Thursday, April 26, 2007

Persian love poetry, Sufi Mysticism and System Of A Down

Recently, I've still wading my way through Lapidus' A History of Islamic Societies. Last month, I came across two unique insights. The first was on Persian love poetry and its gradual folding into Sufi mysticism. The second was on Sufi mysticism itself as developed by the mystic al-Ghazzali (d. 1111AD). Outside of his mysticism, al-Ghazzali is most notable for his development of philosophical arguments in The Incoherence of the Philosophers that attempts to demonstrate that the scientific method (and rationality itself) are utterly flawed because there can be no natural laws outside of God's providence. In his view, fire doesn't burn cotton when cotton is held to a flame because it is the nature of cotton to combust when exposed to sufficient heat but because God, at that moment in time, wills that the cotton burns. His arguments were so forceful that they ultimately changed the way that all of Islam thinks about philosophy for many centuries. To this day some schools of Islam have adopted his rejection of natural laws.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, Both the Persian and Arabic languages were both widespread throughout Islamic civilization. It was in these years that Muslims finally began to become the majority religion in most Islamic controlled areas of the middle east. Prior to this age, Christians of various sorts still outnumbered their Muslim rulers. Nestorians were dominant in Persia. Armenians elsewhere. Orthodox in other places. Aside from the battle of ideas, there was a battle over where Persian or Arabic would be the dominant language of the cultured elite.

During this period of time, a new literary genre of poetry developed in Persian speaking culture. This literary convention took the form of a lover pining away for a beloved that was completely unattainable, usually in the form of a lower ranking member of a royal court or an ignoble hero of might ``consumed by physical passion'' and whose love was sublimated ``into an idealization of a perfect but inaccessible woman.'' [Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press. 2002. p130.] Frequently the genre had stories of ``the lover who suffers just for a glance, while his only comfort is wine.'' [Ibid.]

Over time, Lapudis argues that this image of the lover constantly unconsummated suffering for his beloved began to be used by Sufi mystics as an analogy of the love the mystic has for God. In this view, the divine is unattainable and we material creatures can only yearn to be fulfilled. Lapudis doesn't go into detail about how the Sufis handle the idea that our only consolation in our longing for God is wine. I suspect that they view it as the tragedy of the material condition that the human being looks to distraction and dissolution rather than focusing on a love that can never be consummated. Here lies a key difference between Islamic mysticism and Christian mysticism. For Orthodox Christians, our love for God is not unfulfilled. While in this life we Christians do see the world through a darkened glass, we also have real experience of God through the God-made-Man Jesus Christ. While the Sufis can only experience visions that are ``like'' God, Christians can experience God himself.

But let us return to Lapudis. As the Sufi school of Islam developed, it found an adherent in the scholar al-Ghazzali. Ghazzali was originally a widely respected scholar in Baghdad who found himself more and more discontent with the world. After a six month struggle over whether he should become a hermit which ended in the complete failure of his health and inability to even eat, he disappeared and wondered the desert and mountains for ten years after which he returned to Baghdad as a Sufi master.

One of the more interesting aspects of his thought is his view that Islam (which he thought to be the one true religion) requires a total submission to God that occurs in three phases. The first phase he likens to the relationship between a man and his lawyer. The lawyer has power of attorney to represent the man in a specific matter. The man trusts his lawyer but retains the right to make the final decision and only trusts the lawyer in specific matters. This phase, I think, is a very apt description of the way many of us Christians treat God. We compartmentalize God and submit out lives to Christ only in certain aspects. In other aspects we rely on ourselves. Even in aspects where we rely on God, we retain the right to change our minds if we think God is making a wrong decision. (Or at least I know that I am guilty of this. I'm not certain I should presume to speak for all Christians.)

Ghazzali's likens the second stage to the relationship between a small child and his mother. The child completely trusts in his mother but talks to her only when he wants something. He cries. He tugs at her skirt to get her attention. He is fearful of the outside world and trusts that his mother will always make everything right. The submission the child has for his mother is much more complete than the submission that the man has for his lawyer, but it is still a submission that is self-seeking and selfish. The mother, for the child, exists for the child. We Christians are also guilty of this sometimes. We tend to make God into our God and only our God. Whether it be in American Exceptionalism where we hold that the USA is a divinely guarded nation with an inalienable right to take whatever steps we hold to be in God's will or whether we presume that God does not love those outside of the Church as much as God loves us.

Ghazzali likens the third stage to the relationship between a corpse and the one who is washing the corpse in preparation for burial. In this stage, the submission is complete and the individual exerts no will but lies entirely in the hands of the washer. The washer will do as he wills and the corpse will not, cannot, complain. I'm not certain what to think about this stage. At least at the superficial level, it has no small amount of similarity to the teachings of many of the desert fathers. (Which is probably not accidental. Many non-Islamic scholars of religious studies hold that Sufi Islam was heavily influenced by the mysticism of Christian desert monasticism.) And yet I can't help but think there is something wrong about this analogy. The corpse has no choice at all and everybody dies whether they decide to or not. On the one hand one could presume that the washer of corpses is preparing the body to either be lovingly buried or to be burned as an infidel. I haven't read enough of al-Ghazzali's writing to know if that it is what he had in mind. But on the other, this analogy seems to me to open the door to necessary universalism. Quibbles aside, I find something oddly compelling in the idea of putting oneself so much at the mercy of God that one is like a corpse in his hands while he is preparing us for burial.

But the perverse side of me wonders what happens if one combines these two analogies. What I think we would get is my mishearing of System Of A Down's hit song ``Hypnotized.'' The refrain for this song runs thusly:

I'm just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl

I don't find this to be a very interesting lyric. But as a person with a hearing problem, I misheard the lyrics when I first heard this song. I only discovered the real chorus once I looked the words up on the Internet. Prior to that I thought that the refrain went:

I'm just sitting in my coffin,
waiting for my girl

Which is fantastically much more morbid, the love of the corpse waiting for his girl, unrequited until she joins him in death.

But I'm not certain how to even begin making this into an analogy of our relationship with God, let alone one that is palatable to either Sufi mystics or to Orthodox Christians. Maybe this analogy is best for describing the world as it is presently, fundamentally disordered. If we had no hope of meeting God face to face, the most we can hope for in romantic love will always end in death. Without the experience of the triune Godhead, all we can hope for is that our eventual heartbreak be brief in duration, that either we die first or that our beloved not spend much time in tears while we wait in our coffins for their deaths. But instead, we Christians see death not as eventual heartbreak but as a taste of the true communion that we hope to find on the last day when we are finally truly united as one.


Appu said...

Good commentary. It may be of interest that the Gazal form of poetry and music migrated through in the 15th/16th century to India.

It along with a similar Hindu strain of faith based music were the mainstay of popular north indian music for many centuries. What is surprising is that for the last forty years or so the songs in Bollywood movies have been dominated by Gazals and are some of the most popular songs on radio!

The sentiments are as you describe them - hopelessness almost to the point of apathy! Is this an insight into the Iranina / Indian mindset? Should Ahmadinajad's rantings be viewed through a Gazal prism?


nekrosys said...

I liked this even better now that I've read it a second time. It definitely provides a lot of food for thought.

Lee Malatesta said...


I'd be hesitant to view much of what Ahmadinajad says through a Ghazzalian lens. While it is true that Ghazzali greatly influenced virtually all Islamic philosophy that came after him, his influence is probably felt far less in Iran than virtually any other Muslim area because of the unique relationship that Iranian Shi'a Islam had with the Iranian state and Sufism.

A far more important lens to view Ahmadinajad's rhetoric through is the understanding of the science of dialectic that tends to dominate political culture in much of the middle east. In this tradition of dialectic, one does not reason from general rules or observations to find the conclusion. Rather one begins with a conclusion that one knows to be true and then brings one's opponents in the dialectic to understand that truth by any means necessary. So Ahmadinajad's public rhetoric should always be viewed through the lens of promoting whatever it is that Ahmadinajad wants to accomplish and not necessarily taken at face value.

Another important lens with regards to Ahmadinajad is that he serves at the pleasure of the council of guardians. Consequently much of what he says to the outside world is really targeted at the council rather than those outside Iran.

Only once we control for those two factors, can we start to see if Ghazzali's shadow remains over Tehran.

Nathan said...

So Ahmadinajad's public rhetoric should always be viewed through the lens of promoting whatever it is that Ahmadinajad wants to accomplish and not necessarily taken at face value.

I think you just summed up what the Orientalist school tried unsuccessfully to express about this matter for its entire 300-year tenure.

One interesting related point is that the manner of communicating that you set in opposition to the dialectic is very much out of favor in the postmodern West. I wouldn't say that we're all the way back to speech being purely instrumental yet, but since that is the epistemological endpoint to which modernist philosophy points through existential phenomenology, so long as the West continues to be led by élites subscribing to modernism, the trend in this direction is irreversible.

(As I make it, once you dispense with an espistemology in which speech can correspond to objective truths, you toss out non-instrumental speech as well.)

What a nice blog; bookmarked.

Lee Malatesta said...


Please understand that I'm not suggesting that dialectic is the only form of communication coming out of Iran. I probably should have been clearer on that point. Let us return to al-Gazzahli. In his treatise Deliverance from Error he describes how the Qu'ran was transmitted so that believers could know the truth but that then:

Satan too sent, in the suggestions of heretics, things contrary to orthodoxy; men tended to accept his suggestions and almost corrupted the true creed for its adherents. So God brought into being the class of theologians, and moved them to support traditional orthodoxy with the weapon of systematic argument by laying bare the confused doctrines invented by the heretics at variance with traditional orthodoxy.

Ghazzali goes on to explain that this process of systematic argument begins by attacking the conclusions of the arguments of the heretics. It isn't a philosophical argument (starting from premises and reaching a necessary conclusion) but is rather starting with a conclusion and backfilling the premises. Further, note that it is an art that that came into being for a specific purpose: the defense of the faith against heretics. So its scope is rather limited.

So the challenge to the modern, then, is (if we can assume that this mindset still holds with regards to the Iranian government's attitude towards the west) in determining when communications from Iran are part of a dialectic or whether they are something else. If the communication isn't part of the traditional process of dialectic, then the discussion is on an entirely different playing field.