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Hafez & his Poems

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Hafez Life:

Very little credible information is known about Hafez’s life, particularly its early part; there is a great deal of more or less mythical anecdote. Judging from his poetry, he must have had a good education, or else found the means to educate himself. Scholars generally agree on the following:

His father Baha-ud-Din is said to have been a coal merchant who died when Hafez was a child, leaving him and his mother in debt. It seems probable that he met with Attar of Shiraz, a somewhat disreputable scholar, and became his disciple. He is said to have later become a poet in the court of Abu Ishak, and so gained fame and influence in his hometown. It is possible that Hafez gained a position as teacher in a Qur’anic school at this time.

In his early thirties Mubariz Muzaffar captured Shiraz and seems to have ousted Hafez from his position. Hafez apparently regained his position for a brief span of time after Shah Shuja took his father, Mubariz Muzaffar, prisoner. But shortly afterwards Hafez was forced into self-imposed exile when rivals and religious characters he had criticized began slandering him. Another possible cause of his disgrace can be seen in a love affair he had with a beautiful Turkish woman, Shakh-e Nabat. Hafez fled from Shiraz to Isfahan and Yazd for his own safety.

At the age of fifty-two, Hafez once again regained his position at court, and possibly received a personal invitation from Shah Shuja, who pleaded with him to return. He obtained a more solid position after Shah Shuja’s death, when Shah Shuja ascended the throne for a brief period, before being defeated and killed by Tamerlane.

When an old man, he apparently met Tamerlane to defend his poetry against charges of blasphemy.

It is generally believed that Hafez died at the age of 69. His tomb is located in the Musalla Gardens of Shiraz (referred to as Hafezieh).

Hafez took ear to his immense popularity during his lifetime, and agreed with many others (then and now) when he wrote:

نديدم خوشتر از شعر تو حافظ     به قرآنى كه اندر سينه دارى

I have never seen any poetry sweeter than thine, O Hafez,
I swear it by that Koran which thou keepest in thy bosom.

Many semi-miraculous mythical tales were woven around Hafez after his death. Four of them are:

  • It is said that, by listening to his father’s recitations, Hafez had accomplished the task of learning the Qur’an by heart, at an early age. At the same time Hafez is said to have known by heart, the works of Molana (Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), Sa’di, Attar, and Nezami.
  • According to one tradition, before meeting Attar, Hafez had been working in a local bakery. Hafez delivered bread to a wealthy quarter of the town where he saw Shakh-e Nabat, allegedly a woman of great beauty, to whom some of his poems are addressed.
  • At age 60 he is said to have begun a Chilla-nashini, a 40 day and night vigil by sitting in a circle which he had drawn for himself. On the 40th day he once again met with Attar on what is known to be their 40th anniversary and was offered a cup of wine. It was there where he is said to have attained ‘Cosmic Consciousness’.
  • In one famous tale, “a tradition too pretty to be trusted” says a noted historian,  the famed conqueror Timur the Lame angrily summoned Hafez to him in to give him an explanation for one of his verses:

اگر آن ترك شيرازى بدست‌آرد دل مارا     به خال هندويش بخشم سمرقند و بخارا را

Belle of Shiraz, grant me but love’s demand, And for your mole – that clinging grain of sand
Upon a cheek of pearl – Hafiz would give, All of Bokhara, all of Samarkand…

With Samarkand being Timur’s capital and Bokhara his kingdom’s finest city. “With the blows of my lustrous sword,” Timur complained, “I have subjugated most of the habitable globe…to embellish Samarkand and Bokhara, the seats of my government; and you, miserable wretch, would sell them for the black mole of a Turk of Shiraz!”. Hafez, so the tale goes, bowed deeply and replied “Alas, O Prince, it is this prodigality which is the cause of the misery in which you find me”.

So surprised and pleased was Timur with this response that he dismissed Hafez with handsome gifts. Not much acclaimed in his own day and often exposed to the reproaches of orthodoxy, he greatly influenced subsequent Persian poets, and left his mark on such important Western writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson. His work was first translated into English in 1771 by William Jones.  There is no definitive version of his collected works (or diwan); editions vary from 573 to 994 poems.

In Iran, his collected works have come to be used as an aid to popular divination. Only since the 1940s has a sustained scholarly attempt – by Mas’ud Farzad, Qasim Ghani and others in Iran – been made to authenticate his work, and remove errors introduced by later copyists and censors. However, the reliability of such work has been questioned (Michael Hillmann in ‘Rahnema-ye Ketab’ No. 13 (1971), “Kusheshha-ye Jadid dar Shenakht-e Divan-e Sahih-e Hafez”), and in the words of Hafiz scholar Iraj Bashiri…. “there remains little hope from there (i.e.: Iran) for an authenticated diwan”. The history of the translation of Hafiz has been a complicated one, and few English translations have been truly successful, in large part due to the fact that the figurative gesture for which he is most famous is ambiguity, and therefore interpreting of him correctly requires intuitive perception.

Most recently, ‘The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master’ a collection of poems by Daniel Ladinsky and published in 1999, has been both commercially successful and a source of controversy. Although Ladinsky does read Persian, critics such as Murat Nemet-Nejat , a poet, essayist and translator of modern Turkish poetry, have asserted that his translations are largely inventions, that is to say, Ladinsky’s own inventions. Indeed, Hafiz often uses images, metaphors and allusions that assume fields of knowledge shared between poet and reader.

Though Hafizs poetry is influenced by his Islamic faith, he is widely respected by Hindus, Christians and others. The Indian sage of Iranian descent Meher Baba, who syncretized elements of Sufism, Hinduism and Christian mysticism, would recite Hafiz’s poetry until his dying day. Sufi religious practice does not forbid the depiction of God in images, so Sufi poetry took on metaphorical language to hide what the real meanings were: intoxication with wine referred to spiritual intoxication, and so forth.

Hafez Tomb:

When Hafez died, controversy raged as to whether or not Hafez should be given a religious burial in light of his clearly hedonistic lifestyle and, at most times, unorthodox ways. His friends, however, convinced the authorities using Hafez’s own poetry to allow it. Twenty years after his death, an elaborate tomb (the Hafezieh) was erected to honor Hafez in the Musalla Gardens in Shiraz.