Sufism is a branch of Islam that focus on the internal path of the Muslim. Sufism draws inspiration from ascetic traditions and focus on how people need to empty their heart and mind of elements like earthly desire and selfish distractions so that they would be filled with nothing but Allah. By doing this, they hoped to “find God within ourselves”.* Sufi poems is written and used as a way of achieving this goal. Sufi poems is therefore used, not just as art, but as part of religious practice without being a religious text the same way the Quran is a religious text. A Christian parallel can be Psalms used to highlight or achieve devotion to the Christian God. But, just like Psalms can be enjoyed on a purely art level, Sufi poems can be enjoyed on a purely artistic level, even if that’s not what they where written for and therefore isn’t the entire story about this type of art.
I’m not a Muslim, but I wanted to write about Sufi poems and highlight some female poets because I didn’t know anything about Sufi poets and poems. When I’m writing about my experience with these poems, I’m doing it as an outsider. That being said, I still enjoyed reading these poems and do think that religious text can be important to read also for people who don’t adhere to that specific religion.
Rabia Basri is credited as the first Sufi poet that we know of. She was a fascinating Sufi mystic and is getting a larger space in the feminist movement.
If I worship You
From fear of Hell, burn me in Hell.
If I worship You
From hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship You for Yourself alone
Then grace me forever the splendor of Your Face. (Perfume of the Desert, tr. Hervey and Hanut).
If you are at all interested in reading Sufi poetry, I would suggest starting with her. Her poetic language is concise, yet she manages to get to the point. I especially enjoyed her common use of opposites to highlight her point. Heaven and Hell is a common one (not surprising), but she also talks a lot about along and companion/friendship and images of water and fire.
I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water in the other:
With these things I am going to set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that voyagers to God can rip the veils
And see the real goal. (I think this one is also from Perfume of the Desert).
If you want to check out if her poems could be for you, you can find some of her work in English here.
Two other poets I want to mention are Sufia Kamal and Fadwa Tuqan. I only found one poem by Sufia Kamal (That Love is Yours, tr. By Wright and Kabir), but this poem was very different from Rabia Basri. While Rabia Basri was concise, Sufia Kamal has a very rich and lush language.
How unbearable is this joy, that this love is so intense.
With the touch like arrows of its golden rays
the inner bud blooms, as quickly as grass.
Illumined in my heart, it brings jewel-inlaid riches;
that’s why I’m wealthy, my joy will not perish.
You can read the poem in it’s entirety here.
The last poet I want to mention is Fadwa Tuqan. The poems I found by Fadwa Tuqan are much more narrated oriented. In her poem The Deludge and The Tree, the poem talks about a tree that has fallen down;
When the hurricane swirled and spread its deluge
of dark evil
onto the good green land
‘they’ gloated. The western skies
reverberated with joyous accounts:
‘The Tree has fallen !
The great trunk is smashed! The hurricane leaves no life in the Tree!’
Which turns out to, plot twist, not be true. Because her poems has more of a narrative quality to it, and knowing the context of Sufi poems, I assume that these poems are filled with symbolism. The Tree is of course not a tree. You can read more of her poems here.
What I enjoyed with reading these three poets is that it shows the diversity within this genre. That a Sufi poem draw from different poetic wells the same way other types of poems do. A Sufi poem isn’t a Sufi poem isn’t a Sufi poem.
Have you read any Sufi poems? Do you think people can enjoy religious text even if they aren’t a believer of that faith? Let me know in the comments below.
*Side note, Allah is the Arabic word for God and that’s why you find those two words used exchangeable in English texts.