The Holy Fool in Medieval Islam
In this study, we have examined the qalandar phenomenon, its spiritual doctrine and practice, in the context of Medieval Islam with specific reference to ‘Araqi’s lyrical poetry. As a social phenomenon, the origin of the qalandar is yet undetermined, but the concept made its entrance into Persian literature in the early eleventh century as a paragon of spiritual virtue. In contrast to mainstream Islamic mysticism, the qalandars never established a closely reasoned doctrinal scheme but their teachings was centered around a common esoteric orientation emphasizing inner contentment, tranquility of the heart and prevention of self-conceit. Notorious for their coarse behavior, the qalandars attempted to destroy all customs by committing wicked acts, not as an exit out of society, but in order to conceal the sincerity of their actions from the public view. By overturning conventions they strove to expose the hypocrisy of the established order and question its values. For the qalandar, holy foolishness was not primarily an attempt at moral instruction but an ingenious way to fight spiritual pride.


On the evidence of his biography and religious teachings, there can be no doubt about the importance of the qalandari doctrine for ‘Araqi himself. Reliable information concerning his life reveals that he considered social respect as one of the most dangerous pitfalls on the spiritual path. The quintessence of his notion of piety is man’s absolute nothingness before God and ultimate “annihilation” (fana) in the divine attributes. ‘Araqi‘s criticism of conventional piety and excuse of scandalous behavior constitute the central tenet of antinomian qalandari mysticism: outwardly he behaved in a foolish manner according to the conventional standards of society, but inwardly he pursued a religious ideal, inspired by experience of God’s Beauty and Majesty. As far as literary expression is concerned, he is probably the most outspoken poet of the qalandariyat genre and his poetry is traversed through and through by its paradoxes. Marked by a unique blend of antinomian thematic features and a rich symbolic imagery, his poems preserve a subtle harmony between the possibilities of transcendental and profane allusions. In this respect, he became a perfect model for Persian literature, influencing Shams al-din Hafiz and Sa’di Shirazi, undisputed masters of the ghazal, and inspiring many other writers of the following centuries, from Shah Ni’matullah Wali to Dara Shikuh.


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