New Age Islam
Sun Feb 25 2024, 09:43 AM

Spiritual Meditations ( 29 Sept 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

The Commandment of Writing

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

24 Aug 2017

Why do genuine poets or writers write? Because they are commanded to write and all they know is to obey.

“Well, write poetry, for God's sake, it's the only thing that matters.” E. E. Cummings

“Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile... a stain upon the silence.” Samuel Beckett

Indeed, to be is to write, to proclaim to the Muse Labbayka (Here, I am). It is, more primordially, to speak and to speak in the original or true sense is to sing poetry. We know Ten Commandments starting with love of God and love of neighbour. But few know that both of these commandments may be best embodied in the work of poets. (“Poetry is not a discipline of knowledge but perfume or distilled essence of all disciplines of knowledge.”) Why do genuine poets or writers write? Because they are commanded to write and all they know is to obey. No questions. No turning back on the Muse. As Samuel Beckett said: ““There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

      Every pillar of Islam, to the exclusion of Zakat, involves poetry in some sense. Islam, the Religion of Beauty, has invested in creating beauty of expression which is in fact one way of defining poetry – for Coleridge prose consists in “words in their best order” and poetry consists in “the best words in the best order.” To be a poet is to be in passionate love with language as Auden noted and love fashions beauty.

      Since the poet doesn’t invent but listens as Jean Cocteau noted and “We never come o thoughts. They come to us” as Heidegger pointed out, the poet’s job is to seek to just be and this attunes one to higher cosmic rhythms. This requires perfecting the discipline of attention after rising high above the chatter or noise of ego/mind/ordinary consciousness by cultivating silence. Salim Ahmed, arguably the most important Urdu critic after Hasan Askari (those who reserve the title for Shamsur Rahman Faruqi need to read New Poetry, Rejected Poetry, especially the chapter “Fikr ka Tawoon”), has invoked analogy with ablution and intention (Niyyat) in ritual prayer for explaining the need of craft or intense work for receiving the Muse/Grace. In fact art requires ablution with Khooni Jigar (“Naqsh Haein Seb Na Tamam Khooni Jigger Kae Bagaer”). Abu Zayd Ansari’s definition of  Adab (literature) includes “training in virtue” and another definition also calls for  intense working on/disciplining of the soul and the best of virtues. In fact the very word Adab  connotes respect, decorum, decency  and care for the Other/Being. For Confucius even government consists in ritual and music. These points, along with Patrick Laude’s Singing the Way: insights in Poetry and Spiritual Transformation or M. A. Lakhani’s review essay “The Metaphysics of Poetic Expression” help explain how poetry is considered part of the prophecy in Islamic cultures. Invitation to read poetry is part of dawah work of different religions. But this has been largely forgotten. And that is why we need to remind. Let us illustrate by accepting the invitation to spend few moments with our poet of the week, Ayaz Nazki who has published Songs of Light, a slim collection of poems and translations of Shams Faqeer.

      The poet comes to experience the truth of the traditional adage that in losing oneself, one really finds it or in surrendering to God, one discovers Freedom. Since a genuine poet is required to escape from personality – or, so to speak, be a Muslim – for the sake of art, the company of genuine poetry is ever ennobling, refreshing. (Let us note, with W.C. Smith, that Islam is a verb and not a noun, an act and not an institution and as such has a universal, existential import or claim. Catholic Encyclopaedia also defines religion as a voluntary act of surrender to God and thus to be religious is to be Muslim!). Invoking the Sufi view that Baqa is the other side of Fana, Ayaz says “I am when/ I am not.” The music that is born after one surrenders by becoming a string or flute as the non-self plays it is the fruit of devotion to the true religion and poets are its great priests. To quote Ayaz:

The early morning rays of the sun

play a dance on the bank

and set an opera

on the stage of sand

the trees dotting the edge

watch in silence

and record the moves

on their leaves for posterity.

As we glide our way through the abyss of Being through the discipline of attention, a song is born:

I will sing light

in this dark night

words of ray

will pierce the air

and sentences

will light up the sky.

And this song overcomes the fear of death and despair and seeming density of things.

Let us sing

to the sprout of buds

to the golden wheat

to the lustre of corn

to the milk

to the honey

and to the nectar.

To the bees

and to the birds.

Till midnight

the stroke of twelve

Ayaz has memorably described the difference between tradition and modern spaces and pities those forced to choose “uptown” view of the world.

Uptown Kashmir Glass windows for the blind

high Ceilings for the dwarf

wide roads for dosed minds

huge mansions for small men

Downtown Kashmir They had latticed windows they had vision they had low ceilings they had heart.

they had narrow lanes

they had open minds

 Floods like September 2014 floods may come once in a century but there is another kind of flood (memory of old pain, loss, betrayal, frustration, failure) that may visit anytime anyone anywhere. Poetry is a defense against that flood and, paradoxically, this defense consists in accepting or even embracing our vulnerability. For poets we are not required to solve but dissolve the problem of life and its ten thousand questions or sorrows by consenting to the silence that greets us as we dive deeper. As Ayaz puts it:

Yet again

the Same question

and yet again

the same reply

no reply

As Ayaz progresses through the valleys of nostalgia, protest, doubt and silence and lands in the pure land of Shunya, by invoking Shams Faqeer, we find some intimations of the Tradition in the idiom better understood by postmodern age. Just a sample of his translation:

In the supplication I saw,

existence and vision disappear

this secret alone remained

and it is not wrapped in drapes.

It is especially important to read local poets as God chooses to speak to us through them as He does through saints after prophets are unavailable. In facts poets don’t invite us to themselves or their company but to the company of poetry that is, if truly recorded, from Gabriel. The  task of a critic is to identify how much of the poet is present in the poetry and thus needs to be filtered to enjoy what is purely baked in Heaven. So poets are delightful companions, at least, for some time. They want to be read, to be acknowledged in essentially the same way that God wants to communicate and be acknowledged. The very first verse of the Quran’s “The Opening” states: “Praise be to Allah, the Lord the worlds.”

      Poetry is, deep down, human attempt to defeat death – drab, cold, dusty, lifeless, passionless, mechanical mode of existence. Without some sort of faith in immortality – or the lordship of the Spirit – great poetry is impossible as a great modern poet noted. “Man’s knowledge that he has to die is also man’s knowledge that he is above death” Paul Tillich noted perhaps extrapolating from the fact that it is someone within us that somehow stands apart, that observes or witnesses as a spectator and reports that something will die and this witnessing self itself remains “unborn,” immortal. Poets sing the songs of light. For them darkness may be there but it can’t silence or frighten them. After death, as Ayaz says,

what is left only God knows

what is left is unknown.

And this unknown remains on this side of the grave, in Life as well, in the depths of every existent. And poetry is grateful loving reception of this unknown face of phenomena ( that we ordinarily call Beyond/Transcendent World). When we are love, the whole world sings to us and as Plato noted “Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” Ayaz speaks of this love that doesn’t age. Indeed, the beloved doesn’t age and, more paradoxically, the beloved is not ever available for union as is well known in Urdu literary tradition that Ayaz has also inherited and as readers of Ibn Arabi know, we love only unknown, inexistent things. Let us wait for next collection of our poet; we have some good poetry in English from such poets as Majrooh Rashid, Rumuz-i-Bekhudi and others yet to be published in book form and pray for his Masterpiece that he is commanded to write:

Today I must

write a masterpiece

an offering to

divine Saraswati


But a masterpiece I must write

even with no sense

and even with no pen


Tons of verses are written, consumed or thrown into dustbins every day. 'Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo’ as Don Marquis wrote. This echo may get further weakened in the Age of Noise in marketplace. Since Kashmiris usually don’t read Kashmiri, may be they read in English their own address they have largely lost.