By Raficq Abdulla
Born in South Africa of Muslim parents, Raficq Abdulla is an Oxford-educated barrister, as well as a writer, public speaker, and broadcaster.
He was formerly the University Secretary and legal adviser to Kingston University, where he presently serves as Visiting Fellow.
His publications include Words of Paradise, a new collection of interpretations of the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), and a fresh interpretation of Conference of the Birds, the allegorical poem by the medieval poet and mystic, Farid al-Din Attar (1142-1220). He has been a regular reviewer of books on Islam for many years and has published articles on issues concerning identity, Islamophobia, and the aftermath of the Salman Rushdie affair. He has also written on John Ruskin.
Over the past 15 years, Raficq Abdulla has written and presented a large number of programmes on Islam for BBC World Service radio, including The Four Caliphs, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds, and a series on the life of The Prophet Muhammad. He has written screenplays for Channel 4, including the award-winning films Blood of Hussein, and Born of Fire.
Most recently, he has been invited to speak on Rumi and the 20th century German poet, Rilke, across the UK, while also performing his own poetry and interpretations of Rumi and Attar at various festivals.
As a public speaker, Raficq has addressed a wide variety of national and international audiences in the UK, Canada, the USA, Spain and Dubai on issues concerning Islam, Muslims, Art, Identity, Poetry and Spirituality. He has also lectured on Islamic law to postgraduate students at the LSE, and on spirituality to the undergraduate programme at Syracuse University in London. He has advised Chatham House (a UK think tank) on multiculturalism and foreign policy.
He is a trustee of the Poetry Society, Planet Poetry and of PEN.
In 1999, Raficq Abdulla was awarded an MBE for his interfaith work among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
His inspiring speech…
I want to start with a confession.
I write a lot of poetry, I have been doing it for decades, it’s my not-so-secret vice. There are mountains of the stuff on my computer. The poems jostle for space, they reach out for recognition, they argue amongst themselves, they complain, they compete, certainly they take on their own existence. They’re like unruly children … well many of them are in their fifties and when I come upon them now, I don’t recognise them. I read them and wonder – did I really write this? Some even over extend themselves and get published which is nice and flattering. All this is fine, but that isn’t my confession. Thesis my confession.
I’m a really poor reader of poetry, most of it goes over my head. I read it and my attention wanders, most of the time I feel I’m in some sort of forest without a map. Lost in a quandary. I read with glazed attention. I’ve got better at reading in past decade or so partly because I’ve slowed down my reading and I’ve learnt patience and reread, and something falls into place. But I’m still not a good reader of poetry. Do you have the same feeling of inadequacy? Well that’s my confession! It’s not such a heinous admission I guess if it wasn’t for the fact that I write the stuff almost daily. Now how does that happen?
Let me tell you what I think happens when I write poetry. I don’t plan a poem, I don’t frame it or think about it, a poem comes and I either write it or in fact type it directly ontothe computer. It’s asif Iam aconduit, a recipient of words which take shape from an auditory and visual pattern which appears on the page, as I write them. Later – it could be immediately after I have written something, orthe dayafter- Iwill lookat thewordscritically for shape, syntax and possibly sense. We should remember that, in a way, a poem is an artifice. Poesis, which is poetry’s ancient Greek forebear, means making or doing, not only dreaming or thinking or emoting although these qualities are a necessary part of poetry for poetry is art and illusion – a slippery truth open to endless interpretation. It is not a fixed entity. But it also consists of tinkering with words and syntax, by the way I don’t mean to sound supercilious or superficial when I use the word “tinkering”, it’s not something trivial, it’s a form of serious play when one works on a poem after it’s born, perhaps even as it is born. I sense a poem coming. When I speak of sensingI think Imean thata poembeing immediately comprehensible is nota.
primary requisite, but the ‘feel’ and sound of the poem is; there is an inner musicality to the totality of a poem that speaks for itself. I think it was Goethe who said: “A poetic creation is the better for being incommensurable and rationally incomprehensible.”1 We read poetry differently from prose, we look for different things – special syntax, and particular semantic, rhythmic and phonetic effects, where the sequences of vowels and consonants count for something and both distance the mundane and articulate imagined realmsimplicit in thewordsofapoemasfiguresofdesire. Weshould notbe surprised if a poem is obscure, entangled in the thickets of language which hides as much or perhaps more than it shows, for the meanings that words carry – transport and translate – are multiple and multifarious, far greater than our wavering attention and intention. We are struck by words into saying more than we mean – that is the wonder of poetry. Each of us teases out meanings – I use the plural deliberately – of a poem with a degree of creative uncertainty. When a poem is clear it is endangered, it is like a fish outofwater.
Words, when I’m actually writing, arrive in like birds, they fly down, they fly up, and land on my fingers so to speak. I become an amanuensis – is it of my labyrinthine unconscious or is it of the play of language? Probably it is both somehow language and the unconscious are connected. Was it, the French psychoanalyst, Lacan, the magus of the incomprehensible, was it not Lacan who said, the unconscious is structured like a language? Certainly, language betrays some of the characteristics of the unconscious which is not known directly but may be inferred and then only by way of interpretations. We may consider the unconscious as representing thanatos – that essential darkness which franchises our fleeting, conscious selves – which does not have scientific sanction per se, for it is only suggested and intimated by oblique and evocative dreams and contemplative speculation, fragile and profound. All this calls for slow reading of poetry and other creative work where we, as readers, may be open to possible transformation. We think the unconscious is ours when perhaps we are in its gargantuan possession beyond our control. I think it was Freud who conceived of words as symptoms or at least symptomatic of the condition of our psyche, that words and the relations between their forms and signficances could be neurotic symptoms trapped in the body; thus language becomes us, we are formed and fragmented by its ceaselessopacities.
I think poetry is a distillation at any one time of my thoughts and feelings which live in a largesse of essential latency we call the subconscious, the off
stage of our knowing selves; (using the two words “thoughts” and “feelings” is alreadyproblematic since what wecall “thoughts” and “feelings” are notas distinct from each other as these words suggest). But whilst the words may convey the Spartan concision of simplicity – and then not always – they are not simple especially as, I believe, they convey something from our own psyches – I think it was the novelist Andre Gide who said: “Only a simple wayofthinking about feelingsmake us believethat there aresimple feelings”. Feelings are never simple, we are necessarily contradictory and inveterately ambiguous creatures replete with rich and compelling ironies – therefore, forever incomplete. If we attend to ourselves in silence and stillness, we will become aware of our ambivalences slowly and sometimes painfully. So, it seems to me that poetry is both the play of language and more. I find that reading a poem deeply is to explore its strangeness, its estranged textual character and formation which aim to touch the imagination into life so the poem becomes our insight, a trope of seeing in and saying out, intuitively. This peculiar quality of poetry provides delight and wonder knowing that there are no tidy resolutions on offer, perhaps only openings or obiter dicta which we may call interpretations or suggestions, the chemistry of words that dilate meanings which are suggested by the unconscious residue of our ever-hopeful desire to understand and possess and come to a halt. The Irish Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney speaks of “poetry as divination, poetry as revelation ofthe selftotheself…”. That idea resonateswith me. Iwould add to this description of how poetry arrives, the notion of poetry as incantation, especially when I work with my interpretations of Rumi. I use literal academic translations of this poet’s visionary work – I read the text, I wait for something to happen as I attune myself to what I’ve read. I don’t consciously analyse a poem by the Master, I let it ferment beneath my consciousness. The Austro-Hungarian essayist and iconoclast, Karl Kraus, once said: “Language is the divining-rod which discovers wells of thought”2. I think thatadagedescribes perfectlywhat happens. The poemreleasesitselffroma subterranean “nowhere” on to the receiving page and so I say or write not what I know but what I don’t know with the surface of my mind or self. It’s almost an occult process of discovery. The great 20th century German poet, Rilke, describes this birth beautifully when he states: “Art can only issue from a purely anonymous centre”. 3He was acutely conscious of the occult nature ofcreativity. InhisLettersonCezanne, Rilkeadvises:“Ideally apainter(and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights: without taking the detour through his reflective processes, and incomprehensibly to
3 Letterof22November1922citedonp.73inAReader’sGuidetoRilke’sSonnetstoOrpheusby TimothyJ.Casey,ArlenHouse2001,Ireland.
himself, all his progressshould enterso swiftly intotheworkthat heis unable to recognise them in the moment of transition. Alas, the artist who waits in ambush there, watching, detaining them, will find them transformed like beautiful gold in the fairy tale which cannot remain gold because some detail was not taken care of”.4 If we think too much as we create we are in danger ofdismantlingtheprocessandweendupwithadeadthing.
It seems to me, that to write poetry is to find your inner voice which forms your private hinterland, or as Heaney puts it, to reveal oneself to oneself. It suggests that we confer with ourselves as Attar’s birds confer with each other and with their severe and astute guide, the Hoopoe, before a host of them sets off on the sacred journey and only a handful actually reach its wondrous destination. This process isn’t something that’s willed into place, it appears, it matures with time and through subterranean processes of maturation. One realises one’s voice slowly, possibly incrementally and obtains a degree of authentic utterance. Of course this process becomes complex, even paradoxical when one is translating or interpreting another poet’s voice and work. Thinking about it more deeply, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one’s voice finds oneself rather than one finding it. One hears it coming like slips of song in the distance. The same goes for the mediated voice of a translated poet. Language plays itself into existence as we learn to sound the depths of silence between the words of a poem, to plumb its suggestive significances that sing into syntax the poem’s music – which in fact lie in our psyches – as the words land into place. I think that to read poetry well we must discover the art of tracing the shadows and the condensed allusions that play in a poem through form and content. I don’t wish to be excessivein my attempttoportraythe powerofpoetry,tobe toocarried away – for silence and stillness, betokening wisdom and awareness, envelope serious poetry even at its most playful, at least as an aftersound. And yet … and yet I find that whilst I may read the strong narrative thrust of Attar’s versewith adegreeofsober realisation, Iamalso invited byRumi, Iamdriven by his exhortations, by the energy of his poetry at least to imagine self-immolation through ecstatic experience and memory. To whirl into a stateofnon-self,todiebeforeIdie. Iwillreturntothislater.
So,howdo weenter a poem or,indeed, engagewith anycreative work? The question is surely open and continuous every time we read, listen or look, there is no final authoritative answer. In his poem Ego Dominus Tuus,5 Yeats proclaims: “… art/ Is but a vision of reality”. Each artist attempts to seek this
reality through form and content, through style and insight which is his particular mode ofexpression. Itis up tous the readersin the case of poetry, to discoverthe style and understand the content as far as it can be understood and as far as we are able to understand it and make it our own experience. Inasenseapoem isamadething, anobjectthatwemaypossessquaanobject, a thing passive and inert as such. However, this object is dead unless it possesses us and acts as a catalyst or a trigger to bring our imagination to life so thatwe entertheworld inwardly. The greatGerman philosopher, cultural critic and essayist, Walter Benjamin put it beautifully when he mused, “…in the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of US”.6 To receive the aura of poetry well, is a craft, an agility of intelligence that savours words for sound and texture, and senses layers of meaning which lie beneath conscious thought and the possessive intent of reason. It seems to me that as soon as one uses one’s head to write a poem, if one consciously focuses on technique to manage metre, syntax, rhythm and so on – if one knows too much about how a poem is constructed – one loses the sound and soul of the poem. The novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell echoes Rilke when he writes: “…knowledge, thinking, only delimits the object, frames it, reduces its value as a wholeness. Thinking limits the function of the thing to thepower ofthe system within which it operates. The artist, then, doesnot exactly think whilst he works”7. I am not disparaging the importance of learning the technique of writing a poem, but we should recognise that technique may be necessary, after all as WH Auden said, a poem is a “verbal contraption”, but it is never sufficient. The artistic endeavour is, in a sense, sacred and has to be free; if one is not surprised by what one has written, I believeit’sstillborn.
As I hope I have conveyed so far, a poem is a mystery – to read and to write. As Goethe said, it is a source of life in every language.8 Although I have already said quite a lot of what a poem is or is not, my initial confession remains. Iama mediocrereaderofpoetry. One ofthewaysI dealwith this disability is to write poems in response to the poems I am reading – poem to poem, in conversation so to speak. This does not mean I “understand” the poem I am addressing, as I have intimated, I don’t believe poems exist to be comprehended – but I engage with the poem however inadequately. I have done this with Shakespeare’s sonnets, I have done it with Sappho’s fragments, with the poems of Rilke, Lorca and Yeats. In a sense this happened with my
7 AKeytoModernBritishPoetryp.6 8 TheDisinheritedMindbyErichHellerp.209
“translations” of Rumi and Attar which I prefer to call “interpretations”. As I have said, I worked with transliterations or academic translations. I read them and waited to enter as a diffident guest into the social imaginary of these distant poets, to leave behind the literal meanings of their verse and to enter the subterranean rivers of their poetry. With Rumi the subsequent poems flowed out in torrents, with Attar what came was an extracted narrative – a rivulet if I may say so, from the Amazon of his great work, The Conference of the Birds – and to my surprise the lines generally took the form ofechoingeachotherinrhyme. Ididnotplanitso.
So, what do these Rumi torrents signify? I must be careful how I answer this question. I am not sure that the question, as it stands, suggesting comprehension and, thus, ownership, is even valid. But let me suggest what some of the poems mean to me knowing that I shall only touch upon fleeting perceptions that skim the other side of silence where lies the unconscious and which underlies language, as I attempt to put this – what can I call it? – this energyofRumi’spoetryintowords.
What has this 14th century Islamic mystic, a man from a different time and a different culture, gotto offerus? Whatis it aboutRumi’spoems, which most of us cannot read in their original language that makes us want to go back to them time and again. Why do we feel a thrill of recognition when we read themmorethan700yearsaftertheywerewritten?
First of all Rumi is dangerous, his poetry can be harsh and savage, it unleashes energy that can overwhelm the reader or listener. Beware those who enter his interior world. If you read him with an open heart, he will turn you inside out and leave you dazed, fearful, on the edge of madness, mesmerized, amazed and exultant; you will have entered the domain of one of the greatest of mystics in the history of mankind’s spiritual life who has the uncanny sensibility of a shaman, the mysterious ambivalent aura of a visionary who dares you to tread the same path as he has done. Whereas Rumi’s elder contemporary, Attar,’s amazing allegorical poem describes the journey of the soul to the Divine, Rumi enacts the journey with his powerful, intoxicatingverse. Rumi’spoetryislikeadenseforestfilledwithwildbeasts, with birds of exotic plumage and abiding grace, with clearings where the sunlight falls in great torrents, or the moonlight dances with a delicate coolness like spring water. He drags you screaming, crying, laughing, delighting, into a vision of the Beloved who represents the Divine. If you read his poetry with empathy you may become a lover filled with your own longing and desire forthe Beloved; youwill seek consummation, the abolition ofthe self, the dissolution ofself-will, the submission of the ego to the Greater which is one of the Muslim names forAllah or God. But first, Rumi tells us, we must create silence in ourselves, or allow silence to enter us – throughout his voluminous writings, both poetry and prose, he exhorts us to be silent, to value the precious silence on which all great poetry and spirituality is based, from which we recuperate our true selves – that necessary emptiness from which we weave meaning from and for our lives. Poetry, for Rumi, is a function of being – a notion familiar to Sufis, and I believe, to all who engage inspiritualsearchandreading.
Eventhough hewrotethousandsoflinesofpoetryand asubstantial corpusof prose works, Rumi emphasises that it is not through words but through experience that the Truth is known. He wrote in his Discourses, prose parables which were in effect a commentary on his poetry and vision, that his words were “… for the person who needs words in order to comprehend. Thereis noneedfor wordswith the onewho can comprehend without words. After all, heaven and earth are a discourse for the one who comprehends it, born as they are from the utterance ‘Be and it is’. What need has a man who can hear a soft voice, for shouting and yelling?” The dilemma ofthe Real for Rumi was that it was beyond representation, and conceptual knowledge which is always partial, mostly suppressive and finally blind. Words are us in part, we are doused in language which makes up a screen that points to some empty providential entity beyond itself. Thus words are signifiers of an existential absence, the source of longing to enter into an annihilating intimacy where our separateness is absorbed and absolved into an eternal other so that we become it and it dissolves us; words melt away, they are no longer necessary. They speak no longer and their nomadic meanings are scattered into silence and stillness. Hence we leave the domain of speech and thought and enter the realm of experience which is apart from the arbitrary and obsessive delineations of language. If we read Rumi’s poetry well, we cease to speak, we die from speech and flow into silence which paradoxically is the marrow of speech, especially poetry. Language is interred, the still musicofsilenceisresurrected,andtimeislockedaway.
Rumi was against pedants, although he was a reputable Islamic scholar, he was suspicious of conceptual knowledge, he used language with consummate mastery, his poetry is regarded by Persians as akin to the language of the Qur’an which is prized by all Muslims for its incomparable beauty and wisdom. However, Rumi learnt from his teacher Shams e Tabriz – who came into his life when he was already a well-known and respected scholar and turned his life upside down with his esoteric teachings – he learnt to be wary of language and conceptual thought. Shams was critical of worldly knowledge as opposed to the visionary intensity of ecstatic experience, he wrote: “Whydoyouacquireknowledgeforthepurpose ofaworldlymorsel? The purpose of this rope is to lift yourselves out of the pit, not so that you can
climb out of this pit and into deeper pits. Fix your sight on knowing who you are, what your essence is, why you have come here, where you are going, and what the source of your being is. What are you doing at this very moment? Whereareyouheaded?”9
Rumi’s poetry attains the condition of music, the form and substance are inextricable, at its heart is music and dance, the mime of the Beloved. Many mystics have said that the word of God is not a word but a note of music. Rumi understood this. He worshipped God through the longing and love expressed in his poetry – a form of music – through music itself and through sama, the sacred whirling dance, which reaches beyond signification and meaning into a still centre where movement ceases to be movement whilst continuing to move – thus eternity is enacted in the moment. For Rumi, poetry, especially mystical poetry with its beauty and charismatic power, was atransformativeexperienceoritwasnothing.Thisiswhathesays:
“Musicopensourheartsandsurelyensnares Withechoesthatspillfromcelestialspheres; AndFaithfarbeyondtheimpaledcastofthought Turnsuglydissonancetohoneybyangelsbrought.
Adam’schildrentunedandsocoarselytied Hearwithhimtheangels’songsandsmilingsigh. Werememberthem,evenfaintly,asyearning Heartbeatsofthesweetsoul’soriginallearning.
Oh,musicfeedsthecallingsoulsofLovers, Musicraisesthespiritfromitsearthlycovers. Theashesgrowbolderandshedtheirfur Listenwithstillnessthatonlysoulscanshare.”
This is heady stuff, drink too fast and too much, and you risk becoming distracted, besotted and deluded. To lose oneself as Rumi shows us, we must first learn to value and love ourselves, we must learn the secret of trust and ofloving ourneighbours and the world welivein; wemust learn tojump into the Abyss (another name for God) which is the Greater. To leap off the cliff into the uncertain air and trust oneself is to travel closer to the Divine. TolovetheDivineisbecomedrunkwiththeBeloved,Rumiwrites:
His poetry is vertiginous too, it entices and flatters the ear and the imagination, it expresses itself in bewilderment, paradox and sometimes with terrifying depth which can provoke us to go on an inner journey of the spirit which, as Rumi himself knew, can be perilous for it leads to the disintegration of the self and compels us to re-think who we are and what we hold dear. This is a perilous venture because we can lose any sense of self – as if we were in intergalactic space where there is neither up nor down, no point of gravitational recognition – we encounter terror. Rumi longs for the Beloved, he desires to be at one with the Beloved but he knows that this affliction is beyond pleasure and happiness, it is a mystery delineated by awe, it dances withbeauty,itisfilledwith terror,asIhavesuggested;-itisvastand empty,a void which swallows up our puny ego. We are fulfilled by ceasing to exist as the self is annihilated, Rumi uses the analogy of the moth flying willingly into the naked flame. Desire in Rumi’s poetry is the appetite of the spirit or soul seeking solace in the unknown transcendent which, paradoxically, is nowhere here, it is ontologically absent, yet which anchors, which works over all Rumi’s poetry and purpose. This is a terrifying prospect but the seeker is drawntoit,he/shedesiresitevenifitmeansanapocalypticfate.
Rumidoesnotattempttopacify uswith bland confectionsofimagined solace; he does not appease but invites us to dance towards the Beloved who is both laughing daylight and mysterious night – eros and thanatos. He is dangerous because in his poetry we learn to imagine the depths of our own need, we are faced with violent confrontations of the spirit, we are bowled over with the energy of his verse, its erotic power which assails us with charged exchanges, with delicate whisperings between ourselves and the Beloved which are as light and elusive as a humming bird’s wings. The symbol of birds which fly up into the ethereal infinity of sama, the dance of ecstatic stillness, pervades Rumi’s poetry, they do also in Attar’s verse as we shall see later. There is a wonderful poem which catches this fleeting freedom of flight and intangible attainment. Itgoeslikethis:
“Look!Quickly,lookthereamongthetremblingfeathers Ofthecopperbeech,there,youseethem-birdsmaking Readytoridethedawnskies.They’llriseupsoon,riseup Leavebehindtheirconferringselves,toskimtheseventh Heaventurningandchangingwiththestriplinglight, They’renoantsthatserveamodestsky,theireggsaregolden. Asleep,theycradlethesunandmoonintheirfoldedwings, Whentheyswishoverthefaceofthewakingskythey’refishes Withsoulsofwhales;they’relikewildrosesdancinginthewind,
Theyadorntheskieswithcapriciouspatterns,wingsbeating Likepalpitatinghearts.Theyareindependentbeingsteasinghell Skimmingheaven,freeofblessingsandcursesthey’lllordit Onthedayofresurrectionthey’resoclosetoourhandcuffed Soulsnobodiescanquiteacquit.Thebravadooftheirdisplay Theswoopingdivesanddaringcurvesupwardtoheavendaze Themountainswithsubtlety,andthesuddenconvertedsea, Nowbitternowsweet;theiragileflightrefinesbodiesintoindebted Souls;soulsinturn,arewinnowedthroughthepaleofEternity; Dullstonesarebloodedintorubiesandthehollowbones Ofunbeliefarefilledwiththemarrowofdancingtruthpicking Itswayoverthedebrisofoursenses.They’resoclear,sofinely, Sothrummingfastthey’reinvisibletotheeye.Ifyouwanttosee Themlookquicklywithyourturningheart,powderyourface Withthedustfromtheirclaws,makereadytogototheball. Preparetobluntthesharppointofyourquestingmindsoitmay Lookupintotheskiesandblossomasroseandeglantine. Now,ifallthiscouldbesaid,Iwouldsayitinsuchwords Thatthechorusofangelsandcausticjinnswhosealourplay Wouldshaketheirfierylocksandcusptheirhandstopray.”
We are confronted by the mysterium tremendum which shocks us into an inward reality no words can purchase or re-enact, not even, in the final reckoning can Rumi’s poetry, even though it is said to be lit from the inside likerubies. Rumisays:
“Thesewordsofminearenostones topickandthrowatpassingfancies. They’reyeast-sounds,breadwaiting tobebrokenwhilstit’sstillfreshbaked. Leavethemovernightandtheybecome hardasrustingbolts,notfitforeating. Myverseisharbouredinlovers’hearts, exposeittotheindifferentworldbusy withitstrafficanditchokestodeath. Likeafish itswimsinthelover’sblood, landitontherocksanditgaspsforlife thenslowlydiescoldandstiffasanicicle. Youmustberichwithmetaphorslike anoreofgoldwaitingtobeminedifyou aretodigestmywordswhenthey’refresh. Knowthis,myfriend,it’snothingnew, thesewordsareturnedtoblisswhenyou
Unless the words are enriched as they cross the border from one language and culture to another whilst retaining a core of fidelity to the original, unless they are imagined by the heart of the reader or listener, they are superfluous shells, affectations of sound and form. Rumi remains only a fashion when he shouldbeacatalyst.
Rumi is a saint for Muslims, he is a poet who has written unsurpassable verse in honour of the Beloved, he is a visionary, a poet of exquisite taste and ear but whose poetry is still grounded in daily life. He teachesus to tap into our inner self, to become ourselves and to lose the word-logged ego that binds and blinds. Like Plato, Rumi was concerned with the inner freedom of the soul, but he tried to attain this state of bliss not through argument but throughprayer,invocation,dance,musicandtheparadoxofpoetry.
His poetry aims to leap out from the boundaries of conceptual thought into the absolute of visionary experience; if it fails to do so entirely,it is because he uses words which are wedded to thought. However, the important thing is that it suggests, it creates the possibility and by its musicality and implicit dancing tensions, it reflects the ecstatic union with the Beloved. His verse is filled with longing that sets out from a barren domain towards the Divine presence. Without the Beloved, Rumi finds the world a dead place; his wordsreachouttotheBeloved,hewrites:
“Wherevertherainbowofyourfacealights Beitthedankgorgeofawell,it’sparadise… Yourabsencemakesbeautyhorror,widowingmysight.”
Withoutthesense ofthe Divine thereis no meaning, without meaning there is no Love and therefore no Reality. This was Rumi’s world where the sacred wasstillalivingcurrentoflife.
In hisDivanor lyrical poemsto his beloved teacherand guide Shams-e Tabriz, Rumi’s words ache with longing and desire to attain a speechless union with theBeloved.Heyearnsforunion,hewrites:
“Loveislongingandlonging,thepainofbeingparted; Noillnessisrichenoughforthedistressoftheheart, Alover’slamentsurpassesallothercriesofpain. LoveistheroyalthresholdtoGod’smystery… Loveisdangerousofferingnoconsolation..”
These poems are a sort of drunken, ecstatic expressions of love and longing which at the same time are based on a deep sense of humility impelled by a special turning energy towards the transcendence of the self into the greater whole. Rumi exhortshis readersand listenerstoattain this condition ofbliss but this is not something that can be done simply because one wants to be there with Rumi and the other ecstatic mystics, to share in their experience of theDivine. Rumitellsus:
If the end of Rumi’s poetry is to attain the agape of compassion and the extinction of the self, the process of his poetry, its pace and passion is energia and eros. His tone, his impassioned expression, his Orphic longing and desire fortheforcingecstasy ofannihilationintotheGreater– themothdrawntothe flame and consumed by it – is erotic, it claims intimacy, anguish and an almost carnal love for the Beloved. It burns with passionate regard, both carnal and spiritual. Itsprancing images that compose a hypnotic musicality and the urgent rhythms of his verse which create a transformative, catalytic power in his poetry, beckon the reader/listener to deep knowledge at the intersection between time and eternity intimated by his songlines of the soul. We must beware his words, be aware of the electric charge that may burn and foment inner turmoil in us, who read and listen, as much as they can bring a graceful serenity to which we are called as we listen to his verse with earsthat distinguish the beauty of their erotic arc of retrieval of the Beloved from simple egotistical possession which demeans and brutalises rather than purifies. He invites his reader to enter the realm of ecstatic apotheosis of the annihilation of the self, the giddying energy of his poetry acts as midwife to foetal souls seeking the Divine. His words perform the votive process of transcendence without a safety net: they are a risky undertaking and reflect Rumi’s own suffering on his journey to the Beloved. To read Rumi wisely implies a degree of self-knowledge which may be awakened by the words themselves, and the cadences of his searching poems. His poetry seduces and delights as it instructs and at times harries us into recollection by reminding us to let go of our egos for a new consciousness as we dredge through language to distil an alluvia of meanings consciously and unconsciously.
Attar,Rumi’seldercontemporary,seeksthesame goalasRumi,but hispoetry, I think, is more sober, more directed, his birds in the Conference of the Birds, debate, delude themselves, make excuses – they are more earthed even as they finally fly up in the journey towards the Divine. For me, Attar is less inebriated than Rumi, he belongs to a more sober branch of Islamic
spirituality where great mystical poets such as Junayd, reside. They also long for union with the Divine but they journey towards God by way of prayer, contemplation, by articulating their aim through parables and reflection whilst mystics such as Rumi are driven to drown themselves, to dissolve themselves in the Divine or Beloved. Attar, on the other hand, invites us to choose, to leave behind our earthly roles – the guide in his great allegorical poem is the Hoopoe who quizzes the various birds with forensic severity abouttheir readiness tofly,toembarkonthejourney. Hisverseteachesusto listen to the sound of silence through stillness at the heart of what is, of existence. Attar’s birds are examples of delusion and insight, we regard themwith curiosityandamusement -ohhowtheyavoid and evade,howvain and vainglorious they are – let me illustrate these feats of evasion by reading you a few examples of the birds responding to the Hoopoe’s exhortation to startonthegreatjourneyofthesoul.
“IknowthesecretsofLove,Iamtheirpiper… …Iinspiretheyearningflute… Therosesaredissolvedintofragrancebymysong… Mylovefortheroseissufficient…”
The Hoopoe is not impressed and warns the nightingale that its love is vain andattachedtoapassingthingthatlastsonlyaday.
The proud hawk is more direct and makes clear that he has no need to see the Simurgh–thepoem’snamefortheDivine–eveninadream.Attartellsus:
“Hehasnoneed ToseetheSimurgheveninadream,hisdeeds Aresufficientforhim,andnojourneycouldreplace Theroyalcommand,royalmorselfoodnodisgrace Tohiswayofthinking…”
The Hoopoe warns him that this is vanity, kings are not to be trusted since he existedonlyfortheking’samusement.
The duck too is not that keen to leave his element water which already keeps him clean, for he considers it an element that is not underhand and deceitful, itishisrightfulhome,noneedtostrayandseeksomeimaginarybeing.
“Iamafragilethingandfeebleinbody,meek Inmind,howcanapunythinglikemeseek TheSimurgh…”
The peacock does not wish to enter the gates of paradise since nothing else hasmeaningthanhisgorgeoustail.Heembalmsbeautythus:
“…I’mthejinn’sartyouknow, Whoprintedparadiseonmyfanningtail Butnoheavenisseenorheardinthedetails Ofmyheartorvoicethatsoundslikescratched Glass:IamGabrielamongstbirdsunmatched Inlooks… Ihavehadenoughofparadiseoflate, Ihavenowish tostaythereagain,outsideisbetterforme,”
The Hoopoe scorns the peacock’s claim which is based on display and surface glorynotonthejourneyoftheheartinitsdeepestplacetowardstheSimurgh.
The vast majority of the birds failed to rise to the Hoopoe’s call even though he is impatient with them, indeed abrasive, of their habitual velleities, their dishonest and evasive procrastinations that keep them in place. However, the excuses continue, time is lost and the Conference becomes a melee of reasons for not actually embarking on the journey. However, a host of birds do take off, both timorous and courageous too. Attar entertains us with stories and we smile, laugh, shake our heads with ironic amusement until we realise – slowly or suddenly – that he is describing us, his readers. Attar’s poem interrogates us his readers, often flagrantly and impatiently, without subtletyfor we are made aware that we are running out of time. These birds are us and the journey they are asked to embark on, is our journey. We too, fail tostartonthis enterprise toreach outand search, or,likethe greatmass of birds, we do start out but fall by the wayside. We fail to cross the great challenges that await those who actually take off never to reach their imagined goal. Attar tellsus about the seven stations of being on the path to the Divine. They are called the Valleys of the Quest – which implies a longing to seek; Love– which is the basis of the Quest;Apprehension – which fills us when we become aware of the Divine as Justice and Purgation; Detachment – that takes shape as we begin the transmutation of the self which re-emergesin Unity;Bewilderment – when weare dazzledby thesense of mystical communion; and lastly, Deprivation and Death – where nothing is everything and everything is nothing, when the self is consumed by the
Divine. They are milestones that measure and test the birds’ mettle and progress. At first, the birds are filled with despair and then later, they may realise that to startis already a great step. I use the world realise deliberately, for Attar is inviting us through parables and testamentary stories, to move beyondtheseaccountsandtheirmoralinjunctions,beyondwords,todiscover, to uncover – the Greeks speak of eletheia, the uncovering of truth – to uncover our own, our very own experience which is the experience of all of us. The perilous journey that Attar presents in his poem is a sort of purging of the spirit. It is a form of alchemy whereby, Attar invites us to enter a process of purging that refines the spirit of the accumulated dross which clogs its vision. We enter a realm of sudden transitions, of metamorphoses, of insights, of levels of understanding which one attains on the way – all these qualities are already rewards in themselves. I advise all who decide to read this wonderful poem, either my shortened version of it, or other more capacious translations including the masterly work by Peter Avery which he calls The Speech of the Birds, to start at the beginning and travel with the birds, not to jump and take short cuts. Let the narrative unfold in your reading, let it soak in and donot,do notcheatand read theend beforeyouhavereadthebody of the poem. I worked on a prose version of the poem, working systematically – beginning at the beginning and travelling to the end – and I can still remember my surprise and wonder when I actually worked on the end. It took my breath away because I actually felt or realised what the Simurgh signifiedforthefirsttime. Ittookmybreathaway.
Ireturn tothe beginningofmytalk -I amspeaking hereabout something Ido not know, certainly not grasp – for it is unsayable. Like poetry for me – the lame reader, the blind writer – the peak which Rumi sees, the infinite that Attar’s birds fly towards and only a handful enter as pilgrims, are glimpsed, perhaps, imagined. Sounded with words, they may arrive without us knowing them entirely, as a form of graceful attachment suggesting the possibility of the ineffable, which I think is where all serious poetry lies. I am not sure as I am writing that I am using the right words – and then, and then we are reduced and at the same time, enlarged into silence where stillness lies, where poetry begins – especially the poetry of Rumi and Attar. If we are engaged by all of this for, and in, ourselves, then we are truly fortunate. Wordsare necessarily provisional and inevitably inadequate since in the case of Rumi and Attar they reach out for everything which is also nothing. Suchistheparadoxofpoetryread,listenedto,andwritten.