A few weeks ago I wrote a profile about the 14th Century Persian poet Rumi. A passion for Rumi’s poetry led me to the work of another 14th Century Persian poet, Hafez, whose beautiful spiritual poetry is equally insightful and inspirational. Carolyn and I have both enjoyed Hafez’s wonderful lyrical poems over the years, and his collected works are often regarded as some of the most treasured literature to emerge out of Persia.
Commonly known by his pen name “Hafez” (or “Hafiz”), the late Sufi poet was born as Khwāje Shams-od-Dīn Moḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī sometime between 1310 and 1325 in Shiraz, which is located in present-day Iran. Although accounts vary, most scholars think Hafez was born in 1315 or 1320. Not much is known for certain about Hafez’s early life, so historians rely on anecdotes to try and understand what happened, and separating fact from legend about Hafez is tricky, as many mythical stories were written about him after his death.
Hafez is said to have memorized the entire Quran when he was young, by listening to his father read it. He was given the name “Hafez” at an early age, which was a title given to those who had memorized the Quran by heart, and means “memorizer and safe keeper.” Hafez must have had an incredible memory, for he is said to have memorized numerous other writings as well, including the works of Rumi.
Hafez had two brothers; his father was a coal merchant who died young and left the family in debt. Hafez’s uncle helped to raise him, and he had to leave school to work for his family, first in a drapery shop and then in a bakery. While working at the bakery, Hafez had to deliver bread to a beautiful young woman named Shakh-e Nabat, who he fell in love with, and to whom many of his poems were addressed.
Enraptured by this young woman’s beauty, but knowing that his love for her would not be returned, he supposedly held a 40-day-and-night “mystic vigil” at the tomb of Baba Kuhi (a 10th Century Persian Sufi), where he encountered an angel. This was a life-changing event for Hafez, as the angel led him into his pursuit of a spiritual union with the divine.
Hafez became a Sufi, a practitioner of the mystic branch of Islam. He received a classical religious education, lectured on the Quran and other theological subjects, and he wrote commentaries on religious classics. Hafez married when he was in his twenties and had one child.
Hafez mostly wrote lyrical poetry, or what is known as “ghazals,” which are lyric poems with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, and usually set to music. Some of the themes of Hafez’s ghazals include love, faith, and exposing hypocrisy. He was also known to ignore the religious taboos of his time, and he found humor in some of his society’s religious doctrines. Hafez was a court poet, and as such, was supported by patronage from several successive Persian regimes, although he briefly fell out of favor with one of the rulers due to his mocking of inferior poets.
Hafez wrote approximately 994 poems, which were collected into (at least) 5 volumes, and his poems have been translated into all major languages. The Complete Divan of Hafez, which contains 793 of his ghazals and other spiritual love poems, is available in English translation. Translations of his collections Faces of Love, Beloved: 81 Poems from Hafez, and The Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz are also available.
At the age of 60, Hafez is said to have begun another 40-day-and-night vigil, by sitting inside a circle that he had drawn. On the 40th day, it was said that he had achieved “cosmic consciousness” and attained spiritual union with the divine.
Hafez died in 1390. His tomb is located in Shiraz, the city of his birth. The Tomb of Hafez, known as Hāfezieh, is a popular destination for tourists. It is composed of two memorial structures erected on the northern edge of Shiraz, which house the marble tomb of Hafez.
Today Hafez is the most popular poet in his native country, and October 12th is celebrated every year as Hafez Day in Iran. His spirit is alive and well here too. His poetry is read widely, and I see Hafez’s wisdom shared on social media memes almost daily.
Some of the quotes that Hafez is remembered for include:
I wish I could show you… the astonishing light of your own being.
You, yourself, are your own obstacle; rise above yourself.
Your heart and my heart are very, very old friends.
What we speak becomes the house we live in.
This place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you.
The heart is a thousand-stringed instrument that can only be tuned with love.
For I have learned that every heart will get what it prays for most.
An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.