Commentaries

Most quatrains are simple poems which can easily be interpreted once the poet's point has been understood. Yet, sometimes the meaning of a quatrain was considered to be in need of a commentary. The most remarkable instance is the poem called Rubai-yi hauraiya ('The quatrain of the Heavenly Maidens', i.e. the houris, the women with 'white, big eyes' who, according to the Koran, await the arrival of the blessed in Paradise) after the poem's opening:

The Heavenly Maidens stood in a row to look at my Idol;

The Keeper of Paradise elapsed his hands in admiration;

That black mole on the cheeks was a robe of silk;

For fear the holy men clutched their Korans.

The poem belongs to the corpus of Abu Sa'ld's quatrains. It is mentioned in Ibn Munavvar's Asrar at-tauhid within the context of an anecdote which tells that the Master, on hearing that his 'reciter' (muqn) Bu Salih had fallen ill, sent him an amulet on which this quatrain was written. It was not uncommon that magical power was ascribed to quatrains as it appears from notes added to some of the collections of Abu Sa'ld's poems. This quatrain, however, is a special case because, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it roused the interest of several prominent mystics. There are at least twelve short commentaries known, each expounding in its own way the symbolic meanings read into the poem.

The poet Muhammad Maghribl (d. 1406-07) was the first to identify the Idol of the quatrain with Adam, whom God 'made in His own image' and therefore astounded the spiritual beings with his perfect beauty reflecting the inaccessible Divine Essence. This line of interpretation was further developed by Qasim-i Anvar (d. 1433-34). The therapeutic force of the poem was, in his view, due to sheikh Abu Sa'id's becoming the interpreter of the 'Tongue of the Unseen'. Shah Ni'mat-Allah Vail (d. 1431), the founder of the great Ni'mat-Allahl Sufi Order, wrote several essays on this quatrain. The fairly straightforward imagery was burdened with a number of abstract concepts derived from the doctrine of Ibn al-'Arabl on the Unity of Being. Closer to the original meaning remained another great sheikh, 'Ubayd-Allah Ahrar (d. 1490), the dominating personality of the Naqshbandl Order in the late fifteenth century. He observed:

The recitation of this quatrain to a sick person indicates that there is something in the rubai which causes lovers to rejoice. This thing is that what reminds the lovers' spirits of that state in which they, with a myriad of perceptions and longings, will return to God.29

Mulla 'Abd ar-Rahman JamI (1414-92), who was also a Naqshbandl sheikh, used quatrains for an exposition of mystical philosophy in a different manner. In his Sharh-i rubaiyat ('Commentary of quatrains'), he explained forty-four poems, all written by him and dealing with 'the Unity of Being and Its modes of descending to the stages where It can be perceived'. This central theme of speculative mysticism returns in many of Jaml's works. One of the quatrains in this treatise represents the seclusion as well as the exposure of transcendental being in the image of a lady in her boudoir; she is contemplating her beauty in the mirrors of a universe which owes its existence to no one but herself:

There was only the Beloved Woman, looking into A myriad of mirrors put in front of Her. Each of these mirrors reflected Her face, In different grades of clarity and pureness.30

JamI used the same image in an extended form in the prologue of his allegorical masnavi poem Yusuf va Zulaykha:

In private room where being had no sign,

The world was stored away in non-existence,

One Being was, untouched by duplication,

A Beauty sat, detached from all appearance,

Visible only to Herself by Her own light;

A ravishing Beloved in seclusion,

Her garment still unsoiled by imperfection.

No mirror held reflections from Her face,

No comb could pass its fingers through Her ringlets.

No wind was able to unbind a single hair.

Her eye had never seen the slightest make-up.

The love-songs that she heard were all her own; No lover played with her but She alone. However, as the beautiful are bound to,

She also could not suffer Her seclusion.

If this must be, wherever beauty dwells, Such urge arose first from Eternal Beauty. She moved Her tent outside the sacred bounds, Revealed Herself to souls and to horizons. A different face appeared in every mirror. Her Being was discussed in every place 31

These two quotations show how a single subject could be treated both in the smallest and in the largest form of Sufi poetry, and so they demonstrate the basic unity of the tradition which we will further explore in the following chapters.

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