Sufism was cherished by Australia's greatest poet Professor Alec Derwent Hope. Inspired by Alec, who was my next door neighbor and close friend in Forrest in Canberra and who told me a great deal about the Sufi poets and Sufi Mysticism, I decided during my many visits to Iraq during the 1980s to study Sufism in depth with my Iraqi academic friends at the University of Baghdad, particularly Professor Jabra Ibrahim Jabra - the Head of the Department of Literature - who told me that Sufism is generally believed to have originated among Muslims near the areas now known as Basra though there is also a history of Sufism in Transoxania dating from shortly after the time of Muhammad. Some scholars in Baghdad believe that early Sufism was essentially the evolution of Islam in a mystic direction, although some of these beliefs lack historic evidence.
Transoxiana (also called Farârud/Ma Wara'un-Nahr/Hé Zhōng) which is the ancient name used for the portion of Central Asia corresponding approximately with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgystan and southwest Kazakhstan. Geographically, it means the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. When used in the present, it usually implies that one is talking about that region in the time prior to about the 8th century, although the term continued to remain in use among western historians for several centuries after that.
In the Persian epic Shahnameh, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, who was born in about 940, near Toos. He was the son of a landowner. He is famous for writing the national epic, Shahnameh or Book of Kings, which him over twenty five years to complete the 50,000 couplets in this poem. Ferdowsi developed the rubai (quatrain) epochal style of historical poems.
A great centre of Muslim civilization during the European Middle Ages, Transoxania was the centre of the Timurid Empire in the 15th century, and its cities (e.g., Bukhara and Samarkand) were known worldwide. The region came under Russian occupation in the 19th century.
Professor Jabra made clear to me that Farid ud Din Attar was one of the greatest Sufi poets. He was also a Muslim scholar and a mystic. He was born in Nishapur, in the province of Khorasan in north-eastern Persia and died in the same city. Professor Jabra explained that there is disagreement over the exact dates of his birth and death but several sources confirm that he lived from about 1140 AD until about 1220 AD. Attar is traditionally said to have been killed by Mongol invaders. His tomb can be seen today in Nishapur.
Attar was the son of a prosperous chemist, receiving an excellent education in Arabic studies and medicine. As a young man, Attar went on pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled widely throughout the region, seeking wisdom in Egypt, Damascus, India and other areas such as Kufa (which is about 150 kilometers South of Baghdad) and Turkistan, meeting, with Sufi shaykhs - promoting Sufi ideas, before finally returning to his home city of Nishapur where he continued to help his father in the pharmacy store and, after his father's death, owned his own store. The people he helped in the pharmacy used to confide their troubles in Attar and this affected him deeply. Being a herbalist he attended to dozens of patients every day prescribing herbal remedies which he prepared himself. He would often compose his poetry while attending to his patients. He was indeed a man of passion as is evident in these lines from his poem The Nightingale:
… The nightingale raises his head, drugged with passion,
Pouring the oil of earthly love in such a fashion
That the other birds shaded with his song, grow mute.
The leaping mysteries of his melodies are acute
- 'I know the secrets of love I am their piper’…
Eventually Attar abandoned his pharmacy store and traveled widely again meeting with Sufi shaykhs. When he returned to Nishapur he promoted Sufi ideas.
About thirty works by Attar survive. His masterpiece is certainly The Conference of the Birds, which tells of an allegorical journey to the summit of enlightenment. This poem is the tale of thirty birds flying to the summit of the world mountain Qaf- an allegory of the Sufi journey to realization of the nature of God, with each bird having a particular significance, a special fault, and a tale to tell.
In his poem Attar describes a group of thirty birds (symbolizing individual human souls) under the leadership of a Hoopoe Bird (Spiritual Master) who are determined to search for the legendary Simurgh bird (God). The birds must confront their own individual limitations and fears while journeying through seven valleys before they ultimately find the Simurgh and complete their quest.
Under the guidance of a leader bird they start their journey toward the land of Simorgh. One by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse when unable to endure the journey. Each bird has a special significance, and a corresponding didactic fault. While the guiding bird is the Hoopoe, the Nightingale symbolizes the lover, the Parrot is seeking the fountain of immortality not God and the Peacock symbolizes the ‘fallen soul’ who is in alliance with Satan. These birds must cross seven valleys in order to find the Simorgh: Talab (Yearning), Eshq (Love), Marifat (Gnosis), Istighnah(Detachment), Tawheed (Unity of God), Hayrat (Bewilderment) and, finally, Fuqur and Fana (Selflessness and Oblivion in God). These represent the stations that a Sufi or any individual must pass through to realize the true nature of God.
Within the larger context of the story of the journey of the birds, Attar masterfully tells the reader many didactic short, sweet stories in captivating poetic style. Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the place of Simorgh — all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake — not the mythical Simorgh. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather is the totality of existence. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realize that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality. The idea of God within is an idea intrinsic to most interpretations they now reach the station of Baqa (Subsistence) which sits atop the Mountain Qaf. So, it really is about teaching. The world is a strange, small place and poetry is at the center.
This story is used to teach the mystical insight that the personal self isn't of much real worth. What is valuable is the Beloved's presence within us -- and that presence isn't threatened by the death of the body is a long poem in Persian by Farid ud-Din Attar of approximately 4500 lines. The poem uses a journey by a group of thirty birds, led by a Hoopoe Bird as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment.
Farid un-Din Attar’s Manteq at-Tair (The Conference of the Birds) is indeed a glittering work of the Sufi tradition, the mystical school that is at the heart of Islam. this 12th century Sufi poem is a allegorical journey to the summit of enlightenment.
The thirty birds who ultimately complete the quest discover that they themselves are the Simurgh they sought, playing on a pun in Persian (si and murgh can translate as thirty birds) while giving us an esoteric teaching on the presence of the Divine within us. Attar makes clear in his poem that our souls exist within the cage of our bodies but we can by looking inwards recognize our soul’s essential affinity with God, thus the awakened soul guided by God’s grace can progress along the ‘Way.’ Lines from this poem:
… Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw
Rays that have wandered into Darkness
Return back into your Sun subside …
Farid ud-Din Attar was apparently tried at one point for heresy and exiled from Nishapur, but he eventually returned to his home city and that is where he died. A traditional story is told about Attar's death. He was taken prisoner by a Mongol during the invasion of Nishapur. Someone soon came and tried to pay ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver. Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him for that price. The Mongol, thinking to gain an even greater sum of money, refused the silver. Later, another person came, this time offering only a sack of straw to free Attar. Attar then told the Mongol to sell him for that was all he was worth - outraged at being made to look a fool the Mongol cut off Attar's head. Whether or not this is literally true isn't the point.
The entire text of The Conference of the Birds is long, and on-line sources are hard to come by, or fragmented, or their translations have been criticized. The most noted is by Edward Fitzgerald.
In spite of the significance of Attar’s poem for world literature and the study of religion, it was not translated in its entirety until the mid-twentieth century, and the standard English translations are hence not in the public domain. However Edward FitzGerald, best known as the translator of The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam worked on his abridged translation of the Bird Parliament through 1857. It is little known today, primarily because it was only published posthumously (FitzGerald died in 1883), in Letters and Literary Remains, edited by William Aldis Wright, in 1889.
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Attar's poetry certainly inspired Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī) and many other Sufi poets. It is said that Rumi actually met Attar when Attar was an old man and Rumi was a boy, though some scholars dispute this possibility. Rumi wrote: ‘Attar is the Soul ltself.’
I carefully studied the details of Rumi’s poetry with Professor Jabra. This was indeed also a deeply enriching experience spiritually - especially these lines which certainly resonate these days, since the modern world appears to be dominated by the tyranny of money:
… What the material world values does
not shine the same within the truth of
the soul. You have been interested
in your shadow. Look instead directly
at the sun. What can we know by just
watching the time-and-space shapes of
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī and popularly known as Mowlānā but known to the English-speaking world simply as Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273), was a 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Rūmī is a descriptive name meaning ‘the Roman’ since he lived most of his life in an area called Rūm (then under the control of Seljuq dynasty) because it was once ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire. It is likely that he was born in the village of Wakhsh, a small town located at the river Wakhsh in Persia (in what is now Tajikistan). Wakhsh belonged to the larger province of Balkh, and in the year Rumi was born, his father was an appointed scholar there. Both these cities were at the time included in the greater Persian cultural sphere of Khorasan, the easternmost province of Persia, and were part of the Khwarezmian Empire. His birthplace and native language both indicate a Persian heritage. His father decided to migrate Westwards due to quarrels between different dynasties in Khorasan, opposition to the Khwarizmid Shahs who were considered devious by Bahā ud-Dīn Walad (Rumi's father), or fear of the impending Mongol cataclysm. Rumi's family traveled west, first performing the Hajj and eventually settling in the Anatolian city Konya (capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, in present-day Turkey). This was where he lived most of his life, and here he composed one of the crowning glories of Persian literature which profoundly affected the culture of the area.
I understand after having had long talks with Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai that Sufism is now under attack across the Muslim world. So I have been attempting over the years to trace the troubled but inspiring history of Islamic mysticism.
On 25 October 2010 an al-Qaida-affiliated militant group turned an ancient Sufi shrine into a bloodbath in the Punjab province of Pakistan, detonating bombs hidden in milk cans and killing and wounding scores of innocent people. This was the latest in a spate of gruesome attacks on Sufis and shrines of dead Sufi saints this year alone, leaving hundreds of innocent people killed or wounded. Such violence has brought a new upheaval to Islam - could this shake its ethical and moral foundations and reduce it to merely a radical political ideology?
The ideological driving force behind this violence is religious extremism, which considers everyone outside its ideological league, Muslim or non-Muslim, dead or alive, as an enemy and an infidel deserving to be destroyed. The fanatics blow up ancient relics, Sufi heritage, Sufi shrines and the Sufi way of life everywhere they can. It appears they want to micromanage social, cultural and individual life. They condemn gatherings and ceremonies at Sufi saints’ graves, shaving beards, wearing charms, music and painting as heresy. The history of Islam is not alien to violence against Sufism. Does the root of the current upheaval lies in Wahhabism which has been gradually institutionalized from a tiny band of theologians into a political ideology by the Saudi ruling dynasty? The Wahhabi religious movement was originated by Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), essentially to challenge the influence of the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi petrodollars and the Pakistani military ruling elite have helped the spread of this fanatical form of Islam. Subsequently the vision of this ideology was empowered in the Middle East and south Asia by another extremist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which originally emerged in Egypt in the 1920s. The Brotherhood borrowed much of its ideological agenda, political structure, revolutionary features and violent persuasion from Marxism-Leninism. Like the latter during the Cold War era, the Brotherhood’s ultimate objective has been to topple the state by violent means and extend a radical ideology to the West. The Iranian revolution of 1979 gave further impetus to this ideology, which began to justify the export of Islamic revolution as an Islamic obligation everywhere in the world. Like Saudi rulers, secular Pakistani generals began to use the most lethal religious radicals for domestic security and as a tool to promote its foreign policy in Afghanistan and India. Pakistan served also as a gateway for the spread of Wahhabism in the region. At present they are pinching American coins in return for promoting sectarian genocide.
The war on Sufism is clearly not a new phenomenon. Hussein Al-Halaj, a great Sufi poet and teacher was condemned for heresy when in a state of mystical trance he exclaimed, “I am the Truth”. He was cut to pieces and his remains were burnt by a mob in Baghdad in 922 AD. He was the first Sufi martyr. During the 17th-century Persian Safavid Empire, Sufis were suppressed, and while under the Indian Moguls it flourished, in the twentieth-century the Turkish secular leader Kamal Atatürk banned Sufi monasteries and Sufi rituals in Turkey. Sufism (comes from Arabic noun suf, literally meaning course wool, the Sufi is one wearing woolen garments) is the name of Islamic mysticism.
The word Sufism was coined in the West for the first time by the German scholar August Tholuck in 1821. It has been divided into two practical and theoretical parts: To those who practice it, Sufism means a quick spiritual foray into a space where the presence of the divine could be experienced. To those who are concerned with its theory, it is a mystical and spiritual theology, a body of knowledge and an epistemology interwoven with Islamic metaphysical texts.
The Sufi philosophy was developed and promoted by medieval Muslim philosophers such as Ibni-Arabi, Averroes (known in Islamic world as Ibn-i-Rushd), Avicenna and Farabi, who, for their Islamic Aristotelianisn were often referred to as the Oriental Peripatetics. This school of thought was greatly saturated with Plato and Aristotelian metaphysics. The Sufis created a vast body of a literary and poetic heritage. As an elixir of wisdom and an intellectual Yoga, Sufism has been known, cherished and even practiced in the West since time immemorial. It is hard to
find a single great Western poet or thinker who has not ar some time been inspired by Sufism.
Dr Johnson loved Sufi Oneness and pantheism; Voltaire in Candid saw Sufi philosophy as an antidote to the religious extremism of his time. Goethe loved Sufi poetry, Richard Burton and Robert Graves were keen on practicing Sufism. Hegel draws on Sufi thought in his works. Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was brought news of Sufi musicians and dancers - known as “Whirling Dervishes” - to Europe. Nobel laureate, Doris Lessing is the doyen of contemporary Sufis in the West. She identifies Western admiration of Sufism since the 1960s as ‘a Sufi craze,’ and ‘Sufi bandwagon’. For Lessing, Sufism was a kind of universal feeling, emotion, a quick fix and an access with no intermediary. “Sufism is something one experiences on one's own,” she would say. In my own lectures in Australia and Europe, I have explored with enormous interest Sufi philosophy and literature.
The 13th-century great Sufi poet and the founder of the Whirling Dervishes, Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī) knew this. He believed that fanatics will never extinguish the Sufi torch or destroy Sufi tombs as he says ‘when we are dead, see not our tombs in the earth, but find it in the hearts of the people.’ And the 17th-century Pashtun Sufi poet Rahman Baba, known in the West as the Nightingale-of-Peshawar said to the vandals: ‘We are all one body, whoever tortures another, wounds himself.’ Last spring (2010), his mausoleum was bombed by the Punjabi Taliban. Rumi declared the Sufi manifesto of universal love, tolerance of nonbelievers, pluralism and interfaith harmony in one of his quatrains:
… Come, come whoever you are,
An unbeliever, a fire or idol-worshiper, come,
Our convent is not of desperation,
Even if you have broken your vows a hundred time,
Come, come again …
An Appreciation of and Current Concerns for Sufism