Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ibrahim Chaudhry Final Paper

1.0 The Status, nature and impact of the Beloved on Persian poetry

Persian Poetry transcends cultures owing to its portrayal of love which has no nation, rather, is a common spiritual language. One may question why then have other languages failed at gaining such popularity despite their portrayal of love? The answer lies in the medium Persian poetry utilizes to express love: the beloved. It is this notion that gives Persian poetry superiority and is the idea this paper aims to explore. In doing so I shall first define the beloved, then asses the ways the beloved is described and will finally view different relationships poets holds with the beloved.   

1.1 Defining the beloved and seeing the different forms of the beloved

Firstly, in defining the idea of the beloved we may say the beloved is the object of the poets feelings. Here I say feelings rather than affection or love because, as we shall discuss later, Persian poetry, unlike other languages, does not confine the beloved solely to emotions of love. Secondly, I use the term “object” instead of “person” because Persian language, as Jenny Aduring points out, is gender-neutral and uses similar pronouns for all genders.[1] Readers may speculate whether the verses are written about a man or woman or some other entity but can never be sure. Let us take Hafez’s verses below:

At Dawn, upon the breeze,

I caught the scent of my beloved’s hair,

And once again my crazy heart

Was laboring in its old despair.[2]

In these verses we can neither identify the gender nor agency of the beloved. This allows Persian poets to utilize what we may call strategic ambiguity.[3] Strategic ambiguity allows the ambit of the beloved to be wider and to transcend humans as subject matters. Hence, varying entities may embrace the idea of the beloved. For instance, in Behbahani’s “My Country, I shall build you again” the object illustrated as the beloved is the poet’s nation:

I shall cleanse you of blood with the flood of my tears[4]

She speaks of sacrificing herself for her nation which is an uncommon notion amongst the writings of Persian poets. Additionally, her verse :

I shall be Young[5]

bears great similarity to Hafez’s verses below:

The moment I recall your face

My youth’s restored to me;[6]

Therefore, the strength of Persian poetry lies in the fact that poets may use the notion of the beloved for objects that are not essentially human. 

Amongst the non-human entities portrayed as the beloved, God is also portrayed as the Beloved. In an Islamic society-in which most poets resided- the relation of God and man is depicted, by religious-scholars, as emotionally distant and dogmatic. Persian poets, however, dissent from this perception through their use of the “Beloved” and strategic ambiguity:

Don’t hide from Him you seek; Hafez[7]

In this verse Hafez speaks of God as the beloved which we can only derive from the capitalization the English language allows; a liberty the Persian language does not afford. The significance of this – in addition to allowing poets to avoid ostracism and persecution- is that it adds an aura of transcendence to the character of the beloved and allows the romance to attain spirituality; a feat other cultures fail to do which illustrates the edge the status of the beloved gives Persian poetry.

1.2 Seeing how the beloved is described and personified

Furthermore, having established the parameters of the Beloveds agency, we may turn our gaze to the description of the beloved. It is worth establishing that in describing the beloved a symbolic manner of “expression, viz”,[8] comes into play. And it draws inspiration “from the natural world.”[9] Resultantly, as Jan Rypka points out, the existence of a certain language of metaphors for the beloved came into being.[10] “Thus, for  instance”, Rypka notes, “the lips are symbolized by the ruby or sugar, dark locks by the hyacinth, hand-writing stands for down, the cypress for an upright figure, etc.”[11]

This establishment of a language within Persian for the “personification of the beloved” illustrates the significance the beloved holds in Persian poetry, to the point that this entity completely redefines the Persian language within poetry. Secondly, no other language goes to such an extent to adorn the image of the beloved. Hence Persian poetry is more appealing and subsequently more successful owing to its portrayal of the beloved. The third noteworthy aspect is that the immense observation illustrates that talk of the beloved is not merely a form of catharsis for the poet and his emotions rather is a very systematic and nuanced concept.

1.3 The beloved as a source of joy

We may now turn to the relationship of the lover and the beloved along with the impacts as illustrated in Persian poetry. Firstly, as the word, beloved, suggests this entity is the center of great love and affection. Resultantly, it is no surprise that often poets mull over their affection regarding their beloved. Due to this Persian poets through their beautiful, yet articulate, description of the beloved serve as a voice for lovers who lack the ability to fully express themselves. For instance let us view the following verses of Rumi:

Show thy face, for I desire the orchard and the rose-garden;

Ope thy lips, for I desire sugar in plenty

O sun, show forth thy face from the veil of cloud,

For I desire that radiant glowing countenance.[12]

In these verses Rumi suggests that all his bodily needs are satisfied through the beloved, erasing the requirement for anything worldly such as sunlight or “sugar.” This illustrates that the love circulating around the beloved is strong enough to outdo rationality. From this we may suggest that a very prominent idea regarding the beloved is that it is an entity that serves as a mean of pure joy for the admirer. We may further argue that this ability to depict the true power and impact of love through the prism beloved, elevates the role and significance of the beloved because it effectively serves as a body through which love manifests itself.

1.4 The beloved and pain

However, we mustn’t confuse ourselves with the understanding that the notion of the beloved is a purely euphoric one as the likes of Rumi through verses such as the aforementioned one may argue. This claim is based on the fact that a duality exists in the nature of the beloved; many Persian poets have argued that the beloved has served as a direct source of hardship and pain for them. Consequently we have verses such as the following:

Your cruel heart is never satisfied,

You shed no tears at my predicament[13]

This verse depicts our argument because in it the beloved is illustrated as almost tyrannical as it causes the hardship and at the same time fails to spare even the slightest of sympathies. Consequently, the “Turk” is used as a metaphor for the beloved. This metaphor captures the dichotomy regarding the nature of the beloved because on one hand Turks serve as a point of pleasure given their beauty and on the other hand they cause pain given the tyranny associated with Turks.[14]

1.5 The beloved and infatuation

As mentioned above the beloved does act as a source of pain for the poet but it is essential to delve into further detail as to why this paradoxical situation arises in which the center of affection is simultaneously the source of a series of negative emotions. This unique phenomenon is the product of infatuation rather than a purer form of love.

By infatuation I mean a sentiment so strong for the beloved that it manifests itself in the admirer in the form of an obsession which if not satisfied, becomes detrimental for the admirer. This definition is the product of verses such as the following:

Depriv’d of thee I’ve no desire to live[15]

Realistically, a relationship of proximity may not even exist yet the admirer’s obsession makes it appear to him/her such that it not only exists but is a lifeline of sorts. Consequently, the poet deceives and convinces himself of the fact that without the beloved s/he has “no desire to live.”[16] French Philosopher and Nobel-laureate, Jean-Paul Sartre in his book on Phenomenology, Being and Nothingness, called this type of self-deception mauvaise foi or otherwise known as Bad Faith. Sartre suggested that this is a scenario where one “lies to himself” which is what effectively happens here.[17]Consequently the admirer falsely feels that s/he cannot live without the having their love requited, they may never be happy:

Fool, what good is paradise without my love?[18]

This particular notion of the beloved creating such negativity in the life of the beloved is what makes Persian poetry so superior. The depiction of the beloved in other languages is often fanciful and optimistic. Persian language, however, embraces realism and portrays the actuality of the beloved which may not always be beneficial rather can be detrimental.

This realism the idea of the beloved embraces allows Persian poets to dissent from stereotypical idea of love. Conversely, the infatuated image of the beloved suggests that if the love of the admirer remains unrequited it serves as a burden on the soul of admirer causing them to obsess about it even in the face of death where, arguably, one is to have greater concerns as the following verses from Behbahani suggest:

If at my time of death you see me again

Know that the time is now, come.

Others’ footsteps I imagine to be yours,

My heart shall burst from beating so please come.[19]

This allows a wider reading audience to relate to sentiments pertaining to the beloved presented in Persian poetry for they are not fanciful rather they embody the suffering so many failed lovers throughout time have undergone. Thus, poets like Behbahani emerges as a heroes and spokespeople for the commoners and the fallen.

1.6 Unification with the beloved

Perhaps the most significant aspect about the beloved in Persian poetry is its ideal and perfected relationship between the lover and the beloved. The notion of love in western cultures seemingly suggests that the beloved is adorned with affection and love for the sake of the lover himself. By this what is meant is that one loves the beloved to satisfy his/her own passions and desires. Thus, this image of the beloved would suggest that the beloved is a mere means of attaining a selfish end which would suggest that the notion of love is rather egoistic.

The Persian notion of the beloved and love however opposes the aforementioned selfish depiction. Let us take the following verses from Rumi below:

“Tie two birds together. They will not be able to fly even though they now have four wings.”

Rumi uses the metaphor of two birds for lovers and argues that if they both bring their own agency in their love then they will inevitably fail. Each lover, like each bird, will attempt to satisfy themselves and in the process will fail the common collective goal of succeeding in their love. Behbahani seconds the aforementioned assertion:

My heart is larger than its cocoon, it seems to have swollen,

This which is captive here wants to fly.

It wants, to fly, but its wings… its wings;

In the cocoon it remained and rot…It is late…too late[20]

She, like Rumi, uses a metaphor to suggest that for the prosperity of the admirer, the heart, must be in unison with the beloved, the cocoon. If that is not the case then irrespective of the strength of the lovers emotions s/he shall be held “captive.” Thus the beloved in Persian poetry  serves as an entity allowing self-fulfilment in a truly unselfish manner which is why it is found to be so pure and consequently popular in parts of the world other than Iran. 

2.0 Poetry Analysis

Poetry analysis has been instrumental in my learning and development not only in terms of this particular course but generally in terms of my analytical ability. The basis of this claim is that reading analysing poetry taught me to read texts in a more detailed manner to not only see the explicit meaning of writers and poets but to also take note of implicit messages. Consequently, I was able to see the true depth and nuances of the verses that greats like Sa’adi and Hafez penned down; an activity I would never have been introduced to if not for the activity of poetry analysis.

Additionally, discussing poetry and analysing it with my peer in a seminar-like manner was essential because it allowed me to truly gain a liberal arts learning experience owing to how one poem could be interpreted in a number of different manners. This allowed me to broaden my accept and understand a variety of opinions that weren’t mine making poetry analysis a self-improvement exercise.

2.1 Musical Pieces

Studying Persian music has been enriching in terms of cultural diversity. I realized Persian poetry is much more unique than any other form of music owing to the rapid tonal variations taking place whilst the lyrics are narrated. Rather than have repetitive melodies, this intense variation makes greater use of the listener’s sense of hearing in order to make the performance more compelling. It additionally makes the music increasingly harder to pull off owing to the intricate deviations involved. Subsequently, the experience for the listener becomes more than simply the narration of beautiful verses rather it is a sensual experience that is deeply felt.        

Furthermore, the fact that the realm of Persian music incorporated such dense poetry as a subject matter was significant. It reflected the desire of the culture to value wisdom and figures like Hafiz who, through their poetry, offered this wisdom to the common man. 

Moreover, it was interesting to see that the music itself focused on the wisdom owing to the manner in which the musicians, such as Vanessa Cetin,[7] strive to play music in a way that the lyrics are the star of the show rather than tune being played. The tune is organised in such a manner that it complements and supports the themes of the verses and their topic areas making the ideas of the poet clearer to listeners. 

Furthermore, the experience of listening to music was also illustrative of the different syllables one could produce owing to the intricate differences in the sound of alphabets like ت and ط. This made the music more vibrant and fascinating and noticeably gave musicians a greater set of tools to work with in the production of their art form.

Lastly the inclusion of Persian poetry in opera illustrated to me that art transcends cultural boundaries. Thus, poetry from an Iranian poet, such as Rumi, could be depicted in the form of opera. It reflects that art is powerful and may be used as a force for bettering relationships both on a micro and macro level such as political relations. For instance, several countries offer pieces of art as diplomatic gifts to different states and supranational bodies like the U.N..

2.2 Memorization

Memorisation has been an experience that allowed me to see the variations in rhyme that different poets incorporate in their poetry. For instance Saadi is identifiable rather easily owing to the extensive rhyming in his poetry[21] which also makes him a favourite of musicians such as Pouyan Ranaei and Shirin Mohammad.[22]

Undoubtedly, there is great wisdom in the words of great poets like Saadi and Ferdowsi. Memorizing verses of such wisdom allowed me to study those ideas in much greater depth than I would have had I simply read them and moved on. Repetitively, going over each verse allowed me to see the various stratum and nuances present in those lines giving me a better understanding of the message, themes and concepts the poet aimed to communicate. 

Additionally, going over such knowledgeable verses was  beneficial in my everyday interactions. Owing to the all-encompassing nature of the verses such as those in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, I was able to develop a new perspective altogether regarding matters being discussed in other classes. For instance, in my class regarding Political Responsibility, the verses:

When the conditions of the time brings a member to pain,

the other members will suffer from discomfort.

You, who are indifferent to the misery of others,

it is not fitting that they should call you a human being” [23]

 from Sa’adis Bani-Adam enabled me to develop another perspective on the dynamic of varying relationships in a political context. Similarly, I understood the notion that silence in the face of injustice amounts to being responsible for that injustice. Thus, memorization of poems is something I hope to do more frequently.

2.3 Interacting with Calligraphy

Calligraphy was a significant experience because it allowed me to understand Sulzberg’s claim that calligraphy is a reflection of an individual’s inner sentiments.[24] The different fonts that came into being depending on my temperament in the moment reflected a great deal as to what I was feeling or experiencing in the moment I produced calligraphy. Effectively, calligraphy, as I see it, becomes a form of expressing the inner condition  of one’s soul. This opinion was furthered through partaking in calligraphy on a blackboard along with my peers. This owes to how each individual added their own touch to the calligraphy of. 

Furthermore, through calligraphy I saw an intriguing romance amongst the alphabets. Each alphabet reflects a certain individuality for instance the letter “Alif” acts like a man standing upright.[25] This individuality of the alphabets when culminated in a sentence depicts another story alongside the originally intended poetry or music it was to deliver. This duality adds another strata of complexity to an already beautiful design.

Moreover, another particularly fascinating aspect of this is that writing is such a common phenomenon and one that is all around us in the books we read, the records we maintain and in this very paper as well. However, after an interaction with calligraphy it gradually became apparent to me that this common concept, writing, too is an art within itself. This allowed me to notice the immense extent to which art surrounds us and defines so much of our lives. 


[1] Audring, Jenny (2008-10-01). “Gender assignment and gender agreement: Evidence from pronominal gender languages”Morphology. 18 (2): 93–116. doi:10.1007/s11525-009-9124-yISSN 1871-5621 – via Academia.edu.

[2] Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun, Obayd-e Zakani. Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Penguins Classics Deluxe Edition), trans. Davis, Dick (Mage Publishers, 2012), 54.

[3] Jafar Mahalati, September, 2019.

[4] Behbahani, Simin. Simin Behbahani: Selected Poems. Trans. By Khalil, Sara and Ed. by Beard, Michael (Tehran: Sokhan Publishers), 173-174.

[5] Behbahani, 173-174.

[6] Hafez, 2012: 2.

[7] Hafez, 2012: 11.

[8] Miller, Lloyd Cliffton. Music and Song in Persia; The art of Avaaz (Curzon Press, 1999), 159.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Rumi, 1973: 49.

[13] Miller, 1999: 167.

[14] Miller, 1999: 175

[15] Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Ed. Arberry, A.J. (Yasvoli Publications, 2008), 82.

[16] Ibid

[17] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. trans. Barnes, Hazel E. (Washington Square Press, 1992), 87.

[18] Miller, 1999: 167.

[19] Behbahani, 67-68

[20] Behbahani, 157-158.

[21] Jafar Mahallati, November 4, 2019.

[22] Youtube, (2019, November 6, 2019)  “Bani Adam” , Ranaei family ensemble بنی آدم” گروه خانواده رعنایی” retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hu3UEyvp24c

[23] Bani Adam. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bani_Adam (Accessed 16th October 2019).

[24] Sulzberg, Jean. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, 78-79. Morning Light Press.

[25] Sulzberg, 78-79. 

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