I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.
- Kabir (1398-1518)
The twin books of Egyptian poet Yahia Lababidi— Learning to Pray: A Book of Longing and Desert Songs, published in 2021 and 2022, respectively—uphold the Sufi tradition that was critical in shaping the imagery, symbolism, metaphors, tropes, and indeed the world view, of classical Sufi poetry and portray mercy with a pluralistic vision by upholding an expression of love above all divides. Lababidi does this by the clean magic of his language, relatable imagery and fine craft.
In Lababidi’s poetry, one is brought face to face with the knowledge that it is love and love alone which can address all discord, whether spiritual or material, and help us find peace. This peace is beyond the fabric of political peace or peace between nations as we know it—it is the sublime bliss of becoming one with God, the cessation of inner turmoil and the sweet melding of the heart with the divine. And is that not the fundamental teaching of all religions?
Lababidi defines love as the singular, uniting force that stems from the deepest space in one’s heart. Human beings are particularly capable of experiencing it and expressing it because they are blessed with a consciousness that allows them to traverse that path. His chapbook Learning to Pray is interspersed with evocative photographs of the desert taken from Zakaria Wakrim’s “Amarg” series, the Amazigh (Berber) word for nostalgia, also used to signify a hybrid form of musical poetry found in Southern Morocco. Clearly, Sufi poetry has a multicultural context. Lababidi’s verses offer us a hopeful alternative to the ignorance and lack of spirituality in modern times. Drawing upon the vast, age-old traditions of Sufi poetry, Lababidi’s verses unveil an understanding that there is something beyond religion and scholarly learning that can open our eyes to the reality beyond this existence. He writes:
The double helix of Existence
elaborately, they alternate.
Through his carefully composed aphorisms he envisions a universal faith based on love. Would it be fair to say then, that Sufi poetry is the new religion of modern times? Or at least a fresh alternative to jaded religious binders. An alternative that is as fruitful to write about for the poet as for the reader absorbing it.
In Brad Gooch’s biography of the celebrated mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi titled Rumi’ s Secret (Harper, 2017), we develop a deeper appreciation of Rumi and the world he lived in 800 years ago, and why he matters to us so much at our own historical moment. Jawed Mojaddedi, Professor of Religion at Rutgers University, says: “Rumi resonates today because people are thinking post-religion. He came to see mysticism as the divine origin of every religion.” The power of words has substituted faith-bound spirituality.
Sufi odes to the pandemic
Lababidi’s chapbooks also contain a few verses by way of Sufi odes to the COVID-19 pandemic and what all of us endured. These poems express the notion that we cannot simply return to how we were after a crisis. Our homes have become cocoons for a radical transformation. We have finally realised that the lives of others depends on us and vice versa. Either we change our ways now, or perish alone together. And, if we survive, we might ask this of our benevolent master: Tell us, what new fast can we add to our days ahead? The same way that Lent or Ramadan are spiritual reminders, we should consider what sacrifice this pandemic asks of us. What extreme limit have we reached or trespassed?
month of quiet strength
and loud weaknesses
when our stubborn habits
and discarded resolutions
are re-examined under the regard
and rigorous slowness of fasting
testing our appetite
month of waiting and wading
through the shallows to the Deep.
Yahia Lababidi emerges like a luminescent philosopher when he engages in transnational mysticism that is dynamic, undogmatic, timeless, and hinged on yearning. In his own words, “These are books of longing and a reminder of what is indestructible.” There is a timeless beauty to his words which can be best savoured in solitude.
One takes from the reading of Lababidi’s verses the precept that true religiosity consists in something other than outward religion. Real belief is apparent only on the inside of a person, which is not visible. Therefore, as Rumi has always said, the religion of love involves loving the eternal and invisible source of existence.
In the preface of Desert Songs, Lababidi writes: “I approached these desert pilgrimages with the earnest intention and passionate belief that I was going to encounter that part of myself not entirely accessible in other circumstances. In the desert, there is nothing to hide behind, nowhere and no one to turn to. It is where all those mad hermits and mystics—my people!—had their visions. It is an extreme environment, and I suppose I felt that if I flirted with that extremity, in a committed, honourable way, a breakthrough might be granted to me…The rumblings of Eternity were there, if you could just be still enough, quiet enough, and indifferent enough to your self, your many selves, your many frivolous selves.”
Indeed, writing Sufi poetry is a form of prayer. Who knows, it maybe a new religion, a treatise to which one might surrender completely.
Lababidi’s Desert Songs is bilingual, i.e. in Arabic and English. Says Osama Esber, its translator: “In the poems of Desert Songs, the poet is a mystic travelling in the worlds of infinity, in the desert, naked, face to face with existence and with language at the beginning of its creation. For Lababidi, inspiration does not ‘speak in fits and starts’, rather it abounds in bucketfuls. Here’s a compilation of three aphorisms from Lababidi’s collection that I found memorable:
Silence is golden since it is the native tongue of the spirit.
The person who knows how to accept all, will taste a hidden sweetness even in suffering.
Poetry is How We Pray, Now.
Nowadays, poets are unembarrassed to treat organised religion as archaeological sites to be excavated for durable ruins—unearthing fragments of Beauty, Grace, Wisdom wherever they might find them and leaving behind what does not resonate, spiritually. In such literature that is not directly religious, all sorts of spirits are invited. Kahlil Gibran said once that “Your daily life is your temple, and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you, your all.”
To quote Lababidi again, he says, “Increasingly, I’m intrigued by the idea of artists as mystics and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, for instance, in Omar Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance, ‘I pray by admiring a rose’, one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic Al Ghazali put it thus: “This visible world is a trace of that invisible one…”. Thus, literature in the service of belief, though mindful of other disciplines, is prayerful writing, an act of service, a new religion.
One year before his death, we find the great poet of longing, Rainer Maria Rilke, meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds in these memorable, numinous words:
“It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man...Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
Would it be fair to say then, that poetry is the new religion? The power of words has substituted faith-bound spirituality. Can we award the mantle of a post-modern religion to Sufism, particularly when it is conveyed through spiritual poetry?
Vinita Agrawal is a poet, editor, and freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org