Jun 02 2017

Hakim Sanai – No tongue can tell Your secret

Published by at 7:38 am under Poetry

No tongue can tell Your secret
by Hakim Sanai

English version by Priya Hemenway

No tongue can tell Your secret
for the measure of the word obscures Your nature.
But the gift of the ear
is that it hears
what the tongue cannot tell.

— from The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart’s Desire, by Hakim Sanai Al-Ghaznavi / Translated by Priya Hemenway

/ Image by Sophie Charlotte /

Today we contemplate a verse by the great Sufi poet Sanai. I especially wanted to feature Sanai out of respect the the many people killed by the recent bombing in Afghanistan. In a country traumatized for centuries by the colonial intentions of world superpowers from without and harassed by pockets of reactionary extremism from within, it is worth remembering that Rumi was born in Afghanistan, Sanai was from Afghanistan, Ansari, Rahman Baba… Afghanistan has given the world some of our greatest spiritual and poetic voices. I bow in deep respect to the people of Afghanistan.


This verse has an elegant subtlety, and is trimmed with a thin edge of wit. Here Sanai is playing with the mystic’s dilemma of words.

No tongue can tell Your secret
for the measure of the word obscures Your nature.

The direct encounter with the Divine can’t truly be put into words. Words are a creation of the limited mind, powerful, certainly, but limited. Words, even when masterfully wielded, can only describe limited aspects of limited reality. Words imply a fracturing of reality into countless objects, an impassible duality of observer and observed, describer and described. How can words properly convey the undivided Wholeness?

(There is really no ‘encounter’ the way I just phrased it, because that implies two separates meeting, when there is really only the profound recognition of unity. Words fail the Wholeness.)

Seeing this limitation, some teachers construct complex frameworks of descriptions. Some hint and suggest and riddle. Some fall silent. What is said and what is left unsaid… a fascinating game. But it is only the encounter (which is not really an encounter) that conveys the truth of all this.

The “tongue cannot tell” these things properly. “But the gift of the ear / is that it hears” anyway. That is, when we truly and openly listen, an inner whisper begins to draw the awareness beyond the descriptions, the suggestions, the silences. And suddenly there we stand, outside of all words and concepts that obscure while they define. There we stand, witnessing, participating in the living Wholeness that is the divine nature of undivided Reality.

I like the game of words, perhaps too much. But it is time for my tongue to rest and let the ear enjoy its gift…


And to all of our Muslim friends and neighbors, Ramadan Mubarak! May this Ramadan season be one of blessings and spiritual renewal for you.

Recommended Books: Hakim Sanai

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi
More Books >>

Hakim Sanai, Hakim Sanai poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Hakim Sanai

Afghanistan (1044? – 1150?) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Not much is known about Hakim Sanai, often just called Sanai or Sanai of Ghazna. Sanai is one of the earlier Sufi poets. He was born in the province of Ghazna in southern Afghanistan in the middle of the 11th century and probably died around 1150.

Rumi acknowledged Sanai and Attar as his two primary inspirations, saying, “Attar is the soul and Sanai its two eyes, I came after Sanai and Attar.”

Sanai was originally a court poet who was engaged in writing praises for the Sultan of Ghazna.

The story is told of how the Sultan decided to lead a military attack against neighboring India and Sanai, as a court poet, was summoned to join the expedition to record the Sultan’s exploits. As Sanai was making his way to the court, he passed an enclosed garden frequented by a notorious drunk named Lai Khur.

As Sanai was passing by, he heard Lai Khur loudly proclaim a toast to the blindness of the Sultan for greedily choosing to attack India, when there was so much beauty in Ghazna. Sanai was shocked and stopped. Lai Khur then proposed a toast to the blindness of the famous young poet Sanai who, with his gifts of insight and expression, couldn’t see the pointlessness of his existence as a poet praising such a foolish Sultan.

These words were like an earthquake to Hakim Sanai. He abandoned his life as a pampered court poet, even declining marriage to the Sultan’s own sister, and began to study with a Sufi master named Yusef Hamdani.

Sanai soon went on pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned, he composed his poetic masterpiece, Hadiqatu’l Haqiqat or The Walled Garden of Truth. There was a double meaning in this title for, in Persian, the word for a garden is the same as the word for paradise, but it was also from within a walled garden that Lai Khur uttered the harsh truths that set Hakim Sanai on the path of wisdom.

More poetry by Hakim Sanai

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Hakim Sanai – No tongue can tell Your secret”

  1. Amardeep Singhon 02 Jun 2017 at 9:09 am

    Dear Ivan– Beautiful poem and beautiful commentary. Thank you.

  2. Amardeep Singhon 02 Jun 2017 at 9:10 am

    Oh, and great thought of the day.

  3. Ebrahimon 02 Jun 2017 at 9:53 am

    It is said that God appears between the balance of opposites.
    How shall one call to that which is nearer to one than oneself.

  4. Amardeep Singhon 02 Jun 2017 at 11:09 am

    Ivan, a friend of mine sent me this, and I thought of you.

    “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
    Pearl S. Buck

    Warm regards,

  5. marrobon 02 Jun 2017 at 3:47 pm

    A poem of depth, of truth, and I am moved by
    your commentary of understanding. Thank you
    for both, Ivan.

    If the harshness of world news can overwhelm,
    Sanai reminds that something else,
    wordless, brings solace and truth in the silent
    garden of the ear, and of the heart. I believe
    that to be universal and join in wishing
    Ramadan Kariim to Muslim friends .

  6. Annaon 03 Jun 2017 at 1:15 am

    In last days I was contemplating upon the Rumi’s words:

    “Truth was a mirror in the hands of God
    It fell, and broke into pieces
    Everybody took a piece of it
    And they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”


    But the ‘truth is’ that truth cannot be found.

    For truth is something that we can only see
    in the moment.

    Once the moment has passed,
    when next we see truth it will appear
    in different clothing.

    As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said:

    “No man ever steps in the same river twice,
    for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

    Thank you, Ivan for Hakim Sanai, I didn’t heard about him,
    as well for your comments.

    One never stops to full its bottomless cup of tea
    with the “unsaid words” of Wisdom and Knowledge…

    Isn’t it?

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