From the Greek myein, “to close the eyes,” which is the root of the words myth and mystery, the term mysticism is applied to cryptic, obscure, or irrational thought — leaning toward mystery and wonder, rather than logic. In the domain of religion many faiths, including Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity, have their own forms of mysticism, placing an emphasis on spiritual connection and union (Vocabulary.com)
Islamic mysticism is generally associated with Sufis and esoteric traditions that distinguish the zahir, or literal, from the batin, the hidden meaning, of the Qur’an. Annemarie Schimmel states that “mysticism contains something mysterious, not to be reached by ordinary means or by intellectual effort” (Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam p 3) “Mysticism can be defined as love of the Absolute…this love can carry the mystic’s heart to the Divine Presence like the falcon which carries away the prey, separating him, thus, from all that is created in time” (Mystical Dimensions p 4). Alessandro Cancian states “a mystical or esoteric strand of Islam, Sufism’s defining feature is the centrality of the individual’s direct relationship with God.
Esoteric traditions focus on the batin, and often assign symbolic meanings to physical objects to explain doctrines such as Paradise metaphored by a garden. Islamic gardens are also a reflection of Paradise said to await the faithful. The reward for good deeds, according to the Qur’an, is a place of shaded trees, flowing water, gardens with sweet fruits (bustan) and fragrant flowers (gulistan). The word paradise, from ancient Persian paradesion – pairi meaning ‘around’ and daeza meaning ‘to make’ or ‘form’ (a wall) – entered into Greek as paradeisos and into Latin as paradisus (See chahar-bagh). These images have fed centuries of Muslim art, narrative, and design, as well as spiritual inspiration.
Among the flowers, the rose, a legendary and most loved flower, has been honoured since ancient times for its beauty, fragrance, and medicinal benefits. In Islamic traditions, the rose symbolised the Divine – as it blooms, the bud gradually opens to reveal beautiful layers, which are metaphors of unfolding spiritual wisdom. Annemarie Schimmel states “According to a tradition, when the Prophet saw a rose, he kissed it and pressed it to his eyes and said, “the red rose is part of God’s glory” (Mystical Dimensions of Islam p299). Schimmel adds that the “Prophet’s love of roses may have induced the poets to call him the ‘nightingale of the Eternal Garden’ for he discloses to the faithful some of the mysteries of God, the Everlasting Rose” (Ibid: p22).
In many traditions, rose water is used during ritual and sacred ceremonies for its calming effect and for its fragrance that evokes the presence of the Divine.
The rose, a metaphor for beauty and perfection, is featured most prominently in Persian literature. Sadi, a thirteenth century classical poet, titled one of his principal works as Gulistan (Rose Garden), which is recognised as concealing a range of the deepest Sufi knowledge (Idris Shah, The Sufis, 1968). The text became a canon of Persian and Sufi literature as has Mahmud Shabistari’s Gulsan-i-Raz (Rose Garden of Secrets), which was introduced into Europe in 1700s by travellers. In 1821 Dr. Tholuck, of Berlin, published extracts, and in 1825 a German translation of part of the poem appeared in another of his books. Subsequently a Persian text was published by Von Hammer Purgstall in Berlin and Vienna. The Gulshan i Edz was translated into English and published, with the Persian text and extracts from Hammer’s edition and Lajihi’s notes, by Mr. Whinfield in 1880 (The Secret Rose Garden of Sa’d ud din Mahmud Shabistari).
Persian mystical poetry influenced poets such as Goethe and Rilke as well as Western writers such as Whitman, Thoreau, and Donne who produced West-Ostlicher Divan (Oriental Divan). Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Nightingale and the Rose was also inspired by Persian literature.
The imagery of birds and flight have long been a universal symbol of the ascension of the human soul to a higher reality. “From the winged deities of the ancient Near East to the angels of the Bible and the winged souls of Plato’s Phaedrus, poets and prophets have depicted the power of the wing to lift the soul through flight to paradise” (Ernst). The ancient Arabians thought of the soul as a bird leaving the body from the head as death occurred.
In the Islamic tradition, early symbolism of birds and flight “can be found in the writings of philosophers, Sufis, and poets such as Ibn Sina[d.1037], Suhrawardi [d.1191], Khaqani [d. 1199], Ruzbihan Baqli, (d.1209), and above all the great epic of Farid al-Din Attar [d.ca 1220].” The birds are a “symbol of earthly life, the physicality of which must be transcended” (Ernst p 359). The human soul, like a bird can choose to remain caged in this perishable world or fly towards Liberation.
The nightingale (bulbul in Persian), featured widely in Persian literature, sings more vividly in the days when roses bloom and it is accepted that there is an imaginary earthly and spiritual love relationship between it and the rose (the nightingale represents the passionate lover and the rose is the beloved). The biggest obstacle preventing the nightingale from approaching the rose is the rose’s thorns. During the spiritual journey towards oneness, obstacles and difficulties represented by the thorns of the rose have to be overcome.
More than any other mystical poet, Farid al-Din Attar is referred to as the voice of longing and of searching. “His works treat the perpetual movement of the soul toward its origin and goal in different allegories” (Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam p 305). His most famous epic poem, “The Birds’ Conversation,” (Mantiq ut-tayr) comprising 4,500 lines, is the most perfect introduction to the mystical path, with its seven valleys, in which are described all the difficulties the soul will encounter on the journey. The imagery of the birds was elaborated increasingly after Attar’s Mantiq ut-tayr became one of the favourite story books of Persian literature, which also influenced literature and art of esoteric traditions in the Indian subcontinent.
Sufism spread to the subcontinent beginning in the eighth century, and increasingly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. “Lahore [in modern-day Pakistan] became the first centre of Persian-inspired Muslim culture in the subcontinent” (Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam p 345).
Persian literary traditions, dominated by poetry, have exercised an enormous influence ”in the cultural life of Islamic societies in West, Central, and South Asia since about the eleventh century. Not only was Persian literature enthusiastically cultivated outside the boundaries of the Iranian plateau especially in Anatolia and India by both Iranians and non-Iranians, well into the modern period, but its literary achievements remained the chief models in the formation of other literary traditions in the eastern part of the Islamic world” (Karamustafa, The Muslim Almanac p 345).
Schimmel states “Persian poetry written at the Mughal court and throughout Muslim India, including Bengal, was dominated by the imagery developed in Iran – most of the leading poets between 1570 and 1650, in fact, were from Iran. The constant oscillating between worldly and divine love, the symbolism of roses and nightingales continued; now the vocabulary was enriched by allegorical stories from Indian sources…” (Mystical Dimensions of Islam p 360).
Similar poetry was composed by the Persian missionaries, known as pirs, who were sent to the Indian subcontinent by the Ismaili Imams; they composed poetry known as ginans in various Indic languages to teach the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. The themes of ginans range from laments of the soul as it proceeds on a spiritual quest, to ethical precepts concerning proper business practice. One ginan may contain more than one theme that are blended together, however, the corpus comprises some major motifs. (More on ginans).
In several ginans, pirs express longing for and union with the Beloved (didar/darshan), for example:
Ab teri mohobat lagi mere sahib, by Pir Shams “O my Lord! Now I am in love with you, my heart is full with your love, let your eyes meet mine” (Listen to ginan at Ginan Central, University of Saskatchewan).
Darshan diyo mora naath daasi chhun teri by Sayyida Imam Begum “O Lord, bless me with your didar, I am your slave (Listen to ginan).
Unchaare kot bahu vechanaa by Pir Hasan Kabirdin
Your place lies in a highly elevated fort below which flows a river and I am like a fish in that river. O my beloved! Come to save me. I am restless without didar (Listen to ginan).
The general tenor of the poetry of the supplication (venti) ginans remained by and large the same; “endless longing for a beloved [Beatific Vision] who can never be reached unless the lover undertakes very difficult tasks and gladly offers his life on the thorny path towards the eternal goal” (Ibid. p 360). The inner rose reveals itself in the heart when the individual soul completely and joyously opens itself to the Transcendent Reality, and dwelling there, God makes of the heart a living garden (Ibid. p 307).
“Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more — more unseen forms become manifest to him…”
Ahmet T. Karamustafa, “Muslim Literature in Persian and Arabic,” The Muslim Almanac Ed. Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc.,1996
Alisar Iram, The Rose and the Nightingale
Carl N. Ernst, “The Symbolism of Birds and Flight in the Writings of Ruzbihan Baqli” published in Religious Symbolism: A Plea for a Comparative Approach, Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (1977)
Ivan M. Granger, Rose, Poetry Chaikhana
Layla S. Diba, Gol-O-Bolbol, Encyclopaedia Iranica
Samaneh Khaleghi, Walt Whitman and Sufism: A Persian Lession
Slaveya Nedelcheva, The Metaphor of the Rose and the Nightingale (“Gül-ü Bülbül”) in Sufi and Ottoman literature
Suresh Emre, Rose Symbolism
Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.