Skirting on the edge of orthodox Islam, and often beyond it, the great Sufi poets of the medieval and early modern eras produced both beautiful verse and an inspiring record of humanity’s search after God. They were obsessed with the idea that God is love, they loved Him so dearly that they sometimes felt united with their Beloved, and they despaired that this feeling was so fleeting. Persecuted by other Muslims, Sufi mystics often moved to the Balkans, where state power was weaker and the multicultural mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims was more amenable to their shocking, sometimes heretical, ways of talking about their spirituality. The language and experiences of the Sufi mystics have a lot in common with that of medieval Christians, especially with Spanish mystics like St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) or St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). If you have never encountered the beauty of Sufi verse, allow me to introduce you to a few of my favourites:
Rabiya al-Adawiyyah of Basra (c.717-801) came from a poor family but rose to fame for her verse, her asceticism, and her obsession with God. Rabiya’s poetry is the first time we find in Islam the idea that God should be loved for His own sake, and not out of fear or to gain entry to Heaven.
O Lord, if I worship You
Because of fear of hell
Then burn me in hell.
If I worship You
Because I desire paradise
Then exclude me from paradise.
But if I worship You
For Yourself alone
Then deny me not
Your eternal beauty.
Al-Husayn Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (c.858-922) traveled widely throughout the Muslim world until he settled in Baghdad, where he was eventually executed. Believing that God dwelt within him, al-Hallaj got in trouble for saying things like “there is nothing in my cloak but God.” They cut him into pieces and then set fire to him.
I am at Your service, O my secret, my whispered name.
I am Your servant, O meaning of my life, my purpose.
I call You and You call me;
Did I say I am you
Or did You speak through me?
O essence of my being, my search, my limit;
O my speech, my sign, my significance..
O reality of my existence, my perception, my sense,
O my creation, my design, my physical life.
O essence of my existence, essence of all;
You are dressed in my meaning.
You to whom my soul connected and was lost,
Once again the object of my desires.
Wandering from place to place I weep and sigh
And my enemies help me on my way.
When I come near You, fear drives me away
But love deep in my soul makes me reckless.
Sanai Ghaznavi (?-1131) was a Persian court poet who left his life of luxury to seek after God. He rejected logic and reason in favor of “awakening” to the presence and love of God in his life.
None can know Him of himself;
His nature can only be known by Him.
Reason ran after Him, but did not make it;
Weakness hastened on the path and found Him.
It was His mercy that said, ‘Know me,’
Or else no reason or intellect could know Him.
How can our mere senses His truth perceive?
How can a nut rest on a sliding dome?
Reason can take you to His door
But only his grace can take you beyond.
By reason alone one cannot get there;
Like others before you, do not commit that folly.
His grace is our guide on this path;
His works are guide and witness to Him.
O you who are incompetent to know yourself
How can you ever know God?
Since you know not this first step
How will you know Him as He is?
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) is often considered the greatest poet of the Persian language. Born in Tajikistan, Rumi spent most of his life in Turkey, where he and his dear friend Shams, a dervish, wrote poetry and sought God through asceticism.
My soul is mingled with Thee, dissolved in Thee,
A soul to cherish as it has Thy perfume!
Each drop of blood of mine
Is saying to Thy dust,
‘I am the colour for Your love,
Companion of Your affection.
In this house of clay, my heart is desolate
O Beloved, come into this house
Or else I’ll be gone!’
Hafiz Shirazi (1320-1389) is difficult to read because he loved plays on words and it is not always clear what he meant to say. Hafiz often spoke about wine and drunkenness, which was probably a metaphor for the mystical ecstasies brought on by his passionate love for God. But it might not have been a metaphor, and it is possible that he was just an alcoholic who taught us to “stain your prayer mat with wine if the Magus tells you to.”
I am a Lover.
What need have I for religion or unbelief?
I am thirsty for wine,
What need have I for union or separation?
My qiblah and my prayer arch is my Beloved.
If not drunk, thus, what need I for drinking?
Since in the two worlds I find my Beloved,
What need have I for heaven and hell, of houris and slaves?
He that is steadfast in the path of Love
Has no need for sorrow or pain;
What need has he for balm and cures?
Everywhere I saw your face
And in every face I saw my Beloved’s trace.
I saw Him in myself.
In my beauty, I my lover’s beauty saw.
The prayer of the puritan
Is in the arch of the mosque;
The prayer of the Lovers
Is on the gallows!
In comparison to a drop of that wine, Hafiz,
All reason and sense are useless.
Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752) comes from Pakistan, and wrote in Sindhi. He became a wandering ascetic even though he was born into a wealthy family, and craved the solitude where he could think about God. Kind, gentle, and prayerful, he became famous in his own day for his deep piety and profound wisdom.
The body is a rosary,
the mind a bead, a harp the heart.
Love-strings are playing there the theme
of unity in every part;
The nerves do chant: ‘There’s none like thee;
the “One” and only one thou art.’
E’en in sleeping, beauty they impart
their very sleep their worship is!