Hafiz 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 Hafiz for his pen-name or takhallus. ‘Hafiz’ is the title given to one who has learnt the whole of the Koran by heart and Hafiz claimed to have done this in fourteen different ways.
Physically Hafiz 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 memorize it. He discovered he was blessed with a remarkable memory, and before he was a man he had memorized the Koran and many of the poems of the great poets.
As a boy his favorite poet was Saadi, 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 Hafiz was no exception. He dreamed of becoming a great poet like Saadi 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 Hafiz’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 Hafiz his grief-stricken mother went to live with Hafiz’s uncle, Saadi, who fancied himself a poet like his famous namesake.
Because of the poverty that they now experienced, Hafiz’s mother had to obtain work and Hafiz 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 memorize the Koran.
Hafiz was twenty-one years old in 1341, and was still working in the bakery and studying at night. He had memorized 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 Hafiz had to deliver the bread to a certain quarter of Shiraz where the prosperous citizens lived. While taking the bread to a particular mansion, Hafiz’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 Hafiz 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.
Hafiz 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. Hafiz, interested in the third of these three, vowed to keep this vigil that no one had yet been able to keep.
Every day Hafiz 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 Hafiz 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 Hafiz a cup to drink that contained the Water of Immortality, and declared that Hafiz had also received the gift of poetry. Then Gabriel asked Hafiz to express his heart’s desire. All the time that this was happening, Hafiz could not take his eyes off Gabriel. So great was the beauty of the Angel that Hafiz had forgotten the beauty Nabat. After Gabriel had asked the question, Hafiz thought: ‘If Gabriel the Angel of God is so beautiful, then how much more beautiful God must be.’ Hafiz answered Gabriel: ‘I want God!’ On hearing this, Gabriel directed Hafiz 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 Hafiz’s sake, and that if Hafiz would serve Attar faithfully, then Attar promised that one day Hafiz would attain his heart’s desire. So Hafiz 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 Hafiz revealed his Master’s identity, and by this time Hafiz had received the mantle of God-realization from Attar. Unlike Attar, Hafiz’s fame spread far and wide, and as will be seen further on, it was only Hafiz’s quick tongue and sense of humor that constantly saved him from the gallows.
The story of Hafiz’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, Hafiz 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 fulfill the promise of Union with God. When Hafiz went to visit Attar, Attar would ask Hafiz to read his latest poem, then Attar would spiritually analyze it for the sake of Hafiz 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 Hafiz continuing to grow.
Hafiz was reinstated and resumed his duties as a teacher at the college. While the poems of Hafiz 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 internalize Hafiz’s consciousness and Hafiz’s poems became more subtle, ‘spiritually impressionistic,’ for Hafiz had begun to experience the inner realms of consciousness..
The enemies of Hafiz, 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 Hafiz 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 Hafiz’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 Hafiz should be allowed to end his exile and return to Shiraz. The people were calling for the return of their favorite poet and champion, and on the other side Hafiz’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 Hafiz 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 Hafiz to come back to Shiraz.
One day in 1381 Hafiz went to visit Attar. Hafiz’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, Hafiz 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.’ Hafiz 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. Hafiz 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 Hafiz 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. Hafiz replied: ‘My only desire is to wait on the pleasure of my Master’s wish.’ Before dawn appeared on the last day Hafiz 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. Hafiz had finally attained his heart’s desire after forty long years.
Even after death, Hafiz 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 Hafiz 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 Hafiz’s popularity had reached such proportions that even the orthodox Muslims claimed him as one of their own.
It is thought that Hafiz 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 Hafiz.’
The change of consciousness in the world brought about by Hafiz 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.