The Persian Poet and Mystic: Hafez
The notorious poet, Hafez, also known as Shamseddin Mohammad or Hafiz, was born and raised in Shiraz, Iran, in approximately 1310 (Salami, 2016, p.9). Although his life was minimally documented, he was a catalyst for change during his time: writing advanced notions of undergoing nonconformity in structured religion. Contrasting with his beliefs, Hafez gained his name after learning the Qur’an by heart. For this, he was nicknamed, “Tongue of the Hidden” and “Interpreter of Secrets” (Salami, 2016, p.9). His teachings on love, nature, and transcendent philosophies inspired poets, fellow mystics, and Sufis to follow an alternative way of life: one based on love. However, if it were not for the translator Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in 1803, Western culture would be excluded from Hafez’s invaluable teachings and would have the misfortune of not knowing one of the prolific poets of our time (Fomeshi and Khojastehpour, 2014, p.109). Hafez was ahead of his era. Iranians use his proverbs and ghazals (Arabic for "talking to women, philandering, narrating about youth, love making and praising women"), to this day (Salami, 2016, p.9). Hafez did not find faith behind four walls. Instead of a shrine, he found God amongst nature, in between human connections, and in the meaningful emotions humanity has to offer.
Hafez was a founder of introducing mysticism to the Western sphere. Mysticism itself is an individualistic experience where a person can find “unification with God [...] [or] some especial relationship with the universe which is beyond the concept of reasoning and thought” (Oroskhan, 2021, p.475). It is a religious practice where an individual experiences a transcendent state of consciousness and can communicate with the divine (Oroskhan, 2021, p.475). Those who experience this phenomenon are referred to as mystics because they seek God outside institutionalized religion. Mysticism in Hafez’s time was not overtly accepted, nor was it the main dogma; but through writings of poetry and philosophy, this fourteenth-century poet began to transform people’s opinions and their hearts through his form (Limbert, 2004, p.177).
Figure 1. A fictional painting of Hafez by Abolhassan Sadighi, 1971.
Hafez’s beliefs are derived from mysticism. However, scholars have identified that Hafez was more devoutly involved in Sufism (Oroskhan, 2021, p.478). Sufism, or taṣawwuf in Arabic, is a pillar of Muslim society and is becoming increasingly popular in the West (Sorgenfrei, 2018). Sufism "can be traced to Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Greek Neoplatonism, and Indian Buddhism. [...] This mystical system heavily relies on pantheism according to which each soul is part of the Divine Being and the Sufi seeks complete union with the Divine. This union is made possible in the knowledge that a human being is the ultimate reality which he seeks" (Salami, 2016, p.10). Sufism is based on external knowledge of our reality and retaining a deep love for everyone in it, but it centers around seeking inward knowledge (Heck, 2004, p.253). Although there is no 'wrong way' to practice Sufism, as it is an individualistic experience, a myriad of Muslims find structure in "eight qualities: generosity, contentment, patience, allusion, exile, the wearing of wool, travel and poverty (Bilqies, 2014, p.57). Sufis surrender to the one God, Allah, devote to being selfless, and embrace everyone, despite their separate views (Heck, 2004, pp.253-255). Some Sufis may even participate in "prayer rituals (dhikr)" to become closer to God (Sorgenfrei, 2018).
Diving into the belief of Sufism, Sufis must go down a mystical path (al-t.ariqa ¯ ), which leads them "to a realization of true reality (al-h. aqıqa ¯ ). [...] [This] constitutes the unique starting point for knowledge of divine truth (understood as fulfillment of the purpose of the law)", from then a Sufi can have "divine communion (wis. al¯)" (Heck, 2004, p.256). Sufis strive to achieve "Tawhid", meaning oneness and viewing God ubiquitously (Bilqies, 2014, p.55). Shahida Bilqies (2014), an Islamic studies lecturer, describes how Sufism parallels with the Qur'an by adhering to three religious attitudes including:
Hadith of the Prophet (saw) which describes the three attitudes separately as components of Din (religion) [...]. The attitude of Islam, which has given its name to the Islamic faith, means Submission to the Will of Allah. [...]. Iman [...] designates a further penetration into the heart of religion and firm faith in its teachings. Ihsan, the third quality, is the highest stage of spiritual advancement. At this stage, the devotee has such a realization of the religious truths, which amounts almost to their direct vision. This quality of Ihsan, which was later termed Mushahidah (Direct seeing) by the Sufis (p.55).
This is only breaching the surface of the history and meaning of Sufism, as it is more complex than religion because it is a way of life and seeing beyond the possibilities of reality.
Figure 2: Photograph of the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran, (n.d.) digital photograph, Tripadvisor.
Even though Hafez’s Islamic mysticism (or Sufism) was greatly accepted by fellow mystics, as it was open-minded, transcendent, and filled with love, there were some groups like the hypocritical ascetics, who thought Hafez was parodying them in his writings (Salami, 2016, p.11). These religious authorities then "accused him of having heretical beliefs. The hypocritical clerics who were exasperated by Hafiz’s castigations of their insincerity refused to have him buried in a Muslim cemetery"(Salami, 2016, p.11). In response to the religious authorities, his devotees looked to his book of poems to advocate for their beloved writer; a child opened Hafez's Divan haphazardly, only to find ghazel sixty. It featured an end line that read: “And when the spirit of HAFIZ has fled,/ Follow his bier with a tribute of sighs;/ Though the ocean of sin has closed o’er his head,/ He may find a place in God’s Paradise” (Salami, 2016, p.11). Not only did the use of his Divan as an oracle become an established practice by mystics, but his grave was then put to rest amongst "a cypress tree in Shiraz which he had purportedly planted" (Salami, 2016, p.11). Hafez's way of life brought people closer to God and, in turn, to each other.
Hafez’ ties are rooted in Sufism, but he was renowned for straying away from the “norms” in structured Islamic belief. He has been defined more as a transcendentalist, as he would talk about his soul and the divine (Fomeshi and Khojastehpour, 2014, p.115). His lexicon reflected his attitude in regard to structured religion, as he used words such “as ―ascetic, ―robe, ―turban and ―cassock, symbolizing religious hypocrisy” (Fomeshi and Khojastehpour, 2014, p.115). His nonconformity to religion is apparent in his, “writing about 'drinking' and 'love affairs'" (Shimamoto, 2013, p.77). He was a devotional mystic because of his anathema towards organized religion, which is defined as, "distancing oneself from the rules and regulation of the society and then the experience of having a close association with the nature as the possible source of reaching” (Oroskhan, 2021, p.478). Hafez was not bound by a book. Instead, he found belief within himself and the aesthetics of the universe.
Hafez' mysticism can be found in his poem, “It Happens All the Time in Heaven,” which expresses his individual experience with God, as a lover and believer in all things benevolent. This poem is still relevant today and is widely renowned, as it is inclusive of all forms of love, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. His poem reads:
It happens all the time in heaven, / And someday / It will begin to happen / Again on earth -/ That men and women who are married, / And men and men who are / Lovers, / And women and women / Who give each other / Light, / Often get down on their knees / And while so tenderly / Holding their lovers hand, / With tears in their eyes / Will sincerely speak, saying, / My dear, / How can I be more loving to you; / How can I be more kind?
(Flanagan, 2015, It Happens All the Time in Heaven, lines 1-18)
Figure 3. "Hafez poems." Hafez poem. From Pack to Iran (n.d.).
Hafez uses enjambment, repetition, and particular diction to convey his mysticism. In poetry, enjambment (also known as enjambed lines, or run-on lines) is integral as it refers to when the clause continues for two or more lines in a verse. This continuity makes the poem seamless, yet draws attention to the end of a line and the beginning of another, which is made clear by the line break (Hamilton, 2017, p.227). Hafez uses this lineation to separate the words 'lovers' and 'light' because they hold power on their own (Flanagan, 2015, It Happens All the Time in Heaven, lines 7 and 10). He leaves the audience in a state of mysticism, as they simmer on the enjambment of these sovereign words, still conjoined to their sentence, but separated by a line. Meanwhile, Hafez also uses repetition to convey this mystic message. Repetition is defined as repeated "sounds, words, phrasing, or concepts [...] used in literary works to create unity and emphasis" (Hamilton, 2017, p.105). He expresses that gay, straight, and lesbian couples have a universal gnosis of love: one that is selfless and predominant in making the world a progressive place. His poetry uses the present tense by repeating “happen(s)” in lines 1 and 3. This allows the reader to experience the poem as it unfolds. It is touching, yet dramatic with the repetition here because it repeats a word, 'happen(s)', making unconventional love normalized and legitimate. Lastly, Hafez uses specific diction to deliver a tone and theme to the audience, a view similar to that of mystics found in light. Diction is "[t]he choice of vocabulary and phrasing in a work, contributing to its tonal effect" (Holbrook, 2015, p.156). Hafez uses biblical jargon in a loving tone, with words like “heaven” and “earth” (Flanagan, 2015, It Happens All the Time in Heaven, lines 1 and 4). This ethereal language allows godly imagery to unravel and deeply expresses mysticism. The words are light as they are euphonic and feature no harsh sounds. It also gives way to imagery, which is "the non-abstract elements in a poem, particularly those evoking a mental picture, but also those offering other sense-impressions (e.g., of sound, taste, touch)" (Hobrook, 2015, p.159). If Hafez can create such beautiful depictions in one's head through the use of words, he is not only evoking mysticism amongst the readers but practicing it, as God and love are interchangeable in this context.
Intrinsically, Hafez’s timeless perspective is a beautiful belief, as he holds on to something not ruled by regulations, exclusion, or intolerance. He believes in the utmost importance of loving-kindness. Mysticism is more than divinity: it is where love among all human emotions lies. It is past the point of research because it is something to be felt or experienced. So, if you believe in the ubiquitous influence of love and strive to become closer to divinity, then you may be a mystic, Sufi, or devotee of Hafez.
Bilqies, Shahida. Understanding the Concept of Islamic Sufism. Journal of Education and Social Policy, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 55-72, 2014. https://jespnet.com/journals/Vol_1_No_1_June_2014/9.pdf.
Flanagan, Eileen. “It Happens All the Time in Heaven.” Something to Tell, WordPress, 8 Jan. 2015, https://amritsagooblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/it-happens-all-the-time-in-heaven-hafiz/.
Fomeshi, Behnam Mirzababazadeh, and Adineh Khojastehpour. “A Poet Builds a Nation: Hafez as a Catalyst in Emerson’s Process of Developing American Literature.” k@ta: a biannual publication on the study of language and literature journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 2014, https://doi.org/10.9744/kata.16.2.109-118. Accessed 18 January 2023.
Hamilton, Sharon. Essential Literary Terms: A Brief Norton Guide with Exercises. Second Edition. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.
Heck, Paul L. Mysticism as Morality: The Case of Sufism. The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 253–286, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9795.2006.00268.x.
Holbrook, Susan. How to Read (and Write About) Poetry. Edited by Michael Pharand. Peterborough, Broadview Press, 2015.
Limbert, John. Shiraz in the Age of Hafez: The Glory of a Medieval Persian City. E-book, University of Washington Press, 2004. Oroskhan, Muhammad Hussein. “Devotional Mysticism: An Analogical Study of Hafez-e Shirazi and William Blake.” Academy Publication: Theory in Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 5, 2021, https://doi.org/10.17507/tpls.1105.03. Accessed 18 January 2023. Salami, Ali. The Selected Poems of Hafiz. Translated by Mehdi Sojoudi Moghaddam, Mehrandish Books, 2016. Shimamoto, Takamitsu. “Gnosis (’erfān) and Reason (’aql): The Case of Hafez, the Persian Poet.” JISMOR 8, 2013. http://www.cismor.jp/uploads-images/sites/3/2013/03/54db1ef0f4d792d92179046b461f4d821.pdf.
Sorgenfrei, Simon. Hidden or Forbidden, Elected or Rejected: Sufism as ‘Islamic Esotericism’?Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, vol. 29, no. 2, pp.145-165, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/09596410.2018.1437945.
Figure 1. Sadighi, Abolhassan. "Hafez" 1971. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolhassan_Sadighi.
Figure 2. Photograph of the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran, (n.d.) digital photograph, Tripadvisor, https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g316021-d3208973-Reviews-Tomb_of_Hafez-Shiraz_Fars_Province.html.
Figure 3. "Hafez poems." Hafez poem in Persian. From Pack to Iran (n.d.). https://www.packtoiran.com/blogs/detail/106/Hafez-great-Iranian-poet:-Life-and-poems.