Rooh, Ishq and Inquilab : Towards an Understanding of Ecumenical Mysticism

Calligraphic writing as a tangible connection with our divine and its role in transcending temporal and structural boundaries.

By: Samia Khan  (سامعہ خان)

tire ishq kī intihā chāhtā huuñ, mirī sādgī dekh kyā chāhtā huuñ

ye jannat mubārak rahe zāhidoñ ko, ki maiñ aap kā sāmnā chāhtā huuñ -Allama Iqbal

[ All I desire is the ultimate love of God, that is how simple my desires are. The heavens are for the religiously devout, I only desire to be able to see you (understood as oneness with the divine)]

Calligraphy as an art form for me is a manifestation of tangible oneness with the higher spirit that not only transcends the boundaries of structured religion but also temporalities. It is an inward looking communication with oneself (inner self), the medium (visual art) and the higher spirit (God) to overcome the disadvantages of verbal language and boundaries of representation (especially in Islam and Sikhism). Islamic theology believes that the pen is one of Allah’s first creations. Sufi philosophers saw this as the first intellect where the mind, body, and soul connect in mystical entanglements through writing. The centrality of script and calligraphy becomes an important experience for the soul’s emersion into the divine, for ishq and sukoon (peace within body and mind) through khatt (writing) and dhikr (Sufi practice of repeating the name of the beloved).

The coming together of Rooh, Ishq and Inquilab enmeshes the spiritual and political towards a radical understanding of love. ‘Alif’(the alphabet) and ‘Hu’(a term used in Sufi dhikr)  have a powerful mystical energy for the calligrapher, similar to the chanting and writing of Ek Onkar for the Sikhs, both are connected to spiritual cognition. The Arabic script and the concept of the primordial pen are central to the connection with Allah and Islamic visual culture; a person’s life is under the shadow of his deeds being documented by the divine pen.

The spiritual connection between the pen, ink and paper are mentioned in the writings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who said :

“Burn emotional attachment, and grind it into ink.
Transform your intelligence into the purest of paper” (Ang-16).

The impression of ink on the paper, was an experience of coming together with the beloved for Sufi Qadi Qadan, 

As paper and writing on it have no distance between them,
So are my beloved and myself.

And Jalaluddin Rumi believed :

My heart is like the pen in your hand
From you comes my joys and my despairs

The role of the ink and the pen in these mystical writings express the desire for oneness with God as an intimate act of submerging.  Sufis were the earliest Islamic calligraphers. They used the practice as a way to visualize their beloved, and experience a kind of physical intimacy with the divine through repetitive writing and chanting. These early Sufis were also teachers and guides, transmitting knowledge through interiorizing the mystical names of God as jalal (majestic) and jamal (beautiful). This act of writing the names of God was a meditative invocation, where the souls of the Sufis connected with their divine, and desired annihilation through love- a complete submersion of the body and soul in the love of their beloved transcending temporalities.

The act of writing rhythmically created a sense of peace, patience, and focus on the divine. Personally, the experience of listening to Asma-Ul-Husna or looking at the 99 names of Allah, evokes a sensation of closeness with God. It is, for me, the closest possible experience of seeing the physical attributes of the rabb (God).  Growing up in a Shia Sunni family, and seeing Allah, Muhammad, and Ali, written in beautiful Nashtaliq calligraphy, I internalized them as sacred objects and icons. The calligraphy becomes a sacred object in its own right, that is venerated, where the tangible and emotive come together to embody the soul’s connection with the divine in a visual space. 

Sufis visualized the beloved (God), through the physical act of joining the huruf-e-tahajji (alphabets) as an expression of intimacy, like Hu ‘هو’.  Such intertwined alphabets represent the physical intimacy that Sufi desired, to the extent of becoming one with God as God, Anal Haq (انا الحق meaning I am God).

Abu Nuwas wrote:

I saw you in my dream, embracing me
As the la of the scribe embraces the Alif

This radical understanding and experience of love between the soul and the divine, where love is not just an emotion of longing, but the unleashing of God that is unbound and infinite. The path of love in this radical understanding is about the cosmic current and reality that surrounds our being, that focuses on healing the heart by healing the world.

In the Sufi discourse writing is sacred and it represents unity and oneness with God, where diacritical marks become mole on the beloved’s face, pupil of the eyes represent the nukhtas on the khatt, and the alphabets become the body. Nun( ـن) becomes the eyebrow of the beloved, Ayn (ـع ) the eyelids, Mim(ـم ) the mouth, and Alif  ( ـا ) represents the stature of the beloved.  Jami wrote:

in longing to see the beloved , I make my name ‘ashiq-i-sadiq’

So that when you read my letter, I see your face through the eyes of the sad

This romantic visualization of the beloved, expresses the burning desire for a complete submersion within the divine as ultimate annihilation. The love for the beloved was also manifested in the love for watan (homeland) by poets in 20th century India, who became an embodiment of a connection between soul and belonging to mitti (soil). This radical love experienced by the Sufis through their poetry was an inquilabi (resistance) energy that flowed through their pen. Belonging to a zameen / watan is a spiritual connection with the mitti, where they will go back to (fannah) to become one with the beloved (God). This connection with Sar-zamin-e-Hind, (the soil of Hindustan) led Sufi poets like Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and Firaq Gorakhpuri, to write for the freedom of their land from oppression as an act of divine love and resistance.

This radical revolutionary understanding of love and resistance was enmeshed with the notions of justice and liberation (here the idea of liberation was dual, liberation of the soul from the material world and liberation of the body from oppression of colonialism).

Hum dekhenge
Lazim hai ki ham bhi dekhenge
Vo din ji jis ka waada hai
Jo lauh-e-azal men likhkhan hai
Jam zul-o-sitam ke koh-e-giran
Ruui ki tarah ud ja enhe
Hum dekhenge

-Faiz Ahmad Faiz

[We shall see the day that has been promised to us, the one that is written on the tablet of our destiny, when the  mountains of oppression will fly away like cotton, we shall definitely see that.]

The idea of rooh that is drowned in the ishq of the beloved and uses the ink of the love to write about inquilab was a spiritual act for the poets in India who were inspired by Sufi conceptions of love. The writing was a way to develop a physical and spiritual intimacy that reflected in the visualization of the beloved as an icon of devotion and mysticism. This love for the beloved transformed the radical experience of love into a revolutionary energy for resistance and liberation.

Calligraphy is therefore an act of physical intimacy, devotion, mystical love, and creation of a visual icon to get submerged into the divine. Since the pen was the first object that was created, the act of writing is seen as sacred in semantic cultures where words and meaning are iconographic and mystical. A world with Sufi futurities and an inward looking love for the divine would become a tool for liberation from the fractured identities that dominate an oppressor oppressed narrative, and challenge notions of fear and hierarchies, by focusing towards a Sufi inspired model based on companionship and ishq. This idea of love and complete submersion could take the world in a direction where the focus is on the connection between the material and the spiritual, tangible and intangible expressions of oneness and ishq with our creator. Shirazi poet Hafiz, had famously said, if we start looking at everyone as a creation of our God and as a beloved guest of our god, we would find no reason to hate each other. Sufi futurities are a tool to heal us and make us mirrors that reflect from within.

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