“I am the Real,” is the ecstatic statement often associated with the early Sufi poet Mansur al-Hallaj. In popular narratives about Hallaj this declaration of absolute unity with God is what led to his execution in Abbasid Baghdad. Other accounts attribute it to Hallaj’s directive to build a symbolic Ka’ba in one’s home if they are not able to perform the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. While Hallaj’s biographical details are often wrapped in myth what is clear is the polarizing position he played within the Islamic tradition. Hallaj wrote prodigiously but it was his poetry that drew particular reservations even among his peers.
Carl W. Ernst
, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, makes this poetry available to the contemporary reader in his new volume of translations, Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr
(Northwestern University Press, 2018). Ernst contextualizes Hallaj’s poetry within various intellectual and social contexts and renders them in clear beautiful language. While the poetry can be read on its own for its aesthetic value the volume overall helps us understand Hallaj’s complex system of thought through his own words. In our conversation we discuss the intellectual and social context of Hallaj’s Baghdad, his textual legacy, his feelings about the emerging Sufi practices and norms, how the poems’ original audiences encountered them, Hallaj’s metaphysics, sermons, riddles, and love poems, how to translate Arabic poetry, Louis Massignon, and the relationship between Rumi and Hallaj. You can hear more about Carl Ernst’s background and research in our previous conversation about his book How to Read the Qur'an: A New Guide, with Select Translations.
Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.