece of leather, having forgotten everything beyond his basket-world and fare of millet. Again, if ever he heard the modulations of the peacocks and the songs of the other birds he was likewise trans- ported with yearning and longing; yet he was not wakened out of his trance by the voices of the birds and the breath of the zephyr.The rest of this myth, with its subtle use of quotations from ancient Arabic poetry and the Koran, may be read in my Classical Persian Literature. It recalls a greater animal fable with a spiritual meaning, the sublime Manteq al-tair of Attar which Edward Fitzgerald epitomized in his Bird-Parliament. 

Meanwhile, within the field of hagiography (with which this present book is primarily concerned), full-length biographies of individual Sufi saints had begun to appear. The life and sayings of Abu Yazid of Bestam provided al-Sahlagi with very rich materials. Ibn Khafif of Shiraz found a Boswell in his pupil al-Dailami. The poet-mystic Abu Sa’id ibn Abi ‘l-Khair was commemorated by two biographers of his own descendants. The fashion was thus established for countless disciples to collect the acts and words of their Sufi masters; a very famous later instance is the Fihe ma fihe in which one of Rumi’s circle published the Discourses of that great man. Mention may be made in this context of the Ma’aref (“Gnoses”) of Rumi’s father, a lengthy autobiography recording in a wealth of detail the spiritual experiences of the author. Such in brief is the background against which we may assess the works and achievements of the author of the book here translated..."
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