Farid al-Din Attar: A Reading Journal 3

Do you believe in love at first sight? All-consuming, Romeo-and-Juliet, I-cannot-live-withou-you, I-know-just-by-looking-at-you-that-you-are-all-I-will-ever-need-and-so-I-will-give-up-everything-I-have-ever-held-dear-just-to-be-with-you, I-would-even-die-for-you love? I don’t. I never have. Even when I was young enough that the romantic ideal of such a love should have resonated in me, I actually thought the whole concept was kind of ridiculous. Attar, however, does believe in it. In my previous post, “An Officer Falls in Love with a Prince,” I gave you an example from Ilahi Nama of a man who falls in love with another man based on the second man’s appearance. In The Conference of the Birds, Sheikh Sam’an, “the first man of his time” (57), falls in love at first sight with a Christian woman, though given Attar’s description of him, Sam’an is the last person you’d think would succumb to the allure of such “forbidden fruit:”

Sam’an was once the first man of his time.
Whatever praise can be expressed in rhyme
Belonged to him: for fifty years this sheikh
Kept Mecca’s holy place, and for his sake
Four hundred pupils entered learning’s way.
He mortified his body night and day,
Knew theory, practice, mysteries of great age,
And fifty times had made the Pilgrimage.1
He fasted, prayed, observed all sacred laws–
Astonished saints and clerics thronged his doors.
He split religious hairs in argument;
His breath revived the sick and impotent.
He knew the people’s hearts in joy and grief
And was their living symbol of Belief. (58)

Nonetheless, Sam’an is haunted by a dream. He sees himself in Rome, living in a church, and bowing down before an idol–becoming, in other words, a Christian. He decides that the only way to understand this dream is to go to Rome, which he does, accompanied by four hundred scholars. The trouble that awaits the sheikh, though, takes the form not of a spiritual temptation per se to, but of a Christian woman so beautiful that any man who lays eyes on her is rendered helpless with love.

They left the Ka’abah2 for Rome’s boundaries,
A gentle landscape of low hills and trees,
Where, infinitely lovelier than the view,
There sat a girl, a Christian girl who knew
The secrets of her faiths theology.
A fairer child no man could hope to see–
In beauty’s mansion she was like a sun
That never set–indeed the spoils she won
Were headed by the sun himself, whose face
Was pale with jealousy and sour disgrace.
The man about whose heart her ringlets curled
Became a Christian and renounced the world;
The man who saw her lips and knew defeat
Embraced the earth before her bonny feet;
And as the breeze passed through her musky hair
The men of Rome watched wondering in despair.
Her eyes spoke promises to those in love,
Their fine brows arched coquettishly above–
Those brows sent glancing messages that seemed
To offer everything her lovers dreamed.
The pupils of her eyes grew wide and smiled,
And countless souls were glad to be beguiled;
The face beneath her curls glowed like soft fire;
Her honeyed lips provoked the world’s desire;
But those who thought to feast there found her eyes
Held pointed daggers to protect the prize,
And since she kept her counsel no one knew–
Despite the claims of some–what she would do.
Her mouth was tiny as a needle’s eye,
Her breath was quickening with Jesus’ sigh;
Her chin was dimpled with a silver well
In which a thousand drowning Josephs fell;
A glistering jewel secured her hair in place,
Which like a veil obscured her lovely face.
The Christian turned, the dark veil was removed,
A fire flashed through the old man’s joints–he loved!
One hair converted hundreds; how could he
Resist that idol’s face shown openly? (58-59)

The rest of the story concerns the abject lengths to which Sam’an is willing to go to be with this woman and the humiliating deceptions she practices on him in the process, promising herself if only he will drink wine, tend her pigs, and adopt Christianity–he does all three–and even then rejecting him. In the end, however, with the help of his friends, Sam’an returns to the proper path; and the woman, finally, realizing the error of her ways, chooses the Sufi path as well. I’m less interested here, though, in how the tale ends than I am in how strongly I was reminded when I read it of some of the things Timothy Beneke says about men and rape culture in his book Men on Rape: What They Have to Say about Sexual Violence, specifically his discussion of how men perceive women’s beauty as a weapon. Here are some examples:

She’s a knockout!
What a bombshell!
She’s strikingly beautiful!
That woman is ravishing!
She’s really stunning!
She’s a femme fatale!
She’s dressed to kill! (20, italics in the original)

Granted some of these expressions are dated, and some can be used to describe men as well as women–dressed to kill for example–but Beneke’s central point, that men experience a woman’s beauty as a weapon she deploys against them is pretty clearly borne out by the metaphorical language he cites. Moreover, he goes on the argue, referring to the way we metaphorically define sex as achievement–I want to score some ass, tonight, for example“the presence of an attractive woman may result in one’s feeling like a failure. One’s self-worth, or “manhood” may become subtly (or not so subtly) at issue in her presence. And how does one feel toward someone who ‘makes one feel like a failure’? Like degrading them in return” (ibid.). By way of illustration, Beneke quotes “Jay,” one of the men he interviewed for the book:

A lot of times a woman knows that she’s looking really good and she’ll use that and flaunt it, and it makes me feel like she’s laughing at me and I feel degraded. I also feel dehumanized, because when I’m being teased I just turn off, I cease to be human…I don’t like the feeling that I’m supposed to stand there and take it, and not be able to hug her or kiss her; so I just turn off my emotions. It’s a feeling of humiliation….If I were actually desperate enough to rape somebody, it would be from wanting the person, but also it would be a very spiteful thing, just being able to say, “I have power over you and I can do anything I want with you,” because really I feel that they have power over me just by their presence. Just the fact that they can come up to me and just melt me and make me feel like dummy makes we want revenge. (20-21, italics in the original)

Now look again at how Attar describes the Christian woman’s beauty. The ringlets of her hair ensnare men into giving up the world; her lips, on sight, cause men to surrender, and just the sight of the breeze passing through her hair causes them to despair. Moreover, the “prize” her beauty promises has for protection the daggers in her eyes; and while the “silver well/in which a thousand drowning Josephs fell” is not a weapon per se, to describe her chin in that way is clearly to suggest that her beauty is treacherous for men to navigate. Yet the sheikh’s response is precisely the opposite from the one Jay described above. Instead of experiencing the onslaught of the Christian woman’s beauty as something to fight back against, as Jay says that he would do, the sheikh surrenders to it. Indeed, even when she taunts Sam’an in terms that would certainly raise Jay’s ire and make him want to prove himself, the sheikh merely goes deeper into his own surrender.

When she says to him, for example, “Forget flirtatious games, your breath is cold;/Stop chasing love, remember you are old./It is a shroud you need, not me!” (64), or later, when she asks him, “What do you want, old man?/Old hypocrite of love, who talks but can/Do nothing else?” (65), he does not get angry; he does not suggest that, indeed, if only she would give him the chance, he would show just what he could do. Rather, he says

“Command me now; whatever you decide
I will perform. I spurned idolatry
When sober, but your beauty is to me
An idol for whose sake I’ll gladly burn
My faith’s Koran.” (66)

Finally, though, after she puts him off one more time, he’s had enough, and he challenges her:

Consider what, for your sake, I have done–
Then tell me, when shall we two be as one?
Hope for that moment justifies my pain;
Have all my troubles been endured in vain? (67)

“But you are poor,” she answers him, “and I

Cannot be cheaply won–the price is high;
Bring gold, and silver too, you innocent–
Then I might pity your predicament;
But you have neither, therefore go–and take
A beggar’s alms from me; be off, old sheikh!
Be on your travels like the sun–alone;
Be manly now and patient, do not groan!” (ibid.)

This last taunt sets in motion the process by which the sheikh returns to the proper path and the Christian woman accepts that path as well, but what I want to focus on here is her equation of manliness with patience, with the ability to surrender to absolute beauty even when fulfilling one’s desire for that beauty is an unattainable dream. One implication of seeing manliness in this way is that sexualized feelings of anger, revenge, and spitefulness, such as Jay expressed in Men on Rape, are unmanly, and, indeed, though this is a subject for another post, Attar does suggest that those who are consumed by lust and therefore susceptible to such feelings are less than men. Another more-than-implication, however, is that the Sufi path towards God, what it means to desire God, to be one with God, is defined by a particular vision of male sexuality, one that conceives of physical beauty as a weapon and the experience of that beauty as violence. There is a lot more to say about this, and a lot of questions to ask about how and whether other patriarchal and/or monotheistic religious traditions, mystical and not, follow a similar logic, but for now, all I can say, is that it makes me deeply, deeply sad.

Cross posted on my blog.

  1. The pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lives. []
  2. A building at the center of the great Mosque in Mecca. Everyone who makes the pilgrimage there walks around it seven times. []
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3 Responses to Farid al-Din Attar: A Reading Journal 3

  1. Pingback: The Sexual Politics of Spiritual Love 3: When Beauty is a Weapon | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    I don’t know about the whole two-halves-spiritual-completion bit, but I’ve experienced, I dunno what to call it. Immediate extreme confidence that the two of us would have an extraordinarily high level of mutual sexual compatibility. In the cases where empirical verification was possible, it generally proved out. It was usually, though not always, also the case that there was high compatibility in other less-sweaty areas of interpersonal intercourse.

    I don’t think that’s love. I think that’s two people with really, really compatible genes. The covert and overt methods our bodies have of signaling such compatibilities (most of which we barely know about or directly perceive) are sometimes emotionally overwhelming. I suppose that could feel like love, to people who have not really felt it before, or be mistaken for love by those who are inexperienced. There’s a reason it’s usually young idiots blathering on about love at first sight.

    The last time it happened to me was almost 20 years ago. She was a co-worker. She was happily married, with kids. We shared a raucously funny lunch (with a third co-worker who had introduced us) that lasted for hours and felt like minutes. Then we made sure never to be in the same place again, ever.

  3. 3
    Kai Jones says:

    I think the two-halves/soul mate/spiritual completion idea is actively harmful, because when people have the normal troubles of being in an intimate human relationship they attribute their failures to lack of soul mate/wrong person instead of the problems being normal and needing a little work, so they move on to the next “soul mate.” I also think the “love at first sight” idea is nonsense, or rather, I don’t think of that feeling as love, but as attraction, because love requires knowledge of the loved. Or perhaps it is love of a fantasy that we make up about another person based on their appearance, but it’s still not love of the actual human being standing in front of us.

    I’ve had the “instant attraction/compatibility” thing twice, although in the long term it was falsified both times–I think it just meant that my genes wanted to reproduce with the other person’s genes. That only makes sense given the studies showing women actually do pick potential mates by smell (and showing that genetically the mates they pick are good complements for their genes). The sex was great in both relationships but in one case we had zero interests in common and in the other our values were so orthogonal we didn’t even understand how incompatible our life goals were for more than a couple of years.