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Translation of Sufi Poetry
May 1, 2009

The misunderstanding and the misconception by some Western readers that Sufi poetry is strongly tinged with sensuality and replete with erotic and bacchanalian symbolism is now discredited as altogether false. Now it is universally recognized that Sufi poetry sings of Divine Love in secular words. Nicholson writes that one who reads mystical poetry of Islam feels that the aspiration of the soul towards God is expressed in the same terms which might be used by an Oriental Anacreon or Herrick. Indeed, the resemblance is so close that unless supplied by interpretation of the Sufi doctrine of Divine Love, the poet is likely to be misinterpreted. Hence there is need of correct translation and interpretation of a Sufi poet’s language which is densely metaphoric and intertextual.

Current trends in language studies

Of the various functions of language one is its meaning making, knowledge producing activity. Various theories of language and discourses produce different kinds of knowledge, meaning, reality and truth-claims. Over the last four decades much academic discussion dealing with language has started out with its value-laden entwinement with ideology. Language’s ambiguous nature, culture-specific character, indeterminacy of meaning and the ways in which it shapes and controls our perceptions of the world, have been studied in the social and political context. Consequently, there has been proliferation of such diverse disciplines as psycholinguistics, socio-linguistics, and post-colonial studies. Research in language use has tended to focus on its power to shape our perceptions of the world within hierarchical structures of power which are both formulated and upheld by language. Language has been studied as social capital, an instrument for establishing cultural hegemony, a form of manipulation and conquest, a discourse of power embedded in ideology in the context of education, interpersonal and mass communication, business, propaganda, advertisements, natural sciences and translation studies.

The truth-claim of the designative tradition in the philosophy of language, based as it is on nominalism and naturalism, limits meaning to word-object relation only, and reduces reality to mere physical phenomena that can be quantitatively measured and explained. This exclusive, separatist, Cartesian focus on mirroring objective reality ends in scientific materialism and determinism, which leaves no room for the noblest reaches of spiritual life. On the other hand, if the twin emphasis on how discourse is both constituted by and constitutes the socio-cultural world and the notion that discourse is invested in and contributes to the (re)production of power relations in society, ends in cultural materialism, likewise the poststructuralist marginalizing of external reality, exaggerated one-sided emphasis on hermetically closed system of textuality, regression and deference of meaning results in nihilism.

Breaking free from linguistic reductionism

If it is to have a future, the philosophy of language has to break free from cultural narcissism, solipsism, and linguistic reductionism. It has to make a connection between the fullness of life and language. The idea of reality needs to be extended to make room for the complexity of full human experience-the Transcendental and the temporal and spatial, the Eternal and the historical, the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the secular. Regrettably research in language studies has not been carried over into the domain of mystical discourse. The absence of an adequate study of the need, nature, function, effect and context of language in leaping up to Transcendence, neglect of the study of the relationship between language and faith in mystical discourse in various theories of meaning and reality is symptomatic of a deep problem in our current views of our cognition of reality. The difficulty is not a matter of mere oversight. The problem is far more distressing, for it concerns our entire orientation towards these issues, which is based on a set of presuppositions that deny God, spirituality, mysticism, and sacredness a central role in the constitution of reality. The paradigms of positivism and empiricism are still regarded as organizing forms which exclude transcendence and subjective mystical experience as integral parts of the fullness of life.

Despite the fact that since the 1970s the study of mysticism has completely transformed, it has yet to draw the attention of linguists, literary critics and philosophers of language. Far from being regarded as sentimentalism and deviation from religion or abnormal behavior it has come to be recognized as an account of sublime spiritual experience. The labors of religions psychologists, like the work of William James (1982) disentangled it from psycho-physical accidents and no responsible student now identifies mysticism with confusion of thought. The philosophical and theological landscape with its increasing emphasis on Transcendence, respect for the idea of the sacred, growing recognition of the distinctness, independence and need of the spiritual order and a revival of the creaturely sense, strongly contrast with the temper of the nineteenth-century thought. The metaphysical claims of mystics are now recognized as truth-claims. The warm welcome given to Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1926) has been followed by renewed interest in the sacred. Yet in spite of the adjustments required by such a shift in philosophical outlook, language theorists have yet to enrich their insights by gleaning from the field of mysticism. Wittgenstein’s catalogue of “language games” includes prayer but it does not move beyond formal prayer to private prayer, munajat, “a prayer of intimate conversation between God and man during which words of love and affection are exchanged and consolation is found for the afflicted heart.” The linguist’s inquiry does not address issues of the meaningfulness, force and effect of language constructs in the mystical discourse and context. This constitutes a very large gap in scholarship on language.

The profundity of thought, sublimity of emotion and esthetic beauty of the works of Muslim mystics has gained international attention and respect by virtue of their translation into different languages and the commentaries on them-Massignon’s French volume on Mansur al-Hallaj (1922), Chittick (2000), Nicholson (1964, 1970, 1989), Arberry (1956, 1979) and Schimmel’s works (1975, 2003) in English on Muslim mystics in general and in particular on Al-Hujwiri and Maulana Rumi, Margaret Smith on Muhasibi (1935), and Rabia (1994), Schimmel’s German volume on the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) (1981). Maulana Rumi has emerged as the most widely read poet in the United States because of the accessibility of translations of his work into English.


Why Sufi poetry? The devastation caused by the two world wars, for the first time shook the Western world into realizing a two-fold need .The first was of “a deeper understanding and appreciation of other peoples and their civilizations, especially their moral and spiritual achievements.” The second need arose from the strong call for “a new vision of the Universe, a clearer insight into the fundamentals of ethics and religion.” What should be the criteria for living a decent life? Can the nations be brought together? Is there a God of love or simply a blind, mechanical, impersonal force behind the chance collocation of atoms? What is the nature of the relationship between man and God? Can man reach out to Him or does He remain inaccessible? This quest led men and women to dig out what the mystics, the greatest minds of East and West, who by common consent are accepted as the people of God, have thought and said about the truth of God.

This was, according to Arberry, one of the main objectives behind a series of translations of Sufi (Islamic mystical) literature and commentaries on them, showing the background against which this kind of literature arose and developed. The translator of Sufi literature emerged in the role of the guide who shows the way to treasures. Arberry (1956) wrote, “Mankind is hungry, but the feast is there, though it is locked up and hidden away.” The aim of translations was to put that feast within reach, so that, like “the Heroes of Homer, we may stretch out our hands to the good cheer laid before us.”

Unfortunately this aim has not yet been realized. Since 9/11 nations have drifted even further away from each other. Misunderstanding, misrepresenting and misrepresented, seething with the consuming passion of mistrust and hatred, the world today is once again standing on the brink of disaster. We behave in this wasteland like hollow men who eschew eye contact with each other, who can connect nothing with nothing, and talk only about the clash of civilizations. We need to open our eyes to the beauty of the emotion of love shared by all the religions and traditions of mysticism. No doubt, the great religions differ in fundamentals, but the essence is the same, and that is compassion and it is that which brings the great religions together on a strong spiritual footing.

The transformative spirit and power of Sufi poetry was later voiced once more by a Western scholar, Karen Armstrong, who viewed her access to the Holy Qur’an and Sufi literature through translations as a “very liberating experience.” She discovered expansion, pluralism and compassion in Islam. Since then it has been her jihad, as she puts it, to enlighten her people in the West about the true spirit of Islam and dispel misunderstandings, prejudices, and negative stereotyping of Muslims.

Another motive which should precipitate translation of Sufi poetry is the need to fill the gap in scholarship on language. Language has a complex character. It can perform diverse and contradictory functions. Like the two-faced Roman God Janus, language has an ambivalent character; it can equally disclose and hide, construct and destroy, inspire and demoralize, liberate and imprison, clarify and distort, heal and hurt. Sufi literature brings forth the paradox of the inadequacy of words to express and convey the mystical experience and insight, and on the other hand the meaning, power and need of words. Sufis always say that their experience is ineffable, yet they couch their feelings and experiences in words and express them with great conviction, force and eloquence .If the spiritual experience and the vision are unutterable and beyond expression and words are inherently incapable of expressing something which is beyond the comprehension of intellect (because words are the tools of intellect to conceptualize) then these questions are immediately raised:

  1. What is the nature of language in Sufi poetry?
  2. What does a Sufi describe?
  3. How do the words function?
  4. What is the purpose of this functioning?

First, Sufi poetry is highly metaphorical in nature. The illogical logic in Sufi poetry addresses the “ontological” status of metaphor in relation to how things actually are: the unreality of the phenomenal world and the way it should be “seen as something else.”

Second, Sufi literature reveals and describes the most profound spiritual truths disclosing the esoteric aspect of Islam, as the very titles of many Sufi treatises demonstrate. Kashf-Al-Mahjub, the oldest Persian treatise of tasawwuf (Sufism), written by Ali Bin Uthman Al-Hujwiri, means the “Unveiling of the Veiled,” and in his own words it is “an explanation of mystical sayings, and an uplifting of the veil of mortality.” Long before Derrida used the word “translator” for a writer, Sufi writers saw themselves in the role of translators, who transfer, reconstitute and interpret divine truths from the transcendental domain to the context of this physical world.

This makes us move on to the function that language performs in Sufi literature. Sufi poetry displays the close relation between language, belief, understanding and truth. Sufi poetry by its very nature engages us in a dialogue with the Transcendental. Not only does it initiate the move to relate, it then becomes the means of consolidating and strengthening the bond, and expanding understanding of the nature of relationship.

Here language becomes a way of showing the way to harmony and peace that passes understanding. Words do not strain, slip and crack here. They are meaningful, not illusory nor simulacra. They create meaning: meaning is not endless regression here. Language in Sufi poetry is not “a prison house” outside which no reality lives. Functioning as a therapy, Sufi poetry sprouts hope and shows possibilities of breaking through impasse, becoming a source of strength and inspiration. It reanimates and “brings dead hearts to life.”

Sufi poetry has constitutive value; it constitutes who we are, how we should think and live. It sets the parameters of our life by pressing upon us the ideal of love and compassion. Making us see beyond the mere referential value of word-object relationship, it offers a dynamic and creative view of language.

Thus, Sufi poetry develops an optimistic relationship between humankind and language. Just as mystical experience is liberating, likewise language is seen as a liberating force, expanding and promoting human well being, rather than being constrictive as Derrida, the philosopher of language, claims it to be.

Integrating the sacred with the secular

Research in the translation of Sufi literature becomes a way of reintegrating “the sacred with the secular” in today’s disenchanted world. The way language in Sufi literature creates and extends meaning and reality is nowadays ignored because of the Post-structuralist emphasis on culture, ideology and indeterminacy of meaning in language. But the significance of language as a “meaning-making” activity, a way of knowing and understanding Transcendence, a means of creating a bridge across diverse religions and cultures validates such comparative studies. Truth may be at stake. A researcher and a scholar like the translators, critics, historians, journalists and professors of literature can break or make a writer on his/her own terms. Research acquires the power of Plato’s pharmakon, both “poison” and “remedy.” The power invested in the researcher to change texts and so change the world should be increasingly recognized.

The researcher may intervene in the interpretation of text for different reasons and use research to serve various functions. If an interpretation is yoked to a political or national agenda it may manipulate language to construct meaning not intended by the original text. In this way research ceases to be a means of knowing the truth. It becomes manipulation, subsuming the original meaning into its own hegemonizing voice. In generating erroneous perceptions of a work and the doctrine it is embedded in biased or erroneous interpretation assists in promoting negative stereotypes. Inauthentic and distorted versions of Sufi literature were instrumental in re-presenting Islamic mysticism as a form of Bacchanalian ecstasy. Research can thus do more harm than good by repressing, distorting or containing the original meaning.

In its positive aspect, by being faithful to the original meaning of the text, research can promote good will through intercultural dialogue, expand understanding about other religions and literatures, and promote peaceful coexistence. The aim should be to deepen understanding and expand awareness about the complexity of the web of language use in making Sufi poetry.

Aalia Sohail Khan is an associate professor of English in the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.


  • Arberry A.J. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Trans. Tadhkirat-al-Auliya by Farid al-Din Attar. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
  • Medina, Jose. Language: Key Concept in Philosophy. London: MPG Books Limited. 2000.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Underhill, Evelyn, Mysticism: A study in the nature and development of Man’s spiritual consciousness. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.