Wednesday, 8 December 2010

this very world is paradise


 I have a story I want to share with you today.   It is the story of Hakim Sanai,  the great poet of 12th century Afghanistan.   I have illustrated this story with historically relevant art and artifacts that I hope will  give a sense of time and place.

12th century Persian star tile
The Detroit Institute of Art

These were times of aggression by the Seljuk  (Turkish)  Persians who controlled Afghanistan for about 200 years,  pillaging their wealthy neighbour to the southwest, India.   In the court of Bahram Shah,  Sultan of Ghazni,  there served a brilliant young man,  Hakim Sanai who was already popular as Advisor to the king and Court Poet,  celebrating the nobility of his time.

   Seljuk (Turkish) period polychrome bowl depicting royalty circa 1187 

 One day,  as Bahram Shah  prepared for battle,  Hakim Sanai hurried to present a poem of praise that he had just written for him.   As Hakim was running past a walled garden,  he heard from within it the bellowing of the scurrilous madman and amoral drunkard,  Lai Khur.   "Bring me another drink that I may propose a toast to the blindness of the king,"  he said to his attendant,  a poor man who tried to hush him with words of fearful prudence.   But Lai Khur roared defiantly,   "He deserves a toast worse than this,  for what kind of king would leave our beautiful city to go on a fool's errand  when he is honoured  and needed here?   He is already blind to the work God has given him!"

late 12th - early 13th century Persian bowl depicting victorious king
 from11th century poet Firdausi's Shahnama (the Book of Kings)

Hakim began to slow down as he heard this,  but before he was out of range,  he heard something even more disturbing.   "And now let me drink to the blindness of the poet, Sanai."    Because Hakim Sanai was so loved in this part of the world,  the servant protested even more,  but Lai Khur growled,  "Sanai is a fool as well;  for all his cleverness and insight,  he is unable to see the futility of what he does.   Indeed, he is blind to his existence;  in fact, to the needs of his very soul.   Yes, I toast for his greater blindness that he might finally wake up!"

leaf from the Qur'an in 'eastern kufi' script
late 11th or 12th century Iran or Afghanistan 

Shocked to his core,  Hakim Sanai heard these words in his deepest heart,  and changed his life from that moment on.   Leaving Ghazni,  he pursued  "the way of the heart"  under the Sufi master,  Yusef Hamdani,  and returned, eventually, to Ghazni.  Upon his arrival,  the Bahram Shah rejoiced,  offering his only sister as a bride to errant poet,  but Hakim no longer belonged to that world and left on a pilgrimage for Mecca and Medina.

page from De Materia Medica of Dioscorides
showing him with a student, Northern Iraq 1229

It was when he came back that he wrote the ecstatic poem Walled Garden of Truth,   his ode to his oneness with God,  or the Beloved, one of the most venerated works.   When Hakim Sanai began to write of of his experience he was accused of heresy,  but managed to find protection from his accusers and lived to write the poetry that was loved by so many,  eventually inspiring the great Sufi poet,  Jalaluddin Rumi.

from the manuscript  'Assemblies' of Hariri, known as the St. Baast Hariri,
here seen with an old man who speaks to him in verse, Syrian late 13th century

Here is a famous story you may have heard before from The Walled Garden of Truth.

"There was a great city in the country of Ghûr in which all the people were blind.   A certain king passed by that place,  bringing his army and pitching his camp on the plain.   He had a large and magnificent elephant to minister to his pomp and excite awe,  and to attack in battle.   A desire arose among the people to see this monstrous elephant,  and a number of the blind visited it,  every one running in his haste to find out its shape and form.   They came,  and being without the sight of their eyes,  groped about it with their hands;  each of them by touching one part obtained a notion of one aspect;  each one got a conception of an impossible object,  and fully believed his fancy to be true.   When they returned to the people of the city,  the others gathered round them,  all expectant,  so misguided and deluded were they. They asked about the appearance and shape of the elephant,  and what they told,  all listened to.   Someone asked the one whose hand had come upon its ear about the elephant;  he said, "It is a huge and formidable object, broad and rough and spreading, like a carpet."   And he whose hand had come upon its trunk said,  "I have found out about it;  it is straight and hollow in the middle like a pipe,  a terrible thing and an instrument of destruction."    And he who had felt the thick hard legs of the elephant said,  "As I have it in mind,  its form is straight like a planed pillar."   Every one had seen some one of its parts,  and all had seen it wrongly.   No mind knew the whole.   Knowledge is never the companion of the blind;   all,  like fools deceived,  fancied absurdities.

Men know not the Divine essence; into this subject the philosophers may not enter."

illustration from the Manafi' al-Hawayan by Ibn Bakhtishu'
Persian, 1295

 As with his chance and veiled encounter with Lai Khur  (whose belligerent words woke him to his soul's deepest longing)  so the truth,  he wrote,  is hidden from us only that our desire to know it can be awakened.  In Persian,  the word for walled garden also means "paradise".   The Sufis see this very world we live in as paradise;  the heart that knows this,  knows all there is to know.

For an even better overview of this story press here.   Within you will find a similar story about Alexander the Great's encounter with Diogenes.


With apologies for the poor quality,  this is a reproduction of a 14th century Syrian painting.   Clustered together,  we see some owls who live in a mountain protected by fire from some crows who would attack them.   To me this represents what Sanai wrote above:  truth is hidden from us only that our desire to know it can be awakened.

Deciding to make my own New Year's cards this year, what came to mind but owls.

These first two are quite small measuring 3" wide x 2" high.
They are drawn with pen and acrylic polymer emulsion "ink"
and painted with watercolour.

In the same medium, this painting is 6" wide x 4 1/4" high,
already sent to a dear friend for her 82nd birthday which!

Wishing us all Owl Wisdom to wrap our consciousness in.


Elise Muller said...

Thanks for the Sufi and Owl wisdom! I like how you found so many images to illustrate the story.

Enchanted Blue Planet said...

And thank YOU dear Elise, for sharing and encouraging me.

Neal Koga said...

Hello, I was wondering if I might use the photograph of the Qur'an page in 'eastern kufi' script for an encyclopedia article on Islamic calligraphy ... it is such a beautiful exemplar.

Enchanted Blue Planet said...

It is such a beautiful page Neal and you are most welcome to it as it is not my copyright and only borrowed from Google images to illustrate this post.

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