Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nada Kessou – FYSP Response Paper 4

In Persian poetry, the perpetual use of extended metaphors and imagery serves the aim to convey mystical notions. For that, music is often within poetic lines: the melody used strips Mankind from barriers of pride and ego, unmasking one’s vulnerabilities to freely and commonly relate. Therefore, this paper will look into the interconnection of Music, Calligraphy, and Poetry through entailing the influence of Ḥāfeẓ on Occidental literature. Then, this paper will enchain the analysis of some of Rumi, Sa’di and Ḥāfeẓ’s “ḡazals.” Last but not least, a discussion on the progress of calligraphy as both a technical, spiritual exercise will be entailed. 

First, Persian literature is fond of representations of love, happiness and God’s grace. For instance, Rumi says in “Poor copies” extracted from Arberry[i]:

“Poor copies out of heaven’s original,

Pale earthly pictures moledring to decay,

What care although your beauties break and fall,

When that which gave them, life endures for aye?”[ii]

The author describes life’s misery as it subject to decay and inevitable degradation. He asks the rhetorical question why he should care if everything’s fate is to decompose eventually. The pale earthy pictures refer to the ordinary life in juxtaposition to the divine, mystic world up above. Reaching it or having a reflection of it is very special to the divine, requiring infinite care and effort to maintain it from becoming pale, dirty or earthly. Heaven’s original is hence not subject to piracy, cannot be corrupted or forged or even manipulated. This stresses the greatness of God, beauty and mysticism of Heaven and our inevitable fate in life. God also stresses the idea that life is nothing compared to heaven. And that we are powerless in front of his glory. This further stresses the idea of purity, and how we should be conscious of life’s complexities. We are dealing with the material and spiritual; and it is a difficult task to distinguish between both. In class, I recall Pr. Mahallati saying:” Those who shine the brightest will die the fastest, be tainted quicker. They are not true to their essence or bound to their self-awareness.”

Additionally, Sa’adi writes from “Love the foe” extracted from Arberry[iii]

“None has earned, til he has loved,

Manly fame,

E’en as silver pure is proved,

By the flame.”[iv]

Here, Sa’di focuses on the divine, mystical world and strips the concept of happiness from any materialistic gain one makes. Sa’di concludes that such eternal happiness cannot be tied to such ephemeral, profane life events. One must transcend from the ordinary world to the divine world where true notions of happiness are established. It is also important to note that it should start from within oneself; self-love is hence a criterion. Sa’di does not neglect the fact that reaching that stage of love and happiness is devoid of pain or suffering. In fact, he demolishes the Western, romantic ideal of love that is pain-free. However, he asks one to embrace it with its flaws because of the added final value.

 Ḥāfeẓ writes in sacred languages, offering multilayered interpretations in Persian literature. English translations, on the other hand, furthermore, encompass various more, depending on the background of the translating author. However, one thing is for sure: Ḥāfeẓ’s omnipresent theme remains that of mystical drinking. His attachment to the tavern enables an ecstatic experience. Additionally, it serves the purpose of the ultimate symbolism of predilection and anxiety in a Sufi way. As much as he implores the tavern into helping him transcend to the Divine world away from profane, ephemeral love, Ḥāfeẓ uses biblical references to communicate with his Beloved (“The lost Joseph will come back to Cannan”). Ḥāfeẓ was, with no doubt, the ambassador of the Carpe Diem philosophy. 

For instance, exhibiting the omnipresence of the tavern in his life, Ḥāfeẓ writes in the “Rose and Nightingale:”[v] 

“All my pleasure is to sip

Wine from my beloved’s lip;

I have gained the utmost bliss—

God alone be praised for this.”[vi]

The ideals behind religion and Ḥāfeẓ’s frequent use of tavern metaphors disclose seemingly paradoxical impressions at first. The impetus behind it is that, for one to taste that which is transcendent, one must drink to be intoxicated. The same involvement that makes one absent from him or herself is the same feeling that makes one enters a stage of awareness of thyself and consciousness. As the ambassador of Carpe Diem, Ḥāfeẓ is unapologetically against moderation and self-discipline. The readers can see this from “The Saki Song”[vii] where he writes:

“Come, saki, come, your wine ecstatic bring,

Augmenting grace, the soul’s perfectioning;

Fill up my glass, for I am desperate—

Lo, bankrupt of both parts is my estate.”[viii]

Ḥāfeẓ, pioneering ḡazal, did not only explore the themes of the Divine and the mystic through wine. His dichotomy of “rose-nightingale” was quite prevalent. In the following lines from his Divan titled “All My Pleasure,”[ix]he writes:

“Full many a fair and fragrant rose

Within the garden freshly blows,

Yet not a bloom was ever torn

Without the wounding of the thorn.

Think not, O Hafiz, any cheer

To gain of Fortune’s wheeling sphere;

Fate has a thousand turns of ill,

And never a tremor of good will.”[x]

In these lines, Ḥāfeẓ dresses the portrait of a Nightingale. He is in pain, in agony because of the Beloved’s criminal wrongdoings towards him: The belonging of the Beloved to the Divine “Garden of Paradise” does not seem to prevent her from injustice. This inconsistent lover pierces the nightingale with her pricking thorns. This dichotomy emphasizes the pride and cruelty of the rose vis-a-vis the fervent, devoted lover. The nightingale sees the pain as inevitable, endlessly exerting power over him.

Ḥāfeẓ repeatedly alluded to the politically or religiously inclined aspects of poetry, reflecting his trials to halt the divide of the Arab and Persian languages, consequently uniting the Orient and Occident. That impact persisted and made its way to Germany where, Goethe Johan Wolfgang[xi], one of the most renowned poets of German literature, was influenced by Persia’s history and literature in his writings. His influence is simply beyond compare. Having had Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von dedicate a whole volume for him exhibits his high stature in Persian poetry. 

Goethe’s interest in the East and Islam stemmed from his reading of Ḥāfeẓ’s Divan. He later saw the following factors alongside religion as the main parameters for discovering other cultures. The Divan, volume that had acquainted Goethe into the essence of Persian poetry, showcased the necessity for communication and narrating as ways for finding one’s way into a different society[xii]

Ḥāfeẓ’s influence on Goethe can be emphasized through the latter’s style of writing. Goethe’s became less lyrical and more prosaic, simultaneously as he moves on from descriptions solely “based on personal experience to scholarly accounts of the East.”[xiii] Both authors dwelled into their wealth of imagination: Ḥāfeẓ’s influence engendered Goethe to go on a “fictitious journey to the East” and be involved with debates and discussions about the where the contesting of poetry and religion. It is the first time that Goethe structures his writing into books. Every book holds two titles: the first in Persian, the second in German. The Divan unfolds with “Moghani Nameh/Buch des Dichters (later Buch des Sängers).” It holds as chief the theme of “migration” or “Hegira” to the East, as well as Goethe’s introduction to the Orient’s culture.

Additionally, Goethe titles one of his books Hafiz’s Nameh/Das Buch Hafiz’s[xiv] to characterize the Persian poet’s immense influence and his admiration for him. Goethe utilizes a “signature verse” (taḵallosá), classic to ‘ḡazal,’ to relate to Persian poetry. Last but not least, Goethe follows an Anacreontic tone while delivering his monologues on one’s drunkenness in love, “Oriental adages, and the art of poetry.”[xv] This is a solid imitation of Ḥāfeẓ’s literary style. Goethe’s monologue centered on fables, parables, and historical references that combined default Islamic conceptions of Divine paradise with those of Goethe himself.  In his dialogues between the poets of Shiraz and Weimar[xvi], Goethe recreates Ḥāfeẓ’s conversational pieces through an accentuated use of panegyrics and mention of mysticism, irony, passion, love, and eroticism. This Divan is an immaculate reflection of Ḥāfeẓ’s original Divan in an attempt to stimulate exchange between the Orient and Occident.

Recalling the symbiosis between Persian poetry and calligraphy, I have been considering, through reciting from memory and practicing my calligraphy, the idea of meanings lost in translation, an issue that probably even Goethe had thought of. Having some beginner skills in Persian and being fluent in Arabic, I realized Ḥāfeẓ’s poems are intricately complex, and ḡazal is open to a multitude of interpretations. Their portrayal in translation seems not fully to deliver the intended meaning. Translations often hide a series of transformations resulting from the context of production.

To the context of production, wine is not commonly accepted in the Orient. Despite some Qur’an verses assimilating it to the Divine, or as a cup from Paradise, “does not impair the senses.” (Sura 12, verse 36 & Sura 37, verses 45 to 47)[xvii] This cultural reference is volatile in Goethe’s works, where alcohol is culturally accepted. The aesthetic of Islamic calligraphy breeds the essence of mysticism and divinity. In one of my class readings, I have been exposed to Schimmel, who discusses “the tendency to equate human figures to letters.” This metaphor makes Schimmel associate the human to the divine through the instrument of calligraphy and writing as the later symbolism operates with the Alif (God) being the “yardstick” of the other letters (humans)[xviii]. Calligraphy, or the art deriving from Qur’anic revelation, is perceived as a theophany of the Divine.

Following our course readings, I recall one of Razi’s ‘ḡazal’ studying the paronomasia behind the word “khatt.” He understands it as both “writing” and the “down” of someone’s new, developing beard. “in this way, spiritual lovers who contemplate the loops of Arabic script (khatt) are in effect gazing upon the curly down (khatt) on the Beloved’s face. — Baba Shah”[xix]

In sum, it is impressive to see how understanding the transience of life followed similar footsteps in both Persia and Germany, despite the geographical hurdles. Ḥāfeẓ’s influence on Goethe was, eventually, reinforced by the juxtaposition of worldly feelings and metaphysical/mystical sensations. Goethe’s liberation from the traditional European guidelines and his dive into the Eastern World’s boundaries and values enabled Goethe, as well as other readers, the benefit of the doubt with regards to the clash of civilization[xx].


[i] ARBERRY, A. J. CLASSICAL PERSIAN LITERATURE. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2018.

[ii] ARBERRY, A. J. CLASSICAL PERSIAN LITERATURE. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2018.

[iii] ARBERRY, A. J. CLASSICAL PERSIAN LITERATURE. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2018

[iv] ARBERRY, A. J. CLASSICAL PERSIAN LITERATURE. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2018

[v] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[vi] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[vii] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[viii] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[ix] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[x] Hāfiz, and A. J. Arberry. Fifty Poems of Hafiz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[xi] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

[xii] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

[xiii] De Vries, Caroline, and Mohammed Jaafar Mahallati. Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-Östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time, n.d..

[xiv] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

[xv] De Vries, Caroline, and Mohammed Jaafar Mahallati. Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-Östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time, n.d..

[xvi] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

[xvii] De Vries, Caroline, and Mohammed Jaafar Mahallati. Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-Östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time, n.d..

[xviii] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

[xix] De Vries, Caroline, and Mohammed Jaafar Mahallati. Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-Östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time, n.d..

[xx] Moradnazari. MORAD NAZARI, December 17, 2015. http://www.moradnazari.com/hafez-and-goethe/.

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