The hermetic wisdom of Shustari in his mystical poem “Is that a lamp?”

One of the most famous students of the great hermetic master Ibn Sab’in was the poet Ali al-Shushtari (d.1269). When he became a devotee of Ibn Sab’in, the master was four years younger than him and was widely respected at that time. They first met in Algeria when in their thirties and later went together to Mecca and Egypt. Al-Shushtari composed two treatises on Sufism and dedicated three poems to his spiritual Master.

Whether the poems of ash-Shushtari are read as literal descriptions of meetings or as symbolic theological encounters, the rich array of intermingled signs – including an abundance of Christian terminology, Qur’anic allusions, Sufi expressions, the vocabulary of hermetic alchemy, metaliterary self-consciousness, and the curious apparition of a grail-like glowing chalice – opens up a host of interpretations.

The poem “Is that a lamp?” is structured around three major themes or narrative elements.

  1. The first is the night journey guided by a mysterious light, which leads to the encounter at the monastery and the drinking of wine.
  2. The second is a lengthy meditation on the quest for knowledge, and finally,
  3. a self-referential section takes up the question of the poet’s acknowledgment of his own ego in versifying and his exaltation of the purpose of the poem.

Analyzing the poem’s structure in terms of the classic divisions of the Arabian ode, one might understand the first section as having dispensed with the customary nasib, or remembrance of the beloved, and plunged the narrator and the audience directly into a journey, or rahil, to the primordial wine.

The glowing chalice and the timeless talismans sought by the travelers in “Is that a lamp?” invite comparison with certain aspects of the grail legends, raising questions as to whether Shushtari might have come into contact with some European version of the story brought back to Syria or Damietta during the Crusades, or whether perhaps he was familiar with other material that is sometimes proposed as an Eastern source for the tales.

Shushtari is interested in poetic images, symbolism, and the reworking of commonplaces to gain access to uncommon knowledge. If the grail legends can often be understood as enacting a symbolic encounter between Christianity and paganism or pre-Christian belief, here Islam faces Christianity. 

The language of magic and alchemy adds another way to conceptualize power, knowledge, and the perfection of matter. This is one of several poems in which Shushtari speaks of talismans: his exact meaning is never fully clear. 

Amulets were and continue to be a part of popular religious practice in Islam. Talismans might be engraved with short sūras from the Qur’an, divine names, the names of angels, astrological symbols, or magic squares. The Greek origin of the word tilasm and an abundance of texts attributing rules for their creation to Hermes Trismegistus link the notion of talisman to late Hellenic gnosticism.

Many of the mystic thinkers who helped to shape Shushtari’s thought. from Suhrawardi al-Maqtül to his master Ibn Sab’in, expressed a lively interest in hermeticism. The term “talisman” as used by Shushtari does not seem to refer to a charm or amulet but is used instead metaphorically. Ibn al-‘Arabi’s more discursive treatment of the subject may provide us with some clues as to how Shushtari understands the term. He calls practices or objects that hold power or control over human beings and prevent them from perceiving the fullness of reality “talismans.”

Is that a lamp?

O Sa’d, ask the priest in the monastery:
is that a lamp or a glass of wine?

We set out for it at night, it looked like fire on a
until the first blaze of dawn appeared.

I say, my friends, the fire is gone. It appears
and then disappears. Why does it do that?

A star would keep moving.
That confused me and I was confused

till I arrived at the monastery and above it
I encountered a goblet. I didn’t know what was inside.
Didn’t know.

“By what’s due the Messiah, tell us true, what does it
He said, “The wine of passionate love. Guard the secret.

For it was raised since before Seth for the night visitor
seeking the monastery in dark-cloaked night.”

So we said to him, “For those who desire intoxication,
what is its price?” He said to us, “We can sell it,

however, in exchange for the soul and the wealth that
is its due,
with humility, praise and thanks for the vintner.

So we said to him, take us in and pour us some;
anyone who criticizes or insults us [for it] must be
borne with patience.

He continued serving us graciously
adding until the multiple became single.

When we became substance and our souls were content,
we feared boisterousness in our drunken state.

The vintner took note of us and said, “Drink
and be content, for there is no one in the monastery
but me.

If you wish, go and guide others
to us, but hide this affair from the unwise.”

Shushtari grew anguished because of the secrecy
but the brightness after the obliteration eased him:

Leave me be – I drag my coattails proudly before
and I aspire to the likes of Abi Bakr, the faqih.

The ha of the faqih has become one with our ra,
leading to a release from subjugation.

For His power, which encircles all power
is the ship of meaning that encompasses all that can
be known.

It sails in the sea of being and its vastness
on an easy wind, swayed by horizons of knowledge.

That is our goal, what captivates us;
the lost cannot attain this, no matter how diligently
they journey.

Our mount to the spacious abode is our patience
in adversity. Indeed, the benefit is in that patience.

To aquire the fire of Moses, there are conditions:
one must leave family out of obedience and obligation.

That is our practice. The obstinate ones veil Him;
to rip [the veil], one breaks with custom.

In the shedding of sandals there is, as you heard,
a station, however it comes with morals and dictates.

The talisman of creation’s treasure releases our
to reason and its benefits are eternal.

For you to break the talisman through humility is its
that elixir known as “the breaking,”

which is the key to the secret of the letters and their
the meaning of suffering is unraveled with ease.

The clever ones are sundered out of love of rank,
from that lower world, they are taken away, as if
by magic.

Our delight is in the upper world
which we now discuss, and life is in the searching.

Divestiture’s hand raises the veil
behind which those beauties appear.

The secrets appear to you, sovereignty and riches.
Oh, how many learned men have plunged into that

Perplexed, many a man becomes confused in the
enormity of the wave,
in the ebb and flow, not comprehending its meaning.

When he joins together what divides, they will travel
on the ship of reverence which approaches landfall.

Having understood the names, he becomes [both] ruler
and his lieutenant; bringing forth knowledge while
pulling [believers).

Didn’t you see the flash of “self”-ness
you felt in the midst of composing poetry?

For you are me but you are You, the One
who says “I.” Fantasy is what proceeds to multiplicity.

Those who see not, are they poor?
It is right to surrender and to compose verse and prose.

Video: Islamic Non-Dualism: The Sufi Poetry of al-Shushtari by Let’s talk religion

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