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Rambling on: sufi poetry and desi themes

Monday, July 12, 2004

sufi poetry and desi themes

Sepoy has relevant observations on Sufism and historical references to devotional themes in the translated works of Rumi ( I intentionally use the word “devotional” instead of “homosexual” because as rightly pointed out by sepoy, there is no historical evidence that Rumi had physical relationship with Shams Tabrez.

There are indeed cultural precedents for this practice (Mughals, NWFP & Afghanistan). My objective to post this is that I am troubled by the basic premise that somehow the reference to “union” in sufi poetry is of sexual nature (be it gay or heterosexual)

I am and have been an avid follower of South Asian sufi poetry and have been attempting to translate sufi verses, an uphill task due to the obsolescence and permanent loss of certain terms/words. Nowhere have I come across sexual references in sufi literature of South Asia. I cannot relate to the statement that “Sufi poetry casts the boy as one of the many personifications of the Beloved (God).”

The sufi yearns for union with the Creator. The creator is a non-physical being, hence physical entities, mostly people serve as a "guide" to reach the ultimate goal, the eternal union. The most referred-to guide in sufi literature is the embodiment of supreme piety, the prophet (or one could take a secular view that the reference is to beauty hence a gal/guy)

The concept of love (ishq-e-majazi) for the guide is fine but true/real Love (ishq-e-haqiqi) is reserved for the creator. So we have references in classical literature such as that for rain to imply the unleashing of the blessings made possible by the prayers of the prophet leading to salvation by the creator. The moon, its beauty its splendor is a reference to the perfection of the beloved (prophet, physical love) leading to eternal devotion to the creator. The sun is a symbol that unleashes its wrath to test the mettle of true lovers who unite with the creator as they plunge to their death in a forsaken desert.

These are the themes that evoke feelings of ecstasy in believers in the east and lok/folk/sufi themes in Pakistan are replete with such symbols. Does ecstasy equate to sexual pleasure, I hardly think that it has ever figured in sufi literature to mean that it does. Cultural propriety also heaps disdain over such thought. Somethings are too sacrosanct that we indulge in such an debate in Pakistan.

It is the personification of the guide that the sufi refers to, not the creator Himself, the raison d’etre, atleast that is what I have learnt.

If there are any homosexual themes attributed to Persian-turkish sufi poetry, then these have emerged after the proliferation of western translations. I was searching for a Persian verse by Khusrau on google and got linked to a german gay pornsite. Not exactly thrilled to see the graphics representation of a sufi verse to invoke “the several personifications of the creator” depicted this way.

Western interest in Rumi is (a) academic to gain more insight into the wonderful world of Sufism, a discipline carried out with meticulous detail with cross references across cultures that are mind boggling (Read Annemarie Schimmel if interested) and (b) the specific interpretation of Rumi that suites a specific fringe of western scholars. They infer material love to mean homosexuality when they notice same-gender relationship between Rumi and Shams Tabrez but this is where east differs from the west. The east is looking at “the friend” as a guide to the creator whereas the west conjures up homosexual connotations.

I for one am all for a free society where gays in our society can exercise their right to live as they please but finding a precedent in sufi writings of Rumi, Kabeer, Khusrau, Hafiz, Shah Hussain, Ghulam Farid, Guru Nanak, Latif, Qalander and Sachal would lead to nowhere.

Equating union to sex (homosexual or heterosexual) demeans sufism. Translation is an imperfect art and the western translations are at best approximations of the original thought. They could never come close to the culture nuance and replicate the milieu of texts written hundreds of years ago.

I do not wish to comment on the Boston Globe article. It is written from a western perspective for a western audience. After 9/11, we view most of western with indifference and contempt as it only paints caricatures. I am glad to have read Marlowe’s comment that patience is extremely important to deal with issues where minority speaks about its right. If there is this great big issue about gays wanting acceptance in Pakistan then they have got time on their side. The media is getting into the homes of people like never before and I hope an open debate about these issues could be viewed on our TV sets in the near future. At the present moment, the burgeoning level of people living below the poverty line takes precedence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am going to have to disagree with you Deevaan. I grant you that some western translations of rumi etc. (Barks esp.) fixate on the nature of physical love. However, I have read Rumi, Hafiz, Sa'di, Furukhi, Attar, Khusrau, in persian and as a historian (that is, not looking for divine inspiration or appreciation) and I can categorically state that physical love for the young man exists as a distinct and clear theme. Starting with 'Antara the pre-Islamic Arab poet thru to Ghalib, the motif of Beloved personified in the fluff on a youth's cheek is present unapologetically.
Again, I stress that the mere existence of "physical" characteristics in this love does not make this "physical love". But ignoring or sidelining it as "western" fixations robs Sufi poetry of its complexity. Whether acknowledging that is against cultural propriety is something I leave to you.
with respect,

8:31 PM  
Blogger Deevaan said...

Thanks sepoy. Have responded to you in your comments section. Naveed

10:16 PM  
Blogger Danial said...

I think that I don't have enough knowledge to talk about this issue. As a Pakistani gay guy I think I should describe how Pakistani LGBT community feels about this issue.

The idea that same sex love was there in Muslim and Sufi poetry is very popular. It provides spiritual and moral support to Pakistani gay men and transgender. A friend of mine Leyla Suhagi thinks that Muslims were quite liberal and very kind to transgenders and homosexuals until Europe invaded and colonialized us. She thinks that we should not follow the Westernized gay culture which actually pushes LGBT to face more discrimination and hate. She insists that we should try to find our own gay culture which was attacked and severly demolished by British.

Queer Muslim community is confused, they don't know whether they should go for Western gay lifestyle or they should try to find some alternative way. Though it is quite clear that there is no Islamic or Muslim gay lifestyle but still any thing that talks about Muslim gay culture gets a blind approval by all Queer Muslims. They forget that doing so they are actually following the same Western path with a little difference. Homosexuality in Islamic societies is not a taboo, there were homosexuals all the time in Muslim history but they never tried to get a separate identity for themselves. Homosexuality is not considered as evil in Islamic societies as Al fatiha claims, it is the western gay culture which is not acceptable in our so called Islamic/Muslim societies.

2:40 AM  
Blogger Deevaan said...

I agree with you Danial that we must not ape the west in terms of how homosexuals in Pakistan deal with their lives. I do not see our society as a tolerant one but I guess if you see it as one, then it will have more relevance for you than I. I have written off our civil society as a major force that can bring about a change. As for your comment that "same sex love was there in Muslim and Sufi poetry is very popular. It provides spiritual and moral support to Pakistani gay men and transgender." I humbly beg to differ as I see not a single verse of Punjabi/Seraiki/Sindhi poetry from a recognized poet which refers to same-sex love to imply divine love. If you can let me know of a verse, it would be educational. As for spiritual and moral support, all human beings need it, irrespective of their sexual preference. Trivializing basic human needs on the basis of sexuality does not serve anyones' purpose.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Danial said...

Dear Deevan,

When I said that the idea is popular... I was talking about its popularity among Pakistani gay community. I my self believe that this is a hoax created by our newly organized gay community to pave a ground of moral support for themselves. A few friends of mine often claim that they have read Sufi poetry where it discusses love between two members of same sex, I always doubted and I think it is the time that I should drag them into the conversation and let them read your opinion in this regard. I believe that we do not need to have a written literary proof of the tolerance that we once had for homosexuality and I consider it a sin to manipulate our literary and sufi history, so that it becomes supportive of our own ideologies.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Deevaan said...

Dear Danial, appreciate your sentiments. Indeed, we must not trivialize the subject for ulterior motive. If your friends say that they have read poetry refering to same-gender relationship then they must be refering to persian literature. Most of desi sufi poets have immersed sufi themes in romantic folklore. If there is a punjabi/sindhi/seraiki/persian verse, I would love to see it. Evidence is always be better than guesswork. I am openminded about entertaining a new idea/concept.Regards Naveed

1:18 PM  

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