Quakers and Yunus Emre

There have been times in my life when I’ve been given the pleasure of discovering a writer or a poet who seems to echo ideas with which my very bones resonate. When I was living in Turkey over 50 years ago and found Yunus Emre’s poems, I discovered many such resonating words and phrases. Yunus, a 13thcentury Sufi Muslim poet, was the first major poet to write in Turkish (Jalaluddin Rumi, a better-known poet who was also a Sufi and a likely acquaintance of Yunus, wrote in Persian). In the years Yunus lived, from approximately 1238 to 1320, he is said to have wandered the Anatolian plains singing and reciting his poems, but the poems themselves had to wait some 200 years to be written down.

In those first readings, the echoes I heard of my own ideas pushed me into reading Yunus for another reason. I am a Quaker, and in reading him it struck me over and over that this man’s ideas were akin to the ideas being a Friend had planted in me. The more of his poems I read in Turkish, the more I felt in tune with him and felt compelled at least to try to translate him. I found a Turkish friend who was also keen to know his poetry better, and after working hard from 1958 to 1960 we had put some 65 poems into unsatisfying word-for-word English translations. It took me almost 50 more years of working on them sporadically to make them flow in English, and now they are published in a small hardcover book, Sufi Flights: Poems of Yunus Emre.

Let me illustrate what I mean about finding camaraderie with a Muslim poet. Is there any worldwide faith that doesn’t claim that love is the prime attribute humans need in their lives? Certainly Quakers manifest a belief that faith expresses itself most powerfully in love. It can be said that Yunus Emre’s central theme affirms his belief that love has a sweeping power to transform our lives and our relationships. In this he is surely not original; let me quote one of his poems to make it clear:

Have You Heard, Ah My Friends?

Ah my friends, have you heard love is like the sun?
Hearts that spread no trace of love are hard obsidian.
What but venom ever flows from a stone-cold heart?
Its force is forever harsh, however soft it speaks.
But if that heart has love, it burns a steady flame.
Rock hearts are frost-bitten, brittle, yet at the Sultan’s door
in the presence of the King, the brilliance and worth
of love’s star can seldom be suppressed. Toss worry
to the winds, Yunus. Does this craft require it?
Love is the first need. Later one’s a dervish.

Note that for Yunus love is a kind of craft. I believe Quakers also see the trait as one that requires learning and skill. Paul too, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, proclaimed the central importance of love: "Now abideth faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love."

Another place where I feel a kinship with Yunus is in his universal and humanistic leanings. Here is a poem that gives them voice:

My Heart Leaps to Wonder

God gave me a heart that willy-nilly leaps to wonder.
One moment it’s rejoicing, the next it’s sorrow’s plunder.
One moment winter comes with its depths of cold,
the next moment’s born of beauty and life’s lived in a lush garden.
One moment I’m speechless, not one word flows from my lips,
next pearls pour from my tongue, and even the grieved take heart.
One moment my heart soars heavenward, then plunges deep in earth.
One moment it seems a mere drop, then it floods the ocean.
One moment it is so stupid it can’t claim one clear notion,
the next it matches minds with Lokman and Hippocrates.
One moment it’s a giant, then a fairy in a wasteland.
The next it takes to wing, gains power fit for sultans.
One moment it enters the mosque, rubs its face to the earth.
The next it becomes a Christian reading Gospels like a priest.
One moment like Jesus, it can raise men from the dead,
the next it’s in the house of pride, as a pharaoh’s aide.
One moment it is Gabriel who scatters blessing abroad.
An enthralled and wretched Yunus, ends with a leap to praise.

Here, his reference to Lokman and Hippocrates gives Yunus’ readers a glimpse into both his humanistic leanings and his universal views. He venerated Lokman, a mere human, whose philosophy is regarded by Muslims as one to follow. He also lauds another human, the Greek Hippocrates, whom the world venerates for his many contributions to medicine and healing. In many of his other poems, Yunus shows his strong faith that humans are powerful in their own right, apart from the Divine. Jesus, of course, is associated most significantly with Christianity, although citing him confirms that Muslims also regard him as a human prophet. The name Gabriel, originating in the Hebrew Bible, is associated with the archangel who carries messages from God; it is also Islamic, associated with the revelation of the Qur’an. I find Yunus’ belief that there is a universal Divine Force active in the entire world refreshing. The last claim I shall make about Yunus’ ideas is more problematic. In the poem printed below, Yunus seems to be claiming that he himself is so akin to God that he is almost equally powerful. Indeed he claims to be a "sultan to the Sultan":

I’m Sultan to the Sultan

The ocean has never put out such a priceless pearl as I am.
I am but one small drop, yet I blend and become an ocean.
Come see the odd wave that is me. You’ll find me hidden in the sea.
Mansur claimed "I am God" just once. He never did repeat it.
Love’s luck has hung me by love’s hair, naked on the love tree.
You are Joseph, and I am Jacob. We exist in this teeming world,
but in the real world of oneness there is neither Joseph nor Jacob.
Sometimes I worship as Mecnun. Other times I grow into Leyla.
At the moment Yunus became himself, when love was born in him,
he became drunk with the liquor of love.
He’ll leave with that drunkenness in him.
I am cursed with the name of Yunus.
If you want to know my real self,
I’m sultan to the Sultan.

Quakers profess a similar idea in their belief that there is a bit of God in every person, even though we seldom claim this bit is the whole of God as "Mansur" in this poem appears to do. The poem also cites other legendary humans. For instance, Mecnun and Leyla are famous lovers throughout the Middle East. Once Mecnun had fallen in love with Leyla, he went mad and wandered the world looking for her. She, on the other hand, not able to believe in her own beauty and worthiness, eluded him and caused him to be driven even crazier.

I find it hard to distinguish in my own behavior between a pride that leaves me too sure of myself and one that makes me feel I am capable of achieving anything. The first seems unhealthy, the other a necessary motivation when I try to live out my faith. I see both Quakers and Yunus as possessing these two kinds of pride: hubris and humility. Sometimes when taking a stand and expressing it in words, Quakers can be unaware that concerns can be spoken too confidently. Sometimes we need humbly to learn to take our stand through actions, rather than words.

Yunus writes frequently about how he values himself particularly when he is humble. People of faith everywhere need to learn that the day will come when God will get along without us. Are there not times when we as Quakers, like Yunus, need reminders to temper our words of self-confidence and self-righteousness when expressing our verve for the causes we adopt?

Judith Reynolds Brown

Judy Brown, poetry editor of Friends Journal, is a member of Agate Passage Meeting on Bainbridge Island, Washington.