The powerful poetry of sufism

Sufism, one of the worlds most accessible mystical philosophies, has the power to heal religious conflict and has brought seekers from different traditions into genuine alignment. Known predominantly as the mystical aspect of Islam, Sufism is, in fact, congruent with all world religions. In contemporary India, a Sufi centre is likely to attract Hindus and Muslims along with Jains, Sikhs and Christians.

One of the most enduring aspects of Sufism is its poets and poetry. This poetry, so grounded in the divine nature of the everyday, is enjoying a revival across the globe. Books of Rumi, its best-known proponent, in translation, have topped the poetry lists in America in recent years, even though the master created his poetry in the 13th century. The 14th century poet, Hafiz, is also now coming into his own in the West.

Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and action is sacred. This is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility that there is anything but grace. Now is the season to know that everything you do is sacred. Hafiz Poetry, so marginalised in contemporary Western culture, generally patronised by a select few, has the power to change lives. Nowhere is this shouted from the rooftops more passionately than in the writings of Sufi poet-saints; and, as far as their work has been lionised in the West, by Rumi and Hafiz in particular. Both have adrenalin pumping through their work calling the true seeker home, no matter what the price. It is an intoxicating, inspired journey mapped by these poet-saints, who meter out the arduous process of dissolving the ego and self-interest in order to meet God, the Absolute, Consciousness, Awareness, to acquire the state of Divine Union.

The highest level of poetry, where language is practised by language masters, has the ability to transform physical, mental, emotional and spiritual habits. Like the spoken words of a living saint, a poems words are both the surface of its body and also a mysterious storehouse within of incredibly subtle and potent powers, which enter and influence the reader on levels beyond imagining and logical reckoning.

I think of Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, the most famous Sufi master of all, born in present-day Afghanistan in 1207 and the creator of thousands of ecstatic, electrified verses, as one of my most intimate friends. His words, recorded by devotees of his Mevlevi Order as he chanted them spontaneously in the enlightened state of whirling, and now prolifically translated by exceptional modern poets such as Robert W. Bly, Coleman Barks and Andrew Harvey, have accompanied my life journey for the past 15 years. Only rarely does his poetry disappear from my bedside. Always, a single line, like a mantra; a verse, like a discourse, keeps me on track in developing my best nature, practising my open connection with the Divine.

Sufism is nothing but the doctrine that you can connect directly, through the spiritual heart, with God. You can complicate that further by adding the rigorous practices of refinement and discipline that accompany the journey to the point where you are able to do so constantly and steadily. But in reality, the doctrine is that simple. From this core belief, an entire universe of literature prose (the Sufis are renowned for their profound short stories, used as teaching vehicles by masters and pitched to all levels of studentship) and poetry emerged to support Sufi seekers on their unfolding journey.

According to William Dalrymples recent book on India and Sufism, City of Djinns, Sufism emerged when hermits and ascetics, who had lived in isolated and often peculiar places stretching from the outskirts of Antioch to the Sinai since the early Christian centuries, converted to Islam in the early seventh century. As is the case now, these spiritual practitioners helped inspire a more elusive and mystical strand in Islam, a reaction to the severe and orthodox certainties then being crystallized in the Quran, writes Dalrymple. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Sufism: Impatient for Paradise, these Muslim mystics known as Sufis, dervishes or fakirs turned their backs on the world in the hope of achieving some tangible, mystical experience of God.


War within the self

Even in April 2004, following the US-led siege of Fallujah in Iraq, Sufi masters of different orders were debating the question of whether to take physical actions of resistance against the Western forces, or whether to concentrate on the war within the self. As Sheikh Mohammed Abu Khomra, master of a smaller Sufi order, the Rifaiya, was reported by the London Financial Times journalist, Nicolas Pelham, to have said, The only Jihad in Sufism is jihad al-nafs, the spiritual struggle against the ego.

Another fascinating, distinguishing feature of Sufism-within-Islam is its folk-spiritual tradition of honouring the shrines of dead saints, many of which are to be found in India. While the Quran and other sacred, revealed texts are cherished, so is this living contact with the unbroken spiritual power of the individual who lived as an enlightened dervish on Earth. As with other Eastern traditions, the presence of the saint well after physical death is considered palpable. Both Rumis shrine in Konya, Turkey, and those of Hafiz and Saadi (c.1210-1290) in Shiraz, Iran, attract endless streams of pilgrims.

The paradox of Sufi poetry is that while ego attachment to the illusions of the everyday world is disdained, its words and metaphors are endlessly made of the palpable stuff of this same world. Metaphors used to describe the Lovers relationship with the Beloved or Friend (God) are often intensely physical and erotic. The Sufis relationship with God is that of sensual lovers, the Beloved and the Lover, who are eventually brought into Divine Union where all duality dissolves. Seekers gathered in practices are likened again and again to revellers at the tavern, drunk on the wine of the Friend. The material world is thus invested with a blessedness, perceived by the true vision of the true seeker.

It is this quality which has partially contributed to the explosive interest in the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz and others in the past 20 years. Sufisms sense of spirituality embraces the beauty of the world so important in a spiritual age of predominantly householder seekers while steering clear of the pits of status, fame, wealth attachment and the duality suffered by the individual ego. Its manifesto that all can know God directly also melds perfectly with the individualised, spiritual eclecticism of the late 20th century and early 21st century in the West.

Kabir Helminski, a Westerner and ordained Shaikh (master) of the Mevlevi Order founded by Rumi, as well as poet, copious translator and publisher of Rumi, delivered a paper a few years ago on the powerful attraction of Rumis work for the modern reader and seeker. He attributes it to a number of phenomena that bear repeating: First of all, he (Rumi) is perceived as a universal voice calling to us from beyond the concerns of conventional religiosity and limiting beliefs…

The second reason for his popularity might be that the boundary between Divine and human love is left ambiguous…

Our third point has to do with ecstasy and intoxication. Mevlana is an ecstatic in a modern world starved for real ecstasy…

Finally, what I think is the most significant value of Mevlana: he is the clearest, most powerful voice of cosmic, Divine love….

Not only is God the Beloved of the human being, says Helminski, a radical concept, but even more shocking and profound, the human being is the beloved of God.

Helminskis 1998 book, The Rumi Collection (Threshold Books), covers a wonderful range of the poets work, with translations by all his chief Western translators (Helminski notes the interesting fact that the original meaning of translate was to re-locate a saints body or relics from one place to another). It also lists an extensive bibliography on the poet. Theres a huge range of books available, both of translations and biography, or combining the two, and any person interested in reading further would do well to visit any good esoteric bookshop.

Of the biographies, Annemarie Schimmels book, I am wind, you are fire: the life and work of Rumi (Shambala), is comprehensive, though you will discover that on some aspects and attributes of Rumis life, scholars do differ. For example, many commonly attribute the beginnings of the whirling dervish ritual to Rumi and certainly his order does continue this practice visibly, even with Konya dervishes peforming in arts festivals around the world, but other sources say this practice was always an aspect of the enlightened, ecstatic state of earlier dervishes. Seeing a troupe perform this ritual also offers a vivid, intense experience for the non-Sufi but interested seeker.


A certain person came to the Friends door
and knocked.
Whos there?
Its me.
The Friend answered, Go away. Theres no place
for raw meat at this table.
The individual went wandering for a year.
Nothing but the fire of separation
can change hypocrisy and ego. The person returned
completely cooked,
walked up and down in front of the Friends house,
gently knocked.
Who is it?
Please come in, my Self,
theres no place in this house for two.
The doubled end of the thread is not what goes through
the eye of the needle.
Its a single-pointed, fined-down, thread-end
not a big ego-beast with baggage.
But how can a camel be thinned to a thread?
With the shears of practices, with doing things.
And with help from the ONE who brings
impossibilities to pass, who quiets willfulness,
who gives sight to one blind from birth.
Every Day that ONE Does Something.
Take that as your text… Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

As with so many saints, Rumis life was marked by moments of tumultuous, unbearable crisis and searing pain. Rumi was awakened, though he was already a recognised, devout leader in his own right, by a chance meeting with an irascible, wise Sufi called Shamsuddin (the Sun of Religion) of Tabriz. Such was Rumis attachment to this teacher, who brought unforeseen transformations to Rumis being and entire world, that eventually Shams was killed out of jealously, allegedly by Rumis own second son. This loss, the second time Rumi had been parted from Shams, produced some of his most inspired writing. While Shams remained Rumis master-muse, Rumi later adopted another, a humble goldsmith called Salahuddin, before then composing, in response to a request from his favourite disciple, the Mathnawi, the Spiritual Couplets. Says Schimmel, this 25,000-verse work is known as the Koran in the Persian tongue.

Poetry, so marginalised in contemporary Western culture, generally patronised by a select few, has the power to change lives.

This work opens with one of Rumis best-known poems, one that acts as a nub-theme of his corpus:

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation.
Ever since they tore me from the reed bed
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart torn open with longing,
so that I may relate the pain of this love.
Rumi translated by Helminski



For centuries, Shams-ud-din Muhammed Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) has been a magnificent friend to the human spirit, writes Daniel Ladinsky, chief translator of Hafiz, who was born and lived in the Persian city of Shiraz: To millions throughout the world the poems of Hafiz are not a classical work from the remote past but cherished, love, music, wisdom, and humor from a dear companion.


My words nourish even the suns body.
Look at the smile on the earths lips this morning,
She laid with me again last night. Hafiz


As with Rumi, the vocabulary of Hafizs work is material, sensual and grounded. Not just Beloved or Friend, he is also the Sweet Uncle, the Generous Merchant, the Problem Giver, the Problem Solver, says Ladinsky: To Hafiz, God is Someone we can meet, enter, and eternally explore.


Throw me on a scale
Today love has completely gutted me.
I am lying in the market like a
Filleted grouper,


Every desire and sinew absolutely silent
But I am still so fresh.


Everything is now the same to me.


The touch of a beautiful woman
As she lifts me near,
Drawing my scent into her body;
She thinks about taking me home.


The touch of a wondrous fly
Drinking my vital fluids
Through a strange, shaped flute,


The sun laying its radiant gaze against my cheek,
Human voices and the breeze from a passing
Horses tail,


All send miraculous currents into
My world.


Gods beauty has split me wide open.
Throw Hafiz on a scale,
Wrap me in cloth,
Bring me home.
Lift a piece of my knowledge to your lips
So I can melt inside of you
And sing. Hafiz


In a biographical essay on Hafiz in Ladinskys book, The Gift (Penguin Compass), written by Henry S. Mindlin, we are told that Hafiz had a hard start to life, born the third son of poor parents, whose coal merchant father died when Hafiz was in his teens. Working as a bakers assistant to support the family, he would use part of the salary to support his tuition, astonishingly, in a classical medieval education, including Quranic law and theology and calligraphy. He also studied the Sufi poetry of greats such as Rumi and Saadi, also of Shiraz. Mindlin writes that Hafizs natural poetic gift resulted in patronage by rulers and noblemen; he served as a court poet and a college professor in his middle years and married and had at least one son. As with Rumi, it is believed the loss of his beloved earthly ones produced scaldingly alive spiritual odes.

Hafiz also undertook a long and onerous apprenticeship to a Sufi master; many of his verses were written as a daily practice in praise of his teacher, Muhammad Attar, who discussed and reviewed these verses. Eventually, Hafiz was seen to have completed the journey to Divine Union and became recognised as a Sufi master himself. There are also now available many titles on Hafiz, but Ladinskys collection is a must, a fabulous applause of the masters work. Ladinskys translations are earthy, passionate and often very humorous.


Poets and saints

There are many other Sufi poets and saints, including the Indian-born Kabir (1398-1518) and Saadi. Kabir, perhaps the most quoted Indian author, wrote in the form of dohas, two-line poems, all in Hindi. Adopted at birth, a weaver by profession, he openly criticised all sects and gave a new direction to Indian philosophy.


Looking at the grinding stones,
Kabir laments
In the duel of wheels,
Nothing stays intact. Kabir

There is also a great deal of information available on the intriguing Shiraz Sufi, Saadi, who lived c. 1210-1290. Little is known of Saadi but, according to one of his own tales, he was captured by crusaders and released after being bought by a Muslim merchant. He travelled widely and in 1256 returned to Shiraz, where he produced two major works, The Bustan and, later, The Golestan.

The vault of Sufi poetry is immense, its value beyond imagining. Its as if these great saints, so committed to knowing God directly through their hearts, brought the message of the Divine and their journeys to it, and into it, directly alive for us in equal measure. To read it is to taste the Divine as open and, importantly, as democratically accessible, to all.

If you are interested in exploring Sufism in Australia, contact the Australian Centre for Sufism on (02) 9955 7834 or at acs@australiansuficentre.org or www.australia.suficentre.org. The centre runs regular events. There are also other centres and orders spread throughout Australia.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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