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Shabistari, Mahmud

Category: Poet

Mahmud Shabistari (1288 – 1340) is one of the most celebrated Persian Sufi poets of the 14th century.  Shabistari was born in the town of Shabestar near Tabriz in 1288 (687 AH), where he received his education. He became deeply versed in the symbolic terminology of Ibn Arabi.

He wrote during a period of Mongol invasions.  His most famous work is a mystic text called The Secret Rose Garden (Gulshan-i Raz) written about 1311 in rhyming couplets (Mathnawi).

The Gulshan i Raz was introduced into Europe by two travelers in 1700. Later, copies of the poem were found in several European libraries.  In 1821, Dr. Tholuck, of Berlin, published extracts, and in 1825 a German translation of part of the poem appeared in another of his books. Afterwards a verse translation and the Persian text was published by Von Hammer Purgstall in Berlin and Vienna.  The Gulshan i Raz was translated into English and published, with the Persian text and extracts from Hammer's edition and Lajihi's notes, in 1880.

This poem was written in response to seventeen queries concerning Sufi metaphysics posed to "the Sufi literati of Tabriz" by Rukh Al Din Amir Husayn Harawi (d. 1318). It was also the main reference used by François Bernier when explaining Sufism to his European friends (in: Lettre sur le Quietisme des Indes; 1688)

Other works of Shabistari include The Book of Felicity (Sa'adat-nama) and The Truth of Certainty about the Knowledge of the Lord of the Worlds (aqq al-yaqin fi ma'rifat rabb al-'alamin). The former is regarded as a relatively unknown poetic masterpiece written in khafif meter, while the later is his lone work of prose.

The following is from the Introduction to the Secret Rose Garden and provides a good overview of the main method used by Shabistari – a method used by many Sufis – essentially love with visualisation

 In reading the enraptured poetry of the Sufis, it should be borne in mind that, though the symbols of earthly love and beauty are freely used, yet the real meaning is concealed. No doubt this was originally done to keep secret their mystic love, lest the profane should scoff.  …To the Sufi the love between man and woman is a shadowed picture of the love between the soul and the Higher spirit, and just as a lover will dream of his beloved, singing her praises, and thirsting for a sight of her face, so do the Sufis eternally dream of their Higher spirit , ever contemplating her attributes, and consumed with a burning desire for her presence.

The history of mysticism contains many impassioned love songs to the Absolute, but in Sufi poetry there is a peculiar richness, a depth, a colour which fascinates and charms so many of us. Sufi poetry abounds in allegories and love romances, the stories of Layla and Majnum, Yusuf and Zulaika, Salaman and Absal, in which it is easy to read the hidden meaning of passion for the Higher spirit. Various are the love themes of the Sufis; we hear songs of :

the nightingale in love with the rose,
the moth fluttering round the light of the candle,
the moaning dove who has lost her mate,
the snow melting in the desert and mounting as vapour to the sky,
of a dark night in the desert through which a frenzied camel madly plunges, and
of a reed torn from its bed and made into a flute whose plaintive music fills the eyes with tears


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