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Elia Abu Madi: Tholasim

Elia Abu Madi

Elia Abu Madi or Elia D. Madey (1889-1957) was a Lebanese-American poet with numerous notable published works. The following is a translation of the first 8 stanzas from his famous work, Al-Tholasim (The Mysteries). The full poem comprises 405 lines.

I have translated (at least, attempted to) the following for your convenience.

الطلاسم
The Mysteries

جئت، لا أعلم من أين، ولكنّي أتيت
ولقد أبصرت قدّامي طريقا فمشيت
وسأبقى ماشيا إن شئت هذا أم أبيت
كيف جئت؟ كيف أبصرت طريقي؟
لست أدري!

I came, I know not from whence, but I arrived,
And before my feet a path lay under my stride,
And I continue to walk be it my will or not,
Whence did I come? And where do I go?
I do not know!

أجديد أم قديم أنا في هذا الوجود
هل أنا حرّ طليق أم أسير في قيود
هل أنا قائد نفسي في حياتي أم مقود
أتمنّى أنّني أدري ولكن…
لست أدري!

Is my part of existence new or old?
Do I walk free or am I shackled?
Am I controlled or do I control?
I wish I knew, but..
… I don’t!”

وطريقي، ما طريقي؟ أطويل أم قصير؟
هل أنا أصعد أم أهبط فيه وأغور
أأنا السّائر في الدّرب أم الدّرب يسير
أم كلاّنا واقف والدّهر يجري؟
لست أدري!

And my path, what is it? Is it long or is it short?
Do I ascend, or am I falling?
Does the path move under me or am I the one moving?
Are we standing still in Time’s flow?
I do not know!

ليت شعري وأنا عالم الغيب الأمين
أتراني كنت أدري أنّني فيه دفين
وبأنّي سوف أبدو وبأنّي سأكون
أم تراني كنت لا أدرك شيئا؟
لست أدري!

If only I knew the secrets of the Unseen,
Do you think I’d know if I was buried within?
And that I will emerge one day and be,
Or do you see nothing but ignorance in me?
I do not know!

أتراني قبلما أصبحت إنسانا سويّا
أتراني كنت محوا أم تراني كنت شيّا
ألهذا اللّغو حلّ أم سيبقى أبديّا
لست أدري… ولماذا لست أدري؟
لست أدري!

What was I, before I became a man so fashioned?
Was I something else or was I nothing of mention?
Is there a conclusion to this folly, am I eternally caught?
I do not know… and why do I know not?
I do not know!

البحر:
قد سألت البحر يوما هل أنا يا بحر منكا؟
هل صحيح ما رواه بعضهم عني وعنكا؟
أم ترى ما زعموا زوار وبهتانا وإفكا؟
ضحكت أمواجه مني وقالت:
لست أدري!

I asked the ocean one day: O Ocean, am I from you?
Is it true what they say about me and about you, too?
Or are their claims all but false and dead?
She laughed her gleeful waves at me and said,
“I don’t know!”

أيّها البحر، أتدري كم مضت ألف عليكا
وهل الشّاطىء يدري أنّه جاث لديكا
وهل الأنهار تدري أنّها منك إليكا
ما الذّي الأمواج قالت حين ثارت؟
لست أدري!

O Ocean, do you know not how many have passed over you?
And do the shores know that they kneel before you?
And do the rivers know they come to you, from you?
The waves stirred, what did they say?
I don’t know!

أنت يا بحر أسير آه ما أعظم أسرك
أنت مثلي أيّها الجبار لا تملك أمرك
أشبهت حالك حالي وحكى عذري عذرك
فمتى أنجو من الأسر وتنجو؟ ..
لست أدري!

O majestic ocean, majestic still your captivity,
You are like me, O great one. You own no ability,
My condition is like yours, and your limits tell of mine,
When will you and I be free of this bind?
I do not know!

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Posted by on January 7, 2014 in Poetry, Spirituality

 

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The Conference of The Birds: An Excerpt and Some notes

This was written a while back for a class. The Conference of the Birds is a handbook on Tasawwuf (spirituality) written by Farid Al-Attar, circa 1145. Attar was a Persian poet and the following was taken from an online translation:

Lines 94-108: Bayazid’s annihilation (q.s.)

One Night from out the swarming City Gate

Stept holy Bajazyd, to meditate

Alone amid the breathing Fields that lay

In solitary Silence leagues away,

Beneath a Moon and Stars as bright as Day.

And the Saint wondering such a Temple were,

And so lit up, and scarce one worshipper,

A voice from Heav’n amid the stillness said:

‘The Royal Road is not for all to tread,

Nor is the Royal Palace for the Rout,

Who, even if they reach it, are shut out.

The Blaze that from my Harim window breaks

With fright the Rabble of the Roadside takes;

And ev’n of those that at my Portal din,

Thousands may knock for one that enters in.’

A similar narration in Tazkirat al-Awliya’ quotes, from Bayazid himself –

“one night, when I was a child, I left the city to go to the desert. The moon was shining and the world was at peace. Suddenly I had a vision; I saw an illuminated silhouette. The image was so bright that the light of the sun looked pale compared to this apparition. I fell into a state of rapture and a deep feeling of joy came over me. I whispered to myself, ‘Oh Allah, such a beautiful gate, yet empty, such an almighty realm, yet lonesome!” I heard a voice say, “the doorstep is empty, not because no one comes, but no one is admitted to come. This is not the realm of the impure; not many have the honor of admittance.” I thought, from whom in creation could I call upon to intercede for my admittance? And I remembered that the only one to intercede was the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). I could not call upon anyone but wait for him to give me permission to enter. It was then that I received a message saying, “because of such politeness I will raise your name so you will be remembered as the Sultan al-’Arifeen, Bayazid.”

Here the Almighty realm is empty because no one is granted permission. This is because only Allah exists and for one to reach this realm he must have annihilated in Him. No permission is granted as long as the self is present.  Also, the path to the Divine is through His Beloved, Muhammad s.a.w.

 

 

Lines 109-126

Thus spoke the Tajidar: and the wing’d Crowd,

That underneath his Word in Silence bow’d, 110

Clapp’d Acclamation: and their Hearts and Eyes

Were kindled by the Firebrand of the Wise.

They felt their Degradation: they believed

The word that told them how to be retrieved,

And in that glorious Consummation won

Forgot the Cost at which it must be done.

‘They only long’d to follow: they would go

Whither he led, through Flood, or Fire, or Snow’—

So cried the Multitude. But some there were

Who listen’d with a cold disdainful air, 120

Content with what they were, or grudging Cost

Of Time or Travel that might all be lost;

These, one by one, came forward, and preferr’d

Unwise Objection: which the wiser Word

Shot with direct Reproof, or subtly round

With Argument and Allegory wound.

Bayazid’s account, as told by the Hoopoe (here called the Tajidar, meaning ‘the adorner of the diadem’, a symbol of wisdom), humbles the birds as it becomes a reminder of the journey’s cost. The self is a hefty price to pay for anyone who thinks he is something, and that is most of us. The Nafs al-Ammarah and Nafs al-Lawwamah are susceptible to worldly obsession, which oftentimes becomes the barrier to feeling the sweetness of devotion. A related quote narrates, “verily in your heart sits the daughter of Iblis and that is Dunya, and it is incumbent upon the father to visit his daughter in her home, and his visit brings nothing but destruction”.

Lines 127-150

The Pheasant first would know by what pretence

The Tajidar to that pre-eminence

Was raised—a Bird, but for his lofty Crest

(And such the Pheasant had) like all the Rest—

Who answer’d—’By no Virtue of my own

Sulayman chose me, but by His alone:

Not by the Gold and Silver of my Sighs

Made mine, but the free Largess of his Eyes.

Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes

As to Itself is good: and no one knows

Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court

Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.

For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,

And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:

Another just arriving at the Place

He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:

Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,

And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—

But though the Runner win not, he that stands,

No Thorn will turn to Roses in his Hands:

Each one must do his best and all endure,

And all endeavour, hoping but not sure.

Heav’n its own Umpire is; its Bidding do,

And Thou perchance shalt be Sulayman’s too.’

This begins with the Pheasant’s judgment of the hoopoe – questioning his authority and on what grounds he was chosen. This reflects the Hadith, “the believer is a mirror to his brother”. Whatever the pheasant saw in the hoopoe, was what he had in himself. The hoopoe answers that it was not by his virtue alone, his dialogue explains extensively the lessons behind the aforementioned account of Bayazid.  The point here being that the fruits of ‘amal are never granted by one’s own virtue, everything is by the Mercy and Favour of Allah Almighty – dare we question His Wisdom?

Lines 151-191: The story of Shah Mahmud

One day Shah Mahmud, riding with the Wind

A-hunting, left his Retinue behind,

And coming to a River, whose swift Course

Doubled back Game and Dog, and Man and Horse,

Beheld upon the Shore a little Lad

A-fishing, very poor, and Tatter-clad

He was, and weeping as his Heart would break.

So the Great Sultan, for good humour’s sake

Pull’d in his Horse a moment, and drew nigh,

And after making his Salam, ask’d why

He wept—weeping, the Sultan said, so sore

As he had never seen one weep before.

The Boy look’d up, and ‘O Amir,’ he said,

‘Sev’n of us are at home, and Father dead,

And Mother left with scarce a Bit of Bread:

And now since Sunrise have I fish’d—and see!

Caught nothing for our Supper—Woe is Me!’

The Sultan lighted from his horse. ‘Behold,’

Said he, ‘Good Fortune will not be controll’d:

And, since Today yours seems to turn from you,

Suppose we try for once what mine will do,

And we will share alike in all I win.’

So the Shah took, and flung his Fortune in,

The Net; which, cast by the Great Mahmud’s Hand,

A hundred glittering Fishes brought to Land.

The Lad look’d up in Wonder—Mahmud smiled

And vaulted into Saddle. But the Child

Ran after—’Nay, Amir, but half the Haul

Is yours by Bargain’—’Nay, Today take all,’

The Sultan cried, and shook his Bridle free—

‘But mind—Tomorrow All belongs to Me—’

And so rode off. Next morning at Divan

The Sultan’s Mind upon his Bargain ran,

And being somewhat in a mind for sport

Sent for the Lad: who, carried up to Court,

And marching into Royalty’s full Blaze

With such a Catch of Fish as yesterday’s,

The Sultan call’d and set him by his side,

And asking him, ‘What Luck?’ The Boy replied,

This is the Luck that follows every Cast,

Since o’er my Net the Sultan’s Shadow pass’d.’

Here the story of a boy and his encounter with the Sultan is narrated. The boy is in a destitute situation: his father had passed away; his mother barely has a morsel to feed their big family. They now count on the boy, who has had very little luck fishing since sunrise. The Sultan chances upon him and offers to help, and strikes a bargain with the boy:  whatever he (the Sultan) catches today belongs to the boy, but whatever the boy catches tomorrow will be for him.

This story is highly metaphorical in that the boy and is representative of the individual. His situation the Hell he creates for himself when one chooses to rely on his own resources.  In gnosis, the Master of everything is recognized, and one should have no resource other than Him to rely on.  The Sultan’s arrival represents Gnostic recognition and how it is the key to abundance. Abundance is a state of being rather than a physical phenomenon, therefore it is irrelevant what form it comes in. It lies in the satisfaction that accompanies every moment of remembrance, and the awareness of God’s hand in everything.

 

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Poetry, Rants, Spirituality

 

The Apology

(Disclaimer: this has nothing to do with the speech by Socrates in 399 BC.)

Some days they end in sweet adieus

Endearing thanks and I-love-yous,

Others they end in frowns and tears

Frustrated voices, and burning ears.

Alluring it was, the charm I knew

Captured and thus, my feelings grew

I’ve never known feelings so true

I found everything; I found it in you.

At first I saw in us perfection

We were full of ideals, dreams and ambition

It was great, until, I lost my direction

And closed my eyes to your affection.

The heart, it rusts, and at times I find

The person I saw was all in my mind

I didn’t mean to be unfair, unjust, unkind,

I was rude, I’m sorry; I was blind.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2012 in Poetry

 

Imam ash-Shafi’ee on Travel

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Al-Imam ash-Shafi’ee (r.a) (150 H/766 M – 204 H/820 M) is known as the establisher of the shafi’ee school of jurisprudence, or mazhab of Fiqh, widely used by Muslims in South East Asia. He was one of the ahlul bayt – his lineage can be traced back to ‘abd Manaf ibn Qusay, who is also in the Prophet’s (pbuh) ancestral line. He was known as the Mujaddid (one who renews the religion) of his time, and was the first scholar to lay the foundations of the field of Usul al Fiqh (the origins of jurisprudence). He was the first to write a book on this field of study and it was named al-Risalah.

Like most other scholars of Islam, Imam ash-Shafi’ee was well-versed in Arabic linguistics and literature, for such is the requirements for one to understand the Qur’an and Hadith. Besides being a scholar of various religious fields (including Hadith and Quranic sciences), he was also a brilliant poet in his own right. The following is taken from his famous (and only) poetry collection, Diwan Ash-Shafi’ee.

Again, each bayt (verse in Arabic poetry, consisting of two sub-verses) is followed by my own inadequate translation.

ما في المقام لـذي عقـلٍ وذي أدبٍ
من راحة فـدع الأوطـان واغتـرب

There is no rest for the one of intellect and refinement in his locality, so leave your homeland and emigrate

سافر تجـد عوضـاً عمـن تفارقـه
وانصب فإن لذيذ العيش في النصـب

Travel, and you will find a replacement for that which you left, and exhaust yourself for therein is the sweetness of life

إني رأيـت وقـوف المـاء يفسـده
إن ساح طاب وإن لم يجر لم يطـب

Verily I saw water become putrid in its stagnation, and become sweet when it flows.

والأسد لولا فراق الأرض ما افترست
والسهم لولا فراق القوس لم يصـب

And the lions would not be fierce if they didn’t leave their grounds, and the arrow would not strike if it didn’t leave the bow

والشمس لو وقفت في الفلك دائمـه
ًلملها الناس من عجـم ومـن عـرب

And if the sun stayed in its place in the universe, people would have grown tired of it

والبدر لولا أفول منه ما نظرت
إليه في كل حين عين مرتقب

And if the moon did not disappear every now and then, the anticipating eye would never spare a glance at it

والتبر كالترب ملقـي فـي أماكنـه
والعود في أرضه نوع من الحطـب

And raw gold is as good as the dust that covers it, and the staff covered in dust is mere firewood.

فـإن تغـرب هـذا عـز مطلـبـه
وإن تغـرب ذلـك عـز كالـذهـب

In leaving your destiny will change, and in emigration you will become precious, like gold.

And Allah knows.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Arabic, Poetry

 

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The requirements of being an Educator

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This is one of the most notable works by Abu al-Aswad ad-Du’ali (16-69 H), one of the greatest forefathers of Arab grammar. He is of the tabi’in (the generation after the Prophet pbuh) and played a major role in assigning the markings (shakl) in the Holy Qur’an. Much reference has been made to this (especially the last line) in studies of Arabic literature and grammar.

Each line is followed by my own inadequate translation.

يا أيها الرجل المعلم غيره | هلا لنفسك كان ذا التعليم
O ye who teaches others, why haven’t you educated yourself?

تصف الدواء لذي السقا و ذي الضنا | كيما يصح و أنت سقيم
You prescribe remedies to the thirsty and the one in hardship, as if it cures – while you remain sick,

و نراك تصلح بالرشاد عقولنا | و أبدا و أنت من الرشاد عديم
You attempt to solve our problems by guiding our discretion, yet you are most obviously in need for guidance,

ابدأ بنفسك فانهها عن غيرها | فإذا انتهت عنه فأنت حكيم
Begin with yourself and restrain it from others, and once (your training) is complete, then you are wise.

و هناك يقبل ما تقول و يشتفى | بالقول منك و ينفع التعليم
Thereafter will there be acceptance of your words and a cure (that comes from it), and your teaching will be of benefit,

لا تنه عن خلق و تأتي مثله | عار عليك إذا فعلت عظيم
Do not condemn an action and then behave in that same manner, it is a terrible disgrace upon you.

Here Du’ali has made an explicit reference to undesirable characteristics in the transmitters of knowledge. He uses a firm, reprimanding tone against the self (the word used here being nafs) – an adequate warning universally applicable then and now.

And Allah Knows.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2012 in Arabic, Poetry

 

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Some Rhymes and a Lot of Nonsense

The following are some of my unremarkable attempts at wordplay and alliteration.

The sultry Sunday slipped secretively
Through my fingers, sandlike and slippery,
Surreal it was, point- blank, serenity,
Slithering silently into eternity.

It was apparent poison in plain perception
As I beheld the pain in pale apprehension,
Panic erupted and pelted my vision,
and drew perfect parallels with my discretion.

Unhappily he handed, hurried and haughty
A handsome horse, hitched and gaudy,
Held up and hesitant, his face did show,
Cast here, high on his worried brow.

-Z

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Poetry, Rants

 

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Uninspired.

I have a very cliché craving for someone to ask me if I’m alright.

There the willow stood, unmoving,

Its hollow trunk soiled and leaves blackening,

No wind teases it, its shriveled and dry

Branches drove away all that passed by.

There is nothing profound about it

Save the silence around it

Its craving for hope and light, lost,

In its curdling roots and compost

 

Nothing beckons,

 

Save the sorrowful song it sings

It singes

My very core, center and hinges

There is no more love, and no more resentment

No more room left for sentiment

Empty ; Just the biting numbness

An estranged, merciless caress.

 

In shock I shriveled, ashamed,

Blind and deaf to the call of my name

For my name I am not, and I, neither,

On the threshold of madness did I teeter

 

For the doors are closed, and the world unwelcome,

And nothing makes sense in this cold-blooded anthem.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Poetry, Rants