Sufism had a special place for mystical, overpowering love for God – Ishk, Mahabba. N. I. Prigarina, a well-known researcher of oriental literature, noted that “Sufism made it possible to speak of faith in terms of love”.
Sufis believe that the man banished from paradise condemned himself to perpetual pining in separation with the Most High. From now on, the supreme goal of human life becomes the desire to be one with Him, to know God and the divine Truth He embodies. The only form of knowing and understanding the essence of God is Love. God cannot be known through logic, but only in the urge of mindless, self-denying passion, in the moment of super-sensual pleasure – an ecstasy akin to the sensations of a lover. At the moment of ecstatic contemplation of God a Sufi gets into the state known as fano – when a human soul blends with one of the universe. Fano only comes when in a charged mystical contemplation of God a Sufi forgets everything that is valued in this world. As a result of fano, comes bako – eternal being in god (1, p. 99).
Love manifests itself through beauty – one of God’s attributes. Beauty is present in everything that exists in the world and constantly reminds us of God. God itself is the embodiment of Absolute Beauty (1, p. 186). Love and Beauty had become important aspects of Sufi aesthetics and encouraged the development of literature and arts.
Everywhere I see nothing but love,
In the overt and covert I see nothing but love,
Beauty and love are the fusion like body and soul,
Beauty and love are one as a pearl and a spring.
A. Jami (1, p. 88).
Worshiping Beauty and Love for God among Sufis took the form of earthly love. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), the founder of Sufistic pantheism, wrote: “One should not try to see god in any material shape. Seeing god in woman is most perfect.” (2, p. 165) The language of human love between the mystic and his divine love is most frequently used in Sufistic literature (3; 4). Almost always in romance lyric poetry secular love dominates, “form”-wise, whereas in content it is the pantheistic understanding of love, i.e. man’s love for God (1, p. 89).
Sufis always emphasize that love requires a sincere heart and a lover’s soul that is free from all worldly attachments and earthly pleasures – nafs. Pantheist Sufis saw their union with God in taming physical attraction and sensuality, in passionate burning in the flame of Love for the Lover, in suffering caused by the separation with him, and in ecstatic intoxication of soul during the moments of seeing the beloved woman. For them tarikat is preparing one’s heart for love, and gaining love is Reality (hakikat).
Engaging believers in their teaching, Sufis used the language of parable in their poetry, phrasing it as special symbol-images of dualistic nature and understandable only to the initiated. For instance, God was referred to as Beloved Woman, a Beauty, a Friend, a Loved One… The Lover was a Sufi contemplating his Loved One, and worshiping him was passion and love. Locks and a mole of a Beloved Woman were the attributes of his beauty. Wine was a symbol of Sufistic mystic teaching and the knowing of God, and vine and grapes – the sources of wine, i.e. the Sufism itself. A tavern, mayhona (a public house), was a temple or a secret location where the Sufis studied, and a conversation – “a description of the loved one’s beauty and the spiritual state of the person in love” (3; 5; 4; 6, p. 26).
The idea of overpowering love was most explicitly developed in classical Oriental literature and was expressed in two famous works: “Laili and Majnun” by Nizami, and “Yusuf and Zuleiha” by Jami, which have many renditions (nazira) of the well-known theme; in a parable “Sheikh Sanahan” from Navoi’s poem “Lisan ut-Tayr”, and in romantic lyrical poetry.
Nizami’s poem “Laili and Majnun” had nazira in the works of Navoi, Dehlevi and Jami. According to E. Bertels, Nizami offered “an example of a psychological sketch picturing the development of relentless passion coloured in shades of Sufistic mysticism” (5, p. 421). Nizami creates Majnun’s character in keeping with Sufistic concept of love. In this poem mystical searching for god expressed in the idea of all-consuming love for him, turning to God as to the Beloved Woman, and preaching unity with him have reached their apogee. Love for Laili is a parable. This love brings together sensuality and the sublime, but it is not realized as sensual love. Majnun’s purely human love for Laili grows into another kind of passion, i.e. passion for God, and he does not need to possess the object of his love, because it lives in his heart. This is the highest degree of love for God.
In oriental miniature that illustrates Sufistic poetry romantic experiences of the characters and the Sufistic connotation thereof were pictured with the help of specific imagery and pictorial means, through colour, lines, parables, signs and symbols, based on the teaching about the obvious (visible – zohir) and mysterious, hidden (botin) meaning of phenomena, which only the initiated ones could comprehend. A number of mandatory canonical thematic compositions reflecting the main subject framework of a literary work had been developed.
The choice of subjects and their sequence for the illustration of “Laili and Majnun” poem was focused precisely on the lover’s character (7, p. 44). For the enlightened viewer the very choice of subjects for the miniatures “Laili and Majnun in School”, “Majnun in the Desert Surrounded by Beasts”, “Majnun by Caaba”, “An Old Woman Leads Chained Majnun as Pauper”, “Majnun by Laili’s Marquee”, “Majnun on Laili’s Grave”, etc. reflected Majnun’s spiritual development, from Sufi’s point of view.
Majnun’s character had it own iconography. Gaunt, unshaven, half-naked, barefoot, with a detached look, Majnun was visually identified with a Sufi hermit – zahid or dervish. Majnun’s iconography is also constructed with the help of clothing details. He is pictured half-naked, without a head-dress, which, according to orthodox Muslim notions is shameful, and in Sufism it means neglect for worldly values, which are nothing compared to spiritual ones. He is dressed in hirka or just an apron, lang, worn by Sufi hermits. Artists, the enlightened people of their time, created an adequate interpretation of the literary character Majnun as a Sufi. The illustrations for this poem have two mandatory subjects: one is “Majnun in School” where he is still a boy named Kais, dressed in common, fashionable clothes of a well-to-do youth from a noble family, wearing trendy turban that denoted not only his adequacy, but also his significance in the secular world; the other is Majnun as a Sufi, a dervish in the desert, pictured in different situations where he already changed his trendy clothing into that of a hermit. By changing Majnun’s clothes, artists noted a change in his spiritual state and his progress on the Sufistic path (8, p 4-7). Therefore, for a Sufi, the name Majnun or his picture was the sign of bako – eternal being in God, the love of highest degree.
The concept of Sufistic love was given another notable interpretation in Jami’s poem “Yusuf and Zuleiha” written in 1483 and included into his “Quinary”. In late Temurid school and later on in Sefevid and in the 16th-17th century Maverannahr schools many remarkable miniatures were created for this popular work by the classic of Persian-Tajik literature who himself was a recognized Sufi sheikh.
The theme of love of the Egyptian governor’s wife for Yusuf (Josef the Beautiful) originates from the Bible, and was later on reflected in the Koran. The subject occupied the minds of many poets of the Orient where the lead characters became symbols of beautiful sacrificial love. The Muslim rendition of the poem about Yusuf and Zuleiha has two subject lines: the story of Yusuf and his brothers who betrayed him, and love story of Yusuf and Zuleiha.
Zuleiha’s character in oriental poetry evolved under the influence of a Greek pagan apocryphal story that originated in a Judaic setting in the 1st century; according to it, Josef was married to Asenef who was given to him by the pharaoh. She worshiped Neith, the Egyptian goddess, i.e. was a heathen. Anesef’s passionate love for divinely beautiful Josef brought her to faith in Jehovah (9, vol. 1, p. 558). In the Koran, just as in the Bible, the love and passion of the Egyptian governor’s wife for Yusuf is sensual and earthly, and, therefore, it is not realized.
In his poem Abdurahman Jami made Zuleiha’s love for Yusuf an ideal of divine love. As E. Bertels correctly observed, this is a kind of “spiritual love song” (3, p. 262). The story says that Zuleiha who tried to seduce Yusuf but was rejected by him, turned into a blind old woman from pining and grief. Having abandoned all worldly things and herself in the name of her loved one, she gave away her wealth to be a pauper, virtually a dervish, and settled in a poor hut by the road that Yusuf used to take. Yet he ignored the old pauper. Once she has crushed her idols and acquired faith in one god (i.e. gone through all tests of tarikat and become a Sufi), Zuleiha gains happiness and love of Yusuf who recognized Zuleiha in the blind pauper. His love sparkles and revives Zuleiha. She regains her sight and beauty and they celebrate their marriage for 40 days. “Love is the alchemy of the Existence. The man must die in relation to his self in order to acquire the treasure of eternal life” (10). Thus, having gone through the path of spiritual tests, Zuleiha gains the Love of Yusuf and God’s grace (Jami).
Pictorial series of miniatures performed in the 15th-18th centuries by painters from Herat, Tebriz, Shiraz, Maverannahr and Kashmir, also feature two subject lines as in the poem “The Story of Yusuf and His Brothers” and “The Love Story of Yusuf and Zuleiha”.
When telling Zuleiha’s story, different schools of miniature use different events in the lives of Zuleiha and Yusuf. For instance, “Zuleiha Enters Egypt” (Shiraz, 1540, RNB [Russian National Library]), “Yusuf in front of Egyptian Wives”, “Women of Egypt Impressed by Yusuf’s Beauty” (Meshkhed, 16th c, RNB), “Yusuf in Zuleiha’s Garden” (Shiraz, 1450-1460, Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Science, Uzbekistan), “Chaining of Zuleiha Who Lost Her Mind Because of Love” (Shiraz, RNB), “Zuleiha Seduces Yusuf”, “Yusuf in Prison”, “Yusuf at Pharaoh’s” (Shiraz, 1450-1460, Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Science, Uzbekistan), “Yusuf and Zuleiha on the Throne”, and “Nuptial Night of Yusuf and Zuleiha” (Shiraz, RNB). As one can see, miniature artists select the most important conceptual subjects that enable a clear formulation of Sufistic attitude for love.
In terms of Sufistic interpretation of love, particularly interesting is the scene of Yusuf’s seduction, which we find in all series of illustrations for the poem. In her attempt to seduce Yusuf, Zuleiha invites him to a palace with seven connected chambers. The walls of the most sacred one are decorated with paintings showing love scenes with Yusuf and Zuleiha. God-fearing and chaste Yusuf tries to escape, but Zuleiha, in her urge of passion, seizes him by his clothes and tears it apart.
Apparently, Behzad was the first who illustrated this subject, as it had not been found in miniature painting before him. Behzad created the scene composition that was to become canonical (“Bustana” manuscript by Saadi, 1488, Cairo National Library (11, ill. 52)). In a complex architectural composition laid out upward, room exterior and interior are intricately intertwined. The artist masterfully employs numeral symbolism, playing around number 7 that has magic value in Islam and Sufism: 7 doors are to symbolise 7 chambers in Zuleiha’s palace; 7 chambers are the seven maqam-stations on the path toward attaining the goal:
- (1) tauba – repentance and turning one’s thoughts completely to God;
- (2) varayu – caution, distinction between halal and haram;
- (3) zuhdyu – refraining from everything that distances one from God;
- (4) fakr – voluntary condemning oneself to poverty;
- (5) sabr – patience, humble acceptance of hardships;
- (6) tavvakul – trust in God;
- (7) rida – submission, complete acceptance of all blows of fate, which are nothing for him, because his supreme goal is to attain unity with the Loved One.
The seven steps (steps, stairway) is a symbol of Sufistic path, suluk – the mystical steps of tarikat (shariat, tarikat, hakikat, marifat) (3; 1). Fast movements of Yusuf and Zuleiha are contrasted with static architecture, introducing dramatic notes into the composition. Zuleiha is pictured at the moment when she tries to tear off Yusuf’s clothes, grasping his hand and the hem of his gown. By grasping Yusuf by the hem of the gown, Zuleiha, in the artist’s interpretation, reveals the secret meaning of love. Sufis believe that clothes carry its owner’s grace, his baraka. Seizing the hem in this case meant a desire to receive a blessing, and in the given context – love. Therefore, in Behzad’s rendition of the subject Zuleiha is a pagan, still on her way to the true faith, and thus she does not receive love as she has not yet abandoned her own faith and has not yet gone through tarikat, and her love is earthly and sensual.
Behzad skilfully plays with the interior layout; stairways, ornamented walls and doors of the chambers create the impression of a confined space associated with prison that holds the spirit of heathen Zuleiha.
Zuleiha’s love for Yusuf is pictured by Behzad identically to Jami’s poem as Love in Sufistic understanding: urge to be with the Loved One, craving for unity with him. Yusuf wears clothes of green colour. Green in Sufism is the colour of the Prophet, the colour of Paradise and confident calm (12; 13), the colour of fano, i.e. the attainment of a state when everything worldly looses its value in the face of God. It represents the power of life and passion. Green also denotes the Absolute Beauty, and also physical and spiritual beauty of Josef who has a title “the Beautiful”. Red colour of Zuleiha’s gown is associated with life, health and blood. According to A. Shimmel, in Sufism this is “the colour of Divine Glory” (13), i.e. it symbolizes that she attains what she desires. The symbolism of numerals, the characters’ actions, and Yusuf’s halo reached for the minds of enlightened viewers, removing the veil from the outward metaphor of the pictured subject and tuning them to Sufistic perception of the miniature. It is amazing how insightfully young Behzad understood the philosophy of the theme; he would have never been able to express the hidden meaning of the symbols so sincerely, had he not been a Sufi himself.
Later versions of this composition (17th c), instead of 7 chambers, show only one with painted love scenes. It is characteristic that the love scenes themselves were never pictured. Instead, they were replaced by richly ornamented chambers (Shiraz, 16 c, RNB). In later iconography of Yusuf and Zuleiha the colour of their clothes is no longer significant. Yusuf does not wear green any more, but fashionable clothes of different colours, often in deep blue (Shiraz, RNB; Shiraz, Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Science, Uzbekistan, No.9597) or white (RNB, Dorn 430), yet his blazing halo retains its significance as a symbol of his holiness. This is a sustainable iconographic feature of Yusuf that survived until the end of the 19th century.
Sheikh Sanaan is another popular character of a lover. Having fallen in love with a Christian woman he is ready to abandon Islam, drink forbidden wine and eat banned (harom) pork. He even agrees to tend these disgusting, from a Muslim point of view, animals, causing horror and mock of the myurids. Yet, it turned out that his complete self-denial in the name of love was his highest spiritual achievement. Illustrated manuscripts of this poem can be found in 16th century Kazvin and Bukhara. In miniatures for Navoi’s poem “Lisan ut-Tayr” artists choose the scenes that are key for the sheikh’s love story: “Meeting a Christian Woman”, “Christian Woman Serves Wine to the Sheikh”, “Sheikh Tending the Pigs”, and “The Christian Beauty Begs Sheikh Sannan’s Forgiveness”. In the Bukhara manuscript from the Paris National Library the illustrations are performed by a great master who, by the choice of subjects alone, could show the Sufistic path of the sheikh: “Enamoured Sheikh Sanaan Faints at the Sight of a Christian Beauty”, “Disciples Visit the Sheikh Who Is Tending the Pigs”, “The Christian Beauty Begs Sheikh’s Forgiveness”, “Dead Sheikh at the Spring” (14, ill. 30-32; 13, ill. 183). In the miniatures the artist hardly uses any symbols (except the first miniature where burning flames in the niche under the window through which the Christian woman is looking symbolize sheikh’s passion and purification) or other signs, and simply portrays a subject scene, addressing the initiated viewer.
Wine was one of the attributes of Love. As we know, Islam forbid drinking wine, but in literature and painting the wine theme and the drinker’s character allegorically represented one of the manifestations of a mystic’s love for God. When a Sufi reached the state of fano, it naturally continued into bako, the eternal being, which in the Sufistic teaching was equaled to intoxication (in this case – amorous intoxication, mastin ishk), experiencing which a drunk mystic forgets everything, even God:
I am so drunk from the meeting and amazed with love
That both my world and faith are forgotten.
Thus, in poetry, wine denotes “gnostic means of ecstatic liberation from the chains of evil bodily passions and attainment of Truth and Divine being” (1, p. 148). The theme of love and wine is often found in oriental lyrical poetry (Rumi, O. Hayam, Hafiz, Navoi, Jami), in the genres of rubayi or ghazal – since the 15th century these verses were often brought together in anthologies or divan and decorated with miniatures (15, ill. 16-17; 16, ill. 75-76; 13, ill. 94, 124-125, 129-132; 11, ill. 47-48).
In the 15th-17th century Maverannahr painting, artists resorted to symbols and allegory when portraying love, whereas in the 17th century miniature, perhaps under the influence of Indian art, less disguised subjects started to appear, such as scenes of amorous pleasures, yet pictured with all the chastity that is intrinsic to Islam. One example is an illustration from a Samarqand copy of “Zafar-name” manuscript by Yezdi, showing an alcove scene: Amir Temur with a beauty on the nuptial bed (17, LII). It could have dual interpretation: as a scene of Amir Temur’s nuptial night with one of his wives (Dilshad-aga), and as an indication of Sahibkiran’s devotion to Sufism. This trend towards more naturalistic portrayal of love under the strengthening Sufistic influence during late feudal epoch is characteristic of other schools of oriental miniature too.
Specific mention should be given to the portrayal of nudity in oriental miniature (“Hosrov Sees Bathing Shirin”, “Bathing Sirens” in “Hamsa” by Nizami (11, ill. 59, 87)). Unlike European art that enshrined the beauty of human, primarily female, body, in orthodox Islam, as in Christianity, it was considered “the vessel of sin”. In Sufism human Spirit is the emanation of divinity, and human body is just an accidental cover created for the world. The true “Self” of a man is therefore in his inner nature. Human body does not have its own value and only serves as “instrument of his soul”; that is why physical beauty was not particularly important and was perceived as secondary, as a reflection of one’s spiritual and moral essence. Hence the flat, silhouette-like presentation of a human body in the miniatures, the absence of the nu genre and chaste portrayal of love scenes, despite emotional use of ambiguous image-symbols in romantic lyrical poetry, which produced strong erotic impact and caused realistic associations when read or listened to.
Sufistic teaching is focused on a deep understanding of the inner nature of human soul and the subconscious. Oriental miniature painting that illustrated Sufistic poetry aimed at adequately presenting Sufistic notions with the help of a subject, specific imagery, lines, colour, signature characters such as Majnun, Zuleiha or Sheikh Sanaan, semantics and specific ambiguous sign-symbols allowing for dual interpretation: as a phenomenon of the visible world for an ordinary viewer, and as a divine for the initiated ones.
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