Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hafiz e Shirazi's "The Gift" - a book review

“On a branch

floating downriver

a cricket, singing.”

- Kobayashi Issa

How does one regard a Sufi poet who conjures up images of himself “wrestling” God to the ground?

How is a Muslim like me supposed to react to his frequent mention of wines, on his heady path to enlightenment?

How? With great trepidation, that’s how.

Hafiz of Shiraz, the poet in question, born in the early 1300’s, both delighted and outraged Muslim Persia of his time, and doubtlessly will continue to draw some extreme reaction today.

Given the task to write about “The Gift”, Hafiz’s collection of ecstatic love poems, I was instantly shaken by the discovery that, as a teenager, he had memorised the Holy Quran in fourteen different ways, just through repeated listening to his father’s recitations at home.

Even more daunting was this unapologetically pluralist poem that appears defiantly early in “The Gift”:

"I have learned

So much from God

That I can no longer



A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,

A Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of itself

With me

That I can no longer call myself

A man, a woman, an angel,

Or even pure


Love has

Befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash

And freed


Of every concept and image

My mind has ever known."

My instant reaction to this was to throw the book down and flee from it in haste. I had developed a sort of aversion, nay allergy, for the word “pluralist” ever since a scene from my own film “Gubra” was mistaken for a pluralist statement, simply because it showed people of different religious backgrounds praying for forgiveness and salvation, at their respective places of worship.

My true intention of course was to show that our spiritual needs were not so different from each other’s, but certain blinkered quarters had misinterpreted it to mean that we were all praying to the same God.

You draw four points on a piece of paper, and some people will draw a square, while others will draw a cross.

But I digress.

Once I had decided to approach Hafiz’s doors with some degree of caution (lest some demented folks should think it fit to issue a fatwa on my head, hoping to make advanced reservations for their penthouse suite in slayers’ paradise), windows were flung open for me to have a generous glimpse of Hafiz’s genius.

I discovered, for instance, that Charles Darwin and his promoters were telling bare-faced lies when they heralded him as the father of the theory of evolution in 1859, when in actual fact, good old swirling Hafiz had already written a poem about it 500 years earlier.

Consider the evidence below:

"We live on the Sun’s playground


Everyone gets what he or she wants.

Sometimes the body of a beautiful woman,

Sometimes the body of a beautiful man,

Sometimes the body of both

In one.

We used to play that kind of tag

In the animal world too.

Now a mouse,

Now a tiger,

Look! I am a whale – I got tired of the land,

Went back to the ocean for a while.

What power is it in our sinew and mind

That will not die,

That keeps us shopping for the perfect dress?"

Trust the West to stand on the shoulder of an Easterner, giving no credit whatsoever to the source of their knowledge and inspiration.

But knowledge, foresight, and sacrilege aren’t all that you’ll find in “the Gift”. There are extraordinarily sharp observations of God’s infinite compassion and unconditional love, such that made this reviewer shudder with awe.



All this time

The sun never says to the earth,

'You owe



What happens

With a love like that,

It lights the


Sky. "

Sigh. Mozart was reported to have been a vulgar man who delighted in writing rhyme about faeces and flatulence. And yet his music was once described as “not of this world, but from above”.

In “The Gift”, Hafiz e-Shirazi wrote dizzyingly beautiful verses exalting God, and a few pages later, a long poem about a fat woman who picked her nose and passed wind in the presence of others.

In the end, it is not for me or you or anyone to say if Hafiz was heading skyward to Heaven, or downriver to Hell. But like the cricket in Issa’s haiku, he sang and he sang and he sang, in a staggering total of 5,000 poems. Sometimes outrageously, often perilously close to blasphemy, but always with sincerity, beauty, and without an ounce of arrogance.

And for this reason alone, after finishing my copy of “The Gift”, I gladly picked up “I heard God Laughing” and leafed through page upon delirious page, filled with Hafiz’s poems of Love, Hope, and Joy.