Between quality and quantity: Short note on the sacral use of Poetry

Mankind has a very distinctive prerogative: languages and ancient peoples had on us, modern a further one, they used to speak in rhyme (making poetry out of simple conversation), as we got evidences from classic glottology of great part of ancient languages, indifferently if of Indo-European, Semitic or Altaic origin. The advance of literacy first, until the contemporary spreading of more advanced communication media is making the man closer to others animal, ultimate speechless, after having made him “poetry-less” and of weak memory through the printing revolution. In fact the needs to use poetic theme in basic conversation was due to requirement to easily memorised what was said. Still in the last century was common among illiterate farmers across Europe the capabilities to improvise verses in their local slang with the same easy that the youngster of today have to “surf the net”. And of course poetry has been always the way to give the highest power to the word, especially if this power was required to make able the word to carry the Highest Truths[1].

Wherever and whenever there has not been religious practice without poetry or without his variation: the singing. Religious traditions always were transmitted though verses even more when have been yet formally transcript in some sort, having the oral traditions always been antecedent to the written ones. Then religious texts always have been in verses, with rare exceptions as, for instance, part of the Christian textual sources. Therefore derived literatures have often taken the form of the source texts also to share in some way their original character and dignity.

Being the founding text of the Islam a collection verses and unique case of poetry as recognized even from his the strongest detractors in any time, it is more than natural that the vehicle for excellence in transmission of such tradition has been poetry both recited and song. There has not been any aspect of the Islamic knowledge which has not been somehow transmitted through poems from basic beliefs to grammar, from legal rules to mystical experiences, and no languages of any population which has embraced Islam has been neglected, with particular emphasis for Persian, Turkish and Urdu, whose use in sacred poetry literally have sanctified such languages nearly at the same level of Arabic. This processes in still on going to the very current time with the spreading use of International English as koine languages among Muslim youngsters, which for several reasons, which cannot be detailed here, is in all the mankind history the most unfit to support any sort of spiritual influence[2].

However in some aspects of the Din the use of poems has become central if not essential in the transmission of knowledge, specifically those concerning the metaphysical realities and the ways to perceive and understand them; in other word the complex of Islamic sciences called Tassawwuf or more commonly sufism, therefore concerning not the general aspect of the religion (Sharia’), but the methodologies (Tariqa) for reaching the ultimate reality of the Divine (Haqiqa) and the experience linked to His perception (Marifa).

This occurs because the poetical tool allows in a single time to act at the three above mentioned levels. The verses can easily conceal and reveal in a single stroke divine names and Qoranic verses, become in themselves form f invocation or incantation which are the very heart of the spiritual methodologies (the poems are forms of wird and dhikr), then they can point through allusions and metaphors to realities which can be just “touched” but not fully understood and as combined result of such properties the poems can induce the perception and the “taste” of such realities and of their dimensions. The poetic art play on the rhythm naturally linked with the sound of a given language, somehow reveals its “soul” or to better say use the aspect of the language which can speak more directly to the “soul” by passing the discursive fluxes of the rationale mind, which can deceive the understanding of inner realities. Such three aspects of the speaking through verses, which can be reconnected to the three essential movements of the spiritual experiences; horizontal, ascendant and descendant, can be modulate and linked in undefined number of ways, making the poems the more direct and complete tool for the spiritual teaching. The presence of vocal rhythm links naturally poems to singing, and for extension to dancing, involving also the most solid aspect of the human nature, our own body.

Must be here noticed that is the very same thing which creates poetry in languages, which extracts singing from breathing and which induces dancing in the bodies, which is the rhythm. But is rhythm nothing else that alternation of presence and absence in a defined number, in other words pure quantity (manifested and not manifested) organized accordingly pure quality (the number), a sort of “narrow border” or “barzakh” between the material world (quantity) and spiritual one (quality). In fact the spiritual effect of the poems is linked mainly on their rhythmical tone, what is classically called “maqam”, which rules also their use during the ritual audition or “sama’”, of course also the meaning of the poems will be linked of his ritual uses. Qasaida or ilahi with advices and detailed teachings are generally song in the initial more sober stages of the audition, others describing Allah (JwS) names and detailing the spiritual path later and instead the more intense moments are underlined by recitations praising of the Prophet (SA), as the famous composition called “Burda” or “The Cloack”.[3]

In some countries and in some turuq the auditions are based mainly on the recitation of the poems, with none or minimal instrumental support, as happens in great part of North Africa, here the poems lead the dhikr, inducing the coral invocation in a later stage. In others the role are inverted with the dhikr leading the poems and prevailing on them. In both the cases however the qasaida plays a joint role of invocation and of instructions and advices to the listeners.

In some cases the whole use of the poems within for the common dhikr is avoided, and their recitation occurs in separate events, where often a dars or a sohabet describing and clarifying the meanings of the poems is also delivered. In these cases the greatest relevance is generally paid to the doctrinal aspects inserted in the poems, and their comments can be even matter of open inspired discussion among the auditors. A completely different scenario occurs in the Qawalli tradition of the Asian Subcontinent, where the poems are support from complex instrumental music and their recitation is a ritual for itself, in this case the invocation (the dhikr) is the poems’ recitation for itself which listening will induce spiritual progress and induce purification of the hearts.

Finally not uncommon is the inclusion of poems in daily recitation (award) of some turuq, i.e. the poem called Latafya, attributed to Shaych Ibn Arabi (QS), in the award of some branches of Shadhiliya., either for the invocations which they contain and for the doctrinal instructions considered of high relevance for the spiritual progress of the members.

[1] In traditional civilizations ignorant person was not who could not read, but the person who was not able to  listen to (both external and internal), the relevance of the external support of the sound the letters and the alphabet was submitted to their capability to carry the “creative power” of the sound, which was considered closest to the Principle. For instance in the Hindu tradition the Sacred Science as whole is called Sruti  or literally  “Audition”, not casually the very same word is Arabic “Sema’” is used to indicated the gatherings for dhikr.

[2] The monumental work in English of the great symbolic poet known as Shakespeare (often pronounced in the East land of former Anglosaxon dominion as “ShaychPir”. with an odd but meaningful twist of language) is in this case an exception to further confirm the rule.

[3] The ‘Poem of the Cloak’ (Arabic Qasîdatu l-burda, or simply Burda) is one of the most (and universally) sung qasâ’id during such rituals. The author is Egyptian of Moroccan and Berber origin Sharafu d-Din Muhammad al-Busiri (RA) (student of the Shaych Abu Al-l-‘Abbas Murs (QS), a follower himself  of Hadrat Pir Abu l- Hasan Ash-Shadhili (QS), from who derives  the Šâdhiliyya tariqa, born in 1212 and died between 1294 – 1298.


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