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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..." (pp. 57).

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. 299-300).

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 freedom."

"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 touch it."

"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. ]

Works Cited

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 House Publications.

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 Persica.

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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