There was a young man who would, at the most unexpected times reach out to me & tell me: "Talk to me". It would always come as a little bit of a surprise: "What shall I tell you?", "Anything, just talk." God knows I always have something to say, so I would speak of what would come to my mind at the time. It reminded me a little of the story attributed to Prophet of Islam, peace be upon Him (how accurate its historicity & legitimacy is a topic for another type of person). In the story, the Prophet would come to his wife Aisha and tell her "Kallimni Ya Humaira" - "Talk to me, Red One". The mystics interpreted this story as the Prophet's asking for his soul to talk to him so that he may hear to some hidden part of his own self. Another example of a soul revealing something to the one who seeks something to be shown, is the conversion of Omar ibn Al Khattab. His sister had already converted to Islam while he was still an enemy to the Prophet. He even made an intent to kill her during one of her recitations of the Qur'an, but hearing her, he was so moved that he converted. For the mystics, in both these cases it is the soul, or the essence, the hidden that spoke to them through these women. In stories, it is often a woman that embodies this aspect, as both soul & essence are of the feminine gender in Arabic language.
The Wandering, Yearning Soul
The nafs, self, or the soul is the receptive part of our existence, and although often it may be seen in an overly negative light - the nafs is more nuanced than that. While mostly neutral, the soul is also said to have certain inclinations - towards evil, towards reprimand & towards the peace. It is a popular Sufi wisdom, that, if one feeds anger to his soul, the soul becomes like an angry dog who bites & gnaws, and if one feeds lust, the soul becomes like a hungry pig. This is pointing at the soul's receptivity - the nafs is a mirror, and if we do not like what it shows, it is indeed something that we dislike about ourselves. The opposite also being true. While the receptivity of the nafs may make it receptive to the uglier sides of existence, so it is receptive to the more beautiful ones. It is for this reason that mystics may seek to be "empty", to consciously embody a pure receptivity so that theophany would arrive with little resistance.
The soul, however, is given with a unique feeling - it is the one of yearning. In Ibn Arabi's understanding, Eve is yearning for Adam because he is her home, and Adam is feeling empty and hungry without Eve, as she is part of him & in losing her, he loses his own self: "Ibn ‘Arabî describes the ontological yearning between Adam and Eve, something which spread from them to every human couple in being, saying: “- and God filled the place from which Eve was created with a hunger for her, for there cannot remain any void in being.When He filled it with air, he felt towards her a yearning as towards himself because she is a part of him, and she felt a yearning towards him because he is her homeland, from which she originated. So Eve’s love is love of homeland, and Adam’s love is love of himself.”" (X) When we lose a sight of our soul, we lose ourselves. It is when the well-known feelings of emptiness & hunger fill our being. Likewise, soul that has not found her home is wandering, yearning and seeking. In this state, the soul is lost & extremely vulnerable to negative influences. In her overwhelming yearning & desire, she mistakes everyone for her Adam, and yet she only hurts more to find out it was not he that she found.
The symbol of the desert & a human who is wandering in a desert was for this reason, a beloved symbol for Sufis. A wandering human is a symbol for the soul, and the great desert is the overwhelming sense of homelessness, of wandering around territory that is hostile & cruel. The famous Sufi film "Bab Aziz" (X) shows this in an image of pilgrims who wander through the desert, all of them seeking to reach the same destination. The main character that we follow is a blind man guided by a young girl. Blindness is another common piece of the Sufi symbolism. Some of Sufis were claimed to have gone blind from the tears of devotion and yearning. The eyes must be blind for one to truly see the Invisible (which is also the Essential). Although blind in a sensorial sense, the old man still can see - the young girl, his guide, is his eyes that help him navigate through the harshness of the desert. Similarly, in 1983, Kamal Amrohi in his "Razia Sultan" (X), focuses not on the political or military skills of the famous Sultana of Delhi, rather, he builds a story around her alleged love for her Abyssinian slave. It is love that makes a king, or in this case, a queen - "a slave to her slave". For her love, Razia seeks to abandon the Throne that her beloved father entrusted her - given that her brothers were men her father deemed incapable of ruling. In the film, a one point, the legendary Lata sings a Jan Nisar Akhtar 's poem, while the main actress, who is the Sultana wanders in a cruel desert (X). The poem is "O My Naive Heart" & it sings: "O my naïve heart! What is it that you desire? What is it that you seek? I wander around. O why do I wander alone in this deserted wilderness? It seems as if I am a wave thirsty for water in its own river. O what is this turmoil? Why has this turmoil enveloped me? What is this shadow that stands spirit-to-spirit before me? O what is this disaster? What is this misfortune? I am unable to say whom it is that I desire! My life itself seems lost and confused. The earth lies quietly, the sky is completely silent. Yet what is this that pulsates around me in every direction? There are many thorns to be found along the path of love. The pursuit of desires has brought pain to every heart. Many hearts have been wounded, many hearts have been sacrificed. In the face of divinity, who are you alone? Who are you alone? O my naive heart!" (Urdu translation credits to Takhayyul)
The Akhtar's poem describes the what a deeply torment a soul feels. She desires, yet she doesn't know what she desires. She feels victimised & at mercy of her hostile surroundings. She does not even know where to move, for she is "lost and confused". Finally, she finds her way home. The "naive, pure, heart", remembers & recognises her homeland the moment she gazes her eye upon it.
The Rebuke, The Wait, the Peace
"Having wet me with love, why did you leave? You abandoned your unwavering consort, having ignited her lamp wick; she’s like a pleasure boat set out to drift in an ocean of craving. Either way Mira’s dead— unless you return." - Mirabai When Dante reaches Purgatory, at certain point, his Beatrice rebukes him. She is a little angry at him that he, forgetting the eternal & true, made her wait. Razia, likewise, when she sees that her lover has lost courage & has drifted off to the desert to die - rides & finds him. She rebukes him & holds him accountable for his lack of valour & courage. It is said that the soul is self accusatory, it judges itself, or rather, it witnesses against the human on the Day of the Judgement: "Nay! I swear by the self-accusing soul" & "Nay! man is evidence against himself" / "In fact, people are well-aware of their own soul." (The Rising of the Dead). Our soul reprimands us whenever we stray away from the True Path Waiting, also, is not an uncommon theme on the path of love. In India, eight nayikas or heroines, are often depicted waiting for their lovers (among other themes of "love in separation" and "love in union"). A waiting nayika embodies the yearning quality mentioned above, and she may have different expressions. A young, immature nayika may be restless, anxious & nervous. If she is performed by an actor/actress or a dancer, she is often depicted taking off her jewelry, or expressing her emotions in another, but still dramatic way. However, one may also show a more mature nayika, a nayika who understands complexities of life, love, and everything else that may come between lovers. The emotions of a mature nayika are gentler, subtler, more internal. She allows herself the quiet pain & waits with patience & dignity.
When a soul tires of wandering in the cruel desert, she finds some shelter, some place of rest. Her sorrow & grief may overwhelm her & the hopelessness may find its peak that surrender to God becomes the only option. Yet it is when the soul is rest, when she has found its peace (as its final inclination), that she can hear her lover's steps - for she has stopped reacting & rising her head up at any echo coming from the distance. Silent, rest & at peace, she trusts to recognise the one true pair of steps over a million of false ones. Finally, she finds peace. "The scent of Yusuf's shirt touches her and reveals his beauty, for scent, the breath of the Merciful One, brings news of the Beloved, and the proximity of the beloved rejuvenates the woman ravaged by grief. Jami and the poets who followed his model describe in great detail the wedding of the couple, now finally united. Zuleikha, once betrothed to an impotent husband, is still a virgin, and now the loving Yusuf tears the garment from his chaste bride as she had once torn his shirt from him." - "My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam", Annemarie Schimmel