Amir Sulaiman’s Poems Are Beautiful – And a Bridge to Mutual Understanding

“And you may be at home in my poem and if not you may just visit” – Amir Sulaiman’s poetic bridge to mutual understanding

When I try to imagine the voice of Bilal Ibn Rabah, the black slave who was chosen by the prophet Mohammed to become the very first muezzin, I seem to hear the fire which also crackles in the spoken word performances of the American spoken word poet Amir Sulaiman. The opening verses of his poem “Truth is” generate goosebumps from the very beginning:

She asked: “Where is the truth hidden?”
I laughed, not because she asked
but because as I’m living I’m learning
that the truth is hidden everywhere
Literally everywhere
There is no place you can scour, search or visit except the truth is in it
The truth is hidden even in the question
‘Where is the truth hidden?’

This is a poet who recurs to his faith when looking for the truth. This truth seems to be evasive and impossible to grasp, but, echoing Sufi thought, simultaneously reveals itself in everything. Importantly, Sulaiman’s search for the truth also engages the listener:

And you may be at home in my poem
and if not you may just visit

I’m also nothing more than a visitor in this poem. Sulaiman found inspiration for The Meccan Openings, the spoken word album which figures this poem, in Al-Futûhât al-makkiyya, the encyclopaedic work of the same name, written by the 12th-century mystic Ibn ‘Arabi. In that work, the eminent Sufi master explored the mystical layers of Islam, which resulted in an account of that experience of more than 2000 pages. Given that my cultural framework differs from Sulaiman’s, it’s a unique experience for me to be invited in this poem. However, this poems makes clear that this kind of visits are not that common, as labels are in fashion nowadays:

I learned jihad from Rumi
The Sunni call me Shia
The Shia call me Sufi
The feds say I have WMDs

A small tableau of daylight and night air clearly shows that in fact, it doesn’t matter that much which label has been stuck on you. After visiting the seven heavens, where he conversed with Adam, Ibrahim, Musa and Isa, and eventually also got to talk with God, the prophet himself also landed on two feet:

And I don’t care who’s on who’s deen
I followed the one who was sent
to the seven heavens and lands on two feet
And it may be too deep
but it is only by his light
that you can see through me
And if by his light we have sight
then what is the meaning of day
and what is the meaning of night?

Despite the persuasiveness of his linguistic fireworks, Sulaiman never seems to be entirely sure of what he thinks or believes. Can one be entirely certain of anything? The absolute truth some people claim to possess, Sulaiman points out, cannot be but fraudulent in some way or another:

That’s the point; I’m not sure
I’m barely afloat in a sea without shore
And if you’d seen what I saw
then you would certainly know that
certainty without flaw is often delusion
and no certainty at all

According to Sulaiman, we can only perceive some parts of the truth; mostly, the truth is only partially illuminated by the sun of our overestimated knowledge. The truth, however, is always there, as an unfathomable full moon. In fact, this poem seems to argue that there are several perspectives onto the moon, and that it might be interesting to try and understand some of the perspectives which are not our own. Poetry, and maybe also language, talk and conversation, might be excellent means to get a glimpse of the moon we’re not used to. The way Sulaiman looks at the truth leaves him with a crescent – which clearly points to Islam –, while my perspective 3 might show me another part of the moon. The title of “Truth is” seems to deliberately leave the truth unspecified, which clearly shows that all these slices of the truth are of equal worth. In an interview about The Meccan Openings, Amir Sulaiman referred to his poem “Hallelujah”, saying that the “words ‘Alhamdullilah’ and ‘Hallelujah’ belong next to each other but because of certain social norms and prejudices the two words are viewed as polar opposites” and that he “wanted to show that the people of Alhamdullilah and Hallelujah have more in common than we might think.” Knowing that there is a pluralistic full moon somewhere out there, perhaps we should try and look beyond that little premature slice of truth we all too readily think we possess.

This is why I rhyme like the spirit of God is in my poem
Because in the beginning there was the word
and before that there was the unheard, the unseen
There was nothing past but the present
There was nothing past the past but the present
Just as the moon begins with a crescent
It seems that way but in that there is the lesson:
Just as the moon begins with a crescent
It seems that way but in that there is the lesson:
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present
The whole moon’s always present

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