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Sufi Poetry in Islamic Culture
Sufism is a mystical belief and practice in Islam where Muslims seek to find truth and divine love in their direct personal experience with God. Practitioners of Sufism, known as “Sufis,” have made great contributions to Islamic culture and influenced the spiritual development of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and other nations. R. M. Chopra stated that “Sufism grew out of early Islamic asceticism and developed as a counterweight to the increasing worldliness of expanding the Muslim community” (9). The Sufis sought to revive spirituality among Muslims by means of literature among other ways.
Annemarie Schimmel, a German Orientalist, claimed that “the greatest contribution of Sufism to Islamic literature … is poetry—beginning with charming, short Arabic love poems (sometimes sung for a mystical concert, samāʿ) that express the yearning of the soul for union with the beloved” (“Sufi literature”). Sufis declaimed poems during their meeting in order to fall into a religious trance and feel the connection with supreme forces. Sufi poets used indirect language, allegories, and symbols to describe the hope for the reunion of the believer’s soul with God. They use concepts of alcoholic intoxication and physical love to allude to religious ecstasy and praying.
This kind of symbolism often misled people who had no training in Islam, and they accepted Sufi poetry as love lyric. This confusion entailed doubts about the validity of Sufism as a religious practice. Some Sufis defined their belief as a true religion and considered Sufism as a unique way to attain salvation. Such statements caused outrage among traditional scholars. As William C. Chittick noted, “the Sufis have looked upon themselves as those Muslims who take seriously God’s call to perceive His presence both in the world and in the self” (23).
Two of the frequently used concepts in Sufi poetry were of wine and the grapevine. The first concept symbolized a true faith, and the second one appeared as the source of faith. Annemarie Schimmel mentioned that “the symbolism of wine, cup, and cupbearer, first expressed by Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī in the 9th century, became popular everywhere, whether in the verses of the Arab Ibn al-Fāriḍ, or the Persian ʿIrāqī, or the Turk Yunus Emre, and their followers” (“Symbolism in Sufism”).
Sometimes, Sufi poets chose quite unexpected images to allude to religious concepts. For example, they used paired symbols of the nightingale or flying bird (as soul) and rose (as God’s perfection). A rapid development of science resulted in the use of medical and alchemy symbols in Sufi poetry, such as with the healing of the soul.
Sufi poetry has become an indispensable part of Islamic culture since the tenth century. Through the poems, a reader can understand the deep symbolism of this religious belief and learn more about spirituality and way of life in the Muslim community. Although modern scholars have contradictory points of view on Sufi poetry, they recognize its historical and cultural value.
Chittick, William C. Sufism: A Beginners Guide. Oneworld Publications, 2008.
Chopra, R. M. Preface. Sufism: Origin, Growth, Eclipse, Resurgence. Anuradha Prakashan, 2016.
Schimmel, Annemarie. “Sufism. Sufi literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism/Sufi-literature.
Schimmel, Annemarie. “Sufism. Symbolism in Sufism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism/Sufi-literature.
Schimmel, Annemarie. “Sufism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism/Sufi-literature.