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responses to Confused About Sufi Poetry?

original essay

Raymond Kaiser’s response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Hi Mr. Alizadeh,

I was quite confused by your last paragraph in the article entitled ‘Confused about Sufi Poetry?’. The paragraph struck me as unclear and perhaps inaccurate.

My wife, I and many friends have Sufi libraries – poetry by Mevlana, Hafiz, Kabir, writings by Ibn ‘Arabi, Inayat Khan, Idries Shah, tales by Nasruddin, etc. Since none of our circle of friends and lovers of the way fit into the neo-conservative category I can only assume that we somehow fit under the rubric of ‘New Age’ (though I do not own any books by Deepak Chopra, Shirley McClane, Wayne Dyer or books about Ascended Masters).

Perhaps it might be helpful for you to meet real people who share the same love and passion for the Beloved as you do and may express that love and passion in a way that distinctly reflects their own understanding of the Mystery itself.

May kindness, love and insight light your way.


Raymond Kaiser


Ali Alizadeh’s reply to Raymond Kaiser’s response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Dear Raymond,

Thanks for getting in touch, and for your thoughts regarding this topic.

I'm not actually sure if you and I mean the same thing by the terms ‘New Age’ – or ‘neo-conservative’, for that matter – but, either way, what I call abominable and egregious is the process of distortion that turns a ‘real’ (whatever it might be) into a utility/myth/commodity for modern usage.

According to such a process of distortion (French thinker Roland Barthes might call it a ‘regression’) an ancient/medieval hymn, for example, gets transformed into a song on a meditation CD; and, as much as I’m positively not a religious person, I can’t accept this deformation as anything other than that. That is not to say that I want, in this case, esoteric mystical traditions (and texts) to be ‘owned’ by the orthodox practitioners of these traditions (say, the Sufi orders in the Islamic world); but I don’t want them to be deprived of their (historical) reality, exploited, commercialised and turned into commodities either.

So I would be totally in favour of the study, reinvention, translation and adaptation of, for example, poems of Rumi for (preferably secular) artistic, intellectual, philosophical and academic purposes; but I find their conversion into tools of contemporary spiritualism unpalatable. I would not, at any rate, say that any Western enthusiast of Sufi poetry is either a New Ageist or an Orientalist/neo-conservative (and I don’t think that’s what my article claims either); but there are similarities between a New Ageist’s and an Orientalist’s view of ‘Eastern mysticism’ as a quaint, antiquated and hence easily exploitable ‘third world’ ‘exotic’ curiosity. At any rate, on the basis of your comments, I gather that your understanding of Sufism goes beyond what I would term ‘New Ageism’; and you don’t strike me as a neo-con either.

Best wishes,


Rachael Byrnes’ response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Dear Ali,

I read your article on Sufi Poetry. Very interesting thanks. I was wondering if you could help with some research I’m doing on Qawwali Singing. I’m researching Quawwali for both personal and academic reasons. I’m a music student at NMIT in Melbourne and I'm currently doing research for an essay on Qawwali and I'm a singer/ songwriter with a personal interest in devotional singing. Some of my own musical creations explore and are influenced by devotional singing. Do you know anyone who practices Qawwali? Or any other kind of Sufi devotional music? It would be wonderful to interview someone who knows about or is involved in this tradition. In particular I’m interested in cultural aspects around Qawwali and would like to find out why it has been traditionally dominated by men. I have found some information on Abida Parveen, a female Qawwali singer, and I’m very interested in finding more about the gender issues within this tradition.

If you could help in anyway it would be much appreciated.

Best wishes

Rachael Byrnes
Singer/ Songwriter

Ali Alizadeh’s reply to Rachael Byrnes’ response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Dear Rachael,

Thanks for getting in touch. To the best of my understanding Qawwali music – as per the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – is mostly in Urdu, and more playful and less solemn than, say, the more ascetical, sparse musical arrangements in Sema ceremonies of Turkish and Kurdish ‘whirling’ dervishes. Having said that, the ‘ghazal’ form of lyric – something like the English ode – is used in almost all traditions of Sufi music. As I’m a writer, my knowledge about this (and other genres of Sufi singing) is very much limited to their poetry, so all I can say with any confidence is that the ghazal is of courtly origins, that before its adaptation by medieval Persian Sufi poets (such as Attar, Rumi and Hafez) it was almost solely used for entertaining an aristocratic male audience, and that its tropes (e.g. images of the wine-bringer, the wine, the nightingale and the rose, etc) had sexual/erotic connotations before they were employed by the Sufis to signify esoteric/mystical concepts.

This perhaps links in with your question about gender. There has certainly been no shortage of female poets using the ghazal form in contemporary/modern Iranian poetry e.g. Simin Behbahani, Parveen E’tesami, etc. But, again, I couldn’t tell you about the (gender) politics of the performance of Sufi poetry/rituals as I’m not a musicologist/anthropologist. I do know of female whirling dervishes – and my own grandmother joined a Sufi order in Iran mid last century – but one would assume (and only assume) that there are some differences between men’s and women’s participations. As for contemporary practitioners of Qawwali and other forms of contemporary Islamic devotional music, there are of course tons of them in Asia, Middle East and Africa. There are also Sufi orders in the West, and some (as I understand it) in Australia. There is apparently a Mevlevi Order of Australia and also a list of Western Orders.

I hope this has been of help. Best wishes,


Andrew J. Routledge’s response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Dear Ali,

I was most interested in your essay and the way you referred to the role of Sufis in challenging the regimes they lived under. Perhaps the most famous of these was Omar El Kayyam. He incorporated his personal conduct into his ‘protest’ in so much as he actively drank wine and consorted with affluent women in his native Iran in addition to the verse that he wrote.

I am particularly interested in Sufism in Spain and it’s role in the Moorish empire. The Jews actively refer to a period in Seville and Toledo that they call ‘The Golden Era’ where the three Great religions studied theology and philosophy together. Sufism succeeded in closing the gap between the religions by defining the purpose of religion. St Vincent de Paul was greatly influenced by Sufi thinking as were the great Jewish minds Rambam (Maimon the great) and Ha Levi. Some say even Spinosa. Although there were never Great Sufi's who ruled countries, to my knowledge anyway, they often played a similar role to that of Confucius in China in so much as they acted as ministers, advisors and teachers in academic institutions throughout the Muslim world. Some believe that there was evidence that talked of the possibility of a unified religion. This situation greatly threatened the seat of Rome and action was taken to crush all initiatives along these lines. The Spanish nobles rose to drive the Moors out of the Iberian peninsula and shortly after the Pope instructed the Dominicans to instigate an inquiry that was to become the inquisition directed at Jews who were involved in these studies and Christians who did not see Rome as their sole religious authority.

During this period Sufism had a certain influence over the Muslim world. It is as though that, again, similar to the influence of Confucius on China, they played the role of establishing a moral conscience throughout much of the Muslim world. This balance, I believe, came from Spain and the Moorish Rulers. The evidence for this is its disappearance after Rome sought to destroy it. Rome simply had too much to loose. The Vatican was a political entity with Dominions, wealth and influence over great areas of the world. What had purity of the spirit to do with anything? Power and control was everything. One thing is for sure, the world lost a great treasure by loosing those texts from the universities in Spain.  Almost everything fell into the hands of the inquisition and was destroyed after using it as evidence to persecute and torture those involved in its creation.

More than this, the world lost a balance that existed within the Muslim world that was to disappear until this day.  It is my contention that the dynamics of today’s turmoil, firstly, within the Muslim world itself and secondly, the relationship that the Muslim world has with the west, is the aftermath of that destruction instigated by the Catholic
church of the 14th century.  By losing the influence of the Sufi culture with its contribution to study of Science, Mathematics, literature, philosophy, theology and other disciplines, the Muslim world fell back into the dark ages in which each sect fights for influence and power and more importantly encourages the ignorance of its people rather than their enlightenment.  The rest is history in creation.

I firmly believe that by establishing a strong Sufi movement, particularly in the Muslim world, we may have a chance, once again, to bring pressure to bear upon Islamic leaders to adopt a more reciprocal policy toward their place within the modern world.

Kind regards,

Andrew J. Routledge

Ali Alizadeh’s reply to Andrew J. Routledge’s response to ‘Confused About Sufi Poetry?’:

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for this fantastic response. I had no idea that Spinosa was influenced by the Sufis. Very intriguing indeed. I certainly share your view regarding the brilliance of Andalusia’s culture, the collapse of which is perhaps the founding tragedy of modern history. It were, after all, the champions of the ‘reconquest’ who invaded and brutalised the ‘new world’ after doing away with Muslims and Jews on the Iberian peninsula, paving the way for colonialism, imperialism, racism, the Holocaust and, now, the ‘clash’ between ‘Islam’ and ‘modernity’.

I do wonder, however, if Sufism can be of help these days. A Sufi like Rumi would have laughed at the Danish Mohammad cartoons not only because I think some of them are funny – only one of them, actually – but also because they express the follies of the human ego which, in the absence of the Beloved, ends up taking sides and forming barricades, either in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘Islam’. But not many seem to be laughing at the utter ridiculousness of this situation. The current perceptions of mysticism are much more apocalyptic and eschatological than dissenting and esoteric a la the Sufis. In Iran, for example, the Sufi heritage has often been co-opted into the Islamic Republic's overall message of Islamic chauvinism – e.g. ‘Muslims’ are better than ‘infidels’ because their Sufi poets are so good, etc – in spite of the fact that during the Middle Ages the Sufis were seen as some of Islam’s most dangerous heretics.

But I am, nevertheless, certainly heartened by your email, and do hope that all people – religious and agnostic, Muslim or not, etc – can be inspired by the humanism of the Sufis.

Best wishes,


© Ali Alizadeh, Andrew J. Routledge, Rachael Byrnes, Raymond Kaiser, 2006.

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