Peace, one and all…
Reading is not a passive act, rather it is an active engagement with the written word, an unfolding relationship of minds and hearts. As much as we draw meanings from the things we read, we also bring our own ideas and conceptions to bear upon them. In a very real sense, to open a book is to open a conversation – with the author, with our own understandings of their intent and with the wider world. Thus, as we read, we dialogue.
I like the idea of reading as conversation, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reminds me that reading is an inherently human act: it is something that people do (and in some sense, do together). Secondly, it brings to mind an ethical dimension. That is, as with conversations in the ‘real’ world, we should always be ready to credit our partner with the best of intentions. In other words, we should strive to read fairly, letting the other speak for and as themselves. To put it in more Islamic terms, we must read with adab, just as we should speak with adab. [As adab is such an important topic, I have written about it elsewhere: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
Reading as conversation strikes me as profound for another reason. When we talk with each other, our conversations are affected by our moods, our recent histories, our psychological constitutions. That is, reading and conversation are intimately bound up with context, with time, with the moment. On many occasions I have found myself utterly unable to understand a given text until, at a certain moment, something shifts and new meanings come into view. In such moments, it feels as though I am actually hearing that text for the first time.
I find this particularly with religious texts, with texts that speak of things divine. Perhaps this is why reading the Quran is, for me, so tied up with my inner life. I often open the Quran at random, and strive to reflect on the first verse my eyes fall on. The extent to which doing this speaks directly to any given situation has always surprised me. This also relates to memorising the Quranic text itself (reading by the heart, so to speak). Over the years, I have often tried to memorise particular chapters, only to fail again and again until the time was right.
If this is true of religious scripture as such, it is also true of religious poetry. Indeed, in many respects religious poetry is all about conveying a series of moments. Reading such poetry also changes over time; on some occasions one meaning emerges, on other occasions quite different ones shine forth. On one day a poem speaks to us with all the force of heaven, whilst on another day the same poem refuses to speak to us at all.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (God sanctify his noble soul) describes this relational quality of poetry in particularly evocative terms:
‘My poetry is like the bread of Egypt
The day after, you cannot eat it.
Eat it while it is fresh,
Before the dust has settled on it’ (Divan, p.394)
As this quote (and even a brief reading of this blog) demonstrates, I am particularly fond of Mevlana’s poetry. His poetry (and indeed his prose writings) have an inspiring effect upon me – they lift me out of the limitations of my narrow self, drawing me onwards to some other place, to some other way of being. In other words, poetry is also about relationship, about how we relate to the author. That is, it is also necessary for me to declare my own allegiances. I write as a lover of Mevlana, and as a broad member of the Sufi order that his teachings brought forth. By reading his poetry, I seek to enter an intimate relationship with him, as one of teacher and pupil. How we understand the exact nature of that relationship is perhaps less important. On a personal note, whether this is viewed as a relationship between reader and author (or reader-interpreted meaning-author) or as a more metaphysical relationship feels less important than the connection it points towards. That is, we are directed here towards companionship, with other people and thus with God:
‘How can I understand the things around me
when my companion’s light is not around me?
But Love demands that these words shall be spoken;
how can a mirror be without reflection?
Do you know why your mirror tells of nothing?
The rust has not been taken from its surface.
Reflect upon this story, my dear friends;
its meaning is the essence of our state’ (Masnavi 1.32-35)
In one couplet, Mevlana forcefully expresses his idea of poetry as didactic relationship:
‘Speech is a ship and meaning the sea.
Enter quickly, so that I may pilot the ship’ (D 1518)
Although we might well read Mevlana’s poetry as literature (and profit a great deal thereby), this couplet suggests that this poetry is a vehicle, a means of travel. Reading poetry is thus an act of companionship – or suhbah in Arabic (sohbet in Turkish). This is why it is necessary to eat a poem ‘before the dust has settled on it’. ‘Eating’ what our host puts before us is a part of good manners (adab). In other words, Mevlana’s poetry is written from and thus for a particular moment; although the content of that moment may change, it is still fundamentally about the connection inspired by it. Perhaps then, religious poetry does not exist merely for its aesthetic beauty, but for some other purpose. Mevlana has this to say:
‘What’s poetry to me that I should boast of it?
I have another art, different from the poet’s arts
Poetry is like a black cloud, I behind the veil like the moon.
Don’t call the black cloud a shining moon in the sky’ (Divan, p. 54)
Elsewhere, Mevlana famously compares poetry to tripe (Fihi ma Fihi 16). On the face of it, this is a strange comment for the author of many thousands of beautiful couplets to make. What are we to make of it? What then is the purpose of Mevlana’s poetry? What is it for?
‘Poetry is the water of life coming from
an interior knowledge.
Do not leave your soul devoid of it, so that it can
effectuate its deeds!’
Poetry is thus the outward expression of an inner knowledge, of esoteric ways of knowing. It is, in these words, the very water of life itself, that which sustains us and gives our lives meaning.
Mevlana’s poetry is a vehicle for expressing and thus teaching, his vision of the spiritual life. An important feature of his poetry is the use of metaphor. Old metaphors are given new life, and new ones are brought into being – all for a purpose: communication and conversation. In one couplet, he compares his words to angelic sustenance:
‘My words are angels’ food. If I speak not, hungry angels
will say, ‘Speak! Why are you silent?’ (D2838, 14)
Elsewhere, he speaks of the need to develop new eyes:
‘The eye of sense-perception is only like the palm of the hand,
the palm of the hand cannot reach of all it [the elephant]’ (3.1269)
It is perhaps natural for a poet to speak in metaphors, to speak in powerful symbols that say far more than they appear to. In Mevlana’s case metaphor is also used because the reality he is trying to express is literally beyond words. In one poignant couplet, Mevlana remarks thus:
‘It is because of God’s utter incomparability, that He has so many comparisons!’ (D 600)
Metaphorical language is also an important element of the teaching process. New ideas are introduced in a gradual manner, as part of an ongoing didactic relationship. Symbols are also useful because they can convey ideas quickly, and are inherently exploratory: we have to discover much of the meaning ourselves:
‘As I have shown you a little, learn you the rest!
Travel away from your own habit and towards the habit and
disposition of God!’ (D214)
This may also help explain why Mevlana’s masnavi appears to take so many twists and turns. Stories seem to break off in mid-flow, only to be re-introduced later on. In other words, this confusion is only apparant. In actual fact, the use and re-use of various symbols seems to really to be an attempt to get beyond all appearances – to penetrate the world behind the veil. In Book One of the Masnavi, Mevlana tells a long story about Umar ibn al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him) and a Byzantine ambassador. In the midst of the story comes a long digression on free will and predestination, Mevlana then interrupts this narrative, interjecting in the following instructive manner:
‘Commentary on ‘And He is with
you wherever you are’
So one more time we’ve come back to the tale
– when did we ever take our leave of it?
His gaol is if we come to ignorance,
and if we come to knowledge it’s His palace.
We’re drunk on Him if we succumb to sleep;
we’re in His hands if we remain awake.
If we should weep, we’re clouds of hypocrites,
and if we laugh, then we’re His lightning flash.
And we reflect His wrath in war and anger,
His love in peace and reconciliation.
Who are we in this convoluted world?
Like alef, what’s the point? No point at all’
Mevlana’s poetry is thus about all things – every image, metaphor and symbol. It is also about one thing – God, Reality, Truth – and our relationship with that one thing. And therefore, to come into a relationship with Mevlana is, in some sense, to come into a deeper relationship with God:
‘Therefore every saint is God’s proof against men, whose rank and station are determined by the degree of their attachment to him. If they act hostilely against him, they act hostilely against God; if they befriend him, they have made friendship with God. ‘Whosoever sees him has seen Me; whosoever repairs to him has repaired to Me [based on a saying of Bayazid Bistami]’ (Fihi Ma Fihi, Discourse 16)
And elsewhere, Mevlana has this to say:
‘So, a teacher is teaching a child how to write. When he comes to writing a whole line, the child writes a line and shows it to the teacher. In the teacher’s eyes that is all wrong and bad. The teacher speaks to the child kindly and cajolingly: ‘That is all very good, and you have written well. Bravo, bravo! Only this letter you have written badly, this is how it ought to be. That letter too you have written badly’. The teacher calls bad a few letters out of that line, and shows the child how they ought to be written; the rest he praises, so that the child may not lose heart. The child’s weakness gathers strength from that approval, and so gradually he is taught and assisted on his way’ (Fihi ma fihi discourse 31)
And in closing, I would like to leave the last word to Mevlana:
‘The saints are like that. They have died before physical death and have taken on the status of door and wall. Not so much as a hair’s tip of separate existence has remained in them. In the hands of Omnipotence they are as a shield: the movement of the shield proceeds not from the shield. This is the meaning of the statement ‘I am the Truth’ (ana al-Haqq): the shield says, ‘I am not there at all, the movement proceeds from the Hand of God’. Regard such a shield as God, and do not use violence against God; for those who rain blows against such a shield have declared war against God and ranged themselves against God’ (Fihi ma fihi, discourse 16)
Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen