THE MYSTIC PEN
Waiting for Qutmir
I can still see her with her eyes closed, hands clasped in front of a frail, slim frame. She is clutching a small, delicate purse and wearing a lovely necklace, no doubt picked up from one of her many travels to the Near East. Her soft, German-tinged voice fills the room with promise and the knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of learning. Eager, but respectful students sit on the edge of their wooden chairs. She has no notes because she never needs them.
Dr. Schimmel’s lecture in this edition of Wild River Review is a continuation of the previous one,Golden Lions and the Thicket of this World in which she speaks about the role of animals in both Islamic and Sufi literature and thought. We left off with the cat and now begin with the role of the dog, wending our way through the camel, donkey, bird and others.
But first, let me tell you the story of Qutmir:
Qutmir is a small, possibly scraggly dog who is famous for falling asleep in a cave buried deep within the mountains of Ephesus, Turkey, in the year of 250 CE. There he slept, in tomb-like silence inside a hermetically sealed catacomb for approximately one hundred and nine years. But Qutmir was not alone. According to the legend, which appears in both Christianity and Islam, little Qutmir was accompanied by 7 young men of great faith who fell asleep beside him while devoutly praying.
They were all courageous men, faithful beings who had refused to denounce their Christian faith before the Roman Emperor Decius…a fervent supporter of paganism. While intelligently anticipating the fallout from their courageous act, all seven chose to give away their worldly possessions to others before heading to the mountains to pray to their one true God. After walking for many, many miles, they came across a cave, which they entered without any apparent hesitation. This story, which appears in numerous texts, including sacred ones such as the Qur�an, tells us that while the seven were praying in the cave, the eight fell asleep, the eighth being the loyal and faithful dog, Qutmir.
Because of their faithfulness and dedication to their One God, Decius has the cave sealed shut forever, retribution for their unpagan-like ways. And when they awoke, some say during the reign of Theodosius (379-395 CE), they were shocked to find that the world they had always known no longer existed.
When excavated in 1927/28, several hundred graves were found which dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Among those graves researchers found inscriptions, dedicated to the Seven Sleepers. Today tourists may still visit the site.
The Phenomenology of Islam:
Transcription of Lecture no. III-Part II
Harvard University, Spring Semester 1992
Contrary to the cat, which is clean and pure and does not defile the water ablution or the praying people, the dog is much less accepted. It is unclean. A dog must not drink from the ablution water and when a dog is in a mosque, the prayer is no longer valid. Nevertheless there is a certain value to the dog, although he was never taken in olden times into the house and used as a pet as was the cat, because the Qur’an mentioned a dog, which was sanctified by its faithfulness it is a dog of The Seven Sleepers.
You know the story of the seven youthful men who refused serving the pagan king and went into a cave and when they awoke again the world was changed and with these seven, the eighth of them, was their dog, as the Qur’an says.
And so the dog of the Seven Sleepers is a particularly sacred animal, he was given even a name Qutmir, and the word, Qutmir, has been used in central Asia for ensuring that mail would arrive. It is around the end of the last century. As Martin Hoffman tells in one place, we have the custom that people among the Muslims of central Asia would write the word Qutmir, the name of this dog on letters which was approximately our registered mail because the little dog was supposed to bring the mail faithfully to its recipient. I think we need some of these Qutmirs in the American mail system. In any case, the idea of the dog being faithful to its master, can receive certain sanctity, has then spread over into all aspects of Islamic literature.
And in many cases the pious lover would call himself the dog at the threshold of his master or of his beloved and names like qalb Ali, the dog of Ali, as a proper name means that the person wants to be faithful like a dog at the threshold of the first Imam, Ali Ibn Ali Talib. It is the idea of faithfulness, which is connected with the dogs and the dog at the door of faithfulness is a common expression in literature. And just as the dog of the Seven Sleepers was sanctified by remaining faithful to his master, thus the human being, who considers himself a lowly dog at the door of his beloved, or of God or of an Imam or of a saint, can hope for help and can be rescued from his sins. It’s a very interesting development that especially this very lowly and unclean animal, later on was to become a model of the believer, who thanks to his faithfulness, can be saved from hellfire.
The Camel and Donkey
The other animals, of course, appear in different connections I just want to mention the camel, which is often seen as the faithful bodily existence of man. The camel is necessary for the progress of man because it can carry him into the presence of the beloved into the presence of God just as a well-bred camel can carry its rider toward Mecca, toward the central sanctuary. And on the other hand, we have the donkey who is always connected with lowliness and sensuality and is generally shown as being the antagonist of the spiritual power in poetry. And in mystical literature, you often find the contrast of Jesus, the principle of spirit and spirituality, and his donkey, the principle of lowly, material, coarseness and grossness.
The animals thus play a certain role as symbols of humanity in general. They are certainly not as central as we would, perhaps, expect; and there are animals, which are well known from the western tradition, but play a very small role in Islamic tradition. And when Christianity abounds in legends about the serpent, and the dangers of the serpent, then in Islamic legends and tales the serpent occurs sometimes in connection with paradise. It was the devil in the shape of a small serpent that was able to seduce Adam and Eve. But on the whole, the serpent is generally seen in connection with Moses whose rod turns into a serpent that devoured the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians. Otherwise the serpent’s role is not as prominent as it would be in the Christian tradition and many of the weird stories about serpents and dragons are just missing in Islamic folklore and Islamic tradition.
One animal should be mentioned, however, because it still plays a practical role and that is a horse. The Arabs, of course, were extremely fond of horses. And the horse, according to an old Arab legend, is born from the southern wind, the swiftest and most caressing wind in the world. And thus, the horse is always connected with royalty and with power.
To this day, it is custom in the Muharram processions in the Shia’ world to lead a white horse within the procession this is ruhljina kold, which is kept in every Shia’ place in a special pen or in special meadows for the whole year and then is led in the Muharram procession through the city.
It is a horse, which is ready in case the Mahdi bring the separation of the last time of the world and introduce people into the last events before the Day of Judgment. This is a horse on which he is supposed to ride, and since the last judgment and the end of time can be any moment, therefore the horse has always been there for him so that he can ride on it and fill the world with justice and then introduce the world’s end.
So, this white horse plays still a certain role in at least the Shia tradition and we have also to think of the winged horse, the burak on which the Prophet performed his nightly journey through the heavens – an animal smaller than a horse, larger than a mule with a woman’s face and a peacock’s tale and most miraculous colored. Thus the burak has been described from early times onward, and increasingly the details of its beauty and swiftness has been elaborated so that in later descriptions you can find the most fantastic images of this divinely inspired mystical horse. And today when you go to Delhi or to North Africa to any mosque, especially on the Indian sub-continent, you can easily buy big pictures of the burak which you put in your house as a kind of blessing because this animal certainly has great Baraka, great blessing power and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, it is the custom to decorate trunks and so on with pictures and among the pictures the burak certainly plays a special role because this animal is supposed to carry the truck or the car as safely through the landscape as the real Burak once carried the Prophet into the divine presence.
Many of the animals in Islamic lore are soul-animals. You know that in ancient times the soul was often imagined to assume animal shapes. It could be seen as a mouse or as a butterfly or most frequently as a bird. But also, if necessary, as a black dog which appeared at the side of the human being and wanted to be fed or sent away. The most frequently used concept is however, that of the soul-bird a concept that goes back to very early times and is particularly strongly developed in ancient Egypt. But, the ancient Arabs knew the idea that soul -birds are hovering over the graves and in the Islamic tradition the idea of the soul-bird is very much alive. We still say in Turkish: Ruh ateşi söndü, his soul bird has flown away when someone has died. And this idea that the soul can be seen as a bird is well known in the history of religion, the wings of the soul are found in Plato as much as they are in Rumi and in poets of the Indian sub-continent.
There are, of course different kinds of soul-birds. We have in the first place, in the Persian tradition, the nightingale and from here the constant interplay of the nightingale as the loving, longing soul, and the rose, which we saw as a manifestation of divine glory.
The nightingale is ubiquitous in poetry and in stories. It is always the most ideal representative of the soul that longs for the presence of the divine beloved and will never completely be united by it. Many legends, almost half mythological stories have been invented about the relation between the rose and the nightingale and when we see that the rose is the reflection of the red divine glory, than there are also legends according to which the rose gained its color when its thorns hurt the nightingale and the nightingale’s blood colored the rose.
But, while the nightingale is a comparatively soft-hearted soul-bird, we have also the falcon or hawk, the strong predatory bird which appears very frequently as a soul-bird and especially (the poet) Iqbal, whom I just quoted as a lover of the wild tulip, has preferred the image of the falcon as a soul bird to everything else because a falcon is a lonely bird and in many a story it is told how this precious bird fell into the trap of an old woman, as the world is often seen, as an old hag which tries to seduce people and to temp them into its alluring net.
So, the falcon falls into her trap, and his eyes are stitched together because when you educate and train a falcon you have first to close his eyes until he gets used to his environment. A hood is put on his head and he forgets for a long time his home and his former master until one day he hears the sound of the drum that calls him back, and he finally finds his way into the presence of his divine lord. Exactly like that, the soul is trapped here in this world and finds the way home to its master when a certain event happens. It is this idea of the return of the soul-falcon that is expressed very explicitly in some of the stories the little tales of Suhrawardi, The Sheikh al-ishraq, The Master of Illumination, and you can find some of these stories in Wheeler Thackston’s translation of Suhrawardi’s tales where he speaks of the adventures of the soul-falcon.
In Rumi the idea is prevalent. And the other birds are also part and parcel of this cosmos of soul birds. The pigeon that always calls: coo-coo-coo, which in Persian means: where, where, where, as if it were asking where the divine beloved is. And many of you may have read this beautiful Arabic book in translation: the Awq al-Amamah.
The Spanish theologian Ibn Hazn, in the 11th century wrote The Dove’s Necklace about chaste love. In Arabic to be as close and inseparable to someone is as a dove’s necklace because certain species of pigeons have a black necklace of feathers around their bodies. And this, of course, is part and parcel of a dove’s plumage. So when you say chaste love is like the dove’s necklace, it means that love is inseparable. Therefore, lovers always loved to allude to this expression because it showed that they were as close to their beloved and could not be separated from him or her just as the plumage, the necklace could not be separated from the plumage of the bird. This is the origin of this expression which has become quite well known, thanks to the English translation of Ibn Hazm’s work. And thus every bird has its own duty in the great (voleare(?) of Islamic animals.
And we have, of course, immediately to remember, the numerous epics that deal with the journey of the birds, whether it is Ghazali’s, Ibn Cenna’s Risalat at-Tayr, the treatise on birds, or the great Tasbiha Tuyoor, The Rosary of the Birds, by the medieval mystic, Sanai and Ghazna. And, of course, you all know, Mantiq al Tayr, The Language of the Birds, by Attar, who died in 1220. This story, which tells of the pilgrimage of the birds to the royal bird, the Seymour, has been told and retold, not only in the eastern languages but lately also in European languages. And this story, harks back in its origin and in its title to the Qur’anic tale of Suliman, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The hud-hud or the hoop-hoo served as the go between, for the King Solomon (the king prophet), and the beautiful Queen of Sheba. From here, the concept of the language of birds, the Mantiq al-Tayr, has developed in the course of Islamic history. The Mantiq al-Tayr, which Solomon understood, is indeed the language of the souls, the language which only souls can understand and which the mystical master can interpret properly. So this whole concept of the soul bird has certainly a Qur’anic basis and that explains why it was able to elaborate into so many different forms as is the case from the 7th to the 20th Century.
There is certainly also a group of other soul birds. And one of them is as I mentioned last time when we were speaking of the fire the moth or the butterfly. In classical tradition, we have the idea of psyche, in the Greek tradition as a kind of butterfly, a winged thing. And the same thing is true in Islamic tradition, we have here the idea that the moth that sees the light of the candle finally wants to unite itself with it and casts itself in the candle to be immolated there and become one with the fire. Just as the human soul wants to be one with the fire of God, the divine essence.
Thus, the whole group of plants and animals is certainly something to remember in Islamic learning and poetry and mysticism. Just as in the Christian tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition, the eschatological piece is shown by lion and lamb lying together. Thus, the same image is used in the Islamic tradition when someone, a historian or a poet, wants to point to the ideal state of things under the just ruler or under his just beloved for whom the whole world just comes to an eschatological peace. So this is certainly an important aspect too.
But we should not forget and I think this is important to remember that every animal has its own place in the whole complicated fabric of God’s creation and out of this feeling, the Muslim saints, the friends of God, are noted for their animal love as much as are the Christian saints. And many of the stories, which we know in the western tradition about monks conversing with animals, or even of conversions affected by meeting with an animal are also found in the Islamic lore, because the Muslims were absolutely certain that the animals, as part of God’s creation, had to obey the same rules as men. And when a pious person was God-fearing, then everything else would fear him and would trust him.
We have even- and that is perhaps a little digression- in early Islamic times, the tendency to become a vegetarian because one did not want to kill animals. This is basically a little bit difficult to do in Islam since, as we shall see, in the context of sacrifice during the pilgrimage, a lamb or another animal has to be sacrificed…so that not killing animals is somewhat unusual. However, outside the pilgrimage, right off, course it was absolutely possible. And when you go through the books of saints, the miracles of saints, you will always find that they lived comfortably in the company of lions, that lions would obey them, listen to them and that even the wildest animals were not scared of them.
It would be a beautiful topic, and I have always been tempted to write a little book, a collection of stories in which the saints relation to animals is told. We have hundreds of such stories and let me close with a little story from Attar where he tells of a pious man who was imploring god to send him a gift and finally he dreamt that next morning there would be a guest for him, so the man prepared his house, cleaned it nicely brought good food and was sitting in his door waiting and waiting for the guest to arrive. But the only thing that arrived was an old shabby dog, so the man sent him off and said, Away with you, you awful creature. I am waiting for my guest. And the day passed, nothing came and the man in absolute despair, fell asleep And he saw and he heard how God spoke to him in his dream: “What’s wrong?”
And he said “Oh, I was waiting for a guest and nothing came.”
And God said, “I sent you a dog and you drove him away. You look at the people who come and you don’t discern between an animal, a good animal, and a human being. The dog was the guest I had sent to you.”
And that’s it.
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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