Sa‘di and Sufism

Homa Katouzian

Despite his universally acclaimed eloquence and clarity of expression, Sa‘di’s opinions, attitudes and ideas have been described in different, frequently conflicting, terms. He has been described as a sceptic, a pragmatist, a humanitarian, a moralist, an unethical writer, a religious preacher, and an Islamic mystic. Often, a combination of such attributes and appellations has been put forward by the same author and critic. The principal reason for this conflict of opinion is that it is virtually impossible to fit his ideas into a system, a paradigm, a conceptual framework or school of thought, or easily locate him in a given category of classical Persian poets. Here I shall discuss just one major example of such conflict of opinion and try to resolve the questions regarding Sa‘di’s attitude towards Sufism.

Sa‘di’s views on sufism and sufis does appear to be fairly complex, although the apparent complexity would disappear if all aspects of the subject are thoroughly studied in his text. Reuben Levy wrote that Sa‘di was ‘cast in a very different mould from Jala al-Din Rumi’s. His philosophy was much more practical and commonplace, and he was a stranger to metaphysics. He excelled in what are ordinarily called the Christian virtues: humility, charity, gentleness, and the like…But he was no ascetic and he made no attempts to deny to others the earthly delights which doubtless he himself enjoyed.’ Elsewhere, Levy contends that while Rumi was ‘reflecting on the mysteries of life and the oneness of the universe, the poet Sa‘di was active distilling in verse the mundane experiences accumulated during many years of travel’.

Yan Rypka’s views are in a similar mould, and he surprises his readers by going as far as comparing Bustan with Qabusnameh. He describes Sa‘di as being ‘less interested in abstract mystical speculation than in its application to everyday life, ethics and didactics’. Yet he maintains that Bustan is less of a didactic work than 12th century books in the genre, and that it looks more like Qabusnameh. Edward Browne does not dwell on Sa‘di’s relationship with sufism. He describes him as an ‘ethical’ poet, but says that ‘in his work is matter for every taste…’

Among the more recent critics Annmarie Schimmel quotes Herder describing Sa‘di as ‘the pleasant teacher of morals’, and Jospeh von Hammer-Purgstall to the effect that Sa‘di’s ‘genius is less alien to the West than that of others, his imagination less overbearing’. Schimmel’s own comment is that Sa‘di’s ‘simple but elegant style, his practical wisdom, his charming anecdotes, made him a poet who appealed greatly to Europeans, especially during the Age of Reason, and has rightly been considered the Persian poet whose works is easiest for the Westerners to understand’.

Of the leading Iranian critics who have commented on the subject Badi‘ al-Zaman Foruzanfar has written about Shahab al-Din (Abu Hafs Omar ibn Mohammad) Sohravardi’s possible influence on Sad‘i’s thoughts. He mentions five possible influences two of which are particularly important for our subject. First is the view that as long as a practising mystic is still capable of describing his goal, efforts and experiences, he is still on the Way, for he who reaches the Goal completely breaks and loses contact with the mundane world. We shall come back to this point later in this paper. The second influence of Sohravardi in Sa‘di which Frouzanfar has suggested is that ‘Perfection is in following the Shari‘a, i.e. that there cannot be true mystical experience outside the religious framework.

Zabihollah Safa’s opinion is in keeping with that of Foruzanfar. He even emphasizes that Sa‘di’s education under Abolfaraj ibn Jawzi must have been ‘in religious sciences not in sufism’. On the other hand Rashid Yasmai goes as far as claiming that the whole of Sa‘di’s love poetry – his ghazalliyat – have an esoteric meaning, and are of a wholly mystical nature – a view which is very difficult to sustain against much of the evidence. Ali Dashti’s view is virtually at the opposite pole. He believes that the attribution of any degree of mysticism to Sa‘di and his works is a mistake, which is in part due to Sa‘di’s association with one or two religiously-inclined sufis, and in part because of the existence of some mystical poetry among his ghazals. But he fails to mention the considerable amount of material on and about sufism and the sufis in Golestan and especially Bustan.

Finally, Ehasan Yarshater’s most recent comment synthesizes the conventional view in a consistent manner and remarks that ‘Sa‘di often draws on the lines and sayings of Islamic mystics to illustrate moral virtue. His humanitarianism however avoids the pantheisitic and ecstatic excesses of some of the extreme sufis’.

The three greatest bodies of work produced by Sa‘di are Bustan, Golestan and his books of ghazalyiyati. Chapter 3 of Bustan – ‘Of Love, Intoxication and Delirium’ – and chapter 2 of Golestan ‘On Morals and Manners of Dervishes’ almost exclusively concern Islamic mystics and mysticism, although these subjects are  occasionally treated elsewhere in the two books as well. The large majority of Sa‘di’s ghazals relate to mundane love – to love of the flesh. Only about ten per cent of the total is broadly mystical and/or didactic, yet a ghazal quite as mystical in content as those of Rumi is hard to find among them.

Chapter two of  Golestan is the more empirical counterpart to the theoretical treatment of mystical themes in the third chapter of Bustan. It contains a critical view of sufi practices which is both positive and negative, praising what may be termed as genuine or pure sufi practices but rejecting impure morals and behaviour. It contains the shortest, most succinct and most eloquent definition of Islamic – perhaps all – mysticism in the following words:
The outward aspect of dervishhood is raiment rent apart and shaven head; its reality is living heart and carnal spirit dead.

Yet Sa‘di is quite broad in his use of the term dervish, and uses it interchangeably with zahed, abed, saleh, aref and sheikh to refer to anyone who practices a certain amount of asceticism or pretends to it. The general impression is given that while he attaches great value to the heritage of the grand sufis of the past, he is somewhat sceptical about the formalised mysticism of his own time. He writes:
They asked a Sheikh from Syria about the true meaning of sufism. He said ‘in former days there was a group of men in the world, outwardly distracted but inwardly collected; now they are a crowd, outwardly collected but inwardly distracted.

There are probably more instances of false or impure mysticism in the Golestan than of the exalted morals and practises of venerable sufis. An abed was sent for by a ruler. He took a substance to make him look lean and ascetic, but was killed instantly because it was poisonous.  Another abed was said to eat excessively in the evening and then continue to pray until dawn. An enlightened critic suggested that he would do better to eat less and sleep more. A zahed being guest at the court ate less at lunch, and prayed more at prayer time, than was his habit. When he returned home he asked for food as he was hungry. His son suggested that he should repeat his prayers as well because of his hypocrisy at the court.

On the other hand, genuine sufis and dervishes are held in high esteem, and regarded as superior to the rich and mighty. In a splendid description of the claim of dervishes he writes;
A certain ruler regarded with a contemptuous eye a band of dervishes. One of these latter, sensing the fact…said ‘O king, in splendour we are less than you in the world here present, yet in our life more pleasant; at death we are your equal and better at the Resurrection Sequal.

Still, Bustan’s treatment of sufis and sufism is more positive than Golestan which was written a year later. Being generally a more theoretical and more intellectual book, Bustan’s chapter three holds some of Sa‘di’s more profound comments on mystic life and love. Elsewhere in the same book are some examples of the approach, attitude and conduct of the legendary classical sufis, all of which are highly positive in tone. Shebli is said to have returned an ant to its home after finding it in a sack of wheat which he had carried over a long distance. Byazid is quoted to have been thankful for someone pouring a bucket of ash over him as he was leaving a public bath, because he felt that he deserved (hell) fire and had only received ashes. Joneyd is said to have shared his food with a toothless dog while wondering which one of them was in fact better in the sight of God.  And alluding to such men, the abdal, he says:
In ancient days, so I’ve heard tell,
Stone would turn to silver in the hands of saints (abdal)
You will not think such words unreasonable
When you’re but content, silver and stone are one!

Yet as noted before it is in chapter 3 of Bustan ‘On Love, Intoxication and Delirium’ where sufi ideas are put forward with full force and familiar authenticity:
Happy the days of those delirious with the care of him
Whether they know wounds and yet the slaves of him!
Baggers they, of kingship shy
Long-suffering in their beggary in hope of him…

Man’s love of one like himself can be such as to make him forget everything but his beloved, let alone his love of the Eternal Source. Indeed, almost the whole of this chapter of Bustan – together with the recurring mystical and esoteric concepts and imagery such as Beauty, Beloved, Seeker, Friend, Truth, Candle and Moth, etc. – may be cited as evidence both of Sa‘di’s familiarity with sufi oncepts and categories and of his great sympathy for, if not attraction, to them. But he even surpasses himself when he contrasts love with intellect, and asserts that the intellectual approach to knowledge is nothing but ‘twists and turns’:
The way of the intellect is all twists and turns,
But the concern of the mystics is for God alone!
This can be said to those who recognise realities
Though adherents of reason will [point to the facts of appearance]…
And this despite the fact that Sa‘di’s general regard for intellectual knowledge is high, and that in some places he regards it as being complementary to, not conflicting, with mystical knowledge. Yet it is worth noting that he regards some of the practising mystics as unworthy of the ultimate goal of mystic discovery, and moreover, he who is worthy of it unavailable to bear witness to it:
These pretenders to being His seekers have no news
For he who heard the news ceased to be heard from.

In other words, many a practising sufi will not succeed, and the genuine mystics who do, remain unknown or will not speak of their knowledge:
Lovers are killed by the Beloved
[But] those who are killed cannot speak.
Reason and love, mysticism and logic, are also discussed in the five Homilies. They contain the same duality of view which regards mystic devotion and religious piety as alternative as well as complementary approaches to knowledge and to salvation. Thus in the second Homily he writes:
Know that piety is of two kinds: the piety of the Just and the piety of the Mystics (arefin). The piety of the Just arises from their concern about the Day of Judgement in the future…the piety of the Mystics, from the shame of the Lord of the Two Worlds at present…
God told Mohammad in the Qor’an to tell the faithful to explore the world, but scholars have interpreted this to mean the exploration of one’s own world, ‘because if through the imagination you wonder around the world of your won existence it would be better than if you travel the whole world on foot’. When Bayazid humbly prayed to God for a ‘drink of reunion’ he heard a voice saying:
Byazid, your self is still with you. If you wish to reach us, leave your self at the gate and come in.
Someone went to Bayazid and having listed all the efforts which he had made, wondered when he might reach the Goal. Bayazid replied:
Here is a stage. The first step is towards people; the second, towards God. Take the first step so as to reach God.

And he concludes:
Self-knowledge is the ladder for climbing up to the roof of the knowledge of God. How can he who does not know himself gain knowledge of the Sea of Glory…Whenever you get to know your self you will get to know God. Your self is your key for getting to know him.

Sa‘di wrote the essay on Reason and Love in  response to an admirer’s request in verse to judge which of the two means of gaining knowledge has priority over the other. He replied in prose:
Reason, although superior in many ways, is not the Way, but the light which shows the Way….And the use of a light is that, by means of it, they can tell the road from wilderness, good from evil, and enemy from friend. [But] a person with a light would not reach his destination unless he takes to the road.

He goes on to explain that according to the great Sufis the seeker will reach a point that is hidden from intellectual knowledge. This claim would be excessive unless it was also made clear that intellectual knowledge is but a means of reaching the desired goal, not the goal itself. The seeker of the Way must acquire good morals through the intellect to enable him to purify his self. Self-purification will lead to isolation from others, and this will result in inner knowledge and the subjugation of his will. The process begins with the constant invocation of God’s name (zekr), reaches ecstasy, “and the last stage which knows no end is called love”. Therefore, although reason is necessary for guiding the Seeker to the right path, most seekers will not succeed because the trial is hard and requires a strong commitment, while those who reach the Goal are lost to humanity because they are then ‘killed’ by the Beloved.

Finally, Sa‘di’s comparison in Golestan between the impact and consequences of the two alternative roads to knowledge is worth noting. He says in verse that someone left the kaneqah and went to the madreseh, thus breaking his pledge to the People of the Way. I asked him what was the difference between the abed and alem which made him choose the latter. He said: the former is trying to save himself whereas the latter is trying to save others. In other words, the end result of mystic knowledge is personal and individual, while that of intellectual knowledge is public and social.

Sa‘di was a graduate of the Nezamiyeh College of Baghdad, but did not remain in madreseh. Indeed he comes close to saying that he escaped from scholasticism because of the rigid, repetitive and lifeless intellectual frameworks within which it proceeded.  He was a moral theorist as well as a man of wide experience who combined his knowledge of theory and practice to produce some of the best didactic literature Persian language has known.  He had knowledge of, and great sympathy for sufi ideals, and venerated the great legendary sufis of the past, but was somewhat sceptical of the motives of the general run of dervishes and sufis of his own time. He was also a great admirer of youth and lover of beauty who would feel and eloquently express the happiness of the presence and sadness of the absence of a human lover, with a realism that could only result from a rich experience. He once said in a ghazal:
The whole of my clan were Doctors of Religion
It was the teacher of your love that taught me to write poetry
If Rumi left the academy to become a poet and mystic, Sa‘di left it to become a poet and lover. It is difficult to find in his work an ideological outlook, whether intellectual or mystical, despite his great knowledge of these fields and respect for them. And above it all, he remained a poet and lover.

August 2004



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