Post #7: An Image of Victory

April 25th, 2018

Hahaha! I feel a little insecure about this last blog post, I must confess. While I have record music for years, and written poetry and fiction for a while as well, I am very inexperienced in the world of visual art, and I have the skills of a five year old. So, I hope you will forgive the lack of technical skill in comparison with my other projects and appreciate nonetheless the intention and symbolism of my design.

This last piece is inspired by some of the scholarship from Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert that we explored in our readings. I am intrigued and mesmerized that the Iranian revolution hijacked and evolved certain symbols that are mainstays of the Shiite tradition. We see this exemplified dramatically in the political posters of the revolution that deposed the Shah and established Khomeini. Balaghi and Gumpert note how the traditional pardeh form which retells the tragic story of Karbala is augmented to recount the victory of the Ayatollah and the burgeoning Islamic republic. To assert the parallel between the victorious rebellion and Hussein’s defeat at Karbala is an interesting choice. As Professor Asani has pointed out, Shiite theology developed in a context of political defeat, not political victory, and Karbala is a core aspect of that understanding. While the political posters we examined are meant to convey a sense of celebration and victory, what is the real desired victory? What is the ultimate goal, that might transcend the establishment of any one part or sect in a hegemony or a political system?

The goal, I think is submission. It is oneness between God and God’s children, humanity. Surely this is lost in the eyes of people who cling to or vie for power, and forgotten by people who glorify, delight in, or celebrate violence. The real victory would be peace, and the real victor would not be the Shah or the Ayatollah or any human, but God, the Supreme.

With that in mind, I want to use the format of one of the posters discussed by Balaghi and Gumpert, and change it to fit a more cosmic sense of divine (rather than human) victory (see Fig. 61 for the original).

The flags of nationalism are replaced with the fire of God’s consuming love. The dominant face of Khomeini is replaced by the shadow of the submitting human, who—like Muhammad in that central Asian Night Journey manuscript we examined—basks, prostrates, and supplicates in that radiant and loving glory. Instead of a bleeding revolutionary holding a flag that says, “Independence, Freedom, and the Islamic Republic,” I have chosen to put an innocent child with a flag that simply says, “Love” (it’s also green, for the Prophet!) For Islam—at least, according to Rumi’s teacher—is about love, after all. And finally, instead of a band of revolutionaries, we see broken weapons, indicating an end to gratuitous human conflict. My goal was to take the pro-Khomeini image of victory and turn it into an image of God’s victory through the salvation of the human family. Also, I can’t figure out how to rotate it, my apologies!

The Conference of the Birds was one of my favorite works of art that we discussed, both in lecture and in section. When I read it, I focused primarily on the presentations of the various birds at the beginning of the poem, and particularly on their respective vices. Attar did a wonderful job using the birds in the masnawi to show us the many ways we construct idols. These idols deter us from experiencing the fulness of mystical union, and are a stumbling block to the most complete islam. 

A side note: the Hoopoe actually reminds very much of Jesus in the Gospels. Both he and Christ are adept at calling people out for making excuses and clinging to non-God, idolatrous attachments.

One particular exchange from The Conference of the Birds really spoke to me: The Finch’s Excuse. The “timid finch” is my favorite of the birds, and possibly has the most unique vice out of the bunch. Her idol is not something concrete and material–it’s not treasure, or lustful encounters, or purity–rather, her idol seems to be what the Hoopoe calls “humble ostentation.” The vibe I get is that the finch disingenuously plays up her own lowliness in an act not dissimilar to self-righteousness. And the Hoopoe will have none of it. But the Finch has a line that I relate to. She laments of the Simorgh: “I do not deserve to see His face.” And this line reminded me of a vice that I think is underrepresented at the beginning of the poem, but is nonetheless deeply important: shame.  (Quotes from page 60 of the poem)

Shame has been a constant obstacle–or even idol–in my own spiritual life. I often think I don’t deserve the love of God because I am so ashamed of the mistakes I have made, ashamed of my lack of worthiness or perfection. The paradox is that intellectually, I understand how fallacious this is. God the Merciful and Compassionate invites me to bring my full self to divinity, to seek love and forgiveness despite my imperfection. But, my shame blocks me. I cling to it, in a way–the same way a rich man clings to gold–and it stops me from living out my quest for closeness with God.

What if I were also a bird? An ashamed bird? What if I had been summoned to the conference, and had hidden away because of the shame and self-loathing I felt? Here is a brief epistolary short story exploring this idea. It is written from the perspective of a sparrow whose vice is shame and self-loathing. The sparrow’s tragedy is that even though he has been invited both by God and by the Hoopoe to go on a journey, he is too scared to embark. His shame holds him back from the divine love that beckons him. The sparrow’s excuse is his belief that he is loathsome, unworthy, and unloved. This is perhaps the most false and dangerous spiritual lie of all.

Letter from a Sparrow

To my feathered brethren of the air and sea,

Oh, how I flew!

When the wind crash woke the wildwood, and the fanfare of ol’ Hoopoe broke forth in trumpeting triumph, I shook in my nest at the thought of that regal angel of a bird, that messenger who bore divine things—secrets, sweet nothings for lovers and the longing—and twigs tumbled from my makeshift home to the forest floor below.

I was summoned, like you. I was called to this conference and meeting, I who am a bird like all of you. But I was too frightened… after all, we were to look for the King of our kind, the Lord of All Lords, the Light-wearer and the Laugh-giver, and such a quest is enough to send me reeling into madness. How can I hope to see the face of God and not be sent to pieces? The wrath of that thing—that magnificent Other—is surely too much for tiny me to handle. Several of you have assured me that the thing we search for is a radical love, but I care not for such empty rhetoric. What love can overlook the weight of my shame in sin? What king can pardon the lowly sparrow-serf?

None can, or at least none should. How can I deserve enlightenment when I have spent my whole life both deliberately and accidentally bringing little bits of darkness into the world around me? Ever since I was but I chick I stole bread from my brothers in the nest, and then as soon as I could fly I took and took and took more and more—from the hands of infants I wrenched crumbs, from plates of kings I swiped sprigs and spice-pieces. Every greedy instance of flippant thievery echoes in my memory now. The humans say the sparrow sings for joy but if they, like Solomon, could discern my recent cries they would hear a lament at my own hubris. How I hate myself for the gluttonous hunger of my past; how such self-loathing compounds when I hate myself for that very same hate! Now I spend my days flitting violently from tree to tree and from leaf to leaf, abiding in the abysmal awareness of my failures as a creature of God. He created me, and what did I do? I failed. I am no steward of the earth, no vicegerent to this temporal world. I am no submitter. I have acted always with the taint of forgetfulness, with the scar of greed. I am so ashamed.

So, yes. When we convened to discuss a divine search how I flew! Far and away! I would have no part in the quest for the Lord of Lords, for I am less deserving than his lowliest peasant. I flew and I hid among the dead leaves and the mushrooms and the turkey-tails and the creatures that can’t fly. Under a log I dove, sobbing for the shame of sin.

Some of you sing relentlessly of mercy. Divine mercy. Compassionate mercy. Do not misunderstand me; I believe that such mercy exists. But that does not mean I believe it should be wasted on a sinful sparrow like me.

I must confess, there are moments when my self-loathing and shame do not reach these depths. Sometimes, especially after the vernal rains, I find myself flitting from tree to tree, from leaf to leaf, and a voice rings out in my head and heart. It ruffles my russet feathers and sets my beak chattering. How can such a song be both fearful and cheerful, both immanent and transcendent? I know not—sparrows are not meant to understand the secret seams of the universe, after all—but I have indeed heard the voice in all its contradictions.

“Will you stop badger-burrowing into your nest of shame, little one?” it says. And then, for that brief moment, all the leaves around me become like pages of the tomes humans read. The veins curl into arabesque lettering, the light-refracting droplets illuminating a latent message: “I love you,” the book of tree leaves says to me in silence. The affirmation fills up the void left by that still and small voice: fearful and cheerful, immanent and transcendent. Yes, for moments like that, the burden of my shame is transformed into levity. But the joy is ephemeral, and the call subtle—so subtle that it’s very easy to doubt it was uttered at all. And so, time and time again, I hear it and my heart lifts and then falls back down. And time and time again I run back to my hiding place of shame.

It is perhaps odd for me to hold these thoughts in my head all at once: the present shame that drives my tears and sad birdsong in the morning and night, and the intellectual memory of those joyful moments when a call of love picked me up out of my sorrow and beckoned me to go on a search for God. I do not know why I have not yet taken the plunge and joined you on your search, my brethren. I am so scared; had I the strength of Brother Hawk, then I might be able to shake the dust of my shame and rise in glorious flight to meet God. But I am no raptor, just a mere song bird who flits from tree to tree and from leaf to leaf. I am scared to bring my full self to our Lord… even if our Lord has from time to time brought His full self to me.

a ghazal for the desert of the soul 

love made man: molded as the weary earth,

imbued her with all wildlands of the earth.


spend life! reach longingly in sky-t’ward twist,

crawling up the mist; fly, blooms! from the earth,


your winking flowers, folded, forged for you,

bursting forth: innermost-light to the earth,


but then falling, wilted (dead in heartbeats);

grown stilted, godlife less glowed to the earth,


yea, love made man: formed as the flower’s birth,

but then abandoned? desert-turned the earth!


no. not left here sandy and desolate,

just with love for bleak nothings of the earth:


(a conversion: new eyes, new blooms, opened!)

for grey rocks, sky-nights, wastelands on the earth.


filled emptiness—love out of flower’s death—

emerges in your sojourn on the earth,


realized longing in the soul’s darkness:

luke’s loved in desolation of the earth.


I figured that one of my pieces would take the form of a poem, but I assumed it would be a masnawi, or just a free verse response to another course theme. I’m surprised I ended up choosing the ghazal. The form is beautiful, but also very difficult (at least, so it seems to me). The continual repetition of the last phrase in each couplet, plus the radif, ensured I would always be limited on some level, and if I wasn’t careful, it could easily sound kitschy or sing-song. An interesting poetic challenge to undertake—and (haha) I’m not sure if I fully succeeded.

For my ghazal (which I have entitled a ghazal for the desert of the soul), I decided on a simple metrical rule of ten syllables per line. Thematically, I wanted it to be a divine love poem as is traditional for the ghazal, though in terms of imagery I think I diverged from convention somewhat.

My continual devotional obsession is with apophatic thought and apophatic prayer. In my native Christianity, I have heard apophatic prayer called the prayer of the desert. This is because to enter apophatic prayer is to enter a spiritual realm without much imagery, and without much color. It is a wasteland where there is you, there is God, and there isn’t meant to be much else.

I note in the work of J.T.P. de Brujin that in the expression of radical divine love, ghazals often feature imagery that reverts or subverts the values of traditional piety: drunkenness as the ideal state, the drunk as the divine lover, the Zoroastrian mage as the spiritual adept, et cetera (76). I love how somewhat unexpected images are utilized to convey the beauty of mystical experience. I also note that “to the ghazal poet, Nature in particular is full of analogies to his experiences of love” (de Brujin 63).

I decided to keep both of these characteristics in mind when composing a poem about apophatic union with God. The imagery of nature is central to my poem (my radif/rhyme combination is “the earth”), but I have tried to use nature in a subversive way. Here, God is not found in the vernal bloom of garden life that occurs in spring. In this poem, God is not found in green things. Rather, God is found in the silence of the desert, and in its death (which is akin to our death of the ego).  Thus in my ghazal, I pay homage to both the presence of nature in the Sufi imagination, and also to the use of unexpected, subversive imagery for God.

A brief note on aesthetics: A personal favorite poet, G.M. Hopkins, also wrote a lot about nature and God. Grammatically, his verse is bizarre and, for lack of a better term, elegantly jagged. I tried to emulate this aesthetic in my ghazal.