The British actor, director, playwright and critic Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) writes in one of his famous prefaces to Shakespeare’s work: “The artist transforms and multiplies experience by imagination, and may even come to think that what is true of his art will be true for the world it mirrors.”

Art mirrors the world and Shakespeare turns himself into a polished mirror to reflect what is inside a human soul and what exists outside. But the inside and outside of a human soul are yet again the reflections of each other.

One of the couplets in Allama Iqbal’s poem in praise of Shakespeare, reads: “Husn aaina-i-haq aur dil aaina-i-husn/ Dil-i-insaan ko tera husn-i-kalam aaina [Beauty is the mirror of truth and the heart is the mirror of beauty/ To the human heart, the beauty of your words is the mirror].”

The mirror has a phenomenal metaphysical importance in the Islamic tradition of Tasawwuf — the Sufi path that attempts to arrive at an understanding of the oneness of being, the tribulations of the human mind, harmony in nature and the infinity of the universe.

The physical and metaphorical mirror has a similar enigma, fantasy, spirituality and wonderment attached to it in other cultures and literature. From the Greek myth of Narcissus, who sees his reflection in a pool of water, to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the portrait serves as the mirror, the examples are many. However, there is a particularity about the idea of the mirror in the art, poetry and literature of the Muslim world.

The universe is the mirror of God and God created Adam in his own image. From the treatises of Ibn Arabi and the reflections of Shams Tabriz to the poetry of Fariduddin Attar, among many other Arabic and Persian poets, the tradition, in all its hues and colours, reaches our poets such as Sachal Sarmast and Allama Iqbal, besides those who came before and after them.

Tabriz once said: “The summary of the advice of all prophets is this: find yourself a mirror.” Attar writes in Mantiq-ut-Tair [The Conference of the Birds]: “And silently their shining Lord replies:/ ‘I am a mirror set before your eyes/ And all who come before my splendour see/ Themselves, their own unique reality;/ You came as thirty birds and therefore saw/ These selfsame thirty birds, not less nor more’.”

We cannot see our face but only its image. Likewise, in us, the Creator sees His image. Creation is nothing but the image of the Creator. Al-Husayn Ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj courageously professed — Ana’l Haqq [I am the Truth]. The claim flustered the powers that be and caused grave political ramifications, because the mirror image of the oneness of the Creator shall be seen as the oneness of the creation.

In socio-political terms, it would translate into egalitarianism and justice. After suffering imprisonment and torture, Mansur Hallaj was executed on the banks of River Tigris in 922 AD. Hallaj has remained one of the central figures in the Sufi tradition and his legend turned into a metaphor for truthfulness and sacrifice to uphold equality and the dignity of humankind.

In 2000, Dr Muzaffar Iqbal’s translation of Divan-i-Mansur Hallaj from Arabic into Urdu was published by Maktaba-i-Danyal, Karachi. Iqbal’s skill and passion, reflected through his translation of Hallaj, were complemented by an engaging preface to the book by Dr Syed Nomanul Haq. Later, I also came to know that Haq himself is translating another important work of Hallaj.

Finally, Rang Barang Tailisaan [The Multi-Coloured Mantle], the translation of Kitab al-Tawasin in Urdu, has been published by the same Maktaba-i-Danyal. The title of the translation is a phrase taken from a verse of Allama Iqbal that appears in his celebrated poem ‘Zauq-o-Shauq’ [Discernment and Passion].

Tawasin is the plural of Twa and Siin, the first two letters with which the Surah Naml [The Ants] of the Quran opens. These are among the letters in the Quran called Muqatta’at, whose meaning remain uncertain and unknown. Before, after or or between the lines in his writing, Hallaj also uses illustrative symbols to convey his mystical experiences that may not be conveyed through words.

The chapters beginning with the word Tasin include the ‘Tasin of the Prophetic Lamp’, ‘of Comprehension’, ‘of Purity’, ‘of the Circle’, ‘of the Dot’, ‘of the Beginning of Time and Equivocation’, ‘of the Divine Will’, ‘of the Alienation of Unity’, ‘of the Secrets of Unity’ and the ‘Tasin of Redemption.’

To give an example of the mood in the book, Hallaj narrates a dialogue between Moses and Iblis [Satan]. “Ay Iblis tujh ko kis cheez ne sajday se baaz rakha?”, Uss ne kaha: “Mujhay baaz rakha mere iss daway ne, ke mabood yakta o yagana aur sirf aik hai.” [O Satan, what refrained you from prostrating in front of Adam?” Iblis replies: “My claim that the God I worship is unique, solitary and one.” It is both the paucity of space here and my desire that those interested must read this translation from Haq in full which constrains me from quoting more from the translation.

In these testing times for genuine literary and critical scholarship of highest merit in Pakistan, it could only be a polymath and polyglot like Dr Syed Nomanul Haq, with a rare ability to blend creativity with scholarship, who could translate Kitab al-Tawasin with such brilliance. Also, Haq has generously acknowledged other scholars and translators of Hallaj, from Louis Massignon to Carl W. Ernst, to others.

However, the cherry on the cake is his insightful commentary — a piece of immaculate Urdu prose in itself — that contextualises and explains Hallaj’s significance as our permanently relevant civilisational marker. Hallaj oscillates between a mirror and a mantle. The mirror reflects and the mantle veils.

The columnist is a poet and essayist.

He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights Into Society, Culture, Identity, and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 7th, 2024

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