Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Rumi, Calligraphy, Hafez, and Idyll Poetry

Leah Rosenthal: Oral Culture and Poetry

Rumi, Calligraphy, Hafez, and Idyll Poetry

            Rumi brings a lot of interesting themes into his poetry. Firstly, he seems to think that we are all creatures who feel the need to have some sort of identity. We always need to define ourselves with certain attributes that place us into groups and separate us. However, Rumi wants to destroy all elements of identity besides the one universal identity of belonging to the Beloved.

            Rumi does not seem to place humans into different categories. However, he places all creatures on earth into three groups: angels, donkeys, and humans – and humans are a mix of angels and donkeys. Angels seem to have a very positive connotation while donkeys are more negative. So, Rumi seems to be suggesting that no human can be completely good or bad.

            Rumi also greatly values generosity, but especially the idea that giving away something that you are attached to has a lot more significance that giving away your excesses. Rumi is sometimes referred to as “the master of Sufism in rhyme,” and the idea of detachment in general is an important step of Sufism.

            The two performances of Rumi’s poetry that we watched were very different. The first performance, which had Alireza Qorbani as the vocalist, had a full orchestra and choir with a conductor. However, the second performance, which was by Homayoun Shajarian, was more traditional and just involved two men, one of which was Sohrab Pournazeri, who played the tanboor and the other was Homayoun Shajarian, who was the vocalist. Although both performances were very beautiful, I preferred the second one because it felt more spiritual and intimate.

            I have definitely felt calligraphy coming more naturally to me as we continue to practice. For some reason, some letters that I often struggle to create the shapes of are “r” and “z,” which in Persian are “ر” and “ز,” as well as other letters with a similar shape. I always have trouble creating the flick at the end, but I think I may need to adjust the way I hold my pen in order to improve. I am very happy that we have been doing calligraphic exercises on the blackboard every week because helps to practice it on a small scale for homework and on a bigger scale in class. It was also interesting to learn and see more examples of different types of calligraphy such as Kufic script, Persian Naskh (which is what is most commonly used in the Persian Quran), as well as Persian Nastaliq. I really loved the artistic and geometric qualities of Kufic script and how it almost seems like you need to solve a puzzle in order to read it. Persian Naskh and Nastaliq both look more like traditional Persian calligraphy, but often with very beautiful and intricate artwork that is incorporated.

            I really enjoyed our memorization of Hafez’s poetic lines. I really love the specific lines that we chose because they are very universally relatable; you do not need to live a specific type of lifestyle in order to connect to them. The translation of the poetic lines is “I have not seen a more pleasant sound than that the sound of love/ It is the only sound that under the dome of existence, will echo forever.” This is one of my favorite themes that has risen in the Persian poetry that we have read so far: the idea that people live and die, but the only thing from your life that can truly remain on Earth after you pass away is the love you shared. I think that is an extremely beautiful, and very true, concept that is important to keep in mind. Because of the universality of these lines, I was very pleased that we all memorized them and were able to perform them for Professor Mahallati’s mother because I think they are some of the most important lines that we could have chosen.

            Idyllic poetry is said to be shepherdic, meaning that it is often quite simple in its meaning. It involves different subjects, but is most often concerned with romance. One idyllic poem by Rumi tells the story of a shepherd, Moses, and God. In the story, a shepherd tries to speak to God using the knowledge that he has and offers to brush his hair and take care of him. However, Moses scolds him because the shepherd did not seem to understand the idea that God is an omnipresent being and the shepherd could not honor him in this way. However, God then became extremely angry with Moses because the shepherd was communicating in the only way he knew how. The meaning behind this story is that depending on where you come from, how you are raised, and what your life circumstances are, you have your own “language” or way that you communicate based on the knowledge that you have. When talking to anyone, but especially God, one should use their own language and not try to imitate anyone else. You should just make sure that your words are coming from your heart and not some predetermined format and ideas that you have learned from others.

            Another significant Idyll poem is Laili and Majnun by Nezami. This poem is known to be a very classic tragic but beautiful love story that is often compared to the Western story of Romeo and Juliet. Both Laili and Majnun are madly in love with each other, but both end up passing away before they can fully embrace their love. One of the main themes of this story is the idea that everyone is attractive and beautiful in someone’s eyes, but we are often just waiting for the right person to look at us. This theme can be seen in the part of the story when Majnun is talking about his love for Laili with someone else, but this person says that he does not actually find Laili to be very beautiful. Majnun responds by saying that if this man could see through his own eyes, he would understand her immense beauty.

            One of my favorite parts from Laili and Majnun is in the section titled “Laili Disconsolate.” It reads,

With all these charms the heart to win,

There was a careless grief within —

Yet none behold her grief, or heard

She droop’d like a broken-winged bird

            For she had none

To sympathize with her — not one!

None to compassionate her woes —

In dread of rivals, friends, and foes;

And though she smiled, her mind’s distress

Fill’d all her thoughts with bitterness;

            I really appreciated these lines because, right before, Laili is described in the classic, metaphorical ways that the Beloved is portrayed. However, thes lines above create a huge contrast as it dives deeply into Laili’s brain and reveals the sorrow and despair that she is experiencing. The Beloved is often only described in terms of physical attributes, so it was really eye-opening to have this new perspective of Laili and her internal struggles instead of only painting her as a divine, perfect being.[1]

[1] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

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