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Qaṣīdat al-Burda (Arabic: قصيدة البردة, "Poem of the Mantle") is an ode of praise for the Islamic prophet Muhammad composed by the eminent Sufi, Imam al-Busiri (Muḥammad b. Saʿīd b. Ḥammād b. Muḥsin b. Abū Surūr b. Ḥibbān b. ʿAbdullah b. Mallak al-Sanhajī) of Egypt. The poem, whose actual title is al-Kawākib ad-Durrīya fī Madḥ Khayr al-Barīya ("Celestial Lights in Praise of the Best of Creation"), is famous mainly in the Sunni Muslim world. It is entirely in praise of Muhammad, who is said to have cured the poet of paralysis by appearing to him in a dream and wrapping him in a mantle or cloak.
Biography of al-Busiri
Al-Būṣīrī ’s full name is Muhammad b. Saʿīd b. Ḥammād b. Muḥsin b. Abū Surūr b. Ḥibbān b. ʿAbdullah b. Mallak al-Sanhajī. Different biographers present slightly different versions of his life although certain facts are agreed upon by all. He descended from the North African Berber Sanhaja tribe of Morocco. The famous historian al-Maqrīzī, claimed that al-Būṣīrī ’s family was from the Hammād Citadel in Morocco and was a part of the Banū Ḥabnūn tribe.
Little is known about his childhood although scholars surmise that he received the usual education for children of his time; he would have attended a Qur'an school and memorized the entire Qur'an. Kīlānī asserts that al-Būṣīrī ’s family must have been poor as he was forced to search for work from a young age. Sometime during his youth, he made his way to Cairo, where he pursued his studies. There he was exposed to the important Islamic sciences, Arabic language and linguistics, literature, history, and the biography of Muhammad. Even as a young man, al-Būṣīrī began to compose poetry, although not of a religious nature. For example, in the year 637/1240, at the age of 30, he composed a poem to petition the King Najm al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī when he failed to allot a generous endowment to al-Būṣīrī ’s mosque. An accomplished poet, he would often recite his poetry and give lessons at mosques in Cairo. A number of young poets studied under him, such as ʾAthir al-Din Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Abū Hayyān al-Andalusī (d. 725/1325), Abū al-Fatḥ b. Sayyid al-Nās al-Yaʿmarī (d. 734/1334), and ʿIzz al-Dīn b. Jamāʿah (d. 735/1335).
Al-Būṣīrī: The Misanthropic Poet
While he is best known for the deeply religious Burdah and the Hamziyyah poems, al-Būṣīrī’s complete diwan is still extant and includes poetry that reveals the transition from a rough and terse youth to a mature man with a deeply spiritual disposition. Based on his poetry, one can map out his spiritual development as he records his experiences in life, interactions with people, complaints, and insights. Al-Būṣīrī’s short and slender stature led to his being ridiculed by people and the source of their jokes. Early on in his career, he wrote a number satire poems that revealed his feelings about being ridiculed. He also had a hard time accepting criticism from other poets and even wrote a rebuttal of a poet, one Zayn al-Dīn b. al-Raʿād who had insulted his work. He was known to have a harsh tongue and took pleasure in composing hijaʾ, or satire, poetry to insult his enemies. The historian al-Shehāb Mahmūd, a contemporary of al-Būṣīrī, wrote that he was a misanthrope who would attack others with his words and had a bad reputation in the courts of princes and viziers.
Al-Būṣīrī lived in various locations in Cairo and in the Delta region, working primarily as a scribe and poet for the local rulers. At one time, a ruler offered him the position of a muḥtasib, or market inspector, in Cairo, but he rejected it. From this job offer, we can ascertain that al-Būṣīrī must have had a decent knowledge of Islamic law as the job of market inspector requires a thorough knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and law. He lived for a long time in the Lower Egypt town of Bilbīs (from around 659-663/1261-1265) and worked there as a scribe and manuscript copyist. He seems to have also been skilled in accounting, although al-Maqrīzī claimed that he made a lot of mistakes and was not competent in this skill. Al-Būṣīrī was interested in religious polemics and read the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and religious history of Judaism and Christianity primarily in order to defend Islam and the position of Muḥammad. Some of his colleagues at work were Jewish and Christian and he was known to engage in fiery debates with them. He was interested in proving to them that the Gospels did not indicate that Jesus was a god and that it contained signs of the coming of Muḥammad. He was also concerned with correcting what he held to be mistakes in the Hebrew Bible that told stories of the prophets and of their sins.
In addition to being a poet, al-Būṣīrī was also a fine calligrapher and composer of prose, although nothing of his writing or calligraphy is extant. Coming from a humble background, it was said at one point, he made a living designing the engravings for tombstones. In an attempt to make money, he also opened a Qur'an school for children in Cairo, but this venture failed and he was forced to close it. As for his domestic life, his poems paint a hellish impression of living with his constantly pregnant wife and gaggle of children. He talks of his wife conspiring with his sister-in-law to get him to divorce her by hitting him and pulling out the hairs from his beard. He also complains in detail about old age, his inability to provide his children with enough food and the problem he faced when he could not provide his daughter with furnishings for her home for her marriage.
He spent some time in the central Delta town of al-MaḥAllah, where he was the poet and scribe for the mayor and received a monthly wage for composing panegyric poems of the ruler. In al-MaḥAllah al-Būṣīrī clashed with the local Christian scribes, copyists, and poets and wrote verses complaining of his treatment at their hands. Sometime during his stay in al-MaḥAllah it seems he broke his leg on a visit to the public baths and complained bitterly about his leg in a number of poems.
His relation with others was so bad that it reached the point where they wished he would die. Once, when he became very sick, a rumor quickly spread that he had died. Upon recovering from his sickness, he wrote a satirical poem to mock his enemies who had spread rumors of his death:
I am not the one who would die before them I will survive them and weep over their graves, It’s true that I had almost lost my life but the generosity of this vizier gave me a new life.
Al-Būṣīrī did not only have enemies among Jews and Christians, but also among his coreligionists, and even those closest to him, including his wife. He wrote satirical poems attacking anyone who criticized or insulted him, recording each event and rebuttal in a poem. According to al-Maqrīzī, al-Būṣīrī would befriend important members of the court, such as the vizier Zayn al-Dīn Yaʿqūb b. al-Zubayr, and would support them no matter if they were just or oppressive rulers. He supported the Mamlūk rulers and wrote zealous panegyric poems praising the Turkish Mamlūks that also affronted the local Arab population. The only positive characteristic of al-Būṣīrī recorded by al-Maqrīzī was that he was generous.
Al-Būṣīrī : The Enlightened Sufi
Although al-Būṣīrī ’s modern biographer, Muhammad Sayyid Kīlānī, doesn’t seem to present a clear timeline of his spiritual development and mixes in discussions of al-Būṣīrī’s satirical poetry and poor relations with people alongside his practice of Sufism, it seems that a distinction needs to be made. Kīlānī posits that al-Būṣīrī
…as a man could not benefit from the teaching of al-Shādhilī, because in his morals and domestic life, we find things that don’t correspond to Sufi ethics. In addition, he had a large family and was driven to compose poems in praise of the princes and viziers. In these poems [al-Būṣīrī] sometimes praised oppressive rulers who deserved to be rebuked and this has nothing to do with Sufism…As for al-Būṣīrī as a poet, he was greatly influenced by Sufism.
It is not known when exactly al-Būṣīrī became a disciple of Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī, but it can be posited that this happened later on in his life, at least some years before the death of al-Mursī in 686/1287. At least in the beginning of his practice of Sufism, al-Būṣīrī seemed to have struggled to follow Sufi principles and desired to live in isolation from people although he was prevented as he had a large family and was often unable to feed them due to his poverty:
If I were on my own, I would have been a disciple in a Sufi hostel or a worshipper in a cave
His later poetry consists mainly of panegyric poems praising Muhammad and bears little similarity to that of his earlier satirical poems. Perhaps after becoming a Sufi disciple, he underwent a spiritual awakening, which may be seen in the form the Burdah and the accompanying story of its composition, and refrained from his previous harsh and misanthropic nature. There seems to be conflicting information about al-Būṣīrī’s life as seen in the biographies of non-Sufi historians and that of hagiographies written by Sufi scholars. Especially since Sufi hagiographies always describe him as an older man with a head of white hair, it can be presumed that while he might have been a misanthrope and generally unpleasant person during his youth, he must have changed his ways perhaps later on in his life as an older man.
The timeline of al-Būṣīrī’s life is not clear, although it is known that as a grown man, he was drawn towards Sufism and joined the Shādhilī order under the guidance of his Shaykh Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Mursī in Alexandria, which at the time was a center for North African Sufis. At this time, the Shādhilī Sufi order was still in its infancy, having been founded by al-Mursī, who was the disciple of Abū al-Ḥasan al- Shādhilī. Al-Būṣīrī was fond of al-Mursī and studied Sufi thought and practice under him; this background would have a strong influence on his later poetry. He was faithful to his order and wrote poems full of praise of al-Shādhilī and al-Mursī and their spiritual attributes and ranking. Al-Būṣīrī was the contemporary of Ibn al-Fāriḍ, the great Sufi poet and mystic. It was also said that he was a friend of Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allah al-Sakandarī, the Sufi scholar and jurists who wrote the famous Ḥikam, or collection of Sufi aphorisms as well as a spiritual biography of al-Shādhilī and al-Mursī.
In Sufi hagiographies, al-Būṣīrī is painted as a saint-like figure who had reached the high spiritual station (maqam) of al-ghawthiyyah al-kubrā. They claim that when he would walk down the street, the young and old would come out to greet him and kiss his hand. His body was said to have emitted a sweet scent and he wore fine clothes, had a head of snow-white hair, a humble smile, was ascetic in his lifestyle, and had a respectable and virtuous character. Kīlānī disregards these attributes of al-Būṣīrī based on his readings of his poetry. Kīlānī fails to see that it is quite possible that al-Būṣīrī was indeed an unpleasant person for much of his life until he discovered Sufism, mended his ways, and reached a high spiritual station that was respected and acknowledged by his fellow Sufis.
Despite this, Kīlānī divides al-Būṣīrī’s praise poetry of Muhammad into two periods, the first from before al-Būṣīrī’s Hajj and the second after his return from the Hajj. Kīlānī posits that al-Būṣīrī did not perform his pilgrimage until at least after 653/1255. Before going on Hajj, he composed a number of praise poems, especially ones that referred to his longing to visit the tomb of Muhammad. Upon his arrival to Madīnah and Makkah, he composed poems revealing his joy of being at the tomb of his beloved and other places Muhammad had visited.
Although buried in Alexandria, it is not known if al-Būṣīrī spent his last years in Cairo or Alexandria. While his official tomb is located in Alexandria, there previously has been some dispute about where al-Būṣīrī was buried. Al-Maqrīzī recorded that he died in the al-Manṣurī Hospital in Cairo. Furthermore, al-ʿAyyashī, a North African traveler who visited Cairo in 1073/1663, mentioned that he visited al-Būṣīrī ’s tomb in the area of the jurist Imam al-Shāfiʿī’s tomb located in the southern cemetery of Cairo. One scholar has ascertained that the initial confusion about al-Būṣīrī’s burial location is due to the fact that there was another scholar, Abū al-Qāssim Hibat Allah b. ʿAlī b. Masʿūd al-Ansārī al-Khazrājī al-Munastīrī, also known as al-Būṣīrī, who died a century before our al-Būṣīrī’s death in 598/1202. The older al-Būṣīrī was indeed buried at the foot of al-Muqattam hills, where historians presumably thought the younger poet Al-Būṣīrī was buried.
Sufi Muslims have traditionally venerated the verses. The poem is memorized and recited in congregations, and its verses decorate the walls of public buildings and mosques. This poem decorated Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (Muhammad's Mosque) in Medina for centuries but was erased but for two lines under the Saudi dynasty. Over 90 commentaries have been written on this poem and it has been translated into Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Berber, Punjabi, English, French, German, Sindhi, Norwegian, Chinese(called Tianfangshijing), and other languages.
Al-Busiri narrated the miraculous circumstances of his inspiration to write the Burdah:
I had composed a number of praise poems for the Prophet, including one that was suggested to me by my friend Zayn al-Dīn Yʿaqūb b. al-Zubayr. Some time after that, I was stricken by fālij (stroke), an illness that paralyzed half of my body. I thought that I would compose this poem, and so I made supplications to the Prophet Muhammad to intercede for me and (and ask God to) cure me. I repeatedly sang the poem, wept, prayed, and asked for intercession. Then I slept and in my dream, I saw the Prophet. He wiped my face with his blessed hands and covered me in his cloak (burdah). Then I woke up and found I was able to walk; so I got up and left my house. I had told no one about what had happened.
I encountered a Sufi (faqīr) on my way and he said to me: “I want you to give me the poem in which you praise the Prophet.”
I said: “Which one?”
So he said: ”The one that you composed during your sickness.”
Then he recited the first verse and said: “I swear by God that I heard it in a dream last night being sung in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad. I saw the Prophet was pleased with it and covered the person who sang it with his cloak.”
So I recited the poem to him and he memorized it and related his vision to others.
The Burda is divided into 10 chapters and 160 verses all rhyming with each other. Interspersing the verses is the refrain, "My Master, descend peace and blessings continuously and eternally on Your Beloved, the Best of All Creation" (Arabic: مولاي صلي و سلم دائما أبدا على حبيبك خير الخلق كلهم). Each verse ends with the Arabic letter mīm, a style called mīmīya. The 10 chapters of the Burda comprise
- On Lyrical Love Yearning
- On Warnings about the Caprices of the Self
- On the Praise of the Prophet
- On his Birth
- On his Miracles
- On the Exalted Stature and Miraculous Merits of the Qur'an
- On the Ascension of the Prophet
- On the Struggle of Allah’s Messenger
- On Seeking Intercession through the Prophet
- On Intimate Discourse and the Petition of One’s State.
- Anthology of Arabic Poems about the Prophet and the Faith of Islam Containing the Famous Poem of Al-Busaree
- The poem of the scarf by Shaikh Faizullah Bhai B. A. - University of Bombay - Published by Taj Company Ltd.