Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Four

Part Four: The Stylistic Features Employed in the Kalam-i Mawla

Earlier Readings:
Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part One
Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Two
Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Three

We said earlier that the ethical injunctions in the Kalam-i Mawla are presented in varied styles. Three such stylistic features may be mentioned as illustrations. The first is definitional. A subject, or a moral premise, is defined in a way that includes the type of action one ought to pursue. The following are some examples:

Chapter 1, Verse 3 (1:3) – “He is a true friend who truly keeps his promise”

2:9 – “He is your brother who remains with you during times of hardship”

and, conversely,

2:10 – “He is not a brother to you who brings shame on you, though you belong to the same (father’s) progeny”

4:22 – “The best of wealth is that which is spent in the Name and way of the Lord”

The second feature employs the conditional as a literary device in the construction of a moral premise along the lines “if this…..then this ……” or “if this..then do this ……”.  Some examples on different topics are given below.

The first depicts a person who listens more to his ‘heart’, here meaning his baser instincts, than to what has been taught to him. Note, incidentally, the use of the word ‘heart’ in these examples and the variations of meaning given to it, from a place of lower instincts to a noble residence of the Lord in the human body:

7:5 – “If you are blind to knowledge
and your heart becomes your guide
(then) your conduct will be dictated by its desires
and you will be driven into a deep well.”

Thinking about death is the subject of the second example:

17:238 : “If you want advice for your heart think of death -
remembrance of death is splendid advice:
remember that you will die and make the grave your
home and none of your friends will accompany you.”

On the protection generated by a person’s attitude towards his friends and towards God:

18:248 – “The evil deeds of your enemies will not reach you
if you are sincere and good to your friends:
the wicked world, with its calamities, will avoid you
if you let Allah, the One, reside in your heart.”

The third stylistic feature employed in the Kalam is a common literary tool of using particular images to convey certain meanings and messages. The images themselves may be ordinary ones drawn from nature and daily human activities, or else special ones located in the poet’s culture. The examples given below, as indeed those cited above, represent but a small portion of the spectrum available in the Kalam-i Mawla.

We may take the ‘ordinary’ examples first where the poet uses stone, grass, trees, river, boat, gold, silver, silk and dust to convey his ideas. (The translation given here, as elsewhere in this article, is not a literal one):

3:15 – “Good conduct adorns a person as gold and silver adorn a woman…”

3:16 – “Gold remains in this world but right conduct (adab) enable you to meet your lord…”

4:22 – “Wealth (misspent in this world) turns to dust…” (cf. 6:40)

5:36: “The wealth of a miser is like a stone…”

6:47- “When the boat of the heart comes upon a storm,
change direction, and lead it to the shore”

8:16 – “Be as soft as silk…”

8:67 – “Have a tender heart,
as tender as a fistful of green grass;
be not arrogant and stiff as a tree
upright in a forest;

A tree is toppled in a storm,
but grass bends and sways happily with the wind.”

7:234 – “The waters of a river do not turn back; neither does one’s age…”

Examples of ‘cultural’ images need an explanation. The first is drawn from 4:32 where we are advised to partake of our food with others. The way the meal is served forms the theme for the poet’s injunction in this verse, for he sees people sitting around a single large plate or vessel and eating together from it, as was – and in parts still is – the custom in the East. The custom, we are told, has two benefits. People eating together are blessed with the bounty of God, barakah and, secondly, the food itself can be made to be sufficient for an additional person; for example, four people could eat with satisfaction the food meant for three.

Other examples may be drawn from one verse: 12:129. The verse begins with advice on eating ‘lawful’ food, lawful not only in the sense of halal (in the spirit of the verses of the Qur’an 2:172 and 2:173) but also in relation to one’s income and earning. A free translation of the verse, 2:129, may be rendered as follows:

“Be cautious, brother, and make your meals lawful
for the light of the heart comes through lawful eating

Darkness enters the heart and faith
when forbidden wealth is consumed;

The heart is the lamp in the temple of the body:
where there is darkness, there is loss of faith

None is conscious of the activities
perpetrated in a village enveloped in darkness:
five thieves together could rob it completely.”

A translation is generally but a poor substitute for the original. That would certainly be the case in the rendition of 12:129 given above, particularly as, on its own, it does not reflect the tight metrical borders and the rhyme scheme within which the poet functions in the original language. And yet – however defective the transfer of the linguistic medium – the poet’s skill of combining different idioms is self-evident.

Three sets of ideas are employed: the notions of right and wrong, of light and darkness, and of the gradual loss of faith. The paradigms drawn from the notions are arranged symmetrically: indulgence in that which is prohibited leads to darkness in the heart which, in turn, leads to a loss of faith (Iman): conversely, deeds undertaken within the boundaries of what is permitted lead to enlightenment in the heart and security of faith.

The paradigms are expressed in the cultural images familiar to the audience of the poet. The body as a temple is one example. Just as a lamp (diwo) is an important ingredient in the temple, investing it with a symbolic (and functional) light, so does the heart perform that function symbolically in the body. But the lamp is not safe. It is threatened by the actions of the person himself: the more he flouts the ethical injunctions taught to him, the dimmer becomes the light in his heart This vulnerability is expressed in the metaphor of the body as a village where darkness enables five thieves to combine in a stealthy incursion to steal its valuables, the most worthy of which is faith (Iman).The five ‘thieves’ are mentioned elsewhere – that is in the ginans – as personifying five vices, panj bhu: of lust (kam); anger (krodh); greed (labh); temptation or single minded attachment to the material aspects of the world (moh) and pride (madh).

___________

Read the conclusion of this series at Literary Reading: Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, Part Five

Adapted from Ethics in the Kalam-i Mawla: A Brief Introduction, by Dr. Farouk M. Topan, published in Ilm, Vol 13, Number 1 (July 1990), Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s