VI. ISLAMIC LITERATURE: 1400–1520

Even Selim the Grim threaded verses on rhyme, and bequeathed to Suleiman the Magnificent a royal divan of his collected poems as well as an empire ranging from the Euphrates to the Danube and the Nile. Twelve sultans and many princes—including that Prince Djem whom his brother Bajazet II paid Christian kings and popes to keep in refined confinement—appear among the 2,200 Ottoman poets who have won fame in the last six centuries.37 Most of these bards took their forms and ideas, sometimes the language, of their verse from the Persians; they continued to celebrate, in endless rivulets of rhyme, the greatness of Allah, the wisdom of the shah or sultan, and the trembling envy of the cypress trees seeing the white slenderness of the beloved’s legs. We of the West are now too familiar with these charms to thrill to such lofty similes; but the “terrible Turks,” whose women were alluringly robed from nose to toes, were stirred to the roots by these poetic revelations; and the poetry that in its denatured translation leaves us unmoved could inspire them to piety, polygamy, and war.

From a thousand dead immortals we cull with untutored fancy three names still unfamiliar to the provincial Occident. Ahmedi of Sives (d. 1413), taking his cue from the Persian master Nizami, wrote an Iskander-nama, or Book of Alexander, an immense epic in strong, crude style, which gave not only the story of Alexander’s conquest by Persia, but as well the history, religion, science, and philosophy of the Near East from the earliest times to Bajazet I. We must forgo quotation, for the English version is such stuff as nightmares are made of. The poetry of Ahmad Pasha (d. 1496) so delighted Mohammed II that the Sultan made him vizier; the poet fell in love with a pretty page in the conqueror’s retinue; Mohammed, having the same predilection, ordered the poet’s death; Ahmad sent his master so melting a lyric that Mohammed gave him the boy, but banished both to Brusa.38 There Ahmad took into his home a younger poet, soon destined to surpass him. Nejati (d. 1508), whose real name was Isa (Jesus), wrote an ode in praise of Mohammed II, and fastened it to the turban of the Sultan’s favorite partner in chess. Mohammed’s curiosity fell for the lure; he read the scroll, sent for the author, and made him an official of the royal palace. Bajazet II kept him in favor and affluence, and Nejati, triumphing heroically over prosperity, wrote in those two reigns some of the most lauded lyrics in Ottoman literature.

Even so the great masters of Moslem poetry were still the Persians. The court of Husein Baiqara at Herat so teemed with nightingales that his vizier, Mir Ali Shir Nawa’i, complained, “If you stretch out your feet you kick the backside of a poet”; to which a bard replied, “And so do you if you pull up yours.” 39 For Mir Ali Shir (d. 1501), besides helping to rule Khurasan, supporting literature and art, and winning renown as a miniaturist and a composer, was also a major poet—at once the Maecenas and Horace of his time. It was his enlightened patronage that gave aid and comfort to the painters Bihzad and Shah Muzaffar, and the musicians Qul-Muhammad, Shayki Na’i, and Husein Udi, and the supreme Moslem poet of the fifteenth century—Mulla Nuru’d-Din Abd-er-Rahman Jami (d. 1492).

In a long and uneventful life Jami found time to achieve fame as a scholar and mystic as well as a poet. As a Sufi he expounded in graceful prose the old mystic theme, that the joyous union of the soul with the Beloved—i.e., God—comes only when the soul realizes that self is a delusion, and that the things of this world are a maya of transitory phantoms melting in a mist of mortality. Most of Jami’s poetry is mysticism in verse, spiced with some attractive sensuality. Salaman wa Absal tells a pretty tale to point the superiority of divine to earthly love. Salaman is the son of the shah of Yun (i.e., Ionia); born without a mother (which is much more difficult than parthenogenesis), he is brought up by the fair princess Absal, who becomes enamored of him when he reaches fourteen. She conquers him with cosmetics:

The darkness of her eyes she darkened round
With surma, to benight him in midday,
And over them adorned and arched the bows
To wound him there when lost; her musky locks
Into so many snaky ringlets curled,
In which Temptation nestled o’er her cheek,
Whose rose she kindled with vermilion dew,
And then one subtle grain of musk laid there,
The bird of that belovéd heart to snare.
Sometimes, in passing, with a laugh would break
The pearl-enclosing ruby of her lips.... .
Or, rising as in haste, her golden anklets
Clash, at whose sudden summons to bring down
Under her silver feet the golden crown 40

of the heir-apparent Prince. He yields without effort to these lures, and for a time boy and lady enjoy a lyric love. The King reproaches the youth for such dalliance, and bids him steel himself for war and government. Instead Salaman elopes with Absal on a camel, “like sweet twin almonds in a single shell.” Reaching the sea, they make a boat, sail it “for a moon,” and come to a verdant isle rich in fragrant flowers, singing birds, and fruit falling profusely at their feet. But in this Eden conscience stabs the Prince with thoughts of the royal tasks he has shunned. He persuades Absal to return with him to Yun; he tries to train himself for kingship, but is so torn between duty and beauty that at last, half mad, he joins Absal in suicide: they build a pyre and leap hand in hand into its flames. Absal is consumed, but Salaman emerges incombustible. Now, his soul cleansed, he inherits and graces the throne—It is all an allegory, Jami explains: the King is God, Salaman is the soul of man, Absal is sensual delight; the happy isle is a Satanic Eden in which the soul is seduced from its divine destiny; the pyre is the fire of life’s experience, in which sensual desire is burned away; the throne that the purified soul attains is that of God Himself. It is hard to believe that a poet who could so sensitively picture a woman’s charms would seriously ask us to shun them, except occasionally.

With an audacity redeemed by the result, Jami dared to rhyme again the favorite themes of a dozen poets before him: Yusuf u Zulaikha, and Laila wa Majnun. In an eloquent exordium he restates the Sufi theory of heavenly and earthly beauty:

In the Primal Solitude, while yet Existence gave no sign of being, and the universe lay hid in the negation of itself, Something was.... . It was beauty absolute, showing Herself to Herself alone, and by Her own light. As of a most beautiful lady in the bridal chamber of mystery was Her robe, pure of all stain of imperfection. No mirror had Her face reflected, nor had the comb passed through Her tresses, nor the breeze with balmy breath stirred even a single hair, nor any nightingale come nestling to her Rose... But beauty cannot bear to be unknown; behold the Tulip on the mountain top, piercing the rock with its shoot at the first smile of spring.... So Beauty Eternal came forth from the Holy Places of Mystery to beam on all horizons and all souls; and a single ray, darting from Her, struck Earth and its Heavens; and so She was revealed in the mirror of created things.... And all atoms of the universe became as mirrors casting back each one an aspect of the Eternal Glory. Something of Her brightness fell upon the rose, and the nightingale was crazed with helpless love. Fire caught Her ardor, and a thousand moths came to perish in the flame.... And She it was who gave the Moon of Canaan that sweet brightness which made Zulaikha mad.41

From these celestial heights Jami descends to describe the Princess Zulaikha’s loveliness with fervent repetition and detail, even to her “chaste fortress and forbidden place.”

Her breasts were orbs of a light most pure,
Twin bubbles new-risen from fount Kafur,
Two young pomegranates grown on one spray,
Where bold hope never a finger might lay.42

She sees Joseph in a dream, and falls in love with him at first seeming; but her father marries her to Potiphar, his vizier. Then she sees Joseph in the flesh, exposed in the market as a slave. She buys him, tempts him, he refuses her advances, she wastes away. The vizier dies; Joseph displaces him and marries Zulaikha; soon both waste away, at last to death. Only the love of God is truth and life.—It is an old tale; but who could sleep over such sermons?

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