Persian Poetry and the Western Gaze

Image: “Youth and Dervish”, ascribed to Riza-yi ‘Abbasi, an illustration of a disciple and his guide surrounded by an ornate frame.

Ruby lips, perfumed hair, seeds of love, fires of ecstasy – it is not difficult to draw conclusions about what kind of poetry such images may figure in. Love poetry – oral and textual – exists in every corner of the globe. Since the birth of language itself, we might say. Love takes many forms and is often ineffable, but it is recognised by all. It is perhaps in the rose-garden of mystical Persian poetry that we find some of the most radical declarations of love, radical not for their intense sensual imagery, but for the Lover’s universal and uncompromising dedication to the Beloved. Much of this poetry, since the late 19th century, has become available to read in English and other European languages, bringing Persian verse into the limelight, something I could not dare to complain about. There is not a single human being on this planet who could not learn something from the wisdom of Sa’di, Hafez, ‘Attar, or Maulana Rumi (now America’s favourite poet).

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend in the West that involves reinterpreting the radical love of past Sufi masters in order to fit ‘Western’ – I use the term grudgingly – taxonomies of love and sexuality. In looking at such reinterpretations, one gets the sense that the religious aspirations of past Persian mystics could not possibly be ‘correct’, and it is the job of Western readers to reinterpret Persian love (symbolised in the word ‘Eshq’) in order to fit distinctly modern and Eurocentric conceptions of what love must look like. This is generally conducted with good intentions, but often amounts to active subordination of Persian and Islamic modes of thought and self-expression, in favour of (in fact quite recent) Western ideas about what love must look like. It seems many Western readers feel that they have the authority to redefine the bounds of Eshq, unravel the 1400-year-old symbolism so tightly wound up in Islam, and, at times, completely erase the presence of religion in such a way as to leave the poems without meaning entirely. Religious devotion has lost favour in the West, and secular values are no doubt more prevalent, but this does not warrant what I term here ‘semantic revisionism,’ or the attempt to reinterpret the meaning of an older text so as to fit modern values, for the sake of palatability. Before expanding on this, let’s get a grip on the basics.

It seems many Western readers feel that they have the authority to redefine the bounds of Eshq, unravel the 1400-year-old symbolism so tightly wound up in Islam, and, at times, completely erase the presence of religion in such a way as to leave the poems without meaning entirely.

Medieval Persian love poetry grows out of a devotional and mystic context, most often associated with Sufi Islam. The love, ‘eshq, affirmed and described in this poetry is one that faces God; the act of writing devotional poetry is but one other form of religious devotion and worship. It is an act of ‘iḥsan, bringing beauty, or ḥusn, into the world at God’s request. Sufi mystics were devoted to the worship of God, directing the mind inwards, away from society, politics and the material concerns of the dunya, i.e., the temporal, earthly world and its contingencies. Love for others, in this context, takes on a special meaning, namely as a way of worshipping God, as one of the goals of the Sufi path is to see God in all creation, including the stars, environment, animals, and fellow humans. The Lover, or ‘aasheq, loves radically and without distinction between other humans, and even the environment. Ahmed al-Ghazali famously refuses to write a tract on love in which he is expected to distinguish between love for God and love for His creations. And going further, the Beloved, or ma’shuq, another term rarely left out of such poetry, does not refer to the individual lover of the narrator, but rather God Himself, manifested through creation. The reverence for ruby lips and yearning for the fires of love are but expressions of admiration of God’s creation, reflecting the unquenchable thirst of the ‘aasheq to taste God. “Whoever falls in love passionately / a radical love that spills over / finds God,” we are told by Kharaqani. And this is the essence of ‘eshq; to love so radically that the individual and the local become holistic and universal.

Where, then, is Western analysis going wrong? Multiple Western scholars have now attempted to reinterpret Islamic descriptions of love so as to take on a reductive sexual and secular character – Delaney Scott, writing for a journal published by the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life, suggests that the crude sexual imagery in much of his poetry, which figures heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bestiality, is in indication that Rumi was not the ascetic we might expect him to be. (James, Delaney. ‘Rumi: The Homoerotic Sufi Saint.’ CrossCurrents 69.4 (2019).) Delaney further comments on the now-hackneyed suggestion that Rumi’s months alone in retreat with his Master, Shams al-Tabriz, likely “took on a sexual character,” given Rumi’s potential openness to homoeroticism. James’s suggests that Rumi, as a cultural product of the “Hellenised Eastern Mediterranean” – a serious stretch – and his willingness to describe graphic male sex in works such as the Masnavi, demonstrate a personal interest in homosexual relationships. Others have made similar comments about Rabi’a of Basra, a Muslim Saint and mystic who famously lived independently as an ascetic God-lover despite societal pressure for her to live ‘normally.’ Much like Spanish mystic Teresa d’Ávila, she writes about being ‘filled’ by the love of God and the ecstasy of being One with Him. It is easy to reduce these images down to the sexual – yet, if anything, we should be doing the opposite. 

Western semantic revisionism, downplaying God and emphasising sex, is but a superficial attempt to regulate ‘Eastern’ modes of thought and writing.

One may find the explicit sexual language of the mystics inspiring and beautiful, but Western semantic revisionism, downplaying God and emphasising sex, is but a superficial attempt to regulate ‘Eastern’ modes of thought and writing. It “confiscates the energising presence of the substantively different Other,” in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad. To clarify – universal love for all humanity and material creation may inspire us in a sexual manner, but to follow that inspiration, rather than true universal love, is a base error.

Let me preface the following by clarifying that it is unlikely Rumi had any particularly homophobic attitudes himself – given the universalism of his love, and openness to human diversity – and I myself believe that an increasing openness to non-traditional forms of love is a great hope for the future. But I am not convinced by the idea that love between men inevitably takes a sexual form. In an increasingly open and sexualised society, where affection, intimacy and sexuality are so often squeezed into one box, it seems hard for readers to imagine a form of homosociality in which men spend time alone together, speak fondly of each other’s traits, and love each other as brothers in the way that men of the past so often have. When male homoeroticism becomes ever more destigmatised and public, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine spiritual male intimacy of the sort experienced by Shams and Rumi. Yet it is now, in an atomised, post-pandemic world, that radical love, intimacy, and human connection is most needed, for “love of a human being / is an ascension toward love of God.”

What is key to ‘eshq in all such poetry is that it covers so much more than sexuality, indicating a refusal to distinguish between desirable and undesirable, male and female, or fondness and aversion. Thus, to reduce ‘eshq down to homo- or heterosexuality is to mistranslate and willingly misinterpret devotional poetry for the sake of one ‘discourse’ over another. Another important feature of ‘eshq is that it is to be cultivated irrespective of pleasure and pain, no matter how it makes us feel; human neediness and base desire act here as a corruption of universal love’s primordial value. The aspiration to unconditional devotion despite the pain that it may incur is best taught by Rabi’a of Basra, who famously said “If I worship you / for fear of hell / burn me in that help, If I worship you / hoping for paradise / make it forbidden for me.” This is not to say that we should ignore and downplay homoeroticism in Sufi letters – its didactic role in Persian poetry is undeniable, and to see an increasing number of queer theorists attracted to Sufi mysticism is highly encouraging. But nonetheless, many theorists view this poetic tradition through an ethnocentric and ahistorical lens, attempting to redefine the parameters of ‘Eastern’ male love to better fit modern categories and values, for the purpose of palatability at the expense of accuracy and semantic integrity.

We all have the license to read and interpret poetry as we desire, and if the language of metaphysical love informs you of your own sexuality in a way that offers emotional relevance, this is nothing to criticise. But scholarly attempts to make poetry ‘palatable’ to Western audiences by emphasising sexuality at the expense of the divine ought to be more openly criticised, especially when we live in a society that claims openness to the Other. Until Western cultural studies are willing to integrate anything that does not resemble itself, poetry and scholarship will never experience real difference, and instead the Other will remain the Other, always welcome in theory, but not quite in practice.

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