SUFI POEMS A Mediaeval Anthology

SUFI POEMS A Mediaeval Anthology By Martin Lings The islamic Texts Society, 2004 104 pages, 1903682177Pb

For the first time in English we have an anthology of translations of classical Sufi poems written in Arabic. There could not have been a better scholar for this task than Martin Lings. Most English translations of Sufi poetry (mostly dealing with the rich literature of Sufi poetry in Persian), are rendered in prose (or semi-prose style), with an eye to remaining as faithful to the original text as possible. Other translations have attempted to capture the poetic flavour of the verses, often resulting in a doggerel version of the very profound originals, and, as is evidenced by some of the more recent translations of Sufi poetry, sometimes these renditions are embarrassingly inaccurate. But Martin Lings’ poetic and mystical sensitivity, along with his deep understanding of sacred art and symbolism, allow him to see beyond the poem, as it were, into the very depths of the mystic’s heart Poems from familiar names such as Rabia, Dhu’1-Nun, Hallaj, Ghazali, lbn ‘Arabi and lbn al-Farid are included alongside less well-known Sufis such as al-Tunisi, al-Sayyari and al-Shushtari. Lings provides brief but useful introductions to each poet contextualizing their work historically and occasionally discussing some of their major ideas and uses of imagery which readers should expect to encounter in their poems, both in this anthology and elsewhere. The translations of these poems are anything but literal. This is mainly because of Lings’ superior ability to convey each mystic’s ideas into beautiful, semi-archaic (but highly idiomatic) English. Thus, readers expecting to learn how to read poetry in Arabic may be in fora bit of a surprise. Beginners of Arabic poetry would do well to consult Alan Jones’ excellent two volume book, Classical Arabic Poetry. This is not to say that the parallel Arabic-English text presented in this anthology is of no use. Rather, it is simply to suggest that one needs to be an experienced reader of Arabic in order to see the logic behind why Lings chose to translate a poem in one way as opposed to another. But beginners of Arabic will still benefit from the Arabic text for they will be able to appreciate the poetic beauty and rhythm of the originals. At the same time, the English translations certainly stand on their own, and this anthology would still have been effective were the Arabic not included.

The work’s greatest merit is that the poems presented therein provide a very good overview of the main aspects of Sufi doctrine and practice, such as selfless love for God (mahabbah), the journey to God (al-sayr Ua Allah) and the journey in God (al-sayr fi Allah), the passing away of one’s own qualities (fana9) and subsistence in God (baqaf, gnosis (marifa), and, most importantly, the Oneness of Being (wahdat al-wujud). With respect to the Oneness of Being – which refers to the fact that there is nothing in existence but God’s existence – it can be said that the poems compiled by Lings brilliantly deal with the implications of this doctrine, which, in the Sufi tradition, expresses this Reality in multifarious ways. Take, for example, the famous lines of Halla j writing in the late ninth/early tenth century:

He am I whom I love, He whom I love is I,

Two Spirits in one single body dwelling.

So seest though me, then seest thou Him,

And seest thou Him, then seest thou Us.

(Lings, 38)

Now consider the last few lines of a poem by the thirteenth century sage, Ibn al-Farid:

As is well known in contemporary Sufi studies, the expression wahdat al- wujud belongs to the school of Ibn ‘Arabi (although he himself did not use this expression). At the same time, however, the Oneness of Being is an idea which has its roots in the Qur’an itself. In fact, Lings explicitly states this in a note to his introduction to Hallaj’s poems, which occurs in the context of his cri- tique of Louis Massignon’s erroneous position concerning the origin of the Oneness of Being (p. 94, n.26). From this perspective then, it is not surprising to find this doctrine expressed in the writ- ings and sayings of the early Sufis as well, as has been shown above in the case of Hallaj. This is why Lings goes on to remark that “… the doctrine of Wah- dat al-Wujud comes from the Qur’an itself and that Hallaj’s spiritual life was based on it as were the lives of his great Sufi contemporaries and predecessors …” (ibid). That the doctrine of the One- ness of Being pervades Islamic mystical thought is important to keep in mind- especially while reading through this excellent volume – lest the mystical symbols and images employed by the Sufis in their poems be mistaken for expressions of a profane nature, and, worse than this, that their statements of union and identity with the Beloved be understood as some form of pantheism or monism.

This tiny but expensive anthology gives readers a glimpse into the profound esoteric universe of some of Islam’s most eminent mystics who wrote between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries CE. There is no doubt that it will prove to be of great value for students of spirituality, religious thought and Arabic and English poetry. Martin Lings is to be congratulated for yet another excellent contribution to Islamic studies in general, and Sufism in particular.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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