- Sufism and American Literary Masters ed. Mehdi Aminrazavi
Sufism and American Literary Masters is a valuable study of the role of Islamic mysticism in shaping the literary forms, thought, and culture of American writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It brings new attention to Persian poetry as an important influence on the Romantics and Transcendentalists that has thus far been lumped into ‘Eastern wisdoms’ and overshadowed by Hinduism and Buddhism. The editor of this book, Mehdi Aminrazavi, is an expert in Islamic philosophy and theology and has contributed a number of notable works to the field, including a biography of Omar Khayyam published in 2005, The Wine of Wisdom. The present work is a collection of both original and previously published writings that provides an impressive resource for not only those interested in the influence of Islamic esoteric teachings on America, but also for students of various humanities courses.
Poetry has long been noted for its ability to transcend space and time, and Oriental lore held special fascination for both European and American audiences and ignited the imagination. This work explores the levels at which Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and other American writers were exposed to Persian poetry and how it impacted their literature and, to a certain extent, their personal lives.
After an introduction explaining the rationale and scope of this book, it begins with a discussion of the philosophical and symbolic connections between the Platonic writings, English and American Romantics and Transcendentalists, and Persian mysticism. Written for an academic audience, this first chapter by Lewisohn delves into an analysis of symbols common across these very different eras and physical locations and links together a wide array of philosophical doctrines and writers. For example, it connects Muḥammad Shīrīn Maghribī of [End Page 234] the ninth century to John Donne’s Sonnet IV of the sixteenth century, Milton to Rūmī, and Platonic doctrines to Shakespeare and then to writings of nineteenth century America. Even those not well-versed in the aforementioned literature can appreciate the scope of the endeavour and its conclusion that the key to understanding both Persian Sufi writings and English Romantic poetry is the linking of philosophy and theology through their symbolic and esoteric dimensions, which hold universal meanings.
The rest of the book is divided into three sections that work well together. The first and largest section is dedicated to Emerson, who is identified as ‘The Master’ for his role in introducing Persian poetry and symbols to literary circles, especially through his autobiographical poem ‘Saadi’. The next section focuses on Whitman, who learned about Sufism through Emerson and is, therefore, astutely referred to as ‘The Disciple’. The final section, called ‘The Initiates’, touches on a number of American writers who incorporated aspects of the Persian Orient in their writings even if they had limited understanding of the historical or geographical significance. This includes authors such as Harris, Oliphant, Randolph, Thoreau, Longfellow, Lowell, Melville, Lafcadio Hearn, and others influenced by FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubāʿiyyāt, specifically Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot. The book also highlights the popularity of classical Persian poetry and the imaginative Orient in Concord, Massachusetts, which earned the nickname the ‘Mecca’ of Transcendentalism, and the activities of the Omar Khayyam Club of America. Dotted throughout with generous samples of both Persian and American poetry that serve to further reinforce the connection between them, the book ends with Mark Twain’s verses entitled ‘AGE – A Rubaiyat.’ In addition, the book includes several useful resources, including a glossary of key names, literary works, philosophies, and symbols; a selected bibliography; biographical information on the contributors; and an index.
Although a certain familiarity with the literature under discussion is assumed, those not well versed in Sufi poetry will find Chapter 5, by Jahanpour, particularly enjoyable and beneficial. It explores why Emerson thought so highly of Ḥāfiẓ, whom he referred to as ‘the prince of Persian poets’ in his essay ‘Persian Poets...