Hafiz: The Interpreter of Mysteries
Scholars remain divided as to whether Hafiz was, as Wickens (1965)
puts it "...a mystic or a libertine, a good Muslim or a skeptic, or
all of these by turns" (pp. 57). Though, for the most
part, "It is now generally claimed (without prejudice) 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" (Schimmel, 1992, pp. 3).
Indeed, it is this very inability to pin him down that is one of the
signs of Hafiz's genius. As Schimmel (1988) 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. The beautiful but cruel beloved from whom
he expects a sign of love-just a little note to catch his heart's bird
by snare-like letters may be a real young boy, fourteen years old and
moon-faced, similar to the moon in the fourteenth night, or still a
child who can "murder" his lover without being held
responsible. It can also be the Divine beloved from whom one implores a
sign of grace, a word of consolation, but who remains inaccessible,
hiding Himself behind the numberless manifestations of His beauty and
majesty, and can be reached only if the lover annihilates himself
completely in Him. Again, the cruel beloved can be the prince or king
whose whims nobody knows and on whose kindness the poet is dependent.
(Poetry was, after all, mainly written for a reward, and the medieval
poet usually had to rely upon his patron's generosity for his more or
less modest sustenance.) The human beloved can be praised for his beauty
because in him the eternal beauty of the Divine beloved is reflected (he
is indeed the shahed, the visible witness to this invisible
beauty); the prince, in turn, has to be flattered by the same
expressions as the heavenly and the earthly beloved. In fact, the
unbearded shahed and the prince are loci of manifestation for the
contrasting qualities of the Divine beloved, His jamal and His jalal,
His eternal beauty and kindness, and His terrifying majesty that reveals
itself in His cruelty toward those who love Him most and are willing to
suffer on the path toward Him. If this interpretation of a Persian ghazal,
and especially of a ghazal by Hafez, seems far-fetched, one
should read the description that the Indian historian Barani, an exact
contemporary of Hafez, gives of the role of the king as the
representative of God's jamal and jalal."
"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, 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..." (pp. 222-23).
There are those, however, who despair at the readiness of the Sufi to
attribute spiritual meaning to every utterance of Hafiz. As Browne
(1920) 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. To the English reader who desires to
pursue this method of study, however, Lieut.-Colonel H. Wilberforce
Clarke's complete prose translation of the Divan of Hafiz 'with
copious notes and exhaustive commentary' may be recommended" (pp.
Lieut.-Colonel Clarke is not, however, the only one to find deeper
meaning in the words of Hafiz. Many celebrated spiritual figures have
commented favorably on the beauty and depth of his poetry. Hazrat Inayat
Khan (1964), the founder of Sufism in the West, has praised the poet at
length. "Hafiz found a way of expressing the experiences 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" (pp. 147-148).
Central to the interpretation of Hafiz that Browne so laments is the
understanding of the symbolism of wine. As Inayat Khan observes,
"The word 'wine' is often used, and according to the mystic each
person drinks a wine peculiar to himself. Hafiz pictures the whole world
as a wine-press, and every person takes that wine which is in accord
with his own evolution. The wine of one is not the wine of another. He
wishes to express the idea that every person, whether evolved or
ignorant, whether honest or dishonest, whether he realizes it or not,
whether he has great belief or no belief at all, is in every case taking
a certain wine. It is the type of intoxication produced by that
particular wine which is his individuality, and when a person changes,
he does so by drinking another wine. Every different kind of wine
changes the outlook on life, and every change in life is like taking a
different wine" (pp. 152-153).
Yet another approach to the understanding of the symbolism of wine is
offered by Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba (1989). "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."
"The behavior of the drunkard and the lover are similar; each
disregards the world's standards of conduct and each is indifferent to
the opinion of the world. But there are worlds of difference between the
course and the goal of the two: the one leads to subterranean darkness
and denial; the other gives wings to the soul for its flight to
"The drunkenness of the drunkard begins with a glass of wine
which elates his spirit and loosens his affections and gives him a new
view of life that promises a forgetfulness from his daily worries. He
goes on from a glass to two glasses, to a bottle; from companionship to
isolation, from forgetfulness to oblivion-oblivion, which in Reality, is
the Original State of God, but which, with the drunkard, is an empty
stupor-and he sleeps in a bed or in a gutter. And he awakens in a dawn
of futility, an object of disgust and ridicule to the world."
"The lover's drunkenness begins with a drop of God's love which
makes him forget the world. The more he drinks the closer he draws to
his Beloved, and the more unworthy he feels of the Beloved's love; and
he longs to sacrifice his very life at his Beloved's feet. He, too, does
not know whether he sleeps on a bed or in a gutter, and becomes an
object of ridicule to the world; but he rests in bliss, and God the
Beloved takes care of his body and neither the elements nor disease can
"One out of many such lovers sees God face to face. His longing
becomes infinite; he is like a fish thrown up on the beach, leaping and
squirming to regain the ocean. He sees God everywhere and in everything,
but he cannot find the gate of union. The Wine that he drinks turns into
Fire in which he continuously burns in blissful agony. And the Fire
eventually becomes the Ocean of Infinite Consciousness in which he
drowns" (pp. 2-3).
The final decision on the meaning behind the poetry of Hafiz must, as
with all art, be decided by the patron and observer of the work. Though
credited as being "The Interpreter of Mysteries," there remain
many mysteries regarding Hafiz that have yet to be solved. As the poet
himself had said, "Am I a sinner or a saint/which one shall it
be?/Hafiz holds the secret of his own mystery."
[*panegyric=A formal eulogistic composition intended as a public
compliment; elaborate praise or laudation. ]
Browne, E. G. (1920). A literary history of Persia, vol. iii. London:
Cambridge University Press.
Khan, I. (1964). The Sufi message of Inayat Khan, vol. x. London:
Barrie and Jenkins.
Meher Baba (1989). The everything and the nothing. Beacon Hill: Meher
Schimmel, A. (1992). A two-colored brocade: The imagery of Persian
poetry. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Schimmel, A. (1988). The genius of Shiraz: Sa'di and
Hafez. In Yarshater, E. (Ed.). Persian literature. Albany: Bibliotheca
Wickens, G. M. (1965) Hafiz. In (Ed.) Lewis, B.,
Pellat, C., Schacht,
J. (1965). The encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. iii. Leiden: E. J. Brill.