Poetry Study Aid: Abou Ben Adhem: Leigh Hunt
The poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ by Leigh Hunt – a short, parable-like poem – advocates the idea that the best way to express your love for God is by simply loving your fellow human beings. Abou Ben Adhem is the anglicized name of one of the most prominent early Sufi saints, Ibrahim ibn Adham. He is a legendary figure whose renunciation of his position as a king to become an ascetic to practise a deeply religious life rejecting the pomp and splendour of royal wealth is magnificently celebrated in the Sufi tradition.
The poem Abou Ben Adhem consists of two stanzas; the first with fourteen lines and the second with four. The two parts of the poem represent the two separate visits from the angel to Abou Ben Adhem and the two forms of love that the poem relates-love for God and love for humanity. The rhyme scheme in “Abou Ben Adhem” is very simple; rhyming couplets are used throughout the poem.
The occasion portrayed in the poem takes place in the bedroom of Abou Ben Adhem over the course of two nights. The poem narrates Abu Ben Adhem waking from a deep peaceful sleep in his room and seeing an angel etching the names of those who love God in a book of gold. When he learns that his name is not among those who love God, he requests the angel to write his name down as one who loves his fellow men. The angel disappears and visits him the next night to show him the list of people who are blessed by God. His name appears at the top of the list, suggesting that those who love their fellow men have God’s infinite blessings.
The two visits of the angel to Abu Ben Adhem on two separate nights introduce two diverse religious standpoints, the love of man as the true love of God and a superficial and flashy, and probably pretentious, love of God. During the Angel’s first visit, Abu Ben Adhem wakes from a deep dream of peace. The peaceful sleep of Abu Ben Adhem indicates that he is free of any moral predicaments or worries that keep him sleepless at night. Moreover, the speaker of the poem wishes that Abu Ben Adhem’s “tribe” may increase implying that the world will be a better place with more men like him. From this, we can deduce that Abu Ben Adhem is a noble and worthy soul.
The recurrence of Abu Ben Adhem‘s name both in the title and in the first words of the poem demonstrates that he is the focal point in the poem. The poem’s speaker who narrates the story makes clear his admiration of Abu Ben Adhem by blessing him. Furthermore, the speaker hopes for more people like Abu Ben Adhem in the world.
The second line tells us how Ben Adhem was awoken from a deep dream of peace. The angel’s appearance in Ben Adhem’s chamber makes it richer. The use of the word rich consciously suggests the conflict between worldly and spiritual values. Similarly, the book of gold in which the angel writes is indicative of worldly wealth which in turn suggests flashy and self-centred piety. Likewise, the lilies in bloom that allude to the pristine purity of Abu Ben Adhem create a distinct emphasis on the inseparable nature of love of humankind and love of God.
Service to man is service to god. The hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray.
The book of gold in which the angel writes, which subtly suggests an obsession with appearances, can be considered as a symbol of a perfunctory religious love. The names recorded in the angel’s first list are the names of those who love God. However, as the rest of the poem discloses, they don’t appear to truthfully practise God’s teachings as Abou Ben Adhem does. The poem indicates in the end that this shiny ledger is filled with hypocritical people who pay lip service to love God.
Abou Ben Adhem, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be unduly upset that his name doesn’t appear in the book of gold. This may be because he is not troubled with his devotion to God being approved in a fancy tome since he is self-confident that his love of God is genuine and is actualised through his actions. He is liberated from the compulsions to prove his worthiness by his certainty that loving the members of the human family is the best expression of loving God.
Hence, when Abu Ben Adhem finds out from the angel that he is not in the list of those who “love the Lord,” he doesn’t become excessively worried or disappointed. Instead, he requests the angel to include him in the list of those that loves his fellow men. God created human beings, loving of God is pointless without loving other people-the humanity.
Thus, instead of having his love for God formally recognized, Abu Ben Adhem prefers to validate his love of God by prioritising his love for humanity.
When the angel returns, the room is bathed with a bright light that wakes Ben Adhem up. That the angel repeatedly visits Ben Adhem hints at his standing in the eyes of God. In the short final stanza, the poem undoubtedly approves Abu Ben Adhem’s outlook. By standing for the principle of universal love and believing that this brings him nearer to God, Abu Ben Adhem earns God’s ultimate approval. He firmly believes that love of humanity is the love of God and becomes the most blessed of God. When, on the second visit, the angel shows him the list of people blessed by God, Abu Ben Adhem finds that his name comes first. Thus, the final four lines bring forth God’s commendation of Abu Ben Adhem’s commitment to universal love affirming the central idea of the poem that to love God is to embrace universal love, to treat our fellow human beings with kindness and compassion.