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Volume X - Sufi Mysticism

Sufi Poetry

Shamsuddin Muhammad Hafiz

The name of Hafiz is well known to everyone interested in the poetry of Persia because among the Persian poets, Hafiz is unique in his depth of thought and the excellence of the symbolism with which he expresses his thoughts and philosophical ideas.

There was a time when a deep and independent thinker had great difficulty in expressing his thoughts. Although this has not entirely changed, there does seem, in some ways, to be much more freedom of expression in this age. In ancient times when anyone expressed his thoughts freely about life and its hidden law, about the soul, God, creation and manifestation, he met with great difficulties. The chief difficulty was that the government was in the hands of various religious authorities, and under their rule, the principles of exoteric religion prevailed. Therefore, those who sought attainment through the esoteric side of philosophy always had difficulty in speaking to people about it. Many were persecuted. They were stoned, they were flayed, they were put to death in different ways. All sorts of punishments were inflicted upon them. Because of this, the progress of humanity was retarded. Today we no longer see this; nevertheless, the limited attitude of the human mind in regard to religious and philosophical questions is to be found in all ages. The Sufis, by the help of meditation, found the source of knowledge in their own hearts; but it was very difficult to give to the world in plain words what little they could explain of the truth. No doubt the truth cannot be spoken of in words, yet those gifted with poetic and prophetic expression have always had the inclination and tendency to express what their souls experienced.

Hafiz found a way of expressing the experiences of 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 his soul in poetry. And what poetry! Poetry full of light and shade, line and color, poetry full of feeling. No poetry in the world can be compared to that of Hafiz in its delicacy. Only the fine soul who has a subtle perception of light and shade expressed in words can grasp the meaning of the illumination of the soul. Nevertheless, the words of Hafiz have won every heart that has listened. Even those who do not wholly understand them are won by their rhythm, charm and beauty of expression.

In the East, the Persian language is considered to be the most delightful of all for poetry. It is soft, it is expressive, and its expression is tender. Every object has perhaps 10 names for the poet to choose from, and the slightest thought can be expressed in some 20 different ways according to the poet's choice.

Hafiz, whose style resembles that of Solomon, used in his poetry symbolical terms such as the beloved's beautiful countenance, her smiles, her glance, her graceful movements, the lover's feeling heart, his deep sigh, his pearl-like tears, the nightingale, the rose, the wine, the cup and the tavern, the arrow and the bow, spring and autumn. With these terms he composed a special language in which he subtly expressed life's secret. All the other Persian poets, and also many of the poets of India, have adopted this terminology. Persian poetry is like painting; these poets painted pictures of the different aspects of life. 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.

The mission of Hafiz was to express to a fanatical religious world that the presence of God is not to be found only in heaven, but also here on earth. Very often, religious belief in God and in the hereafter has kept man asleep, waiting for that hour and day to come when he will be face to face with his Lord, and he is certain that that day will not come before he is dead. Therefore, he awaits his death in the hope that he will see God in the hereafter, for heaven is the only place where God can be found. There is no other place. He thinks that only a certain place, that is the church, is a sacred place of worship and that God cannot be found anywhere else. The mission of Hafiz was to destroy this idea and to make man conscious of the heaven close to him and to tell him that all he expects as a reward in the hereafter could be had here if he lived a fuller life.

The same ideal that one finds in all religions and that was one of the principal teachings of Jesus Christ, namely that God is love, was also the chief ideal of Hafiz, and he has expressed it constantly in his Divan. If there is anything divine in man, it is love. If God is to be found anywhere, it is in man's heart, which is love. And if the love element is awakened in the heart, then God is so to speak made alive and is born in man's self. But at the same time, Hafiz has shown in his poetry what the key to this is, and that key is appreciation of beauty in all forms.

Beauty is not always to be found in an object or a person. Beauty depends upon one's attitude towards life, how one looks at it, and its effect depends upon our power of appreciation. The very same music, poetry or painting will touch one person so that he feels its beauty to the very depths of his being; while another person may look at it but not see it. The whole of manifestation has its beauty. Sometimes its beauty is clearly manifest to us, sometimes we have to look for it. We may meet a good person, and we are always charmed by the beauty of goodness. But we may meet another person who seems bad, and yet at the same time, there is good hidden in him somewhere if we would only look for it, if we only had the desire to draw it out. The badness is not always in the objects and persons, but is often in our way of looking at them. The whole trend of the poetry of Hafiz is to awaken that appreciation and love of beauty that is the only means by which to experience that bliss which is the purpose of our life.

Someone asked a Sufi the reason for this creation, and he answered, 'God, whose being is love itself, desired to experience the nature of His own being; and in order to experience it, He had to manifest Himself.' God, Himself, and His manifestation, the soul and God – this dual aspect – can be seen in all forms of nature, in the sun and the moon, in night and day, in male and female, in positive and negative, and in all things of opposite characteristics in order that this love principle, itself the original and the only principle behind the whole of manifestation, may have full play. That is why the fulfillment of the purpose of life lies in the full expression of the love principle.

Very often, by learning philosophy and by looking at this world with pessimistic thought, people have renounced the world and have called it material and false. They have left this world and gone to the forest, desert or a cave and have taught the principle of self-denial and renunciation. This was not the way of Hafiz. He said that life is like journeying over the sea and coming to a new port; and before landing, a man becomes frightened and says, 'But perhaps I shall be attacked, or the place will attract me so much that I shall not be able to go back to where I came from.' But he does not know why he has started on that journey. He has certainly not undertaken it in order to go back again without landing somewhere. The attitude of Hafiz is to land there, to risk it. If it turns out to be an attractive place, then he is ready to be won. If it will crush him, he is ready to be crushed. This is a daring attitude, to not run away from this false world, but to discover glimpses of the truth in this false world and to find God's purpose in this maze.

There is another great revelation which Hafiz has brought before humanity in a most beautiful form. Many people in this world have, at one time, believed in God, in His mercy and compassion, in His love and forgiveness; but after having suffered, after seeing catastrophes and injustice, they have given up their belief, and after great sorrow they have given up their religion. The reason for this is that the religion they have followed has taught them that God is goodness, or God is Judge; and so they ask justice from that Judge, but a justice to satisfy their own ideas. They think that their standard of justice is God's, and they also look for goodness according to their understanding of it. Thus, a struggle arises in their hearts. They do not see justice because they are looking for it from their own point of view. They are looking for goodness, kindness and mercy from their own point of view, and there are many situations which make them think that there is no justice and no such thing as an element of forgiveness.

The way of Hafiz is different. The name of God is hardly to be found in the Divan. He does not express belief in God as the Just and the Good. His God is his Beloved, to whom he has surrendered in perfect love and devotion. Everything coming from the Beloved is accepted by him with love and devotion, as a reward. He prefers poison coming from the hand of the Beloved to nectar from the hand of another. He prefers death to life, if it is the wish of the Beloved.

One may ask if this is fair. There is no question of fairness where there is love. Law is beneath love. Law is born of love. The mistake today is that we consider law to be higher than love. We do not see that the divine principle which is love stands above law. Man makes of God a judge who is bound by law, who cannot do His own will, but has to do according to what is written in His book. God is not justice. Justice is His nature, but love is predominant. People attach such importance to actions and their results. They do not know that above action and result is a law which can consume the fire of hell, which can dominate even if the whole world were being drowned in the flood of destruction. They do not know that the power of love is greater than any other.

Think of the hen when she takes care of her little ones. If they are threatened with danger, even if it should be a horse or an elephant, she would fight because the love principle is predominant. A kind mother is ready to forgive when her son comes with bowed head and says, 'Mother, I have been foolish, I have not listened to you, I have been insolent; I am sorry.' She is ready to understand, she is ready to forgive. So we see mercy and compassion going forth as love, a stream of love which can purify all the evil actions of years. Also, if a human being can actually forgive, why should God not forgive? Many of the dogmatic religions have taken away the love element that makes God sovereign. Instead, they make a God who is limited, who is bound by the book, and who cannot show His compassion. If God were so limited, He could not be just. An individual would be better because an individual can forgive.

The poetry of Hafiz has inspired the poets of Persia, as well as poets of India. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore sometimes imparted a Persian color to his poems, and it is that color which has made them so popular.

Hafiz was the disciple of a master, and on one occasion, he and some of the other disciples were told to meditate at a certain time of the night. While he was in meditation, the teacher called out, 'Hafiz!' and Hafiz came immediately. It was at this moment that the teacher inspired him, for he had reached that stage where he could inspire anyone instantly. But there were ten other disciples whose names were Hafiz, also, so the teacher called, 'Hafiz!' ten times. Each time this same Hafiz came, for the others were sleeping instead of meditating.

This is a symbolical story. The Inspirer is calling us from every direction, but we do not all respond. The voice is always there, the light is there, the guidance is there, but we are not always ready or willing to respond. We are not always open to the call. In reality, this is not only the story of Hafiz, but the story of every soul on earth.

Hafiz gives a picture of human nature: hate, jealousy, love, kindness, vanity, the play of friendly impulse, the play of pride, and all aspects of life. Hafiz is not only a poet, but he is also a painter. He has made pictures of the different aspects of life. Every verse is a picture, and in every picture, whatever be its color – vanity, pride, conceit, love, mercy, or compassion, in all their garbs – he sees only one spirit, the spirit of the Beloved. He shows the same devotion, appreciation and love to all the manifestations of that one and the same Beloved.

He has insight into life and looks at life from a psychological point of view. However, at the same time, he sees the whole of life as the phenomenon of love, harmony and beauty, and he recognizes all the different aspects of love, harmony and beauty. Whatever they be, he weaves them into a form so beautiful that it makes a most wonderful picture.

From beginning to end, his phraseology is peculiar to himself. He uses words such as wine, the goblet, the beloved, the beautiful countenance of the beloved, the running river, the rising spring, the clear sky, the moon, the sun. Also, in these poems the lover continually reproaches the beloved. Then there is the indifference of the beloved towards all except her lover, so beautifully expressed that it almost seems as if while he was writing these poems the poet's soul was dancing. There is such musical inspiration that every line of his poetry is a strain of music.

The word 'wine' is often used; and according to the mystic, life is wine. 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 a 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 that 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.

Then Hafiz praises those who have come to a high realization. He says, 'Be not fooled by the patched garment of the wandering dervish, for under the patched sleeves, most powerful hands are hidden.' He also says, 'The bare-headed have a crown over their head, if you only knew.' By this he means that once a person has absorbed the thought of reality, it is not only that this ennobles his soul, but it gives him a kingly spirit. It is like being crowned. It is this inspiration and power which in his poetry he calls intoxication.

There are many religions and beliefs according to which someday man will be able to communicate with God. But when will that day come? Life is so short and our hearts are so hungry! And if it does not come today, perhaps it will not come at all. Therefore, the one thing that Hafiz has pointed out from beginning to end is this, 'Do not wait for that day to come tomorrow. Communicate with the Beloved now; He is before you here in the form of your friend and in the form of your enemy; with a bowl of poison or with a rose. Recognize this and know it, for this is the purpose of life.' Religions have made it seem like a journey of millions of miles, but Hafiz has brought it close at hand.

Man likes complexity. He does not want to take only one step; it is more interesting to look forward to millions of steps. The man who is seeking the truth gets into a maze, and that maze interests him. He wants to go through it a thousand times more. It is just like children. Their whole interest is in running about; they do not want to see the door and go in until they are very tired. So it is with grown-up people. They all say that they are seeking truth, but they like the maze. That is why the mystics made the greatest truths a mystery, to be given only to the few who were ready for them, letting the others play because it was the time for them to play.

According to the ideas of the Sufis and of all the prophets and sages who ever came to this world, the love principle is the first principle, and so it is also the last principle. There are different Yogas practiced by people of India that are the intellectual, scientific, philosophical and moral paths to God. However, the most desirable path to God that the Hindus have ever found, one which makes the whole of life beautiful, is Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, for it is the natural path. Man's inclination is love. If he is cold, it is because he is longing for love. If he is warm, it is because love is alive. If he is suffering from depression, is yearning or sorrowing, it is because the love principle is not alive. The only life, the very source of inspiration, salvation and liberation, is love.

Those great souls who have brought the message of God to humanity from time to time, like Buddha, Krishna, Jesus Christ, Moses, Abraham or Zarathushtra, were well known as most learned men. But whatever they learned, they learned from the love principle. What they knew was compassion, forgiveness, sympathy, tolerance, the attitude of appreciation, the opening of the heart to humanity. What they taught was love, a simple truth. If religions seem complex, they have been added to. In every case, what was brought by the prophet was simple, and it was expressed in his personality and his life. It is that influence which has remained for centuries after they have passed away. It is not the literature they have left; most of the literature is from their pupils. It is the simple truth shown in their personalities, in their lives. The error of this day and age is that we cannot understand the simple truth, the truth as it is manifested everywhere. Instead, we are trying to find truth covered by a shell.

At the same time, Hafiz teaches one to see both the ultimate truth and the ultimate justice in God. He teaches that justice is not in related things, that perfect justice is in totality. He shows that the power behind manifestation is the love power and that it is by this power that the whole world was created. It is the love principle, whether it works through God or through man. If that principle is at the back of the whole of creation, then it is this same principle that helps man to fulfill the purpose of his life.

checked 18-Oct-2005