Friday, October 15, 2010

Poet History # 6 - Rumi and Hafiz

Written by Sherry Blue Sky

RUMI AND HAFIZ – beloved Persian poets

Separated by a hundred years, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Rumi and Hafiz were Persian ecstatic Sufi mystic poets, whose work celebrated and encouraged union with the Divine.

Rumi (1207 to 1273) was born in the eastern-most province of Persia, but his family fled west during the Mongol invasion, and he lived most of his life in the Sultanate of Rum, in present-day Turkey.

Rumi’s works are available in many translations, notably by Coleman Barks, the foremost translator of Rumi’s works for thirty years. Coleman Barks, in speaking about the mystical and synchronistic things that happen in life, said “We can’t explain them. If we try, it’s like a bunch of fish schooling together to discuss the possibility of the ocean. Rumi lives in that ocean.” Of Rumi’s poems, Barks says, “This is just sheet music for your wild true nature. You’ve got to sing the song.”

This is Rumi:

Don’t wish for union.
There’s a closeness beyond that.
This moment this love comes to rest in me,
Many beings in one being.
In one wheat-grain a thousand sheaf-stacks.
Inside the needle’s eye, a turning night of stars.

Rumi inherited from his father the position of sheik in the dervish learning community. He believed in the use of music, poetry and dance as a path for reaching God. He believed all religions are “more or less truth”. Devotees of his work report Rumi sang, whirling around in ecstasy, hour after hour. From these ideas, “whirling dervishes” developed into a ritual form.

“The mystical dance represents a journey of spiritual ascent growing through love arriving at the Perfect. The seeker returns from this journey to be of service to the whole of creation.” (Wikipedia)

Rumi married and had two sons. When his wife died, he married again and had another son and a daughter. He was an exemplary scholar and teacher. But it was his meeting with his teacher, Shams of Tabriz, in 1224, which was “a connection of souls which unleashed Rumi’s passion”. Coleman Barks says, of this meeting, “The heart is a river, and I felt the motion of it in their friendship.”

Roger Housden writes of this union, “The moment his eyes met those of Shams, Rumi’s life changed forever. The veils fell away and he stood naked in the fire of love. All his poetry stems from that source.”

Love made him a madman in the eyes of some of his followers. Instead of lectures, Rumi would spin around a column in the mosque singing out his love-praises in verse.

In 1248, Shams disappeared, and it was rumoured he was murdered out of jealousy by some of Rumi’s devotees, perhaps assisted by Rumi’s own son. On the death of his teacher, Shams, the one who had set his heart on fire, Rumi’s public life began.

“Rumi found his deepest ecstasy by falling headlong into the waters of grief, which washed over him when his beloved Shams was killed,” writes Roger Housden in Ten Poems to Open Your Heart. “Rumi’s best poetry poured from his broken heart. Rumi speaks of love in such a way that it forms an arc between the personal and the Divine.” For example:

All the particles in the world
are alive and looking for lovers.
Pieces of straw tremble in the
presence of amber.
His teacher’s death unleashed a torrent of ecstatic poems.
Lovers, it is time
for the taste of fire.
Let sadness and your fear of death
sit in the corner and sulk....
The sky itself reels with love.
There is one being
inside all of us, one peace.
Poet, let every word tremble its wind bell.
Saddle the horse with great anticipation.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning, a new arrival.
Welcome and entertain them all.
Meet them at the door laughing and let them in.
Each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Be grateful for whoever comes.

Rumi felt Shams was writing the poems that followed his death, and he called the collection The Works of Shams of Tabriz. He spent six years dictating to his scribe and favourite student ,Hussam, the six volume poem The Matnawiye, considered by many to be the greatest work of mystical poetry – 27,000 lines of Persian poetry!

When Rumi died in 1273, his body was interred beside his father’s. At his funeral, representatives came from all religions: Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Hindus. “Rumi’s work is considered a bridge, a place for cultures and religions to merge and enjoy each other,” writes Coleman Barks. “Rumi once said that if...the icons of religion could dissolve, we would be left with the radiance of each other.”

Rumi’s shrine became a place of pilgrimage. After his death, his followers founded the Sufi Order of Whirling Dervishes.

Rumi’s epitaph reads:

When we are dead,
seek not our tomb in the earth,
but find it in the hearts of men.

Hafiz came along a hundred years later (1320 to 1389). He lived most of his life in Shiraz. He is considered the most beloved poet of Persia, and one of the finest lyricists in the Persian language. He was a devout Sufi. He lived about the same time as Chaucer in England.

He became a famous Sufi master, a philosopher and a mystic of Islam. Hafiz wrote an estimated 5,000 poems, only five to seven hundred of which survived. The rest were destroyed by clerics and rulers who disapproved of the content. Hafiz was considered “a spiritual rebel whose insights emancipate his readers from the clutches of those in power,” observes Daniel Ladinsky, in his introduction to The Gift, his translation of the poems of Hafiz.

“Hafiz brings us nearer to God. This Persian master is a profound champion of freedom; he constantly encourages our hearts to dance!” So writes Ladinsky.

Hafiz’s Divan – his collected poems – is considered a classic in the literature of Sufism.

Hafiz became known in the West largely through the efforts of Goethe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called Hafiz “a poet for poets.”

Here is a reason why:

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath
moves through.
Listen to this music.


The voice of the river
that has emptied into the ocean
now laughs and sings
just like God.

“To Hafiz,” writes Ladinsky, “God is Someone we can meet, enter and eternally explore.”

My words nourish even the sun’s body.
Look at the smile on earth’s lips this morning,
she laid with me again last night.
I hear the voice
of every creature and plant
Every world and sun and galaxy –
Singing the Beloved’s name!

While translating Hafiz’s work, Ladinsky had a dream about the poet. “I saw him as an Infinite Fountaining Sun, as God....who sang hundreds of lines of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give that message to his ‘artists and seekers’. There is a mystical dimension in his poetry that heals and bestows ‘The Gift’.”

Hafiz knew the entire Quran by heart.

Unlike Rumi, Hafiz knew poverty. The youngest of three sons of poor parents, Hafiz worked as a baker’s assistant to help support his family. He put himself through school at night. Hafiz was a skilled draftsman and occasionally worked as a proofreader or copyist.

Even as a child, he improvised poems in any form or style. He won the patronage of a succession of rulers and wealthy noblemen, was court poet and a college professor in his middle years. He married and had at least one son.

He was blacklisted by the rigorously orthodox when they came into power and, at least once, was forced into exile to live in dire poverty till a more tolerant regime allowed his return. He was predeceased by his wife and son. Hafiz spent forty years as a student of his spiritual teacher Attar, beginning his spiritual journey by being awakened by love. He was a Master Poet by the age of sixty, and died at sixty-nine.

A poet is someone who can
pour light into a cup,
then raise it to nourish
your beautiful, parched holy mouth.

Indian Sufi teacher Inay at Khan explains, “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.”

Hafiz is sometimes referred to, in Persia, as “The Tongue of the Invisible.”

What is this precious love and laughter
budding in our hearts?
It is the sound of
a soul waking up!
Even after all this time,
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens
with a love like that,
It lights up the whole sky.

Hafiz wrote nearly half of his poems during the last eight years of his life. At the age of sixty, after a forty day vigil, he attained Cosmic Consciousness, or soul realization. When he died at age sixty-nine, the orthodox clergy refused him a Muslim burial. But the outcry by his followers made the clergy nervous. They all agreed to cut Hafiz’s work into couplets and consult an Oracle. Whatever the selected couplet said, they would abide by. The couplet chosen read:

Neither Hafiz’s corpse nor his life negate.
With all his misdeeds, heaven for him waits.
He was given the burial. His tomb still stands.

Ten Poems to Open the Heart – Daniel Ladinsky
The Essential Rumi, The Soul of Rumi – Coleman Barks

This piece on Rumi and Hafiz was written by Sherry Blue Sky, a regular contributor to Poets United. If you would like to learn more about  Sherry you can do so by checking out her “The Life of a Poet” interview (found here on Poets United) or by visiting her poetry blog Stardreaming.  Sherry is a regular contibutor to Poet United and its many activities and posts so come back often if you enjoy reading Sherry's work.


  1. Well there is a too much history of music but unfortunately we are not getting interest in it we should have to do this i am happy to read your post because you have took step for this.


  2. A fascinating look at the Persian culture through two of it's iconic poets. If only the modern world could embrace their wholistic views on religion and brotherly love; it would be a better place for all.

  3. I loved this article Sherry. Thank you very much for writing and researching. Both Rumi and Hafiz are favorites of mine and have gained quite a bit of popularity throughout the world. It is interesting to know and understand how their lives and background influenced their work and words.

  4. So glad you enjoyed it. I love the beauty of their words - timeless, and so applicable to life today.

  5. I think its important to note that Barks does not know the Persian language and therefore he is not a translator. His renderings (based on other English translations of Rumi) are beautiful, but they are part Rumi and part Barks. For those interested in Rumi's true words, there are translations available.

  6. Oh thanks for that clarification....I didnt know that. Cool, a learning experience!:)

  7. Thank you Sherry for this wonderful write on these to Persian Poets, the beauty of their writings and other Persian writers is something we can all learn from...the beauty and metaphor in their writings is music to the soul....blessings...bkm

  8. Thank you Sherry. This is a quick look into the life of a fascinating poet who inspired many forms of poetry. I was first introduced to Rumi after reading Chasing Rumi by Roger Housden. Perhaps you might enjoy this beautiful book as well.

  9. Oh that sounds great, Nino, will track it down at the library! I love the sher beauty of their words. I have a cd of beautiful music, with some of Rumi's most beautiful quotes being spoken to the music. Sublime!!!!!!

  10. Yesterday I watched a concert of Depeche Mode and on the screen where videos are played while the group performs was shown for couple of minutes a poem from Hafiz - "I Have Learned So Much". I liked it very much. I know it speaks the truth. I read more poems from Hafiz in internet. I can straight away say that he is the autor who writes with most inspiring and shining words I have come across so far. It's good to become popular among people because what he says is what more should understand.

  11. Here is a link with several Hafiz's poems:
    I thought it will be good to leave it here in case someone want to see good selection of his works!

  12. I have long loved these two poets and now know a lot more about them. Thanks, Sherry!

  13. fantastic article about two of the greats of all time...thanks for sharing :)

  14. WoW! Sherry, this is a fantastic article! I'm glad I came across this. My knowledge of famous poets is very limited so I'm always taken by these stories.
    I should spend more time here to broaden my horizon (smile).
    Thanks for posting this, Sherry. I especially appreciate it.

    To iins: Thanks for the link. I shall definitely pay a visit there.

  15. Thanks, I offer this poem

    ‘No Credo’ Credo

    No form, no credo at the heart of things,
    Only a fathomless space,
    Out of which a single sun rises,
    Glorious, in the silence before names,

    We stand before a mystery so great,
    That our grasping minds can only bow down,
    Drops of water from an ocean unseen,
    The infinite contained within each drop,

    The soul can say nothing of its homeland,
    Though light flooding eye and heart bear witness
    To intimacy with the Beloved,
    No news but a fragrance, a tenderness.

    Tony Bowland


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