The Soul of the Desert: A Poetic Experience


Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Soul of the Desert: A Poetic Experience

Jun 28,2011

Rendering things into rhymes in order to easily penetrate deep into people’s consciousness has been a method employed since antiquity. This is due to the innate proclivity of human mind to musicality, its rhyme and rhythm. The intrinsic power of music was used for multiple causes. In order to boost the morale of the warriors, the womenfolk of yore used to chant the songs celebrating heroic acts of legendary warriors in times of ancient wars.

The famous Italian poet Dante wrote Devine Comedy, in the period spanning1310-14 AD, with the singular intention of extolling the Christian faith and debunking rival creeds. Dante’s epic narrates an imaginary voyage to the supernatural realms of heaven and hell. The journey to the inferno is undertaken in the company of Virgil, the Roman poet, and Dante describes how he met the Prophet of Islam in the ninth rung at the bottom of hell!

Poetry had also been employed to denigrate and castigate the enemies. Chanson de Roland, composed towards the middle of 12th century by the Christian monk Conrad marks a watershed event in Western cultural history. The theme of the poem is the treacherous killing of Charlemagne, engaged in a military campaign against Muslims in Spain. The genesis and popularity of these compositions can be attributed to the greater aesthetic appeal that poetry possesses.

 In both the Old and the New Testaments, there are several stanzas and even whole chapters that are ebullient exercises in verse. The fifth chapter in The Song of Deborah in The Book of Judges, the Dirge intoned by Solomon mourning the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, The Book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Lamentations are illustrative. But in none of these is meter, rhyme or rhythm observed as dictated by traditional standards of poetic diction.

The Hindu belief considers Bhagavad-Gita to be divine music. The seven hundred verses that together constitute Gita were recited by Krishna to Arjuna during the battle of Kurukshetra which lasted eighteen days. The admirers of Gita include formidable figures like Aldous Huxley, Hermen Hesse and Einstein. Other holy books like the Zoroaster’s Zend Avesta too are exhortations delivered in poetic form. His followers believe that Zoroaster, the founder of their religion, codified this in the form of sixteen mega compositions.

The Quran, revealed at a time when Arabic poetry and literature were at their peak, also abounds with musical splendor. But to retain the musicality of Quran in another tongue, without compromising upon its holistic message will be an impossible task. The reason is that Quran simply refuses to lend itself to such trans-creations. But there have been attempts in this direction as exemplified by Fazlollah Nikayin’s Quran: A Poetic Translation. K.G. Raghavan Nair’s Amrithavani makes a similar attempt in Malayalam according to its publishers. There is a preponderance of poetry and poetic passages in all those books, which believers classify as Scriptures. These were efforts to render the Holy Book in verse, taking cue from the Scriptures.

Celebrating the life of the messenger through songs has been an age-old custom among Muslims. Such songs were traditionally known as Qaseeda. But these songs composed subsequently need not have any religious basis since the Prophet had expressly warned against according him undue reverence or attributing to him any superhuman qualities. Imam Basoori’s Muhammadiyya, which contains the word ‘Muhammad’ in every single line and Omer Ali Al Qadiri’s forty line verse Qaseeda Muhammadiya - whose every line starts and ends with the name ‘Muhammad’ - are examples. But none of these is a biography of the Prophet. They are poetic tributes celebrating certain episodes of his life and hardly claim any religious validity.

But Kerala has gained the distinction of producing the world’s first poetic version of the life of the Prophet Muhammad in English through the publication of Umer O Thasneem’s The Soul of the Desert brought out by Other Books, Kozhikode, a publishing house that always tread a different, other path. Though this is a poetic rendering of the life of the Prophet, the book does not adhere to the conventional poetic yardsticks of rhyme or meter. This tradition of violating tradition, dubbed as Free Verse, is not uncommon in English either. The celebrated American poet Walt Whitman had written several poems in this strain. Free verse, which has its own exponents and opponents, was lampooned by Robert Frost as playing Tennis without the net.

The publishers claim The Soul of the Desert to be the first complete poetic portrayal of the Prophet’s life. The great German philosopher and poet Goethe had attempted to compose a poetic version of the life of Prophet Muhammad and had completed its first part. Goethe published his ‘Song of Muhammad’ (Mahomet’s Gesang) in 1773. In this poem Goethe describes Muhammad as the ‘Best of Mankind’ or Obehaupt Geschöpfe Mahomet. But Goethe could not complete his project before his death. Because of Goethe’s admiration for the Prophet and Islam, many consider the German genius to have finally embraced Islam. Goethe was one of those figures who profoundly influenced the great Asian poet Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal’s Zindarud (The Living Stream) in Javednama is said to have been an inspiration from Goethe’s Song of Muhammad (The Oxford Companion to German Literature by Henry Burnand Garland, Mary Garland, page 549). In a poetic tribute to Mirza Ghalib in Bang-e-Dara, Iqbal writes:


Ah tu ujadi hui Dilli menh aramidah hai
Gulshan-e-Weimar menh tera humnavah khwahbida hai


Alas, you lie buried in devastated Delhi,
While in the Garden of Weimar sleeps your compeer,


The reference here is to Goethe.

The brilliantly designed book consists of nearly three hundred pages of which about 200 are devoted to the poetic portrait of the prophet. This is an assemblage of 29 chapters exquisitely describing the major events in the life of Muhammad. The narrative style reflects linguistic ingenuity. A selection of Prophet’s sayings serves as the appendix to the narrative. In this sense, Ziauddin Sardar’s praise of the book ‘as a vivid poetic portrait of the life of the Prophet’ is not one made in an empty vein.

Muhammad’s childhood, youth, partaking in the business ventures of Khadeeja, subsequent marriage, divine revelation, opposition by Meccans, migration to Medina, marriages after the death of Khadeeja, the deployment of missionaries in various regions, the Meccan victory, the final illness and demise, and the sorrow suffered by the followers form the main thread of the narrative that takes the beaten track of a largely political history. Through the book, its publisher Other Books, whose avowed aim is presenting and fostering an alternative cult of reading, presents an opportunity to study the Prophet of Islam in an appealing and lucid manner. The matchless value of this book lies in its eloquently lucid presentation of a much-retold tale without the scholarly pretensions of historical tract. It is something that fits a coffee-table read by anybody belonging to any creed.

The picture of Muhammad in Muslim minds, with his all-embracing generosity and compassion, stands in contradistinction to the lurid portraits of the war-hungry polygamist presented by Orientalist historians who refuse to accord him the same status or aura as Christ or Buddha. The Quran describes him as one sent as a blessing to the whole of mankind. In that sense, the portrait of a messenger abounding in mercy and love; one who acted as a shelter and offered succor to the populace should have been obtainable through these verses. The picture of the Prophet, who could conquer the world through love, only occasionally emerges in this book. This dominant aspect of the Prophet’s character has been reduced to a few isolated references that depict the Prophet granting general amnesty to his enemies and the episode where he presents himself before the congregation asking them to avenge upon him any personal insults or injuries he might have inadvertently inflicted upon them. But despite all these, the book deserves to be admired as the world’s first poetic portrait of the Prophet’s life in English.

(By K.C. Saleem/

عَنْ أَبِي مَسْعُودٍ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ ‏"‏ إِذَا أَنْفَقَ الرَّجُلُ عَلَى أَهْلِهِ يَحْتَسِبُهَا فَهُوَ لَهُ صَدَقَةٌ ‏"
Narrated Abu Mas'ud: The Prophet said, "If a man spends on his family (with the intention of having a reward from Allah) sincerely for Allah's sake then it is a (kind of) alms-giving in reward for him.” (Bukhari, Belief, 41)

Title: Tracks from Neyzen Sadreddin Özçimi's album, Sufi Rhythms - Sultan-i Ask Artist: Sadreddin Özçimi