Appreciating the Colours of Mahmud Gami’s Mysticism

All of existence is imagination within imagination. True existence is Allah, the Real, in particular in respect to essence and source.

Ibn Arabi


What would one read if one has only few days to live or wishes to read the best in the shortest time period? I would suggest, as a preparation for death and meeting with God and as something that delights the mind and the heart, for the Kashmiris, the tale of Yusuf and Zulaykha as told by Mahmud Gami, now available in brilliant English translation for those who can’t read Kashmiri, thanks to Mufti Mudasir, a polymath and veritable scholar of classics and translator who has already given new generation largely ignorant of Persian, access to Ghani in English and Urdu. If one can read Persian, read Jami’s Yusuf Zulaykha. A note on Gami before we proceed to the tale.

Compared with Rudaki and Chaucer by our frontline critics, “trendsetter in multiple genres of Kashmiri poetry” as Mufti Mudasir aptly notes and self avowedly our Jami and Nizami, Mahmud Gami is the greatest narrator/transcreator of classics in Kashmiri.

Gami’s great contribution and legacy consists in choosing for translation and adaptation series of texts that helped strengthen “self perception of Kashmiris as part of larger world.”

He has given us several masterpieces – a unique literary cuisine – and today we can taste something from one of them and enjoy his retelling of the greatest tale ever told – the tale of love and beauty in which everyone is or must be interested.

No lover, no seeker of beauty and God should miss a reading of the chapter of Yusuf in the Quran. If one wishes to penetrate its depths and existentially relate to it or appreciate it as potentially his/her story, read Sufi commentaries. If one wishes to watch a dramatized version, one may suggest Yusuf Paigember written, produced and directed by Farajollah Salashoor.

Yusuf’s story as declared by the greatest artist and critic, God, as the greatest story in the world. If one wonders why, approach it, with our Sufis, as not just a story but a “history” of the human soul.

Mohammad Rustom’s paper on this theme is a brilliant read that helps contextualize and comprehend mystical – and Gami’s treatment of the same. Let us read Rustom on select events in the story.

} Joseph represents the human self or the soul in its terrestrial or fallen state, which is a natural and necessary aspect of the life of any human being. It is precisely because this most beautiful of stories is the story of the perfection of man… surely the most beautiful story can only be about how God’s beauty is actualized by that human being who is fully­ realized,.

} [Like Joseoph’s brothers] Zulaykhā also represents the lower self, but more specifically the passions… Her lowly nature is eventually transmuted into a higher form of love shorn of sensual passion. Now, just as Zulaykhā represents the ascending realization of the lower aspect of the soul into the higher aspect of the soul, so to do Joseph’s brothers, through their long exchange (12:59­82), come to symbolize the process of the death of the ego.

} The women of Egypt who were rumour­mongering with respect to Joseph and Zulaykhā (12:30­31) also represent the soul’s inner struggle with the passions, even after it has overcome the passions on one level. At 12:31 the women are clearly mesmerized by Joseph’s astounding beauty, which can be understood as the soul’s ultimately seeing its primordial beauty, and thereby moving away from the passions and completely inward—that is, away from the world and into the sanctuary of divine remembrance and inwardness. This is why at 12:33 Joseph says that prison, here symbolized by the turn inward, is more beloved to him than that to which the women call him.

} The shirt worn by Joseph .. represents the full embodiment of the virtues, since they become firmly rooted in the soul once it has completely passed through the barriers of time, space, and the limitations of its own lower nature. Since the entire self is now integrated into a higher order, into its primordial disposition or fiṭra, the very body of such an individual exudes a fragrance. This is why at 12:94, Jacob is able to detect Joseph’s scent, which is on his shirt, even before the shirt gets to him. In other words, the human being can be intellectually aware of the fruit of the spiritual life, but it needs the actual alchemical affect of the virtues to be actualized for it in order for it to see.

Mahmud Gami has written, with great force and beauty, on key aspects of Yusuf’s story. In him we have the Sufi exegesis and folklore appropriated. Here we focus especially on general points and treatment of Zulaykha’s longing and later transmutation (and we can appreciate lucidity of translation as well):

Sinners will have their place in hell there

Away from him I am burning here
O death, does pity never touch your heart?
To fill graveyards, you find a pretext or another
Losing one’s love is no less than the doomsday

Hear my call, my Yusuf, come

Prudence means submission to FateNo shield can blunt the arrow of Fate’
Utter devotion is the first condition of love
Next you must bear with the beloved’s apathy

Gami is articulating below the point that none has loved anyone but God – lovers really love God though may idolize the fragmented image of the Beloved and consequently suffer.

Zulaykha is healed only when she realizes her true beloved in Yusuf’s beloved, not Yusuf’s form. Sufism sacralizes love and advises all lovers – there is deep down no simply romantic love – to appreciate the ruses of the Beloved. Gami, with the Sufis, tells us the good news that there is only God around and the whole play of passion or love, in its essence, is coquetry of the Beloved.

O lovers, devotees of form, awaken

Find the essence hidden in appearance

If I divulge to you the meaning of form

Like an infidel you will bow to the idol

‘The sun is just a speck of His beauty

Forget my appearance, look to my essence’

Though herself the beholder and the beheld

Yet she was far away from knowing herself

She was the lover and the beloved

Herself the qibla and namāz

Forms will decay, come what may

Fix your eyes on meaning’s core

Choose a love which will ever be yours

Love Him who will live eternally

I know the essence from the appearance

Now I have washed off my hands other than Him’

Then she bid farewell to Yusuf

And settled on a spot near the Nile

Having realized her own truth

She gave away all her wealth

She gave up all earthly attachments

And began to fathom the mystery of union

For some days more she lived on

Absorbed into the Divine Essence

Don’t think lightly of love. Love moves the universe. If we are unable to sell everything for the sake of love, we are in manifest loss.

If Love unveils itself

as much as a hair’s tip

No Zoroastrian or Sheikh

No infidel or Christian will survive!’

The royal road to the Beloved is self naughting or affirming Unity or understanding the point “to say I is a lie.”

I shun duality, my biggest error

And seek your refuge, forgive me!

Listen to my wails, turn Yusuf’s hear
Love’s agony is a burden that lovers bear

Lovers need to learn to die before death
Love is the primeval force behind creation
One drunk on it becomes absorbed in God

Getting consumed in the path of love isn’t easy; it is to consent to be nothing, to get decimated or lacerated:

Like the raincloud she wept on his grave

For long she raised shrieks of pain

‘O pitiless love, my heart’s ruin!

Hear my call, my Yusuf, come!’

Philosophy and mysticism both involve preparation for death; physical death is courted and not shunned (G. R Nazki, the great Kashmiri poet who carried forward the legacy of Gami in appropriating the best of Persian heritage, is reported to have remarked that he is keenly waiting for death as a young bridegroom waits for the bride on the first night).
Stretching herself, she clasped his grave
Whispered God’s holy name a few times
The love-mad lady then yielded up her soul

Hear my call, my Yusuf, come!
Though death separates many lovers

They return to their true origin
The two were buried next to each other

Hear my call, my Yusuf, come!
And note the glad tidings on which Mahmud concludes:
Here Mahmud winds up Zulaykha’s tale
To give glad tidings to all woebegone lovers
Of fervent breasts, tearful eyes and burnt-up hearts.

If you have ever been in love or bewitched by beautiful faces, it is good news. Beauty as the attractive power of the Good (as the best of Greeks told us) rules the universe and our hearts.

The task is to keep guard against centrifugal passions and ego and actualize the virtues by turning inwards, by seeing/enjoying all things in God and by loving with gay abandon to be consumed by love. We are kings – there is a Yusuf trapped in the well waiting to be redeemed.

In this odyssey of winning our soul, we project the drama of hide and seek and of love and hate. We are all wailing and longing like Zulaykha and hardly noticing the Yusuf within. However life compels us to rise again after we stumble and meet the Yusuf within.

Our origin is divine and our return is to God. We are all destined to appreciate or encounter superhuman beauty of our souls. Let us not forget the aspect of moral beauty in Yusuf and meet Yusuf in every encounter with the other, as great Sufis teach us

Tail piece

Kashmiris have traditionally treasured Mahmud’s retelling of the great tale of Yusuf Zulaykha and many would remember scores of verses. Gami gives us access to key aspects of Ibn Arabi.

If love and mysticism are the greatest preoccupations of higher life, the world of Gami is a treasure trove for lovers and mystics.

Our preceding generations, though largely illiterate, were schooled in such classics as those of Lalla, Shaykh al-Alam, Mahmud Gami, Maqbool Shah Kralwari and Wahab Parray (to name only a few) .

Gradually we have been fed a diet that contains no classics and the result is decadence. With such works as Yusuf’s Fragrance and Aatish-i Toor (translation of Diwan-i Ghani) our new generation may hope for recovery.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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