As we wrote in the introduction, in Ancient Egypt both mysticism and writing were seen as sacred secret traditions only accessible to elite priests. Therefore we figured that the most mystical book of the Egyptian priests, their holy Book of Thoth, was probably also written in such a way that a profane reader would have been unable to find its real contents. In this article we discuss the use of figurative language by mystics, focussing especially on its use by Persian mystics.
Mystic poets use worldly symbols and figurative languages such as similes, metaphors, and allegories to share the experience of the mystical realm and spiritual journey toward the Divine. Metaphors exist to convey, evoke and create sensibilities that cannot be conveyed using direct terms. Thus, mystics use metaphors with the aim to share their spiritual experiences and to open the channels of spirituality for their readers.
Maybe the most well-known tradition of the mystic metaphorical use of language is Persian mystical poetry. Persian mystical poetry is essentially symbolic in nature. This is reflected in the abundant use of rhetorical figures. Persian poets have used various literary devices to embellish their writings and to make them more persuasive.
Metaphors are at the heart of Persian poetry. When it comes to the tradition of the mystic metaphorical use of language in poetry, it is found that the Persian mystics used the metaphors of wine, cup, and tavern often. These metaphors are excessively used in different contexts to express deep mystical concepts.
It would be wrong to read the metaphorical poems of the Persian mystics in a literal way. One could then make the mistake that these deeply pious mystics engaged in all sorts of forbidden activities, like wine-drinking or seducing young women. Take the following poem by Rumi:
By your love
is all my sobriety
I’m in one
I’m so intoxicated
that I don’t remember
who I am.
I’m so drunk
that I lost the way home
If you don’t realize that the intoxication, the house, and the lover are metaphors, chances are you think that a wise Sufi like Rumi is an emotional drunkard who feels an almost adolescent love for a woman. Or that it’s a grieving man unable to break free from a loss from his past.
Today, as the mystical texts of these mystic masters are circulated on Valentine’s Day cards or posted on Facebook with pictures of beautiful women, we cover their deep beauty with a superficial material message.
Power of Poetry
The power of poetry is that through it we can give free rein to our imagination. Poems that talk about universal things, such as death, love, pain, hope, and desire can be interpreted in different ways. Because of this free interpretation, poems can bring joy, inspiration, or comfort to many different people.
However, this free interpretation also has a dark side. A poem can be taken out of its original context and in a way that is at odds with the poet’s intent. This happens, for example, when deeply religious poems are read by postmodern atheistic people. A mystical insight such as: “Verily, everything except the Beloved is a lie” is nowadays interpreted as: “Verily, everything except my girlfriend or boyfriend is a lie.”
Misinterpreting the symbolic imagery of Persian mysticism is symptomatic of our modern culture’s combination of materialism and spirituality. A common saying in modern spirituality is that you must experience your “Self” so that you can thereby experience “God” (or “the Goddess”). This emphasis on the spirituality of the Self – which is simply the ego in most cases – may seem ancient, but it stems from the occult movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the birth pangs of the ego-era began in which we are living now.
This non-traditional but modern form of belief internalizes religiosity and makes everything depend on the “inner voice” of the individual. Because of this, the modern spiritual man or woman rejects any form of external authority. The self, i.e. the ego, reigns supreme and everything external is denied. It is therefore ironic that the deeply religious symbolism of Persian mysticism, which was used to reduce the ego so that the presence of the divine could come to the fore, is now often used to give free rein to the ego.
It is wry that many Sufi poets and masters have warned that although their poems are set on a metaphorical level, there is an unambiguous message behind the imagery. It was never their intention that you give it your own twist. The poems are meant to take the reader’s imagination to the next level. The first interpretation of the poem using one’s own gut feeling holds back this elevation.
Allegory and symbols
The misinterpretation of the imagery of Persian mysticism is due to ignorance of the mystics’ intentions with allegory and symbols.
Getting drunk with wine, for example, refers to the loss of one’s rational self when submerged in the sea of divine love. The inn is the experience a mystic has when he (or she) experiences a feeling of being overwhelmed when he feels surrounded by the Divine Presence. Layla is an Arabic female name that linguistically refers to the darkest night of the month. In Persian mysticism, the name Layla refers to the hidden world that lies behind the outer illusion of this world.
When a Sufi is being intoxicated by a sip of wine served at the inn before seeing Layla appear in her nakedness, this has nothing to do with getting drunk in a tavern and then losing your mind with lustful desires for a beautiful woman sitting there on a bar stool.
From the beginning of Persian mystical poetry, the profuse use of metaphors and various rhetorical language games has also confused and thus angered the orthodox theologians. When some of the statements in the poems are taken literally, they are in direct contradiction with fundamental dogmas and practices in Islam.
This confusion was exacerbated by the fact that the symbolism almost automatically leads to misinterpretations when one is not familiar with the underlying insights. So you do not learn the underlying wisdom through the symbolism, but when you are familiar with the underlying wisdom then you understand the symbolism used.
The wine, the inn, and the beautiful Layla are among the recurrent symbols that are unfortunately first taken literally by non-mystics before being understood as metaphors. The visual language in the mystical poems are metaphors that refer to literal realities that all revolve around God and the divine.
It is not the intention of the mystic writers that the ignorant reader will interpret the meanings from his ‘inner voice’. Concerned that ignorant readers may misappropriate the symbols used, the poetic mystics warned that their works should not really be read without the guidance of a spiritual master.
The people of metaphors
It is not uncommon to read in Sufi poetry phrases such as: “We are the people of metaphors, not of literality” or “Metaphors are to us what literality is to others.” For this reason, the Sufi master Al-Ghazali said that people who try to interpret the essence of what the mystic poets said and wrote almost always do it wrong. He also said, “Know that the wonders of the heart are beyond sense experience.”
Hence, if you want to know what Rumi and other mystical poets mean, you must first suspend your own material and worldly projections, illusions, and prejudices before you can place the message of the poems in its proper metaphysical context.
In a materialistic culture of illusory realities, the works of Rumi and other Persian mystics are meant to serve as clues that there is more than what we experience with our senses. Their poetry was not about escapism through drunkenness or loss of self-consciousness for the sake of a beautiful person. On the contrary, their message was intended as a reminder of the Necessary Cause arising from all forms.
When I’m with you
we stay up all night.
When you’re not there
i can’t sleep.
Wonderful, two nights
lie awake, and it
difference between these two.
When Rumi speaks of the love between two lovers, he refers not only to the love that people share with each other but also to the love that humans share with the Being that transcends their own being. The lovers are united in a common desire to rise above each other’s self-image and self-worship.
Unless one appreciates the use of allegorical, figurative language, the deep insights in the poems of the Persian mystics will not be understood and there is a risk that the true meaning will be completely lost. And unless one appreciates the use of allegorical, figurative language in the Ancient Book of Thoth, its deep insights will also probably not be understood.
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