Shams al-Din Hafiz

Shams al-Din Hafiz (ca. 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.

As a student, Hafiz learned the Koran by heart (the name Hafiz means Koran memorizer), and his poetry proves also that he was very well versed in the sciences of his day. Like all Persian poets of the Middle Ages, Hafiz was a court poet and panegyrist dependent on the good will of his patrons. Since he was a Shiite Moslem rather than a Sunnite, as was the prescribed religion of the day, he had to be careful what he wrote.

His Cultural Heritage

However, there was another religious force underlying the poetry of Hafiz. This was Sufism, a mystical movement which grew in Islam as prosperity faded. By the 14th century it had acquired an elaborate and conventional system of symbolism, which formed the lingua franca for the poetic imagery of the day.

The tendency of Sufism is pantheistic. Each human soul is a particle of the Divine Absolute, and the mystic aims at a complete union with the Divine. This union is attained in the knowledge that a human being is himself that ultimate reality which he seeks. Only by abandoning the legalistic restraints of conventional religion can he attain this higher goal.

The sources of Sufism outside Islam included Zoroastrian or Magian worship, Nestorian Christianity, Greek Neoplatonism, and Indian Buddhism. When the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century, they took over a civilization much older and more complex than their own. Many of its elements undoubtedly persisted in the forms of Shiite Islam and other more esoteric movements such as Sufism, most of which exerted their influence on Hafiz.

By the age of 30 Hafiz recognized his poetic talents, and he was appointed to the court of the Indju vizier of Shiraz. Shiraz fell to a competing dynasty—the Muzaffarid—but their strict Sunni rule, technically hostile to the Shiism of Hafiz, did not prevent him from completing his most mature compositions. Although during these years his fame spread through the Islamic world, he declined all invitations to other courts. While Shah Shudja ruled Shiraz (1358-1384), Hafiz benefited from at least sporadic favor, and he left his home city only for 2 years, which were spent in nearby Isfahan and Yazd.

Hafiz's Poetry

In 1387, after Tamerlane had conquered all of Persia, he came to Shiraz to visit with Hafiz for 2 months. The most productive period of Hafiz's life was over, and he died 3 years later in Shiraz, but his fame was well deserved. No other poet up to his time in the Islamic world was such a superb linguist and literary craftsman. He took the poetic forms of the day so far beyond the work of his predecessors that he practically cut off all succession. Over 600 poems are attributed to Hafiz, most of them both mystical and lyrical. His work was meant to be understood on many levels, which was typical of the poetry of his day. Hafiz's major work, the Divan, was a collection of short odes known metrically as ghazals.

Further Reading on Shams al-Din Hafiz

Gertrude L. Bell translated Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897; new ed. 1928), which includes an excellent introduction. A. J. Arberry, ed., Fifty Poems of Hafiz (1953), contains a good analysis. Other interpretive works on the poet include Thomas Wright, Rose-in-Hood (1925); Clarence K. Streit, Hafiz:The Tongue of the Hidden (1928); and Abbas Aryanpur, Poetical Horoscope:or, Odes of Hafiz (1965). For an intricate discussion of the rhythmics and meter of Hafiz's poetry see Walter Leaf, Versions from Hafiz (1898).

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