Saturday, September 11, 2010

Excerpts from the Qur'an and the Poetry of Rumi

The most helpful book on the Qur'an that I have ever read is Michael Sells's Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations (with audio CD). In this book, he not only provides subtle translations of the text, a sound introduction to the history and cultural background of Bedouin/Arabic poetry at the time of the Qur'an's writing, and a thorough discussion of the role of recitation and verbal prayer within Islam — he also provides extensive commentary on each sura, exploring some of the many themes and recurring imagery throughout the text. Below are some excerpts from his translations of the earliest suras, along with my own attempts to paraphrase and expand on some of his commentary.

The Small Kindness (107:1-7)

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring

Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
who fails to urge the feeding of one in need
Cursed are those who perform the prayer
unmindful of how they pray
who make of themselves a display
but hold back the small kindness

I begin with this sura because I think it portrays an ethic that is quite familiar to many of us — one that condemns hypocrisy and religious posturing, and seeks to locate the real heart of the spiritual life in the "small kindnesses" shown to those suffering and in need. Those who go through the motions of prayer without following through on the implications of prayer in their daily lives are, in this failure of integrity, "calling the reckoning a lie." The word translated here as "reckoning," Sells explains, was also understood to mean the religion of Islam itself — like many Western religious traditions, Islam understands the wholeness of the self or soul as one that occurs within linear, temporal time, imagining a final day of reckoning, judgement or consideration in which the soul is revealed as it truly is, in all its beauty and all its flaws. To "call the reckoning a lie" is, in other words, to deny that there is any true self or soul beyond the realm of superficial actions and displays of piety; at the same time, it is exactly this misguided belief that there is no "deeper" soul or self that itself leads to a blindness to acts of kindness, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

The Night-Traveling Star (86:1-7)

By the night-traveling star
What can tell you of the night-traveling star?
The star that pierces
For every soul there is a guardian
Let the human being contemplate his creation
creation from a fluid gushing
between loins and ribs

One aspect of the early suras that has often moved me is the reverence shown to nature through its poetry. The nomadic desert culture of the Bedouin lived very close to the land, though certainly not in some romanticized warm-fuzzy relationship with it. Their poetry was full of the sublimity and ambivalence of the powers of nature. As Sells writes, "In pre-Islamic poetry, the 'tending of the stars' became a major motive of night contemplation and meditation over lost loves, dangers of the journey, and human destiny." Travel at night was often easier, since the weather was less harsh and one could be guided by the stars; the presence of the night-traveler was one of mystery, of both anticipation and danger. Sells postulates that the star most likely given the name "the Night-Traveler" may have been Venus, journeying through the night "to make her arrival in the morning."

In this sura, the Night-Traveler is a metaphor for Deity or God itself, a guardian and guide to every traveler at night, as well as that which eventually brings the light of morning, "piercing" into the depths of the soul and challenging each soul to contemplate its origin in the deeply earthy images of the "rushing waters" of birthing fluids pouring from a mother's loins.

The Sun (91:1-10)

By the sun and her brightening
By the moon when it follows her
By the day when it displays her
By the night when it veils her
By the sky and what constructs her
By the earth and what shaped her
By the soul and what formed her
and revealed her debased and revealed her faithful
Whoever honors her flourishes
Whoever defiles her fails

One of the most extended and lyrical oaths of the entire Qur'an opens this sura entitled "The Sun." I particularly like this sura for its evocation of the sun as feminine, as a metaphor for Deity or God in her court of the heavenly sky. (In other suras, Deity or God is portrayed as male, or even evoked, through a mixture of masculine and feminine grammatical constructions, as both at once, though this is often only evident in the original Arabic.) To quote Sells, "The word for sun (shams) is grammatically feminine in Arabic and takes the grammatically feminine pronoun ha." The use of "ha" as the primary rhyming word of these verses puts decided emphasis on the feminine as an aspect of Deity; despite this, it is often translated into English as the masculine pronouns "he" and "him."

Once again in this sura, we also see an appeal to integrity and authenticity, in the declaration that those who honor the soul and "what formed her" will flourish, while those who reject these things will fail. The sun, as Deity, illuminates the depths of the authentic spiritual life and reveals the complexity of the human being in its imperfections as well as its honorable and loving qualities..

Though I personally do not practice Islam or subscribe to its theology, I find it heartening and moving to recognize in this last sura a portrayal of the Divine as solar and feminine. In many ways, it reminds me strikingly of characterizations of my goddess, Brigid, in her fiery and solar aspects. Interestingly, the word for sun — "shams" — also appears in the poetry of Rumi, a Persian Sufi mystic of the thirteenth century, when he speaks of his soul-friend and beloved Shams Tabriz (who was later murdered by jealous students of Rumi's who disliked the amount of time their teacher spent with this odd wanderer). In Rumi's poetry, like the poetry of the Qur'an in many places, we find echoes of natural imagery and the mysteries and sublimities of nature. The following are some excerpts from the poetry found in The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting, excerpts from Rumi's Divan-i Shams-i Tabriz (The Works of Shams of Tabriz) translated by Coleman Barks. Barks writes in his introduction:

The wine-surge around a table of friends was something that Rumi knew well. It's a new and old mixture of human desirings, longings, and other intensities. The realm of the glance is beyond touch, and somehow within touch too. The friendship of Rumi and Shams goes past wantings, past ideas of gender, beyond the old love categories, beyond the synapse of the garden balcony scene, and beyond mind. It can only be experienced in the place where all connect, where the enlightened ones live, and in what they become part of when they die. As the Qur'an says, "All shall be brought into the presence."

A Walking Fire

Today, now, this is when
we can meet the Friend,

now, as the sun comes up.
The Beloved, who yesterday

was so distant, today is
kind and bringing food.

Someone who knows this
one and isn't demolished

completely and reborn, that
someone is made of marble,

not bloog and bone and brain
and eyes and hair. Gabriel

knocks on the Friend's door.
"Who is it?" "Your servant."

"Who came with you?" "Your
love." "Where?" "In my

arms." "But the whole world
is in love with me. What

you've brought is a common
thing. Go away." Now Shams

comes along, a walking fire
beyond anything I can say.

I See My Beauty in You

I see my beauty in you. I become
a mirror that cannot close its eyes

to your longing. My eyes wet with
yours in the early light. My mind

every moment giving birth, always
conceiving, always in the ninth

month, always the come-point. How
do I stand this? We become these

words we say, a wailing sound moving
out into the air. These thousands of

words that rise from nowhere, how
does your face contain them? I'm

a fly in your honey, then closer, a
moth caught in flame's allure, then

empty sky stretched out in homage.


Learn the alchemy true human beings
know; the moment you accept what

troubles you've been given, the door
will open. Welcome difficulty

as a familiar comrade. Joke with
torment brought by the Friend.

Sorrows are rags of old clothes
and jackets that serve to cover,

then are taken off. That undressing,
and the naked body underneath, is

the sweetness that comes after grief.


  1. An interesting excerpt from a wonderful history of Arabic poetry, Robert Irwin's "Night & Horses & The Desert":

    "In pre-Islamic Arabia the boundary between writing a poem and casting a spell was far from clear. Poetry was commonly referred to as 'sihr halal' (legitimate magic). Tribal poets saw their poetry as a kind of sorcery by means of which one could build up one's own strength and weaken that of one's enemies. Poets were inspired by jinns. A qarin means 'companion', but it has the special sense of a jinn who accompanies a poet and inspires him, thus acting as his genius. Not satisfied with inspiring poets, the jinns were also known to compose poetry in their own right. The soothsayers (kahins) of the [Pre-Islamic] period made use in their incantations of a rhythmic form of rhymed prose, known as saj' ... In the very earliest period the distinction between a soothsayer and a poet was blurred."

    Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad once said that, 'Verily, eloquence includes some sorcery.' I have also read (though I couldn't quickly find the source!) that saj' poetry was believed to be not the words of the soothsaying poets themselves, but the poets -translations- of the hooting of owls, which the meter resembles. Cool, yeah?!

    Irwin's book is great; if you're interested in Arabic poetry and its relationship to Islam, be sure to check it out!

  2. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation, Johnny! I have not heard of Irwin's book before, but there are several texts on Arabic poetry that have been lurking on my Amazon wishlist for years now, that I really do want to get around to someday. There have been more pressing interests and passions in recent years, but I have always found Arabic poetry, both pre-Islamic and Islamic, to be fascinating. I'll add Irwin to the list. :)

    His discussion of poetry as magic or sorcery is particularly interesting. I wonder if there are some ties to the bardic traditions of ancient Celtic culture, or if this is one of those accidents of history where similar concepts develop in completely unrelated ways... Hmm.... In any case, really interesting! Yes, very cool. :)