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Hikayat Shah Mardan as a Sufi Allegory - article ; n°1 ; vol.40, pg 107-135

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Archipel - Année 1990 - Volume 40 - Numéro 1 - Pages 107-135
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V. I. Braginsky
Hikayat Shah Mardan as a Sufi Allegory
In: Archipel. Volume 40, 1990. pp. 107-135.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Braginsky V. I. Hikayat Shah Mardan as a Sufi Allegory. In: Archipel. Volume 40, 1990. pp. 107-135.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1990.2670
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_1990_num_40_1_2670Vladimir BRAGINSKY
Hikayat Shah Mardan as a Sufi Allegory
Traditional Malay prose is known to be based on hikayats, many of which
are works of a love-fantastic nature that combine the narrative and des
criptive motifs of Indo-Javanese as well as Arab-Persian origin. These
hikayats are vivid examples of Hindu-Moslim literary synthesis, an inhe
rent feature of Malay classic literature in the late 16th- early 17th centuries.
Judging from the forewords that accompany these love-fantastic tales,
their principal function consisted of the fact that they offered «consolation
to the soul» through «beauty beyond words» (*). This is not to say that they
were not thought to perform other functions as well. Thus, the introduc
tion to the Hikayat Shah Mardan informs the reader that «Whosoever will
listen to or read this tale will derive from it both benefit (faedah) and ins
truction drawn from the hadith'es and «revelation» (dalil, i.e. Qur'ân); it
also possesses the four merits (empat perkara). If it be used in seeking knowl
edge of the Lord, then its merit should be called spiritual perfection; if
in connection with decrees of the rajas, it should be called perfect rule; if
for interpreting the law of our leader the Prophet Muhammad - Blessings
and Peace unto Him ! -, then its designation should be sharï'a; if for
delights of the young, then call it perfection of men» (2).
Of special interest to a student of classical Malay hikayats is their links
with Sufi literature. The Dutch scholar G.W. Drewes rightly observed that
the theme of path and travel, central to all love-fantastic hikayats, «owes
a great deal to mystical symbolism and terminology» (3). Apparently Sufism
influenced Malay literature to an extent similar to that to be observed in
* We wish to thank Rosemary Robson for having revised the English text of this article.. 108
Middle-Eastern literatures or in the Muslim literature of India with their
innumerable examples of allegories describing spiritual journeys. Such all
egories were created both in the «high» genres of the treatise and mathnawi
poems, as well as in the «lower» genre of the prosaic dastan, which bears
an analogy to the Malay hikayat (for instance, dastan «Religion of Love»
by Nihalchand Lahôri). Sufi allegories were not at all a rarity in Malay lit
erary works composed in the 16th and 17th centuries, a time when, to quote
the Australian scholar A. Johns, for the Malays to profess Islam was all
but tantamount to the affiliation with some Sufi fraternity or other (4).
The 17th century chronicles Hikayat Aceh and Bustan as-Salatln con
tain numerous toponyms which attest to the wide dissemination of Sufi doc
trines and the Sufi way of life (5) in the northern Sumatran Sultanate of
Aceh, as well as to the popularity that love-fantastic hikayats enjoyed there.
Combinations of both types of toponyms are especially obvious in the des
cription of the garden of the Sultan of Aceh (6). Therefore, one is justified
in stating that synthetic hikayats and Sùfï writings co-existed in Aceh and
were well known among courtiers. However, to assert the presence of this
parallelism is not enough. The Sùfï poems by Hamzah Fansûrî, 'Abd al-
Jamàl and the anonymous author of Ikat-ikatan 'Urn an-nisa' contain many
images and narrative motifs widely used in the synthetic love-fantastic
hikayats (some of which are mentioned below). At the same time, many betray Sufi influence, while some of them, moreover, include
straightforward doctrinal speculations. Finally, very many allegorical poems
and plays were widely employed in Javanese literature roughly during the
same period, works which offered allegorical interpretations of, amongst
other themes, Panji, the ideal knight and lover (7).
One cannot rule out the possibility that the Sufi stream in Malay letters
was intensified to a certain degree thanks to the links between the Malay
world and Muslim India (Gujarat, Bijapur and Golkonda, and the empire
of the Great Moguls). An unique Hindu-Muslim synthesis emerged in the
literature of the Deccan sultanates, which experienced a period of flores
cence during the same period - the 16th-17th centuries. Literary works
composed «under the sign» of this synthesis were marked by a strong Sûfï
colouring and a penchant for creating allegorical Sûfî mathnawi' s which
utilized local fairy-tale motifs (8).
There are several types of allegorical writings in Malay Sufi literature.
Some, «static», allegories added a doctrinal interpretation, usually of a
«close-up» kind, of any major symbol immediately following the descrip
tion of the symbol (these symbols could be of the Pure Bird or the Fish
Who Is One with God from Hamzah Fansuri's poems). Other, «dynamic»
or plot-related, allegories, like the Hikayat Indraputra @\ composed in the
late 16th or early 17th century, did without such an interpretation; the 109
Sufi character of these texts can only be deduced now from some of its
intrinsic features (such as some indications in the foreword, the types of
characters and images, the principles underlying their combinations, etc.).
Yet other kinds of allegories exist which combine traits of the two above-
mentioned types. On the one hand, these works contain a dynamic plot and
rely on the technique of «threading» of individual symbols; on the other
hand, these allegories include, in one manner or another, an intra-textual
exposition of these symbols. These latter allegories are especially valuable
as they can be used as key texts in an interpretation of «dynamic» allego
ries which have none of these intra-textual explanations and which exist
in sufficiently large numbers, a fact of which this author is more and more
convinced. One of such key allegories is the Hikayat Shah (or Shàh-i) Mar-
dan (abbreviated below as HSM), the subject of this paper, which purports
to interpret the symbols it contains and to show it to be a Sufi treatise in
one of its aspects (10).
Surviving in at least thirty manuscripts (most of the love-fantastic
hikayats rarely appear in as many as ten copies) and, hence, evidently a
popular work, HSM was apparently composed in the 17th century (not
before the last decade of the 16th and not later than 1736 (n). A compari
son of the first part of HSM (without, that is, the so-called «Tamil» conti
nuation which constitutes its other half) with Javanese writings on a simi
lar subject, makes it possible to reconstruct the prototype of this tale, which
consists of the following basic motifs :
(1) the schooling of the hero in the art of transmigrating his soul;
(2) the migration of the hero's soul into the body of a parrot and his
penetration, in this disguise, into the women's quarters of the palace and
his subsequent amorous adventures there;
(3) the hero's success in curing the «mute» princess by asking her riddles;
(4) the perfidious capture of the hero's, temporarily, empty body by
the soul of his teacher, or the vizier, and the recapture of his body by the
hero's soul through cunning (12\
All four motifs appear to be of Indian origin (13); however, it is not clear
whether they were borrowed from Hindu India once and for all, or whe
ther the borrowing was twofold : first from Hindu India and then from Mus
lim India - because all of these four motifs occur in Middle-Eastern, above
all, Persian, literature and folklore. Motifs 1, 2 and 4 are represented in
Tûtî-nàme («The Book of the Parrot») by Nakhshàbî (14); a version of this
tale also appears in the Malay « Hikayat of the Wise Parrot » (15\ in Hasht
Bihisht («Eight Gardens of Paradise») by Amir Khusraw Dahlawi (16), in
Behar-i Danish («The Temple of Knowledge») by Inayatu'Llah Kambu (17),
and in various fairy-tales (18); while motif 3 appears in a slightly modified 110
form in the Persian «Tale of a Peri and a Prince» (19). Equally unclear is
where and when the four motifs became one whole, since motif 3 is absent
from Indian and Middle-Eastern writings which incorporate motifs 1, 2
(minus the amorous adventures) and 4.
Of special value for the interpreter of the allegorical meaning of the
hikayat under review is the fact that HSM is heterogeneous in content and
consists of two parts : the narration (the wanderings proper of its hero,
Shah Mardàn), and the doctrine (the exposition of the Sùfï teaching for the
benefit of Shah Mardàn by the hermits he encounters, the leader of the
souls of the Shahids, and by Shah Mardàn himself in his discourses with
his wives). The narrative and doctrinal parts of the hikayat are closely inte
rconnected, which is especially obvious in the episode of the riddles : the
entire process of asking and the first three riddles belong to the narration,
the fourth riddle, to the doctrine.
The intertwining of narrative and doctrinal elements together with the
remark in the introduction that the hikayat is a useful tool for learning about
the way of God, a set of characteristic motifs arranged in a definite
sequence, and containing the specific anthroponyms and onomastics - all
this suggests that the narrative part of the tale is a Sufi allegory. As for
the doctrinal elements, these serve as indicators of a teaching within whose
terms the allegory can be interpreted.
The basis of this teaching, which enjoyed an exceptional popularity in
the Malay world in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a concept of an unfol
ding from absolute unity towards the multiplicity of the world of creations
in seven stages : the first stage being Ahadiyya (absolute, unmanifested,
incomprehensible unity); the second, wahda (synthetic unity of Being); the
third, Wahidiyya (analytical being or unity in multiplicity); then there is
'àlam al-arwàh (the world of spirits - logoi of things); 'àlam al-mithàl (the
world of ideas); 'àlam al-ajsàm (the world of physical bodies); and 'àlam
al-insàn (the world of man, i.e. the Perfect Man). The first three stages
are eternal, uncreated and do not possess an outwardly manifested Being;
they are the Being of the World in divine consciousness. The next three
stages possess outwardly manifested Being, are creations and subject to
destruction. These are various levels of the actual, not potential, Being of
the world. Finally, the last stage, of the Perfect Man, is the lowest and,
at the same time, the highest of the manifested ones, for it contains all the
stages from Wahda to the world of physical bodies. In including in himself
all the manifestations of the Absolute, the Perfect Man acts as a spiritual
substance through which the creation returns to the Creator. He is a micro
cosm which is similar to the macrocosm, both physically and spiritually.
The creation of the world is descent (tannazul) from Ahadiyya to the
world of man. Conversely, a return to the Creator is an ascent (taraqqi) TABLE
ma' r if a Stage of ascent Concept shan'a tariqa haqiqa
Perfecting aspect of path of body path of soul path of spirit path of mystery
man (tubuh) (hati) (nyawa) (rahasia)
Kind of activity speech deeds states knowledge
(kata) (perbuatan) (kelakuan) (pengetahuan)
Organ of activity tongue soul intellect mystery
(lidah) (hati) (budi) (rahasia)
Aspect of soul wrathful pure tranquil repenting
(nafs al-ammara) (nafs (nafs al-sufiya) (nafs
al-mutma 'inna) al-lawwama)
earth Element water air fire
(bumi) (api) (air) (angin)
world of Plane of Being world of physical world of world of divinity
dominion omnipotence bodies, man
('alam al-sha- ('alam ('alam al-jabarut) ('alam al-lahut,
hada, 'alam 'alam al-fana) al-malakut)
al-nasut)
Manifestation of Allah deeds names attributes essence
(af'al) (asma) (sifat) (dhat)
Stage of Being 4 created worlds Wahidiyya Wahda Ahadiyya
('alam al-arw'ah,
'alam al-mithal, al-ajsam,
'alam al-insan
Degree of sure sure true perfect
comprehension knowledge vision sureness sureness
('Urn al-yaqin) ('ayn al-yaqm) (kamal al-yaqm) (haqq al-yaqin) 112
by the same steps which consists of four stages : shari'a (law), tarlqa (path),
haqiqa (truth), and ma'rifa (gnosis). Upon reaching the last stage, a Sufi
loses his separate 'self and individual being. He experiences an ecstatic
union with Allah - the divine Beloved (fana'), following which he, now comp
letely transformed, returns to the world and enjoys eternal life in Allah
(baqà').
Since HSM, as well as other similar Malay hikayats, sets forth the Sufi
doctrine in terms of this ascent, all the concepts of the doctrine are linked
to some or other stages of the Sufi's «four-stage» path. For instance, such
elements of his physical being as water, air, earth and fire (2°) are correla
ted with the stages of shari'a, tarlqa and ma'rifa. The same is true of the
four aspects of the soul which manifest themselves in the process of ascent :
nafs al-ammhra (wrathful or bodily soul), nafs al-lawwàma (repenting soul),
nafs as-safiya (pure soul) (21) and nafs al-mutma'inna (tranquil soul). Also
correlated with these stages of ascent are stages of gnosis : 'Urn al-yaqln
(sure knowledge), 'ayn al-yaqln (sure vision), haqq al-yaqln (true sureness),
etc. The seven stages of Being are blended into the four in the following
manner : the first incorporates the four created worlds, regarded as a cer
tain unity : the deeds of Allah; the second becomes Wahldiyya the third,
Wahda, and the fourth Ahadiyya. As a result the entire Sufi doctrine of
«the seven stages of Being» is presented as a four-element classification
which can be shown as a table (22).
The concepts in each of the vertical columns of the table are interlinked
by what can be called synonymous ties. Therefore where one finds in some
fragment of the text a mention of water and nafs al-ammara, for instance,
one can safely enough maintain that the situation from which this frag
ment is taken deals with the stage of ascent, shari'a.
As a rule, doctrinal concepts are expounded in allegories with the help
of a considerable, though restricted, selection of symbols. For instance, a
smith making a knife may symbolize the Most High in the stage of Ahadiyya
and the stage of ma'rifa, respectively, a pen, a tablet or a pearl may symbol
ize Wahda and haqiqa; a shell, a casket, seven heavens, seven mountains,
a seven storey palace, a bird flying through air - all may appear as symbols
of Wahldiyya and tarlqa.
This symbolic reference to a definite doctrinal concept and the ties bet
ween a concept and a stage of ascent, and hence a part of the doctrine rela
ted to this stage, provide the guidelines for the interpretation of the
hikayats. Taking into account substantial differences between the doctri
nes expounded by various Sufi schools, the above table was based on data
contained in the doctrinal section of HSM, which have been supplemented
by information from some almost synchronie Malay treatises of the 17th
century which mostly set forth the system of «seven steps of Being» (23\ 113
Besides the table described above, of great importance for the interpreta
tion of HSM is the Ikat-ikatan 'Urn an-nish', a Malay allegorical poem com
posed in the early 17th century, in which each of the stages of ascent is
personified by the character of one of Prophet Muhammad's wives <24).
HSM opens with an account of the birth, to the ruler of a country called
Dàr al-Khatàn (25), of a son named Shah Mardàn.
This account determines the two polar points of the hikayat : the hero's
birth in Dàr al-Khatàn, the Country of Circumcision, symbolizes his initia
tion into Islam and provides him with a point of departure for his future
allegorical ascent. His name, Shah Mardàn - the Ruler of Men -, is no
less a clear hint of his status, potential as it is at this point as the Perfect
Man (26\ the destination of the Sûfî path.
This part of the story is followed by the usual description of the prince's
merits and the education he acquires, after which there is an account of
the arrival in Dàr al-Khatàn of a wise brahman from the land Dàr al-Qiyàm,
who knows the tongue of birds (27) and who teaches Shah Mardàn the art
of transmigrating his soul into various bodies and objects.
Qiyàm, or rising (from the dead), is a Sufi term related to the concept
of fanà'-baqâ' (departure from one's phenomenal 'self and eternal life in
Allah). In its first aspect (qiyàm li-Llah), it signifies the awakening from
the sleep of unknowing and an advance towards Allah till fana' is achie
ved; in the second aspect (qiyàm bi-Llàh) it implies the transition from/ana
to baqà', a state in which a Sufi sees only Allah in whatever he looks at <28).
As can be seen from the table, fana' corresponds to the stage of ma'rifa
and «the world of divinity» or 'alam al-làhût. Therefore, the arrival of the
brahman from Dàr al-Qiyàm symbolizes the coming of a herald from the
World of Divinity, which is equal, as we shall see later on, to the Divine
Spirit.
The language of birds in Sufi terminology signifies the language of souls,
a language «containing knowledge of the highest stages of Being (29)», and
is therefore a symbol of divine comprehension. As for the science of soul
transmigration, mastered by Shah Mardàn, it can be interpreted as an awa
reness that the soul is not restricted to the physical body but that it can
leave it and, having passed through various stages of the path, reach unity
with its source - the Most High.
Having completed his training with the brahman, Shah Mardàn goes
out to see his teacher off when he suddenly loses sight of him and realizes
that he has been lost in a dense forest.
A very similar forest, even though described in much more vivid colours, 114
appears in the allegorical «Religion of Love» by Nihalchand Lahori (3°). In
Javanese allegories this forest is called 'I-Don't-Know* and personifies the
ignorance of a «novice» on the path <31). One may conclude that the forest
in HSM has a similar significance, in which case the whole episode with
the brahman, in Siifî language, is lightning from the world of divinity which
suddenly illuminates the soul with its light of revelation for a brief moment
and then throws it back to the former state, which, however, is now per
ceived by the soul as the darkness of ignorance. This lightning is a manif
estation of Allah's mercy towards man, a mercy which rouses him and indu
ces him to begin a search for the shining world of which he has been offer-
red a glimpse, that is to embark on the path of a Sufi. One well-known adhe
rent, Ràbi'a al-'Adawîya, said, «If He turns to you then you turn to
Him» (32\ It is this «His turning» which takes place in the story when a
brahman from Dàr-al Qiyâm arrives in Dâr al-Khatàn and later Shah Mar-
dân sets out on a journey in search of the brahman.
Having wandered in the woods for a while, Shah Mardàn happens upon
a palace in which he finds Princess Rakna Kemala Dewi, a captive of a
demon raksasa who has abducted her from her parents' beautiful garden.
Shah Mardàn asks the princess for some water, then stays with her and
becomes her husband. After all this, he still refuses to slay the raksasa and,
moreover, soon abandons Rakna Kemala Dewi so that he can go ahead with
his search for the teacher. Furthermore, the prince resolutely refuses to
take his wife with him, thereby incurring her anger and punishment - the
princess turns him into a parrot.
It has already been mentioned that the hero's wives symbolize stages
of the path. In this case, the hero's marriage to Rakna Kemala Dewi is an
allegorical presentation of the mastering of the stage of Shari'a, indicated
in the hikayat by only one request made by the prince - for water (water
being an element related to Shari'a, as indicated in the table).
Even more important here is the symbol of the princess, who is the cap
tive of a demon. This symbol may be interpreted on the basis of the hadith
about a demon present in each human being. A demon which should become
a Moslem in the process of the self -purification of a man (33\ This devil,
according to Sufi tradition, is the wrathful or carnal soul (nafs, nafs al-am
màra), the abode of sinful passions and desire. A princess of noble origin
in the power of a demon symbolizes the nafs al-ammàra in a parable from
Illàhi-nàma by Farid al-Dîn 'Attàr (34). The symbol of the nafs al-ammàra
represents a concept of shari'a level.
Shah Mardân's inability to free the princess from her demon captor
symbolizes the inability of a Sùfï novice to fully purify and control his car
nal soul, while his departure in the face of his wife's pleading (^signifies
his determination to rebuke the will of nafs and his rejection of it, some- 115
thing he is capable of doing thanks to his strict observance of the demands
of shari'a (36l
Finally, Shah Mardàn's transformation into a parrot is an allegorical
statement to the effect that he has passed to the stage of tariqa, since in
Sufi literature the parrot personifies a student apprenticed to a shaikh. This
symbolism is explained in Jalàl al-Din Riimi's Mathnawi, where a shaikh
is described as a mirror placed by Allah in front of an adept. By observing
himself in the mirror, the student masters the art of correct conduct, as
a parrot learns to speak by watching its reflection (37).
Disguised as a parrot, Shah Mardân flies to the country of Dàr al-
Khiyam (38), where he finds himself at the palace of Princess Siti Dewi,
beautiful as a «red flower on a golden tray». The princess is enraptured
by the bird's seven-hued plumage. She stretches out her hand towards the
bird, which at once perches on her palm, though previously it had evaded
similar overtures from the princess's maids. Siti Dewi orders a golden cage
for the parrot and afterwards never lets it out of her sight. One night the
bird assumes human form and becomes the princess's lover. The ruler of
Dàr al-Khiyam finds out that his daughter has been «taken advantage of»
and, unable to find the guilty party, is about to kill the parrot in a fit of
rage. But at this point, and from the heaven knows where, there appears
on the scene the brahman who hastens to explain to the ruler that the par
rot is in fact Prince Shàh-Mardàn. At once the ruler's wrath is assuaged
and he engages the parrot-prince in a prolonged exchange of mutual apo
logies and self-criticism, after which Shah Mardân and Siti Dewi are marr
ied. The prince does not stay with his wife for long, however, presently
resuming his wanderings under the name of Indra Jaya.
The symbolic details one encounters in this episode indicate that it is
devoted to the stage of tariqa. This is borne out by the transformation of
Shah Mardân into a bird (a parrot) and his passage through the air, an el
ement associated with tariqa (see the table). The bird is a standard Sufi
symbol for the soul, while its seven colours, which proved so attractive to
the princess, symbolize the seven perfections attained by a soul during ta
riqa and found in seven heavens, each with its definite colour characterist
ic (39\ The best known work in which one comes across the symbols of bird-
souls and the seven stages of their path (embodied in this case in valleys
and not heavens), is probably the poem Mantiq al-Tayr («A Discourse of
Birds») by Farid al-Din'Attàr (4°).
Another indication of the stage of Tariqa is Shah Mardàn's exercise in
self -denigration, since, as one can see in the table, a man in this stage is
dominated by nafs al-lawwama, a «self-condemning soul».
The connection between this episode and tariqa makes it possible to