Editor’s note: Egyptian writer Ahmed Bahgat passed away Sunday evening at age 79. Contributor Mona Elnamoury reflects on his work:
Best known for his short story collection Kesas Alhayawan Fi AlQuran (Animal Stories in the Quran), Ahmed Bahjat has written many other Islamic fictional works in which religious facts were imaginarily delineated and mystically delivered.
Many of his books appear in translation like: Animal Stories in the Quran, God’s Prophets, Masrour and Maqrour, and The Prince and the Dervish. Bahjat’s non-fictional works betray the same mystical approach to everything: Sufi Seas of Love and Allah in the Islamic Creed.
In Bahjat’s writing, divine love is the cause, purpose and the driving force of creation. The souls of men, mystics or non- mystics, can know God only through the mystical communion of love, and in this knowledge lies human salvation. These ideas are subtly but clearly realized in Animal Stories, which is generally categorized as children literature.
Bahjat never meant the stories to be a children’s collection and was surprised that it was classified as such, but he did not mind it at all. In fact, he understands the reason behind this classification: animals and children are always connected together.
Bahjat has confessed his childhood fascination with the Quranic versions of the animal stories together with his personal fascination with animals in general. He owns a large number of cats and is a friend of all the stray animals of the street. To him, they were living miracles. Later in his life, he saw in them as a true incarnation of truthfulness in a probably false life.
Bahjat’s approach in writing the stories is mystical in itself. He does not tell their stories; rather, he “is” the stories, saying:
I was determined from the beginning to write this animal collection from the viewpoint of the animals themselves; in the style of diaries. I meant to borrow their minds, instincts, dreams, and sorrows to write their diaries inspired in doing that by Van Gogh when he said: “when I paint a flower, I become the flower. (ASQ, 12)
For a long time, Bahjat accumulated information about the animals, but could not start writing. Then, the breath of heavenly mercy blew over him, as he says, and made everything easy. Suddenly, the stories were telling themselves to him in no effort:
The rocks, up there on the tops of mountains over which Solomon’s Hoopoe flew melted and told me his story. The sounds made by The Cave Men’s Dog echoed and their echoes became deep night symbols retelling me its story, and a shell, thrown out of the deep sea, whispered to me that it had witnessed the glorious repentance festivity by Jonah inside the whale. (ASQ, 12)
Here is a part of “Abraham’s Birds” taking as its main characters the Quranic doves slain by Abraham as ordered by God, then resurrected by God to manifest Abraham death and resurrection after death. The main theme of the passage and the story is love: the love that the male dove has for God, the love that it has for Abraham, the love that it carries for the air which is described as pure joy, and finally the love that fills its heart towards his ” Nasha.”
A white dove that called itself Nasha. It had another name before falling in love. Doves change their names when they love. The old name becomes insufficient to signify the new self that is created after love. We know that a new self is born after love. We know all the secrets of love. We love our Creator who created us out of nothingness. Three quarters of love we give to Allah. And we love the air that carries us just as it carries music. Half of the left quarter we give to the air. We love man, thus we feed him our flesh with no pain. Quarter of the left quarter we give to man. An amount as little as a grain of wheat is left for the females. Man thinks that it is little and throws it away, while all the golden fields of grain that feed millions of people were germinated from one grain. (“Abraham’s Birds” ASQ 38, 39)
What Bahjat’s Sufi literature signifies is a unity between past and present, the here and there, the human and the non-human which is clearly mystical. It is as if Bahjat, together with the whole universe, has become one in contemplating the power and beauty of the One. What always remains after reading Bahjat is a sweetness stressing the importance and primacy of the Sufi state — love — over the product — literature.
Thus, Sufi literature is an unconscious self-produced art like the smell of a flower. This spontaneity, Bahjat argues, is what makes the Sufi art an incomparable literary tradition.