Abu Said's Mystical Poetry

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Specialties  »  Art/Literary Translation  »  Abu Said's Mystical Poetry

Abu Said's Mystical Poetry

By Sophie Devidze | Published  01/11/2010 | Art/Literary Translation | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://arm.proz.com/doc/2849
Sophie Devidze
անգլերենից վրացերեն translator
Անդամ է դարձել՝ May 16, 2012-ին։

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I decided to translate quatrains by Abū Sa‘īd - great Persian Mystic, without maintaining the rhythm and rhyme, in other words the verses turned into small prosaic sayings.

The collection of poetry ascribed to Abū Sa‘īd Abī’l Khayr Mayhanī (967-1049) provides rich material to discuss the main aspects of Sufi Mysticism. Many of the quatrains (rubā’ī) could be understood as hedonistic and analyzed as mystical ones simultaneously, showing the signs of the well-known ambiguity, characteristic to the Medieval Persian Poetry. These verses are the first examples of the ambiguous Persian poetry, as the authorship of the first purely mystical verses undoubtedly belongs to Bābā Kūhī Shīrāzī (d. 1050/51). (1, 279)
Sufi themes discussed in the essay are: Mystical Love (mahabbat), Unity of Being (wahdat-i wujūd), Divine Unity/Union (tawhīd), the Path to Unity (tarīqat), Universality of Religion and Emanation. Several problematical questions of Sufi mysticism have been reviewed meanwhile: the tough task of staying away from the alluring pressure of the “lower self” (nafs), sin and forgiveness, the roles of the Heart and the Reason, vanity of this World, the question of Dwellers of the Infinity in the Past (azal) and a certain number of poetical symbols appropriate to the examined motives.We will try to provide a summarized illustration of Abū Sa‘īd’s – the high-spirited Poet’s and the Saint Sheikh’s – doctrine
Abū Sa‘īd’s quatrains were popular and genuinely attractive to everyone; the mystic’s bright personality wouldn’t have used to “heavy” and exceedingly obscure poetical forms. As Carl W. Ernst has mentioned, the language of the quatrains is uncomplicated and paradoxical at the same time and when Abū Sa‘īd recited the verses he selected the brightest and the most meaningful examples of poetry. (5, 205) “The inward meaning of outward utterance” (20, 3) is what Abū Sa‘īd used the smart ambiguous quatrains for, as they fully represent the aspects of complicated Sufi doctrine, its wisdom obtainable for the distinguished. However they effectively connect the hearts of the earthly listeners to the Divine. Even the purely mystical verses of him are simple and easy to catch the essence
The limited number of quatrains (chosen out of 400 translated from Persian to Georgian by me – S. D.) enable us to discuss the main points of Abū Sa‘īd’s mystical poetry.
Whenever possible the poetical expressions of the mystical ideas are strengthened by Abū Sa‘īd’s sayings from his biographies. One would consider it unnecessary, but taking in view how well they correspond with one another I thought it nothing but helpful to reveal the harmony between Abū Sa‘īd’s personality and the principles of his poetry.
It wouldn’t be overstated that Mystical Love (mahabbat) is what Sufism is all about. Sufis call love a treasure, a precious stone and only the one who finds it can be called a Sufi.
There are many deeply emotional, sincere quatrains in the collection, reflecting passion of a mystical Lover towards Beloved:

I cry with Love I cry,
My life [my business] has been collapsed because of a single wink of the beauty,
If I have lost favor, woe, woe,
And if not, let it go, let it go. (16, 1) (All the Persian-English translations in the essay are provided by me – S. D.)

As Abū Sa‘īd himself explained, monotheist worships the Beloved (Beloved/God) which is the Divine Secret for the worshiper, God’s look is firm and if He directs his look toward the Believer, [this look] makes him alive/immortal (haiyy), and those who do not possess this secret in their hearts are animals (haywān). (13, 52)
The mystic is relied on God’s will, whether it is kind or not – and even if the Lover is unhappy and cries bitterly, he believes - anything that happens to him is God’s blessing in disguise.
In one of his biographies Sheikh tells a story of a farmer (dahqān) and his servant (gholām), who eats a sour cucumber given by the farmer having a pleased face. It excites his patron’s appetite. He tastes it but can not eat it. When asked how he ate it with such a pleasure the servant replies: all these years I’ve been eating sweet food handled to me by my patron and how could I keep myself away from eating one sour cucumber? Abū Sa‘īd explains it in a verse:

You shouldn’t suffer because of everything that the Beloved has done,
As Love is such – sometimes it makes us happy, sometimes it hurts…
…How could one be oblivious of hundred favors because of a single misdeed?
If you keep worrying about a thorn, you won’t be able to eat khurmā (sort of fruit)
(13, 98-99)
The bayts are from the only ghazal among the abundance of rubā’īyāt in the collection.
A necessary element of love - sleepless nights make an ascetic (zāhid) closer on his Path towards Beloved:

Water is welling in my eyes, instead of [peaceful] sleep,
As I hunger for seeing you,
They keep telling me: sleep and meet her in your dreams,
Hey, you the ignorant, how may I sleep? (16, 3)

Symbols/metaphors (ramz) most closely associated with passion of the lover/wayfarer are the elements of khamriyyat. Several main symbols will be discussed here to illustrate the motive.
Wine (may, bāda) opens the heart of the believer towards divine realities; it is far more valuable to “drink wine” than the formal side of pilgrimage (hajj). As a symbol wine stands for Divine Wisdom. The goblet of pure wine is an allegory of the heart of the wayfarer - the purer it is, the more clearly it reflects the face of the Beloved:

If your heart is occupied by [is turned towards] something else In Ka‘ba,
Religious ritual is nothing but impurity and Ka‘ba – a tavern (dīr),
And if your heart is towards God and you dwell in tavern (maykada),
Drink wine and everything will be all right for you after all. (16, 2)

In our chalices (saghir) there is a diamond (almās) instead of wine. (16, 9)

There is a light of Unseen in paymāna (17 cited in: 12, 46) and after having drunk the wine Abū Sa‘īd becomes merged with the Divine reality:

I drank the wine, as it is the soul of His goblet (rūh-i paymāna-yi ūst),
I got drunk as my mind is crazy about Him. (16, 17)

There are some more wine symbols met in the collection, but the further extension of the khamriyyat motive in this part of the essay seems unnecessary. However we can’t avoid returning to the themes of love and wine again, as all the Sufi aspects are strongly synchronized.
As Sufis have frequently stated the glance of a mystic is not partial, in opposite - they perceive both the material and the spiritual worlds as a whole and such a vision is only possible through the believer’s heart, purified by Love. Here we come to the Unity of Being (wahdat-i wujūd). One of the most discussed points among the Early Sufis has been the practical approach towards the Unity of Being. The practitioner mystics haven’t been deeply concerned about its theories. They and Abū Sa‘īd among them tried to experience the true essence of this mystical aspect performing spiritual exercises praying and meditating. Abū Sa‘īd’s famous “salāt maqlūba”(15, 192) helped him to acknowledge, that there was nothing real but His wisdom and favor, even the two Worlds and the thought of the two – the mystic and the God had lost their importance, as their could be no duality accepted (13, 20):

O God, open the door for us with your kindness,
Show us the way of survival,
We don’t need these two Worlds, do a favor,
Take every bit away from our hearts except the memory of you. (16, 2)

Consequently the only way to reach the Beloved is purifying the heart from every bit of earthly thoughts, as the heart is the miraculous mirror, which reflects the God’s true essence (dhāt) and takes in His Divine attributes (sifāt). The only way to obtain the divine wisdom is Love and the possibilities of the Reason [‘aql] are quite limited:

The secret of being will stay raw and underdone,
And the noble diamond will be remained not pierced,
Everyone who has stated something proving it by logic (aql)
He left unsaid the most important thing. (16, 32)

Hence the way to understand the affairs of the universe is purifying the Heart [dil]. “Sufis call the heart the “human truth”; philosophers call it the “speaking selfhood.” (21) Instead of qalb we usually find dil in Abu Sa’id’s poetry:

Purify your heart [dil] to let the Truth glance into your heart,
[Do it] to avoid the scattered hearts being sold one by one,
The ascetic (zāhid) who purifies his heart in the name of God
Say, he gets hold of everyone’s share (z-i hama mardum) of the world. (16, 27)

There is no way to teach the “Unity of Being”, but a goblet of wine can be helpful:

At school they give us tools to do things,
In taverns – we are awarded the primary delight. (16, 34)

“There are two kinds of knowledge in this world, the one – science of law (‘ilm-i sharī‘a) belongs to the language and the other one – science about the Truth (‘ilm-i haqīqat) belongs to the heart. The group of people who follow only one of them are imitators… they care about the visual sides of life… and the other group consists of people who continually observe,” says Abū Sa‘īd. (13, 48)
But while being in a mystical state in a well, every kind of thoughts and concepts disappear in him, he becomes a fully aware mystic:

There is sky; there is a moon and the sun in this world,
Drink wine from the wines intoxication,
You are far beyond earthly and the world's nothing but you,
You dwell beyond every place and the world's full of you. (16, 11)

As there is nothing within everything, just the wind in one’s hands,
As there is only the harm and the damage in all this “nothing”,
Be sure, everything that there is in the world – there is not,
Believe that anything there isn’t in it – there is. (16, 8)

These verses make Abū Sa‘īd’s attitude towards divinity completely clear and summarize the main concept of wahdat-i wujūd – God remains transcendent and individual, but not just conceptual; the experienced look of the mystic beholds Divinity in every particle of earthly life.
According to Abū Sa‘īd there is nothing like a person’s own will on earth, the deeds and misdeeds of a person are both predetermined by God’s will. At this point it wouldn’t be inappropriate to discuss briefly Abū Sa‘īd’s approach towards the question of sin and forgiveness: his attitude is quite similar to that of many other Sufi mystics – there is nothing like an unforgivable sin as God’s favor is beyond measure:

Oh, God, don’t sweep us away from your favor,
No matter how big our sin and fault are.
Your essence is rich and we are have-nots,
Don’t get us the poor away from yourself. (16, 2)

Our palace isn’t a palace of despair,
Even if you’ve broken your word one hundred times, come back. (16, 3)

The couplets remind us of ‘Umar Khayyam, but similarity is only imaginary, of course. Khayyam takes forgiveness as an urge to produce more and more sins. His attitude is “earthly”; and cynical, as usual:

Khayyam, what’s this mourning about your sins for?
What’s the use, big or little, in being sorrowful?
Those, who has no sins, won’t be forgiven,
Forgiveness came due to sin, what’s this worry about? (9, 222)

Abū Sa‘īd knows that the nature of Adam’s posterity is different from angelic nature and is far from being perfect – divine and earthly features dwell together in a Man. “…Imperfection is part of human nature, that God knows this full well, and that no one should despair of God’s mercy. At the same time they have to take a lesson from the angels and never be proud of their own works…” (2, 356)

If your occupation is kindness, [don’t say] it’s thanks to your wisdom,
And if it is evil, that’s not your fault,
Let obedience and satisfaction be your habits,
As there are ups and downs in life regardless your approval. (16, 20)

Again we refer to W. Chittick’s study: “…No obedient person should be self-satisfied, and no disobedient person should lose hope.” (14, 406 cited in: 2, 356)
At the same time he denies God’s good will in every earthly affair: the One is perfect but the universe emanated from Him is diverse, it’s a place of continuous struggle between the kind and the evil:

The heaven cycle will never turn in one direction - Don’t demand it,
Don’t insist on justice of a Sultan from the ages faraway,
You’ll stay in this world for five days,
Don’t demand torturing even a single Muslim’s heart. (16, 5)

The Spiritual practice during the early period of his life helped Abū Sa‘īd to gain the knowledge of both material and spiritual worlds, the Unity (tawhīd) and the Separation (hijr). The result of continual diminishing of self is tawhīd, and is beyond mystic’s reach until he thinks about the questions of the Hell and the Heaven, until the self is not fully vanished. He lost the self-cognition and realized that:

All my body has turned into tears and my eye [still] cries,
One should live without body when in love with you,
There is nothing left from me, not even a trace, where has this love turned up from?
All of me turned into the Beloved, hence where is the Lover. (16, 18)

The Unity and Separation are all the same for those who are mad with Love,
For the one who has left himself, what is the Hell, or what is the Heaven? (16, 22)

As the Sufis claim and as it is quoted everywhere, the biggest veil between the God and the mystic is the dark side of the ego - nafs, the Qoranic meaning of which is soul and self/person. (19, 1) Abū Sa‘īd also refers to it as to the "Illusion of self". (8, 299)

The mystic who has wisdom,
Is free from self and is God's companion,
Deny yourself and recognize the Truth,
It's the essence of "there is no God but Allah". (16, 17)

The basic idea of nafs is 'the physical appetite' … “flesh”, in the sense of “desire”, is always evil. It must be restrained. (19, 1) The most common meaning of nafs in Abū Sa‘īd’s verses is self/yourself which is negative:

If you make us seat at the threshold of a tavern,
If you make us rush on the way to Ka‘ba,
All this is just the need of our existence -
It would be better if you make us free from ourselves. (16, 2)

A single seed isn’t leaving the boundary of self,
The wisdom [ma‘rifa – gnosis] of the selfish doesn’t increase. (16, 41)

There are several allegories standing for the negative aspects of nafs in the quatrains: body, blood, man (the one who is not God’s “companion”), haughtiness, disdain, desire and presence (19, 2) as they are the obstacles on the way of spiritual self-perfection:

Mansūr Hallāj - the sea whale,
Who detached the seed of soul from the cotton fiber of the body [tan]? (16, 2)

Oh, my heart, you’re all blood, where is patience. (16, 124)

A man asked me who my Beloved was,
I said who she was and asked him what his purpose was,
He sat and cried for me with woe:
How would you live with such a person? (16, 18)

Don’t be over-confident for the reason that you’ve read a page. (16, 26)

Be careful; don’t leave His respect behind,
As together with the roses he nurtures rough thorns. (16, 22)

I asked my heart: how are you?
Tears welled in its eyes and it cried a lot,
Said: how could the one be, who
Is compelled to live according to someone else’s will? (16, 18)

Until one’s head isn’t cut down by Love’s sword,
He won’t be able to take the path of love and devotion,
You call for the beloved and still care for your existence?
You do care, but that’s not possible any more. (16, 40)

Excellent describing allegory of the soul “unchained” from the troubles of the material world “traveling” on the Path is a cypress (sarw/sarw-i āzād – free cypress). It allegorically stands for walking on the Path (tarīqat) without earthly thoughts. As W. Chittick points out cypress is a symbol which denotes abandoning earthly interests…as a cypress does it, having never borne any fruit which distinguishes it from all the other trees. (3, 130-132) The tree symbolizes the continuous upward (vertical) motion of man’s soul towards Divinity, the Eternal Primary Light, the “Cosmic North” – the vertical dimension which in its essence equals to revealing the inner world. (4, 5) The quatrain is one of those ambiguous examples of poetry (probably selected by Abū Sa‘īd from the folklore) which could simply be understood as a realistic verse, if it wasn’t ascribed to a mystic poet:

When I enter your garden it reminds me of your district,
I look at a rose and I recollect your face,
If I take a seat in the shadow of a cypress for a minute,
The cypress reminds me of your loving (loving-lovely-diljū) body. (16, 43)

“Peace dwells in having no wills and in being far from discussions and in equaling your disability to the disability of the dwellers of cemetery”- Abū Sa‘īd says. (13, 50)
On his way to the Unity Abū Sa‘īd fully acknowledges the vanity of this world but he doesn’t deny the earthly life and even its pleasures, he refuses to escape it.

If there was something related to this world,
I swear its very name is the Truth. (13)

Abū Sa‘īd’s attitude towards life is as ambiguous as his quatrains are – this is the key feature to understand the striking imaginary contradiction within his poetry, sayings and lifestyle. The contradiction is imaginary, as for those who have acknowledged the inner upwardness of their presence, the horizontal dimensions have also gained their importance. (4, 2)
As mentioned above the both Worlds disappear and the Hell and the Paradise lose their importance: consequently so do the religions. Most of the Sufi poets believe in the Universality of Religion. "Every place [is holy], where there is a house of love, it would be a mosque or a fire temple" - states Abū Sa‘īd.

Those, who thanks to the destiny are in the list of lovers,
Don’t necessitate attending a mosque and a synagogue. (16, 22)

You the admirer, be sure that there was no Moslem,
And there was no Belief or Disbelief in the religion of Love. (16, 39)

Until the madrasa and the minaret aren't ruined,
Qalandari business won't get sorted out,
Until Belief doesn't turn into Disbelief and Disbelief - into Belief,
There will be no slave worthy to become a Moslem. (16, 41)

So the importance of any Belief is lessened and the primary elements of all religions are privileged. As Abū Sa‘īd wrote in his letter to Ibn Sīnā "the valleys of the Faithful on the Path (tarīqat) are diverse. All the seekers have their own ways [to reach the Unity]" (13, 69)
“What is the inner mechanism, which makes the idolized things and affairs act following almost the same model in the myths and religions of completely different people?” (7, 76) Here are the quatrains where the poet is talking about this “mechanism” in the clearest way:

The Path to you [is nice] no matter which of the paths is preferred,
Unity with you [is desired] no matter where they find you,
Your face is beautiful; no matter who (“which eye”) perceives you,
Your name sounds nice, no matter in which language they pronounce it. (16, 13)

Belief is another and the Faith of Love is something else,
The prophet of Love is not Persian, neither is he Arab. (16, 10)

One of the philosophical issues of Sufism concerning the creation of the Universe is Emanation. According to Neo-Platonism “the One effortlessly “overflows” (10) and becomes manifest after inevitable process of “spreading over” – so called emanation. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of presence in the context of Plotinus' philosophy; rather, we must speak of varying degrees or grades of contemplation, all of which refer back to the pure trace of infinite power that is the One.” (10)
The idea of grades and contemplation is natural in the context of the Sufi doctrine. Through the centuries the stable symbols of emanation remained moon-faced or sun-faced idols and her curls. The face never changes, it is timeless and the light coming from it makes blind whoever directly takes a look at it. The curls are constantly changing getting closer and closer to the eternal. That is why people can hardly ever look toward the Divine directly, they need preliminary steps – thus the curls of an idol symbolize vertical gradations of the visible world toward the Divinity, The curls are the grades of contemplation of the One:

The moon whose capital is faith and beauty,
The uppermost point of the sky of beauty is the lowest bottom of her,
Take a look at the Sun’s face, and if you aren’t able
Take a look at Her dark curls, which are Her neighbors. (16, 16)

Even the “material” sun has a poor light comparing to the Divine brilliance, the mystical sun, the Light of Lights:

In every home where your face has lit a candle,
As if, the Sun was getting a modest light from a needle’s hole. (16, 28)

Mihrāb-i ābrū denotes the illumination of Divine Splendor which directs the Lover’s look towards Beloved (as the eyelashes betray the character of the whole face, they are compared to the Attributes (sifāt) that express the nature of the True Essence (dhāt). (12) Mihrāb in a mosque is supposed to concentrate the worshipper on Qibla. (12)

Mihrāb is the arch of your eyelash… (16, 24)

You are the target the Sun-worshippers intend to reach,
Your eyelash arch is the mihrāb of earth-dwellers. (16, 24)

As a final point, we would like to make clear, what is Abū Sa‘īd’s “personal” role in this complex performance of ideas, what is the true essence of his existence.
The dwellers of the Eternity in the Past (azal) transfer their divine knowledge to the people on Earth. For example, Moses and his Stick symbolize spiritual revival. Pharaoh is his enemy and an obstacle on the way to God:

Everyone similar to Pharaoh has become stronger,
Send me Moses, his Stick and the river Nile. (16, 12)

Before the arc of the sky was raised,
And before the Palace of the Heaven was glazed over,
We, homeless, have been sleeping sweetly at the earliest point of the Eternity,
We have been marked with your Love without our presence in there (bī mā).
(16, 32)

Thus, Abū Sa‘īd claims to be one of the dwellers of azal (pre-existence). He is one of the links of the knowledge-transferring chain, and he is the eyewitness of the primary world (non-material). He is elected by God, as “the Sufis have always declared and believed themselves to be God's chosen people”. (11, 122)
After analyzing the aspects of mysticism in the verses above, it must be noticed, that we have only touched the surface of the subject called “Abū Sa‘īd’s poetry” and a lot more “is left unsaid”, (16, 32) as every issue would easily form a large chapter.
Though, quatrains analyzed in the essay demonstrate the main mystical elements of the Early Persian Sufism and they show common and distinctive characteristics of Abū Sa‘īd’s attitude towards certain religious aspects.
Abū Sa‘īd got closer to the simplicity of the quatrains – the great majority of his listeners were artisans and merchants. (1, 50) His courageous endeavor of using quatrains popular in the lower social classes in order to convey the Divine Secret had more than a successful result - Abū Sa‘īd started “the characteristic play between the imagery of divine and earthly love, divine and earthly intoxication” (18, 147) which was carried on in Persian Literature. His simple couplets fully imply the entire problematic subjects of the huge domain called Sufism.
He is considered a “seminal figure” in the process of development of many aspects of Sufism (6, 83-84) and the Sufi Persian Literature in particular. His biggest contribution made to the process of development of the Persian Literature is that from him afterwards “the principal language of Sufism in the eastern lands of Islam was changing from Arabic to Persian” (6, 83)
Worth mentioning that it’s not decidedly clear yet whether Abū Sa‘īd is the author of the collection or not. Most likely, he is, but, anyway, the ideas and metaphors cannot be the result of his fantasy - they trace back to the deep roots of Iranian culture. However, he has systematized a great variety of mystical themes and metaphors for the main motives of the Persian Sufi Poetry later.


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17. Tahānawī, Muhammad ‘Alī ibn Muhammad Hamid al-. Kashshāf Istilāhāt al-funūn. Calcutta: 1861 (secondary source)
18. Williams, John Alden, Islam, Chapter “The Ecstatics”, 1962, c. 1961, not renewed, www.sacred-texts.com/isl/isl/index.htm
19. Quoted from “NAFS”, www.musliphilosophy.com/ei2/nafs/htm

20. Quoted from “The Ineffable in Context: a Study of Sufi Symbols in the Haft Vadi”,
Muslim Mystic Cosmology,

21. Quoted from Qalb (Heart) – 1; www.thewaytotruth.org/heart/heart.html

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