Poetry, faith, and the Muslim soul
By Frankie Martin
The Washington Post
February 21, 2011
For Americans, Islam brings to mind many things, but poetry is rarely among them. Yet the Muslim world has produced some of the greatest poets the world has seen, like Rumi, currently the most popular poet of the United States. In this environment of suspicion and questions about who Muslims are and what they believe, poetry can be useful in understanding the religion and those who practice it.
Suspended Somewhere Between, a new collection of poetry by Akbar Ahmed, the world-renowned Islamic scholar and chair of Islamic studies at American University, provides these insights, giving an authentic and new perspective on a religion and a part of the world that is so constantly on our minds. The poems provide a window into Islam today, with its problems as well as its possibilities.
I have worked with Ahmed for the better part of a decade after taking his class in school, inspired by his message of improving relations between the Muslim world and the west. Yet I was unaware he was also a poet. These talents were concealed over a long career in the Pakistani civil service beginning in the 1960s, although some poems were published years ago, for which he won international awards, and were set to music by top Pakistani pop stars.
With this new book, Ahmed makes his American poetry debut in a collection combining older poems with new ones, providing glimpses of a life which has taken him from London to the mountains of Waziristan and now the halls of power in Washington, D.C. The poems range from the introspective and reflective to historical, political, and religious.
The title of the book, Suspended Somewhere Between, reflects Ahmed's own life--he physically moved between cultures and continents--but also modern dilemmas in an age of globalization where our identities are often in flux.
The poetry reflects this suspension, and is influenced by poets from both European and Muslim traditions from Coleridge and Keats to Hafiz and Rumi. There is also a strong influence from the great poets of Muslim South Asia, Ghalib and Iqbal.
Where the structure and meter of the poetry sometimes evoke the great English poets, Ahmed also uses classic Islamic poetic techniques to great effect. The scholar Roger Boase, who wrote on the poetry of Muslim Spain, characterized the Muslim poet of that era as a "jeweler with words, seeking the means of verbal images to fix and thereby eternalize a fleeting experience of joy or sadness or aesthetic delight."
I would describe Ahmed's poetry, which bursts with sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, in much the same way. Ahmed the jeweler often strings together linearly disconnected words, many of which are symbols like references to Xerxes, Samarkand, or an "iced Himaylan dream." When read together they effectively convey a mood or atmosphere. In "diaspora" there is a rapid-fire succession of images which give the impression of being lost in another culture: "Bulbous domes in mist/shrouded confuse me...the noon-heat edacity/of the seraglio lifts/ the veil and I see the/squalor of pavement-domesticity...the harlot/ of ethnic hungers/ sucks me in."
Islam is a constant thread running through the poems, and references to Muslim architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal or early caliphs like Umar are just as likely to appear in a love poem as one that is religious or historical in focus. Ahmed is uniquely placed, as a young man coming of age in the 1960s to comment on Islam's interaction with the modern world and the challenges it would face in the 21st century.
The most striking poem on this subject is "I, Saracen," in which a supremely assured twenty-one-year-old Ahmed assumes the voice of Islam itself: "Out of the shimmering sands I rode/suddenly Colossus-like the world I strode." Yet colonial and post-colonial realities had thrown the once confident Muslims into a crisis. What, then was the way forward? Even then Ahmed was clear. His Islam is one of "computers and the minaret," open to other belief systems but firmly rooted the tradition of a faith which prizes scholarship over violence. He exclaims: "The task so immense, its breadth its length/ so great, I sip of history for strength/ then scimitars cast aside, quills unsheathed/ Muslim true never surrendered while he breathed."
Many of the poems convey a philosophy that lacks a western category, a kind of religious existentialism. That is, Ahmed is guided and inspired by God and the Islamic tradition, but is fully aware existence often seems senseless and empty, especially when witnessing profound suffering. Isolation brings on these feelings, and Ahmed is often isolated, whether he feels he is the only human being amidst bloodshed, feels love which is unrequited or hopeless, is caught between cultures, or finds himself alone in nature.
In "high on these slopes," Ahmed's everyday life assumes that of a mountaineer in the "Himayalays of solitude," gazing at the "ants" living life's "sad and ancient patterns." He concludes: "under the illusions of conviviality/there is only white and cold bone/and/every man must stand alone." Although Sartre is referenced, the clear influence is Ghalib, the nineteenth century South Asian Muslim poet.
Many of the poems pulse with an energy and optimism for Pakistan, a new country founded as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, but Ahmed fears an uncertain and volatile future. In "you, my father," Ahmed notes that while his father used to have to stand whenever an Englishman entered the room, he looks on his father's life with "envy" because he was secure in his identity in an established colonial structure. With independence and the partition of Pakistan from India, the certainty disappears and things fall apart.
Many of the poems capture Ahmed's struggles to promote the compassion and justice of Islam in this new world. The suffering of ordinary people, seen in titles like "the small boy by the road" clearly weighed heavily on Ahmed, and he witnessed horrors he puts down in words. In "they are taking them away" about the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ahmed asked "what compulsions drive such men/what fear makes them such savages/while reason, so thin on the breast/deserts so quickly." The violence got so abhorrent, Ahmed writes, that "rape was relief/death a desire/and killing a kindness."
The state bureaucrats and civil servants, who are supposed to uphold the law, are failing miserably, and in "Votive Peregrination" Ahmed the jeweler strings some not so flattering words together to describe them. The bureaucrats are "coleopteral...with bated breath/wheezing... toothless sycophants/chanted in glabrous halitosis/in the unison born of/discalced despair."
Things look no better in the hills of the Pakistani tribal areas. In "Pukhtun landscape: a mood," Ahmed knows a violent storm is coming: "the fever stalks this land/from peak to glen and clan to clan...it withers youth, dries the blood in the veins of man... the old order is sick in bed/and our tomorrows hint at being red." And standing at the Khyber pass, looking towards Afghanistan, Ahmed marvels that so many foreign empires have tried to invade and hold the territory: "Like wind they came, like water they left/ the thousands of soldiers, the thousands of years/passages long gone, long forgotten/in this catacomb of desire and history."
Through all the pain and uncertainty, however, Ahmed clings to his humanity. This comes through in the flashes of humor sprinkled throughout the often intense and serious poems, as in the existential "'the world is too much...'" in which the poet, after conveying his fears of life and love, concludes that his greatest is to "fear flab anywhere." His description in "a little while" of an unattainable love as a "marshmallow...never toasted" cannot help but bring a smile to the reader.
Ahmed's humanity is also his Islam, the strand that holds everything together and gives him, and the reader, hope for the future. In these moments, Ahmed firmly channels the great poets of the mystic Muslim tradition. In "What is it that I seek?" Ahmed observes the same thing in Rumi, Mandela, Jesus, and Gandhi: "It is God's greatest gift/It raises us high above/It is the bridge over the rift/It is love, love, love." He encourages us to "Give it in generous measure."
As an American reading Suspended Somewhere Between, I found myself transported to a different world, which I feel I understand much better on its own terms. It has its predicaments, yes, but also its promise.
Both are on display in the ongoing Arab revolutions, which have exposed many of the internal Muslim societal problems Ahmed writes about, from corruption to violence and hopelessness. But like Ahmed in "I, Saracen," the Arab protesters have put away the scimitar in their desire for a modern society, using their religion and tradition to guide them. They have hope, energy, and optimism for the future.
As Dan Futterman, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Capote) who portrayed Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart, writes in the book's forward, Suspended Somewhere Between is a "treasured gift" for showing the "soulful depths of this remarkable man." Through him, we also glimpse the soul of Islam as he experienced and understood it. In a time of such turmoil in the Muslim world and questions in America about Islam, this is an invaluable insight to have.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service.