Rang Barang Tailasaan
(Urdu Translation of Husayn b. Mansur al-Hallaj’s Kitab al-Tawasin)
By Syed Nomanul Haq
Maktaba-i-Daniyal
ISBN: 978-9-69-419120-1
133pp.

On March 26, 922, a large crowd had gathered by the river Tigris to witness the public hanging of al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, who had been sentenced after an 11-year-long trial.

Among the crowd were some of the most revered Sufi masters, although it also had onlookers and passersby who were unaware of the true significance of the event. Those who knew the stature of the 63-year-old condemned, also knew that the soon-to-be-hanged man had already forgiven his killers.

“My friends,” he had said in a poem, “kill me, for in my death is my life.”

When the moment came, Hallaj gracefully embraced his martyrdom, saying out loud, “All that matters for the mystic is that the One should reduce him to Unity.” And he walked up to the gallows, reciting, “Those who do not believe in it are impatient for it, but those who believe are fearful of it and know that it is the Truth. Unquestionably, those who dispute concerning the Hour are in extreme error.” (Qur’an 42:18)

A cenotaph was built on the site of his execution, which soon drew pilgrims. Visitors came from all over the vast Muslim empire. When Baghdad was ransacked by the Mongols, his cenotaph survived but, after almost a millennium, sometime during the 1920s, it was swept away by the flood of River Tigris.

Syed Nomanul Haq’s Urdu translation of Mansur al-Hallaj’s Kitab al-Tawasin captures the beauty and elegance of the original through a combination of literary finesse and scholarship

Hallaj’s memory, however, remains entrenched in hearts yearning for the Divine. His words, “Ana’l Haqq [I am the Truth]”, continue to resonate in poetry and literature of all languages spoken in the Muslim world — including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Malay.

Among his surviving works, Diwan al-Hallaj and Kitab al-Tawasin are the most important — the former for its intimate and passionate utterances by a person who was drowned in Divine love, and the latter for its extraordinary love for the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace, and for an evocative discourse on the nature of Prophetic stations.

Both works are now available in Urdu. The former was translated by the writer of this review in 1996, and the latter is now a gift to Urdu readers by Syed Nomanul Haq, whose own personal journey led him to Hallaj in 1994 when, while teaching at Brown University in the United States, he conceived of a seminar on tasawwuf [Islamic mysticism] which included works by Hallaj.

A second path to Hallaj was opened, he tells us in his intimate Foreword, when I invited him to write the ‘Introduction’ to my translation of the Diwan because, in that process, he realised that “in order to reach the alley of Hallaj, one must first experience the glowing flame of Divine love in one’s innermost recesses, quietly, gently, and in solitude.”

It was then that Noman wrote his first elaborate Urdu text, which surprised its readership, because here was an unknown name in Urdu literature who had written a refined and mature text that pulsated with an inner kinetic energy, built through an expert use of metaphors in a chiselled language that harkened back to the classics of Urdu and Persian literature. A text that, moreover, showed an intimate and deep understanding of the entire poetic tradition influenced by Hallajian thought and works.

Noman’s ‘Introduction’ to the Urdu translation of Diwan al-Hallaj proved to be the catalyst for undertaking a translation of Kitab al-Tawasin, which is now beautifully produced by Maktaba-i-Daniyal.

That Rang Barang Tailasaan — the title Noman has given to the translation — is a labour of love, is obvious from the fact that it took almost two decades for it to see the light of day. But its true value is its unique approach to translation of this extraordinary work that pulsates with love and touches the highest levels of literary composition. Noman’s translation captures the beauty and elegance of the original through a combination of literary finesse and scholarship.

The translation is, most of all, a work of literature, because the warp and weft of the tailasaan (literally, a multi-coloured mantle that envelopes, and stands as a metaphor for existence) is woven with words, images, metaphors, poetic phrases and similes that come from a certain higher level of Urdu, Persian and Arabic literature. Thus, one finds words and phrases like hum-nasheeni¸ wasl ki manzil, aarzuon ka daaman, and daanish-o-daanai, all harking back to Rumi, Iqbal, Ghalib and even Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

The execution of Mansur al-Hallaj (manuscript illustration from Mughal Empire, C. 1600) | Wikimedia Commons
The execution of Mansur al-Hallaj (manuscript illustration from Mughal Empire, C. 1600) | Wikimedia Commons

Noman’s signature prose has a refined combination of classical syntax and contemporary phrases, which surprise because of their unusual echo:

“Aur yeh zah aag paida karnay wali/ Un dandiyon se ubharti hai/ Jis se jal jata hai woh sab keh/ Jis ka bey-parda hona na-zeyba hai” [And this bow string rises from those twigs that burn to ashes all whose unveiling is inappropriate].

Here, as elsewhere, words are strung together in an allusive rhythmic diction that produces unfamiliar echoes: the imagery of a fire gushing up from “dandies”[twigs], consuming all that is not worthy of showing, is tantalising.

Noman employs various literary devices to capture the imagery and force of the original, the most notable being an expert use of parenthetical clauses, separated by em-dashes. For instance, the seven lines that follow the above quote, which eloquently translate an intimate passage that actually highlights the requirement of structural beauty of words for conveying profound truths.

One of the best translated passages is number 15 of Roshan charaagh ki taasin [Taasin of the Bright Lamp]: “Muhammad ke meem ke hisaar se/ Kuchh baahar nahin nikla” [Nothing has transgressed the confines of the ‘M’ of ‘Muhammad’].

Another example is the following passage, which seems to have been directly inspired by the poetic diction of the original, producing lines of extraordinary beauty in a memorable idiom and syntax, where a rhythm is produced by the sound-iteration of letters:

“Us ki daal us ka dawaam hai/ Us ki meem us ka mahl hai/ Us ki haa’ us ka baatini haal hai/ Us ki doosri meem us ka maqaal hai” [His ‘Daal’ is his ‘Dawaam’ = permanence/ His ‘M’ is his ‘Mahl’ = station/ His ‘H’ is his ‘Haal’ = state/ His second ‘M’ is his ‘Maqaal’ = discourse].

Noman’s translation maintains a poetic elevation throughout the text. In humility, he has refrained from taking liberty with the text and, where the meanings of the original were inaccessible, he has admirably preferred to remain silent. His effort to remain true to the meanings of the original have resulted in a text that has a classical tone without Arabicised Urdu.

At times, the translation is rhythmic, like a poem and, at times, reads like a prose poem. Nuqtay ki Taasin [Taasin of the Point] is one of the densest texts in the original, where Hallaj develops and describes the stations of the spiritual journey in metaphors that carry deep mystical meanings. Noman’s translation flows like a gentle river, carrying the reader, step by step, into the depths of the ocean.

In 1996, in his introduction to my translation of Diwan of Hallaj, Noman had said, “Kitab al-Tawasin is one of the greatest books of Sufism; its spontaneity, its rhythmic flow, its deep devotional tone, its mysteries, its imagery and its musicality, creates a feeling of elation, as if the forceful waves of the drink is shaking the glass itself.

“If one were to just read the chapter in which Hallaj has panegyrically sung the praises of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, one immediately grasps the depths of love and strength of faith of this lover of the Prophet — how he has deeply experienced and lived the Message of his Messenger — the actual Divine Speech, which he has taken to the deepest recesses of his soul, and what a wonderous mad-love he has for the Messenger! To call such a man kaafir [unbeliever] and zindeeq [heretic] is utterly unjust.”

Now, almost a quarter century later, Noman’s translation of Kitab al-Tawasin brings to the Urdu readership a fresh wind of classical Arabic, recaptured in an Urdu idiom that is at once new and old, unfamiliar yet fresh like a fragrance from the other world.

In it, love, devotion and intense longing mingle to produce an admirable “madness of love”, combined with sobriety of expression — indeed, a rare blend of poetics and scholarship.

The reviewer is the president of the Centre for Islamic Sciences, Canada, general editor of the seven-volume Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an and author of 21 books including two novels and the translation of Diwan al-Hallaj

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 21st, 2024

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