Sufi Poetry: Lessons In Nature & Leadership

Arwa looks for eco-spiritual inspiration in Sufi poetry.

Sufis, followers of the mystic sect of Sufism, have a deep reverence for nature and nowhere is this more obvious than in their world-famous poetry and literature. The renowned 13th century Sufi poet Rumi wrote sublime poetry highlighting the connection between spirituality and nature, and Sufi literature and poetry frequently refers to roses, trees, oceans, rivers, and birds in particular to symbolize the soul.

As well as teaching us about the importance of nature, Sufi poetry also has a profound message about finding leadership and strength within ourselves rather than looking to our ‘leaders’. As world leaders return from another failed climate meeting in Cancun, this message is an important one for the entire environmental movement to consider.

At One With Nature

Here at Green Prophet, we have already noted the important place of Sufis and Sufism in the environmental movement. Although they a small minority within the Muslim population, they have embraced the natural world and the need to protect it whilst pointing out that their faith emphasizes ‘eco-spirituality’. As Shireen Qudosi explains: “the majority of Sufis use the ‘signs to the Signifier’ approach. The Signifier being a divine source, the analogy is similar to the process of understanding an artist through studying his creations. In this way, many Sufis embrace the natural world, and as such it’s no surprise that Sufis are great defenders of the environment.”

In other words, as nature is a sign of god’s creation it must be embraced to better understand the creator of all mankind. The need to reconnect ourselves with nature is at the heart of Sufi poetry and this message is even more relevant in this modern age of urban living that has taken us away from the natural world. One of Rumi’s most famous poems echoes the interconnectedness of humans and nature:

I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

Rumi’s poetry remains influential in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike and he is the best-selling poet in English today.

Finding Our Inner Strength

Another famous Sufi poem invoking nature is The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr) by Farid al-din ‘Attar. The poem is nearly five thousand couplets long (so I won’t quote it here!) and tells the story of the world’s birds quest to find a king to lead them. The hoopoe insists that they already have a king, the Simorgh, a magical bird from ancient Iranian mythology and sets about putting together a group to find him. Many birds refuse to help and of those that embark on the quest, only thirty (si) birds (morgh) remain- or Simorgh. So, it turns out that they were the mythical king they were seeking all along.

At its core, this poem is about realizing that we are the answers and the solutions to our problems. We shouldn’t look to some mythical leaders for solutions because we won’t find any. As world leaders return from the latest climate meeting at Cancun with meager progress, this message couldn’t be more profound. These leaders can’t come up with, never mind agree on, effective solutions to the problems of climate change. Therefore, we shouldn’t put all our energies into making sure that they broker the right agreement at international level and ignore the power that we have- right now- to change things in our neighbourhoods and in our cities and towns.

: Richard C. Foltz, Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Culture, Oneworld Publication

:: Image via [email protected] on flickr.

For more on Sufism and Cancun Climate Summit see:

Cancun Ends On Slightly Better Note Than Copenhagen

Sufis Are Islam’s Eco Guardians

From Rockstars to Recycling: Interview with Kristiane Backer – An Eco-Muslimah


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3 thoughts on “Sufi Poetry: Lessons In Nature & Leadership”

  1. margaret moulton says:

    I was pleased to read that sufism embraces the natural world and endorses individual responsibility for its protection. So you can imagine my confusion when a friend who is an active sufi sees no conflict between her belief and her action in logging 50,000 air miles for personal pleasure. Are carbon offsets not a part of Sufism’s environmental position?

  2. One of my favorite poets who inspired Rumi was Rabia. She lived about 500 years before him.

  3. Tamara Swanson says:

    How simple, we are the answer we’ve been looking for. I’ve heard that some where before, possibly in a bid tweet.

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