Poetry in Honor of the Prophet in the Works of Sanāʾī (1080 – 1130) and ‘Aṭṭār (ca 1145 – ca 1221)

Eve FEUILLEBOIS-PIERUNEK (Paris 3 Nouvelle Sorbonne)

Paper presented at the GIS conferences (Paris,  7th July 2017) 

Une scène du mi‘râj, « l’ascension céleste » de Muhammad. Sur le dos de sa monture ailée, le prophète rencontre lors de sa traversée des sept ciels un ange en forme de coq. Manuscrit produit à Hérat, XVe siècle (Paris, BnF, Manuscrits orientaux, Supplément turc 190, fol. 11).
source : https://ifpo.hypotheses.org/4445

The poetry in honour of the Prophet is a widespread genre throughout the Muslim world and expresses most beautifully and eloquently the love and veneration of Muhammad. In Persia, the founder of this type of poetry appears to be Sanāʾī, who devotes to it a part of his introduction to his mathanawī Ḥadīqat al-haqīqa (The Garden of Truth), and several qaṣīdas. In these poems, numerous images and key themes embraced by future generations appear for the first time in Persian: the beauty of the Prophet, his role as the Seal of Prophets in this world and intercessor on Judgement Day, the light emanating from him, his precedence over Adam, and his role in Creation. We will here focus on two specific issues which show the originality of Sanāʾī in combining classical and personal ideas: the Light of Muhammad and the role of the Prophet in the salvation of humanity.

In Sanāʾī’s mystical prophetology, Muḥammad is identified as a light and as the first being created. In Quran 33:46, the Prophet is called the “illuminating lamp” (sirājun munīr), as he brought the light of truth and faith from the depths of darkness. In the eighth century, the theologian Muqātil interpreted the Verse of the Light (24:35) in reference to Muḥammad. Thereafter, Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896) elaborated a theology of Light according to which the entire universe, including the celestial (malakut) and terrestrial kingdoms (dunyā), the future world (ākhira) and the light of all the prophets, derives from the radiance of the Muḥammadan Light, which itself originates from the divine Light. The Prophet is therefore a sort of bridge between the Divinity and the created world, a kind of Logos through which the whole creation appeared (Böwering, 1980: 149-164).

Sanāʾī rephrases this concept with his own words: Muḥammad was the first to present himself at the Divine Court and he pre-existed the rest of the created world. When Adam was created by God from clay and water, a light was placed in his heart and this light was Muḥammad.  The whole universe, once created, bowed down before him in the same way that the Angels would bow down before Adam. He is the object of desire and love of everyone and everything from the stone to the Holy Spirit, and he brings harmony to the world, so that living next to him is like living in the Paradise (Sanāʿī, 2003: verses 929-949). The Ascension of the Prophet (Miʿrāj) is subsequently reread in a specific light: not only the Prophet travels towards God, but he also brings with him the whole world, and so elevates it above its initial condition (Sanāʿī, 2003: verses 950-986).

The Prophet is presented as a microcosm that encompasses the entirety of the universe with both its negative and positive aspects. The images of the Prophet’s face and hair, representing light and obscurity, are harmoniously combined to express His oneness: faith and impiety, purity and vice, predetermination  and destiny, night and dawn1. are intrinsically part of this world and exemplified by the light of the prophetic face and the blackness of his hair. His lips are the mark of God’s Mercy and his eyes the symbol of God’s wrath.  The person of the Prophet thus encompasses also all the Attributes of God, attributes whose interplay keeps the whole universe in motion. From one hand, he is the one who manifests God, and from the other hand, he is also the veil before the Face of God (Sanāʿī, 1996: 118-9).

Sanā’ī further emphasizes the Prophet’s role in the salvation of the human kind:  he is presented as a devoted and merciful doctor patiently enduring the ridicule and aggressiveness of his ignorant patients. He is selfless and full of solicitude, like a mother.  As a human being who experienced the pain of orphanhood, poverty, jealousy, and bad faith, he is able to understand men’s difficulties and forgive their sins (Sanāʿī, 1996: 118-9). Not only does he help them fight their passions in this world, but he will also intercede for them on the Day of Judgement, descending to hell to free the lost members of his community and take them to paradise (Sanāʿī, 2003: verses 1081-1108). Sanāʾī also reinterprets paradise and hell with regard to the prophetic presence: paradise rejoices, full of enthusiasm and yearning for him, whereas the eyes of hell fill up with tears, overwhelmed by the envy caused by his absence (Sanāʿī, 1996: 118-9). The only thing we have to do in order to be saved is to choose the Prophet as the guide of our lives, to listen to his message and to imitate his perfect behaviour. Whoever cultivates love for the Prophet cannot be evil: injustice and demonic impulses simply cannot coexist in the heart with his remembrance (Sanāʿī, 1996: 118-9).

Attar, Tazkirat al-awliyyâ (trad. anonyme), BNF, Supplément turc 190, fol. 69v, Sarlauh http://mandragore.bnf.fr/jsp/AfficheNoticeManArk.jsp?id=2638

Our next poet, ʿAṭṭār, praises the Prophet in several qasidas and at the beginning of each of his mathnawis (‘Aṭṭār, 2004: 265-408; 2007: 325-525; 2008: 157-296): he is presented as the most perfect creature, the best prophet, the mercy of the two worlds, the shadow of God, the guide of the visible and invisible, the sun of the Law and the ocean of certainty. ‘Aṭṭār incorporates many of Sanāʾī’s thoughts and images, giving them frequently an even deeper meaning and adding some new elements. Like in Sanā’ī’s poetry, the Prophet is a Light, the first creation of God, from which all creatures of the world came into being. God created the Prophet for Himself and the world for the Prophet. No sooner had this Prophetic Light come into existence did it bow down before God, giving an example to all the creatures to come. In its quest for God, it spun round, and the seven heavens appeared. Then all creatures—djinns, angels, men, animals, plants, and minerals—came forth and prayed to God with him (‘Aṭṭār, 2004: 265-408).

As a man, God has favoured him with many gifts: prophecy, miracles, noble manners, the best Revelation, and He has shared His secret with him during the Ascension. From his infancy, he was special: he was born in this world circumcised and with his umbilical cord cut, his first act as a new born was to bow down to worship God. No one ever saw his bodily secretions, and not even a fly dared to land on him. He was much greater than the average and towered over his audience. He had the gift of seeing both before and behind him. His body cast no shadow on the ground.

The most important virtues of Muhammad in his terrestrial life were humility, poverty and generosity. Even when Destiny elevated him, he continued to glorify poverty and did not attach to anything in this world. He remained humble and simple, tenderly looking after his family and animals, instructing children and playing with them, helping his neighbours, visiting the ill, and following funerals. But for ‘Aṭṭār, poverty means much more than deprivation: it is the annihilation of the self in the divine Presence. Poverty calls for proximity to God: when man has nothing left and is nothing, God Himself comes to meet him (‘Aṭṭār, 2004: 3979-83).

Unlike Sanāʾī, ʿAṭṭār does not directly praise the Quran and does not expand on the problem of the inimitability of the Book (iʿjāz) as proof of Muḥammad’s mission. He pays little attention to the miracles attributed to the Prophet of Islam by the Tradition, although he sometimes alludes to them. Nevertheless, he emphasises the universality of Muḥammad’s mission that is addressed to all people of the past, present, and future, as well as his role as the Seal (khatm) of the prophecy.

The Miʿrāj plays an important role in ʿAṭṭār’s work: it is found in the prologues of two mathnawīs (ʿAṭṭār, 2008: 119-273; 2007: 395-497) and serves as a symbol of the ascension of the soul on numerous occasions. One night, Muḥammad was elevated above both worlds and rose to heaven. Gabriel appeared to invite him to the Miʿrāj. He mounted Burāq and rose to the Throne, going beyond time and space. He then met the prophets who had preceded him and brought them to their perfection. He lifted up Adam, covered his nakedness with the clothing of faith, and taught him the names of everything.  He gave Abraham lessons in divine friendship, exalted Moses, dictated the psalms to David, healed Job, guided Jonas out of the whale’s belly, watered Khiḍr with the water of life, and made Jesus the Messiah.

After arriving at the Jujube tree of the boundary, he continued alone, as Gabriel could not follow him when he entered in proximity to God; if the angel had taken one more step, his wings would have been burnt by the Light of the manifestation (Nūr-e tajallī). Trembling, Muḥammad thus approached the Throne at a distance “of two arcs”. He left his body and abandoned his spirit, and once striped of himself, he entered into the divine Presence. At that very instant, he did not longer exist, and only God existed: the “mīn” of Aḥmad fell away, with duality being annihilated in the One, Aḥad. The experience of the Ascension is compared to the aim of the mystical life: effacement and subsistence in God, and the key to this experience is poverty as defined by Attar.

Like Tustari and Sana’i, ‘Attar believes that God favoured humanity with a gift that heralds its destiny and constitutes the source of revelation and mystical union: the heart of Muḥammad (qalb Muḥammad). The mystic’s love for God is consequently the excess that gushes forth from the heart of Muḥammad. Along with the Muḥammadan Light, ʿAṭṭār also speaks of the Light of God (Nūr Allāh) in alchemical terms: this Light has the ability to perfect and ennoble everything that it touches. The annihilated mystic is transfigured by this Light, and given the Attributes of God. However, warns ‘Aṭṭār, this is not divinisation, since it only occurs in the “absence” of the creature: it is a dialogue within God, a self-Manifestation of God (‘Aṭṭār, 2008: 6282-320). Better than anyone else, the Prophet of Islam has been the perfect tool of this Theophany through the mystery of unification (tawḥīd), and thus he is the best teacher for human beings.

In conclusion, poetry in honour of the Prophet constitutes for these authors an opportunity to deal with a large number of theological, mystical or philosophical topics, ranging from prophetology and anthropology to morals and the difficulties of the spiritual Path. Of course, it will be necessary to study many more Persian poets in order to trace the evolution of the themes and images related to the Prophet. Annemarie Schimmel has gracefully charted the way in a chapter of her book entitled And Muhammad is his messenger (1985: 176-215) and we hope to be up to the challenge.

Bibliography

ʿAṭṭār (2007). Asrār-nāma, introduction, edition and annotations by M. R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī. Tehran: Sukhan.

ʿAṭṭār (2008). Ilāhī-nāma, introduction, edition and annotations by M. R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī. Tehran: Sukhan.

ʿAṭṭār (2004). Manṭiq al-ṭayr, introduction, edition and annotations by M. R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī. Tehran: Sukhan.

ʿAṭṭār (2007). Muṣibat-nāma, introduction, edition and annotations by M. R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī. Tehran: Sukhan.

Sanā’ī (1996). Dīwān, ed. P. Bābā’ī, introd. B. Furūzānfar. Tehran: Nigāh.

Sanā’ī (2003). Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqa wa sharīʿat al-ṭarīqa: Fakhrī-nāma, edition and introduction by M. Ḥusaynī. Tehran: Nashr-i dānishgāhī.

Schimmel, A. (1985). And Muhammad is his messenger, The Veneration of the prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill/London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Böwering, G. (1980). The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: the Qurānic Hermeneutics of the Ṣūfī Sahl at-Tustārī (d. 283/896). Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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  1. This is an allusion to the suras of the same name (92, 93): the first promises punishment to the impious and the second recompense to the believers []

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