vii. Christian Influences in Persian Poetry
Persian poetry contains a good number of allusions to Jesus Christ (ʿĪsā Masīḥ), Mary (Maryam), and Christians (naṣārā, tarsā) in general. But that does not mean that one can speak of Christian influences in the strict sense of the word, for most of the images and ideas expressed in poetry are elaborations of the Koranic data about Jesus and his virgin mother, though sometimes developed very ingeniously. Only among a few poets who had firsthand contact with Christian communities of Persia and Anatolia, such as Ḵāqānī and Rūmī, do some lines betray more intimate knowledge of Christian customs and concepts.
As was the case in early Arabic poetry, the Christian monk is alluded to thus in Kesāʾī Marvazī’s (Rīāḥī, p. 85) comparison of the blue lotus flower (nīlūfar-e kabūd) with a pale monk in his bluish robe. A large number of Christian monasteries (dayr) existed in Iraq and Syria under the caliphs. The pleasant, serene location (e.g., Yāqūt, Boldān II, pp. 658, 660, 666, 669) of such monasteries offered the liberal-minded Muslims and even the caliph himself a safe haven where drinking bouts could be held (e.g., Yāqūt, Boldān II, pp. 649, 658, 663, 693). Many poems were made in Arabic about these monasteries, their residents, and Christian customs. Some people became infatuated by the beauty of the Christian youths (see, e.g., Yāqūt, Boldān II, pp. 662-63), who associated freely with guests and often served as cupbearers. Thus a handsome young monk or Christian boy came to be the beloved who gives wine unstingily, and Christian imagery was used by poets to describe the beloved (see, e.g., Rādūyānī, p. 48; Dehḵodā, s.v. čalīpā).
It is well known that the early Sufis were in close contact with Christian ascetics and that the figure of Jesus plays an important role in early Sufis’ sayings (see Andrae, passim). His kindness and generosity were always praised, a fact that is most notably seen in Neẓāmī’s story (borrowed in German by J. W. von Goethe after H. Hammer-Purgstall’s Geschichte der schönen Redekünste Persiens and then frequently retold in the West): Jesus passed by a dead dog and silenced his disciples’ complaints about its foul smell by pointing to the animal’s beautiful white teeth. In such stories, Jesus appears as the representative of love of God—not, as John the Baptist, of fear of God. This gentle aspect of his character prevails in poetry. Some of the Sufis found the asceticism of Jesus not completely perfect, however, and there was a story that he carried a needle with him, which showed that he had still some relations with the “world” (p. 85). For this reason he was lifted up only to the fourth heaven, not into the immediate presence of God. Such ideas may help explain why Jesus appears in Ḥāfeẓ’s verse as dancing, listening to the music of Zohra (Venus), who is located in the third heaven:
Dar āsmān na ʿajab gar be-gofta-ye Ḥāfeẓ
Samāʿ-e Zohra be-raqṣ āvarad Masīḥā-rā.
The most frequently mentioned miracle of Jesus is his capacity to revive dead bodies, taken from the Koran, which mentions his blowing into clay birds to bring them alive (5:110). This story offers the poets innumerable ways of comparing their beloved to Jesus, and expressing their hope that the beloved would grant them a kiss in order to restore their fading soul, which appears generally under the image of Jesus breathing into them. Sometimes the lover appears as a clay bird brought to life by Jesus’s breath, and understandably his healing power makes him appear as the true physician of the soul. His quickening breath usually appears in connection with Ḵeżr’s water of life—both prophets are immortal and grant life to the mortal lover. Rūmī says in a charming verse (Dīvān-e kabīr IV, p. 121 v. 19180):
Gar ze Masīḥ porsad-at morda če-gūna zenda kard,
Būsa be-dah be-pīš-e ū bar lab-e mā ke ham-čonīn
“If he asks you about the Messiah, how he quickened the dead/Give in his presence a kiss on our lips: Thus!”
In the 13th/19th century Mīrzā Ḡāleb claims: “Ḡāleb died from one movement of his lips./Unfortunately the breath of Jesus was not at hand.” This imagery was so common in later Persian, Turkish, and Urdu poetry that the lover claims to have been killed by the beloved—“and whose Jesus have you been last night?” that is, “Whom have you kissed?”
The idea of the quickening breath can also be applied to the ruler, and Ḵāqānī compares a prince to Jesus, who revives his country “as Jesus revived Lazarus” (Dīvān, p. 146). Ḵāqānī also alludes to the table that was sent down to Jesus in an inverted image stating that even Jesus comes to Ṭāhā’s, that is Moḥammad’s, table to gather the leftover crumbs (Dīvān, p. 99; cf. Koran 5:112, 114). More frequent than allusions to the mysterious table, however, are verses mentioning Jesus’s donkey. In the Golestān Saʿdī had written the oft-quoted lines:
Ḵar-e ʿĪsā gar-aš be Makka barand,
čūn bīāyad hanūz ḵar bāšad
“If Jesus’s donkey went to Mecca,/When he returns, he is still a donkey.”
But much more common is the association of the donkey with the body and Jesus with the soul. This is found dozens of times in Rūmī’s verse: When Jesus went to heaven, his donkey had to stay back on earth. In Rūmī’s verse one finds very coarse association of the donkey’s smelly, foul backside with the fragrance that emerges from Christ, the soul—“what has Jesus’s cradle to do with a donkey’s tail?”
The idea that Jesus is the innermost soul, “a Christ in the cradle of the outward form,” occurs not only in his Dīvān but also in Fīh mā fīh (chap. 5): The “birth of Christ in the soul,” which is preceded by many birth pangs, is an expression used by Rūmī half a century before it appears in the writings of Meister Eckhart. For Jesus is the rūḥ Allāh, God’s spirit, and this leads to admiring verses about the Virgin Mary: Persian poets have loved to allude to her purity, and as early as in Kesāʾī’s poetry (Rīāḥī, p. 77), one finds a description of a spring morning:
Nasīm-e nīm-šabān Jabreʾīl gašt magar,
Ke bīḵ o šāḵ-e deraḵtān-e ḵošk Maryam gašt.
“Perhaps the midnight breeze has become Gabriel/That the roots and the branches of the dried-up trees became Mary.”
The rosebud, too, can be compared to the Virgin, the rose’s fragrance to the life-giving breath of Jesus—ideas repeated many times in the following centuries and especially in Rūmī’s verse. In fact, Rūmī’s description of the Annunciation as told in the Maṯnawī (bk.3, vv. 3700ff.) could be easily taken to be a piece of Christian devotional literature. Mary’s image also helps Rūmī, and others, to show that divine help will come when despair is greatest: Did not the dried-up palm tree shower dates upon her when she grasped it during her birth pangs, as the Koran tells (19:23ff.)?
In Rūmī’s case, there may have been some direct influences from his Christian surroundings; it is known that he conversed with monks and Greek priests who were still very active in Konya and neighboring Cappadocia. He alludes in Fīh mā fīh to the fact that Jesus had no place in which to place his head, while the young jackals had a resting place, but shows the superiority of a lover who is driven from place to place by his beloved to those who may rest peacefully. One finds also an allusion to Matthew (5:59), that one should offer the second cheek after receiving a blow on one cheek (Dīvān I, p. 551.937), and in a strange image he compares the long, confused talk of an Arab to a Christian who confesses the sins of a whole year to a priest (Maṯnawī V, vv. 3255-56).
Yet, despite the positive role of Jesus and Mary, Christianity is usually seen, again in accordance with the Koran, as the religion of monastic otherworldliness, and in Fīh mā fīh (chap. 17) Rūmī warns people who are too weak to take the way of Moḥammad, that is, constant struggle, that they should at least take the way of Christ, for example, to recede from this world. He also criticizes people who cling to their Christian faith and do not acknowledge the superiority of Islam.
The “weakness” of Christianity in the eyes of the poets is shown by combining the word tars “fear” with tarsā “Christian” (Rūmī calls doubtful thought (gomān) “a Christian”), and Ḵāqānī says in an ingenious complaint about the spheres’ revolving: Falak kajrowtar ast az ḵaṭṭ-e tarsā (the sphere goes more crooked than the Christian’s, i.e., the Greek’s, writing, which, of course, goes from left to right and not, like Arabic, from right to left, that is, everything goes wrong).
Verses in which the colorful “world” is compared to a dayr or a church may have been inspired by the colorful iconostases in Orthodox churches—temptingly beautiful and variegated but dangerous for the believer’s soul. In later times the traditional imagery developed in comparisons of questionable taste, as when an 11th/17th-century Kashmiri poet compares the lovely wine in the glass bottle to Jesus in Mary’s womb (Aṣlaḥ). One finds also instances of allusions to the cross but, as Islam does not accept the Christian version of Christ’s death on the cross, such allusions (e.g., “roses like bleeding heads on the cross”) are usually to the martyr mystic Ḥallāj. As for Rūmī, the four wooden pieces of the cross reminded him of the four elements, from which one can be freed only when reaching the true tawḥīd, the acknowledgment of the One God (Dīvān, no. 693 l. 7215).
It is interesting to note that all the above-mentioned concepts and images have survived into the 14th/20th century, and in some cases Rūmī seems to prefigure some modern attacks on the churches, as when he describes at length the confusion of the Christian sects (Maṯnawī, bk. 1, vv. 335ff.) or asks: “What should Jesus do with the church since he went to the fourth heaven?” (Dīvān I, v. 1283). Such questions occur in the Persian and Urdu verse of Moḥammad Eqbāl, often in even more aggressive language; for him and for many modernists in a colonial age Christianity was associated with the colonial powers, and the poets in Turkey and India wondered why the behavior of modern Christians had so little similarity with the lofty ideals of the Gospels and why they betrayed Christ’s noble spirit for economic and political purposes. Part of the traditional imagery thus became imbued with new, more negative connotations, while maintaining the high spirituality of the founder of Christianity.
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H. B. Dehqani-Tafti, Christ and Christianity in Persian Poetry, Basingstoke, Eng., n.d. .
Mīrzā Ḡāleb, Moraqqaʿ-e Ḡāleb, ed. P. Chandler, Delhi, 1966.
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Idem, Maṯnawī-e maʿnawī, ed. and tr. R. A. Nicholson, 8 vols., London, 1925-40.
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A. Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing, Lahore, 1988.
S. Soroudi, “On Jesus’ Image in Modern Persian Poetry,” The Muslim World, 1979, pp. 221-28.
Originally Published: December 15, 1991
Last Updated: October 18, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 5, pp. 542-544