Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nada Kessou – Rumi, Hafez, Calligraphy, Idyll and Sufism.

           This paper will incorporate the analysis of some of Rumi and Ḥāfeẓ’s poems. Likewise, an introduction to Idyll (through Nezami) and its link to Sufism will also be discussed. Last but not least, a discussion on the progress of calligraphy as both a technical and spiritual exercise will be entailed.

            First and foremost, Rumi is the master of the tradition of discussing Love. His name became synonymous with “The Unity of being” doctrine, encapsulating his perspective as the greatest Sufi theoretician. In some commentaries of Hadith of the Hidden Treasure, Rumi had repeatedly agreed with Ibn Arabi when he said the “knowledge God loves had its origin in time through creation.” Rumi explains the significance of the “Hidden Treasure” by referring to mercy and wrath (some of God’s attributes).

            Additionally, Rumi’s “Masnavi” is equated to being the Qur’an of Persian language, as it is packed with narratives, normatives parameters, stories and insights about life. It gained such fame in the West because of his use of metaphorical language, opposed to Ḥāfeẓ who masters the language of abstract. Rumi writes in poem XXXI[3]:

What is to be done, O Moslems? for I do not recognise myself. 

My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless; 

‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved[4]

            Rumi doesn’t want to think of ways through which humanity can be divided (ethnicity, race, citizenship, religion etc.). He believes in one God. He also strives to the divine mystical world (reference to the wine and the tavern) He judges that he doesn’t belong to this world by rejecting all those categorizations that people in the ordinary world focus on. Rumi writes in poem XXXII[5]:

I heard much discourse, but the lips I did not see. 

Pour out wine till I become a wanderer for myself; 

For in selfhood and existence I have felt only figure.[6]

            The transcendence of the ordinary world to the divine, mystical world is more prominent. The author, who despises the ordinary life, states that it has only been a source of fatigue, struggle and suffering for him. He goes back to the tavern and the wine because those are the only things that grant him mysticality and a closer presence to divinity. The line “For in selfhood I have … “shows that he wants to almost lose touch and memory of what and who he is now so that he can start on his journey to the divine, new. He draws a juxtaposition between people here below and the mystical One above: though he hasn’t seen His lips, yet he has heard His discourse.

            Second, Sufism was also portrayed in Idyll. Idyll is said to be of “villagers” or shepherdic, meaning speaking simple language. Its most common theme is that of seeking pure, romantic love. One of Idyll’s famous poets is Nezame. In “Layli and Majnun,” he presents Majnun (Qays) as an obsessed, dazzling poet with his Beloved, Layli. Layli and Majnun depicts Majnun as an emaciated ascetic. The two distinct experiences of loving Layli and that of an ascetic are seemingly not so different from each other. The sole established difference is that the latter has freedom upon his actions and can choose deliberately, whereas the lover suffers from the power of Layli’s toxic love. This romantic reading applies to the genre of “Udri.” Majnun’s unrequited love can be equated to Sufism.

This anecdotal story clearly uses intensified characterization and multilayered stories. The poem is very rhythmic and musical in the form of Masnawi (rhyming couplet) and monumental quintets (Khamsa). The reason this poem depicts Sufism simply traces back to the numerous amounts of times Majnun was offered the opportunity to visit his Layli, yet he still objects to seeing her. He equally prohibits himself from any sexual or physical contact with her; as if he were to be communicating with his Divine Beloved (God). He feels that true, mystical love can only be reached through the path of transcending sensual contact. If he were to follow his earthly desires and selfish lust, it would solely lead him to profane, ephemeral love. 

            The Islamic mysticism here exhibits Majnun’s urge to find the ultimate union and annihilation in his Beloved. Another example illustrating the latter is that of his journey in the desert: He is the depiction of the Muslim mystics who firmly deny earthly pleasures of this ordinary world and seek purity. His obsession with Layli is illustrative of his devotion to God. “His infatuation with Layli is additionally shown through his loss of purpose in life after she falls ill and passes.” His only reason and guiding torch to decrypting True Love is gone. Nezami writes about the lovers’ union in death and the afterlife.

            Poems and Music are intertwined and cannot be separated from one another. Different poets use different meters and beats in their writing. The action of memorizing various pieces from different authors provided me an exposure to the different rhythms specific to each and every author, recognizable just by an anonymous recital.  With reference to the opera performances watched in class by Alireza Qorbani, performing “Do not go without me” or even Homayoun Shajarian[7]; Persian classical music seems highly ornate. That is in the sense that the plethora of motifs and melodies can be skillfully mastered or improvised. The performances can be done in solos or played in unison[8]. The memorization exercises showed me how Persian poetry embodies political and cultural agenda beyond Islamic rhetoric. The music likewise mirrors the everyday life of an Iranian citizen[9].

            Calligraphy is a physical, esthetic as well as emotional and sensual evaluation I experience every time I hold the calligraphy pen between my fingers. Our singular fonts as students are reflections of our meanings. During class time, we had the experience of using chalk on a board to practice our calligraphy. I found it more challenging to practice my calligraphy as I changed the writing tools. For me, this explains and justifies why calligraphers are very cautious and specific with the calligraphy pens they use for their art. Holding a calligraphy pen requires a specific posture and practice, and working with chalk is an altogether different methodology as well.

I still struggle with writing the letter “nun” or “ن,” I aim to perfect it. The black board in-class activities help me improve my overall artistic writing. Likewise, I enjoyed trying out different fonts such as the Kufic script, Naskh and Nasteliq. The intricate complexity and simplicity are juxtaposing elements that draw me even more to the art. This enabled me to came to a closer connection with Persian wisdom, rather a commonality in Persian society (inferred to by recital from memory). Memorizing enabled me to evaluate and assess more closely the logic and ideals portrayed by each author. Each verse held and emphasized a different thematic nuance, each being multilayered. 


[1] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems. An Anthology of Verse Translations. Edited by A.J. Arberry. J.M. Dent & Sons: London; E.P. Dutton & Co.: New York, 1954.

[2] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems. An Anthology of Verse Translations. Edited by A.J. Arberry. J.M. Dent & Sons: London; E.P. Dutton & Co.: New York, 1954..

[3] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī & Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 2013. Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī & Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 2013. Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

[5] Rūmī Jalāl al-Dīn, Tabrīzī Shams-i, and Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. Divani Shamsi Tabriz. San Francisco: Rainbow Bridge, 1973.

[6] Rūmī Jalāl al-Dīn, Tabrīzī Shams-i, and Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. Divani Shamsi Tabriz. San Francisco: Rainbow Bridge, 1973.

[7] Pareles, Jon. “Unexpected Persian Sounds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 8, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/08/arts/music/unexpected-persian-sounds.html.

[8] Lucas, Ann. “Understanding Iran Through Music: A New Approach.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 40, no. 1 (2006): 79-89. www.jstor.org/stable/23062637.

[9] Pareles, Jon. “Unexpected Persian Sounds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 8, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/08/arts/music/unexpected-persian-sounds.html.

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