Songs of a Sufi Martyr: Poetry and Heresy in Al-Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj

Nathaniel A. Miller on Al-Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr, translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst. Northwestern University Press, 2018. Pg. 272. $18.95

Al-Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj is as well-known for his unorthodox statements and execution as he is for his poetry. He proclaimed, “I am the Truth,” although it was on the basis of other statements that heresy charges were brought against him. He is one of a handful of famous heretic-martyrs in medieval Islam. His death is often cited in academic secondary sources in the rather shallow context of pre-modern Islam’s putative “tolerance” vis-à-vis Christianity, and those who seek another narrative are usually thwarted with more unevidenced polemics.

I first tried to access al-Ḥallāj about ten years ago through a copy of his slim dīwān (collected poems) in the library of the American University in Cairo. The text was unusually difficult: the combined result of deficient Arabic a low-quality edition, and the difficult nature of al-Ḥallāj’s poetry.

His Arabic is not the most difficult, but like many pre-modern Islamic figures it is impossible to pin down al-Ḥallāj’s texts, beliefs, and life. I have encountered him numerous times since that day in Cairo but always in anecdotes and brief poetic citations found in other authors. al-Ḥallāj is an evanescent figure very much at the whims of centuries of historical memory, and the venues via which his poetry has survived are multitudinous and fragmentary. He was a favorite Sufi of the Jews of the medieval Islamic world, especially Karaites, and a large number of his poems only survive in Judeo-Arabic or Arabic-script Jewish sources (Paul Fenton has studied this particular strain of transmission carefully).

Though popular with different peoples, it is worth noting that al-Ḥallāj himself did not supervise the publication of his poetry, although at some point a dīwān did reportedly exist.The “translation” of al-Ḥallāj’s texts is a creative and constructive act. For the existence of a body of “Ḥallājian” poetic texts we are indebted to the quirky Catholic French orientalist Louis Massignon (d. 1962), who saw in the crucified al-Ḥallāj some version of Christ and compiled a dīwān from sundry sources that was published between 1914 and 1931. In his new set of translations of al-Ḥallāj, Carl Ernst acknowledges all of the above-mentioned problems, which he clearly sets out and explicates in the 44-page introduction to the poems. In addition to the question of Massignon’s role in reviving interest in al-Ḥallāj, the authorship of the poems attributed to him, and the Ḥallāj martyrdom legend, Ernst also tackles an issue that a new reader of al-Ḥallāj, or any Sufi poetry, should confront: What constitutes a Sufi poem in the first place? Often very little, other than the hermeneutic procedure of Sufi readers over the centuries reading some love, wine, or ascetic poem in a “mystical” framework.

The bulk of Hallāj consists of an accessible translation of al-Ḥallāj’s poems based on Massignon’s 89 poems, but also includes 28 others suggested by subsequent scholars. These 117 texts, which amount to 512 lines, are each given titles and presented with useful introductory blurbs of varying lengths that touch on stylistic or contextual points. There are several very helpful indices and appendices, and the appendices of lost works attributed to al-Ḥallāj, of editions and translations of his dīwān, and of citations by Rumi of al-Ḥallāj, will all be useful to scholars. So too will the indices that give the Arabic first line and detailed tables of sources. In conjunction with the notes, Ernst is admirably transparent for readers who want to see how he is dealing with the confusing source material. For non-specialist readers, an appendix on “Staging the Poetry” is helpful. It presents some of the poems in their original anecdotal, prosimetrical (akhbār) form, embedded in quasi-hagiographical accounts of al-Ḥallāj’s life. Rather than attempt to stake a polemical position on a controversial figure about whom we may never know very much, Ernst gives any reader the tools to sort information about al-Ḥallāj.

For those who might say such a work is an inauthentic text, Ernst asserts in his introduction that there is a “an extraordinary voice that pervades the best of these Hallajian poems.” I think he is right, and his translations allow us access to a voice that has become lost over time. Much of the medieval polemic concerning al-Ḥallāj revolved around his statement, “I am the Truth,” anā l-ḥaqq, where Truth (al-ḥaqq) is an accepted divine name in Islam. The statement thus seems patently blasphemous, equivalent to an assertion of divinity. The counter-argument for the defense has maintained that individuals who immerse themselves entirely in the divine experience — the abnegation of their ego (al-fanāʾ, annihilation) — can potentially express themselves as if they were the divine without, however, claiming its true status. Over time, this defense led to an immanentist reading of al-Ḥallāj as an advocate avant la lettre of Ibn ʿArabī’s (d. 1240) dynamic unity of God and creation in certain individuals, polemically termed pantheism (waḥdat al-wujūd) by his opponents—Ibn ʿArabī never used the term. Lines by al-Ḥallāj such as “His existence is through me, and my existence is through him,” would seem to support the immanentist reading. Thinkers keen to emphasize the strong trend in Islam towards an utterly transcendent deity criticize in one breath al-Ḥallāj, Ibn ʿArabī, and all their followers.

The translations offer a refreshing glimpse behind this polemic, perhaps at the real al-Ḥallāj who represents a challenge not only to orthodox Muslim theology, but also to mainstream Sufism. Al-Ḥallāj is careful about dhikr, the core Sufi practice of “remembering” God, institutionalized at some point as the repetition of His sacred names and other holy formulae, lest he project his own personality onto God:

Remembering is but a means that hides you from my gaze
       when my thought adorns it with my reflection.

In part, this seems to reflect an influence of Muʿtazilī thought, a rationalist negative theology that al-Ḥallāj would have encountered in Baghdad:

         Present, absent, near, or far,
                   he’s someone customary qualities don’t contain.

Human language offers insufficient categories to describe the transcendent divine, which must be described with paradox and gesture: “if I’m asked about him, I provide a symbol, but I don’t name him.” Yet even experiential proofs fail: “ecstasy grasps nothing but a vanished sign.” Far from a ravished mystic wildly proclaiming his unity with God, al-Ḥallāj often appears reticently distant from Him, even to the point where the word “distance” fails to meaningfully signify.

Al-Ḥallāj’s experience of love for God is paired within an almost Jobian anguish, an emotional configuration lifted from the topoi of courtly Arabic love poetry, as Ernst rightly emphasizes. This entails an utter submission to God:

I called out, “you whose name I can’t disclose!”—
nor do I betray him ever in love—
“My soul fears you as an unjust judge”

If al-Ḥallāj does experience God intimately, and the kingdom of heaven is within us, yet the Lord is still an overwhelming, awesome, and terrifying presence. His presence in all of creation and all of eternity is not necessarily comforting:

You are the sun, the moon, and the day!
       You are our paradise and our hellfire.

Ernst’s translations are lucid and usually read as poetry in their own right. This is a major accomplishment, but in order to achieve this, any translator needs to take risks that others will disapprove of.

I have some hesitations about the translation choices made in this volume. Ernst provides the poems with titles, even though very few Arabic poems have titles either given by their authors or by the commentary tradition. I don’t think any ease of reference is gained by altering this fact. We accept Bach’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis catalogue numbers, and Horace’s odes by a number or their incipit. The titles Ernst gives to al-Ḥallāj’s poems inadvertently read, at times, like the track list of some dementedly eccentric death metal/easy listening/prog rock mix tape: “Blameless,” “Dyed in Blood,” “Theory of Existence,” “Wings of My Intention,” “Infidel.”

Given the difficulty in both al-Ḥallāj’s thought, not to mention the patchy transmission of his poetry, some obscurity is to be expected. These are few and far between, but they occur. For example,

For you are in the depth of my absent concern,
       more hidden than the imagination of my mind.

Every noun of the Arabic (anta fī sirri ghaybi hammī akhfā min al-wahmi fī ḍamīrī) is susceptible to multiple meanings, so the possible translations proliferate alarmingly. Other than an unnecessary coma, there is no clear fault with this translation, but I cannot tell what it is supposed to mean, based purely on the English. What does it mean to have “absent concern”? I am also unsure at other points, as when Ernst speaks of “running waitresses with running waters.” As he points out in a note, “this verse contains an unreproducible play on words min jiwārin sāqiyātin wa-sawāqin jāriyāti..” However, he does try to reproduce it. The term jiwārin sāqiyāt literally denotes female servants bearing pitchers of wine or water. But the term “waitress,” I fear, will conjure images of a busy diner in most American readers’ minds, rather than the image of archaic luxury from the Quran or early Arabic poetry that the expression evokes in Arabic.

Translations are difficult, and Ernst’s work approaches these poems in a responsible way. But it remains that I have some quibbles about the introduction. Ernst laments that Sufi texts like Abū al-Ḥasan al-Sīrjānī’s The White and the Black have “not received very much scholarly attention,” but he does not cite Bilal Orfali and Nada Saab’s 2012 critical edition, with a 60-page analytic introduction. He rightly complains about New Age appropriation of Rumi but does not cite Franklin Lewis’s magisterial 2007 biography of him, which situates Rumi in his Islamic context. Noting such information would have aided Ernst in his hope that that such translations will help to “deepen Americans’ understanding of Islamic culture” at a time of political conflict. The challenges and, hopefully, the potential of the current political situation are greater than one might think. However, Ernst gives us translations of admirable fidelity that will allow both scholars and novices a well-informed taste of the “Hallajian voice,” and he offers an image of Islamic beliefs that inspire such beauty through poetry.

Nathaniel Miller is a Leverhulme Early Career fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. 

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