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Poetry and ritual


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Poetry and ritual the physical expression of homoerotic imagery in sama
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Holladay, Zachary
University of South Florida
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ABSTRACT: Sufi poetry of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE/132-655 AH) exhibited a particular penchant for highlighting the relationship between humankind and God with homoerotic language. While the homoerotic nature of Sufi poetry has received considerable scholarly attention, the ritual expression of such literature has not. The ritual of sama was a practice that occurred in the Sufi institutions and incorporated various elements of the poetry examined. By listening to the poetry, in the form of song and often with accompanying instrumentation, the mystics would experience transient moments of altered state experiences, usually interpreted as moments of union with God. This thesis seeks to align the homoerotic verse with ritual, and thus demonstrating the incorporation and sublimation of sexuality in medieval Sufi society. By focusing on the works of four specific Arab Sufi poets, Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri, Abu Bakr al-Shibli, Umar Ibn al-Farid, and Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi, a distinct tendency to express passionate love for the Divine emerges. Furthermore, the portrayal of the Divine in masculine terms reflected, not necessarily homosexual love, but the intimate bonding between men experienced in a sex-segregated society.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2008.
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Poetry and Ritual: The Physical Expression of Homoerotic Imagery in sama by Zachary Holladay A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of Religious Studies College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Kathleen Malone O’Connor, Ph. D. Carlos Lopez, Ph. D. Wei Zhang, Ph. D. Date of Approval: April 11, 2008 Keywords: literature, history, islam, mysticism, mu sic Copyright, 2008, Zachary Holladay


i Acknowledgments During my years as an undergraduate and graduate s tudent, I noticed a severe lack of academic material on gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgend er (GLBT) issues and Islam. Thus, this thesis was inspired by a desire to explore the unexplored. And while my final product did not explore explicit links between homosexuality and Islam, the emphasis on homoeroticism as reflected in early Islamic mystical literature will, hopefully, establish a foundation for further research in this deficient area. I was fortunate enough to have Professor Kathleen M alone O’Connor, who is particularly adept in Islamic mysticism, as my advisor for this challenging endeavor. In addition to being accommodating with this material, she encouraged me to engage my creativity and “grab the tiger by the tail” by taking risks. She served as a haven of originality and passion for this topic, allowing me to recognize the true significance of m y efforts. I am indebted to her more than she knows. I would also wish to thank my thesis committee mem bers, Professor Carlos Lopez and Professor Wei Zhang, for providing useful feedback. Without their assistance, I would not have been able to examine my topic from the perspective of a non-specialist. Their participation assisted in making this project more accessible to the wider academic community. Professor Lopez was especially influential in bringing certai n crucial elements to the forefront. I am also indebted to him. Finally, I would like to thank my friend, Rick Och es. As a confidant (and roommate), Rick provided the necessary emotional support to co mplete this project. His personal history as a graduate student generated a sense of shared identi ty. He recognized and understood my experiences of frustration, excitement, confusion, and accomplishment. Without his insight, I would have missed some of the most important wisdom that has empowered me to mature intellectually.


i TABLE OF CONTENTS ABSTRACT .......................................... ................................................... ................................. 1 INTRODUCTION ...................................... ................................................... ........................... 2 CHAPTER 1: THEMES OF LOVE AND DESIRE IN THE QURAN .................................. 8 SOUL IN THE QURAN .................................................. ................................................... ............................... 9 LOVE IN THE QURAN .................................................. ................................................... ............................. 11 DESIRE IN THE QURAN .................................................. ................................................... .......................... 14 CHAPTER 2: SUFI SAMA .................................................. ................................................... 18 DEFINING SAMA .................................................. ................................................... ..................................... 18 THE RITUAL ELEMENTS OF SAMA .................................................. ................................................... .......... 20 CENSURES OF SAMA FROM NON-SUFIS .................................................. ................................................... .. 24 DEFENSE OF SAMA FROM SUFIS .................................................. ................................................... ............. 25 CHAPTER 3: THE PHYSICAL EXPRESSION OF RECITED VERSE ............................. 28 HOMOEROTIC LANGUAGE OF PASSION .................................................. ................................................... 29 HOMOEROTIC LANGUAGE OF YEARNING .................................................. ................................................. 3 6 HOMOEROTIC LANGUAGE OF UNION AND SEPARATION .................................................. ........................... 43 CONCLUSION ........................................ ................................................... ............................ 49 BIBLIOGRAPHY ...................................... ................................................... .......................... 53


1 ABSTRACT Sufi poetry of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE/1 32-655 AH) exhibited a particular penchant for highlighting the relationsh ip between humankind and God with homoerotic language. While the homoerotic nature of Sufi poetry has received considerable scholarly attention, the ritual expres sion of such literature has not. The ritual of sama was a practice that occurred in the Sufi instituti ons and incorporated various elements of the poetry examined. By listening to th e poetry, in the form of song and often with accompanying instrumentation, the mystics woul d experience transient moments of altered state experiences, usually interpreted as m oments of union with God. This thesis seeks to align the homoerotic verse wit h ritual, and thus demonstrating the incorporation and sublimation of sexuality in m edieval Sufi society. By focusing on the works of four specific Arab Sufi poets, Abu alHusayn al-Nuri, Abu Bakr al-Shibli, Umar Ibn al-Farid, and Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi, a di stinct tendency to express passionate love for the Divine emerges. Furthermore, the portr ayal of the Divine in masculine terms reflected, not necessarily homosexual love, but the intimate bonding between men experienced in a sex-segregated society.


2 Introduction The medieval literature of Islamic mysticism, or Su fism ( tasawwuf ), accommodated an extensive genre of poetry concernin g humanity’s quest for intimacy with God. The mystics who created that literature s ublimated the language of eroticism, exhibiting a unique orientation to homoerotic image ry. While some mystics adopted heteroerotic symbolism, there existed a parallel tr adition “in which the love of God [was] represented using the imagery of romantic relations hips between males.”1 Homoeroticism, as reflected in the mystical poetry, did not necessarily suggest homosexual activity in Sufi ritual life.2 Rather the homoerotic language was indicative of a “male-to-male symbolic structure in which the mys tical encounters [were] framed along same-sex lines.”3 During the Abbasid era (750-1258 CE/132-655 AH), a strict segregation of women was established, reserving political and publ ic life for men and thus allowing for homosocial interactions at multiple levels of socie ty. Homoeroticism, then, may be understood as a “natural outgrowth of a sex-positiv e, sex-segregating religion in which women had little status or value.”4 The bonding between men in the Sufi institutions reinforced the love language in poetry, as men shar ed intimate spiritual experiences, such as the exchange of esoteric knowledge and engaging in ritual practices, with one another. 1 Jim Wafer, “Vision and Passion,” in Islamic Homosexualities eds. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (New York: NYU Press, 1997), 107. 2 Carl Ernst writes: “There may have been individual s who used mystical terms to cloak their immorality; but there is very little historical evi dence available on them” ( Words of Ecstasy in Sufism Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), 120. 3 Jeffrey Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Ref lexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: Univesity of Chicago Press, 2001), 18. 4 Vern Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History (New York: Wiley, 1976), 238.


3 One particular ritual of the Sufi brotherhoods was sama An Arabic term generally translated as “audition,” sama referred to a communal Sufi ritual that accentuated the inherent power of recited poetry to induce altered states of consciousness, which were interpreted as moments of temporary unio n with the Divine. The ritual integrated a range of aural stimulation, including recited love poetry, always in the form of song, often with accompanying instrumentation. The purpose of this analysis is to correlate the h omoerotic imagery of mystical love poetry with the ritual components of sama thus revealing the sublimation of sexuality in pre-modern Sufi society. This thesis w ill focus on Sufi poetry composed under the Abbasid Caliphate, from the works of Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 907 CE/295 AH), Abu Bakr al-Shibli (d. 946 CE/334 AH), Umar Ib n al-Farid (d. 1235 CE/632 AH), and Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240 CE/638 AH). The se four prominent mystics were of the more prolific and acclaimed mystical authors wr iting in Arabic during the Abbasid period; and translations of their works will provid e specific examples of homoerotic verse. The affective potency of Arabic Sufi verse depended on its ancestral prototypes of the pre-Islamic era, or Jahiliya (“Age of Ignorance”). Early Arabic oral verse was composed in form of the ode ( qasidah ), which demonstrated a sophisticated system of metrics and rhyming.5 The pre-Islamic ode was the consequence of “a trib al desert society with its own ethos and values,” and was cre ated to reinforce those values.6 Public 5 Arabic language has a rich capacity for verbal and metrical elaboration, with a rich standing vocabulary and a strong oral received tradition of poetic production and transmission. See William Graham, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). 6 M.M. Badawi, “Abbasid Poetry and its Antecedents” in Abbasid Belles-Lettres eds. Julia Ashtiany, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 147.


4 recitation, in the form of song, served a variety o f social purposes, including elegy toward patrons and satire towards rival poets and their tr ibes. The contents of such poems resonated with the values and experiences of Bedoui n life, providing a strong source of shared identity and cultural tradition. Beginning in the seventh century CE/first century A H, with rise of Islam and the early Arab conquest, an important transformation in Arabic verse occurred, one that was more relevant to the new “social, intellectual, and spiritual reality” of Islam.7 Poets no longer lamented the toils of tribal warfare and the bleakness of death. Rather the new religion provided a meaningful alternative, and poe try reflected a more positive perception of society and the meaning of individual existence. The poet remained a forceful presence in the caliphal courts, producing verse of wine and love, since “princes had greater leisure than Bedouin chieftains to list en to soft music and to savor dancing and song.”8 One surviving motif of the pre-Islamic era that con tinued into the courts was the poetic trope of Majnun, as lover, wandering the sca ttered abandoned encampments that adorn the Arabian Desert, searching for his beloved Layla. The intensity of his longing was relayed with impressions of insanity and obsess ion. His very name, translated as “possessed by the spirits ( jinn ),” in Islam came to indicate “madness,” and the li terary character of Majnun was inflamed with love as thoug h he was taken over by the spirits of the desert.9 The loss of rational self represented by Majnun mi rrored that of the oracular and gnomic poets of the pre-Islamic era who were un derstood to have composed while 7 Badawi, “Abbasid Poetry,” 148. 8 A.J. Arberry, Arabic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 12. 9 Michael Sells, Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn ‘Arabi an d New Poems (Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2000), 20.


5 possessed by the jinn That language of intense yearning transformed int o a complex homoerotic allegory under the caliphates, with the lover “metamorphosed into the poet seeking the prince’s favor, his perhaps unattainabl e beloved.”10 Thus the praises of the tribe converted to the praises of the highest bidde r, a panegyric serving to exaggerate the prowess of the patron. The love trope underwent another transformation in Sufi poetry. By sublimating the erotic themes so prevalent in the poetry of the Abbasid and Umayyad courts, many Sufis articulated a homoerotic longing for God. The hyperbolic verse of love for the patron was reconstructed by the mystics as the meta phoric verse of mystical love for the Divine.11 And Majnun, the impassioned wanderer seeking his b eloved, transformed into the Islamic mystic, meandering the vast expanse of existence for the Beloved. At the heart of Sufi poesy was the desire for unity with the Divine. Allusions to moments of union in the poetry were emblematic of a mystical experience of the total annihilation of the human self in God ( fana fi allah ). That momentary unitive experience signified a transcendence of the normal consciousne ss of ego-separation from the Divine. Indeed the state ( hal ) of fana was momentary, a fleeting union with the ultimate source of creation. For the Sufi, that moment was the “unveil ing” of divine Unity ( Tawhid ), and a revelation to the mystic that “separation” from God was illusory. Many Sufis, especially those examined here, perceived reality as an emanat ion of God, interpreting nature as a reflection of sublime essence. Poetic creation, however, required spiritual maturi ty from the mystic, because the “free and inspired flow of words can result only fr om a perfect conformity” to the 10 Arberry, Arabic Poetry 18. 11 Ibid.


6 Divine.12 The outpouring of words, therefore, may be deemed an unconscious composition, with the poet “too overwhelmed by the flow of images and words to be able to manipulate them in a technical way.”13 In that case, the poem was propelled not by an intellectual concentration on composition, but by c ontemplating the harmonious nature of the divinely-created cosmos. The vigorous appetite for that intimate engagement with God spurned the varying technical methods of the Sufi path ( tariqa ), which were “rules, rituals, and pious formulas, which the shaykh (master) imposed upon his disciples in order to pu rify them of sins and of mundane concerns and to instill in t hem absolute serenity.”14 Stations ( maqamat ) of the tariqa were arranged as sequential levels of ascension th at the disciple traversed to the Divine. After reaching the highest station, which in many cases was that of “satisfaction” ( rida ), the traveler reached the transition point betwee n the stations and the states ( ahwal ).15 The states were bestowed by divine grace to the Su fi, and unlike the stations, were not achieved by effort. They were tr ansient moments of consciousness and could emerge in impressions of joy, sorrow, ecstasy ( wajd ), among others. While specific stations accompanying the path, and the rules of conduct exclusive to each one of them differed from one Sufi master t o another, most agree that the state ( hal ) of the ultimate Reality ( al-Haqq ) was the ultimate goal of the Sufi tariqa .16 The manifold “devotional techniques and styles of spiri tual guidance…gave rise to a wide 12 Patrick Laude, Singing the Way: Insights In Poetry and Spiritual T ransformation (New York: World Wisdom, Inc., 2005), 56. 13 Laude, Singing the Way 56. 14 Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2000), 172. 15 Frederick Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 20 06), 231. 16 Ibid., 302.


7 array of Sufi ‘ways’ that served as sources of iden tity for various Sufi groups.”17 In spite of the heterogeneous methodologies of tariqa Sufism, several customary spiritual exercises, shared by many different Sufi orders, we re institutionalized and over time, became more rigidly ritualized. Those practices inc luded spiritual retreat ( khalwa ), chanting the names of God ( dhikr ), and ritualized performance of verse with music ( sama ). Recitation of Sufi poetry at sama gatherings fostered the momentary unitive experience desired by many mystics, bridging the pr esumed distance between humankind and God. At those communal occasions, which compris ed exclusively of men, poetry was sung by the one among the group with a particularly beautiful voice. The language of passion and desire for the Divine, which was relaye d with homoerotic imagery, was an evocative force that, along with body movements, pr ompted the varying states. Through an interpretation of homoerotic mystical po etry, we can begin to formulate a historic interrelation between verse an d the physical enactment of ritual in a homosocial environment. The first chapter of this t hesis addresses the themes of love and desire as they exist in the Quran. Revelation is th e primary source of inspiration for the poetry of longing and love for God, providing scrip tural legitimacy to the tropes of homoerotic mystical poetry. Chapter two concerns th e practice of sama and its varying components, to provide context for the ritual perfo rmance of Sufi poetry. The third chapter is the analysis of homoerotic poetry and it s relation to sama An examination of the symbiotic relationship between the two will aff ord a glimpse into the homosocial environment of the pre-modern Sufi culture. Finally the conclusion will provide implications of the physical expression of homoerot ic Sufi poetry. 17 Knysh, Islamic Mysticism 302.


8 Chapter 1: Themes of Love and Desire in the Quran Two particular themes presented in this thesis incl ude love and desire, which are recurrent tropes magnified by Sufis as metaphors fo r the soul’s yearning for intimacy with God. This chapter considers how the themes of love and desire are incorporated and interpreted in the greatest textual authority of th e Islamic tradition: the Quran. Sufi poets, relying on their authoritative presence in the reve latory text, masterfully employ these concepts in verse to express an incessant longing f or the God. Shortly after its compilation during the caliphate of Uthman Ibn Affan (644-656 CE/23-35 AH) and subsequent dissemination, the Qura n inspired interpretations ( tafsir ) spanning theological, philosophical, scientific, an d mystical approaches. For the ordinary believer, the Quran serves as a guide, defining mor al and ethical parameters and providing purpose. Yet for the Islamic scholar, the holy text solicits intensive analysis and elucidation. A certain audacity is required fro m the exegete ( mufassir ) who wishes to penetrate effectively the multiple layers of meanin g inherent in the Quran. From these intrepid scholars, we can grasp an image of the Qur an that is boundless in interpretation and definition, an infinite “ocean of knowledge” th at beckons keen observation.18 It is therefore unsurprising that an overabundance of commentary on the contents of the revelatory text exists. The writings of Musl im exegetes impart critical insight into the Quran, granting scholars of religion access to the conglomerate of diverging opinions and allowing them to identify individual themes wit hin the text. Before an examination of love and desire, as they are delineated in the Qura n, it is necessary to distinguish the parts 18 The proverbial expression “ocean of knowledge” is frequently employed, by scholars of religion and Muslim commentators, to articulate the incalculabil ity of divine Oneness ( Tawhid ). See Q. 18:109.


9 of the soul that are connected to the feelings of l ove and desire. In the Sufi tradition, the interplay of soul, love, and desire forge the found ation of the mystical trope of lover longing for the divine Beloved. 1.1 Soul in the Quran Though the nature of the soul is a matter of disput e among some Islamic scholars, most Muslims agree that a soul, engendered by God, inhabits every human being and at death, is released from the body and reunited with the body on the resurrection day.19 In the Quran, two words in Arabic that are used equall y to signify the soul are ruh and nafs though their implications are quite different. The term ruh which is translated as “breath” or “spirit,” occurs twenty-one times in the holy te xt.20 In many of these instances, ruh refers to the spirit of revelation. For example, Mu hammad is beseeched to identify God as the patron of truth: “Say that the Holy Spirit ( ruh al-qudus ) has brought the Revelation with the Truth step by step from your Lord, to stre ngthen the believers and as guidance and good news to the devout” (Q. 16:102). In other cases, the term ruh indicates the “breath of life” given by God.21 The quranic conception of Jesus is a testification to t his: “And Mary, the daughter of ‘Imran, she guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her f rom Our spirit, and she accepted the truth of the words of her Lord and His Books and sh e was of the obedient ones” (Q. 66:12). The story of Mary resonates in the quranic passages concerned with the creation 19 Thomas Emil Homerin, “Soul” in Encyclopaedia of the Quran ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2002, vol. V), 80. 20 Ibid., 81. 21 Michael Sells, “Spirit” in Encyclopaedia of the Quran ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2002, vol. V), 114.


10 of Adam where God commands the angels to recognize the pre-eminent creation: “When I have shaped him and breathed from My Spirit into him, bow down before him” (Q. 38:72). Again, the above quotation serves to establ ish ruh as an extension of God’s breath/spirit innate to the human. Ruh therefore, is the eternal divine substance within the human. Nafs like ruh is derived from a root meaning “breath,” but actu ally implies the “self.”22 While similar etymologically, nafs as it operates in the Quran, is entirely distinct from ruh Nafs can pertain to a number of beings, including human s, the jinn, Satan, and even God. Furthermore, nafs which is grounded in the corporeal body and its senses, can be corrupted or become out of balance, referring to negative traits such as selfishness, greed, and lust. The Quran warns: “Be mindful of God as much as you can; hear and obey; be charitable—it is for your own goo d. Those who are saved from their own meanness ( nafsihi ) will be the prosperous ones” (Q. 64:16). In this context, the term nafs applies to a property of one’s character. Fazlur Rahman, in his Major Themes of the Quran defines nafs as representing “states, aspects, dispositions, or tendencies of th e human personality.”23 In this regard, the Quran does not distinguish nafs as separate from the physical body. On the contrary it defines the “inner person,” or conscience, as it exists within the human body.24 The Quran, for instance, advises the adherent to heed t he “self-reproaching soul” ( al-nafs allawwama ) to ensure resistance against selfish impulses (Q. 75:2). In other verses, however, the nafs denotes the human body. When God commands Moses to go to Egypt, 22 Homerin, “Soul,” 81. The word nafasa for example, means “to breathe,” though it does n ot occur in the Quran. 23 Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Quran (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, Inc., 1989), 1 7. 24 Ibid., 112.


11 Moses replies: “Lord, I killed one ( nafs ) of their men, and I fear that they may kill me” (Q.28:33). And with regards to stipulating punishme nt, the Quran states: “In the Torah We prescribed to them that life ( nafs ) is for life, and eye for eye, and nose for nose…” (Q. 5:45). It is thus evident that the nafs is not a soul that is independent of the physical body; rather the nafs epitomizes the life force connected to the flesh, influencing the desires of the flesh, which dies and is rejoined to the body at resurrection ( yawm alQiyama ).25 1.2 Love in the Quran The corporeal emotion of love is determined by the nafs The Quran dictates that lasciviousness must be subdued in order to achieve salvation: “For anyone who feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained himself ( nafs ) from base desires, Paradise will be home” (Q. 79:40-41). While love associated with fai th is sanctioned by the Quran, the love for “base desires,” which is a corruption of t he nafs is strongly condemned. The verb ahabba and its related noun hubb are often employed for the inordinate love of earthly possessions and concupiscent pursuits: “And you love wealth with a passion” (Q. 89:20).26 The Quran acknowledges an inevitable love within th e human heart that lusts after things and people: “The love of desirable things is made alluring for men—women, children, gold and silver treasures piled up high, horses with fine markings, livestock, and farmland—these may be the joys of this life, but Go d has the best place to return to” (Q. 25 Homerin, “Soul,” 84. 26 Ibid., 235.


12 3:14). Yet love of God is promulgated to neutralize the “love of desirable things” and direct the believer on a path of fidelity to the Di vine. In the same way that humankind is predisposed to sensual desires, “God has endeared ( habbaba ) the faith to you and has made it beautiful to your hearts” (Q. 49:7). So it seems the human heart is incessantly torn between two antithetical loves: one of excessi ve desire and one of conformity to divine will.27 The recurrent verb ahabba and the verbal noun mahabba are also applied in the Quran to articulate love between humankind and God.28 The Divine initiates love for humankind, a point alluded to when Moses is informe d of his foreordained mission: “I showered you with My love and planned that you shou ld be reared under My watchful eye” (Q. 20:39). Moreover, God is designated as “th e Loving” ( al-Wadud ) and in both verses where this title is given (Q. 85:14, 11:90), the qualities of forgiveness and mercy are detailed. It is apparent that God’s love, germa ne to compassion and mercy, is imparted to humankind and, in turn, is reciprocated by their faith ( iman ) and their righteous acts ( ihsan ). There are conspicuously few verses in the Quran tha t expound love between humans. Many of the passages that pertain to marria ge, for example, are relayed in terms that are more legal than emotional.29 The chapter titled Surat al-Nisa (“The Women”) defines the various formalities of marriage, such a s the treatment of women, laws of inheritance, and guidelines for managing disagreeme nts between spouses. However, no language of love or affection is present in any of these verses. Certain passages 27 Denis Gril, “Love and Affection” in Encyclopaedia of the Quran ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2002, vol. III), 235. 28 Ibid., 236. 29 Ibid., 234.


13 addressing conjugal affection proceed by indicating its sacred origins: “Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yoursel ves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love ( mawadda ) and kindness between you” (Q. 30:21). This verse demonstrates the Islamic ideal of marriage, w hich not only serves the purpose of increasing the human population, but also that of t he spiritual advancement of the man and the woman by referring to the quietness of mind which they find in each other. The material on divine and human love in the Quran, while in limited supply, presents a conception of love as coming from and re turning to its sublime source, as God is the source and finality of all creation. Yet God also requires the devotion from believers before divine love can be imparted, as “G od does not love those who ignore His commands” (Q. 3:32). The reciprocal relationship of love between humanki nd and the Divine performed a crucial role in the Sufi quest for unity. For exa mple, Rashid al-Din al-Maybudi (d. 1135 CE/529 AH), in his commentary, elaborated on a spec ific verse of the Quran which states: “If you love God, follow me, and God will l ove you and forgive you your sins” (Q. 3:31). Al-Maybudi juxtaposed mystical terminolo gy with quranic verse by aligning the first part of the quote, “If you love God,” to the Sufi concept of separation ( tafriqa ), and the second part, “God will love you,” to the co ncept of union ( jam ).30 Love, then, in the Sufi sense, was predicated on th e content of the Quran. Various Sufi adepts, including Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1 240 CE/638 AH), relied on the Quran to formulate their theories on the metaphysical doc trine of love, providing foundational support for the mystical interpretation of love and thus rendering a sense of authority to 30 Kristin Zahra Sands, Sufi Commentaries on the Quran in Classical Islam (New York: Routledge, 2006), 74.


14 Sufi doctrines and practice.31 Furthermore, the transformation from carnal love, which, according to the Quran, desired passion and materia l wealth, to divine love was dependent on a purification of the nafs The process of cleansing the nafs was determined by the various rituals Sufis engaged in, including listening to poetry and music in sama sessions. 1.3 Desire in the Quran The theme of desire is exercised through three par ticular agencies in the Quran: divine, satanic, and human.32 Of the three, God’s desires are referred to most f requently, often expressed through variations of the verb arada : “When We will something to happen ( idha aradnahu ), all that We say is ‘Be,’ and it is” (Q. 16:40). Divine desire implicates humans in a direct relationship with God It is the will of God that allows humans to achieve salvation: “When God wishes to gu ide someone, He opens their breast to islam ; when He wishes to lead them astray, He closes and constricts their breast as if they were climbing up to the skies” (Q. 6:125). Tho se who are “astray,” or the nonbelievers, reject God and direct their desires e lsewhere, while those who surrender to the will of the Divine “become conscious of, and ac t on, their desires for divine grace and mercy.”33 Satan is an instrumental force in bifurcating huma nkind into believers and nonbelievers. As a reaction to his expulsion from h eaven, Satan desires to tempt humans 31 Gril, “Love,” 236. 32 Amila Buturovic, “Wish and Desire” in Encyclopaedia of the Quran ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2002, vol. V), 484. 33 Ibid., 486. See Q. 18:30-44.


15 away from God, making promises that are never fulfi lled and deceiving them: “I will certainly take my due share of Your servants; I wil l mislead them and incite vain desires in them” (Q. 4:118-119). Satan strives to redirect human desire away from the Divine and to himself. Hence human desire is in constant tension between d ivine and satanic wishes. Those who desire the pleasures of the terrestrial r ealm are ignorant of the Divine and will not experience the superior pleasures of the afterl ife: “Yet you prefer the life of this world, even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting” (Q. 87:16-17). On the other hand, those who desire the knowledge of God will be rewarded: “As for those who believe and do good deeds…they will have Gardens of lasting bliss graced with flowing streams” (Q. 18:30-31). Ultimately divine wishes pr evail, indicative of God’s omnipotent ability to make humans aware of the ways to recogni ze their ultimate desires. In the Sufi worldview, the theme of desire signaled a more intimate relationship between the Divine and humankind. By relying on the language of the Quran, the mystics defined desire as “a spiritual propeller that allow s the wayfarer to achieve closeness with God.”34 In Sufi literature, the wayfarer is characterized by the term murid (“seeker”), which is the active participle of arada .35 Sufis fostered the quranic phrase, “seek nothing but His Face ( wajh ),” which occurs in several places (Q. 6:52, 92:20) in order to express the beauty of human form as a manifestation of the Divine.36 The desire for God was thus a personalized endeavor, with the Sufi yearning for the affection of and intimacy with the Divine in this life. While most Sufis rejected the possibility of actually visualizing the 34 Buturovic, “Wish and Desire,” 486. 35 Ibid. 36 Jamal Elias, “Face of God” in Encyclopaedia of the Quran ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2002, vol. II), 161.


16 face of God, they did focus on “two different notio ns of how he could be made visually manifest, through his theophanic manifestation in t he created world ( tajalli ) and through the heart ( qalb ).”37 Qalb often translated as “heart,” when ignited by true faith, is the “organ” capable of discovering the essence of all things. T he insight one acquires through the heart produces awareness of one’s actions, illumina ting the human conscience. L. Gardet writes, “ Qalb is not only the faculty of knowing, it is also the seat of all moral impulses, both evil desires and instincts, and the struggle t o be free of them and attentive to divine teaching.”38 The Sufi’s burning desire for God allowed for the heart to melt, and hence be purified, exposing it to divine knowledge. The Sufi of poetic expression who has succeeded in achieving an advanced awareness compos ed from the purified heart, rendering verse a dissemination of grace through th e power of language. The themes of love and desire that are elucidated i n the Quran resonate in Sufi poetry. For the mystic, the uncreated and infinite Quran, “‘poetry’ in the highest sense,” was a primary source of inspiration for poetic comm entary.39 The cadency of Revelation, which epitomizes the harmonious nature of the cosmo s, empowered the poet to emulate its structure through verse. Thus on its greatest l evel, poetry “reproduces the qualitative order of the cosmos” and allows for one to contempl ate Creation in the harmonic structure of poetry.40 37 Elias, “Face,” 161. 38 L. Gardet, “Kalb” in Encyclopaedia of Islam eds. P. Bearman Th. Bianquis C.E. Bosworth E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs (Brill, 2008) Brill Onlin e er/entry?entry=islam_COM-0424, (accessed March 24, 2008). 39 Laude, Singing The Way 50. 40 Ibid., 51.


17 By adapting the love ornamentation of secular genre s, the mystics of the Abbasid era created a unique poetic amalgamation of sensual images and sacred principles. While the love trope in Sufi poetry was expressed as pass ion ( ishq ), rather than the quranic mahabba which articulates a more chaste emotion, the poet ry is rooted in the love discourse of the Quran. Language of yearning and de sire, by conforming to the testament of Revelation, was directed to the Divine and away from the ephemeral. In order to achieve and maintain the ideals of the path ( tariqa ) to union ( wajd ), the Sufi was required to control the carnal soul ( nafs ), which was incessantly tempted by the pleasures o f the world. The recitation of Sufi poetry at sama gatherings was a powerful force for testing and controlling the nafs and fostered the momentary unitive experience desi red by many mystics. Poetry allowed for the spiritual realities of sama to materialize. The utility of recited verse to induce altered states during sama which will be explored more sufficiently below, professed its mysterious capaci ty to fill “the gap that separates the human soul from the Divine Presence.”41 41 Laude, Singing The Way 62.


18 Chapter 2: Sufi sama The word sama is translated as “audition,” “hearing,” or “listen ing” and denotes the ritual of particular relevance to the mystical poetry. In general terms, sama entails listening to poetry, often accompanied by music, to achieve the momentary unitive experience with the Divine. The purpose of this cha pter is to elaborate on the ritual, providing the substance of its definition, the mult iple elements of its enactment, and its criticism by non-Sufis and consequent defense by Su fis. 2.1 Defining sama The practice of sama mirrors the diverse nature of Sufism, as its execu tion and objective can vary according to the individual Sufi tariqa Kenneth Avery, in A Psychology of Early Sufi sama provides an ambitious survey of several highly in fluential examples of Arabic and Persian Sufi reference liter ature, including, among others, the Ihya Ulum al-Din ( Revival of the Religious Sciences ) of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111 CE/505 AH) and the Kitab al-Luma fi ‘l-Tasawwuf ( Book of Splendors Concerning the Sufi Way ) of Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (d. 988 CE/378 AH). Each of these source texts addresses the practice of sama in distinctive ways, identifying different station s and states, rules of etiquette, and interpretations of its effects. Al-Ghazzali’s definition in the Ihya for example, involves an elaborate semantic range incorporating hierarchical language to specify the various levels of proficien cy in sama Commenting on the final moment of the mystical experience, he writes: “This is the last stage of those who are


19 faithful in understanding ( fahm ) and ecstasy ( wajd ), and is the highest of these stages, for sama through states ( ahwal ) is lower than the stages of perfection…which is t hat the subject should pass away totally from himself and h is states.”42 Al-Sarraj, in the Luma uses the term rather infrequently throughout his wo rk, while engaging subtle and cryptic language to evoke the ineffability of the experienc e. He writes of the highest sama as being “in God, and to God, and is from God, and is directed to God.”43 Given the ritual’s multivalent quality, it is diffi cult to grasp a precise definition of the term. Rather than focusing solely on its ceremo nial attributes, Avery defines sama with regard to its psychological impacts, since eve n chance occurrences, such as the call to prayer by the muadhdhin or the unintentional overhearing of recited poetry are defined by some of the Sufis as sama as they could act as “powerful trigger(s) for alte red state experiences.”44 By amplifying the definition of sama to incorporate the chance occurrences of “listening” that prompt “altered sta tes,” Avery extends the term’s applicability to include “a wider field of auditory events described in the source texts.”45 In view of the extraordinarily diverse and subjecti ve nature of sama one can apprehend the complexities of defining such a term. While defining sama with respect to the ecstasy or spiritual acumen that the mystic acq uires from simply “listening” is more compatible with the earliest instances of its emerg ence, the Sufi Arabic poetry necessitates a more specific understanding of the t erm. For the purposes of this thesis, sama is defined as a devotional practice of listening t o poetry, often accompanied by 42 Al-Ghazzali, Ihya quoted in Kenneth Avery, A Psychology of Early Sufi sama (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 63. 43 Al-Sarraj, Luma quoted in Avery, Psychology 60. 44 Avery, Psychology 4. 45 Ibid.


20 music, that serves to “induce emotional transports ( tawajud ), states of grace ( ahwal ), and direct encounters with the Divine Reality ( wajd ).”46 2.2 The Ritual Elements of Sama According to the Sufi source texts, sama performed by the thirteenth century CE/seventh century AH was an established ritual, co mpelling etiquette and a formalized hierarchy. Although the precise history of sama is difficult to chronicle, numerous accounts in the source texts reveal an apparent evo lution of the practice. Sufi sama did not appear prior to the middle of the ninth century CE/third century AH, though ritualized dancing and singing were common exercises among pra ctitioners of the pre-Islamic Middle Eastern religions.47 However, within Islam, sama may be understood as a “natural development” out of quranic recitation.48 Annemarie Schimmel, influential scholar of Islam, w rites: “The beginning of sama is probably that the mystics were enchanted by a b eautiful voice or even a causal word that fitted into their current state of mind a nd thus engendered a spiritual uplifting.”49 There are early accounts of moving recitations of the Quran which produced fainting spells or, in the case of Abu Hafs al-Hadd ad (d.879 CE/265 AH), suspended one’s proclivity to pain. According to tradition, a l-Haddad, while one day working as a blacksmith, became so enamored by a recited quranic verse that he lost consciousness 46 Knysh, Islamic Mysticism 323. 47 Ibid. One can presume an incorporation of those ea rlier rituals by the Sufis, though a severe lack of sources precludes a more definitive answer. 48 Ibid. 49 Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1975), 180.


21 and, in place of tongs, used his hand to extract th e molten iron.50 Other early accounts of sama mention listeners whirling ecstatically, tearing t heir clothes, and even acquiring supernatural strength.51 Around the ninth century CE/third century AH, samakhanas or houses devoted to the spiritual practice of listening to music, were founded in Baghdad.52 The events that occurred within those establishments, often appeari ng sensually charged to the non-Sufi observer, attracted the ire of the religious author ities ( ulama ). The synthesis of music and recited verse was an arousing force, motivating tho se in attendance to rise in ecstasy ( wajd ) and move their bodies to the rhythm of the song. The controversy forced many Sufi theorists to actively defend sama by clarifying the terms of its performance and its purpose.53 Meanwhile, the attempts to safeguard sama from censure allowed it, in many respects, to formalize over time. Repelling the cri ticisms directed at the ritual from the ulama many of whom were already suspicious of Sufism, c ontributed to the development of regulations, definitive roles, and typologies. By the thirteenth century CE/seventh century AH, an abundant supply of material on sama was available. While signifying a more systematic approach to the ritual, the writings also exhibit deep divisions among the Sufi circles. The expressed Muslim opinions on sama “run the gamut from exuberant practice, to cautiou s acceptance, to complete rejection.”54 The debated matters of its actual enactment includ e the types of instruments used, the presence of novices, and the sublimation of erotic poetry to 50 Farid al-Din Attar, Tadhkirat al-Awliya trans. A.J. Arberry (Ames, Iowa: Omphaloskepsis), (accessed March 24, 2008), 258-259. 51 Schimmel, Mystical 181. See also Kristina Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Quran (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001). 52 Ibid. 53 For greater analysis of the sama debate, see the chapter titled “The Sama Polemic” in Nelson, Art of Reciting 54 Arthur Gribetz, “Sama Controversy: Sufi vs. Legali st,” Studia Islamica, 74, 1991 43.


22 articulate the Sufi’s love for the Divine. Addition ally the aim of sama is disputed in the writings. For some, the climax of sama the ecstatic union between human and God, was discerned as a genuine annihilation of self. For ot hers, sama could only provide the worshipper with an experience that was similar, but ultimately inferior, to that which occurs at death, the final unity of the believer wi th God. Despite the heterogeneity of sama it is possible to extract a paradigmatic experience of the ritual, as it existed during the medieval era, from the writings of mystics. Typically, the ritual would take place ins ide the samakhana which was also a hostel for traveling Sufis, though they would also take place at the tomb of a Sufi saint ( zawiya ). Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217 CE/614 AH), a traveler and p oet from al-Andalus, visited the samakhanas of Damascus and described them in some detail: They are ornamented palaces through all of which fl ow streams of water, presenting as delightful a picture as anyone could wish for. The members of this type of Sufi organization are really the ki ngs in these parts, since God has provided for them over and above the materi al things of this life, freeing their minds from concern with the need to e arn their living so that they can devote themselves to His service…Their mod e of conducting their forms of worship is peculiar. Their custom of assembling for impassioned musical recitals ( sama ) is delightful. Sometimes, so enraptured do some of these absorbed ecstatics beco me when under the influence of a state that they can hardly be regard ed as belonging to this world at all.55 Those devotional institutions were usually dedicate d to a particular tariqa which focused on the techniques and wisdom of a founding shaykh The descendant shaykhs were the “spiritual heirs of the founder” and were responsib le for facilitating the rituals.56 A central component of sama was its pedagogical function. The sama session would begin after an act of group worship, such as prayer, quranic recitation, or the ritual 55 Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr quoted in J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 9-10. 56 Trimingham, Sufi Orders 10.


23 chanting of the names of God ( dhikr ). After the one among the Sufis with the “most sensitive voice” recited a stanza from a poem, the shaykh discussed its meaning with the disciples. Following the teaching session, the singer ( qawwal ) began to sing entire Sufi poems. Often the singer was a youthful disciple who not only possessed a beautiful voice, but an appealing face as well. For some Sufi orders the presence of a young boy represented the transcendent beauty of the Divine, which will be explored at greater length below. Additionally, accompanying instrument ation was not uncommon. The synergy of voice and music would compel the mystics to experience altered states, or ecstasy ( wajd ): He who falls into ecstasy does not rise till he is overpowered, and the people do as he does. The dance is not to be affect ed or feigned, nay, their movements must be in accordance with the state, lik e one who is overcome by terror or unavoidable trepidation.57 During the exercise, the mystics received spiritual insight of the divine Essence and became aware of different realities. For some Sufi orders, body movements, or dance, were a result of the mystical experience, stimulate d by the altered state. However, for other Sufi orders, such as the Mevlevi order of Jal al ad-Din Rumi, body movements were a way to induce ecstasy ( wajd ). In order to calm the ecstatic mystics and return t hem to a state of normalcy, the singer sang in a lighter voice, allowing for a smoo th transition out of the altered state. When the sama session ended, the mystics would return to their d wellings and contemplate in silence on their experience. It was also not uncommon for mystics to 57 J. Robson, ed., Tracts on Listening to Music (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1938), 105.


24 refrain from food for several days after the sessio n, “on account of the nourishment of their spirits and hearts with unseen mystical exper iences ( waridat ).”58 2.3 Censures of sama from Non-Sufis Ibn Abi al-Dunya (d. 894 CE/281 AH), in his Dhamm al-Malahi (The Censure of Pastimes) deemed the activity at the heart of the ritual of sama as the “amulet of fornication,” which “decreases shame, increases des ire, and destroys manliness, and verily takes the place of wine and does what drunke nness does.”59 Al-Dunya, referring to the act of singing, was certainly not alone in his opinion. Many non-Sufi legalists have forcefully railed against sama considering the practice a threat to a Muslim’s s exual piety, forcing Sufi apologists to articulate the le gitimacy of its practice. The legalists relied on nebulous quranic quotes and traditions ( hadith ) to express condemnation of sama A particular quote often employed to suggest the illegality of listening to music declares: “Only those who are lost in error follow the poets. Do you not see how they rove aimlessly in every valley; how they say what t hey do not do?” (Q. 26:224-226). The legalists thus depended on a presumed correlation b etween poetry and singing, as the Quran neglects to specifically mention “music” or “ singing.” There were negative associations with music that ro used opposition to its performance. Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200 CE/597 AH), a pr ominent Hanbalite scholar, claimed that “between singing and fornication there is harm ony from the perspective that singing 58 Robson, Tracts 105. 59 Ibid., 49.


25 is the pleasures of the spirit, and fornication is the greatest of the pleasures of the flesh.”60 Other Islamic jurists, including Abu Hanifa (d. 767 /148 AH) and Malik Ibn Anas (d. 796 CE/179 AH), were also critical of music, considerin g its performance a mechanism for sexual arousal. For the non-Sufi legalists the ritu al of sama suggested a potential element of “immorality.” While poetry occasionally escaped the invective of the ulama accompanying music (vocal and/or instrumental) did not.61 Music added to poetry intensified sama and, from the standpoint of the conservative juris t, possibly provoked a semblance to the courtly gatherings of that era whi ch included the entertainment and availability of young boys and maidens. Yet the criticisms of sama by the ulama were part of the larger doctrinal conflict between Sufism and orthodoxy. A doctrine that espou sed “inwardness” to contemplate the Divine was certain to attract the diatribe of t hose who depended solely on Revelation and law ( sharia ). Thus the criticism of sama from the ulama and the attempts at prohibiting music and poetry, may be rendered as “t he greater attempt at stifling the spread of Sufi doctrine.”62 2.4 Defense of sama from Sufis Sufis, aware of the criticisms, sought to clarify t he components of the sama ritual and restrict the practices that were occurring in s ome Sufi circles. Abu al-Qasim alQushayri (d. 1072 CE/465 AH), in the Risala (Treatise) prohibits the presence of ordinary believers at sama because of the “continued existence of their lower or carnal 60 Gribetz, “Sama Controversy,” 57. 61 Kristina Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Quran (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 35. 62 Gribetz, “Sama Controversy,” 59.


26 natures ( nufusihim ),” indicating the potential to be sexually aroused by listening to music or poetry.63 In the Ihya Al-Ghazzali forbids the singing of poetry by a be ardless youth, a practice to be developed further in the next chapte r. He states the “fear of temptation” as the primary reason for the prohibition.64 He also stipulates conditions for the attending novice, suspicious of remnants of the carnal love t hat has yet to be subdued. Al-Ghazzali, however, did allow for erotic descriptions, applica ble to divine love, in poetry and song. With regards to dancing, Ali b. Uthman al-Hujwiri ( d. 1072 CE/465 AH), in the Kashf al-Mahjub severely opposes the activity. He writes: “The pe rson who calls it ‘dance’ is far from the right path, and even furthe r away is the person who calls it a state which does not come involuntarily from God, (the li stener) bringing that movement upon himself.”65 He continues to explain the involuntary body movem ents stimulated by ecstasy are not only acceptable but encouraged, sin ce they arrive from “the Truth.”66 AlHujwiri therefore implies that the body movements a roused by sama are a result of the ineffable, while concentrated dance is the result o f the carnal self which seeks sensual pleasure. The underlying essence of these stipulations is th at of unconditional excess. Indulgence in the practice of sama if not properly conducted, was dangerous to the s oul ( nafs ), and the continuation of Sufi practice in general If the Sufi was not of a higher awareness, the potential for the corruption of the nafs was greater. One who solely enjoyed the pleasurable experiences of sama related to the body, achieved a sense of selfgratification in the sensual, and lust ensued. Thus the polemic against sama often 63 Avery, Psychology 178. 64 Al-Ghazzali, Ihya quoted in Avery, Psychology, 179. 65 Al-Hujwiri, Kashf quoted in Avery, Psychology 189. 66 Ibid., 190


27 exhibited misjudgment of the ritual as a mere form of entertainment resulting in sensual arousal. To repel the criticisms and legitimize the practice, the Sufi authors relied on a necessary regulation of the practice.


28 Chapter 3: The Physical Expression of Recited Verse The poetry presented in this chapter was composed b y four prominent Sufis of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE/132-655 AH): Abu alHusayn al-Nuri (d. 907 CE/295 AH), Abu Bakr al-Shibli (d. 946 CE/334 AH), Muhyidd in Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240 CE/638 AH), and Umar Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235 CE/632 AH). The ir poetry will serve as examples for how the homoerotic imagery reinforces the homos ocial climate of the Sufi brotherhoods and manifests in the ritual of sama Since the four mystics were veritably fond of the ritual of sama their poetic works emphasize inferentially varyin g elements of the practice, including its cathartic effects, the experience of annihilation ( fana ), and the ensuing subsistence in God ( baqa ). This chapter will address three delineated themes i ntegral to Sufi poetry: 1.) passion ( ishq ), 2.) yearning, and 3.) oscillation between union and separation. While intimately related (and frequently overlapping), th ese themes will be approached as independent operating vehicles of expression for th e Sufi objective: the momentary unitive experience with God. Homoerotic language of passion insinuated an intense love for the Divine; one that could be best articulated through the emotive power of carnal imagery. Language of yearning expressed reflective longing of the soul for the masculine Beloved, craving some sort of fulfillment that was often never obtained, but took pleasure even in deferred gratification. Union and separatio n were poles of experience in the Sufi fulfillment of the path ( tariqa ) and plunged the mystic into states of awareness a nd ignorance of the Divine.


29 3.1 Homoerotic Language of Passion Sufi poets, by adapting the erotic ornamentation of previously established genres of preand early Islamic wine and love verse, expa nded the concept of divine love observed in the Quran.67 Yet, instead of expressing love for the Divine in terms related to quranic mahabba (Q. 20:39, 9:108), the poets gravitated toward the already-established trope of passion ( ishq ) to indicate a more ardent emotion and a more carn al expression.68 Al-Nuri maintained that profane erotic poetry was a n appropriate medium for the sublime experience and was probably the one who “introduced the word ishq into Sufism.”69 The integration of ishq in mystical poetry scandalized conservative Muslim jurists, compelling condemnation of the topic. Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200 CE/597 AH), a Hanbalite scholar, deemed ishq the love of the appetitive soul ( nafs shahwaniya ), which was prone to intoxication and sexual promiscuity.70 In response, prominent Sufis, such as Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE/428 AH) and Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1 111 CE/505 AH), defended the ishq motif by attempting to reconcile it with mainstrea m doctrine. Al-Ghazzali emphasized that ishq denotes an excessive love that, when allocated app ropriately, was most instrumental in disclosing emotion for the Div ine.71 The theme of passionate love operates on several l evels in Sufi poetry. Al-Nuri, in the following example, fuses homoeroticism and pass ion: So passionate my love is, I do yearn to keep His memory constantly in mind: 67 For greater analysis on Sufi theories of divine lo ve, see Binyamin Abrahamov, Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of al-Ghazali and al-Dabba gh (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003). 68 Wafer, “Vision and Passion,” 110. 69 Schimmel, Mystical 137. 70 Joseph Norment Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam (Albany: SUNY Press, 1979), 36. 71 Ibid., 166.


30 But O, the ecstasy with which I burn sears out my thoughts, and strikes my memory blind! And, marvel upon marvel, ecstasy itself is swept away; now far, now near my lover stands, and all the faculty of memory is swept up in hope and fear.72 By engaging masculine pronouns, al-Nuri conveys a c hanneling of his “passionate” love to the Divine, adverted to as his “lover.” The inte nse love for the Divine is so overwhelming that the very act of contemplation its elf is voided, signifying his annihilation of self ( fana ). Avery writes, “This experiential reference to be ing overwhelmed also has a direct bearing on sama and the actions and behaviors which accompany it.”73 The ecstasy ( wajd ) in the passage that “burns” and purifies his hear t ( qalb ) was probably engendered by the aural stimulation of recitation in sama of which al-Nuri was a notable enthusiast. The terms “hope” and “fear” correspond respectively to the states ( ahwal ) of contraction ( qabd ) and expansion ( bast ).74 In the state ( hal ) of contraction, the soul of the mystic was compressed and swallowed in darkness, a condition of being “far” from God, inducing intense anxiety and depression. Yet it was out of this darkness that the light of unitive expe rience may have emerged. Expansion, referring to a state of being “near” God, resulted in the amplified self, or an extension of impassioned emotion, “a perfect joy and ease that m ay [have developed], in some cases, into true ‘cosmic consciousness,’ into the feeling of partaking of the life of everything created.”75 72 A.J. Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London: Unwin Brothers, Ltd., 1956), 6263. 73 Avery, Psychology 208. 74 Schimmel, Mystical 128. 75 Ibid.


31 Moreover, the poem above attests to passionate love as a necessary propelling force to achieve altered states, such as fana associated with sama A lack of passion would deny the mystic access to the experience of fana The power of passion to transcend all separation, even of lover and beloved in union is transparent in the following stanza by Ibn al-Farid: Passion annihilated the attributes here between us that had never abided there, so they passed away.76 The “attributes here between us” speak of the decep tive duality of human and God, which disappeared during the unitive experience. When the mystic was subsumed in the Divine, those “attributes” of separation disappeared. The S ufi’s intense passion, aroused by ritual performance of sama nullified any sensation of separation implied by divine attributes and human ego self, and so they “passed away,” or a nnihilated in God ( fana fillah ). In another verse from Ibn al-Farid, passion is imp lored, suggesting that the emotional influence of this fervent love is respons ible for the inspiration of awe. The mystic begs God to inspire love without measure: Give me excess of love and so increase me in marveling at Thee; and mercy have upon a heart for Thee by passion seared. And when I ask of Thee that I may see Thee even as Thou art, in Thy reality, say not: Thou shalt not see but let me see.77 Pleading for immersion in love of the Divine, the a uthor communicates the severity of his emotion, his heart inflamed by passionate desire. B ecause of his measureless love, the 76 Th. Emil Homerin, Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life (Mawlah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 55. 77 Martin Lings, Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2004), 74.


32 Sufi is compelled to request an unveiling of the Di vine “to see [God] as Thou art.” In that unveiling, the Sufi approached an awareness of trut h, or the divine Reality ( al-Haqq ). Passion as a poetic trope in Sufi verse taps severa l levels of resonance. Passion and its release into ecstasy, for many Sufis (and M uslims, in general), were undoubtedly forceful drives with uncertain consequences. In the following verse by Ibn al-Farid, passion is expressed through the use of allegory, w ith the Divine, personified as a butcher: I said to a butcher: “I love you, but oh how you cut and kill me!” He said: “That’s my business, so you scold me?” He bent to kiss my foot to win me, but he wanted my slaughter, so he breathed on me, to skin me.78 The homoerotic metaphor connotes a confrontation be tween the Sufi and God. In the poem, the mystic declares passionate love for a tem pting butcher boy. The Divine as butcher, an impetus for enticement symbolized by th e seducing kiss of the foot, exploits the mystic’s instinctive drive for carnal appeals.79 However, instead of granting the kiss, the Butcher chooses to slay, or “skin,” him. A sens e of passivity is relayed with the mystic surrendering to the will of the divine Butch er. God tempts the Sufi by granting those transient moments of intimacy, indicated by b eing “breathed on” in the poem, but pulls away, leaving the mystic desiring more. 78 Th. Emil Homerin, From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Farid, His V erse, and His Shrine (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 55. 79 Homerin cites Ibn al-Farid’s grandson’s explanatio n for this homoerotic verse, in which he states his grandfather was exercising his technical expertise of double entendre ( tawriyah ). For him, Satan represented the butcher, who seduces the mystic fro m God. However, Jafar al-Udfuwi (d. 748/1347), a hagiographer, explains that the poem was the produc t of an “outpouring of [the author’s] effusive pass ion,” and that Ibn al-Farid symbolized God in the form of a butcher boy because he “loved absolute beauty in any form, human or otherwise.” See the chapter titl ed “Controversy” in Homerin, From Arab Poet


33 For Sufis, the intrinsic, and thus inescapable, fee ling of passion must be redirected from the flesh to God. Binyamin Abrahamov, in Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism clarifies the mystical adaptation of ishq and its implication: The highest goal of the existence of the inborn ishq is to awaken man’s soul from the slumber of negligence and folly and m ake the soul ascend from the material to the rational things, from the sensual to the spiritual entities which are its source.80 The mystic, therefore, embarked on the journey towa rd awareness using the model of profane love, which generated procreative union, an d concluded with spiritual love, a union with the Divine. The transcendent intimacy th at the Sufi acquired on the path to divine union was the fulfillment of a “sublimation of sexuality.”81 Homoerotic language in poetry, then, conjures an im age of the mystic’s displacement of carnal passion into the male Belove d. While feminine traits were used seldom to describe the Divine, the poets were more inclined to describe God with masculine attributes. Considering the homosocial ch aracter of Sufi orders, the mystics regarded the male as the “general, ideal type of be auty,” and the “masculine rather than the feminine form offered itself to the mystics of love as a symbol for the Godhead.”82 Despite the homoerotic nature of much Sufi poetry, it would be a serious misnomer to designate the Sufi poets as “homosexual s.” The penchant for the personification of masculine Beloved in mystical ve rse was rather the homoerotic “theological orientation,” denotative of an “intima te expression of collectivity.”83 Sufi orders, like the rest of institutions in the Islami c world, were grounded in male-to-male 80 Abrahamov, Divine Love 20. 81 Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Sexuality in Islam trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge & Kega n, 1985), 120. 82 Hellmut Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul: Men, the World, and God in t he Stories of Farid al-Din Attar trans. by John O’Kane (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 20 03), 457. 83 Kripal, Roads of Excess 20.


34 pedagogical procedures, dependent on intimate bondi ng of teacher and disciple. C.M. Naim, writing on pederastic inferences in mystical poetry, explains the expectation of the novice ( murid ) to love his master ( shaykh ): “A Sufi seeker should first direct all his love toward his mentor, who is always male; only later, through the help of the mentor, can he reach his true love, God, who is again always refer red to in the masculine.”84 The Sufi novice’s initial orientation in love toward the shaykh was an important step, and a sincere display of trust, in the effort to acquire the know ledge of fana -stimulating techniques (i.e. sama, dhikr, khalwa ) associated with his particular brotherhood ( tariqa ). The poetry of passion may be read as a metaphor for the preliminary dependency of murid upon shaykh the first act in a long, arduous journey to the e ventual union with God. The fervid Sufi was trained to divert the pass ion identified with the flesh to the Divine through ritual. For many Sufis, the practice of sama purged the erotic desires of the carnal soul ( nafs ) through a concentration and sublimation of those desires on the Divine. Abu Said Ibn Abi al-Khayr (d. 1049 CE/440 A H), a Persian mystic from Khurasan, stated that sama was “mainly a practical device to dissipate the lu st” of the Sufis who might otherwise “find other, more dangero us ways of distraction.”85 Thus the thematic infusion of passion and love in poetry ess entially imitated the sublimation of sexuality in ritual. Abbasid mystics who created significant bodies of l ove poetry redirected the language of human carnal love, which itself was not inherently disparaged, to the Divine, through remarkable expressions of poetic piety. The performance of Sufi poetry in the 84 C.M. Naim “The Theme of Homosexual (Pederastic) Lo ve in pre-Modern Urdu Poetry” in Studies of Urdu Gazal and Prose Fiction ed. Muhammad Umar Memon (Madison: University of W isconsin Press, 1979), 123. 85 Schimmel, Mystical 244.


35 ritual of sama engendered in their auditors the emotional experie nce the poems describe. The metaphoric language of intense passion both exp ressed such performance and compelled the Sufis of various brotherhoods to appl y their innate sexual energy to the higher spiritual goal of human intimacy with God, a prerequisite for divine Selfdisclosure. Al-Ghazzali, in the Ihya explained that the aim of recited verse and performed music in sama sessions was to “arouse longing for Him and passio nate love towards Him, and to produce states in which He reve als Himself.”86 The quintessential avenue of love to exhibit devotion to God is found in another verse by Ibn al-Farid: While about my union a tradition has come, its transmission clear without doubt, Declaring true love for those who draw near Him by willing devotions or those decreed.87 The mystic’s experience of union with God is valida ted by the word “tradition,” a term with authoritative resonance in Islam, second only to the Quran itself, referring as it does to the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (the first and greatest of the “friends of God”). For a hadith to be considered authoritative, it must come down through direct experiential witness to the Prophet’s words and deeds, which are understood as the believer’s guide to walking “the Straight Path” (Q.1:7) to God. In thi s first stanza of the poem, the mystic declares himself among the authentic transmitters o f tradition ( hadith ), whose content is union and whose experience is “clear” and “without doubt.” Furthermore the tradition, “declaring true love for those who draw near Him,” suggests that not only is the mystic a 86 Gribetz, “Sama Controversy,” 51. 87 Homerin, Umar 27.


36 receiver and transmitter of authoritative tradition about his unitive mystical experience, but that God is the very author of that tradition i n the form of Hadith Qudsi a sub-genre of hadith where God speaks directly to the Prophet Muhammad outside of the context of revelation (the Quran). It is precisely this intim ate, interpersonal communication between God and the mystic through which God “decla re(s) true love for those who draw near Him.” The Sufi poet affirms that drawing near to God can be achieved equally by those who perform the supererogatory acts of Sufi p iety, such as dhikr and sama (“willing devotions”), as well as those who adhere to obligatory pillars of practice (“those decreed”) and thus signals the all-encompassing nat ure of the divine Loving ( al-Wadud ). 3.3 Homoerotic Language of Yearning Yearning in Sufi poetry promoted the notion of unfu lfilled desire. Al-Nuri, in the verse below, proclaims the severity of his passiona te longing: Some have desired through hope to come to Thee. And Thou has wrought in them in their high design: Lo! I have severed every thought of me, And died to selfhood, that I might be Thine. How long, my heart’s Beloved? I am spent: I can no longer endure this banishment.88 The homoerotic nature of the poem is evident by alNuri’s reference to God as his “Beloved.” Furthermore, the mystic’s indication of being “spent” suggests the sensation of post-orgasmic delight, a feeling aroused from hi s temporary “union” with God. Yet the subsequent “banishment” produces anguish for the po et.89 The vicariousness of al-Nuri’s 88 Arberry, Sufism 63. 89 Multiple accounts detail al-Nuri’s ecstatic experi ences that resulted from sama See the chapter titled “The Paradigmatice Experience of Two ‘Ecstatics,’ N uri and Shibli,” in Avery, Psychology


37 pain is relayed through the intensity of the langua ge. The last line of the poem connotes al-Nuri’s state of separation from God, producing e motional torture. Only after physical death can the feeling of fervid pining be remedied, providing the Sufi (and in this case, al-Nuri) with the permanent annihilation in the Bel oved. Ibn Arabi maintained that this inclination to yearn was preferable to the fulfillment, or union, as separation intensified th e purity of love; and the yet-to-besatisfied lover knew “the fiercest and most potent states of ardent desire, in themselves a kind of fulfillment.”90 Ibn Arabi metaphorically elaborates the profundity of such desire in the verse below: Wet lips of the smile I love, nectar of the mouth I knew, Pale moon apparition on the cheek veiled in the disarray of love. If he had lowered his veil, he’d have put me to torture. He let it be.91 The homoerotic imagery is provocative in that it at tempts to cause arousal. The poem redirects the passion away from the flesh, yet stil l binds essential desire to the mystic. “Nectar,” or saliva, upon the beloved’s lips is sym bolic of the intoxicating effects of the Divine, which “leave a delicious taste in the heart ,” while the “veil” of the male beloved represents the necessitated mystery of the Divine.92 In the poem, the beloved remains covered, since revealing himself would generate mor e suffering, on the part of the poet as lover, from constant desire. Ibn Arabi was indirect ly referring to the hadith that states: “God hath seventy thousand veils of light and darkn ess; if He were to remove them, the 90 Peter Lamborn Wilson, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (New York: Autonomedia, Inc., 1987), 88. 91 Sells, Stations of Desire 128. 92 Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires) ed. and trans. by Reynold A. Nicholson (London: Theosophical Publishing House 1978), 99.


38 splendors of His face would consume all that His si ght perceives.”93 In the verse, Ibn Arabi acknowledges the strong desire to “see” God; yet he is aware that “seeing,” or an absolute “unveiling,” announced the end of the crea ted universe, as the forms and substances, in which the presence of the Divine mat erializes, would perish. Ibn Arabi clarified that the whole of creation is a self-mani festation of the Divine, a mirror of divine reflection veiled by the tangible modes of Being. T hus, for Ibn Arabi, in order to “see” the Divine, one could contemplate the transcendent beauty of God through the physical form.94 Poetry of the Abbasid era was teeming with metapho ric references to the concept of meditating on the Divine through the human form. In the following verse by Ibn alFarid, the beauty of the Prophet is expounded with homoerotic imagery: To him when he is manifest and face to face every full moon and every lesser form do lean. His virtues are perfections: had he given his light to the full moon, it never would have been eclipsed Said I, “all love for thee is in me,” he would say: “Loveliness is mine; the whole of beauty is in me.” For all the art of those who would describe his bea uty, time shall run out, and never he be fully described .95 The Prophet Muhammad’s attributes are described as “perfections” because of his mysterious manifestation of the light of God. Many Sufis claimed that the light of Muhammad was the primordial essence, imparted by th e Divine, which illuminated all of existence, including humankind. And because his “be auty” was an emanation of God, he was an embodiment of the true Beauty. Ibn al-Farid, in the poem, offers an interpretation 93 Ibn al-Arabi, Tarjuman 99. 94 Ritter, The Ocean 492. 95 Lings, Sufi Poems 76.


39 of the Prophet’s physical form as a window, or witn ess ( shahid ), to envision the divine Reality ( al-Haqq ). The realization of divine Oneness ( Tawhid ) allowed the Sufi, ideally, to discover beauty in all of God’s created forms. Ayn al-Qudat (d. 1131 CE/525 AH), a notable Persian mystic, maintained that the corporeal objec ts of passionate love are “veils of God’s absolute beauty which serve the purpose of ma king the lover’s eye accustomed to splendor of beauty so that he may endure encounteri ng God.”96 For many Sufis, and particularly those influenced by Ibn Arabi’s comple x system of contemplating the physical form to discover the Divine, all occasions of beauty in nature were reflections of God’s beauty. Yet the most perfect reflection, or shahid of Beauty was the human male, as Sufis understood the creation of the first human Adam, as a form of divine selfreflection. In the Risala ( Treatise ) of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 1072 CE/465 AH), the definition of shahid in relation to the potent emotion of love, is det ailed: What is present in your heart is your shahid …And when someone has attached his heart to a person, it is said: ‘This i s his shahid ,’ i.e. the person is present in his heart. For indeed love has the ef fect that the lover continually thinks of the beloved and the beloved o ccupies his heart completely.97 The concept of love in Sufism was predicated on the impression that the emotion directed to the beloved was channeled indirectly to a sublim e source. Thus, the love language of mystical poetry denoted that “every lover in realit y love[d] in his or her beloved the beauty of God.”98 96 Ritter, The Ocean 451-452. 97 Al-Qushayri, Risala quoted in Ritter, The Ocean 485. Al-Qushayri, describing the origin of shahid writes: “ Shahid comes from shahada bearing witness.” 98 Ritter, 492


40 Contemplating the essence of God through created fo rm, especially the human male, was a controversial element of the symbolic t rope of lover yearning for beloved. The Sufi tradition of “gazing at beardless boys” ( nazar ila al-murd ) was a method to contemplate, and long for, the divine Beauty throug h human form, an idea often incorporated into sama .99 The youth at the center of the ritual served as th e shahid to the transcendent Beauty, outraging religious authoritie s ( ulama ), because of its potential affinity with incarnationism ( hulul ), a particularly damaging charge.100 Yet Sufis clarified that the shahid of sama was not a direct manifestation of divine substance, but he performed as a mirror that reflec ted the manifestation of divine beauty in creation. The youth was not only regarded becaus e of his attractive physical appearance, but because of the “metaphysical purity ” inherent in his youthfulness.101 His unbeardedness ( amrad ) was denotative of physical and moral purity, a la ck of corruption by post-puberty sexuality. Contemplating the beauty of the young boy designated the “interior image of an absent object which through t he image appear[ed] to be present.”102 Furthermore, by gazing at the boy, there was the ex pectation upon the Sufi to redirect his carnal passions to the divine Beauty inherent in th e shahid By doing so, the Sufi successfully sublimates his sexual self, and the be ardless boy acts as a “witness” to the disappearance of the carnal soul.103 The shahid then, was that which caused the mystic to see as a witness what was absent from him: the Divi ne. 99 In demonstrating the sanction of nazar Sufis rely on a popular, and debatable, hadith that explains the Prophet, during a dream, beheld God in the form of a beardless youth. For the main forms of this hadith see the chapter titled “Religious Love of a Beautif ul Person” in Ritter, The Ocean 100 For greater clarification on the polemic against nazar see the chapter titled “Selection and Organization of Literary Material: Ibn al-Jawzi’s Dhamm al-hawa ” in Bell, Love Theory 101 Wilson, Scandal 106. 102 Ritter, The Ocean 484. 103 Al-Qushayri, in the Risala writes: “If he looks at a beautiful person, and i n doing so his humanity has dropped from him, and looking at the person doe sn’t distract him from the mystical state he is in, and


41 The beauty of the boy as a meditative focus in sama exposed the true Beauty veiled in all of creation. In that exposure, passio n would be kindled within the heart, perpetually yearning for a sense of fulfillment. Ib n al-Farid expresses the underlying coupling of beauty and love in the verse below: Alone with my Beloved I have been: A secret subtler than wind’s lightest breath, when on the night it steals, between us passed; He granted to my gaze a longed for sight, whence I, till then unknown, illustrious am. Between His Beauty and His Majesty I marveled, and my state of marveling was like an eloquent tongue that spake of me.104 The author of the poem, like the Sufi in sama “marvels” at the much desired “sight,” thus regarding the male’s beauty as a distant abstr action to be unveiled, discovered, longed for, and appreciated, but not to be truly re alized in this life. Experiential moments, such as fana may have allowed for a temporary experience of un ion with God; however, those experiences, like the contemplation of the di vine Beauty in human form, served as mere glimpses to the eventual destination, or the f inal fana The intensity of confronting the manifested Beauty is evident in another verse by Ibn al-Farid: A sword his eyelids draw against my heart, and I s ee the very languor thereof doth whet its blade; All the more sheds he suddenly our blood, picturin g them that Musawir slew among the Beni Yazdadh. No wonder is it, that he should have taken the hai rs upon his cheeks to be the suspender-thongs of his sword seeing that he is ever smiting and slaying therewith… The sun’s self, yea, and the graceful gazelle subm it humbly before his face as he gazes about him, and take re fuge and shelter his beauty…The harshness of his being with him exerts no form of influence (of a se nsual kind) on him, then the shahid bear witness on his behalf that the carnal soul has disappeared,” quote d in Ritter, The Ocean 485. 104 Lings, Sufi Poems p. 74-76.


42 heart rivals the tempered steel. The mole upon his cheek embraces in its conflagrat ion what man soever is passionately occupied with him, and scorneth to seek deliverance. Ice-cool are his red lips, and sweet his mouth to kiss in the morning, yea, even before the toothpick’s cleansing excelling the musk in fragrance and inve sting it with its own perfume. Of his mouth and his glances cometh my intoxicatio n; nay, but I see a vintner in his every limb.105 The language of yearning in this verse is especiall y allegorical. Ibn al-Farid expresses longing for his beloved through a series of detaile d expositions on his beauty and this application of double entendre ( tawriyah ) proves a skillful command of poetic expression, allowing the poem to function on multip le levels.106 The imagery, replete with homoerotic metaphors of the magnificent nature of the Divine, is expounded ornately, evoking sentiments of fear and awe. The s word represents the heart-piercing capability of the Divine; a simple glance from the Beloved is endowed with fatal power (“All the more sheds he suddenly our blood”). The g azelle is emblematic of the onceuntamed soul ( nafs ) that now, because of being tamed by divine love, “submits” to Beauty. While the cheek corresponds to the visible beauty of the Divine in created form, the mole on the cheek is the point from which Beaut y radiates, with Oneness concealed by the black tint of its mark. At the end of the qu otation, Ibn al-Farid illustrates the intoxicating proclivity of the Beloved’s beauty to engender ecstasy ( wajd ), a sense of acquiescence to the Loving ( al-Wadud ). In the sama ritual, the images of the divine Beauty enclosed i n poetry were componential to arousing altered states. If the pre sence of a shahid was involved, he 105 Wafer, “Vision and Passion,” 116. 106 For greater analysis on tawriyah and its function in Arabic literature, see S.A. B onebakker, Some Early Definitions of the Tawriya and Safadi’s Fadd al-Xitam an at-Tawriya wa’l-Istixdam (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1966).


43 compelled the mystic, like the gazelle in Ibn al-Fa rid’s verse, to submit to his beauty, commanding the mystic to quell his desiring soul ( nafs ) in order to contemplate the true Beauty. By yearning for the beauty of the boy (i.e. his purity and youthfulness), the mystic indirectly yearned for the divine Beauty. Th e boy, untouched by sexuality, provided an oasis of metaphysical purity, and thus allowed the mystic to experience his own purity, which had been tainted by age. At the r oot of the nazar practice in sama then, was the purification of yearning that carried the mystic closer to the climax of his path ( tariqa ), to union with God. 3.4 Homoerotic Language of Union and Separation Oscillation between union and separation was anoth er medium for Sufi poetic expression. The momentary unitive experience that t he mystic esperienced in sama compelled the desire for more encounters. Within th e Sufi, that yearning increased through repeated attempts at fana Poetry that elaborated, implicitly or explicitly, the dichotomy of union and separation varied considerab ly, depending on the Sufi’s idiosyncratic response to the experience. For some Sufis, the fleeting moment of self annihilation produced a sense of contentment, which resided in the comforting notion of eventual permanent union (i.e. death). For others, however, suffering ensued from an intense encounter too short-lived and impossible to sustain, thus forcing the mystic to lament separation. Sufis of the former mode often r elayed a sense of confidence that the Divine was always present, though awareness was not while the imagery of the latter


44 frequently incorporated an aura of intensity, propo unding verses with images of burning passion and fire, and, in some instances, wishing f or death. Al-Nuri was one of the mystics who tended to mourn the seeming unending separation between himself and the Beloved. His des pondency can be inferred in the following verse: I supposed that, having passed away From self in concentration, I should blaze A path to Thee: but ah! No creature may Draw nigh Thee, save on Thy appointed ways. I cannot longer live, Lord, without Thee; Thy hand is everywhere: I may not flee.107 In the poem, the author is alluding to those transi ent moments of fana (“having passed away from self”), which were apparently too brief. The Divine possesses the initiatory power to bestow the varying states ( ahwal ) upon the mystic (“Thy appointed ways”), who has surpassed the stations ( maqamat ) of the tariqa Therefore, the moments were not only brief, but unexpected, compelling al-Nuri to lament “no creature may draw nigh Thee.” For the mystic, God, too transcendent to be relishe d entirely, was not accessible beyond shortened experiences of fana The passion, then, that fueled al-Nuri’s longing for the Divine elicited a reaction of favored death (“I can not longer live”). In an excerpt from Ibn Arabi, the passion arising from separation is expressed in explicitly homoerotic language: From drunkenness, reason, longing, the wound of love, from tears, my eyelids, the fire, my heart: He whom you desire is between your ribs, 107 Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi, Kitab al-Ta’arruf li-Madhab ahl al-Tasawwuf (The Do ctrine of the Sufis) A.J. Arberry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univers ity Press, 1977), 100.


45 turned side to side in the heat of your sigh. I told them tell him he’s the one who kindled the fire blazing in my heart. It is extinguished only in our coming together. If it burns out of control, who can be blamed for loving?108 Ibn Arabi challenges the auditor to decipher the po em’s metaphoric images ornamenting its form ( surah ) to reveal its true meaning ( mana ). The sensations of “drunkenness,” “reason,” “longing,” and “love” represent the varyi ng states ( ahwal ) imparted by God. The reference to “between your ribs” indicates the heart ( qalb ), or the seat of consciousness. For Ibn Arabi, awareness of the Divi ne was dependent on the purified heart, the “throne where the final unveiling takes place.”109 In the poem, the mystic is informed of his beloved’s presence in his heart. Th e Divine, symbolized as Ibn Arabi’s masculine beloved, is responsible for engendering t he passionate “fire blazing in [his] heart.” The ignited fire of desire affixed to his h eart will only be extinguished through a final annihilation of self, a symbolic consummation with his pursuit. If that does not occur, the fire will continue and his yearning will only intensify. The image of fire in Sufi poetry was emblematic of purified passion. The “kindled fire” signified its capacity to cleanse and purge t he heart by channeling passionate love ( ishq ) to the Divine, and the ritual of sama enriched the heart by igniting a purifying flame within it. Through the process of cleansing t he heart, sama allowed the mystic to 108 Sells, Stations of Desire 132. 109 James Winston Morris, “The Spiritual Ascension: Ib n Arabi and the Miraj, Part 1,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 107:4, 1987 630.


46 receive revelation and experience divine realities. Al-Ghazzali states, “ sama …is what strengthens one’s passion and love, and it inflames the kindling of one’s heart, bringing forth from it states ( ahwal ) of revelations.”110 For the Sufi, the heart was bound to the emotional deluge aroused during sama Thus, sama was an essential force in the Sufi quest for spiritual insight by allowing the heart t o be purged of wanton desires, effectuating “the secrets of the divine realm.”111 Al-Shibli, using homoerotic language, poeticizes th e burning passion ignited by an experience of fana and expresses a sense of optimism: He looked on me, then let me see the wonders of His care for me. On fire I was, which made my heart melt, when His Presence drew apart. Yet absent He is not, that I might take to memory for consolation’s sake, nor turned away, that I might absent be.112 Al-Shibli understands that God, not the mystic, in itiates the transforming and provocative gaze (“He looked on me”). The unveiling of the Divine subsumes the mystic, causing a fire within his heart. In this verse, how ever, the loss of awareness is not lamented. The mystic receives “consolation” in the memory of the encounter, recognizing that separation from the Divine is a mere illusion resulting from the realm of multiplicity. The sense of comfort elicited from the encounter c orresponds to the state of subsistence in God ( baqa ). After the experience of annihilation in the Divi ne, the mystic became more aware of “himself in the ‘life of God,’ when all his attributes, transformed 110 Al-Ghazzali, Ihya quoted in Avery, Psychology, 82. 111 Avery, Psychology 82. 112 Lings, Sufi Poems 42.


47 and spiritualized, [were] restored to him.”113 That state of remaining in God allowed the mystic to concentrate all aspects of his life, incl uding love and desire, on the Divine. Ibn al-Farid, in the poem below, discerns the pres ence of God in his surroundings, implicitly acknowledging that distance is illusory: Though he be absent from me Every grasping sense sees him In every subtle sense, Lovely and pure: In the melody Of the lyre and gentle flute When they embrace In trilling notes of song, In the meadows Of the forest gazelle In twilight’s cool And daylight’s glow, Where the mist Falls from clouds On a blossoming carpet Woven by flowers, Where the zephyr Sweeps its skirts, Guiding to me at dawn The sweetest scent, And in my kissing the cup’s lip, Sipping wine drops In pure pleasure. I never knew exile While he was with me, And wherever we were My mind was at quiet rest.114 113 Schimmel, Mystical 59. 114 Homerin, Umar 15.


48 In the beginning of the verse, the author remarks o n the absence of his lover. Yet in his “senses,” he literally “sees” his male lover, a hom oerotic metaphor referring to the presence of God everywhere. He indicates that he ex periences the Divine while listening ( sama ) to a “melody,” while seeing the “meadows of the f orest gazelle,” while smelling “flowers” carried by the wind, and while tasting “w ine drops.” At the end of the poem, Ibn al-Farid proclaims that his mind “was at quiet rest” knowing his lover, or God, was with him, implying the realization that the “absenc e,” or separation, mentioned at the beginning was a deception. For many Sufis, that awareness of the Divine in al l creation was the climactic moment on the tariqa Indeed, the consistency of that awareness was dif ficult to maintain, as evinced by the expressions of overwhel ming grief in the poetry. Those moments of “separation” compelled the techniques, s uch as sama to yield moments of “union,” or recognition of the Divine through self annihilation ( fana ). While the Sufi interpreted the states of fana and baqa as being bestowed by God, his advanced status on the tariqa was critical in determining the legitimacy of his experiences. Thus the mystic experienced life as a pendulum, vacillating between moments of “union” and “separation.”


49 Conclusion Homoeroticism in Abbasid Sufi poetry was not, as st ated earlier, denotative of an orientation to homosexual behavior, but an outcome of the homosocial quality of Sufi brotherhoods. By concentrating on the works of the poets and other Sufi authorities written during the Abbasid Caliphate, it is possibl e to perceive how the homosocial interactions impacted literature and ritual life in classical Sufism. Considering the strict sex segregation of Islamic society during the Abbas id era, in which men dominated the public sphere and women the domestic, Sufi orders w ere framed by male-to-male interactions at multiple strata, ranging from munda ne occasions, such as dining and working together, to more spiritual matters, such a s engaging in ritual expressions of devotion. Bonding between men in the Sufi brotherho ods required a remarkable degree of intimacy, as the mystical knowledge of the path ( tariqa ) was imparted among small circles of masters ( shaykh ) and disciples ( murid ). Sufi disciples depended on the wisdom of their master, who was the instrumental force in their desire to fulfill the requirements of the tariqa The homoerotic imagery of Sufi poetry was thus a natural development from a society influenced by an implied understandi ng of maleness as the normative ideal. The predominance of maleness profoundly impacted th e methods of expressing the Divine, especially in poetry. The representatio n of the male as the apotheosis of beauty and of spiritual achievement was constantly affirmed through the portrayal of the masculine God in Sufi verse. Poetry that emphasized the beauty of the Prophet, or of an unobtainable male beloved, was an intermediate corr espondence to the sublime beauty of


50 the Divine. Homoerotic language, then, affirmed tha t “Medieval Islamic men controlled not only access to God, society, and culture, but a lso sexuality.”115 Sufi poets, amplifying the divine love articulated in the Quran and hadith channeled the language of passion ( ishq ) to God, signifying a pure intent. Since desires o f the flesh were distractions that diverted the Sufi from the path ( tariqa ), the mystic was expected to redirect those temptations to the Divin e. Sexuality, for the Sufi, began with profane love, associated with the carnal desires of adolescence early adult life, and ended with spiritual love, a sense of total fidelity to G od. However, the median between the two love extremes transpired in the Sufi brotherhoods. The use of specifically homoerotic images, conveye d through the recurring tropes of passion, love, and yearning, were suggestive of sublimated sexuality within that homosocial context. On the microcosmic scale, love themes in poetry manifested in the intimate relationship between Sufi master and disci ple. Since the aspiring disciple required the master to obtain the spiritual knowled ge of the tariqa he was expected to surrender himself to the will of his teacher. Throu gh the complete devotion of love to the master, the disciple transitioned from “spiritual p owerlessness to spiritual maturity and authority.”116 The successful surrender to the master by the disc iple led to the awareness of God, thus reenacting what occurs on the macrocos mic scale: the surrender to the Divine. The longing for, attaching to, and contemplation of the master allowed the Sufi disciple to eventually become entirely annihilated in the Divine ( fana ). In the same way 115 Steven Oberhelman, “Hierarchies of Gender, Ideolog y, and Power,” in Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature eds. J.W. Wright and Everett K. Rowson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 67. 116 Margaret Malamud, “Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashi oning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:1, 1996, 94.


51 that love and devotion to the master could produce a loss of self, “so too [could] love of God lead to loss of self and the replacement of hum an attributes with divine ones.”117 Homoerotic metaphors of love and yearning for the b eloved reflected the necessitated admission of powerlessness in order to obtain God. In the poetry, the Sufi longing for his beloved was helplessly impassioned. The loss of con trol engendered by that passion was indicative of passivity to his beloved, who was sym bolically linked with the Divine. Passivity to God was further implied in the bestowm ent of states ( ahwal ) upon the Sufi. While the stations of the path were accessibl e by effort through self-discipline, states were dependent upon the will of the Divine. However, by engaging in specific ritual practices, the Sufi would by more susceptibl e to achieving the varied states. The ritual of sama was widely accepted across the Sufi orders of the Abbasid period as a method for achieving realization of God. Despite th e multifaceted nature of Sufism, the goal of sama was uniform: union with the God through annihilati on of selfhood ( fana ). And the singing of poetry directly stimulated the a ltered state experiences that were indicated by ecstasy ( wajd ). Participation in sama actualized the content of poetry through song. Whe ther it was a reference to the metaphoric passionate ( ishq ) love for God emotional or the intensified yearning for a beloved, the thematic el ements were enlivened by the ritual’s capacity to manifest those meanings. By sublimating homoerotic themes, the poets discussed in this analysis were also reflecting the sublimation of sexuality among a confraternity of men in Sufi ritual. Since sexualit y was the source of existence, it evinced the inherent unity in creation, making the quest fo r God available. 117 Malamud, “Gender,” 99.


52 It was the responsibility of the Sufi to quell the desiring soul ( nafs ) and to transcend from carnal love to divine love. The Sufi ’s level of comprehension of the poem’s meaning mirrored his ability to surrender to the annihilation of self in God ( fana ). Patrick Laude, expressing the significance of inner meaning ( mana ) in verse, states, “A true poem is one in which a profound spiritual intu ition manifests itself in the perfect clothing of a prosodic gem.”118 That “profound spiritual intuition” enabled the my stic to experience the momentary unitive experience with th e Divine. Thus the Sufi was required to recognize the themes of passion and desire as metaphors for the heart’s ( qalb ) desire for oneness with the Divine. When listenin g to homoerotic poetry in sama the mystic was expected not to merely ignore the carnality of the verse, but to become immersed in the language, capture the true inner meaning ( mana ) of the poem, and transport the passionate restrai nts of the earthly domain to the Divine. In that respect, through sama and passionate love poetry, mystical love was continuity from the ephemeral to the spiritual. Poe try, pointing to the ontological presence of God via the auditory vibrations of vers e, elevated the mystic through the transcending levels of awareness, and into the Divi ne. 118 Laude, Singing the Way 52.


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54 Graham, William. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Gribetz, Arthur. "Sama Controversy." Studia Islamic no. 74 (1991): 43-62. Gril, Denis. Love and Affection. Vol. III, in Encyclopaedia of the Quran edited by Jane McAuliffe, 233-237. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002. Homerin, Th. Emil. Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verse, Saintly Life. Mawlah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001. Homerin, Thomas Emil. Soul. Vol. V, in Encyclopaedia of the Quran edited by Jane McAuliffe, 80-84. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002. Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2000. Kripal, Jeffrey. Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Ref lexivity in the Study of Mysticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Laude, Patrick. Singing the Way: Insights In Poetry and Spiritual T ransformation. New York: World Wisdom, Inc., 2005. Lings, Martin. Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2004. Malamud, Margaret. "Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashi oning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 1 (1996): 89-117. Morris, James Winston. "The Spiritual Ascension: Ib n Arabi and the Miraj, Part 1." Journal of the American Oriental Society 107, no. 4 (1987): 629-652. Naim, C.M. "The Theme of Homosexual (Pederastic) Lo ve in pre-Modern Urdu Poetry." In Studies of Urdu Gazal and Prose Fiction edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, 120142. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979. Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Quran. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001. Oberhelman, Steven. "Hierarchies of Gender, Ideolog y, and Power." In Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature edited by J.W. Wright and Everett K. Rowson, 53-9 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Quran. Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, Inc., 1989. Ritter, Hellmut. The Ocean of the Soul: Men, the World, and God in t he Stories of Farid al-Din Attar. Translated by John O'Kane. Leiden and Boston: Bril l, 2003.


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Poetry and ritual :
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ABSTRACT: Sufi poetry of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE/132-655 AH) exhibited a particular penchant for highlighting the relationship between humankind and God with homoerotic language. While the homoerotic nature of Sufi poetry has received considerable scholarly attention, the ritual expression of such literature has not. The ritual of sama was a practice that occurred in the Sufi institutions and incorporated various elements of the poetry examined. By listening to the poetry, in the form of song and often with accompanying instrumentation, the mystics would experience transient moments of altered state experiences, usually interpreted as moments of union with God. This thesis seeks to align the homoerotic verse with ritual, and thus demonstrating the incorporation and sublimation of sexuality in medieval Sufi society. By focusing on the works of four specific Arab Sufi poets, Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri, Abu Bakr al-Shibli, Umar Ibn al-Farid, and Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi, a distinct tendency to express passionate love for the Divine emerges. Furthermore, the portrayal of the Divine in masculine terms reflected, not necessarily homosexual love, but the intimate bonding between men experienced in a sex-segregated society.
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