Persian Sufi Poetry: An Introduction to the Mystical Use of Classical Persian Poems

  • Book Title:
 Persian Sufi Poetry
  • Book Author:
J. T. P. de Bruijn
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The title of this book is the same as the working title which was suggested when I was invited to write it. Now that the writing is done, I do not feel the need to look for a more descriptive name because the provisional title, if correctly understood, expresses almost exactly what the reader will find on the following pages.

 It tells simply, but clearly enough, that poems will be discussed which were written in the classical Persian language on themes related to the mystical tradition of Islam.

If a few words of explanation are still needed, the reason is, first of all, that the subject thus defined is too extensive to be fully surveyed in a concise volume like this. Since the beginning of the eleventh century AD, the date of the oldest specimens known to us, an enormous amount of mystical poems has been composed in Persian.

The poets lived not only in present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the countries where Persian is at home both as a spoken and a written language, but also in other parts of Asia – in particular the lndian Subcontinent, Central Asia and Turkey – where literary Persian was used for centuries as an important cultural language. Certain limits of time and geography had therefore to be drawn.

Although in the course of this almost millenarian period beautiful and interesting mystical poems have been written at all times and in all places, the history of Persian Sufi poetry has known a ‘golden era’, as it was called by A.J. Arberry, whose Classical Persian Literature covers the same period as the present survey.1 The greatest Sufi poets who created the most influential poems all lived during a period roughly corresponding to the European Middle Ages.

As a convenient final date 1492 was chosen, the year when Mulla ‘Abd ar-Ralunan Janü died, a great Sufi sheikh i\S well as a very productive writer, whose mystical poetry provided suitable material to conclude each of the four chapters of this book.

Shortly after JamI’ s death the Safavids united the greater part of the Persian homelands under their rule. This political incident greatly changed the religious and cultural climate, notably through the introduction of Shi’ite Islam as the national religion of the country we now know as Iran. Classical Persian literature survived all this and, up to the present century, continued to be the most conspicuous element of the Persian cultural identity.

 It was even strong enough to penetrate the civilisations of other Asian nations. From the sixteenth century onwards Indian and Turkish Muslims participated increasingly in the tradition of Persian poetry, not only by writing in Persian but also by following the examples set by the poets of Persia in their own languages. During the ‘medieval’ period these developments had hardly begun. On the whole, the poets reviewed here were Sunni Muslims and nearly all lived, or at least were born, in the lands where Persian language was the indigenous language.

In its earliest form, the Persian language appears in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenian Kings of Kings written between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. After the destruction of the Old Persian empire by Alexander the Great, it disappeared from historical records for several centuries until, from the third century AD onwards, it was adopted again as a literary medium (called Middle Persian or Pahlavi) by Sasanian kings, Zoroastrians and Manichaeans.

 In the seventh century, when the Arabs brought the religion of Islam to Persia, another major break occurred in the continuity of Persian culture. Arabic became the exclusive medium of literary culture in the dominating Muslim community. However, already in the second half of the ninth century, Persian began to be used in writing

again in the eastern provinces of the Abbasid caliphate. Political circumstances which brought rulers of loca! origin into power, favoured the rapid development of a New Persian language. In many ways it was a typical product of the civilisation of Islam: the script, a large section of the vocabulary and many literary forms were derived from Arabic.

Moreover, the latter language remained an important factor in Persian culture, where it continued to play more or less the same rôle as Latin did in medieval Europe. Arabic :was particularly dominant in the religious disciplines, one of which was the ‘science of Sufism’.

Until the twentieth century, when it was significantly modernised under W estern influence, Persian poetry was a highly formalised artistic tradition.

To write a poem meant, in the first place, to apply certain unchangeable rules covering prosody, imagery and the use of rhetorical devices. A basic rule of prosody was that each poem should be constructed as a sequence of distichs or bayts. The two half-verses of each distich are virtually identical as far as their metrical patterns are concerned. The rhyme is either internal (a-a) or only final (b-a), linking the line with the other distichs of the poem.

The former marks the distich as an opening line, if the poem is a lyric; the latter could be used in any other line. in this way, most verse forms current in the tradition can be defined. The most important are the quatrain or rubii’ı, the qa.şüla, the ghazal and the 􀂃navı. To each of these four verse forms one of the chapters in this book will be devoted.

Initially, this poetry was almost entirely a matter of the medieval Persian courts and therefore essentially a secular tradition. The characteristic form was the qaşıda, which was most often used for poems of praise.

When the Sufis began to write Persian poems they adapted many forms of court poetry to their own ends. Sufi poetry retained several traces of this origin; the distinction with secular poetry is therefore sometimes difficult to make. On the other hand, the remarkable expansion of Sufi poetry equally made its impact on the poetry of ‘the world’ so that eventually the lines distinguishing the two became vague.

 This caused serious problems for the interpretation of Persian poetry, especially as far as the lyrical genre of the ghazal is concerned.

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