A Study in Sufi Poetics: The Case of ʿAṭṭār Nayshābūrī

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Throughout his poetic oeuvre, Shaykh Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār Nayshābūrī (d. ca. 618/1221) repeatedly addresses the question of the relationship between literary-poetic and religio-mystical pursuits. ʿAṭṭār vacillates between denouncing poetic composition as inconsistent with religious orthodoxy, and embracing poetry as the very apex of spiritual practice. This essay explores ʿAṭṭār’s fluid poetics through a comprehensive examination of his stated positions in his four authentic mathnavīs. It concludes that ʿAṭṭār’s contradictory statements regarding the poetic enterprise exemplify the paradoxical position of a Sufi mystic-poet grappling with the tension of literary self-affirmation in the face of spiritual self-annihilation.




F.D. Lewis, Rūmī: Past and Present, East and West (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), 174.


As e.g. by Ṣafā, Tārīkh, 865.


See A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 59, for the classic formulation. To my knowledge, Leonard Lewisohn is the only scholar to have referred explicitly to this idea with regard to ʿAṭṭār, though he does so only in passing (see Lewisohn, “Sufi Symbolism,” 273 & 301, fn. 62).


See Al-Qārī, al-Asrār, 179; also cited in Sells, Unsaying, 245.


AN vv1112–5 & 1122.


Sells, Unsaying, 12. See also 3: “It is in the tension between the two propositions that the discourse becomes meaningful.”


Sells, Unsaying, 215.


Sells, Unsaying, 9. On the same page he says that the “Meaning event indicates the moment when the meaning has become identical or fused with the act of predication.”


Sells, Unsaying, 35. The foregoing paragraph has, of course, compressed a great deal of theoretical groundwork laid out gradually throughout Sells’ work. For a summary of the principles involved, however, see 207–209.


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