Poetry has been central to the spiritual life of Muslims

Ismailimail

Musical_Gathering A musical gathering, dated 18th century, Ottoman Turkey.
Aga Khan Museum Collection

The earliest examples of religious poetry in Islam are to be found in the verses of a small group of poets who were companions of Prophet Muhammad. The most famous poet was Hassan ibn Thabit (d. 669), who wrote poems in praise of the Prophet as well as to spread the messages from the Prophet. In the years following the Prophet’s death in 632, a number of the poets composed eulogies in his memory as well as poems inspired by passages of the Qur’an.

In the early years of Islam, Arabic poetry was largely non-religious, such as praise poems (madih), love lyrics (ghazal), hunting poems (tardiyyat), and satire (hija‘). Islamic religious poetry seems to have emerged in the late eight century in association with the widespread movement for religious and…

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Iran’s most celebrated visual artist, Parviz Tanavoli, speaks to MEMO about his work Amelia Smith Tuesday, 03 February 2015 16:32

Later Tanavoli went to Italy to study. It was on his return, he recalls, that he realised the role locks played in Shia Islam and Persian culture. In Iran public water houses were built in bazaars and neighbourhoods and during the hot summers passers-by would stop to take a sip of water. Gradually people started to make donations and the water houses became shrine-like decorated with imagery of the imams.

“People who have wishes or problems go to the shrines and tie up a strip of their clothing or fasten a lock to the grille of the shrine hoping that they can unlock their problems and cure their sicknesses or disease,” explains Tanavoli. “So the lock has great significance in Persian culture.”

In the sixties the lock became one of the iconographies central to a new movement co-founded by Tanavoli, termed Saqqakhneh, the Farsi word for water house. Dubbed spiritual “pop art”, Saqqakhneh sought to incorporate Shia symbols into art and often you will see padlocks on the body of Tanavoli’s sculptures and in the work of the young artists that joined the movement.

Another concept central to Tanavoli’s work is the principle of “Heech”, Farsi for “nothing”. Like the lock, the word Heech has been moulded by the artist and incorporated into the anatomy of his sculptures numerous times. It began in 1965, he says, in protest to the popularisation of calligraphy that at the time became fashionable and was exhibited in nearly every gallery. “I gave calligraphy up and only used one word,” he says.

Tanavoli describes the shape of Heech as malleable and soft, a word that can be put in a cage or on the walls. “I found there is so much in the Heech, that Heech is not nothing, Heech is something. Then later, as time went on, I realised that there is so much meaning behind it and so many poets prior to me, from centuries ago, have paid attention to this word and have used it and that is how it began.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Poet Turning into Heech (detail), 1973-2007. Collection of the artist.  Photo by John Gordon.The early poets, Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez, wrote a lot about Heech, points out Tanavoli, and posed the question of whether existence is nothing or whether non-existence is existence. “They wanted people to think about that – don’t underestimate the nothingness. As important as existence and thing are, no thing or nothing is important too.”

Work that features the Heech is the most popular and sought after of Tanavoli’s art. He says this is because people can relate to it and find something in the concept they can connect to. “It’s a simple shape, it’s abstract, and it’s very meaningful. It has a sculptural body different than other known sculptural figures,” he reflects. “I think there are many reasons it became popular.”

In 2008 Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), a two metre bronze sculpture etched with hieroglyphics, made a record sale when Christie’s auction house sold it for $2.84 million, the highest ever paid for a piece of artwork from the Middle East. Despite this, Tanavoli says that commercial success has not compromised his work. “I didn’t follow the market or market requests, in fact I turned it down in many instances and I followed my path. I continued doing my thing and opted out. I haven’t changed, I haven’t really commercialised any of my art.”

Though Tanavoli would not describe himself as “political”, there is certainly a political element to some of his work. Most artists, he says, are somehow involved in the politics of their time. “All the artists I know somehow are, but they may not reflect it directly, they might be very indirect. Somehow artists stay away from it especially in the area that we live. It’s not very safe to be political.”

Heech in a Cage – literally a Heech coming out of a silver cage – was made in protest of Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, a facility set up to imprison and interrogate suspects in the “war on terror”. The prison has attracted worldwide controversy for its use of water-boarding, the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike and detention without trial.

“I was very bothered when they put all these people in jail without giving them a fair trial. The torture and the way they were kept. I always felt that even if there are innocent among them, this is damaging American democracy. I decided to make a monument to the innocents of the Guantanamo.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Heech in the Cage, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.  Photo by John GordonThe monument was intended to be an enlarged version of Heech in a Cage which would then be donated to the people of Afghanistan; Afghanis were once the largest nationality represented in Guantanamo. However, Tanavoli couldn’t find a sponsor or a location in Afghanistan willing to take it, and so the project was never realised.

Closer to home Tanavoli has been involved in a drawn out conflict with the local government. In 2002 the artist’s house was turned into a museum by request of the city of Tehran with the backing of then Mayor Mohammad-Hassan Malekmadani who was keen on art and culture. But when Ahmadinejad became mayor he closed the museum declaring “it wasn’t part of our culture it was foreign culture,” recounts Tanavoli.

The artist went to court and fought for six years to get his house back but by this time much of his artwork had been taken. Last March he retrieved 13 pieces through a court order, but a few days later people from the municipality hired trucks and cranes, came back, broke the door down and took everything again.

“They don’t like my work, they’re not even interested,” he says. “But now they have realised that it is worth some money and that’s all they’re interested in. I wish they had even taken care of it. Several of my works are broken, some are damaged, some kept in very bad conditions and not handled professionally and so they are going into a state of decay. I want to get them back. I don’t know if I will or not, I still haven’t given up.”

Tanavoli says that wide-spread censorship on art and culture is more relaxed than it was in the Ahmedinejad years, under whom hundreds of books were censored, publishing permits were denied, films were banned and theatres shut down. “It was the worst period of all these eight years,” he reiterates. “Things are loosening now, they are better and of course more books are published, films are shown and theatres are again going back to their lives. So it goes up and down.”

Though he has a studio and a house in Tehran, Tanavoli and his family moved to Canada in 1989 and now lives and works between the two countries. “I couldn’t sell my sculptures there. I wasn’t even allowed to sell my sculptures there,” he says, explaining why his family moved. “Our children had to go to college for higher schooling and they didn’t have any chances, especially the girls. We have two daughters, so we decided to move to Canada for the sake of the children and then also to re-start my life. It wasn’t easy but of course things are better now.”

A decade before his move Tanavoli retired as head of the sculpture department at Tehran University, at the time of the Islamic Revolution.

Tanavoli’s work can be found in private and public collections from the British Museum in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the beginning of February a retrospective of Tanavoli’s work will go on display at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College in the US where over 175 of his pieces will be exhibited. Tanavoli says it will be a good opportunity for Americans to experience Iranian culture which often gets lost in news reporting from such a volatile region.

“I am very happy this is happening, especially in the States, because of this embargo and lack of communication,” says Tanavoli. The US placed sanctions on Iran following the US embassy seizure in 1979 and has maintained them, and broadened them, for most of the period following this.

“I think this might open the door. Americans have the right to see the other side of our culture; I mean the cultural part not just all this bad news. Of course the embargo has stopped all of this for a long time. So this is a good time, a good period, and I’m very much looking forward that there is going to be communication through art and Americans can see a taste of the art of Iran and myself and that part of the world.”

Parviz Tanavoli’s retrospective exhibition will be on display at The Davis Museum, Wellesley College from 10 February to 7 June.

The Conference of Birds: Beautifully Illustrated Story of Belonging Based on an Ancient Sufi Poem

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What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.

As a lover of children’s books with timelessphilosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds(public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartographyworld: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.

Birds!
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy — discontent — upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
I’wve seen the world. I know many secrets.
Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.
We must go and find him.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2012/05/01/the-conference-of-birds-a-lyrical-story-of-belonging-based-on-an-ancient-sufi-poem/

Love Charms, a Sufi poem/kafi by Bulleh Shah painted by by F. Zahra Hassan (text and painting from an album produced in 1997 in London.

LOVE CHARMS

With love charms, O friends, I shall win over my Beloved.

This charm I shall recite and waft: with sun fire burn it.

The lamp black of my eyes is the dark clouds: with brows

I shall kindle the blaze.

I cannot afford anything else; But I will plaint my wedding braids

on my temples.

Seven seas welter in the core of my heart; from the heart

I will start a wave,

Tranformed into clouds, will come crowding down.

Love, the Brazier; the aspen seeds the stars; in the

Sun-fire I will cast them.

I will enfold my spouse in my arms and sleep; then I

will deem myself wedded!

I am neither married nor a maid, yet I will mother a babe in my lap.

O, Bullah, sitting in the courtyard of the Houseless

I will sound my horn.

This is a very beautiful poem with very powerful symbolism. It is a love song in which the first person, the narrator, is female and is trying with every type of charm and magic she can think of to win her Beloved – the Beloved being the Divine Beloved hidden within us all: “With Love Chars, O friends, I shall win over my Beloved”. It is typical of the mystical poetry of the Indo-Pak sub-continent, (particularly in Hindu poetry) specially the northern part, to narrate a poem in the first person in the role of a female Lover addressing her male Beloved, the Beloved being the Divine Beloved. The device is used in most of the poems I have chosen and in them God is the Beloved, the husband and Bullah himself is the wife, whose only aim is to win the favour of her husband. On a more profound level it symbolises the yearning of the individual on the earthly plane to become reunited with the Creator on the celestial plane, “then I will deem myself wedded~” The language of the poem has some very strong and beautiful imagery such as “the lamp-black of my eyes is the dark clouds” and “Seven seas welter in the core of my heart; from the heart I will start a wave.” The “Seven seas” suggests that the narrator, in the longing knows she possesses such strength of love in her heart that when it is unleashed it “will start a wave,” which in turn will be “transformed into clouds” and come “crowding down.” in this poem Love is described not only as the “seven seas”, but also as the “brazier” – that is, the container for burning hot coals, the “aspand seeds” which are placed on the coals to avoid the evil eye, and the “stars” too; and then, as with the charm mentioned in the second line (and the title as well), they will all be cast in the “sun-fire.”

This, it must be said, is one of Bulleh Shah’s rare poems in which the language is not as simple as usual. He is narrating in the first person as the female Lover and in the last verse she succeeds in wining over the Beloved. This is symbolic of the marriage of the individual should (herself, the Lover) to, the universal Spirit, “I will deem myself wedded~” The union between husband and wife is when the poet realises his Divine Ideal of losing his ego in God. His communion with God results in ecstasy, bliss and the highest spiritual happiness and the “babe in his lap” is the fruite of his union, a spiritual child or gnosis (Marifa). The poet is an unmarried lady in this poem, and symbolically she is the love of her Lord.

“Sitting in the courtyard of the Houseless” is an awkward translation and in fact in Punjabi Bulleh Shah writes “peen”, which means throne or platform. “Peeri, is the highest spiritual station and when reached the blessed traveller is able to listen to eternal song which is sung by the soul.