Epic understanding

In the seminal Iranian epic, Shahnameh, Suroosh Irfani discovered the antidote to the jihadist ideology currently sweeping vast swathes of Muslim lands 

Epic understanding
A few days ago I woke up with a dream-voice urgently asking in Persian, “What has Islam done to end up like Bijan? Islam chay kard kay akher Bijan shud?

The question made little sense. How could Islam become Bijan, a hero in the epic poem Shahnameh that gives a mythological account of the history of humanity through a Persian lens? Composed in the 11th century by Abol Qasem Ferdowsi, Shahnameh legends include the love story of Bijan and Manizheh. Bijan - a budding commander of Kay Khowsru the Persian king - is secretly visiting the enemy country of Turan where he is having a rendezvous with Manizheh, the bold and beautiful daughter of Afrasiab the rival Turani king. When Afrasiab gets wind of the affair all hell breaks loose: the lovers are scandalized, Bijan is shackled in chains and lowered upside down in a dark well and covered with a heavy stone - there to rot till he dies. Manizheh is thrown out of her palace to fend for herself. As she struggles for survival she keeps Bijan alive by smuggling food to him through a hole in the covered well.

The lovers are wasting away, even as they are transformed by their struggle, when Manizheh meets Rustam, Shahanameh’s main hero. Sent by Kay Khowsru and disguised as a merchant, Rustam is in town to rescue Bijan. Later that night Manizheh lights a fire near Bijan’s well, Rustam gets there and sets Bijan free. The story has a happy ending: Manizheh spurns her despotic father and escapes to Iran where she marries Bijan.

At a time when Islam is turned on its head by terrorists to justify their genocidal impulses across Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, Bijan shackled in a dark pit may well be a symbol of ‘Islam’. As for Manizheh, in symbolizing feelings, imagination and relatedness to life she represents what Carl Jung the Swiss psychologist calls the anima, the inner feminine in the male psyche whose counterpart in the feminine psyche is the animus.

A scene from Shahnameh
A scene from Shahnameh

Moreover, as an archetypal figure with transformative spiritual potential the anima may be seen as a corollary of the divine feminine reflecting attributes of Jamal or Beauty, even as God remains “beyond any definition” according to the Quran, aspects that find poetic expression in the angel Sorush in Muhammad Iqbal’s epic poem Javid Nama, Pilgrimage to Eternity. Here Sorush appears in the dark night “drowned in her own intoxicating beauty…the light of imagination and new ideas” flowing like music. Iqbal’s description of Sorush suggests her as being the inspiration for his epic poem— which resonates with elements of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Prophet Muhammad’s  (pbuh) Mairaj journey to  Divine presence. The poem also has Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic as Iqbal’s guide who enlightens him about the mysteries of Sorush: she is “a silver form created in God’s mind” that came into the world “in order to gratify her need for expression”, igniting our creativity and  imagination with her breath. “Because of her a poet strikes the chords of his heart…Come and experience the passion of her voice within you”. (Muhammad Iqbal, Javid Nama, translation by Hina Tanvir, Iqbal Academy, 2006. P.14). However, for  Jung she is the Eros of Islam of which the Taj Mahal was a sublime expression, as he observed during his visit to India in the 1930s. Indeed, if the Saree for Jung was the most feminine dress, Taj Mahal would be the most feminine wonder of the world.

So if Islam has ended up like Bijan, then the feminine soul is needed to rescue Bijan/Islam from the dark pit of Afrasiab, the demonic king whose avatars today may well be the jihadist terrorists wreaking havoc in Islam’s name. Like the ruthless Afrasiab these terrorists are decapitating their prisoners of war and ransacking civilization, as did the wild boars who invaded Iran’s border areas when Bijan was sent to eliminate them. Whether wearing the mantle of ISIS (the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) or TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan) or other outfits, the terrorists today are a throwback to a Wahabi Salafi Saudi Islam whose extremist adherents in the past tried erasing the Sufis, Shias and others who differed from their worldview.
Having restored peace in the world, Kay Khosrow withdraws into spiritual retreat, appoints a commoner as his successor, and on the advice of angel Sarosh renounces the world to disappear into the mountains

As for Shahnameh, in the final battle between Iran and Turan, Kay Khosrow flying his violet flag with an iconic lion defeats Afrasiab’s army with their black flags. However, Kay Khosrow’s victory could be a long way off in a geopolitical world where Afrasiab’s avatars are products of U.S. policies in the region and at odds with Shahnameh’s vision of generosity and justice. A vision summed up in Kay Khosrow’s spiritual outlook spanning the ‘here’ and ‘the hereafter’: as people celebrate his victory Kay Khosrow begins a long vigil, appoints a commoner as his successor (over the objections of elitist commanders), and on advice of angel Sorush renounces the world and disappears in the mountains. Bijan is among a handful of his loyal commanders who see off the king, revered to this day as an inner guide and Persian Buddha.

Surprising at it may seem, Shahnameh with its healing symbolism of Bijan and Manizheh is integral to the cultural unconscious of Pakistan – a society historically shaped by an Indo-Persian culture where Shahnameh was as much part of the subcontinent’s intellectual culture as the epic of Mahabharta and the mystical poetry of Baba Farid, Rumi and Kabir. In this sense, Menizheh’s reclaiming of Bijan infused with the feminine soul could symbolize the recovery of an Indo-Persian legacy of tolerance, able to transcend the marginalization of a jihadist culture.

Suroosh Irfani is Visiting Professor at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore