Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems by A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah
Edited and translated by Th. Emil Homerin
Publisher: Louisville KY: Fons Vitae, 2011.
Emanations of Grace is a masterful translation of Arabic mystical poetry by A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah (d.1517), along with an informative introduction by the translator. A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah, who lived in Egypt and Syria, was initiated into the Qadiri Sufi order by Jamal al-Din Isma’il al-Hawwari. Her poetry expresses her great devotion to God and the Prophet and her love and longing for mystical union. She was also an Islamic religious scholar, considered to be one of the greatest female scholars in Islamic history. Indeed, she composed more works in Arabic than any other woman prior to the twentieth century.
The poems in this book are taken from A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah’s Fayd al- Fadl wa-Jam` al-Shaml (The Emanation of Grace and the Gathering Union), a remarkable collection of over 350 poems offering a sort of autobiography spanning her mystical life. As A’ishah herself says, it “contains poetry inspired by Him regarding intimate conversations with the divine and spiritual meanings, states of grace and mystical struggle, matters of desire, and passionate ways”. Emil Homerin has wonderfully selected and translated poems from this work, choosing poems representative of her many mystical themes and poetic styles.
Homerin offers an introduction including a brief yet detailed account of A’ishah’s life – her family, childhood, education, talent, erudition, fame, thought, works and spiritual guides. It recounts how she eventually became a Sufi Master herself. He also describes some of the numerous other works in prose and poetry of this prolific mystic and scholar.
A distinctive feature of Emanations of Grace is that A’ishah often added a short note at the beginning of each poem which describes her state in life (physical as well as mystical) when she wrote that particular verse, making the collection a sort of spiritual diary. As examples, poems have descriptions such as: “in the early days”, “importance of recollection”, “rapture was intense”. Homerin notes that it is very rare in any literary tradition to have such information.
The opening verse describing “her love for God and union with him” goes:
The sun and moon appeared on the horizon of my spirit,
and the heart beheld what eyes could not see,
And sheer beauty revealed itself in guises
to insight’s clear vision.
I behold beauty with eyes lined by his light,
and his splendour was the eyes’ sight.
My love’s beauty is my vision, his presence my gardens,
and their fruit is his love talk devoted to me.
In his introduction, Homerin also comments on A’ishah’s multiple poetic styles. She explored the full range of Arabic rhymes, meters, and poetic forms. He notes that, as Emanations of Grace continues, the poems become longer and more complex, indicating A’ishah’s rising confidence and her transformation into a knowledgeable mystical guide instructing Sufi novices. Homerin provides a detailed explanation of how in his translations he tried to keep intact the poems’ order, form, content, tone, moods, and deeper meanings. Most of the poems have footnotes explaining, among other things, the meanings of the Sufi terms and practices and Quranic references mentioned or alluded to.
The poems in Emanations of Grace have various religious and mystical themes but are mostly focused on love of God and his Prophet, the importance of recollection, spiritual intoxication and mystical union. Some of her poems are as follows:
From his inspiration upon her regarding her certainty of the nobility of recollection (dhikr):
When sin soils the hearts,
and their light grows dim and dark,
Then recollection of God is their polish
wiping the spots away.
In recollection of God, how many hearts
remove the rust, revealing the light within.
From his inspiration upon her:
I could do nothing about my existence,
looking after my selfish soul
and giving it what it fancied.
There is no refuge
save clinging to a Master
whose grace tames and trains the soul.
From his inspiration upon her, for spiritual guidance and realization:
leave it all;
seek the Lord,
and union will come.
Stand at the door;
kiss the floor,
obey the rules,
and hear: “Welcome!”
From his inspiration upon her, concerning the rules of recollection:
You seeking all the rules for the recollection of the Master,
take them from me:
Fear, and hope in tears, and remorse,
purity, fidelity, and standing before his door with humility.
Towards the end as A’ishah becomes a spiritual guide and instructs disciples, she writes:
Sufis, to the tavern!
The kind God will serve you now!
Lose yourselves in him, erase all else,
and he will keep you there as friends.
Sufis, this is wine
whose tavern is the presence divine,
and a drop of it the dead revives
with its sublime intoxication.
At the end of the book, Homerin has translated one long poem titled ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah’s Ode in T’ and provided his own commentary on and analysis of the poem. This poem has many allusions to the Quran, Sufism and verses by Ibn al-Farid.
Overall, this ingenious translation of select poems by the master mystic al-Ba’uniyah will enthral and inspire a reader inclined to mysticism and spirituality.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.