Farid: With a Seeing Ear

The ecstatic Sufi poet Umar Ibn al-Farid (1181–1234 CE) was born in Cairo of Syrian parents, lived for a time in Mecca, and then returned to Cairo where he subsequently passed away. Although he is little known in the west, he is considered to be the very finest of the Arab mystical poets (as distinct from Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, who wrote in Persian).  As a young man, he used to go to oases for extended retreats, but after a time, feeling he was not making sufficient spiritual progress, he gave this up and enrolled in a madrassa to study Islamic law. One day, outside the madrassa he observed a greengrocer performing his ritual ablutions, but saw that he was not doing them according to the prescribed order.  When Ibn al-Farid attempted to correct the man, the greengrocer looked at him and said, “Umar!  You will not be enlightened in Cairo.  You will be enlightened only in Mecca…”  Stunned, Ibn al-Farid realised the man before him was more than a simple seller of vegetables, but he protested that he was unable to make the trip to Mecca right away.  In response, the man gave Ibn al-Farid a vision of Mecca, an experience that affected him so profoundly that he left immediately for the Hijaz.  He said later, “When I entered Mecca, enlightenment came to me wave after wave and never left.”

He stayed there for some fifteen years, only returning to Cairo when he heard the same greengrocer calling him back to attend his funeral.  He arrived, to find the man on the point of death, and they were able to say farewell before he died.  In Cairo, Ibn al-Farid was now regarded as a saint, and people flocked to him when he walked in the street. He was invited to give teaching to judges and leading nobles of the city, but he avoided all offers of patronage, preferring to put his trust in God; a teaching position at the Al Azhar mosque gave him enough to support his family.

It is reported that Ibn al-Farid experienced prolonged states of ecstasy, and that much of the poetry we have was dictated when he emerged from these states.  This brief passage is taken from the much longer work, ‘Poem of the Sufi Way.’

I dove into the seas of union,
dove deeper still for solitude
and so recovered
the pearl without equal,

That I could hear my acts
with a seeing ear
and witness my words
with a hearing eye.

So when the nightingale mourns
in the tangled brush,
and birds in the trees
warble in reply,

Or when the flautist’s notes
quiver in accord
with the strings plucked
by the singing girl’s hand

As she sings poetry
whose every note
moves hearts to fly
to their lote tree*,

Then I delight in my works of art
declaring my union
and company free
of the idolatry of difference.

*In Islam, this refers to a tree that stands at the end of the seventh heaven, called the Sidrat al-Muntaha, marking the point beyond which creation cannot pass.  The Prophet Mohammed travelled to this tree in the company of the Archangel Gabriel, and it was here that he heard Allah proclaim the duty of prayer upon all humanity.

Umar Ibn al-Farid
from ‘Poem of the Sufi Way’
in Islamic Mystical Poetry
tr. Emil Homerin


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