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ANY one acquainted, however slightly, with the mystical poetry of Islam must have remarked that the aspiration of the soul towards God is expressed, as a rule, in almost the same terms which might be used by an Oriental Anacreon or Herrick. The resemblance, indeed, is often so close that, unless we have some clue to the poet's intention, we are left in doubt as to his meaning. In some cases, perhaps, the ambiguity serves an artistic purpose, as in the odes of Hafiz, but even when the poet is not deliberately keeping his readers suspended between earth and heaven, it is quite easy to mistake a mystical hymn for a drinking-song or a serenade. Ibn al-‘Arabi, the greatest theosophist whom the Arabs have produced, found himself obliged to write a commentary on some of his poems in order to refute the scandalous charge that they were designed to celebrate the charms of his mistress. Here are a few lines:

"Oh, her beauty--the tender maid! Its brilliance gives light like lamps to one travelling in the dark. She is a pearl hidden in a shell of hair as black as jet,
A pearl for which Thought dives and remains unceasingly in the deeps of that ocean.
He who looks upon her deems her to be a gazelle of the sand-hills, because of her shapely neck and the loveliness of her gestures."

It has been said that the Sufis invented this figurative style as a mask for mysteries which they desired to keep secret. That desire was natural in those who proudly claimed to possess an esoteric doctrine known only to themselves; moreover, a plain statement of what they believed might have endangered their liberties, if not their lives. But, apart from any such motives, the Sufis adopt the symbolic style because there is no other possible way of interpreting mystical experience. So little does knowledge of the infinite revealed in ecstatic vision need an artificial disguise that it cannot be communicated at all except through types and emblems drawn from the sensible world, which, imperfect as they are, may suggest and shadow forth a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. "Gnostics," says Ibn al-‘Arabi, "cannot impart their feelings to other men; they can only indicate them symbolically to those who have begun to experience the like." What kind of symbolism each mystic will prefer depends on his temperament and character. If he be a religious artist, a spiritual poet, his ideas of reality are likely to clothe themselves instinctively in forms of beauty and glowing images of human love. To him the rosy cheek of the beloved represents the divine essence manifested through its attributes; her dark curls signify the One veiled by the Many; when he says, "Drink wine that it may set you free from yourself," he means, "Lose your phenomenal self in the rapture of divine contemplation." I might fill pages with further examples.

This erotic and bacchanalian symbolism is not, of course, peculiar to the mystical poetry of Islam, but nowhere else is it displayed so opulently and in such perfection. It has often been misunderstood by European critics, one of whom even now can describe the ecstasies of the Sufis as "inspired partly by wine and strongly tinged with sensuality." As regards the whole body of Sufis, the charge is altogether false. No intelligent and unprejudiced student of their writings could have made it, and we ought to have been informed on what sort of evidence it is based. There are black sheep in every flock, and amongst the Sufis we find many hypocrites, debauchees, and drunkards who bring discredit on the pure brethren. But it is just as unfair to judge Sufism in general by the excesses of these impostors as it would be to condemn all Christian mysticism on the ground that certain sects and individuals are immoral.

"God is the Saqi {Cupbearer} and the Wine:

He knows what manner of love is mine,"

said Jalaluddin. Ibn al-‘Arabi declares that no religion is more sublime than a religion of love and longing for God. Love is the essence of all creeds: the true mystic welcomes it whatever guise it may assume.

"My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for
gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim's Ka‘ba, and the tables
of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take.
My religion and my faith is the true religion.
We have a pattern in Bishr, the lover of Hind and her sister,
and in Qays and Lubna, and in Mayya and Ghaylan."

Commenting on the last verse, the poet writes:

"Love, quâ love, is one and the same reality to those Arab lovers and to me; but the objects of our love are different, for they loved a phenomenon, whereas I love the Real. They are a pattern to us, because God only afflicted them with love for human beings in order that He might show, by means of them, the falseness of those who pretend to love Him, and yet feel no such transport and rapture in loving Him as deprived those enamoured men of their reason, and made them unconscious of themselves."

Most of the great medieval Sufis lived saintly lives, dreaming of God, intoxicated with God. When they tried to tell their dreams, being men, they used the language of men. If they were also literary artists, they naturally wrote in the style of their own day and generation. In mystical poetry the Arabs yield the palm to the Persians. Any one who would read the secret of Sufism, no longer encumbered with theological articles nor obscured by metaphysical subtleties--let him turn to ‘Attar, Jalaluddin Rumi, and Jami, whose works are partially accessible in English and other European languages. To translate these wonderful hymns is to break their melody and bring their soaring passion down to earth, but not even a prose translation can quite conceal the love of Truth and the vision of Beauty which inspired them. Listen again to Jalaluddin:

"He comes, a moon whose like the sky ne'er saw, awake or dreaming,
Crowned with eternal flame no flood can lay.
Lo, from the flagon of Thy love, O Lord, my soul is swimming,
And ruined all my body's house of clay.
When first the Giver of the grape my lonely heart befriended,
Wine fired my bosom and my veins filled up,
But when His image all mine eye possessed, a voice descended,
'Well done, O sovereign Wine and peerless Cup!'"

The love thus symbolised is the emotional element in religion, the rapture of the seer, the courage of the martyr, the faith of the saint, the only basis of moral perfection and spiritual knowledge. Practically, it is self-renunciation and self-sacrifice, the giving up of all possessions--wealth, honour, will, life, and whatever else men value--for the Beloved's sake without any thought of reward. I have already referred to love as the supreme principle in Sufi ethics, and now let me give some illustrations.

"Love," says Jalaluddin, "is the remedy of our pride and self-conceit, the physician of all our infirmities. Only he whose garment is rent by love becomes entirely unselfish."

Nuri, Raqqam, and other Sufis were accused of heresy and sentenced to death.

"When the executioner approached Raqqam, Nuri rose and offered himself in his friend's place with the utmost cheerfulness and submission. All the spectators were astounded. The executioner said, 'Young man, the sword is not a thing that people are so eager to meet; and your turn has not yet arrived.' Nuri answered, 'My religion is founded on unselfishness. Life is the most precious thing in the world: I wish to sacrifice for my brethren's sake the few moments which remain.'"

On another occasion Nuri was overheard praying as follows:

"O Lord, in Thy eternal knowledge and power and will Thou dost punish the people of Hell whom Thou hast created; and if it be Thy inexorable will to make Hell full of mankind, Thou art able to fill it with me alone, and to send them to Paradise."

In proportion as the Sufi loves God, he sees God in all His creatures, and goes forth to them in acts of charity. Pious works are naught without love.

"Cheer one sad heart: thy loving deed will be
More than a thousand temples raised by thee.
One freeman whom thy kindness hath enslaved
Outweighs by far a thousand slaves set free."

The Moslem Legend of the Saints abounds in tales of pity shown to animals (including the despised dog), birds, and even insects. It is related that Bayazid purchased some cardamom seed at Hamadhan, and before departing put into his gaberdine a small quantity which was left over. On reaching Bistam and recollecting what he had done, he took out the seed and found that it contained a number of ants. Saying, "I have carried the poor creatures away from their home," he immediately set off and journeyed back to Hamadhan--a distance of several hundred miles.

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