Yahia Lababidi and the Case for Mysticism, Part 2: “Learning to Pray”

The work of Yahia Lababidi has been anthologized in several important collections and promoted by numerous media outlets, including NPR and NBC. He may be one of the few notable authors today who actually deserves his notoreity. So often the best ones I encounter are unknowns or have toiled for years only to achieve a level of minor recognition, huddling in the shadows of bestselling hacks and frauds who win big prizes for extra-literary reasons. Take the tragic case of Khalil Gibran, one of Lababidi’s acknowledged influences: now the third best-selling poet in all of history behind Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, he never lived to see his own staggering success, dying of cirrhosis at age 48. Lababidi himself is roughly the same age, but thanks to the Internet he is widely quoted.

Khalil Gibran’s hometown of Bsharri got all of his royalties after his death. Twenty years later, they built a ski resort. In 2019, “The Prophet” entered the public domain. Hopefully their ski resort is still functional, as the city must now rely on tourism to fund its projects.

One of his latest collections, Learning to Pray: a book of longing (Kelsay Books, 2021), is the result of his dormant desire to publish “a volume of prayerful writing, a sort of unconscious spiritual autobiography,” as he describes in the preface. It contains approximately 60 poems and several hundred aphorisms, some new, others specially selected from old collections. Lababidi has drawn inspiration from the great Sufi writers like Rumi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, and Al-Ghazali, and he himself may be the most prominent bearer of this tradition known in the West today. 

Sufism: A Contested History

The standard view accepted by modern scholars is that Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, arose in the years following the death of Mohammad. There are some theories, however, that claim Sufism—which has been defined more as a “spiritual tendency” than a sect, per se—stretches back for centuries prior to The Prophet’s birth. Though none of these competing claimants can agree about its exact origins, some have traced it to connections with early Christian mystics, the ancient order of Pythagoreans, and Persia’s own history of Zoroastrian mystery schools that interpreted Zoroaster to be a sort of early Gnostic who spread ideas of arcane wisdom. Since modern Sufis are all Muslims, this is not a comfortable idea to consider (and may, in any case, be wrong).

Whatever the actual origins of Sufism, pre- or post-Islam, there are clearly parallels with other mystical traditions. Whether or not these parallels are more than superficial similarities of a more generic mysticism as characterized by William James, we will probably never know for certain. In his preface, Lababidi quotes a translator and scholar of Rumi as saying that Rumi thought mysticism was “the divine origin of every religion.” It does seem to be the case that, a la Max Weber, every religion begins with a charismatic figure spouting mystical ideas, and then evolves into a bureaucratic organization with dogmas, rules of behavior, and tithing schemes.

In any case, if there is any truth to these pre-Islamic origin theories of Sufism, Zoroastrianism is the religion with the most geographical proximity to it and, perhaps, the most probable candidate. This Persian mystical tradition later permeated Western thought through Nietzsche, who made Zoroaster or “Zarathustra” (the figure who supposedly first conceptualized a duality of good and evil) the voice of his radical philosophy in his most famous book. In an interesting biographical detail that brings the influence back to its roots in the Middle East, Lababidi admits to reading Thus Spake Zarathustra during his forays into the sands of Egypt and being greatly influenced by it. In The Artist as Mystic, co-authored with Alex Stein, he says, “There in the desert, reading the lonely words of Nietzsche, I came to realize the necessity of that loneliness,” longing for an “elemental loneliness” through which “you could experience a deeper innocence and purity of perception, and as a result, become a better witness to the life inside you and around you.” Whether or not Zoroastrianism and Sufism are etymologically related, it would seem that Zarathustra runs through Lababidi’s veins as much as Muhammad does.

Persia has a complicated religious heritage, one that has been recorded in the work of the poet Ferdowsi Tusi. The national poet of Iran, he recounted in his epic the Shahnameh the legendary history of the Zoroastrian kings and the final conquest of the Sassanid Empire by the invading Arab Muslims. It is nearly three times as long as Spenser’s Faerie Queene, totaling 100,000 lines of 50,000 couplets—the longest poem ever written by a single man. Scholars have tried gleaning clues to Ferdowsi’s personal beliefs from his work, and he has been variously described as a devout Sunni Muslim, a Sufi mystic, and a covert Zoroastrian depending on who you talk to. Ferdowsi expressed an anti-Arab sentiment in the work and a sympathy for what was lost in the Islamic conversion (the pleasure of drinking wine at banquets, for instance), which has led some modern biographers—including the best English translator of his couplets, Dick Davis—to question his supposed devotion to Islam and speculate that he actually remained a secret adherent to his aristocratic family’s Zoroastrian roots. Given Ferdowsi’s ancestral links to the Sassanids and the complex political and cultural changes of his time, it is possible that he may have subscribed to aspects of both religions.

The Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”) is something of a primer highlighting the uneasy relationship of Islam with what it supplanted. While Zoroastrianism was wiped out, Sufism (however and whenever it originated) has been incorporated into Islamic practices. But due to its emphasis on pluralism and tolerance it has found itself at variance with the religion’s more extremist sects at numerous points in its history, which has sometimes resulted in outbreaks of violence like this one back in 2017.

Although Christian and Muslim fundamentalists hate each other with a passion, one of Lababidi’s aphorisms (not included in this volume) rings true here: “Take two opposites, connect the dots, and you have a straight line.”

So, what did that long digression really have to do with Lababidi’s new book? The short answer is, of course, EVERYTHING. The longer answer is that…really I just wanted an excuse to talk about Ferdowsi and epic poetry. As mysticism is to religion, so is epic poetry the origin of all poetry.

Sufi Poetry

Among Sufi poets, Rumi is the most famous in the west today, though there are many others. Wikipedia, in fact, has a page devoted to listing Sufi poets and it is quite long. My personal favorite is Farid ud-Din Attar of Nishapur, a poet who lived just prior to Rumi and influenced him greatly. Attar’s allegorical poem “The Conference of the Birds” is a classic that bears an interesting resemblance to another work of its time, Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls.” It was four or five years back when I discovered Attar while browsing the stacks in the Kansas City Public Library. I had never heard of the author but, intrigued by the peacocks on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition, I opened to a random page and read this:

A true believer said: ‘There is a crowd
Who when they come to die will cry aloud
And turn to God. But they are fools; they should 
Have spent their lives in seeking what is good. 
When leaves are falling it’s too late to sow; 
Repentance on a death-bed is too slow -- 
The time to turn aside has flown; be sure 
Whoever waits till then will die impure’.” 

(translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

The passage blew me away. I checked out the book and read it over the course of the next few weeks. I was delighted to discover that Attar’s book is as popular today in Iran as it was in the late 12th century, and he continues to be widely read among common people. Poetry in the Middle East is not confined to the pretentious settings of academies or coffee shops as it is here, and it heartens me that, 800 years later, one of Attar’s spiritual descendants is likewise appreciated by many people who are not necessarily intellectual. How surprised I was, too, to read this poem of Lababidi’s in the current collection that reminded me a bit of that old Attar verse:

11th Hour Plea 

One foot here, one foot there 
how much longer, weary pilgrim, 
lingering at the threshold? 

One step forward, two steps back
 —still lusting after this world— 
Have you forgotten your promises? 

To die to your self, to transmute
the mud to gold, to surrender 
distractions and consent to be born? 

The best poetry tends to be about timeless themes and ideas, uniquely expressed. For a Sufi mystic, one of the biggest of these recurring themes is:

Silence

In “The Revelation of the Veiled,” an 11th-century treatise on Sufism, Persian theologian al-Hujwiri has this to say about the relationship between speech and silence:

In short, speech is like wine, which intoxicates the intellect, and who begins to have a taste for it cannot abstain from it, neither can he make himself safe from it. The Sufis, knowing that speech is harmful, never speak except when it is necessary. They consider the beginning and end of their discourse, for if the whole talk is based on truth, they speak otherwise they prefer silence.
Before you start…just stop.

Given this emphasis on silence, it is ironic that many of the greatest poets of the Islamic Golden Age were, in fact, Sufis. More than any other people on earth, poets spend a great deal of time organizing words and phrases into lines to convey ideas and feelings. Like his forebears, Lababidi also has much to say about silence. Take the following three aphorisms from his collection:

Silence is golden, since it’s the native tongue of the Spirit. 
                                         
 
Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, briefly.

 
Chasing silence is like embarking on a whale hunt. If one catches up with this creature of the depths, there is the danger of being swallowed whole. 

The first of these statements is straightforward and requires no commentary. The second one, a reflection on the function of craft (about which, more later). The third is the most enigmatic. Mysticism is an obsession, and spiritual Ahabs need to pursue their goal with caution. 

The other side of being swallowed by silence is to vanish in verboseness. In the short poem, “Since,” Lababidi reflects on this frustration:

I have lost my silences
I have lost my Voice...
peddling an Eternal currency 
in life’s bustling marketplace 
irrepressible song springs up 
and is strangled, unsung. 

An alternative title for this might be, “Mystic in the Marketplace.” During a job interview, one needs to talk about utilitarian value. Would Elijah have succeeded in such an environment? Unlikely. 

Most of the poems in the collection are more positive in tone. Not to say that they are “inspirational” in the sense in which that word is usually used today to signify obligatory cheerfulness. But, in Lababidi’s case, one might speak of a “mute optimism” that does not feel the need to call attention to itself or go on a motivational speaking tour.

Another poem, “Summary,” points to the functional organs underlying faith:

The hands were made to clasp 
the knees designed to bend 
the body created to pray. 

What else is there to say? 

The mouth was shaped to gasp
the eyes drawn to attend
the soul commanded to obey. 

What else is there to say? 

The memory was wired to lapse 
the heart fashioned to rend
the will inclined to betray 

What else is there to say? 

Here, the mouth does no more than inhale in pain or astonishment. But though language ultimately fails, writings of praise and longing, in order to be effective, must fail in particular ways: choices of diction must convey the emotions of awe, wonder, and pathos that are the necessary concomitant to the silent reflection on higher things that follows after the piece has been read. Imagery that is too voluptuous or picturesque risks trapping us in the world of the senses; language that is too stark or mundane also is not capable of rising to the heights of sublimity. Going beyond particularities of diction, prayerful language is also better expressed by some thinking styles than others.

Just because the carnival and almshouse are suitable places for prayer doesn’t mean you should pray like a clown or a bum.

Aphorisms and the Divine

A powerful aphoristic statement is one way that language can “fail” here in the right direction. Unlike a logical argument that seeks to convince one of a perspective or belief, an aphorism relies on intuition, formulated as a generalized truth statement and leaving premises beneath the surface. The Book of Proverbs is full of such types of sayings, as Psalms is full of worshipful descriptive imagery. As Lababidi says, “Logical interpretations are the Miracle’s modesty.”

Aphorisms are bridges between the islands of poetry and philosophy. Many of the best literary philosophers, couching their ideas in aphorisms rather than syllogisms, were also notable poets. Plato famously wrote poetry before burning it and switching to dialogues. Emerson wrote poems and essays, but put down his thoughts in aphoristic form. While Nietzsche’s poetry is not ranked as highly as Goethe’s, Schiller’s, Holderlin’s, or Heine’s, he is still admired today in Germany for his verses. 

While quotability is important for a philosopher’s popularity among average readers, it is not a requirement. Kant and Hegel, two of the greatest modern philosophers, were bad writers and are not really quotable at all. In this discipline, the idea is ultimately more important than the expression of the idea. If a thinker can be like Schopenhauer and express deep ideas well, so much the better. But in modern academia, it tends to be the Kants who reign. 

This is not the case with poetry, however. In order to be remembered as a great poet, you MUST be quotable. Think of Donne’s “No man is an island,” Emerson’s “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” and all the isolated snatches of Shakespeare that have been removed from their original dramatic context and are now floating through cyberspace.

If you want to be remembered, you have to be quoted. Stop writing crappy, kindergarten-level Instapoetry.

Lababidi’s poetry is immensely quotable. Since he is also an aphorist, this makes sense. In my previous essay on him, I observed that many of his poems are full of aphorisms that have been chopped up and arranged into lines. Take this one that opens “The Opposite of Virtue”:

One might say, a vice is a vise
never mind if its metal or moral,
it’s basically the same device

Or take the first two lines of “Start, Again”:

Sunset is a gentle master to all that are stricken 
patiently, teaching us how to melt a bruise away 

Since free verse poetry cannot rely on meter or rhyme to smooth its message with an elegant overlay, content becomes all important. A line of free verse poetry that has nothing meaningful to say cannot be said to be a good line, in the way a formal line could that is shallow in content but melodious to the ear. The rest of “Start, Again,” shows Lababidi at his best with other literary devices as well:

Watch how, with a silver whisk, that cracked egg
of a setting sun is majestically stirred, and put to rest 

The sun’s yoke spreading about the sky and mixed with other ingredients of colors makes for a striking visualization. The poem continues:

Violent violet, pining pink, and yelling yellow
all agitated, then muted, their differences reconciled 
Until all that remains is a faint tattoo of quiet hurt 
pearlescent wisps of smoke from a sighing flame 

that night, stealthily, smothers and hushes away... 

The “violent,” “pining,” “yelling” wordplay of the respective colors, the imagery of the “faint tattoo of quiet hurt,” and unusual diction of “pearlescent” wisps all combine to evoke reverential feelings regarding this most owned-upon of poetical subjects. It is a testament to skill when a writer can have a fresh take on an age-old theme without resorting to cliché.

To return to the art of aphorizing, as an occasional practitioner of the form myself I often stopped to marvel (in silence, of course) at the almost impossibly high quality of Lababidi’s sayings:

In the spiritual dimension, versus the merely literary, one cannot produce a masterpiece before they become one.


Every day we are offered this world or the next; but we cannot be myopic and farsighted, at once. 

 
Pity atheists their pitilessness. They are like persons hurt in love, who vow: Never, again. 


All who are tormented by an Ideal must learn to make an ally of failure.

Just how does he do it? And why do I wrack my own brain so much when sitting before the computer?

The ascetic ideal speaks, thus: indulge, and forego Vision.


To mate with the sublime, sublimate. 


Know your Muse, and its diet.

Ah, there it is. As I wipe my fingers of Cheetos flavoring to return to typing, I am cognizant of my own shortcomings. But keeping in mind that,

Wings are, always, on loan

I wish he would pass his feathers my way for a bit.

A Closing Digression on Earthly Glory

The other writers I have quoted in this essay are immensely famous in their home countries. Al-Hujwiri has a large shrine devoted to him in Lahore, Pakistan. He is one of a number of Sufi saints who has such a shrine and a public holiday devoted to him to celebrate his “Urs,” or death anniversary. Attar, Rumi, Hafez, and other Persian poets also have shrines devoted to them. Some are massive tombs worthy of the Egyptian pharaohs. One of the grandest is the one dedicated to none other than Ferdowsi, the father of the modern Persian language.

The idea of shrines is something alien to America. While France and England may be said to have approximations to them in the form of the Pantheon and ‘Poets Corner’ in Westminster Abbey, we have nothing of the kind. There are of course large memorials to presidents, streets named after sports celebrities, and (mostly now uprooted) confederate monuments, but not much in the way of public commemorations of authors. A few modest-sized statues to figures like Twain and Poe. Other than this there are just small, isolated grave sites.

The grave of Zora Neale Hurston, the greatest novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Dying poor and obscure, her burial site became overgrown after her death and had to be rediscovered in the 1980s by Alice Walker.

From one perspective, a person might say this is how it should be—a writer’s real monument is their writings. In another sense, though, it is a window into perceptions about what matters. A nation’s approach to architecture highlights the level of resources that it is willing to divert to beautify its communal spaces. Both what it builds and the type of person it decides to pay tribute to through its buildings says a good deal about its priorities and values. Men who were dirt poor in their own lifetime and cared not at all for material success now have extravagant structures devoted to them which receive millions of visitors every year, achieving an earthly glory beyond that of even kings. Their unwavering commitment to silence speaks through these tombs. As such, if public architecture is the ultimate measure of honor, influence, and reputation, then these mystical poets may be considered THE GREATEST AUTHORS WHO EVER LIVED.

The tomb of Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi, built in the style of Achaemenid architecture to resemble the tomb of Cyrus the Great. One of the most influential writers of all time, Ferdowsi died proud and penniless. His mausoleum is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Iran.

In America, the closest thing that approximates a Middle Eastern shrine or tomb is probably the 130-ft Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It is evidence that the type of creative minds people here really care about are enterprising scientists. Not that we need to stare at big monuments to be aware of this fact, but it just drives the point home. Lababidi is, in this respect, a bit unfortunate to have decided to live in the U.S.A. It is very unlikely that he will have a shrine built to him—though, if I become an unexpected millionaire, I fully intend to erect one in his honor.

The memorial dedicated to Thomas Edison is appropriately shiny.

Naturally Lababidi does not care about any of this this, as monuments celebrate selfhood and thus represent a failure of the mystical ideal of personal dissolution into the Oneness of Being. As he says, “Strange, the power of the past—how our spiritual ancestors become our future masters.” It is not improbable that he will someday fall prey to this truth himself, however. Time will tell. The “Lababidi Monument Fund” begins here. If you wish to donate, leave your bank account info in the comments section below.

4 thoughts on “Yahia Lababidi and the Case for Mysticism, Part 2: “Learning to Pray”

  1. A fabulous and entertaining essay; really informative and Lababidi sounds like a fine writer – though purely aphoristic writing I can only take in small doses, since it lacks that narrative thread that fully engages us with the ‘what next?’ question. That said, as with the Book of Proverbs or others you cite, and as with very short poems, some beauties do benefit from their concision, and like diamonds we can meditate on them a very long time – an antidote, perhaps, to the rush to find out what happens next! I guess that aphoristic writing and epic poetry are yin and yang and we need both to balance. Thanks – great read and admire your depth of knowledge in these – to me – obscure Eastern writers.

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    1. Yes, I also tend to read aphorisms just a few at a time and meditate on them. They lend themselves to a very different reading style than, say, the way fans of genre thrillers consume those books voraciously one after another without ever stopping to pause. In this respect, aphorisms are a genre well-suited to the Sufi way of silence, because you spend a lot more time just sitting and thinking than you actually do reading! Kind of an an antidote, too, to our soundbite culture that does not have the patience or attention span to actually reflect on its soundbites.
      Despite the fact that more people in the West are becoming interested in eastern writers, there is still a pretty large disproportion between how well-known those writers are there and how little known they are here. Of course it also goes both ways: in a similar way that people in the west might known about the ‘big names’ of Chinese thought and literature like Lao Tzu and Confucius, but not really anybody else, people in those cultures know about Homer and Shakespeare, while a slightly lesser ‘big’ canonical author like Wordsworth is obscure.

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  2. Andrew Benson Brown has a way of explaining complex ideas so that a lay-person can understand. This was a very understandable overview. Thanks for alerting us to such a proficient and special poet. I’ll have to check out YAHIA LABABIDI.

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