Anika Lindsey: Islamic Poetry

Poetry is an integral part of Islamic culture. The Quran itself, the word of God, is highly poetical. Committing large parts of this rhythmic text is routine for Muslims. Poetry lends significance to the art of calligraphy, which is incorporated into many things, even architecture, another significant aspect of Islamic culture. Poetry is a way of preserving knowledge and wisdom for the generations to come, and a beautiful way of passing it on. “Doing what is beautiful,” ihsan, is an important aspect of Islam in and of itself.

Poetry provides a form for culture, the collective memory of a group, and is in a way timeless: accessible by all people regardless of time period. The great poets of the past like Rumi, Sa’di, Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Ghazali, and Ibn Sina to name a few, are still celebrated profusely in present day.

Sa’di is known for his poems in the form of short stories. Stories have always been one of my favorite modes of communication, because not only are they entertaining and emotional, but they are usually very open to interpretation. In one of Sa’di’s tales, a merchant speaks of a time when, close to death and lost in the desert, he found a bag of pearls. “Never will I forget that moment of joy and happiness when I thought they were fried wheat grains,” he said when recounting his story, “and then the bitterness and despair when I discovered they were only pearls.”

While this tale is short and simple, it still makes the reader think. Perhaps the author wants to send the message simply that the riches of this world are not as valuable as we think. Perhaps he wants us to recognize that simple, mundane objects like wheat grains are truly amazing and very valuable. Perhaps he means that the value of all objects is determined by our needs. Or that we should value only what we need. Or maybe, he just wanted to get a laugh out of his audience as they appreciated his use of irony.

The classical poets are not the only ones appreciated- their works are not only read but also inspire others to write. One more modern poet, Nazim Hikmet, wrote a poem called “On Living” divided into three parts. The first explains that “life is the most real, most beautiful thing” but that it “weighs heavier” than death. The second describes how even when we are faced with death, we can laugh; even when imprisoned, we can live with the outside world. The third talks of the end of the Earth, and states the necessity of grieving the end already in order to live.

Hikmet’s poem points toward the simple beauties of life, but incorporates the tragedy and ephemerality of life as well. By mixing the negative with the positive, and encouraging readers to “live with great seriousness,” he conveys the value of life and the joy of living without making life seem too depressing and without trivializing it either. This is wisdom.