Hafez of Shiraz, Master of the Ghazals


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 Moomtaz Emrith

Windsor, ON, Canada)

Khwaje Shamsed-Uddin Muhammed Hafez (or Hafiz) Shirazi was born in the town of Shiraz, Iran. He is reckoned among the greatest Persian mystic poets. Some critics even rank him right after the great Sufi Master, Jalal-Uddin RUMI. His favoured medium was the ghazal form of poetry, in which he excelled.

The pen-name Hafez, that he adopted and by which he is universally known, refers in Islam to someone who has memorized the holy book of Islam – the Holy Qur’an –by heart, and, Hafez had, indeed, memorized the complete Holy Qur’an, it is said, just by listening to his dad, who was also a Hafez, recite the Quran. In other words, Hafez carried the complete ‘holy book of Islam’ in his heart. So much so, when he started composing his lyrics – the ghazals – a sophisticated form of poetic couplets that runs seven lines with the last line always echoing the name/pen-name of the poet or lyricist.

Shamsed-uddin Muhammed Hafez is reckoned as a master of the ghazals — always imitated but never surpassed. Besides, the ghazal, as said before, is considered to rank among the most sophisticated form of poetry in the East, namely in Persia, India, Arabia, Pakistan … and other eastern countries. Some of the most celebrated ghazal-composers are found, sure, in the Asian sub-continent – notably in South East Asia. The ghazal-format lends itself beautifully to rhymes and rhythms and is a vehicle of predilection for panegyrics and odes to love. A real master in that art-form has been none other than Hafez of Shiraz (Iran).

Muhammed Hafez was born in 1325 A.D. in the town of Shiraz, located in south Iran, which was also the birthplace of the famous Shirazi didactic poet, Sa’adi Shirazi, (1210-1291). Hafez died in the same town in 1389, where he is honoured with an imposing Mausoleum, which is one of the most popular and also the most visited spots in the town set, as it is, in the popular Musella Gardens. It, sure, is a landmark in memory of the famous son of the Shiraz.

Known as the master of Ghazals, Hafez had a tumultuous life given the political turmoil that shook his birthplace while he was growing up. However, he grew up all right and found patronage under the town’s rulers. Indeed, in those days, poets, artists and scientists generally depended on the benevolence and patronage of the ruler of their state to survive. Hafez pursued his work un-interrupted till his death. After his demise, he was buried in his hometown of Shiraz, where he is literally looked upon as a ‘great son’. Countless verses and expressions of Hafez’s poetry and lyrics have found their way in the everyday language of the people of Shiraz and it is not surprising to hear common folks using expressions and lines from Hafez’s poetry in their everyday conversations. Little wonder then, Hafez is “a local town hero — the famous son” – indeed, of Iran as a whole!

Much later, after his demise, when Hafez’s work found its way in the West, it won instant praise from some of the greatest intellectuals of the day, notably Goethe, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson among others. In fact, Emerson called Hafez “a poet’s poet”. Indeed, Hafez of Shiraz was truly a giant of a poetical figure, who also found great admirers among many giants of Western literature. Hafez’s works were admired and read enthusiastically and even translated by the Great Masters whether in England or in the West.

Hafez’s collection of work is called “Dewan of Hafez” and comprises his ghazals and other poems.  He sure has had many imitators. He is today as popular as he had always been and his circle of admirers continue to grow.

The ghazal is one of the most elegant forms of poetry that has always been popular and prized in Asia – the more so among Farsi and Urdu lovers. There is no doubt that the ghazal, as a poetic art-form, has also been popularized by the Mumbai Bollywood film industry. In fact, many Bollywood movies are embellished with some of the finest examples of the ghazals, and which should be credited for helping popularize that sophisticated form of poetry among the masses.

A good example is the 1960 Bollywood classic production of “Mughal-e-Azam”, “Barsaat Ki Raat” and “Mirza Ghalib” which are embellished with some of the finest examples of ghazal singing in Urdu heard in Bollywood movies.

What is the ghazal form of poetry? We find this interesting description of the Ghazal in Google:

“A Ghazal is a poem that is made up like an odd numbered chain of couplets, where each couplet is an independent poem. It should be natural to put a comma at the end of the first line. The Ghazal has a refrain of one to three words that repeat, and an inline rhyme that precedes the refrain. Lines 1 and 2, then every second line, has this refrain and inline rhyme, and the last couplet should refer to the author’s pen -name … The rhyming scheme is AA bA CA dA eA etc…”

And here is a fine example of a Hafez’s Ghazal, as rendered in English by Shahriar Shahriari, Los Angeles, 1999:

O beautiful wine-bearer, bring forth the Cup and put it to my lips

Path of love seemed easy at first, what came was many hardships.

With its perfume, the morning breeze unlocks those beautiful locks

The curl of those dark ringlets, many hearts to shreds strips.

In the house of my Beloved, how can I enjoy the feast

Since the church bells call the call that for pilgrimage equips

With wine colour your robe, one of the old Magi’s best tips

Trust in this traveller’s tips, who knows of many paths and trips.

The dark midnight, fearful waves, and the tempestuous whirlpool.

How can he know of our state, while ports house his unladen ships.

I followed my own path of love, and now I am in bad repute.

How can I a secret remain veiled, if from every tongue it drips?

If His presence you seek, Hafez, then why yourself eclipse?

To sum up: here are also a few enduring quotes from the great Master, gleaned from “his Ghazals” or his “Dewan…”. We get a glimpse of the poet’s insights as a Sufi, as a philosopher and a deep thinker.

** — “Speak little, and that little only when thy own purposes require it. Heaven has given thee two ears but only one tongue, which means: listen to two things, but be not the first to propose one.”

** — It is written on the gate of heaven: Nothing in existence is more powerful than destiny. And destiny brought you here, to this page, which is part of your ticket – as all things are to return to God.”

** — Now that all your worry has proved such an unlucrative business. Why not find a better job?”

It is now over six hundred years since Hafez of Shiraz passed away in Shiraz, Iran, but his name and popularity have more or less remained ever-high. His poems/ghazals are still sung and cherished and he remains a “hero” of the superb Persian line of mystical poets (Sufis)– which is also reckoned to be among the richest in the world. Indeed, no country boasts a line of such great and renowned Sufi poets, ghazal composers and mystics than Persia/Iran – where the Ghazal has remained an ever-cherished poetic form by poetry lovers whether in the original or in translated versions.  Iran, indeed, has always been a Mecca of mystical thoughts and inspiration.


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