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The Life of Hafiz

There has always been an air of mystery surrounding the life of Hafiz.  One reason for this is that relatively little is known about the details of his life. The problem is not unique to Hafiz.  E.G. Browne (1920) laments, in regard to Hafiz and other Persian authors, "…the lack of authentic particulars as to the lives and characters of these poets is a very discouraging feature of our quest. Most of the anecdotes...are trivial or fictitious, and, save for what can be gleaned from their verses (where again we are often hampered by the lack of anything approaching a critical edition), we are finally driven to admit that we know very little indeed about most of them. They were generally poor men, often socially obscure, and as such were completely ignored by contemporary historians, while all that later generations could do was, as a rule, to string together a few more or less trivial anecdotes, evidently constructed in many cases to explain or illustrate passages in their poems" (pp. 210).

After offering a brief disclaimer, often like Browne’s above, most authors construct a general outline of the life of Hafiz which goes something like the following. He was born in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, somewhere between 1317 and 1326 CE. His father, a merchant, moved the family to Shiraz while Hafiz was still a child and died early in the boy’s life. Though the loss of his father put the family in difficult circumstances, Hafiz managed to become quite well educated, being fluent in both Arabic and Persian, and memorizing the Qur’an at an early age (the pen name ‘Hafiz’ is a title given to one who has committed the Islamic holy book to memory.) He is said to have worked as a copyist (examples of his work have been preserved) and a baker’s apprentice before acquiring the support of courtly patrons, and later in life he became a professor of religious studies at a college in Shiraz (Wickens, 1965). He is said to have died sometime between 1389 and 1390 and was buried in the beautiful Musalla Gardens of Shiraz, on the banks of Hafiz’s beloved Ruknabad river (Gray, 1995, pp. 1-2).

The earliest witness to Hafiz is the preface to the first collection of his poems. This collection, written by a friend and contemporary named Muhammad Gulandam, is the first to collect all of Hafiz’s work into one volume. Gulandam praises Hafiz's genius, his celebrity, and his compassionate nature and lists among Hafiz's preoccupations the "...diligent study of the Qur'an, constant attendance to the King's business, annotation of the Kashaf and the Misbah..." (Browne, 1920, pp. 272). and various other literary pursuits that kept him from collecting and editing his own poetry. Gulandam then goes on to explain that, despite repeated requests that Hafiz collect all of his poems into one volume, "With this request...he was unable to comply, alleging lack of appreciation on the part of his contemporaries as an excuse, until he bade farewell to this life..."(pp. 272).

Tradition, probably based on references in the ghazals themselves, suggests that Hafiz was in love with a woman that he referred to as "the Branch of Sugar-cane."  Browne makes reference to this. "For the statement that he fell in love with and ultimately married a girl called Shak-i-Nabat ("Branch of Sugar-cane") there is no weighty authority...That he married and had several children is probable" (Browne, 1920, pp. 287-88). The probability of his marriage is also based on hints found in individual ghazals. One ghazal seems to refer to the death of his wife, another to the death of a son.

Aside from this brief sketch there is little known about the details of the life of Hafiz, leaving much room for mystery and speculation. Perhaps it is better that way, for Hafiz, 'The Interpreter of Mysteries,' 'The Tongue of the Hidden,' has always been most at home in the evocative realm of myth and legend.

Works Cited

Browne, E. G. (1920). A literary history of Persia, vol. iii. London: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, E. T. (1995). The green sea of heaven. Ashland: White Cloud Press.

Wickens, G. M. (1965) Hafiz. In (Ed.) Lewis, B., Pellat, C., Schacht, J. (1965). The encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. iii. Leiden: E. J. Brill.


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