Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, SHEKH AHNAF'S LETTER FROM BAGDAD, by BAYARD TAYLOR



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SHEKH AHNAF'S LETTER FROM BAGDAD, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: In allah's name, the ever merciful
Last Line: To keep his faith undarkened in tangier!
Alternate Author Name(s): Taylor, James Bayard
Subject(s): Faith; Letters; Love; Prophecy & Prophets; Belief; Creed


IN Allah's name, the Ever Merciful,
The Most Compassionate! To thee, my friend,
Ben-Arif, peace and blessing! May this scroll,
A favored herald, tell thee in Tangier
That Ahnaf follows soon, if Allah wills!
Yes, after that last day at Arafat
Whereof I wrote thee, -- after weary moons,
Delayed among the treacherous Wahabees, --
The long, sweet rest beneath Derreyeh's palms,
That cooled my body for the burning bath
Of naked valleys in the hither waste
Beside Euphrates, -- now behold me here
In Baghdad! Here, and drinking from the well
Whose first pure waters fertilized the West!

I, as thou knowest, with both my hands took hold
Of Law and of Tradition, so to lift
To knowledge and obedience my soul.
Severe was I accounted -- but my strength
Was likewise known of all men; and I craved
The sterner discipline which Islam first
Endured, and knit the sinews of our race.
What says the Law? -- "Who changes or perverts,
Conceals, rejects, or holds of small account,
Though it were but the slightest seeming word,
Hath all concealed, perverted, slighted!" This,
Thou knowest, I held, and hold. Here, I hoped,
The rigid test should gladden limbs prepared
To bend, accept, and then triumphant rise.
Even as the weak of faith rejoice to find
Some lax interpretation, I rejoiced
In foretaste of the sure severity.
As near I drew, across the sandy flats,
Above the palms the yellow minaret
Wrote on the sky my welcome: "Ahnaf, hail!
Here, in the city of the Abbasid,
Set thou thine evening by its morning star
Of Faith, and bind the equal East and West!"
Ah me, Ben-Arif! how shall pen of mine
Set forth the perturbation of the soul?
To doubt were death; not hope, were much the same
As not believe -- but Allah tries my strength
With tests far other than severest law.
When I had bathed, and then had cleansed with prayer
My worn and dusty soul, (so, doubly pure,
Pronounced the fathah as 't is heard in Heaven),
I sought the court-yard of Almansour's mosque,
Where, after asser, creeping shadows cool
The marble, and the shekhs in commerce grave
Keep fresh the ancient wisdom. Me they gave
Reception kindly, though perchance I felt --
Or fancied, only -- lack of special warmth
For vows accomplished and my pilgrim zeal.
"Where is Tangier?" said one; whereat the rest
With most indifferent knowledge did discuss
The problem -- none, had they but questioned me! --
Then snatched again the theme they half let drop,
And in their heat forgot me.

I, abashed,
Sat listening: vainly did I prick mine ears.
I knew the words, indeed, but missed therein
The wonted sense: they stripped our Holy Book
Of every verse which not contains the Law, --
Spake Justice and Forgiveness, Peace and Love,
Nor once the duties of the right hand fixed,
Nor service of the left: the nature they
Of Allah glorified, and not His names:
Of customs and observances no word
Their lips let fall: and I distinguished not,
Save by their turbans, that they other were
Than Jews, or Christians, or the Pagans damned.
Methought I dreamed and in my mind withdrawn
At last heard only the commingling clash
Of voices near me, and the songs outside
Of boatmen on the Tigris. Then a hand
Came on my shoulder, and the oldest shekh,
White-bearded Hatem, spake: "O Ahnaf! thou
Art here a stranger, and it scarce beseems
That we should speak of weighty matters thus
To uninstructed ears -- the less, to thine,
Which, filled so long with idle sand, require
The fresh delight of sympathetic speech
That cools like yonder fountain, and makes glad.
Nor wouldst thou hear, perchance, nor could we give
An easy phrase as key to what so long
Hath here been forged: but come tonight with me
Where this shall be applied, and more, to bring
Islam a better triumph than the sword
Of Ali gave; for that but slew the foe,
This maketh him a friend."

I, glad at heart
To know my hope not false, yet wondering much,
Gave eager promise, and at nightfall went
With Hatem to the college of a sect
We know not in the West -- nor is there need:
An ancient hall beneath a vaulted dome,
With hanging lamps well lit, and cushioned seats
Where sat a grave and motley multitude.
When they beheld my guide, they all arose,
And "Peace be with thee, Hatem!" greeting, cried.
He, whispering to me: "O Ahnaf, sit
And hear, be patient, wonder if thou wilt,
But keep thy questions sagely to the end,
When I shall seek thee" -- to a dais passed,
And sat him down. And all were silent there
In decent order, or in whispers spoke;
But great my marvel was when I beheld
Parsee and Jew and Christian - yea, the race
Of Boodh and Brahma -- with the Faithful mixed
As if were no defilement! Lo! they rose
Again, with equal honor to salute
The Rabbi Daood, Jewest of the Jews, --
And even so, for an Armenian priest!
Yet both some elder prophets share with us,
And it might pass: but twice again they rose, --
Once for a Parsee, tinged like smoky milk,
His hat a leaning tower, -- and once, a dark,
Grave man, with turban thinner than a wheel,
A wafer on his forehead (Satan's sign!) --
A worshipper of Ganges and the cow!
These made my knees to smite: yet Hatem stood
And gave his hand, and they beside him sat.

Then one by one made speech; and what the first,
The shrill-tongued Rabbi, claimed as rule for all,
That they accepted. "Forasmuch' (said he)
"As either of our sects hath special lore
Which not concerns the others -- special signs
And marvels which the others must reject,
However holy and attested deemed,
Set we all such aside, and hold our minds
Alone to that which in our creeds hath power
To move, enlighten, strengthen, purify, --
The God behind the veil of miracles!
So speak we to the common brain of each
And to the common heart; for what of Truth
Grows one with life, is manifest to all,
Or Jew, or Moslem, or whatever name,
And none deny it: test we then how much
This creed or that hath power to shape true lives."
All there these words applauded: Ha tem most,
Who spake: "My acquiescence lies therein,
That on thy truth, O Jew! I build the claim
Of him, our Prophet, to authority."
Then some one near me, jeering, said: "Well done!
He gives up Gabriel and the Beast Borak!"
"Yea, but" -- another answered -- "must the Jew
Not also lose his Pharaohs and his plagues,
His rams'-horns and his Joshua and the sun?"
"For once the Christians," whispered back a Jew,
"Must cease to turn their water into wine,
Or feed the multitude with five small loaves
And two small fishes." Thus the people talked;
While I, as one that in a dream appears
To eat the flesh of swine, and cannot help
The loathsome dream, awaited what should come.

To me it seemed -- and doubtless to the rest,
Though heretics and pagans -- as the chiefs
Who there disputed were both maimed and bound,
So little dared they offer, shorn and lopped
Of all their vigor, false as well as true.
Was it of Islam that Shekh Hatem spake,
With ringing tongue and fiery words that forced
Unwilling tears from Pagan and from Jew,
And cries of "Allah Akhbar!" from his own?
Forsooth, I know not: he was Islam's chief.
How dared he nod his head and smile, to hear
The Jew declare his faith in God the Lord,
The Christian preach of love and sacrifice,
The Parsee and the Hindoo recognize
The gifts of charity and temperance.
And peace and purity? If this be so,
And heretic and pagan crowd with us
The gates of Allah's perfect Paradise,
Why hath He sent His Prophet? Nay, -- I write
In anger, not in doubt: nor need I here
To thee, Ben-Arif, faithful man and wise,
Portray the features of my shame and grief.

Ere all had fully spoken, I, confused, --
Hearing no word of washing or of prayer
Of cross, or ark, or fire, or symbol else
Idolatrous, obscene, -- could only gress
What creed was glorified before the crowd,
By garb and accent of the chief who spake:
And scarcely then; for oft, as one set forth
His holiest duties, all, as with one voice,
Exclaimed: "But also these are mine!" The strife
Was then, how potent were they, how observed, --
Made manifest in life? One cannot say
That such are needless, but their sacred stamp
Comes from observance of all forms of law,
Which here -- the strength of Islam -- was suppressed.
Their wrangling -- scarcely could it so be called! --
Was o'er the husks: the kernel of the creed
They first picked out, and flung it to the winds.

I, pierced on every side with sorest stings,
Waited uneasily the end delayed,
When Hatem spake once more: his eye was bright,
And the long beard that o'er his girdle rolled
Shook as in storm. "Now, God be praised!" he cried:
"God ever merciful, compassionate,
Hath many children; these have many tongues:
But of one blood are they, one truth they seek,
One law of Love and Justice fits them all.
And they have many Prophets: may it be,
Though not of like commission, in so far
As they declare His truth, they speak for Him!
Go past their histories: accept their souls,
And whatsoe'er of perfect and of pure
Is breathed from each, in each and all the same,
Confirms the others' office and its own!
Here is the centre of the moving wheel, --
The point of rest, wherefrom the separate creeds
Build out their spokes, that seem to chase and flee,
Revolving in the marches of His Day!
If one be weak, destroy it: if it bear
Unstrained His glory of Eternal Truth,
And firmer fibre from the ages gain,
Behold, at last it shall replace the rest!
Even as He wills! The bright solution grows
Nearer and clearer with the whirling years:
Till finally the use of outward signs
Shall be outworn, the crumbling walls thrown down,
And one Religion shall make glad the world!"

More I could not endure: I did not wait
For Hatem's coming, as he promised me;
Yet -- ere amid the crowds I could escape --
I saw the Rabbi and the Christian priest
Fall on his neck with weeping. With a groan,
A horrid sense of smothering in my throat,
And words I will not write, I gained the air,
And saw, O Prophet! how thy Crescent shone
Above the feathery palm-tops, and the dome
Of Haroun's tomb upon the Tigris' bank.
And this is Baghdad! -- Eblis, rather say! --
O fallen city of the Abbasid,
Where Islam is defiled, and by its sons!
Prepare, Ben-Arif, to receive thy friend,
Who with the coming moon shall westward turn
To keep his faith undarkened in Tangier!





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