What Happened to Poetry?

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Event Name: What Happened to Poetry?
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protect your heart so that your soul doesn’t die. Because one of the ways the soul is killed is by allowing things into the soul that poison the soul. And one of the most powerful and toxic elements is words that are not true. False words. And this is the poetry that the Prophet saw was warning about. His wife Aisha memorized 12,000 lines of poetry from the poet Labid alone. 12,000 lines. The Prophet saw was once riding on a camel and he asked to hear some lines of one of the jahaliyya poets who was a pre-Islamic poet whose poetry was filled with wisdom. And the narrator says, “I mentioned a line and the Prophet said “Hee. Let’s hear some more.” And I mentioned some more and he said, “Hee hee. Let’s hear some more” until I mentioned a hundred lines of poetry.” The Prophet saw used to have poets in his gatherings. His own Hassan ibn Thabit[vii], who was one of the great poets of that time, he said, “This man’s poetry is strengthened by the Holy Spirit.” One time a man al-Aqra ibn Habis[viii] came to him, and he was from Bani Tameem, who’s a nasty tribe, and he called from behind the Prophet’s house, he said “O Muhammad! (saw) You better come out! Because I’m a poet and my praise is good and my blame is bad.” And the Prophet saw said, “That’s God”. It’s not you, that’s God. The one whose praise is good and whose blame is bad, that’s God. So he said “Come out! Because we want to have a” – the Arabs had these kind of poetic combat, where they would have one poet of one tribe get up and oppose a poet of another tribe and this was a civilized way of fighting. And sometimes it led to uncivilized ways of fighting. Because words meant something to those people. And that’s part of the problem of modern peoples – words don’t mean anything anymore. You can say anything, and you know – Dennis Miller[ix]. I mean, these are the types of people who can get out there and just say anything.

And part of this culture is that we’ve become such a shameless culture. And one of the things about shamelessness, is that the root of shamelessness is shame. And if you want that insight, you have to go to the great Russian poet. And he is a poet, even though he wrote in prose. Dostoyevsky. Because in his Brothers Karamazov, if anybody who’s read that remembers the meeting with the priest, who is the mystic – and the father, he’s a debauchee, he’s always having orgies in his houses and he’s a terrible man and he always behaves like a buffoon – shameless. And he’s in the presence of this mystic, Father Zosima, and he begins to act like a buffoon and Ilyusha, who’s trying to perfect his soul, is mortified and his other son Ivan is mortified, and there’s a point where he says, “I’m so ashamed at behaving like this”. And the priest says to him, “Don’t be ashamed because that’s the root of the problem.” In other words, that’s why you’re so shameless. It’s because you’re so filled with shame. And that’s what’s happened in this culture. This culture, we’ve become such a shameless culture that we have to be shameless in order to deal with the pain of being so shameless. And that’s something very difficult for us.

So those are the poets that the Prophet saw warned about, not poets who had truth to say. So I want to look just at a few things, and then I’ll stop because it’s been a long night. One of the things that Borges, who’s extraordinary – he wrote a wonderful story about a meeting between Ibn Rush (Averroes) and several other intellectuals. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a fictionalized account of something that could have happened. And the beauty of the story for me, was that what Borges was trying to do was trying to give us a glimpse of the exalted level of conversation that the people of Andalusia had. And they’re discussing a line of poetry that comes out of the Mu’allaqat, which is the, these are the great odes that the Arabs hung in the Kaabah before Islam and they considered them to be testimony to the greatness of the Arabic language. And they were, they were great, but many of them were filled with meanings that Islam would radically transform. But they talk about this line of poetry in which the poet says, Zuhair says

I saw death like the stumbling of a camel. The one that it hits, it destroys, and the one that it misses lives a long life and grows old.

And they begin to argue about this line of poetry, and they say it’s a bad line because fate is not like the stumbling of a camel. Fate is determined by God. And Ibn Rushd or Averroes in the story says, “No you’re wrong. Because what the poet describes, is he describes something we can all relate to and that’s what makes poetry great, it’s that the poet speaks in a universal language.” And this is why Aristotle – and Averroes is the greatest commentator of Aristotle – and so Borges knew that, and Borges knew Aristotle very well. What Aristotle says is that poetry is greater than history, because history deals with particulars but poetry deals with the universal. And that is why, when the poet speaks, the poet impacts our hearts if he speaks the truth. Because we recognize that truth in our hearts. And what Ibn Rushd says in this story, is that the poet, when he – what he says is he says fate is not like a stumbling camel, but he says, I see it like that. Ra’aytu. That’s what’s he’s describing. And what he’s saying is that often, when we look at the world, we see chaos. It doesn’t mean that it’s chaotic, but we often see only chaos. And that is what the poet is saying. He’s describing something that human beings experience. And that’s why, when we look at the world today, when we look at human beings, we can often forget that there is an order in this universe.

When we look at Palestine right now and look at the madness that’s taking place there in Palestine, it’s a meeting of two worlds. That’s all Palestine is. If you want to understand Palestine, all you have to understand is that half of this planet, half of this planet, lives on less than $2 a day. And we in the West consume 60% of the world’s resources even though we are less than 10% the inhabitants of the planet. And where do those two civilizations meet? They meet in Palestine. Because Palestine is taking people from the West and planting them in the midst of a society that has been too long exploited, and had its resources expropriated, lived under despotism largely due to post-colonial traumatic syndrome. And most people are too busy watching the important messages from our sponsors, to actually read a book about the history of the Middle East, about colonialism. I mean, just read David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. Most of the people are too busy to realize that most of what’s going on in the West that’s troubling us is what they call “blowback”. In CIA parlance, “blowback”, the unsuspected consequences or unforeseen consequences of our own covert activities. That’s all there is. But people don’t want that, that’s troublesome. We want to be in melodrama, remember? Us versus them. Good versus evil. The evil empire. The Axis of Evil. These wonderful terms that make life so easy. There’s all bad, remember? And we’re all good, thank God. Makes it very easy, instead of having to deal with these ambiguities, which is what the poets are trying to tell us. We’ve got problems. You have to think a little bit deeper.

So that’s what the poet has. He has a universal message. And that’s what Rumi had, and I think that’s why Rumi.. Rumi strikes me as being popular for 2 reasons. One, he’s calling our bluff because everybody knows in our heart of hearts that they’re going to die. And all he is is somebody who’s in the moment, recognizing that death is imminent and the only important thing is the readiness. And that’s something another great poet from the West said. If you look at the play Hamlet, which really is a play about spiritual evolution – a lot of people don’t read Shakespeare like that, but Shakespeare actually was working within deeply spiritual motifs. And I’m just going to use 2 examples, and then I’m done.

One of them is the idea of purifying the soul. And Hamlet, if you remember in the great soliloquy, when he says “To be or not to be”, what’s it about? It’s about fear of death. That’s what it’s all about, it’s about fear of death. Because that’s part of Hamlet’s dilemma, it’s this fear of his own mortality. But by the end of the play, what’s happened to the man? He’s had a complete transformation, and when he’s about to go into this duel, Horatio – they’re talking, and he hints to Horatio that even though he feels he’s going to win the duel, he has this sense of his own death. And Horatio’s worried about it, and he says, well, stop it for another time. And what does Hamlet say? He says:

Not a wit. We defy augury.

Don’t stop it, we’re going to defy augury, in other words, having a bad omen. And this is something the Prophet Muhammad saw taught. He said, if you have a bad omen, do the thing anyway. Go against that thing in your soul. And then he (Hamlet) says:

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

In other words, even God is aware of the fall of a sparrow. And there’s a providence in that fall.

If it be now, tis not to come

If it be not to come, it will be now.

If it be not now, yet it will come.

He’s talking about death. It’s nothing you can stop. If it’s not meant to be now, it’s coming later. If it’s coming later, it’s not meant to come now. And then he says, The readiness is all.

That’s what life is about. It’s not trying to put off death. It’s being ready for death.

Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

If you can’t take anything with you, then why are you so worried about living this long life? Because once death comes – and this is said by many many great people before him and after him – Marcus Aurelius was one of them.

And finally, my favourite sonnet. And I’m sorry if you came to hear Rumi, I’m quoting Shakespeare. [laughs] They call Shakespeare the Rumi – no, they call Rumi the Shakespeare of the East, which is..that’s, that’s not..Shakespeare is Shakespeare, Rumi is Rumi. So, don’t try to compare them. But this is a great sonnet, it’s actually my favourite, but everybody’s..my father says his favourite’s the one he happens to be reading at the time, so..

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.


All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


And that is a commentary on a hadith, that hell is surrounded by pleasurable things and heaven is surrounded by displeasurable things. That’s all he’s saying, is that you look at the enticements of this world, and you go after them without any thinking, and as soon as you’ve got them, you realise the bitterness of their reality. They didn’t get you what you wanted. And he says, we all know it, because we’ve done it again and again and again, and yet we don’t know to shun the heaven that leads to hell. In other words, these temporary pleasures that end up leading us to something that’s frightening and this is one of the truths that the poet said, and the Prophet saw said, “Surely, in poetry is great wisdom”. Ibn Hajjar r.a. says, “A true word that is in accordance with the truth”. And the Prophet Muhammad saw said, “The truest thing that a poet every said was what Labid said, ’Isn’t it that everything other than God is falsehood?’” And that’s in Sahihh Bukhari. And that’s all Rumi ever said. You can read all those lines – words, words, words – that’s all his message is. It’s just a commentary on that one statement of the Prophet Muhammad saw. Everything other than God is false, and if you realise that at the intellectual level, he and every other scholar of Islam has been calling us to realise it at an experiential level. And that’s the path of submission to Allah swt, which in Arabic is called Al-Islam – submission to God.

And I’m going to finish with – aha I tricked you – I’m going to finish with a poem by Jalaludin Rumi, which is translated by Coleman Barks - I like Coleman a lot, but my friend Muhammad Isa Weli said “His translations are too roomy for me” – R-O-O.

This is called “One Who Wraps Himself” and it’s a commentary on a chapter in the Qur’an, Muzzammmil.


God called the Prophet Muhammad Muzzammil,
“The One Who Wraps Himself,”
and said,
“Come out from under your cloak, you so fond

Of concealment and fleeing


Because the Prophet saw loved to go off to the cave and meditate. And so he’s being told now to come back.


Don’t cover your face.
The world is a reeling, drunken body, and you
are its intelligent head.
Don’t hide the candle
of your clarity. Stand up and burn
through the night, my prince.

Without your light
a great lion is held captive by a rabbit!


That’s what Odysseus in one of Shakespeare’s plays says to the Greeks. It is by our weakness that Troy stands, not by their strength. And that’s the reality. It’s by the weakness of the people of truth that the people of falsehood stand. Not by their strength, because falsehood has no strength. But when the people of truth are weak, then a rabbit can hold a lion captive.

Alhamdulillah. I thank my teachers for instilling in me a love of poetry that my father tried to instill in me. And I thank all of you for bearing with me tonight, and being very patient and polite.