In Whitman's Hand

Annotations and Marginalia

About this Document

Title: Whitman and Islam

Author(s): Matt Cohen and Zainab Saleh

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2020.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.02135


WHITMAN AND ISLAM

Introduction

Since the earliest years of Whitman's poetic career, readers have noticed the resonance of Persian mysticism in the Good Gray Poet's work—the Sufic strains of Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (Hafiz), Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi (Rumi), Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī (Sa'di), and others. Time and again since 1866, when the critics Moncure Conway and the Viscount Strangford noted it in their reviews of his poetry, Whitman's readers have re-discovered this apparent inheritance. Because mainstream education in the United States has not engaged the history of Islam or even of the complex development of Muslim presence in North America, it is perhaps to be expected that Whitman's relations with Islam are a recurring surprise in the land that produces the most Whitman criticism. But even considered broadly, the phenomenon prompts questions: How, indeed, did Whitman learn about Islam? and how much did he learn?

Whitman's marginalia and annotations speak to these questions in many ways. Whitman read about the history of Islam in a range of contemporary sources, and took notes on that history alongside those of other religions and cultures. He also read contemporary editions of "oriental" poetry and orientalist commentary, and engaged Henry David Thoreau's discussions of Eastern writing, including that of the Persian mystics, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.



Figure 1. Clippings taken out of Whitman's copy of Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, held by Special Collections at Middlebury College. Whitman cuts out passages from various sections of the book including notes on Persian poets Hafiz and Sa'di; Whitman adds a note, "Sadi about A.D. 1000."

The poet's engagement with Islam was largely focused on its mystical dimensions, rather than mainline beliefs, in part because of his broader attitude toward religion: an anti-denominationalist stance as an all-embracing, cosmic writer. While that attitude was harmonious with the Sufi mystics' eccentric relation to authority, it put Whitman in a small camp of writers who, against the US norms of negative attitudes toward Islam, embraced what they perceived as mysticism's iconoclastic, mind-broadening universalism. Turning to the evidence of Whitman's engagement of Muslim history and writing, we suggest ways in which the poet's annotations and marginalia can help ground further investigations into his complex and generative relationship with the world's second-largest religion.


Whitman and Religion

Whitman's complex relationship to established religions is a much-discussed aspect of his career among critics, and a source of both confusion and inspiration to his readers more generally. Islam takes its place among other religions whose rules and priests are, from the standpoint of the modern democratic poet, well-meaning, and to an extent inspirational, but superannuated. A page from Whitman's annotations shows the way in which he researched the basic historical facts of world religions voraciously, and side-by-side.





Figure 2. This manuscript, held at Boston Public Library, was probably originally kept in Whitman's cultural geography scrapbook. It contains a list of religions and religious figures in Whitman's hand.

A famous passage in the poem eventually titled "Song of Myself" to this day sparks the provocation about religions Whitman would place before his readers persistently over the course of his poetic career:

I heard what was said of the universe,
Heard it and heard of several thousand years;
It is middling well as far as it goes . . . . but is that all?

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah and laying them away,
Lithographing Kronos and Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris and Isis and Belus and Brahma and Adonai,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, and Allah on a leaf, and the crucifix engraved,
With Odin, and the hideous-faced Mexitli, and all idols and images,
Honestly taking them all for what they are worth, and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their day,
Admitting they bore mites as for unfledged birds who have now to rise and fly and sing for themselves,
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself . . . . bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see,
Discovering as much or more in a framer framing a house. . . . (Leaves of Grass 1855, 45–46)

The great religions past and present are thrown into radical equality by this passage, which would be enough to offend most monotheists. But in the case of Islam, the use of the metaphor of visual reproduction—"Allah on a leaf"—is a blasphemous flaunting of the injunction against graven images.

But then again: in "Democratic Vistas," Whitman includes the Quran in a list of religious works that demonstrate what he considers to be the grounding coevalness of poetry and religion. The statement is also characteristic of Whitman's understanding of religion as a fundamental urge behind Leaves of Grass:

The altitude of literature and poetry has always been religion—and always will be. The Indian Vedas, the Nackas of Zoroaster, the Talmud of the Jews, the Old Testament, the Gospel of Christ and his disciples, Plato's works, the Koran of Mohammed, the Edda of Snorro, and so on toward our own day…. these, with such poems only in which…. the religious tone, the consciousness of mystery, the recognition of the future, of the unknown, of Deity over and under all, and of the divine purpose, are never absent, but indirectly give tone to all—exhibit literature's real heights and elevations, towering up like the great mountains of the earth. (Complete Prose Works, 250)

The Quran was read from, alongside other scriptures, at Whitman's funeral.


Whitman's Islam: Sufism

Critics tend to agree that Whitman found inspiration from the Sufi poets, drawing comparisons between him and Hafiz, Sa'di, or Rumi when it comes to the primacy of love, the embrace of death, tolerance, and ever-present divinity. Sufism relies heavily on the remembrance of God and the presence of Allah, and in poems such as "Song of Myself" and "A Persian Lesson" (which was at one point titled "A Sufi Lesson"), Whitman centers the soul and divinity.



Figure 3. In this manuscript for "A Persian Lesson," held at the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, Whitman struggles with the title for the poem; "A Sufi Lesson" becomes "The Last Lesson" becomes "A Persian Lesson."

Mahnaz Ahmad argues, for example, that Whitman and Hafiz shared mystical approaches in their writing, both centering on the "concept of man" as the starting point for understanding divinity, love, and tolerance, finding that divinity ultimately in both nature and the human life around them. Massud Farzan points to "Whitman's importance as a poet of mystic consciousness," especially palpable when Whitman figures the relationship between his 'self' and his soul as a relationship between "I and Thou" (163). Whitman's passage in "A Persian Lesson," "Allah is all, all, all—is immanent in every life and object, / May-be at many and many-a-more removes—yet Allah, Allah, Allah is there," with its declaration of unity under Allah and its chanting repetition, exemplifies for many scholars Whitman's profound interest in the theme of spirit and the presence of the divine as embodied in Sufism. But what of Islam more generally?

The denominations and principles that constitute the religion of Islam have many variations, yet all follow a similar path: seeing Allah as the one and only God and Muhammad as the Prophet. Being Sunni, Shia, or Sufi means embodying different politics and beliefs within the religion, but those politics and beliefs can also intersect in many ways. Sunni and Shia individuals believe that Allah is one and one is all, but they differ when it comes to the question of the successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believe that heaven is guaranteed to those who follow Allah as God and the Prophet Muhammad as the one and only prophet, as well as following the written passages in the Quran as teachings and pillars to follow. Shiites believe that heaven is guaranteed to those who see Allah as the one and only God, but that one must follow Muhammad as well as the Twelve Imams when it comes to being granted the mercy of Allah. The twelve Imams are where Sunnis and Shiites divide: where Shia individuals see the twelve Imams as successors of the Prophet Muhammad, appointed by Allah, Sunnis do not see the twelve Imams as such authorities.



Figure 4. In this annotation, from Duke University's Rare Books and Special Collections, Whitman notes the definition of "alcoran" and statistics on the worldwide percentages of worshippers of different religions.

Both denominations follow similar Islamic rituals, such as valuing travel to Mecca and following the five pillars of Islam: Shahadah, Salah, Zakat, Hajj, and Fasting; which are believing in Allah and Muhammad, praying five times a day, giving to charity, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Sufism, however, follows a more spiritual, mystical form of Islam, heavily focused on remembering Allah, that Allah's presence is to be noticed wherever one may be and whatever one may be doing. Sufism resembles the two main denominations of Islam in that Sufis recite passages of the Quran and devote time to prayer, but Sufis relate differently to its core description of piety. They release their inner desire for materialism and remove themselves from seeking money or prestige, seeking to devote themselves to Allah, the remembrance of Allah, in complete renunciation. They often adopt practices, such as singing or dancing, to remember God, decenter the self, and enter the transcendent stream of divine being. (The Mevlevi Order of whirling dervishes, to which Whitman refers in "Proud Music of the Storm," is among the most famous, founded by followers of Rumi after his death.) For Sufis, the unquenchable desire for unity with the divine can only be pursued through devotion and love, not materialism or logic. Sufi poetry, consequently, de-emphasizes rituals and turns profoundly inward, to the workings of the mind on its path through reciprocity and beneficence and toward utter renunciation of desire (an embodiment of the surrender to Allah indicated in the name of Islam). It is a poetry—often originally sung or chanted—designed not to train one in or reinforce rituals or theological precision, but to challenge readers' sensibilities, their very perceptions of the world and the self.

Certainly, when Whitman utters lines like these, he approaches the claims to divinity that famously got the Sufi Mansur Al-Hallaj imprisoned and executed in 922:

The bull and the bug never worshipped half enough,
Dung and dirt more admirable than was dreamed,
The supernatural of no account . . . . myself waiting my time to be one of the Supremes . . . . (Leaves of Grass 1855, 46)

But there is little engagement of Sunni, Shia, or mainstream Islamic theological tenets in Whitman's work. This distinction is significant: to seek the meaning of Whitman in relation to Islam we must acknowledge his eccentricity with respect to the practices of most Muslims then and now, and consider the degree to which his representations of the religion took part in or departed from the norms of his time, his place, or the expectations of his readers.

Before turning to that context, however, it should also be noted that Whitman's particular focus on mystical Islam has helped make him of interest, reciprocally, to Muslim writers working in the wake of Whitman's rise to world fame. These connections are beginning to be studied by a new generation of critics, who note that while translations of Whitman's works into Arabic and Persian have only recently become available, the leading writers of the twentieth- and twenty-first century Middle East are often English readers. Writers like Nima Yushij and Adonis have drawn critical attention for their relation to Whitman's work, for example; Adonis, raised a Muslim in Syria, evolved into a mystic and participated as a writer in the revival of Sufic mysticism in poetry beginning in the 1970s that has been influential in turn in the United States."Song of Myself" has been recently translated into Arabic and Persian at the University of Iowa's WhitmanWeb, and print translations are in circulation as well.


Islam in the Nineteenth-Century United States

The Muslim world and its religious beliefs and practices were treated in Whitman's time with a mixture of condescension, sometimes even hatred, and fascination. By 1855, when Whitman's Leaves of Grass was first published, there were a range of Muslim communities, some of long standing, in the United States. Many enslaved Africans were Muslim; and believers fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, among others. But notwithstanding the US's constitutional commitment to religious equality, anti-Muslim sentiment had been rife even before the "Barbary Captivities" of American sailors 1785-1815 in Algiers, and it was common for Muslim emigrants to be refused admittance to the US.



Figure 5. In this document, part of a larger set of marginalia held at Duke University's Rare Books and Special collections, Whitman marks a passage with the characteristic nineteenth-century Anglo-American reductive assessment of Islam as "propagated by the sword," an old and persistent stereotype.

Though in his poetry Whitman occasionally mentions contemporary Muslims (or at least describes them in the present tense), for the most part, like his more Romantic contemporaries, it is the mysticism of the past that inspires him, its fixity in a seeming timelessness. Given this tendency and the comparatively stereotypical depictions that tend to characterize his depictions of the religion, it could be said that Whitman's approach to Islam has an Orientalist bent, as Edward Said might put it.

Yet the inferiority to which Eastern people and cultures are relegated under Orientalism does not always appear in Whitman with the force that it did in many of the sources that he consulted to learn about it. And indeed, in "A Persian Lesson," with its Sufi-esque shimmering "graybeard" who might be Whitman or might be one of the great mystical teachers, there is not just appreciation but a provocative mixture of humility (surrender to the wisdom of an always-precedent, always superior teacher) and brash claiming of the indistinguishability of self from teacher that signals the presence of mystical illumination:

FOR his o'erarching and last lesson the greybeard sufi,
In the fresh scent of the morning in the open air,
On the slope of a teeming Persian rose-garden,
Under an ancient chestnut-tree wide spreading its branches,
Spoke to the young priests and students.

"Finally my children, to envelop each word, each part of the rest,
Allah is all, all, all—is immanent in every life and object,
May-be at many and many-a-more removes—yet Allah, Allah, Allah is there.

"Has the estray wander'd far? Is the reason-why strangely hidden?
Would you sound below the restless ocean of the entire world?
Would you know the dissatisfaction? the urge and spur of every life;
The something never still'd—never entirely gone? the invisible need of every seed?

"It is the central urge in every atom,
(Often unconscious, often evil, downfallen,)
To return to its divine source and origin, however distant,
Latent the same in subject and in object, without one exception." (Leaves of Grass 1891-92, 418–19)

An anonymous reviewer wrote in The Critic in 1891, about Good-Bye My Fancy, where this poem first appeared, that "the almost dead shell of the 'greybeard sufi' has a live soul in it capable still of radiant abalone-like iridescences."


Islam in Whitman's Marginalia

It does not seem from the evidence remaining to us that Whitman engaged the theological dimensions of mainstream Islam. His reading in the history and culture of Islam was somewhat deeper, if eclectic and wide-ranging. Whitman's scrapbook of physical and cultural geography, held at Ohio Wesleyan University, contains frequent mentions of the religion in a range of contexts, including among other items textbook descriptions of Islamic countries, an extensive 1849 review of Austen Henry Layard's excavations of Nineveh (and experience of the local religious conflicts), and a promotional flyer for a lecture series by Christopher Bey Oscanyon, a Turkish Armenian who emigrated to the United States and was an occasional visitor in the bohemian circle that included Whitman at Pfaff's Beer Cellar.



Figure 6. Contained in Whitman's cultural geography scrapbook is this flyer for the lecturer Christopher Oscanyan, advertising a lecture on "Turkey and Her Institutions" that includes a description of "the musical chant of the Muezzin from the Minaré," which Whitman mentions in his poem "Salut au Monde!"

However invested in Sufism Whitman might seem, he was no Sufi. Ever-conscious of his image as a writer in the marketplace and in literary history, Whitman famously created a sense of himself as an organic literary sage, rough and self-taught but tapped into ageless streams of aesthetic creativity. In several surviving documents, Whitman drafts lists of books to be found in his home—a kind of mini-canon, meant to evoke a vision of the world-historical literary company in which the Good Gray Poet traveled.





Figure 7. Two lists of books in Whitman's hand, held at the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division.

The first list was made in 1884 or later; the second after 1890 (around the period in which he must have composed "A Persian Lesson"); and a third, not pictured here but held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is undated, and mentions the Shahnameh of Firdowsi. At some point, then, Whitman added the Persian mystics to the list of books he wanted people to think were influencing him. These are late-life public image gestures, though he had obviously been reading about Islam and mystic Persian poets for some time by then. When he published a version of this book list, in "Some Personal and Old-Age Jottings" in Good-Bye My Fancy, the mystics did not appear. (Curiously, despite the emphasis scholars have placed on Ralph Waldo Emerson's introduction of Persian poetry and mysticism to the United States, the archive of Whitman's inquiries into Islam and its writerly past contains no reference to Emerson as his "master" in this respect.)

Finally, there is perhaps the most concrete evidence of Whitman's influence by Sufi poets. Whitman owned copies of at least two volumes containing important poetry in the Persian mystical tradition. One was the popular Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, in which Whitman marked both sections of poetry and passages relating to the life of its author (including a phrase perhaps resonant with Whitman's vision of himself as underappreciated in America: "Omar's Epicurean Audacity of Thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own Time and Country"). Whitman quoted from the Rubáiyát in an essay on Elias Hicks that he included in November Boughs (1888).



Figure 8. A passage from Omar Khayyam's Rubáiyát (trans. Edward FitzGerald, London: Quaritch, 1872) marked in Whitman's copy, held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Another book Whitman owned, perhaps more fundamentally significant for his knowledge of Hafiz, Rumi, and other mystical writers, was William R. Alger's Poetry of the East (later retitled Poetry of the Orient). While the location of Whitman's copy is unknown, Whitman's disciple Horace Traubel reported in 1898 that the poet's marginalia in the book specify that he was gifted a copy by the author in 1860. Whitman also noted in the front of his copy that he read from it, not just silently to himself but out loud to others, on multiple occasions, both during his time in Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C. and subsequently to Horace Traubel and perhaps other visitors to his home in Camden, New Jersey. Unfortunately, the poems reprinted in Alger are simply listed as examples of gems of poetry from "the East," not distinguished by religion, author, or even language of origin—a classically Orientalist editorial decision.

But Whitman is reported to have marked the introductory passage describing the Sufis (63) and a passage about Rumi ("Dschelaleddin") as well (67). Particularly interesting, however, for considering the boundaries of Whitman's identification with Sufi thinking, is a passage he marked in the introduction that suggests a key distinction. "Nothing more distinguishes Eastern from Western thought than this passionate desecration of individuality" (82). Certainly Whitman embraces not just individuality but the complex intermediation of individual with individual, and individual with society. In his notation of this passage, then, is a reminder not just of a departure we can detect in Whitman's poetry and prose from that of the Sufi mystics, but a suggestion that this departure took place as a self-conscious engagement with what Whitman thought mystical Islam had to offer.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Alger, William Rounseville. The Poetry of the East. Boston: Whittemore, Niles and Hall, 1856.

Aminrazavi, Mehdi, ed. Sufism and American Literary Masters. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014.

Anonymous, "Good-Bye, my Fancy!" The Critic n.s. 16 (5 September 1891): 114. https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/reviews/tei/anc.00136.html

Blodgett, Harold W. "Whitman in Iran." Walt Whitman Review 5 (1959): 11-12.

Conway, Moncure D. "Walt Whitman." Fortnightly Review 6 (15 October 1866): 538-48.

Curiel, Jonathan. Al' America: Travels through America's Arab and Islamic Roots. New York: The New Press, 2008.

Curtis, Edward E. Muslims in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Dyer, Daniel Thomas. "America of the Heart: Whitman and Rumi." Patheos (27 December 2016). patheos.com.

Fomeshi, Behnam Mirzababazadeh. Constructing the Persian Whitman. Forthcoming from Leiden University Press.

—. "'Something Foreign in It': A Study of an Iranian Translation of Whitman's Image." Transfer 14.1-2 (2019): 49-72.

Ford, Arthur L. "The Rose-Garden of the World: Near East Imagery in the Poetry of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5 (1987): 12-20.

Fayez, Ghulam M. "Motion Imagery in Rumi and Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 25 (1979).

GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz. A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

LeMaster, J.R., and Sabahat Jahan. Walt Whitman and the Persian Poets: A Study in Literature and Religion. Bethesda: Ibex, 2009.

Leon, Philip W. "Williams, Talcott (1849–1928)." J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_108.html

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Shah, Idries. Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

Sharma, Roshan Lal. "Sufic Interpretations of Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself.'" Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences: IIAS journal of the Inter-University Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences 12.2 (2005): 61-74.

—. "Walt Whitman and Sufism." Spring Magazine on English Literature 2.2. (17 February 2017). http://www.springmagazine.net/walt-whitman-sufism/

Smith, Jane I. Islam in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Strangford, Viscount. "Walt Whitman." Pall Mall Gazette (16 February 1866): 10.

Toorawa, Shawkat M. "Walt Whitman in Adonis' Manhattan: Some Thoughts on A Grave for New York." Periodica Islamica 6 (1996): 15-20.

Traubel, Horace. "Notes on the Text of Leaves of Grass: VIII." The Conservator 9.1 (March 1898): 9-11.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.