YUNUS EMRE An Introduction

When the song-poems of Yunus Emre spread among the rural Anatolian Turks in the fourteenth century, the Turkish language, already rich in idiom and vocal harmony, began to express the deeper nature of the human spirit. An illiterate peasant with a modest vocabulary of perhaps several thousand words gave utterance to the kind of truths that had been the domain of classical arabic and Persian. A great poet helped his people to say what they could not say before. While many of his contemporaries imitated Persian and Arabic forms and borrowed their vocabularies, Yunus sang in the language of the common man and used simpler poetic forms. No one has ever matched Yunus's handling of the Turkish vernacular and its syllabic meters.

His words to this day express the deepest aspirations of the Turkish people, an independent, undogmatic, humanistic, and mystical race. His songs are quoted by peasants and scholars, shaikhs and diplomats, the old and the young. Yunus Emre's work is both the beginning and the highest achievement of a poetic tradition that has spanned seben centuries. No other poet in the Turkish language has treater authority, and Yunus has been called "the most important folk poet in the litterature of Islam" (Talat Sait Halman).

If were to suggest the importance of Yunus Emre within Turkish civilization, I would invoke Francis of Assisi, Blake, and Yeats. Like Francis he was siimple and saintly. He loved the natural world and sang songs. Like Blake his songs are full of symbols. And as Blake stood squarely within his own truth and voiced a cry against much that was mechanical and insensitive in his times, Yunus, with gentleness and charm, attacked the spiritless orthodoxy of his day. Finally, like Yeats his lyrics master stanza and line and can appeal to ordinary people, as well as those with literary interests.

Yunus's Times

The world into which Yunus Emre was born was ruled by the Seljuk Turks centered in Konya (Iconium). Konya and the surronding region of Anatolia had become a haven for many people from Central Asia, who had fled the pillage, destruction and death worked by the Mongols. Among these people were gread scholars and saints, because Central Asia, particularly in the area of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, had developed a state of culture to rival any in the world. Two who came from Central Asia were Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, the incomparable poet and spiritual master, and Hadji Bektash Veli, the initiator of a popular rural Sufi order, the Bektashis, with whom Yunus was associated.

The influences of these wto men were to profoundly affect the course of history. Rumi, a sophisticated mystical poet, a philosopher of Cosmic Love, drew upon the everyday lives of people to explain the deepest mysteries. Writing in Persian, his greatest influence would be on the educated, cultured urban elite. Hadji Bektash transmitted a similar energy of Love and humanism but to different people: the rural Anatolian peasants, farmers and herders who lived in compact villages across the dry and often mountainous land.

Ahmed Yasawi, another Central Asian Sufi, hat been the first to use the Turkish language as a literary medium with his Hikam, a book of mystical reflections. But Yunus was to be the poetic flowering of this impulse brought by Hadji Bektash and Ahmed Yasawi. His language would captivate both the rough and the cultivated for centuries to come. His name would become associated with a whole genre of poetry and song, many anonymous imitators would have their work ascribed to him.

A story told about a meeting between Jelaluddin Ruimi and Yunus Emre illustrates the difference between the two. Yunus had become acquainted with the six books of Rumi's masterpiece, the Mathnawi, and he was asked what he thought of it. "It's a little long. I would have written it differently."

"Oh, how so?," Jeluluddin asked.

"I would have witten: I came from eternity, clothed myself with skin and bones, and called myself 'Yunus'."

Yunus's Life

What can we know about the life of Yunus Emre? His wear of birth is uncertain and that of his death is speculated to be 1320. Almost everything we suppose abouthim is drawn from Yunus's songs themselves, although there are stories of his life that are part of an oral tradition.

When Yunus was young a famine overtook Anatolia. His village had been hard hit and one of the few places that was known to have food was the Sufi center of Hadji Bektash Veli. A Bektashi center would have been a village in itself, since this particular tradition stressed an integration of social, economic and esoteric activities within the context of communal life.

As the story goes, Yunus was sent by the people of his village to get some grain from Hadji Bektash's tekkye, or spiritual center. The great shaikh, however, knew presentiently of Yunus's approach and told his doorkeeper to greet Yunus and ask him wether he would like grain or "baraka". Yunus, a shepherd boy, had never heard this word "baraka" before so he aska wether baraka will take up as much space and weigh as grain. He is told that baraka will take up very little room but he remembers that his village has sent him to get grain and so he holds firmly to his original request. On the way back to his village Yunus is at first very happy but later he begins to have some doubts about whether he has done the right thing. Hadji Bektash is, after all, a very generous man and no one seemed to resent Yunus's choice. Maybe this baraka is something very valuagle like gold. Halfway through his journey, Yunus decides that he has probably made a mistake and should return and inquire again about the baraka. When he returns, however, he is told that his portion of baraka (spiritual power) has been sent to Taptuk Emre, another Bektashi shaikh destined to become Yunus's guide on the Path.

So Yunus himself becomes a pupil in the school of Taptuk Emre, undergoing many practical as well as spiritual tasks. For many years he remains humbly in the service of his shaikh. The Bektashis call their guides "Shahim" or "My King", and they submit themselves body and soul with total love to the shaikh. After this period of service, Yunus is one day abruptly called to Taptuk Emre's presence and told that it is time to leave the center and go out into the world to teach.

Yunus, too humble to believe he has anything to teach, yet submissive to his Shaikh's will, bearing only the practical knowledge of a peasant, goes modestly into the world. While crossing a large desert on foot he encounters two other dervish travelers who invite him to travel with them for safety and companionship. After the first day they stop at dusk to have a meal. One of the dervishes offers a prayer and asks that they be given food to eat. No sooner had it been mentionned than a dinner a dinner setting appears with fine bread, vegetables and fruit. Yunus is amazed. On the second night they again stop to eat, and the other dervish prays and produces a meal comparable to the first. Again Yunus is amazed but getting nervous. What if he is asked to produce a meal? On the following night, the other dervishes look to Yunus and one of them asks "Would you be the one tonight brother?" And so Yunus prays within himself: "Oh my God, it wasn't I who chose to undertake this journey. I was sent. I do not understand prayers like these, but I know that my shaikh is much beloved by You and so I ask you in his name that you don't cause us embarassment."

Almost immediately the food appears, but it is not the kind of dinner that they had eaten on the two previous mights. Instead it is a feast suitable for a king. The other two dervishes are completely surprised. "In whose name did you pray, brother?" But Yunus, gaining some confidence says "First you must tell me in whose name you prayed." "Oh, it is no secret. We were taught to pray in the name of a certain dervish Yunus of Taptuk's Tekkye."

The Godization of Man

The myslic humanism of Anatolia atributed Divine qualities to the human being. The true human nature however, is not automatically received but must be developed from its latent condition. The real buman being is the product of a process that brings the human being to an awareness of itself as an extension of the Divine Reality. The human being is fundamentally a reflector of the one Creative Power. Spiritual "maturity" takes away the "and" that is in the phrase "God and man." Godliness finds its grounding in the human being who is aware of his connectedness to the Divme Nature.

Yunus Emre is the quintessence of this humanization of God. Yunus's songs are a natural outpouring of his state of being, that which he could not hold back from us. These songs remind us that life is precious, for it is here that we can free ourselves of our bonds and enter the presence of the Friend. It is in life that we can remember death and be more alive.

There is an imjplicit humility in much of Yunus's work and a love of humanity. He downplayed dogma, rituals and religious commentaries. He satirized the hypocrisy of the religious establishment but also leveled some of his harshest criticism at himself. Running through these songs is the affirmation that Love is the cause and essence of everything. And Love is the milieu in which we exist, the source of every quality, virtue and perfection. It is through Love that the Beloved, the Friend, calls us forth, causes our psyche to embrace more and more.

At times Yunus's very identity seems diaphanous, all-embracing, universal. Such an expansion is possible since the Human Being is the drop which can become the ocean. There are times when the voice behind these words is not an indivicual human being but the Creative Power Itself.

Sacred Hymns

Yunus's lyrics are sacred songs that would have been sung in Sufi ceremonies and group worship. They would also be sung iinformally as a social pastime. Much of the beauty of these lyrics comes from a marriage of idiom and meter which no translator could hope to equal in another language. The translator is faced with choosing between the standards of literature and the accessibility of song. Since these translations are meant to be read and to be reasonably faithful to the meaning of Yunus's words, I have chosen literary translation in free verse as a form rather than popular song. It should be remembered though that Yunus was not a "lettered" person. He was a pre-literate, an inspired shepherd. For this reason my translation has been guided by a sense of conversational idiom, the spoken word.

Some centuries after Yunus lived, a collection of his songs came into the hands of a certain orthodox and narrow-minded cleric by the name of Mullah Kasim. This Mullah Kasim sat himself down on the bank of a stream and began to read Yunus's lyrics. Reading through song after song, the Mullah could be heard to mutter the word "blasphemy", crumpling that particular page and throwing it into the stream. Unfortunately he had gone through about two-thirds of the collection before he read the line in which Yunus reminds himself, "Speak truly, for one day a Mulah Kasim will judge you".

At that point the Mullah stopped discarding pages. The lyrics that were not cast upon the waters comprise what we know of Yunus's work today. Most of the poems here can be found in the collection of the scholar Golpinarli and are fully accepted as the work of Yunus Emre. Also included are some of the best known and loved songs of Turkish folk tradition, like "The Rivers of Paradise", which are of more questionable origin. It is a convention of this type of lyric to include the author's name in the final stanza whose authorship is actually anonymous. I have chosen to include some of these less authoritative selections as well, songs which belong to the Sea shich started with the drop we call Yunus.

Kabir Helminski
Putney, Vermont
February 1989