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An Ottoman Ghazal by Na'ili (d. 1666)

Translated from Ottoman Turkish by Walter Feldman
Note: A strong ghazal creates challenges to interpretations, riddles, paradoxes, shifting perspectives, and a build up of poetic tension. An explanatory afterword follows this translation, discussing some of the questions raised and explaining the various allusions it employs.

We are the snake and in the staff in Moses' hand we're hidden
Say not snake, but rather ant and under foot we're hidden

He won't see us in the mirror, though we're also his reflection,
To the vision-of self-praising intellect we're hidden

Although we are contained in the eye of Majnun, yet
We are the charm of beauty and in Leyla's cheek we're hidden

Were it even powdered diamonds no salve would take effect
We are that scar of madness—in its black core we're hidden

In Sinai or the burning bush Moses cannot see us;
In the flaming face of Divine Epiphany we are hidden

We are the ailment for which our healthy madness is the cure;
We are love and in passion's secret chamber we are hidden

We are the false chessman in your hand, oh double-dealing Fortune
In the thousand glances of an instant we are hidden

Oh Na’ili it's we who form enchanting images from the word.
Though we appear in words in the heart of meaning we are hidden.

© Walter Feldman

Among the allusions employed in this poem are the following: The Qur’anic story of Moses and the Pharaoh includes the magic power placed by God in the staff of Moses; the intellect or heart as a polished mirror reflecting reality or the image of God; Majnun and Layla as archetypal lovers; the search by doctors, alchemists, and herbalists for a cure for love; God’s epiphany before in the burning bush, and later in more dramatic form when Moses asks to sees God’s face, God reveals it instead to a mountain near Moses and the mountain is obliterated; the role of the heavenly spheres and fate in determining destiny and the condition of lovers; interplay between artistic and verbal expression and the secret, interior meaning; and the power of the poet’s words to cast a spell.

The final verse includes the feature, common to Persian, Turkish, and Urdu ghazals, known as takallus, in which the pen-name of the poet, whose persona had been the speaker in the poem, is addressed in the third person, apparently by some other speaker. The takallus provides each ghazal with a twist, vital to the impact of the poem as a whole. 

The poem presents a complex riddle: who are “we?” The answer shifts from verse to verse, and even from half-verse to half-verse. The “we” is powerful, then abject, at times human, at times perhaps divine (hidden in the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses). In Islamic tradition, “we” can be used as a royal or polite plural (similar to Victorian English, as exemplified by Queen Victoria’s famous response to a joke she did not appreciation, “We are not amused.” In the Qur’an, “we” commonly refers to Allah. The poet can refer to himself as “we,” or to the beloved through either the singular or plural forms of “you,” and the shift between singular and plural can create subtle registers of intimacy.

The Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu ghazal tradition employs a radif, a complex set of rhymes at the end of each verse difficult to reduplicate in English.  Radif involves not only a rhyme at the end of each verse, but a scheme of rhymes extending often into the last syllable of a word before the major rhyme word. This translation, by Walter Feldman, provides an unusually effective reflection of the radif in the expression “we’re hidden” by fitting it into a complex chain of rhythm, sound effects, and changes in syntax through each of the verses. 

A Love Poem by Ibn al-`Arabi (d. 1240)

Translated from the Arabic by Michael Sells
A note, following the poem, will discuss the genre of the poem and the questions and possible controversy raised over its interpretation. The poem’s title has been supplied by the translator. (Poets in the pre-modern Middle East did not give titles to their poems). 

Dead on the Trail in Dhát al-Áda
Lightning lit up
Dhát al-Áda, flashes
flickering down the valley sides.

A chain of whispering across the sky.
then thunder clashed open the rains.

Kneel the camels
they shouted, no one
listening. I'm crying, driver

Please! let the camels graze!
I'm in love with a girl who rides
in your care.  For a lissome girl,

Soft her gestures, delicate
her walk, the heart
of a sad man breaks.

Mention her and the crowd
rushes up with bouquets--
on every tongue, her name!

She camps below on the lowland plains
though her home is high on a baldcap mountain.

Lowlands are highlands with her.
Every height soars, with her,
beyond the gaze.

Every ruin, she brings
to life. She turns the mirage
into waters that quench.

Every garden opens, with her,
splendorous in flower,
every cup of wine is pure.

Her countenance illumines
my night, pitch dark
in the fall of her hair my day.

The Sunderer split
my heart down center
when she let her arrows fly,

Her eyes experienced
in finding the target,
burying their arrows inside.

No owl in a deserted ruin
No turtledove,
No crow

Is more baleful
than an old camel saddled
to take her whose beauty is fatal away

And leave a man
though his love was true
dead on the trail in Dhát al-Áda.

© Michael Sells

Note: Around the year 1200, Ibn al-`Arabi, the Sufi writer that came to be known as the “Grand Master” (al-shaykh al-akbar) of Sufi thought, published a collection of sixty-one lyrical poems he called “nasibs,” after the Qasida’s first section that focuses upon remembrance of the beloved, mourning over the ruins her abandoned campsite, evoking her presence, and exhibiting her power to inhabit the present and transform the desert desolation in a paradise of life and color. He names his collection The Translator [Turjuman] of Longings.  Like the earlier poets, Ibn al-`Arabi evokes the camel-drivers (who in tradition lead his beloved in her howdah—the richly embroidered enclosed litter or cabin placed on the camel saddle in which women traveled—in her journey away from him. He asks them to pause at one of her stations (the places where the caravan would camp for the night), and often calls out the name or name of one her stations, Dhát al-Áda in this case.  Here, as if he calls to them to stop to let the lovers be together again. Like Majnun with Layla, the lover is both brought to life by the beloved when she is with him yet slain by her fatal beauty, like Majnun out of longing when Layla is away.  

This poem, like most others in the Turjuman, can be read as a secular love poem to an earthly lover: indeed, the poems raised the ire of critics who accused Ibn al-`Arabi, a famous religious leader, of composing erotic and profane verses. It can also be read as a hymn to the divine beloved. In the latter case, the perishing of the lover represents the “passing away” of the ego-self, and in that moment of fana’ (or annihilation), the divine beloved’s beauty and presence fill the Sufi’s heart in the place of the ego-driven rationalist intellect, of the Sufi, just as, Ibn al-`Arabi writes elsewhere, comparing the heart to a mirror and the ego-self to a tarnish over the mirror, the divine image emerges in the polishing of the mirror. For other translations from the Turjuman and a discussion of the poems and their author, see Michael Sells, Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn al-Arabi and New Poems (Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2000).

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