Friday, December 28, 2007

Either a Saint or a Hedonist

India Post - Union City, CA, U.S.A.
Monday, December 24, 2007

Shams al-Din Hafiz (1320-1390) was a great Persian mystical poet who, as a professor of Koranic exegesis, composed some of the most sensitive and lyrical poetry ever produced in the Middle East.

Hafiz was born in Shiraz, the capital of the province of Fars.
He grew up in an age when the finest Arabic literature had already been written and when Persian poetry had reached the zenith of its romantic era.

What was left for Hafiz was the highest attainment yet of lyrical poetry, the ghazal. Scholars remain divided as to whether Hafiz was, as Wickens puts it "...a mystic or a libertine, a good Muslim or a skeptic, or all of these by turns".

Though, for the most part, "It is now generally claimed merely that he spoke through the standard themes and terminology of hedonism, the lament for mortality, human and mystical love, and so on; that he was a superb linguist and literary craftsman, who took these forms so far beyond the work of his predecessors that he practically cut off all succession; and that he revolutionized the ghazal and the panegyric both, by making the one the vehicle for the other."

This confusion regarding the status of Hafiz as either a saint or a hedonist is not surprising, Hafiz himself addresses it in many of his ghazals. The form itself requires such ambiguity.

As one Islamic literary critic puts it, "...the ghazal is not meant to explain or illuminate the poet's feelings; on the contrary, it is meant to veil them" (Anne Marie Schimmel, German Iranologist, 1922 - 2003). Indeed, it is this very inability to pin him down that is one of the signs of Hafiz's genius.

As Schimmel explains, "...the special charm of his verse consists in the fact that he uses the traditional vocabulary to such perfection that every interpretation seems to make complete sense."

It may be difficult for a modern reader to appreciate this multi-faceted quality of Hafez's poetry.
However, one has always to keep in mind that the Persian spirit was at that point deeply permeated by Sufi thought and thus by the belief that the divine presence is felt in the different manifestations of life.

"The rose that blooms in the garden points to the eternal rose (and Rozbehan Baqli, 1128/1209, Hafez's compatriot, was once blessed by a vision of the Divine Glory in the form of clouds of roses that overwhelmed him).

The nightingale is in the same position as the human heart that longs and cries for the view of the rose-like cheek of the beloved, for the bird is an age-old symbol of the human soul..."

There are those, however, who despair at the readiness of the Sufi to attribute spiritual meaning to every utterance of Hafiz. As British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne (1862 - 1926) laments, "The student of Hafiz who cannot decide for himself which verses are to be taken literally and which symbolically is hardly likely to gain much from a commentator who invariably repeats that Wine means spiritual Ecstasy, the Tavern the Sufi Monastery, the Magian elder the Spiritual guide and so forth."

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882 - 1927), the founder of Sufism in the West, has praised the poet at length. "Hafiz found a way of expressing the experiences of his soul and his philosophy in verse, for the soul enjoys expressing itself in verse. "The soul itself is music, and when it is experiencing the realization of divine truth its tendency is to express itself in poetry.

Hafiz therefore expressed is soul in poetry...The work of Hafiz, from beginning to end, is one series of beautiful pictures, ever-revealing and most inspiring. Once a person has studied Hafiz he has reached the top of the mountain, from whence he beholds the sublimity of the immanence of God".

Yet another approach to the understanding of the symbolism of wine is offered by Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba (1894 - 1969). "The Sufi master-poets often compare love with wine. Wine is the most fitting figure for love because both intoxicate. But while wine causes self-forgetfulness, love leads to Self-realization."


[Picture: Hafez, detail of an illumination in a Persian manuscript of the Divan of Hafez, 18th century; in the British Library, London. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hafez

1 comment:

darvish said...

LOL, only a British Orientalist would doubt that Hafez was a Sufi. The fact that so little is known about him is wonderful, and lets us concentrate on his work, not his personal psychology. The same is true for Shakespeare, and we are the better for it.

Ya Haqq!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Either a Saint or a Hedonist
India Post - Union City, CA, U.S.A.
Monday, December 24, 2007

Shams al-Din Hafiz (1320-1390) was a great Persian mystical poet who, as a professor of Koranic exegesis, composed some of the most sensitive and lyrical poetry ever produced in the Middle East.

Hafiz was born in Shiraz, the capital of the province of Fars.
He grew up in an age when the finest Arabic literature had already been written and when Persian poetry had reached the zenith of its romantic era.

What was left for Hafiz was the highest attainment yet of lyrical poetry, the ghazal. Scholars remain divided as to whether Hafiz was, as Wickens puts it "...a mystic or a libertine, a good Muslim or a skeptic, or all of these by turns".

Though, for the most part, "It is now generally claimed merely that he spoke through the standard themes and terminology of hedonism, the lament for mortality, human and mystical love, and so on; that he was a superb linguist and literary craftsman, who took these forms so far beyond the work of his predecessors that he practically cut off all succession; and that he revolutionized the ghazal and the panegyric both, by making the one the vehicle for the other."

This confusion regarding the status of Hafiz as either a saint or a hedonist is not surprising, Hafiz himself addresses it in many of his ghazals. The form itself requires such ambiguity.

As one Islamic literary critic puts it, "...the ghazal is not meant to explain or illuminate the poet's feelings; on the contrary, it is meant to veil them" (Anne Marie Schimmel, German Iranologist, 1922 - 2003). Indeed, it is this very inability to pin him down that is one of the signs of Hafiz's genius.

As Schimmel explains, "...the special charm of his verse consists in the fact that he uses the traditional vocabulary to such perfection that every interpretation seems to make complete sense."

It may be difficult for a modern reader to appreciate this multi-faceted quality of Hafez's poetry.
However, one has always to keep in mind that the Persian spirit was at that point deeply permeated by Sufi thought and thus by the belief that the divine presence is felt in the different manifestations of life.

"The rose that blooms in the garden points to the eternal rose (and Rozbehan Baqli, 1128/1209, Hafez's compatriot, was once blessed by a vision of the Divine Glory in the form of clouds of roses that overwhelmed him).

The nightingale is in the same position as the human heart that longs and cries for the view of the rose-like cheek of the beloved, for the bird is an age-old symbol of the human soul..."

There are those, however, who despair at the readiness of the Sufi to attribute spiritual meaning to every utterance of Hafiz. As British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne (1862 - 1926) laments, "The student of Hafiz who cannot decide for himself which verses are to be taken literally and which symbolically is hardly likely to gain much from a commentator who invariably repeats that Wine means spiritual Ecstasy, the Tavern the Sufi Monastery, the Magian elder the Spiritual guide and so forth."

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882 - 1927), the founder of Sufism in the West, has praised the poet at length. "Hafiz found a way of expressing the experiences of his soul and his philosophy in verse, for the soul enjoys expressing itself in verse. "The soul itself is music, and when it is experiencing the realization of divine truth its tendency is to express itself in poetry.

Hafiz therefore expressed is soul in poetry...The work of Hafiz, from beginning to end, is one series of beautiful pictures, ever-revealing and most inspiring. Once a person has studied Hafiz he has reached the top of the mountain, from whence he beholds the sublimity of the immanence of God".

Yet another approach to the understanding of the symbolism of wine is offered by Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba (1894 - 1969). "The Sufi master-poets often compare love with wine. Wine is the most fitting figure for love because both intoxicate. But while wine causes self-forgetfulness, love leads to Self-realization."


[Picture: Hafez, detail of an illumination in a Persian manuscript of the Divan of Hafez, 18th century; in the British Library, London. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hafez

1 comment:

darvish said...

LOL, only a British Orientalist would doubt that Hafez was a Sufi. The fact that so little is known about him is wonderful, and lets us concentrate on his work, not his personal psychology. The same is true for Shakespeare, and we are the better for it.

Ya Haqq!