THE LIFE OF HAFEZ

Hafez was born in Shiraz in south-western Persia (modern Iran) in approximately 1320 A.D., twenty two years before the birth of Chaucer and a year before the death of Dante. He was named Shams-ud-din, which means ‘Sun of Faith,’ Mohammed. Later when he began to write poetry he selected Hafez for his pen-name or takhallus. ‘Hafez’ is the title given to one who has learnt the whole of the Koran by heart and Hafez claimed to have done this in fourteen different ways.

Hafez e Shirazi

Physically Hafez was small and ugly but even as a young boy he began to show the great gifts that would finally take him to the height of artistic and spiritual achievements. He was loving and helpful to his parents, brothers and friends, and he had a wonderfully ironic sense of humour that caused him to continually see the humorous side of everyday life. Even at this early age he was fascinated by the poetry and prose of Persia’s great poets and writers and stories about the spiritually advanced souls and Perfect Masters. He loved the Koran, which his father read to him and he began to memorise it. He discovered he was blessed with a remarkable memory, and before he was a man he had memorised the Koran and many of the poems of the great poets.

As a boy his favourite poet was Sadi, Shiraz’s most loved poet of the time, who had died about thirty years previously. All of Shiraz was singing his beautiful songs, his ghazals, and telling his magical stories, and Hafez was no exception. He dreamed of becoming a great poet like Sadi or like Farid ad-Din Attar, or Rumi, or Nizami, all of whom he admired. Then a change occurred in his life. His father died and left his family in difficult circumstances. Baha-ud-din’s business of being a coal merchant had failed because he had suffered from a long illness, and Hafez’s mother could only raise enough money to pay back all the debts. His two older brothers left home to work in another city and young Hafez his grief-stricken mother went to live with Hafez’s uncle, Sadi, who fancied himself a poet like his famous namesake.

Because of the poverty that they now experienced, Hafez’s mother had to obtain work and Hafez had to leave day-school and although only in his early teens, he began work in a drapery shop and later managed to find work in a bakery. Half of his salary he gave to his mother and the other half he used to go to school at night where he learned calligraphy and a wide variety of subjects, while continuing to memorise the Koran.

Hafez was twenty-one years old in 1341, and was still working in the bakery and studying at night. He had memorised the Koran and had adopted the pen-name for the occasional poem that he wrote but until this time had not gained much success as a poet. He had become skilled in jurisprudence and had learnt all the sciences, including mathematics and astronomy. For the past ten years he had been constantly studying all of the great poets and the lives and works of the great Spiritual Masters. He was fluent in Arabic and had also learnt Turkish.

Then, one day at the bakery, one of the workers who delivered the bread was sick, and Hafez had to deliver the bread to a certain quarter of Shiraz where the prosperous citizens lived. While taking the bread to a particular mansion, Hafez’s eyes fell upon the form of a young woman who was standing on one of the mansion’s balconies. Her name was Shakh-e-Nabat, which means ‘Branch of Sugarcane’. Her beauty immediately intoxicated Hafez and he fell hopelessly in love with her. Her beauty had such a profound effect on him that he almost lost consciousness. At night he could not sleep and he no longer felt like eating. He learnt her name and he began to praise her in his poems.

Hafez heard that she had been promised in marriage to one of the princes of Shiraz and realized how hopeless was his quest for her love. Still, the vision of her beauty filled his heart, and his thoughts were constantly with her. Then one day he remembered the famous ‘promise of Baba Kuhi.’ Baba Kuhi was a Perfect Master-Poet who had died in Shiraz in 1050 A.D., and had been buried about four miles from Shiraz at a place called ‘Pir-e-sabz,’ meaning ‘the green old man,’ on a hill named after Baba Kuhi. The promise that Baba Kuhi had given before he died was that if anyone could stay awake for forty consecutive nights at his tomb he would be granted the gift of poetry, immortality, and his heart’s desire. Hafez, interested in the third of these three, vowed to keep this vigil that no one had yet been able to keep.

tomb of Hafez

 

Every day Hafez would go to work at the bakery, then he would eat, and then walk past the house of Nabat, who had heard some of the poems that he had composed in praise of her. She had noticed him passing her window every afternoon, each day more weary, but with a fire in his eyes that had lit the lamp of her heart for him. By this time Hafez was in a kind of trance. Everything that he did was automatic, and the only thing that kept him going was the fire in his heart and his determination to keep the lonely vigil.

Early the next morning the Angel Gabriel (some say Khizer) appeared to him. Gabriel gave Hafez a cup to drink that contained the Water of Immortality, and declared that Hafez had also received the gift of poetry. Then Gabriel asked Hafez to express his heart’s desire. All the time that this was happening, Hafez could not take his eyes off Gabriel. So great was the beauty of the Angel that Hafez had forgotten the beauty Nabat.

After Gabriel had asked the question, Hafez thought: ‘If Gabriel the Angel of God is so beautiful, then how much more beautiful God must be.’ Hafez answered Gabriel: ‘I want God!’ On hearing this, Gabriel directed Hafez to a certain street in Shiraz where there was a shop selling fruit and perfumes that was owned by a man named Mahmud Attar. Gabriel said that Attar was the Perfect Master, a God-realized soul, who had sent Gabriel for Hafez’s sake, and that if Hafez would serve Attar faithfully, then Attar promised that one day Hafez would attain his heart’s desire. So Hafez joined the small select circle of Attar’s disciples, but it wasn’t until many years later, after Attar had dropped his physical form, that Hafez revealed his Master’s identity, and by this time Hafez had received the mantle of God-realisation from Attar.

Unlike Attar, Hafez’s fame spread far and wide, and as will be seen further on, it was only Hafez’s quick tongue and sense of humour that constantly saved him from the gallows.

The story of Hafez’s vigil had made him known throughout Shiraz, and the poetry that he now wrote, in praise of his Beloved and out of longing to gain his heart’s new desire became known and sung throughout Shiraz. Shakh-e-Nabat had lost her heart to him, but the difference in their status caused many problems. Also, Hafez saw and thought of her beauty only as a reflection of God’s Beauty; the Beauty of her Creator. As his love for her increased, it increased his desire for his Beloved (God) Whom he now saw as her higher Self, and it was to this higher Self manifesting through her grace and beauty, that he composed his ghazals.

He also saw the wisdom and mercy of God manifesting through his Master Attar, and he composed many poems praising his Master and begging Attar to fulfil the promise of Union with God. When Hafez went to visit Attar, Attar would ask Hafez to read his latest poem, then Attar would spiritually analyse it for the sake of Hafez and the other disciples, (this practice continued for forty years). Then the disciples would put tunes to the ghazals and the songs would soon be sung throughout Shiraz, with the fame of Hafez continuing to grow.

Soon Hafez’s poems were being sung at Court and the Shah, Abu Ishak, who had a great love of good poetry and art, wine and philosophy, sent an invitation to Hafez to come and read some of his ghazals. Hafez accepted and a strong friendship grew between the two of them. Abu Ishak was intoxicated by the verse and knowledge and humour of this young man and introduced him to many of the notable people who frequented his court.

Hafez was introduced to painters and other poets including Persia’s greatest satirist Obeyd Zakani the author of Mice and the Cat and many other works critical of the upper levels of society and ribald stories and poems as well as many beautiful ghazals that would have influenced Hafez; Jahan Khatun, the daughter of the previous monarch Abu Ishak’s oldest brother Masud Shah who is perhaps the greatest female poet Persia has produced and who was close to Hafez and constantly sought his help with her ghazals; and finally, among other poets the much older Khaju Kirmani, Abu Ishak’s official Court poet and author of many masnavis and ghazals of the first order.

He would also have met judges, scholars and the highest members of the orthodox clergy, who having heard of Hafez and his poetry, eyed him with jealousy and suspicion, for Hafez had been free in his criticisms of their deceit and hypocrisy. Abu Ishak was a humble but powerful ruler, who was also a great patron of the arts which flourished during his reign that lasted for ten years.

For Hafez, during this period, his life must have seemed to have been split in two, and this is reflected in many of his ghazals. On one hand there is the pursuit of knowledge and truth through the intellect and on the other hand is his growing desire for Union with God. More and more, he recognised the fruitlessness of trying to know God, and more and more his heart told him to let go of the mind and give full rein to feelings. Although Hafez had reached, while still in his thirties, the height of Shiraz society, and he had the ear of famous and powerful men including the Shah and his advisers, there was a rebellious streak in him. He had a wanderlust, a vagrant soul that prompted him constantly to give it all away and become like one of the God-intoxicated outcasts that he had seen on the back roads and on the outskirts of Shiraz.

These were the kalandars … the dervishes dressed in rags, indifferent to the world, singing the praises of God and living on the few scraps of food that may be thrown their way. He knew, however, that this was not the answer for him. He had his master Attar, whom he had to obey, and he had responsibilities to his wife and child and to the people of Shiraz who were singing his songs, and who more and more, looked to him for some direction in their relationships to God and to each other.

As time passed, he realised that he must somehow steer a middle course and that responsibilities were there to be fulfilled; that desires for anything other than God must be abandoned and that one must become mad for God inside, while on the outside showing no pain or sign at all.

This period of Hafez’s life was not without problems for the young teacher. It seems that through a set of circumstances that are unclear, he fell into debt and had to leave Shiraz for two years and stay in Yazd.

Although Hafez now had notoriety, friends in high places and enough money to live on, he also had a secret life that consisted of his love for Nabat who still inspired him, and his love and obedience and relationship to Attar, who with his small group of disciples was unknown to the majority of the population. Hafez was torn between the mind and the heart, and with Attar’s guidance he tried to balance and integrate the two, but this process was a long drawn out painful one, which was to last for the next thirty years.

During the late 1340’s Abu Ishak became worried by the growing power of the robber prince of Yazd and Kirman, Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar. Twice Abu Ishak invaded Kirman and he failed both times. In 1350 he tried to take Yazd but again he failed; and after failing one more attempt at taking Kirman, he was defeated two years later. Mubariz now invaded his enemy’s camp and captured Shiraz in 1353 and Abu Ishak fled to Isfahan.

In 1353 when Mubariz entered Shiraz he immediately closed the taverns and wineshops, which was a sign of his puritanism against the liberated citizens of Shiraz. Mubariz Muzaffar was a stern, cruel and ruthless ruler who was famous for executing many of the city’s citizens with his sword in one hand and the Koran in the other. Soon Hafez was deprived of his position as professor of Koranic studies and the new judge summonsed him to appear at court. Fearing for his life Hafez hid with his old friend Haji Kivam. Unable to earn a living at the college, Hafez who was an excellent calligrapher, began to copy manuscripts of other poets to receive enough money for his family to survive. But the tyrant’s death was soon to follow.

In 1358 while he was conquering Tabriz, his son Shuja who could no longer bear his father’s madness and cruelty took him prisoner and to repay him for his atrocities and to prevent him from escaping, blinded this dictator.

Hafez was reinstated and resumed his duties as a teacher at the college. While the poems of Hafez written during this oppressive reign of Mubariz Muzaffar were poems of protest at the atrocities that he committed. With the coming to power of Shah Shuja, Attar had begun to internalise Hafez’s consciousness and Hafez’s poems became more subtle, ‘spiritually impressionistic,’ for Hafez had begun to experience the inner realms of consciousness.

While the poems that he wrote during the time of Abu Ishak could be called ‘spiritual romanticism’ and those under Muzaffar the dictator: protest poems, the poems of the following period had begun to break new ground, and he was creating an impressionistic way of writing that was completely new, fresh, vibrant and subtle.

But the period of Shuja’s reign was also not without problems for Hafez. Shuja, who also knew the Koran by heart and considered himself something of a poet, grew jealous of Hafez although it was because of their common interests that a friendship had developed between them in the beginning.
Hafez’s enemies the false Sufi Shaikh Ali Kolah and the hypocritical zahid (holy man) Abdullah Jiri and the orthodox clergy and some other poets who were jealous of him, had made Shiraz an unsafe place by constantly slandering him and complaining about him to Shah Shuja, who was now completely under their sway for Haji Kivam was no longer at court to protect him.

Hafez was about to go into hiding but this proved to be unnecessary because early in 1363 Shuja’s brother Shah Mahmud who was the ruler of Abarguh and Isfahan took Shiraz. Shuja retaliated by invading Isfahan and this produced a treaty between the two brothers. But this was not to last, for in the next year Mahmud with the help of Uvays the ruler of Baghdad since 1355, attacked Shiraz and after eleven months of fierce fighting he entered the city.
The enemies of Hafez, wary of the new ruler, refrained from their persecution of him. His popularity with the citizens of Shiraz, who called him ‘The Tongue of the Hidden’ and ‘The Interpreter of Mysteries’ had grown, and by now had spread over all of Persia. By 1371 the danger in the situation became critical and Hafez and his wife packed some provisions and late one night fled the city, taking the road to Yazd. They were to spend the next two years there, and many of the poems written during this bitter time were full of homesickness for Shiraz, where Hafez’s Master was, and where his friends, including Nabat, waited for his return.

Back in Shiraz, Shuja had become embroiled in the bitter controversy over whether Hafez should be allowed to end his exile and return to Shiraz. The people were calling for the return of their favourite poet and champion, and on the other side Hafez’s enemies continued to slander him. Shuja had become wary and weary of the influence of the clergy upon him and decided to deal them a blow by allowing Hafez to return, and by doing this, not only would he put them in their place, but again gain the love and respect of the common people. He sent a message to Yazd, asking Hafez to come back to Shiraz.

On returning he was once again re-instated to his position at the college and he resumed his old life and his relationship with his Master, Mahmud Attar. It was late in 1375 and Hafez had been obeying his Master for 35 years and still he had not gained his heart’s desire. When he once again complained to Attar about this, Attar replied: ‘Patience is the key to Joy.’

One day in 1381 Hafez went to visit Attar. Hafez’s patience had come to an end. When he was alone with Attar he began to weep and when his Master asked him why he was weeping, Hafez through desperation cried out: ‘What have I gained by being your obedient disciple for nearly forty years?’ Mahmud Attar replied: ‘Be patient and one day you will know.’ Hafez cried: ‘I knew I would get that answer from you,’ and left the room. It was exactly forty days before the end of their forty year relationship. Hafez went home and entered a circle that he drew on the ground. Through love and desperation he had decided to enter self-imposed ‘Chehel-e-Nashmi,’ in which the lover of God sits within a circle for forty days and if the lover of God can succeed in this difficult practice, God will grant whatever he desires. The love and strength and bravery of Hafez was so great that he succeeded in never leaving the circle, no matter what God had in store for him.

On the fortieth night Attar again sent to him the form of the Angel Gabriel as he had done forty years earlier, who asked him what was his heart’s desire. Hafez replied: ‘My only desire is to wait on the pleasure of my Master’s wish.’ Before dawn appeared on the last day Hafez left the circle and rushed towards the house of his Master, Mahmud Attar. Attar met him at the door and embraced him, gave him a drink of two-year-old wine and made him God-realized. Hafez had finally attained his heart’s desire after forty long years.

During the remaining eight years of his life, Hafez wrote half of the poems that bear his name. He no longer wrote of his desire for the Beloved, for now he was the Beloved. He wrote of the Unity of God, of the temporality of the world and its works and of the stages of the Path to God-realization and he gave advice to others how to best avoid the traps of the Path. The poems written after Realization are written from the Authority of Divine Knowledge and have a Perfect detachment and Merciful involvement that sets them apart from the other poems that were written from various stages on the road to the Truth.

Quickly Hafez gathered his disciples around him and began to teach them, using his poems to illustrate the various Spiritual points that he wanted them to understand. Because his fame had become so widespread and people were travelling from all parts of Persia and other countries to be in his presence, he had to seclude himself to a degree to be able to continue to teach his chosen disciples, and to write his ghazals that were eagerly awaited by his many devotees, and his enemies who continued to plot against him.

It was early 1388 and in four short years Hafez’s time to leave his physical form would come. He continued to create poems, but now at a faster pace for he could see that his old body was preparing to blend with the dust of Shiraz. The poems that he wrote during this period are beautiful for their insight into the Nature of God, their compassion and understanding and their poignant love for the people of Shiraz and the whole world, and because of his knowledge of his impending death.
By 1392, his body was racked with a sickness that he had been suffering for many years. The small ugly form had served him well for 72 years and this old cloak that his soul wore, had been the vessel that had helped to steer him to the Realization of the Existence that has no beginning or end.

The news rapidly spread through the city that their most loved (and hated) citizen had passed away. Thousands walked towards his home where he lay, surrounded by his closest disciples. However, his lifelong enemies, the hypocritical orthodox clergy had also heard the news of the death of their rival and castigator. Later, Hafez’s body was carried towards the Muslim burial ground in the rose-bower of Musalla, on the banks of the Ruknabad, which he loved and praised in his poems, and to where he often had walked and sat down to write many of his ghazals. The Ulama of Shiraz, with his fellow clergy, refused to allow for Hafez’s body to be buried as a Muslim and claimed that his poetry was impious. The long knives that they had been trying to drive into his back were now fully on show, for he was no longer there to defend himself against them with his sharp wit and sense of irony.

Hafez Tomb in Shiraz

The followers of Hafez and the many citizens of Shiraz began to argue with those who followed the orthodox point of view, and in the heat of the argument, someone suggested that they should ask the poet himself for the solution. The clergy, by now afraid of the size and fervour of Hafez’s supporters, reluctantly agreed to the suggestion of tearing up many of his poems into couplets and placing them into a large urn, and to call on a small boy in the crowd to select one couplet from it.

The couplet that was selected was:
Don’t you walk away from this graveside of Hafez, because,
although buried in mistakes … he is travelling to Paradise.
Even after death, Hafez had, with tongue in cheek, outwitted his bitter rivals, and this practice of consulting his Divan as an oracle has continued from this incident, shortly after his death, down into this present age. The tomb of Hafez was surrounded by a garden of roses and his body was laid at the foot of a cypress tree that he had planted. Soon after his death Hafez’s popularity had reached such proportions that even the orthodox Muslims claimed him as one of their own.

It is thought that Hafez never collected all of his poems together during his lifetime even though many of his friends constantly asked him to do so. After his death two collections of his ghazals and other poems were assembled. One was an edition by a friend and student, Muhammad Gulandam, who also wrote a preface to this edition; and another collection was made by another poet Sayyid Kasim-e-Anvar who died in 1431.

His collection consisted of 569 ghazals and was called the ‘Divan i-Khwaja-i Hafez.’
The change of consciousness in the world brought about by Hafez during his lifetime had been great, but his influence on the world, and on art and poetry had only just begun and we are being affected by it today more than at any earlier time.

Divan of Hafez. English Version by Paul Smith. New Humanity Books 1986.