Poems of a Sufi Martyr

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Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj
Carl W. Ernst
  • Evanston, IL: 
    Northwestern University Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mansur Hallaj is probably the most famous Sufi. He is familiar, even to those who don’t study Sufism, as the Muslim mystic who uttered “I am the Truth” and was executed in Baghdad in 922. Whether executed for heresy or political reasons, his death was a watershed in Sufism. Later Sufis took more “sober” paths of mysticism bounded by ascetic self-scrutiny, intellectual eloquence and piety-minded scholarship. Sufis are split over assessing Hallaj. Some consider him an exemplar of selfless courage who spoke out for freedom and love, while others consider him an audacious rebel who never matured under the guidance of an elder Sufi master.

Amid theological controversies, Mansur Hallaj is not well known as a poet. Yet accounts of his life and teachings are studded with his poems. Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr translates Hallaj’s Arabic poems into well-crafted literary English. The translator is Carl Ernst, the leading scholar of Sufism in the United States. He created an accessible collection of Sufi poems about love, anguish, divine union, and Islamic theology, with a useful introduction that frames them in Hallaj’s biography and the complex scholarship about him.

Ernst admits openly the difficulty of collecting and translating these poems: “a major dilemma confronts anyone interested in the writings of Hallaj. He was, by all accounts, a prolific author, but very little of his work has survived; indeed, it is widely believed that his writings were deliberately suppressed” (7). Many of Hallaj’s books were burned when their author was executed. The French orientalist, Louis Massignon, extracted many poems he found from Hallaj’s extant writings and later accounts and gathered them into Diwan al-Hallaj, published in 1931. Massignon found it difficult to identify which poems were authentically by Hallaj, and this challenge remains for Ernst, who translates 117 poems, some of which Massignon had elided.

Ernst combines the skills of translator, scholar, and educator. As a translator, he strives to render classical Arabic into simple, idiomatic modern English that general readers find refreshing and engaging. He belongs in the circle of expert translators—such as Michael Sells and Emile Homerin—who bring Arabic Sufi poetry to Anglophone audiences. Ernst groups the poems into subjects (love, conventional and mystical; martyrdom; metaphysics; riddles; and sermons) and gives each poem a title. Each poem gets a brief introduction, while endnotes give more details, including the poem’s initial phrase in Arabic, puns and rhymes, and theological intricacies.

As a scholar, Ernst notes whether a poem features in Hallaj’s life and debates. In a fascinating appendix, he translates twenty-two incidents from the News of Hallaj (Akhbar al-Hallaj), a hagiographic account of his life and martyrdom. This account “stages” the poems as part of Hallaj’s biography, making them dramatize his conflicts with Sufis and theologians. Though Ernst presents the poems as literary pieces by “bracketing out” the question of whether Hallaj was a saint or heretic, this appendix guides readers back into his controversial life. Other appendices list previous translations and offer an intriguing glimpse into how Hallaj was quoted by Maulana Rumi, the famous medieval Sufi poet who is now garnering worldwide popular acclaim.

As an educator, Ernst displays his decades-long experience as a liberal arts professor (at Pomona College and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). He explains the contemporary relevance of Hallaj beyond the confines of Sufi scholarship. “Among Arab authors, Hallaj has reemerged as a symbol of freedom and revolt against unjust power” (33). Ernst frames his translation with modern Arab writers like Adunis (from Lebanon) and Salah Abd al-Sabur (from Egypt) who revive Hallaj’s persona. Canadian playwrights, Muslim calligraphers, and popular musicians created modern art based on Hallaj’s poems and sayings. Ernst deftly portrays how Hallaj’s poems still live through these contemporary arts.

The poems speak for themselves in the new tongue that Ernst has bestowed on them. Readers will find much-beloved couplets, like “Kill me, friends, for in my killing is my life. My death is in my life; my life is in my death” (poem 44), which Maulana Rumi wove into his Persian Masnavi. Ernst translates not just the first lines that are so famous, but rather the entire poem’s twenty couplets. Other poems are miniature gems quoted in medieval Sufi literature, such as poem 107:

I am the one that I desire; the one I desire is I;

            We are two spirits dwelling in a single body.

So when you have seen me, you have seen him,

            And when you have seen him, you have seen us.

Ernst allows the simple and direct language to come through in English, retaining the tension of its ambiguities (who is “he”? what kind of “desire” is this? can one body hold two spirits?) without resolving them by fixing capital letters (which do not exist in Arabic) to make “Him” refer to God.

Another famous short poem (number 6) captures the passionate longing of Hallaj and shows how he adapted conventional Arabic love lyrics into outbursts of mystical ecstasy.

            Wind’s breeze, tell the gazelle

                        That drinking only increases my thirst.

            I have a lover whose love is inside of me,

                        And if he wants, he strolls across my face.

            His spirit is mine, my spirit is his.

                        If he wishes, I do, and if I wish, so does he.

It is no surprise that this poem was chosen by the Syrian-French composer and singer, Abed Azrie as part of his modern musical engagement with Sufi poetry (“Aromates” published in 1990 by Elektra Nonesuch).

This book of translations completes a circle for Ernst. He began reading these poems under the guidance of professor Annemarie Schimmel and wrote his dissertation on spiritual boasts (shathiyat) in Sufism, which became his first book, Words of Ecstasy. After a long career exploring Indian, Iranian, and Turkish expressions of Sufism medieval and modern, he has returned to Hallaj’s poems. As the modern Indian novelist, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, wrote about Hallaj in his short story collection Anargha Nimisham (Invaluable Moments, in Malayalam), his enemies may eliminate Hallaj’s body but they cannot extinguish his voice. This book amplifies Hallaj’s voice in a new language.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Kugle is Professor of Islamic Studies at Emory University’s Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was born in the ninth century and became a major writer and thinker of the Sufi movement.

Carl W. Ernst is William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and codirector of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is the author of How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations and many other scholarly works.


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