Oludamini Ogunnaike tentatively ushers the words to the poem he has translated from Sufi master Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s collection The Light of Truth. “The Holy is not seen with the naked eye, but rather with the eye of blindness and obliteration and annihilation and effacement,” he reads. When he stumbles with the English, it is his knowledge of how the Arabic flows that causes hesitation. In Arabic, the words, sounds and cadences are said to demarcate paths toward God.
Ogunnaike, W&M associate professor of religious studies, is curator of the online West African Sufi Poetry Project. Its goal is to document the Sufi poetry that informs the spiritual lives of millions of Muslims in West Africa who subscribe to the Sufi branch of Islam.
Sufi poems, whether those performed by street rappers or those of the spiritual masters, share many features, Ogunnaike explained. They tend to be circular in structure, reflecting the “night journey” to Jerusalem, then to heaven, then back to earth of the prophet Muhammad as guide for the individual path toward human perfection and “realization.” They tout spiritual feats of the journey. They often use the idea of drunkenness “as a metaphor for divine love and the ecstasy of experiencing divine love,” Ogunnaike said.
“That’s what all Sufis are seeking, intimacy with God, sincerity,” he continued. “But it’s not a fixed target. If you think you have caught God, that’s not God. That’s your idea of God.”
Ogunnaike lives the faith he investigates. He sees no conflict. The life of a scholar helps him be a better Muslim by keeping him dissatisfied with simple ideas, he said. Being a Muslim helps him be objective about his own insights and experiences, he added.
“When I read a poem like this, I feel something,” Ogunnaike said. “I’ve had people who don’t understand Arabic tell me they hear the poem and they feel something.”
Whether or not his English translation will induce similar experiences, he is realistically skeptical. His efforts will help generate greater understanding of the genre, he believes.
He continues to read: "If the drunk dances or gets carried away singing that is from ecstasy, he is being sanctified from confusion. … Going astray in the Essence of God is the essence of guidance … ."
Read more about Ogunnaike's work in this recent W&M News story.