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While God is described as Other throughout the history of Islamic religious literature, the language employed to conceptualize and describe God’s alterity varies widely. In about the twelfth century ce, mystics in different parts of the Islamic world developed an elaborate poetics of love to write about their relationship to the divine whom they associated in a variety of ways with the literary figure of the beloved. As mystics in places as distant as al-Andalus and Persia referred to themselves as lovers of the sublime Beloved, they also occasionally tapped into the centuries-old Arabic traditions of love poetry with its iconic couples of lovers, foremost Qays/Majnūn and Laylā. This essay discusses how the conventional assignations of gender in the context of love poetry were mapped on descriptions of God’s alterity. Following a short survey of approaches to God’s alterity in the Qur’an and its hermeneutics during the formative period of Islamic history (ca. eighth and ninth centuries ce), the main focus will be on the Andalusi poets Ibn ʿArabī (1165–1240) and Abū ’l-Ḥasan al-Shushtarī (1212–1269), who traveled the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean world.
God’s Alterity: The Qur’an and Intellectual History in the Formative Period
In terms of its literary structure, the Qur’an is a heterogeneous text. Part prophetic narrative and salvation history, part normative ethics and legislation, part highly evocative mythology and apocalyptic, one of its distinctive features is its dichotomies. Believers listen to the divine revelation and are saved; non-believers ignore the obvious truth and are doomed. Dichotomies also mark references to the divine. The Qur’an emphasizes that nothing is like God and nothing should be “associated” with God. Those who do so are the “associators” (mushrikūn). It is only God who can intercede on the Day of Judgment. God is unlike the deities of the polytheists, but God is also unlike angels, prophets, monks, and scholars. The relationship between God and humankind, too, is determined by alterity. God is eternal, humans mortal; God is the Creator, humans created.
In the centuries following the rise of Islam, Muslim scholars developed their own accounts of God’s alterity to interpret and supplement the language of the Qur’an. Since the Qur’an was understood to be God’s own word, it also provided believers with a self-description of the deity, in the Islamic tradition mostly associated with the “attributes” of God. The relationship between divine speech and human language, however, was controversial. The Qur’an itself became part of these debates, which were at times politically charged. In the early ninth century, for example, the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn forced scholars to accept the doctrine that the Qur’an was created, just like humankind, a doctrine favored by the rationalist theological school of the Muʿtazilites but rejected by most other scholars. Whatever else this conflict involved, it concerned in large part the matter of God’s alterity and the extent to which other entities could be said to partake in characteristics that were considered exclusively divine.
Some scholars promoted a literal interpretation of God’s self-description in the Qur’an. The Hanbalis, a community nowadays mostly known for their rigorous doctrines and practices in the area of Islamic law, held anthropomorphic views. Other scholars preferred allegorical interpretations — what in the hermeneutical tradition would be associated with the term taʾwīl — in order to deal with Qur’anic references to what appears to be an embodied deity, such as God sitting on a throne. Over the long run, the allegorical interpretations were associated with mystics and certain Shiite groups. Yet others developed approaches that can be classified as apophatic or negative theology, stating that while we cannot describe what God is, we can at least affirm what God is not.
Muslim scholars indebted to the Greek philosophical tradition, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic, used the language of ontology and existence to describe God’s alterity. Philosophers such as Ibn Sīnā (ca. 980–1037) spoke of God as necessary or necessarily existent (wājib al-wujūd), as opposed to the possible being of the created world. Ibn Sīnā’s expression found its way as necesse esse into the Latin West, where the scholar became widely known as Avicenna.
While conceptualizing God’s transcendence in these different ways, many authors also sought to account for God’s immanence. There were those who believed that God had created the world and then left it to work according to its own principles, whereas others envisaged a deity much more actively involved. These questions were relevant too for the existence and nature of religious guidance, contested in the Muslim community since the death of Muhammad. According to a general agreement, God had not left the world without guidance, but Muslims disagreed about where this guidance could be found. Most notably, Shiites came to believe that the imams provided such guidance, whereas Sunnis looked not only to the caliphs but also increasingly to the scholars. Some Sufis saw individual mystics distinguished by divine inspiration. The controversial scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) composed extensive polemical works against those who believed in such forms of divine immanence, targeting Shiites as well as certain communities of Sufis and comparing them to Christians who believe in incarnation.
The frictions arising from these different hermeneutical and theological dispositions thus lasted well beyond Islam’s formative period. In a performance of anthropomorphic hermeneutics, Ibn Taymiyya is reported to have demonstrated physically the act of God’s descent by descending himself from a pulpit. This embodiment of divine activity led to some turmoil, if we are to believe the traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (1304–1369), who claims to have witnessed the scene himself during his stay in Damascus. (Incidentally, Ibn Taymiyya was one of the harshest critics of the Andalusi mystics who are the focus of this essay.)
Love and the Gendered God in Medieval Arabic Mystical Poetry
As much as the Qur’an emphasizes the Otherness of God, it also paints a picture of proximity, indeed intimacy, and these passages became popular among mystics. God is closer to a human being than his jugular vein (50:16). “To God belongs the east and the west; wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115). Verse 54 of sura 5 speaks of mutual love (“He loves them and they love Him”) between God and humans. Mystics expressed these themes of intimacy, longing, passion, and separation and the underlying alterity of God in terms of a human lover who has tasted proximity to the divine Beloved but remains apart. It is hard to cut through the layers of legend, but Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya in the eighth century may have been an early example of those who used the language of love in order to describe her relationship to God. While filled with intense longing and anxiety over her own piety, Rābiʿa’s expressions are not erotic, nor do they operate with gender as a relational category. It rather appears as if gender dissolved in the sole focus on God. Much of the biographical detail that circulates about her, however, stems from a Persian work on the lives of the saints (Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ) composed by Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (ca. 1145–ca. 1221) and is thus likely to be legendary in nature.
By about the ninth century, Muslim mystics had started to develop more elaborate concepts and terminology to build on these ideas of proximity. Some, such as Sahl al-Tustarī (ca. 818–ca. 896), used a language of metaphysics and cosmological theory, whereas others relied on poetry and its intensely expressive emotional force. Among those who used poetry, the Iraqi al-Niffarī (d. 965) deserves to be singled out. The mystic who produced original poetry was held in high regard by the Sufis whose works are explored in this essay. Another figure who merits mention in our context, if mostly for his legendary position, is al-Ḥallāj, whose execution in 922 was connected in the mystical tradition with his supposed revelation of mystical secrets, notably the union with the divine.
The events and controversies of this formative period of Islam left a lasting legacy in Islamic intellectual, religious, and literary history. Ibn Taymiyya cherished Ibn Ḥanbal and decried Sufis of his own time for adhering to the views of al-Ḥallāj. It seems, however, as if Ibn Taymiyya had nothing to say about Rābiʿa. To a large extent this should not come as a surprise. In and of itself, love for God is not objectionable. Furthermore, it was mostly among Persian-speaking, mystically inclined Muslims that Rābiʿa’s ideas became more popular. We have no reason to believe that Ibn Taymiyya would have been able to read ʿAṭṭār’s lives of the saints. Indeed, the most famous examples of mystical poetry that put God in the position of the Beloved in the Middle Ages come from Persian literature. Reynold A. Nicholson recites the pantheon of Persian mystical poets whose works had become known early to a western European readership: the above-mentioned hagiographer Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, mostly known for his Conference of the Birds; Ḥāfiẓ (1325–1389), whose poems inspired Goethe; Jāmī (1414–1492), who adapted classical narratives such as Majnūn and Laylā or the exploits of Alexander the Great in his mystical Seven Thrones (Haft Awrang); but above all Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207–1273), who is unrivalled in the West as a representative of the Islamic mystical tradition. One might add to that Niẓāmī (1141–1209), whose reworking of the Laylā and Majnūn legend marks a milestone in the story’s transition into religious poetry. Originally composed in Arabic, the legend tells the story of Qays, who becomes “mad” (Arabic: majnūn) over his love for Laylā, a childhood beloved kept away by her family. Majnūn becomes a poet who lives amidst non-human animals in the desert. His verses reach Laylā through the wind, and while she loves Qays too, their love remains socially and physically unfulfilled until their death. In the history of Arabic literature, this type of story belongs to the category of ʿUdhrī love poetry, which is marked by chastity. While it lends itself easily to mystical readings, it can also be read in a more this-worldly sense. It conveys more clearly the idea of a gendered love as well, by framing spiritual love in terms of a story of a man and a woman whose respective genders are critical to the plot, which relies on socially regulated interactions between men and women and marriage as the only accepted form of intimacy. In a mystical reading, the duality of human lover and divine Beloved is supplemented by a gendered binary.
According to Nicholson, authors of Arabic mystical literature may have excelled in the area of prose, but the Persian poets were “much superior to their Arab rivals.” And yet the Persian mystical adaptation of classical Arabic love poetry was not unprecedented in Arabic mystical literature itself. Asʿad Khairallah made a case for mystical interpretations of the Majnūn and Laylā legend before Niẓāmī. Furthermore, the topic of mystical love, and gendered mystical love, found original and prominent contemporaneous expression in the works of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Andalusi poets, notably Ibn ʿArabī and al-Shushtarī. As mentioned above, both belonged to a group of mystics targeted by Ibn Taymiyya for their metaphysical views. Most of them — such as, apart from the two writers themselves, Ibn Sabʿīn (ca. 1217–ca. 1270) and ʿAfīf al-Dīn al-Tilimsānī (d. 1291) — were of western Mediterranean extraction but had ended up in the eastern Mediterranean from where another person associated with this group hailed: Ibn al-Fāriḍ (1181–1235), known as the “Prince of Lovers,’” was Egyptian. The degree to which these Sufis were indeed a community with shared doctrines remains to be determined. To a certain extent, they may have been the creation of the polemical response, but only Ibn ʿArabī’s work has been the subject of a substantial scholarly exploration, and the extent and complexity of his oeuvre also leaves room for further exploration. Either way, these individuals had personal connections, and some features of their thought were also clearly similar, in part because they were inspired by an older mystical tradition. Louis Massignon spoke of a “conspiration Ḥallāgienne,” a suspicion Ibn Taymiyya had, but as mentioned above, there was also a certain interest in the works of al-Niffarī, who may himself have been influenced by al-Ḥallāj. The poetic endeavors explored in this essay appear to be another common trend, albeit not one in which all mystics associated with the group partook. While the parallels between the Andalusi mystics and Ibn al-Fāriḍ suggest that certain religious and literary trends were present along all the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the prominence of those hailing from the Iberian Peninsula illustrates regional diversities within the Arabic-speaking areas of the Mediterranean ruled by Muslims. This challenges binary views of the Mediterranean that divide the region in simple terms: Christian areas, Latin and Romance in the north and Muslim areas with Arabic in the south. It also illustrates that Arabic-speaking Muslims who lived predominantly on the southern shores of the Mediterranean were much more besides Muslims and speakers of Arabic. In the present example, they were, at the very least, Andalusis, mystics, male, poets, emigrants and had enjoyed some exposure to philosophy. Although coined in a different area, the concept of intersectionality helps us understand in just how many ways past individuals differed from those we tend to categorize in the same way and just how many features they shared with those we conventionally categorize in other ways. An exploration of parallels and connections between Muslim and Jewish mystics and philosophers in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Mediterranean for instance is beyond the scope of this article, but such relationships have received some attention in recent academic literature.
Ibn al-Fāriḍ: Prince and Master
Th. Emil Homerin, the author of some of the most comprehensive studies of Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s works, leaves little doubt as to the standing of his subject: “Umar Ibn al-Fāriḍ is the most famous Arab poet within Islamic mysticism.” While mystical inflections of tropes of love poetry can be traced back as far as the ninth century if not earlier and in more elaborate form to the eleventh century, Ibn al-Fāriḍ produced especially poetically refined and innovative pieces. Some of these are adaptations of poems by the famous al-Mutanabbī (915–965), re-sung according to mystical tunes. This indebtedness as well as Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s outstanding talent for word play explain some forms of expression in his mystical poems.
In his adaptations of the poetic traditions of early medieval Arabic literature, Ibn al-Fāriḍ availed himself of a large reservoir of themes and tropes. He composed six mystical ghazals, a category of love poems with a distinctive poetic form and content. Ghazals had developed out of the nasīb, the first section of the tripartite qaṣīda. According to a common pattern, at the beginning of these formalized poems of pre- and early Islamic Arabia the caravan of the poet’s beloved has just departed and all that is left for her heart-broken lover are the traces of their camp and his memories of past bliss, an emotional disposition which resonated well with the common nostalgic sentiment in mystical poetry. The other elements of the qaṣīda include a solitary journey through the desert (raḥīl) and a poetic target, frequently panegyrics (madīḥ).
As so often in mystical poetry, the identity of the Beloved in Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s verses permits much speculation. How do we know who Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s Beloved is? As far as modern readers are concerned, much seems to hinge on an interpreter’s disposition vis-à-vis polyvalence. In a reference to Niẓāmī and al-Shushtarī, Alvarez describes the extent to which a religious and mystical reading of a poem can depend on the reader: “it is basically the willingness of the reader to apply a mystical hermeneutic that makes this a religious poem.” Then again, a mystical hermeneutic with its predilection for complexity, multi-layeredness and paradox is also bound to lead to various and coexisting interpretations.
Homerin highlights select expressions in some of Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s poems in order to establish the identity of the Beloved, who can be Muhammad, but who can also be God, depending on the contexts in which these expressions are commonly used in religious literature. Homerin challenged both an Ottoman commentator of Ibn al-Fāriḍ, al-Nābulusī (1641–1731), and a modern translator, Arthur Arberry, who had both assumed that in a number of places the Egyptian poet had referred to God as the Beloved. Clues to a divine Beloved, however, can be fairly specific, if we follow Homerin, and are derived from the Qur’an or mystical theology. The following verse from Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s Lāmiyya (so called after the Arabic character lām which stands at the end of each verse) may serve as an example:
Ancient is my tale of love for her;
It has, she knows, no beginning, no end,
And there is none like me in passion for her,
While her enchanting beauty has no equal!
If read in a religious context, as Homerin argues, the ‘ancient tale’ can bring to mind a popular Sufi theme rooted in the Qur’an. According to this myth, God and as yet uncreated humankind agreed on a pact on the conditions of creation and createdness. In the mystical tradition, this encounter represents a moment of great intimacy to which mystics strive to return. (Approached with a different frame of mind, the antiquity of the tale is also reminiscent of its literary function as an age-old archetype.) Remarkably, the Lāmiyya is the only ghazal in which Ibn al-Fāriḍ speaks of a female beloved, although we don’t hear much about her bodily features.
Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s Dhāliyya (named after the Arabic character dhāl) features a fairly detailed physical description of the male beloved, some of the elements stemming from a pool of tropes that are also commonly applied to women. The balance of gender references need not reflect any homoerotic disposition of the poet. The male beloved appears to have emerged from the figure of the male patron, object of panegyrical treatment. Moreover, in general, the figure of the beloved does not occupy a lot of space in Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s qaṣīdas. As the poet foregrounds his own emotional and psychological state, the description of the Beloved/beloved appears to have primarily the function of allowing the poet to write about his love.
Ibn ʿArabī: Poetic Interpreter and Subversive Theorist
Much better known as a mystic than as a poet, indeed one of the most influential Muslim mystics of all times, Ibn ʿArabī too used similar tropes of classical Arabic love poetry to render mystical ideas. These tropes are prominent in his collection The Interpreter of Desires (Tarjumān al-ashwāq). As in Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s works, a number of poems evoke the setting of the desert, the environment that typically served as a stage for the poetic and heroic exploits of pre- and early Islamic poets. Geographical references such as Najd and Tihāma point to the natural landscape of the desert, as do camels and tents. The traditional setting and plot of the nasīb are apparent, for example, in the first half of the short eighth poem in the Tarjumān, which reads in Nicholson’s translation:
(1) Their abodes have become decayed, but desire of them is ever new in my heart and decayeth not.
(2) These tears are shed over their ruined dwellings, but souls are ever melted at the memory of them.
(3) Through love of them I called out behind their riding-camels, ‘O ye who are rich in beauty, here am I, a beggar!’
Likewise, like a poet of the older tradition, Ibn ʿArabī describes the female beloved, or rather beloveds, as in poem XXII:
(4) Who murder with their black eyes and bend their supple necks.
(5) Among them is she who loves and assails with glances like arrows and Indian swords every frenzied heart that loves the fair.
(6) She takes with a hand soft and delicate, like pure silk, anointed with nadd and shredded musk.
(7) When she looks, she gazes with the deep eye of a young gazelle; to her eye belongs the blackness of antimony.
Although dating of his writings can be difficult, Ibn ʿArabī appears to have completed the work on the Tarjumān in around 1215, that is, well into his career as a famed mystic. Ibn ʿArabī suggests that a particular woman inspired his lyrics. He met young and beautiful Niẓām, daughter of a Persian scholar, during his pilgrimage to Mecca. She approached him as he was composing mystical verses. He recounts:
All I felt was a light tap on my shoulder, made by the gentlest of hands. I turned round and saw a young woman, one of the daughters of Rūm. Never have I witnessed a face that was more graceful, or speech that was so pleasant, intelligent, subtle and spiritual. She surpassed the people of her age in her discernment, her erudition, her beauty and her knowledge.
Although Ibn ʿArabī’s love for Niẓām appears to have remained chaste in practice, the ancient poetic traditions of desire may have captured his emotional response to her. We cannot tell to what extent his attraction to Niẓām was spiritual or erotic, but Ibn ʿArabī emphasized the former in the preface to the first recension of the Tarjumān al-ashwāq collection, where he declared that he had chosen the erotic style because of its popularity to refer to themes of piety and spiritual discovery. Even so, though, the poems seem to have raised some eyebrows on account of their erotic content. (The “erotic content” here consists of descriptions of the physical appearance of women and the poet’s passion for them. Elsewhere in the Arabic tradition one finds more explicit accounts of erotic encounters.) This response demonstrates how critical an author’s reputation was for the interpretation of his poetry and how compelling the assumption of consistency and uniformity. An author whom we know had mystical tendencies is not expected to have composed erotic poetry without mystical undercurrents. In the second recension of his Tarjumān, Ibn ʿArabī therefore included a commentary in order to decipher and to some extent depersonalize his poetic efforts. Paraphrasing the mystic, Nicholson comments on the classical formula “Halt at the abodes” for example, as follows: “He says to the voice of God . . . calling from his heart, ‘Halt at the abodes,’ i.e. the stations where gnostics alight in the course of their journey to infinite knowledge of their object of worship.” “A girl enclosed in a howdah” is decoded as “the Essential Knowledge contained in the hearts of some gnostics,” and “the damsels bright and fair” are glossed as “the knowledge derived from the manifestations of His Beautiful Name.” Nicholson’s verdict on the literary quality of the Tarjumān is fairly critical, especially, it seems, in the light of Ibn ʿArabī’s own interpretation of it:
The obscurity of its style and the strangeness of its imagery will satisfy those austere spirits for whom literature provides a refined and arduous form of intellectual exercise, but the sphere in which the author moves is too abstract and remote from common experience to give pleasure to others who do not share his visionary temper or have not themselves drawn inspiration from the same order of ideas.
The Andalusi mystic may have failed precisely because of the popularity of the style he chose. Furthermore, as Alvarez remarks, by explaining his references, the commentary restricted the reader’s imagination by identifying very specific equivalents in a highly technical world of mystical thought. Indeed much of the ambiguity that lends mystical poetry its strength — who is the beloved/Beloved? God’s beauty? God? What does union with the beloved/Beloved mean? What do we see when she lifts Her veil or he lifts His? — is thus reduced and dissolved into a much more cerebral and technical exercise. Jaroslav Stetkevych too was unimpressed by Ibn ʿArabī’s efforts in his commentary.
Others disagree with this critical view. Cyrus Ali Zargar, for instance, argued that Ibn ʿArabī’s commentary was not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it demonstrated how his verses of love poetry could be read in a mystical sense. The poetic tradition rendered effectively the experience of the lover, worldly as well as gnostic. The shift from the description of external elements towards the interior mystical experience and exercise in the commentary, however, confirms the impression that, not unlike Ibn al-Fāriḍ in the account above, Ibn ʿArabī may have used the classical Arabic tradition primarily for the purpose of describing his own state rather than for a description of the beloved/Beloved. Likewise in a mystical muwashshaḥ, a more vernacular form of poetry than the qaṣīda or ghazal and typical of Andalusi poetry, the mystic refers to the traditional male lovers Ghaylān and Qays as experiencing love but does not mention explicitly their female counterparts Mayya and Laylā.
Nicholson may have had a point with his contrast between superior Arabic prose and superior Persian poetry, at least insofar as this was occasioned by his subject Ibn ʿArabī, given his mixed reviews as a poet. As Saʿdiyya Shaikh has recently argued in some detail, however, Ibn ʿArabī’s technical prose writings reveal a subtle and complex albeit heterogeneous application of gender binaries to an understanding of God and the relationship between God and humankind. On the one hand, Shaikh identifies gendered categories that are in keeping with the patriarchal society in which Ibn ʿArabī lived. The archetypal seeker, for instance, is described as male, “maleness” (rujūliyya) denoting spiritual fulfillment. In the relationship of teacher and disciple, gender functions as a relational category: independent of their gender, the teacher is active and male, the disciple receptive and female. Likewise God’s creation is the active act of the male, while the created world is receptive and occupies the role of the female. On the other hand, Shaikh argues that the mystic displayed subversive tendencies in various areas that could even make him a suitable reference point for modern feminist interpretations. Among the latter, Ibn ʿArabī’s support for the female imamate stands out. Unlike most scholars of his time, indeed our own time as well, he believed that because men and women are both created in the image of God and have the same spiritual potential, women should be allowed to lead a mixed-gender prayer.
More importantly in the present context, Ibn ʿArabī used gendered categories in the cosmological context of divine creation in surprising ways. Apophatic tendencies are complemented by the popular mystical concept of the “coincidence of opposites,” frequently referred to in scholarship by its Latin name coincidentia oppositorum because it is widely associated with Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). Since the process of creation starts within God, God’s active and male part interacts with another part of God that is receptive and female. Such feminine and gender-inclusive images of God stand in contrast to, but alongside, male images and “present radical shifts in the Muslim symbolic economy of the divine.” The gender-inclusive notion of God has repercussions for the idea of humankind being created in the image of God, especially if we take the creation myth of Adam and Eve into consideration. The relationship between the mythical woman and man mirrors that between human and cosmos. Apart from serving as an epitome, women “provide the most perfect locus of witnessing God because men can see in the female form both God’s activity and reception of activity . . . in women, men witness this coincidentia oppositorum as the most complete theophany of God.”
Al-Shushtarī: The Multiple Layers of Laylā
Abū ’l-Ḥasan al-Shushtarī seems to have succeeded where the earlier Andalusi mystic left some contemporaneous and modern readers confused, irritated, or dissatisfied: in his use of poetry to popularize mystical ideas. Many of the strategies that al-Shushtarī used in order to adapt the classical Arabic tradition of love poetry into mystical contexts are very similar to what we have already seen in the cases of the two authors of the previous generation, Ibn al-Fāriḍ and Ibn ʿArabī. Al-Shushtarī too composed qaṣīdas and ghazals, transforming the desert of the pre-Islamic Bedouin poet into the sacred topography of the Muslim pilgrim and projecting his spiritual love onto a human beloved. Like Ibn al-Fāriḍ, he composed wine poetry in which the reader is exposed to the interplay between spiritual intoxication and transgressive drunkenness. Al-Shushtarī was clearly part of a larger mystical and poetic movement, and he may have been inspired by the works of the locally celebrated Ibn al-Fāriḍ and Ibn ʿArabī, the latter also sharing al-Shushtarī’s fate as an Andalusi emigrant.
It is worth mentioning here that both authors were part of what must have been a significant number of Andalusis who left the peninsula for a variety of reasons and were in the eastern lands of the Arabic-speaking world as the Christian armies of the so-called reconquistadores took control over several important cities — Cordoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Seville in 1248, etc. What a modern writer might with some likelihood and justification represent as a great personal tragedy has left only very few explicit traces in the writings of medieval Andalusis. For our purposes, this long-lasting displacement is significant since it is likely to have contributed to the cultural dynamics reflected in the mystical poetry discussed here and also in adaptations of philosophical elements by mystics, a trend that, although it may have not been entirely imported from al-Andalus, at least fed into intellectual and religious developments in the eastern Mediterranean. Such cultural dynamics, inspired by regional diversity within the Arabic-speaking parts of the Mediterranean where Muslims constituted the majority of the population, illustrates once again some of the shortcomings of binary views of the Mediterranean. The migration of Andalusis to specific parts of the Muslim world — notably North Africa, Egypt, and Syria, where we know of communities in exile — must have had a lot to do with the fact that Arabic was spoken here too, but the established routes along the Mediterranean also account for the choices displaced Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula made with regard to their future homes. Then again, these choices support binary views of the Mediterranean as well, since it was invariably to lands under Muslim rule that Andalusis fled.
While al-Shushtarī’s poems conform to trends attested to elsewhere, it is not clear to what extent he was familiar with the works of Ibn al-Fāriḍ and Ibn ʿArabī. He “composed a series of short odes (qaṣāʾid) apparently in response to poems in al-Shaykh al-Akbar’s [i.e., Ibn ʿArabī’s, A.A.] Interpreter of Desires,” but al-Shushtarī gained a reputation for his poetic achievements quite independent of the older mystic. Unlike Ibn ʿArabī, al-Shushtarī excelled in composing vernacular poetry, a form he seems to have employed deliberately in order to communicate his mystical insights to a wider audience. Ibn ʿArabī too chose erotic poetry because of its popularity, but al-Shushtarī appears to have been significantly more successful with his formal choice. Another explanation for the rapid and profound popularization of al-Shushtarī’s poetry is the fact that his verses were — and still are — sung to music.
A peculiarity of al-Shushtarī’s poems is that some of them are set in Christian monasteries. Even though the Islamic tradition is somewhat critical of monasticism and the celibacy of monks (not unlikely an effort to draw clear distinctions between Christians and Muslims), Muslims had been visiting monasteries for centuries when traveling. At the same time, these places enjoyed a dubious reputation for the presence of wine and loose morals. In line with al-Shushtarī’s mystical interest in wine, he presents monasteries as a place for intoxication and illumination.
If we take both settings — the desert from the pre-Islamic ode and the monastery — jointly into consideration, it becomes obvious that in both cases the poet locates his mystical experience in an environment that was Other. Both historically and environmentally, the desert was mostly Other for Ibn al-Fāriḍ, for
Ibn ʿArabī, and for al-Shushtarī as well. In fact, it had already been Other for the urban poets of the Abbasid period. They may have been exposed to deserts during their journeys, but they did not spend their lives there.
Whether al-Shushtarī’s poetic references to monasteries correspond to actual social interactions with Christians is unclear, just as there is some ambiguity in the relationship between the symbolic and the real in Ibn ʿArabī’s gendered categories. The topographic alterity that is derived in both cases from the poetic tradition opens a space for the effective communication of mystical insights. As much as the vernacular poetic forms and colloquial song locate the mystical experience in everyday life, the setting of desert and monastery create a distance and thus reflect the exceptional character of the mystical experience. There is a paradox in the choice of settings that the poet has never experienced in order to convey an authentic experience, although one could argue that as poetic spaces they are in their discursive function familiar locations for a mystical experience. (The same might be said about the function of gender — the female poetic beloved is both a gendered Other and poetically familiar.)
Maria Lourdes Alvarez argued that al-Shushtarī’s poems are more accessible because it is more obvious if they are written in a religious register. The confusion that led Ibn ʿArabī to the inclusion of a disambiguating commentary in his Tarjumān al-ashwāq does not plague al-Shushtarī’s oeuvre. Alvarez notes one exception to this principle: five poems that follow the classical style (rather than the vernacular) and that can easily be read as religious and mystical, but do not contain the otherwise typical explicit clues.
Among these five poems, one stands out that is especially relevant for our present interest in the function of gender in descriptions of God. The poem, titled “Layla” by its English translator, Alvarez, describes in the typical paradox manner of mystics the ineffable being of the same name. The first verse already establishes Laylā as utterly unique in the nature of her existence. “Apart from Laylā, nothing in the vicinity (al-ḥayy) is alive (ḥayy),” states the first hemistich. The assignation of real life already suggests that Laylā stands in one way or another for God who is called “the Living” in the Qur’an (2:255; 3:2), life standing in contrast to mortality as well as to dependent existence of created beings whose aliveness depends on what is truly alive. (Indeed, one might read the words as “Apart from Laylā, there nothing is alive in the Living.” The reading might violate the poetic principle that the same word can only be used a second time if it has a different meaning, but theologically speaking, the divine Living is different from any other living being.) Although Alvarez’s rendering of the first hemistich brings the Islamic concept of God even more obviously to mind (her “There is no life but Laylā” being reminiscent of the Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God,” which in terms of its underlying grammatical principles supports my reading of “There is nothing alive in the Living”), in her comments the translator and scholar glosses Layla as “a symbol for divine Beauty,” i.e., as something that is one or two steps removed from God. The following description establishes Laylā — again in paradoxical terms — as ubiquitous, but transcendent as well. The seeker is held to pursue Laylā, to know and to admire her, but the description also states that she cannot be grasped and that full union with her is impossible. The poem ends on a note both optimistic and paradox: Laylā is inside of Qays, and their identities are interchangeable.
Laylā’s ubiquity is expressed prominently throughout the poem. “Her mystery emanates in everything” (verse 2), “her beauty is widespread” (verse 3), “in her meadows, there is none but her” (verse 9). Al-Shushtarī uses two images that are popular in the Islamic intellectual tradition. Verse 4 establishes that Laylā “is like the sun, its light radiant.” Inspired by Neoplatonism and Plotinus, Muslim philosophers sometimes used the imagery of the sun and its rays in order to express the complex relationship between God’s immanence and transcendence and to explain how God could be the source of all being, yet never decrease in existence. The rays of sunlight also helped to account for the ways in which the created world reflected its creator but was so much inferior. The language used by the translator in verse two (“her mystery emanates”) also brings the technical terminology of Neoplatonism to mind, even more than the Arabic.
A second popular image is the mirror, an image often associated with Ibn ʿArabī’s cosmology. The model of the mirror allows mystics to explain in what sense the created world reflects God’s nature and is parallel to God, but not identical. Depending on the quality of the mirror (i.e., whether polished or unpolished), the reflection of the divine creator can be better or worse. Ibn ʿArabī has discussed this in great detail in his writings about the human being as a mirror of the divine. The imagery corresponds to the common idea that God created humans in his own image. In al-Shushtarī’s poem, Laylā “is like the mirror in which images appear reflected, yet nothing resides there” (verse 5). “In her raiment, her ambiguity is displayed, for everything is mirrored in her” (verse 13). The mirror allows for some reflection of the fullness of God’s being, but it is a reflection only and not an independent source of being, of creation and essences.
Al-Shushtarī mixes images and models here. It is plausible to assume that he was familiar with these cosmological images and the contexts in which they often appeared. The legacy of Ibn ʿArabī must have been very present, and that the younger mystic had some awareness of the philosophical tradition is suggested by his poem rhyming on the letter nūn, the Nūniyya. Al-Shushtarī does not say the same thing in two different conceptual languages. While the comparison of Laylā and the sun suggests that Laylā is God, the comparison of Laylā and the mirror suggests that Laylā is a manifestation or projection of God. The source of the images that are reflected in her is different from Laylā herself. The dual nature of Laylā, whom I read as a cosmological and metaphysical element designated as feminine, corresponds here to the dual function of the feminine in Shaikh’s interpretation of Ibn ʿArabī. While Laylā facilitates creation, she is part of the process of creation herself and does not remain entirely passive.
While the references to Laylā’s “mystery” (verse 2) and “beauty” (verse 3) work well with the gloss of Laylā as a symbol for divine Beauty, the references to Laylā as the sun or mirror, indeed the representation of Laylā as omnipresent, suggest that the symbol named Laylā involves much more. Not only God’s beauty is manifest in the created world but other aspects of the divine as well. Cosmological femininity here involves more than the conventional elements of beauty and, perhaps, motherhood. In verse 8, al-Shushtarī declares “Her injustice is just. As for her justice, it is grace.” Among God’s attributes, justice figures prominently in the Islamic tradition. As we can see here, the nature of divine justice is hard or even impossible to grasp for humans, as far as al-Shushtarī was concerned. If we follow widespread theological and hermeneutical views, the statement that Laylā’s — or God’s — injustice is just might imply that God’s justice (just like the other attributes) cannot be measured in human terms. If we understand “God is just” according to our human understanding of the concept of justice, we impose restrictions on the divine. At the same time, however, al-Shushtarī contrasts Laylā’s injustice and her justice. While the former is justice, the latter is her grace. The statement reflects the utterly perplexing experience of trying to grasp the nature of God with our human limitations. It reflects the mystical concept of coincidentia oppositorum but also the variety within the human experience of the divine. The inability of humans to grasp Laylā is expressed in a variety of ways in the poem, which also reflect the variety of ways in which humans may try to approach her. “Her beauty is widespread, its fullness, concealed” (verse 3) suggests that while humans can be aware of her existence wherever they are and perceive some of her essential features (such as her beauty or, below in the poem, her justice or grace), they cannot fully perceive or understand her. Even if God’s beauty is only one aspect of the divine, a human is not going to be fully exposed to this aspect.
Two verses refer to an orientation of the created world towards Laylā: “everything praises her” (verse 2) and “she alone is invoked” (verse 9). The last phrase too supports the assumption that at least sometimes Laylā symbolizes God rather than God’s beauty, since it is more likely that God alone is invoked rather than God’s beauty alone. Many of the verses state clearly that the quest for Laylā is to some extent futile, since she remains elusive. Speaking about the light of Laylā the sun, al-Shushtarī explains: “when you seek it, (it) turns to shadow” (verse 4). “A wonder, she remains distant, nowhere” (verse 10). Despite its frustrations, the quest for Layla ought to be pursued: “Hers is the right course, even if I suffer” (verse 7). “And union with her brings us fullness, distance from her, division; both are mine” (verse 11). The promise of full union and unmitigated encounter is a threat as well: “she unveiled one day for Qays and he turned away, saying: O people, I loved no other” (verse 14). The “unveiling” works both literally, if we think about the human lovers Qays and Laylā, and allegorically. The Qur’an too refers to God’s veils (42:51), a tradition that gained some popularity in mysticism such as in Ibn ʿArabī’s work or in al-Ghazālī’s mystical Qur’anic commentary, The Niche of Lights (Mishkāt al-anwār). According to the Islamic tradition, the created world cannot bear direct exposure to God. Mountains crumble when exposed to their creator (7:143). And yet the mystical tradition in particular affirms the possibility of such contacts, or at least their approximation.
The poem ends with another perplexing paradox and on a note of optimism regarding the quest for Laylā: “I am Layla and she is Qays. What a wonder! How is that what I seek comes to me from me?’”(verse 15) The verses reflects common mystical tropes across different cultures that to understand God one must understand oneself and that the quest of the gnostic is always an internal quest. The reversal of gender roles relates to the idea of a mystical union alluded to in verses 10 and 11. The fact that the reversal of lover and beloved involves assignations of gender, however, points to a potentially subversive dimension of the poem. The lover becomes female, and it is therefore the woman who assumes the active part whereas Qays, the conventional lover, now becomes the beloved — or rather, the Beloved — and the male character assumes a passive role.
Once again we can see a parallel here between al-Shushtarī’s cosmology as extrapolated from the poem and Ibn ʿArabī’s gendered cosmology as analyzed by Shaikh. The feminine is mostly assigned a passive role, but that does not exhaust her character. Shaikh identifies active elements, and the dual Laylā — active creator, passive beloved, Laylā as Qays — too has such different functions at the same time. In terms of cosmology, al-Shushtarī’s verses may not be extraordinary, but what distinguishes the poem from many others in the ghazal tradition is that it foregrounds the description of the Beloved and offers a sustained description of the Beloved in feminine terms. The symbol of Laylā functions as a unifying force for diverse allegorical approaches to God and thus as an effective poetic framework for paradox and coincidentia oppositorum. Laylā allows the gnostic lover to approach God, but since al-Shushtarī maintains the gender binary that is fundamental to the image of Laylā, the female figure also allows al-Shushtarī to express God’s alterity. Even at the moment of union the two gendered characters — Qays and Laylā — are separate not just as lover and beloved but also by way of their respective genders.
Conclusions and an Afterthought:
Feminist Hermeneutics of the Qur’an
While medieval Muslim scholars were hardly oblivious to issues of gender in their Qur’anic hermeneutics, whether their deliberations were theological in nature or juridical, it is also fair to say that these issues have gained much significance in the modern period. Among those who promote a reading of the holy text that gives greater prominence to the interests and experience of women, Amina Wadud enjoys a particularly high profile. As part of feminist approaches to the Qur’an, some authors point out that apart from the effect of the grammatical gender of God, the divine voice in the text is conventionally perceived as a male voice, not least because public recitations of the Qur’an are mostly conducted by men.
In a similar vein to Shaikh’s analysis of Ibn ʿArabī, one can argue that the poetry of al-Shushtarī presents opportunities for disrupting these conventions, opportunities that are derived from the legacy of the Islamic world itself. While most poems referred to here use the Arabic tradition of love poetry in order to account for the internal state of the gnostic lover, al-Shushtarī’s verses about Laylā use the female character as a mythological and poetic framework for a complex cosmology as well as in a relational function to uphold the divide between the lover and the transcendent God.
Some final comments too are in order concerning the framework of this volume. Some aspects of the material surveyed here confirm a binary view of the Mediterranean. The mystical poets discussed in this essay operated exclusively within the Arabic poetic tradition. Indeed, some of their references rely on the listeners’ familiarity with the history and corpus of Arabic poetry. Then again, the contemporaneous tendencies in Persian mystical poetry suggest that the phenomena referred to here existed well beyond the Arabic-speaking world. Future comparative work may reveal to what extent similar developments existed in Romance literature as well.
As well connected as Christians were to areas in which Muslims were the majority, to our mystical poets they mostly seem to have constituted the Other, albeit a familiar Other. The poetic character of the female beloved/Beloved unfolds a similar dynamic as both Other and familiar, her Otherness and familiarity rooted in social as well as poetic contexts.
A stronger case against binary views of the Mediterranean emerges from the regional differences within the Muslim and Arabic-speaking world. Whatever distinguished the northern from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, they should not lead us to consider the respective realms homogeneous spheres.
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- For surveys of scholarship and bibliography, see Sharma, “Love: Premodern Discourses”; and Chittick, “Love in Islamic Thought.” ↵
- Böwering, “God and His Attributes.” ↵
- Williams, “Aspects of the Creed of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.” ↵
- Knysh, Ibn ʿArabi in the Later Islamic Tradition. ↵
- Little, “Did Ibn Taymiyya Have a Screw Loose?” ↵
- See note 4. ↵
- Baldick, “The Legend of Rābiʿa of Basra.” For a skeptical view of the origins of Rābiʿa’s iconic verses in the Sufi milieu, see van Gelder, “Rābiʿa’s Poem on the Two Kinds of Love.” ↵
- Böwering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam. ↵
- For a recent interpretation, see Seyed-Gohrab, Laylī and Majnūn. ↵
- Nicholson, preface to his edition and translation of Ibn ʿArabī’s The Tarjumán al-Ashwáq, iii. ↵
- Khairallah, Love, Madness, and Poetry. ↵
- For an introduction to al-Shushtarī’s life and work, see al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion. ↵
- Homerin, From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint; Homerin, Passion before Me, My Fate behind. Another easterner associated with this group was al-Qūnawī, who distinguished himself as a theoretical author rather than as a poet. ↵
- Massignon, “Ibn Sabʿīn et la ‘conspiration Ḥallāgienne.’” ↵
- For the interest among Mediterranean mystics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the work of al-Niffarī, see al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 21; and Akasoy, “Niffarī: A Sufi Mahdi of the Fourth/Tenth Century?” ↵
- Examples include Stroumsa, Maimonides in his World; and Ebstein, Mysticism and Philosophy in al-Andalus. ↵
- Homerin, Passion before Me, 1. ↵
- For an account of the evolution of this tradition, see Homerin, Passion before Me, 1–30. Among western Mediterranean authors, the Andalusi Abū Madyan (1126–1198) also deserves mention (Homerin, Passion before Me, 25). ↵
- Kuntze, “Love and God.” For the place of the ghazals in Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s work, see Homerin, Passion before Me, 70, where he identifies six of the fifteen core poems of the Dīwān as ghazals. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 27. ↵
- Homerin, Passion before Me, 35. See the same page for Homerin’s interpretation. ↵
- Homerin, Passion before Me, 77. ↵
- Homerin, Passion before Me, 77. ↵
- Quoted according to the biography by Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, 209. See also 208–11 for further discussion of Niẓām. ↵
- Ibn ʿArabī, Tarjumán, 82–83. ↵
- Ibn ʿArabī, Tarjumán, 135 and 145. ↵
- Ibn ʿArabī, Tarjumán, iii. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 51. ↵
- Stetkevych, The Zephyrs of Najd, 93–95. ↵
- Zargar, Sufi Aesthetics, 120–50, on mystical readings of love poetry. ↵
- For an analysis of this particular muwashshaḥ, see Bachmann, “Manifestations of the Divine,” 79. ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy. ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 51. ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 91. ↵
- For the coincidentia oppositorum, see Sviri, “Between Fear and Hope.” ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 126. See also 175, where Shaikh argues that ʿArabī’s choice of grammatically feminine words underscores his case for a female aspect of the divine. ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 158 for the epitome, 177 for women embodying the coincidentia oppositorum. ↵
- For a longer version of these observations, see Akasoy, “Andalusi Exceptionalism.” ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 20–21. The editor Alvarez also notes “aesthetic affinities with the work of Ibn Quzmān” (28). Ibn Quzmān (1078–1160) is known for his poetry. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 24–25. Distinctly Andalusi forms of vernacular poetry, muwashshaḥāt and zajals, became popular in the eastern Mediterranean during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, precisely at the time that the mysticism of Ibn ʿArabī and the following generation gained attention. Both kinds of vernacular Arabic poetry were widely used for profane poetry. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 111–25; Abou-Bakr, “The Religious Other.” ↵
- This is a more general problem; see Behloul, “The Testimony of Reason and the Historical Reality.” ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 27. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 51: “While his poems are steeped in pre-Islamic or secular Andalusian poetic traditions, they are rather clearly marked as religious either through the use of Qur’anic vocabulary or mystical terminology or through rhetorical techniques . . .” ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 54–55. For the Arabic text, see al-Shushtarī, Dīwān, 81–82. ↵
- Al-Shushtarī, Songs of Love and Devotion, 52. ↵
- Sells, “Ibn ʿArabi’s Polished Mirror.” ↵
- Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 69–70. ↵
- Wadud, Qur’an and Woman. For an introduction to Wadud’s thought, see Barlas, “Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an.” ↵