Nasimi: Mystic or Maverick?

Posted on September 18th, 2019

I composed the piece ‘Nasimi’ as a way to pay tribute to the enduring legacy of Imadeddin Nasimi, the 14th century mystical poet who wrote the first collection of poetry in the Azerbaijani language, and who was considered one of the greatest Turkic mystical poets of his time. I feel privileged to share the same roots as Nasimi, to be connected to him through heritage and language and culture. But his legacy goes far beyond this nation. The words of this remarkable man reverberate today not only throughout Azerbaijan, but in other parts of the Islamic world, and among people everywhere who are knowledgeable in the inner meanings of Sufi poetry. His mystical poems have touched hearts and guided seekers throughout these past six centuries, and his message of spirituality with its emphasis on love and tolerance could not be more relevant and urgently needed today.

The melody for this piece came to me during a journey I made over two years ago, when I was blessed to spend many days and nights immersed in and transformed by sacred music and ceremonies. This year, when asked to compose works to showcase the essence of Azerbaijani traditions for a major UNESCO event in Baku, I decided to set a poem by Nasimi to this melody and was amazed at the perfection with which it matched the music I had composed so much earlier. I believe the reason for this resonance is that both the music and the words reflect a glimpse — however fleeting in my case — of the eternal.

Nasimi was a great Sufi sage and a significant figure of Muslim civilization. Although few details are known about his life, his passionate poetry shows his deep knowledge of Islamic poetic traditions as well as a genius for composition, and it shows a depth of knowledge of Islamic, particularly Sufi, intellectual teachings. It was a tragedy that his ecstatic sayings were misunderstood by the literal-minded. Ecstatic sayings such as those of Mansur al-Hallaj, Bayazid Bastami, Nasimi, and others, need to be interpreted in the context of the mystical vocabulary of their times. Without a profound understanding of this context certain of their words, which on the surface can resemble infidelity, are easily misconstrued. In the end, such speech can truly be understood only between the speaker and God. Like other great Sufi poets, Nasimi spoke a different language – one not everyone understood – he spoke the language of love.

The poem in my composition, ‘Nasimi’, has elements of the tradition of ecstatic sayings that emerge from a deep inner state of knowing, an overpowering spiritual state that is often fleeting. In this poem, Nasimi returns repeatedly to the contrast between the ‘two worlds’, the physical and spiritual. By naming opposites—‘I am the old, I am the young’— he points beyond them to unity, to tawhid, to the divine unity that is one of his principle themes. For Nasimi, the signs of God (ayat Allah) are found throughout creation, but he tells us we must always look beyond them, because they are not — and can never be — limited by this realm alone.

Through this poem and many of his other writings, we see that the essence of Nasimi’s faith came from his inner experience of the truth and beauty of the Divine. And his words ring out across time to tell us that such experience is ours if we but seek it.

Listen/Watch ‘Nasimi’ here:

Listen to the new album ‘Azerbaijan: A Timeless Presence’ here: