Mem û Zîn Analytical Study*: 2. Ahmadi Khani as poet, thinker, philosopher and Sufist

By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli:

‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’*

Chapter Two: Ahmadi Khani as a poet, thinker, philosopher and Sufist

The following is my translation of the ‘Conclusions’ chapter of Professor îIzzeddin Mustafa Resul’s study of ‘Mem û Zîn of Khani’ (1979):

The second half of the sixteenth century and all the seventeenth century were the time of huge political changes in the life of Kurdish society, which gradually, and eventually in the following two centuries, determined the final destiny of Kurdistan as its division between the Ottoman and Safavid empires was finalized to be followed by a new division after the First World War. That period was one of excruciating wars between Kurdish emirates and these two empires. As a result, Kurdistan was witnessing the disappearance of one emirate for some time and then coming back to existence again and then its destruction again at the hands of the two belligerent occupiers. However, some Kurdish emîrates began to flourish in that period leading to the emergence of some aspects of monetary accumulation and local manufacturing, especially in the city of Jezir.

Jizire-Botan was one of the big centres of national awakening, where a new school of poetry was established by Melay Jazirî, Faqe Teyran and Ali Hariri. This school aimed to make Botan and its dialect the centre of a unified language for Kurdish poetry. Melay Jeziri expressed the characteristics of the Persian poet Hafiz Shirazi in Kurdish and added a lot to them from their application to Kurdish language. He expressed his ambition to be heard and appreciated not just in Botan but in Kurdistan as a whole. The age of Jeziri witnessed extension of its voice outside Botan in terms of dialects and geography at the hands of the poet Ali Hariri. But it reached its climax with the emergence of Ahmadi Khani.

Available pieces of historical information on Khani’s time, provides us with evidence of the flourishing of scientific movement in Kurdistan then. Although Khani himself does not mention scientists in his time or before, he gave us some bits and pieces about poets and philosophers only. But such scientists have been mentioned by the writer of Sharafnama, and the Turkish traveller Avliya Chalabi.  Khani himself seems in Mem û Zîn as a great scientist who has accumulated the sciences of ages in his mind. He has combined in his experience the learning of the magic of words becoming versed in using them; he was fluent in several languages and in different Kurdish dialects, which he used in his work. Someone with such degree of knowledge cannot be but the product of his scientific and intellectual environment.

After a careful investigation we have concluded that Khani was born in the Hakari district in 1560 and died in Bayezid in 1706. He lived for a long time in Jezire-Botan and he was affected by its events and circumstances and by its physical nature. He derived the foundations of his poetic story from the tales of Botan.

Khani’s project was not just writing an abstract poetic epic or a sympathetic revival of an ancient love story. His work was rather a purposeful one: He wanted to demonstrate the character of his Kurdish people and portray them as one of the ancient peoples of the region and, by doing so, justifying their liberation from the Ottoman-Persian yoke. His choice of a pure Kurdish folk epic and reconstructing it in a new way is a clear expression of the poet’s ambition. While before him [the Kurdish poet] Faqe Teyran had chosen [for his long poem the folk story of] Shexi San’an which is common among many Oriental peoples, and while some of the prominent Oriental poets had chosen well-known stories such as Leyla w Mejnun, Shirin w Ferhad and Shirin Khusraw, and constructed them in different styles, Khani chose a pure Kurdish folk story and used its elements to build his poetic story, making clear in his story again and again his commitment to his people and his determination to show their true character, reflect their way of life and prove their literary and intellectual originality and elevate the written Kurdish literature to the level of other Oriental literatures. Khani did not limit himself in writing his story to different oral traditions of Meme Alan or Mem û Zîn, but he also used elements from other stories that did not exist in the original versions. For example the scene of seeing the ghost of Bekir [symbol of evil in the story] beside the palace of Mem and Zîn in the heavens is similar to what exists in Layla and Majnun whereas Zeyd sees Leyla and Mejnun in his dream living in paradise.

But Khani has added a lot from his creativity and Sufist depths to this borrowed image. He has added a lot from his philosophical and Sufist thought to his poetic story. Khani’s connection in his ideas and his telling of the story with folklore and other poetic stories does not imply the lack of originality. Such connections exist in all Oriental poetic epics. Khani’s use of the general prevalent framework of Oriental epic [i.e. masnawi) was an attempt to put the Kurdish epic and Kurdish literature beside the known Oriental epics. His general classical Oriental framework is not a traditional imitation of great poets who wrote poetic epics but an endeavour to prove the existence of a Kurdish epic similar to them. As a Sufist poet Khani connected the Kurds through his innovation with the Orient and gave a new face to the Oriental poetry, which is its Kurdish image.

In addition to the sublime nature of its literary construction, Khani’s Mem û Zîn is a philosophical and intellectual work summarising the experiences and knowledge of its author and his views on new ideological issues and he gives his own conclusions which he has arrived at as a result of rational reasoning of what he had encountered of diverse views and ideas in the course of human philosophy. He depicts scenes of the life of his people and of his age, and in doing all this, he does not divert from his literary style or give up his poetic tools in reflecting what can be seen as non-poetic sometimes. Poetry and its tools such as meter, rhyme, figures of speech, rhetoric devices, poetic portrayal and artistic tableaus, and a delicate poetic sensibility and tender love lyrics, have a big place within this encyclopedic work.  Hence, we cannot separate Khani, the poet, from Khani, the philosopher and Sufist. In fact for Sufist literature generally, it is not possible to make a dividing line between literature and philosophical Sufist thought. But the nature of scientific methodology obliged us to identify some boundaries and consider Khani’s creative work through these points:

1.            Khani has digested all the characteristics of Oriental ghazal and the art of Oriental poetical epic and he has the power of poetic expression and tender ghazal. Although the nature of classical poetry itself forces the poet sometimes to follow and imitate others, Khani’s repetition of some ideas and elements of classical Oriental poetry in general (Nizami, Fudhuli, Jami, Rumi, etc) and specially Kurdish (Jeziri, Heriri and Feqe Teyran) does not distance him from his creativity at all. Khani neatly mixes what his people and Oriental peoples in general inherited of folkloric, mythical, Quranic and Biblical images and adds to them the essence of his own experiences and understanding of Oriental poetry, producing fresh poetical images which speak with the force of the reality which Khani lived and his dynamic age. We can find whole rhetorical applications in Mem û Zîn which prove Khani’s connection with the tradition of the predecessors and his strong affinity with Arabic and Persian rhetoric as science and technical application adding to it new applications developing what Melay Jeziri had started. This represented a complete creative applicative work in a fresh ground not touched by others, and we mean by this Kurdish life, nature and thought and the aesthetic qualities of Kurdish language. The language used by Khani with its energy, rhythm and dynamic combination of the vocabulary of the Oriental poetry in three languages (Persian, Arabic and Turkish) and the vocabulary of several Kurdish dialects, within a correct structure of the construction of Kurdish sentence and keeping the rules of Kurdish grammar, provided in fact a strong and convincing beginning for a unified Kurdish literary language which would transcend the boundaries of Botan eMîrate to all parts of Kurdistan unless for the political conditions that prevailed in Kurdistan after the collapse of Kurdish emîrates and the division of the country among several states. This [linguistic] experience [of Khani] still maintains a lot of its vitality and it can be utilised for establishing a unified standardised Kurdish literary language in the future.

Finally, in addition to his poetic imagery and its contributions to the Kurdish literature in general, he has recorded for himself a climax no one before him has ever reached. He opened up to the Kurdish poetry new horizons through his views on poetry, innovation and his appreciation of the poets that had preceded him from Kurdish and Oriental poets. Khani’s treatment of this issue was to go beyond the Oriental tradition of praise or asking forgiveness for mistakes, to define the mission of the dedicated literature and consciousness about the mission of literature in relation to the life of the people and criticism of those who fail to support their people’s literature and their intellectual and scientific development.  His verses in this area can be considered the beginning of literary criticism in Kurdish literature.  Khani’s approach was in line with the requirements of the development of his people’s literature. This approach adds a new point to the encyclopedic character of Khani and records a starting point in a new area of the areas of intellectual development by his people.

2.            Khani has reflected in his epic poem the different aspects of the life of his people. The first of which was his direct tackling, in the prologue of his story, of the reality of his people and their political situation. In doing so, Khani was not only a sensitive poet deeply and delicately feeling the pains of oppression and occupation. In fact, all the Kurds view Khani through these lines as a national leader for several reasons. First, these lines are the first that have been recorded about the Kurdish national cause. His ideas still maintain their vitality, truth and value in the process of Kurdish national liberation movement. Also, because Khani’s ideas were the beginning of the Kurdish national thought with all what the word ‘beginning’ means. Those Kurdish poets who followed him did not only reflect his ideas but also the method of his expression and his vocabulary, foremost among them was Haji Qadiri Koyi (1815-1897). We do not exaggerate to say that no poetic lines have affected the life of a people as these lines with which Khani initiated the poetic enthusiasm and the ideological beginning of Kurdish national movement. And there is no poet who has been so acknowledged by his people, not only for his poetic impact, but also for his pioneering of the whole national cause of his people.

While Khani addressed the national question directly, he has also left for us within his work scattered poetic touches and indirect images, which all together give a complete picture of the life of his people and its civilizational achievements. The scenes that we have studied in detail concerning the sciences, music, and the cultural accumulations of his people, gave Khani a complete justification to present the cause of his people in the way he has done and offer a reflective picture, which speaks with the force of historical document across several centuries. In doing this, Khani was not making civilization an abstract process isolated from society and the on-going conflicts inside it. But with the pen of a poet and the analysis of a distinguished thinker he reflected the role played by the masses of people in the creation of cultural and social values. He expressed profoundly his understanding of the historical process by articulating immortal poetic proverbs symbolizing his social views on classes, ruling powers, money, kinship, friendship and social justice. Khani also left us a general picture of what embraced these values and inherited social and civilizational aspects from popular customs and habits, mixing creatively between the poetic image and maintaining the historicity of the ethnographic image in weddings, mourning, festivals, hunting and other images.

3.            Khani has articulated his aim from the writing of his epic as explaining the concerns of his heart making Mem û Zîn a pretext for this. He has explained these concerns and expressed what he thought about philosophical and intellectual arguments he inherited from ancient and different times through the ideological Islamic and international processes, which he knew about through his wide-ranging readings.   What Khani has produced, can be seen through the depth of explanation and accuracy of treatment, as the product of a long period of studying and teaching. In fact his opinions are annotations, commentaries and outcomes of the judgments which he read in ancient books to which he contributed in the overwhelming workshops in the mosques of al-Jezire and others. Khani came out with a comprehensive clarity of the circle of intellectual teaching and ash’ari methodology in faith and the paths of Sufism followed in his time. He seemed to us as a special texture in the area of philosophy and Sufist thought, preferring a stray idea here and accepting a received idea there through knowledge, argument and conscientious judgment.

If we classify Khani as belonging to what is known in our time as selective philosophy, such a judgment would be abstract, isolated from time and place. If Khani was close to this approach in terms of form, he kept away from it in terms of content. The choices he has made indicates inception after various pictures of intellectual stagnation and dogmatic adherence to scholasticism and non-dialectical methods. Khani’s approach in itself, in its elements and ambitions in Mem û Zîn, is a model of a world which is intellectual, conscious and well-versed in sciences. He did not imprison his thoughts and love of knowledge within the rusty scholastic method. He carried the concerns of the imprisoned in his mind and heart making them radiate with distinctive intelligence and caution. He articulated and explained his concerns as we saw and read them. If Khani was an example of an original man of ideas, his originality lies in something else too, which is his creative inception from his readings and judgments from the reality of books to the reality of life. His opinions were not limited to the issues which the predecessors had paid attentions to and discussed. His results and judgments were not based on what he found in the interior of these books, but was the result of applying the knowledge he had gained to make judgments about the issues of his people and his age. He reflected for us a lively mirror image of aspects of life in his age, in specific time and place. He articulated the thoughts of his mind regarding these issues of life as we saw in the first chapters of the book, before he embarked on the issues of philosophy and mysticism, By doing so he was an original example of what we call today a vital correspondence between theory and practice. This correspondence does not apply to the area of thought and philosophy alone, but we see creativity is a characteristic approach of him even in the area of literary representation and expression.

The philosophical issues that Khani has addressed are basic issues in the Greek and Islamic philosophy. He tackled them with accuracy and poeticism and gave his judgments about them. The issue that concerns Khani most from the beginning to the end of Mem û Zîn is the question of ontology. In general he is idealistic about the issue of existence. Then with Sufist caution and anxiety he approaches his idealistic starting points to express his puzzlement about them. His understanding of the dialectics of life is clear and impressive and his philosophical judgments in issues such as predestination and Iblis (Satan) are the judgments of a thinking philosopher before being the path of a Sufist searching for truth. Sufism, in general, is an idealistic practice which characterizes the desire of man to know the universe and accept suffering to gain that knowledge and it shows the failure of the interpreter of religion (what Sufism calls zahir, appearance) in convincing the Sufist. So he endeavors hard to look for other interpretations within the idealistic internal thought (what he calls batin) which makes him sometimes come close to realizing the material foundations of the universe, and the Sufist refer to these as ‘shatahat’, and sink further into a sort of idealism that takes him away further from religion. We saw these characteristics clearly in Khani’s thought and we offered a clear picture of his Sufist thought.

We do not need to work hard to see that Khani is a Sufist and that Mem û Zîn belongs in terms of thought and literature to Sufism. He portrays for us through poetic representation all the stations and states of Sufist practices. In addition to his often repetitions of the words sofi (Sufist) and teriqet (path), he uses almost all other Sufist terminology. We found out that he found a great way to get out of the problem of mentioning shekh or peer, the mentioning of which is necessary for a Sufist, by closely relating the story to Sufism through this means and making his hero the hero of a story and a peer/ sheikh of a Sufist path at the same time. In the Sufist martyrdom he sees martyrdom of a hero and a human being struggling for a cause. [Mem and Zîn die for the cause of love and truth].

Khani’s portrayal of his hero and characters is a wonderful poetic description demonstrating his ability to build characters and give them dynamism and gradual development. By using the external images for description and using movement and event together to complete building up his characters and express the psychological dimension of the qualities of his characters, Khani was able create a positive type of character (Mem and Zîn) and a negative type having all negative elements of such a character (Bekir). He comes out of the antithesis of the characters to the broad horizon of life and nature and understanding the dialectic movement of life through the contrast between positive and negative and, created from this contrast, a heavenly paradise after he became hopeless of creating his earthly paradise but he still did not surrender to pessimism and submission. Rather, the image of the martyrdom of his hero is an image of heroism and steadfastness which he derived from life and from the examples of the former (martyred) Sufists.

Besides its great literary value, the epic of Mem û Zîn is part of the Sufist literature and it should take its right place within the study of the Oriental literature as a whole. While the Kurds do not forget their poet, the East generally should remember him as one of their great poets who has given the Oriental literature a wonderful innovation that has remained forgotten until now.

* ‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’ by Dr Kamal Mirawdeli is published by the Khani Academy in association with authorhouse, uk. The hard cover, soft cover, or the electronic edition of the book can be ordered from:


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