What was Hafiz's Influence on Sufism?

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Answered by: Katie, An Expert in the About Art and Culture Category
Sufism is a school of religious thought that developed out of Islam during the ninth and tenth centuries. It is a departure from orthodox Islam in that it advocates practices in addition to following the Divine Law---the rules set down by Muhammad---as the path to enlightenment. While following the Divine Law is one component of the path to enlightenment, it is not sufficient without the addition of zikr, meaning “remembrance” (Bayat, 10).

According to Sufism, all of creation is the physical manifestation of God or Allah---meaning that man was, is, always will be one with God---and the key to enlightenment is the attainment of God-remembrance. In the words of Muhammad, “He who knows himself knows his Lord” (Helsinki, xx). Among the practices utilized for remembrance, reading, writing, music, poetry, and trance-like chanting are still practiced today.

The term “Sufi” came into existence about 150 years after the passing of Muhammad (Bayat, 10). Meaning “wool,” it is thought that the early Sufis came to be known as such for the rough wool clothing worn by the early orders, the purpose of which was to signify a renunciation of worldly material comforts (Schwartz, 35). Inspired by the early Christian monks, in addition to the mystics of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Persian Zoroastrianism, these early Sufis lived simple, ascetic lives in communal settings.

It was during this time, from about 850 C.E. to 1450 C.E., that a significant shift occurred in Sufi thought. Rather than focus on the threat of the fires of Hell or the promise of Heaven’s paradise---as in orthodox Islam---focus was shifted to the concept of “Unity of Being,” in which all of existence is a “manifestation of God’s attributes and, as such, is not separate from Him” (Bayat, 11). Considered the Golden Age of Sufism, Sufi masters born during this time include Ibn Arabi, Rabiya Al-Adawiyya, Rumi, Attar, and Husayn bin Mansur Hallaj.

Although not as well known as her Sufi companions, it is Rabiya Al-Adawiyya---born in 801---who is credited as one of the first Sufi’s to eloquently speak of Divine Love, meaning love of the creator and every aspect of existence as his manifestation. Wrote Rabiya: "I have never worshiped God so I would be rewarded; nor have I ever prayed to be saved. If I did I should be an ordinary servant. I pray only because I love God with all my soul. To weep and cry out for God’s mercy would be for nothing; for all I want is to approach God and dissolve my inner self in Him” (Schwartz, 38).

Such words exemplify the departure of Sufism from traditional Islam, in which reward or punishment is not be sought in the afterlife, but in the here and now, in one’s realization---or lack of realization---of their oneness with God. By succeeding in attaining God-realization, one attains a kind of paradise of the mind, in which one is intoxicated with love of the Divine; while the lack of God-realization results in a “grief,” easily likened to Hell. Says Rabiya in a poem published by Charles Upton:

          The source of my grief and loneliness is deep in my breast.

          This is a disease no doctor can cure.

          Only Union with the Friend [God] can cure it.

          I was not born to the Grief of God---

          I only grieve to be like those

          Who are pierced with the love of God---

          I would be ashamed for my love

          To appear less than the grief of others:

          Therefore I grieve.

The path to enlightenment is therefore not without its little hells, not without its yearnings and pitfalls. In fact, one is required to struggle, doubt, yearn, fall down and pick oneself up again of the path. Much as the early Christian ascetics believed that suffering was a way to God, so also did the early Sufis see suffering as necessary to enlightenment, as in order to seek God-realization, one must first acknowledge the lack of it.

Rabiya’s early writings inspired countless Sufi masters, to include the poets Farid ud Din Attar of the tenth century, Saadi and Julaluddin Rumi of of the eleventh century, and Hafiz of the twelfth century. While all great poets in their own right, it is the writings of Hafiz that most beautifully express the Sufic yearning of oneness with God. Says Hafiz in his appropriately entitled poem, This Constant Yearning, “We are / Like lutes / Once held by God. / Being away from His warm body / Fully explains / This / Constant / Yearning” (Ladinsky, 116).

Hafiz was born in the Persian city of Shiraz, sometime between 1310 and 1325 C.E. As a young man of about 15, he fell in love with Shakh-e Nabet, a beautiful woman whom he saw while delivering bread. It is said that Hafiz’s first love poems were inspired by his love of Shakh-e, and out of a desperate desire to win her returned love, he resolved to sit for 40 nights at the tomb of the poet Baba Kuhi’, who would grant three wishes to anyone able to stay awake for 40 nights in dedication to him. However, on the first night of the vigil, Hafiz was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who so entranced him with her beauty that he decided to seek God’s beauty alone. The Angel Gabriel then advised Hafiz to seek the counsel of Muhammad Attar, a spiritual master who could lead him down the path to God. While Hafiz spent the rest of his life in study with Muhammad Attar, he also married Shakh-e Nabet in his early twenties and they had one child.


As a child himself, Hafiz was called by the name of Shams-ud-din Muhammad. Having learned and memorized the Koran by listening to his father’s recitations, he later took the name of Hafiz, meaning, one who knows the Koran by heart. Hafiz had a great talent for memorization and memorized several other literary works, to include the poems of Saadi, Farid ud Din Attar and Rumi. As for his own poems, he became a poet in the court of Abu Ishak in his twenties, where he remained until his early thirties. During this period---known as his period of “Spiritual Romanticism”---Hafiz composed several love poems to the Divine, and served as a professor of Koranic studies at the college in Shiraz.

     Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased with the Sufi concept of Unity of Being, nor with Hafiz’s passionate verses. At the age of 33, power-hungry tyrant Mubariz Muzaffer captured Shiraz and expelled Hafiz from the court and his teaching post, resulting in the composition of what is known as his “protest poems” (Shahriari, para. 15):

          Every Friend who talked of love, became a foe.

          Every eagle shifted its shape to a crow.

          They say the night is pregnant, and I say,

          Who is the father? And how do you know? (Shahriari 2, Rubaiyat 13)

Later, at the age of 38, Muzaffer’s son, Shah Shuja, overthrew his father and reinstated Hafiz at the college; however, in his early forties, Shuja too found fault with Hafiz, causing Hafiz to flee to the country of Isfahan. The poems of this time largely center around Hafiz’s yearning for his home, his wife and son, and his spiritual teacher, Muhammad Attar. This self-imposed exile last four years; Hafiz returned to Shiraz at the age of 52, upon Shuja’s invitation.

At the age of 60, after nearly four decades of spiritual study, Hafiz undertook his second 40-night vigil. It is said that on the morning of the fortieth day---which was also the anniversary of his meeting with Attar---Attar rewarded him for his pursuits with a cup of wine that, after drinking, fully revealed to Hafiz his oneness with God. From this point, up the point of his death at age 69, Hafiz composed hundreds of poems, many ecstatic in nature, regarding this oneness and his journey to God-realization. Says Hafiz in The Crystal Rim:



          Lifts its glass to the sun

          And light---light

          Is poured.

          A bird

          Comes and sits on a crystal rim

          And from my forest cave I

          Hear singing,

          So I run to the edge of existence

          And join my soul in love.

          I lift my heart to God

          And grace is poured.

          An emerald bird rises from inside of me

          And now sits

          Upon the Beloved’s


          I have left that dark cave forever.

          My body has blended with His.

          I lay my wing

          As a bridge to you

          So that you can join us


Thus Hafiz illustrates with masterful lyricism the journey from darkness---a place devoid of God-realization---to a place of light and full consciousness of unity with God.

According to the modern Sufi Sheikh Idries Shah, the path to enlightenment is separated into four parts. The first part is Fana, or annihilation, in which the seeker renounces his identity as being separate from God. The second part is Baqa, meaning permanency, in which the seeker becomes a teacher and source of wisdom for fellow seekers. The third part is the development of teaching skills, and the fourth and final part is the attainment of the highest level of God-knowledge, in which the seeker---now a master---can actually aid others in making the transition from this life to the next at the time of death.

While Hafiz spoke little about the fourth part, he spoke in great detail about the first three parts. In regards to annihilation, he wrote:

          Love is

          The funeral pyre

          Where I have laid my living body.

          All the false notions of myself

          That once caused fear, pain


          Have turned to ash

          As I neared God.

          What has risen

          From the tangled web of thought and sinew

          Now shines with jubilation

          Through the eyes of angels

          And screams from the gust of

          Infinite existence


          Love is the funeral pyre

          Where the heart must lay

          It’s body. (Ladinsky, 69)

Therefore by relinquishing one’s ties to the physical realm, to the illusion of separateness from God, one annihilates “all the false notions of [one]self” that cause one to fear and experience pain.

The seeker’s plight to overcome fear is a popular theme in Hafiz’s poetry. Hafiz and the school of Sufism regard fear as an obstacle to Truth, as fear prevents one from experiencing love for all for all living things. As a practical example, consider encountering a homeless person on the subway. The homeless person stinks; his clothes are ragged; for all you know, he might be crazy or carrying a weapon, all which causes you to recoil in disgust born of fear.

Your fear of the homeless man---of what he is, and also what the two of you might have in common---prevents you from embracing the man as the manifestation of God that he is. Rather than fear what the man is and what you have in common with him, you should rejoice in your common source---God---and greet the man as an old friend, as opposed to a potential threat. Says Hafiz in his poem, Your Mother and My Mother:

          Fear is the cheapest room in the house.

          I would like to see you living

          In better conditions,

          For your mother and mother

          Were friends. (Ladinsky, 39, lines 1-6)

While Hafiz begins by identifying fear as “cheap,” and by recognizing the bond between him and the reader, he goes on to assert himself as a teacher---Baqu, the second part of the path---able to lead the reader to God:

          I know the Innkeeper

          In this part of the universe.

          Get some rest tonight,

          Come to my verse again tomorrow.

          We’ll go and speak to the Friend together. (Ladinsky, 39, lines 8-12)

Next, he makes a call to action on the part of the reader, yet another popular theme:

          I should not make any promises right now,

          But I know if you


          Somewhere in this world---

          Something good will happen. (Ladinsky, 39, lines 14-22)

          God wants to see

          More love and playfulness in our eyes

          For that is your greatest witness to Him.

And finally, he ends by once again reasserting his bond, born of the “Beloved,” with the reader:

          Your soul and my soul

          Once sat together in the Beloved’s womb

          Plying footsie.

          Your heart and my heart

          Are very, very old

          Friends. (Ladinsky, 39, lines 24-30).

The influence of Hafiz’s poetry on modern-day Sufism is therefore made apparent, particularly in regards to the notion of enlightenment as something to be consciously, aggressively pursued on the part of the seeker, as opposed to a state of mind that one passively comes by. In other words, you have to do the work. While having a spiritual master as a guide can be helpful, it is essentially the responsibility of the seeker to open his heart to the point that God-realization is possible for, as Hafiz says, “However great be the teacher, he is helpless with the one whose heart is closed” (Khan, 256).

Hafiz’s works have been praised by numerous modern Sufi masters, to include Hazrat Inayat Khan, credited with bringing Sufism to the western world. Says Khan of Persian poetry, “No poet of Persia has given such a wonderful picture of metaphysics, of the path of evolution, and of higher realization as Rumi, although the form of his poetry is not as beautiful as that of Hafiz” (Khan, 11). Furthermore, "The difference between Jelaluddin Rumi’s work and the work of the great Hafiz of Persia is that Hafiz has pictured the outer life, whereas Rum has pictured the inner life.

And if I were to the compare the three greatest poets of Persia, I would call Sa’di the body of the poet, Hafiz the heart of the poet, and Rumi the soul of the poet. (Khan, 11-12). Indeed, of all the themes and words of wisdom contained in Hafiz’s poetry, there is no greater a theme or word of widsom than that of Love, as Love is the source of courage and therefore the way to wisdom. Says Hafiz in his poem, It Felt Love:


          Did the rose

          Ever open its heart

          And give to this world

          All its


          It felt the encouragement of light

          Against its Being,


          We all remain


          Frightened. (Ladinsky, 121)

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