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Confused About Sufi Poetry?

by Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh is a Melbourne-based writer of poetry, narrative and criticism.

It would be fair to assume that most culturally aware Iranians and/or Muslims, as well as aficionados and scholars of poetry from other cultures, would find the rise in the contemporary mainstream Western readers’ interest in Sufi poetry puzzling, if also at the same time potentially positive, and yet paradoxically dubious.

Puzzling, because in these days of ‘the Clash of Civilisations’ between ‘Western modernity’ and ‘middle eastern Islam’, this medieval Islamic literary tradition has become so popular with readers in the post-modern Western cultures that, in the United States, the ‘translations’ of the seminal Sufi poet Jalalu’l-Din Molana ‘Rumi’ have reached the bestsellers lists. Shouldn’t the ‘Americans’, seemingly hell-bent on conquering the middle east (including Iran) be, if anything, dismissive of the classical Iranian poets’ very ‘cultured’ and sophisticated literary discourses; discourses that could, quiet possibly, present a strong argument against the neo-conservative myth of Islam as a ‘savage’ and barbaric Other?

One may find the popularity of Sufi poetry also positive, for precisely the same reasons. It could be argued that the Western readers’ engagement with the much-feared and loathsome Other, via the poetry of some of Islam’s most articulate and critical followers, could result in a genuine understanding and empathy that may, at least hypothetically, provide an alternative to the abovementioned hostile perceptions. As the early 20th century English scholar Reynold Nicholson noted in the introduction to his translation of some of Rumi’s lyrics, the Sufis developed a "Platonic type of mystical love". (1) Could a culture capable of articulating such a ‘noble’ and ‘universal’ desire – a yearning for the Sublime, the divine, etc – be so threatening and terrorising?

It is also possible for one to be deeply suspicious of the current upsurge in interest in Sufi poetry, particularly in its most populist manifestations e.g. the Deepak Chopra-produced music album featuring Hollywood royalty such as Goldie Hawn and Demi Moore ‘performing’ Rumi’s lyrics. As such, this New Age passion for Sufi poetry can be seen as yet another Orientalist discourse; a view of the Other as the ‘sensual’ and ‘free’ or, more accurately, as uncivilised and infantile. In this sense, such a view of Sufi poetry as the absolute opposite of the modern is very much an abstraction and mystification of the reality of Sufi poetry, and could result in precisely further antagonism and repression from an ‘advanced’ and ‘adult’ West.

My own appreciation of, and passion for, Sufi poets such as Attar, Rumi and Hafez has something to do with all the above reasons. I have translated, published and performed some of these poets’ works (including the Rumi quatrain for Saloni Mediterranean’s 2005 The Shades of Love event) to critique the destructive myopia of ‘the Clash of Civilisations’ argument; to emphasise the humanist and universal dimensions of a middle eastern intellectual and artistic movement; and to provide an alternative to the simplistic and, I believe, misguided bowdlerisations of an historical literary discourse by the New Ageists.

As a poet, however, I am more than anything else drawn to not only these poets’ mastery of language – the lyricism, images and meanings of their poems – but also to their almost post-modernist desire to disturb and disrupt what the words and compositions of language signify. In the greatest of Sufi poetry the words do not ‘mean’ what they ‘represent’. The most famous example of this anti-mimetic phenomenon, perhaps, can be found in the 12th century Sufi master Attar’s allegorical epic poem Manteq al-Tair. While the poem purports to be about a search for the simorq (a mythological giant of Chinese origins, possibly a phoenix), the participants in this parabolical quest are thirty birds, and the Persian words for ‘thirty’ and ‘bird’ are si and morq. In other words, the poem is actually about the individual birds’ journeys to find themselves, and not at all a search for the supernatural simorq.

Such use of double-entendres, very common in all Sufi verse, may strike the contemporary reader as ‘word play’ and ‘clever’. But for the Sufi poets, who lived in a Persia ravaged by religious extremism, feudal dictatorships and the extraordinarily brutal Mongolian invasion, there existed a crucial need to oppose these calamities and horrors through the medium of poetry and the powers of language and imagination. As such, Sufi poetry can be seen as a political struggle against the people’s belligerent and tyrannical rulers, as well as an equally politicised artistic movement against the ignorance and dogmatic perceptions common among most Persians and Muslims during the poets’ lives. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first ‘official’ Sufi master Al Hallaj was hanged by the Islamic authorities for heresy in about 922 AD.

Sufi poetry can be best understood as an heretical and dissident spiritual movement that challenged, and was in many instances suppressed by, mainstream religion. Among the most controversial aspects of the poets’ works one may list their perception of the relationship between an individual and the creator as an erotic love-affair between an asheq and a maeshuq (‘Lover’ and ‘Beloved’); the blatantly anti-Islamic, quasi Christian, depiction of the Union between the Lover and the Beloved in the metaphors of mey (Wine) and jam (Chalice); and the poets’ at times vitriolic critiques of their society’s religious institutions and rituals. This said, Sufi poetry is ostensibly an Islamic discourse – albeit a deeply individualistic and even, a contemporary reader may note, a Romantic one – since the poets are still ‘submissive’ in their relationship with the creator (Islam meaning ‘submission’ in Arabic) and their verse contains many quotations from, and references to, the verses of the Koran.

Paradoxically enough, I believe, it is the rather abominable and negative discourses of the New Age as well as those of the neo-conservatives that have brought Sufi poetry, classical Iranian literature and Islam under the attention of mainstream Western readers; and however one views Sufi poetry, ‘Sufism’ and the contemporary interest in these undoubtedly complex phenomena, the poems themselves confirm the dedication and mastery of their composers, and their success is a testimony to the perpetual power and longevity of truly great poetry.

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© Ali Alizadeh, 2005.

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1. p. xiv. Nicholson, R. A. (trans.). Selected Poems of Rumi. Mineola: Dover, 2001. back

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