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Sehaty Foreign Exchange


November 29, 1999

Erotic Sufi tradition

In response to Rasool Nafisi's letter:

There are a few specific themes that I wish to explore in Sufi mysticism. The Prophet Mohammad was the starting point of Islamic mysticism; Rabi'a, as the founder of the theme of Sufi love; al-Hallaj, whose writings are the locus classicus of impassioned union; al-Ghazzali, as the clear-headed systematizer and reconciler of mysticism with orthodoxy; Ibn al-Farid, as the composer of what is perhaps the greatest erotic love poem in all of Sufi literature; Ibn al-'Arabi, as the supreme philosopher of the erotic in the Sufi tradition; and Rumi, as the exponent of love best-known to the West ["Let's not talk about sex"].

The earliest foundation of the theme of the erotic in Arabic poetry predates Islam. Poetry was the primary form of literature, indeed, the main form of artistic expression, of the jahiliyya period, circa 500-622 C.E. While there were a few different types of poetry, the qasida, or ode, was the only finished type. The qasida tended to have a fairly invariant structure: a nomad would stumble upon the remains of a desert camp and sing of its desolation. His loneliness would inspire him to recall his fondness for those who had once encamped there, and he would describe with great nostalgia the strength of his affection for his beloved and not infrequently would describe her in detail. This section of the poem is called the nasib, "erotic prelude."

Ibn Qutayba describes the nasib: here the poet (virtually always male) "bewailed the violence of his love and the anguish of separation from his mistress and the extremity of his passion and desire." Part of the poet's motivation in including this was to "win the hearts of his hearers... since the song of love touches men's souls and takes hold of their hearts." After the nasib, the poet would praise his camel and the fortitude of the Bedouin people, and following all of the above would begin the body of the ode, usually a panegyric to his patron or a tale of battle.

No exposition of love and the sensuous in Islamic mysticism could be anything but woefully incomplete without at least a mention of Bayezid Bistami, Sana'i, Suhrawardi Maqtul, Fariduddin 'Attar, Hafio, and many others.

Dr Fereidoun Abbasi

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