A Critical Appreciation of Arabic Mystical Poetry

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Islamic Book Service, 1979 - Sufi poetry, Arabic - 264 pages
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The book under review deals with Arabic mystical poetry. The subject of study has been divided into fifteen chapters, beginning from pre-Islamic times to the modern age. The first chapter discusses Arabic poetry in pre-Islamic era and the ‘Mystical’ is almost altogether missing. Chapter second through thirteen discuss the mystical tendencies in the poetry of the ‘companions of the Holy Prophet’ and the latter giants of Sufism and their Sufi poetry. Sufis like Hallaj, Ghazali, Abdul Qadir Jilani, Ibnul Arabi and Ibnul Farid have been discussed in detail. Last chapter of the book throws light on the contribution of 20th century Arabic poets to this genre.
The book opens with a brief preface followed by a detailed introduction to mysticism. In explaining the meaning, purpose and implications of mysticism the writer has borrowed heavily from philosophers, sages and mystics from antiquity to the present times. It seems that the author approaches the subject with a pre-occupied mind. Instead of looking into the different dimensions of mysticism and the way it has been approached by mystics, philosophers and other learned men, the author takes mysticism and pantheism as synonymous terms. And the position taken by the author may be taken with a grain of salt. Rom Landua a twentieth century scholars of Ibn Arabi’s thought while discussing the doctrine of unity as explained by Ibn Arabi calls pantheism “an ennobled name of materialism”. (Rom, The Philosophy of Ibn Arabi, Allen & Unwin, London). The impression is built in the introduction that mysticism is pantheism and Sufism is Islamic mysticism and thereby arriving at the conclusion that all Arabic mystical poetry is pantheistic in nature. Towards the end of this detailed introduction the role of Sufis in early and medieval Muslim societies has been dealt with but again the author seems to overemphasize things by drawing a clear line of demarcation between a Sufi and the Ulema.
Coming to the treatment of the poets and their verse the author has made selections which befits his idea of ‘mysticism’. As far as the translation of the verses quoted in the book is concerned, it goes nicely except at a few places where the incorrect reading of the original text has resulted in incorrect translation. One such example is a poem by Shibli where the verse, “I observe her so that you may know what is passing in my heart. Look at her and you will know what I mean”(pp 77) should be translated as, “I observe her so that she may know what is passing in my heart. And I Look at her so that she may know what I mean”. Since the poem is in Wafir meter it does not allow us to read والحظها as WALHAZ’HA instead it should be read WA’ ALHAZUHA and Shibli who according to author himself is more ‘interested in creating poetry’ cannot commit such a mistake in meter.
The last chapter takes an overview of Arabic mystical poetry in 20th century. In the beginning of the chapter it seems that things have been over stretched. Advancement in the field of Nuclear Physics and the expression of monistic ideas in Arab poets like Zahawi have been linked that is hardly acceptable. While reading the last chapter one thing must be kept in mind that all Arab poets are not necessarily following the Muslim Sufi tradition. Poets like Iliya Abu Madi, Mikhael Muayma, Nasib Arida, Khalil Jibran are more in consonance with Christian tradition since they are all Christians. For a reader from sub-continent the Arab names may be misleading at times.
Having said all this, the book nevertheless deserves the appreciation for preparing a single volume introduction to the subject in English language.


PreIslamic Poetry
From the Companions of the Holy Prophet to Abdul Wahld Ibn Zaid
Rabia and Her Contemporaries

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