Iranian, Indian and Pakistani poets between mysticism and self-realization


Text: Giti Nassouri

Persian and Indian culture have been two of the oldest and most fertile grounds poetry. Poetry is visible in the lives of different social classes. More than being the preoccupation of a social and cultural elite, poetry has been the means through which the ordinary people living in these cultures made their lives and deaths endurable, beautiful and meaningful. In Persian culture for instance; even before the introduction of modern education, ordinary people knew their genius poets through whom they could express their hope and despair at any moment of their life. There appeared different genres of epic, satire, romance and mystic within Persian poetry. Ferdowsi (940-1020) in epic, Nezami Ganjavi in romantic epic, Ubayd Zakani (1300-1371) in satire, Faridudin Attar (1145-1221) in mystic are arguably the greatest masters of these genres of Persian poetry. Persian poets such as Rumi (1207-1273) and Hafez (1315-1390) synthesized aspects of all the existing genres into their poetry. Hafez is still very popular, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that a copy of Hafez’ collected works can be found in almost every Iranian home. Poets like Hafiz and Rumi were capable of transmitting the beauty and meaning of their poetry into the neighboring culture, the Indian culture.

In this regard, I would like to mention the rich poetic tradition in contemporary Iran, India and Pakistan. Poetry reading competition is an old tradition among Iranians and the Urdu speaking population in India and Pakistan. In the poetry competitions, the first participant recites a verse of a poem and the next participant reply with another verse, which starts with the last letter of the verse used by the first participant and so on. The competition continues until one of the participants fail to recite a verse according to the rules. Every participant is only allowed to use a verse only once; repetition of verses is not accepted. The poetry competition is called “Mushaereh” in Persian and “Bait bazi” in Urdu. The poetry competition which for centuries had been both entertaining and educational seems unfashionable these days in Iran, India and Pakistan. But in the past it was the easiest way of persuading young people to make themselves familiar not only with their literature and cultural heritage but with what it meant to be human.

I would like say a few words about three remarkable poets, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad RumiRabindranath Tagore, and Iqbal Lahori who made great impacts on the Iranian, Indian and Pakistani culture and whose voice have transcended the language and culture within which and through which they presented their work of poetry.

Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi known as Rumi is widely considered as literature’s greatest mystical poet and as one of the most influential poets worldwide. Rumi’s poetry has inspired other writers and readers for centuries. His work has been translated into various languages and he has been one of the bestselling poets in the US.

Rumi’s poetry writing began at the age of 37 after his meeting and friendship with Shams Tabrizi. Shams Tabrizi, a Sufi Master who remained his spiritual mentor until his death, was one of his biggest influences. Rumi had a deeply spiritual relationship with Shams, and this spiritual relationship transformed Rumi from being a sober theologian and a preacher to an impassioned seeker of truth and divine love. The death of Shams, which affected Rumi deeply, brought out new aspects of his spirituality, which he expressed in his poetry. Rumi composed thousands of strong emotional verses in his poems as a way to express his grief at the loss of his friend. He believed passionately that music, poetry and dance were among the mystical ways of connecting with the divine.

Here is one of Rumi’s poems in Persian played with traditional Iranian music:


Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian who received the Nobel Prize

Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941) was a Bengali mystic and poet, who wrote poetry in both Hindi and Bengali languages and translated some of his own poems into English. Along with familiarity with western literature and culture, he held on to his native literature and cultural heritage. But Tagore’s love for his native literature and culture did not prevent him thinking universally. Tagore’s most celebrated book of the poetry is called Gitanjali, published in 1910. The English translation of the book, which was a great success made him well-known in the literary circles in Europe and the United States. Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Gitangli with its emotional and mystical content is described as Nature Mysticism. Although Tagore had a Hindu background, the spirituality of his book is generally expressed in universal terms, which can be understood by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or any other faith. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote about Tagore’s poems:

“These lyrics – which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention – display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.”

Muhammad Iqbal, known as Shair-e-Mushriq or Poet of the East 

Muhammad Iqbal (November 9, 1877 – April 21, 1938), also known as Allama Iqbal, is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in Urdu literature, with literary work in both Urdu and Persian.

Pakistani, Indian and other international scholars of literature, regard Iqbal as an outstanding classical poet. Although he never visited Iran, he wrote most of his poetry in Persian (about 60% of his poetry is in Persian). The fact that he neither visited Iran nor formally studied Persian, did not prevent him from producing amazing works of Persian poetry. In Iran, Iqbal is known as Iqbal-e Lahori (Iqbal of Lahore) and his Persian works are highly appreciated. Rumi was a spiritual guide for Iqbal, and Rumi’s poetry and philosophy had a deep influence on Iqbal’s mind.

Allama Iqbal’s remarkable poetry focuses on selfrespect and self-realization. He believed that “selfrespect and self-realization could mobilize our internal energies and provide us the real dynamics of success.

Finally, I will share some of the beautiful verses composed by these three giants of Persian, Bengali and Urdu literature.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Failure is not fatal until
we surrender trying again
is the key of glorious victory”

Muhammad Iqbal

Giti Nassouri is a librarian at the National Library of Norway. For many years, she has worked at the section for multilingual library at Oslo public library (Deichmanske Bibliotek). There she was in charge of Bengali, Hindi, Panjabi, Dutch, Greek, Dari, Pashto, Persian and Urdu book collections, which has been transferred to the National Library of Norway.

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