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The Rose and the Nightingale: The role of poetry in Persian culture

By Dr. Hossein Elahi Ghomshei
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Persia has been admired as a land where people walk on silk carpets and talk the language of poetry.

Poetry in Persian culture is not simply an art: rather it's the very image of life, terrestrial and celestial; the perennial philosophy, the holy scripture, the minstrel, the music and the song, the feast and revelry, the garden, the Rose and the Nightingale, and a detailed agenda for daily life.

In the lyric poetry of Rumi, Sadi and Hafiz you can hardly find a sonnet that does not contain the wine, the bard and the beloved. In didactic and mystical poetry, commonly in rhyming couplets, the same theme of Love runs throughout like running brooks of milk and wine and honey of Paradise as described in the Koran.

The word saqi in Persian literature is the counterpart of the muse in Western culture and fulfills exactly the same service as the muse to inspire the poet, to illuminate what is dark, to raise what is low, that the poet may assert the eternal providence and justify the ways of God to man.

In Persian poetry, as in all good poetry of the world, Love is the greatest circle of attraction and affection, with no one left out of the circle. The story of David, the prophet of Love, who had 99 wives and still yearned after another one, according to religious traditions, is interpreted by Rumi as a reference to the 100-percent nature of Love: If there is a single person in the whole world whom you hate, you are not a lover.

Sadi, in one of his famous sonnets (ghazal), says:

I'm in Love with the whole world, for the whole world belongs to my beloved.

Love is at peace with all religions, all ethnic groups, and all colors, languages, races and tribes, as expressed in hundreds of sublime poems in Persian poetry:

O my Christian beloved,
O my Armenian friend,
Either you come and be a Muslim
Or I will take the girdle and become a Christian.

In the realm of Love, there is no difference between a mosque and a monastery.

You can behold the light of the eternal beloved wherever you turn your face.

--Hafiz

Love celebrates the meaning rather than the form and modes. The meaning in the words of Rumi is finally returned to God, the substance; the forms are but shadows. Let zealots fight over shadows and names, but the lover is after truth, which is the reality, the named. Rumi recommends:

Seek the names no more
But be in pursuit of the named
Find the moon in the sky
Rather than in the ponds and brooks.

Love is the common religion in Persian poetry:

Religion and creed for us,
As all the wise do know,
Is an ardent Love for the
Vision of our beloved.

--Rumi

I cannot step out of the sanctuary of my beloved
O my friends, excuse me,
This is my religion.

--Hafiz

The Essence of Love

The religion of Love, according to Persian poets, is not a faith to acquire: we are all born with it. It's our divine nature. We all are born in Love with beauty, truth and the good; this is our universal heritage.

The word nafs, which means soul and self at the same time, has been defined as a substance that loves, that desires, that wishes.

If you are asked who you are, you can reply: I am Love; I love, therefore I am. Amo, ergo sum.

If we are born with such a good religion as Love with one commandment that comprehends all the good and beauty and truth, what are those other religions each with a different scripture and commandment?

The answer in Persian poetry is that all the messengers and apostles of God have come to reconfirm what we already knew in our nature.

The prophets are but reminders of the eternal truth written in the book of our heart.

The essence of Love is selflessness, which can be achieved by the spiritual wine of unity.

Love is when thou and I would be merged into one. This unity that comes from Love is the sure sign of divine manifestation in us. Where there is Love, there is God.

Rumi, in one of his most loving invocations addressing God, says:

O my lord
Thou art the essence of the spirit in us.
Thou art the essence of affection
Between man and woman.
When man and woman become one
In love making, that one is thou.

photo The Persian Prince Humay meeting the Chinese Princess Humayun in a garden, c.1450   [Persian School/Getty Images]

The differentiation between divine Love and human love does not exist in Persian poetry. Love, when refined and purged of self, is holy and divine wherever it appears.

Other such superficial differentiations between secular and celestial, worldly and heavenly, earthly and Godly, have no place among Persian poets.

When a person is in Love, whatever he does is a service to God. His heresy is better than the faith of non lovers; his doubt smells of certainty, his bitter words are sweeter than honey because his incentive in all is Love and affection.

Rumi says, "Enter the circle of lovers and find yourself in the midst of paradise. Do not wait until the day of judgment; sit happily in front of each other now, look with Love and affection at each other and say peace be with you. This is paradise."

The Bosom of Existence

Such is the religion of love that, like a celestial alchemy, it can transmute war into peace, credit into cash and sin into salvation; and like the legendry panacea, it can cure all fatal diseases like avarice, hatred, hypocrisy and envy; and like the long-sought-after elixir of life, it can give eternal life; and like the most desired love potion, it can make a person beloved by all.

Rumi, after thousands of poems in praise and description of Love, says:

If I speak of love constantly until resurrection, the blissful
Qualities of love shall not come to an end;
And no matter how eloquently I express the virtues of love,
When I gaze at the fair face of love, I am ashamed of whatever I have said.

So I confine myself here only to a very brief account of the seven valleys or cities or stations of love, as narrated in detail in 5,000 couplets by Attar, a forerunner of Rumi and of Shehrzad in the tales of Persian Nights:

1. The Valley of Quest: The first valley of love is called quest or seeking. Quest is the first flame of love kindled in the heart of the pilgrim. It is a vague remembrance of the realm of union when we were united with our beloved.

2. The Valley of Love: When the flame of quest gradually consumes the pilgrim's thorns of selfish attachments and base secular relations, he is set all aflame and enters the valley of love enveloped in fire. This is the fire that devours hell.

3. The Valley of Gnosis: Gnosis is an intuitive knowledge that is the illumination and enlightenment of the durable fire of the previous valley. In this divine light, the pilgrim achieves the ability to know people, to hug them and to pardon them. "The earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush is afire with God." Here all the opposing elements kiss each other; the day thanks the night for her darkness, and the night pays her tribute to day for his brightness.

4. The Valley of Independence and Needlessness: In this valley the pilgrim comes to understand (with the gnosis of the previous valley) that God is free from all need to his creation; and reclining on the throne of perfection, seemingly needs no Nightingale to praise His Rose, no angel to sing His transcendence. This is of course like the coyness and disdainfulness of a mistress that enhances the thirst of her lovers; this is the ice that melts not by the fire of love but rather intensifies that fire.

Needlessness is the attribute of God, but the pilgrim here acquires a share, however meager, of that divine quality, which makes him the richest king of the world.

5. The Valley of Unity: When in the tempest of needlessness, all creation is gone with the wind, and there remains no sun, no moon, no being, no entity, the pilgrim has his first vision with the One. The beings are not annihilated but rather disappear like a shadow in the presence of that eternal sun.

6. The Valley of Amazement: Beholding the One who is all, and all that is One, is ever followed by deep amazement and perplexity. This amazement keeps the pilgrim silent because the experience is beyond word and expression. All Persian poets who have attained this station share the same deep silence, and if they write poems, it is the expression of their inability to speak:

When the Nightingale sees the Rose,
It starts singing his joy;
But I am dazed and dumb in the presence of Thy vision.

--Sadi

7. The Valley of Annihilation: This last station of the pilgrim is when he loses himself in the intensification of that sense-dispelling amazement and alights in the realm of nothingness. In this seeming nothingness he regains whatever he has lost in the absolute existence of God and achieves perfect peace and security.

In the bosom of existence there is no room for death or dearth or deprivation or limitation of chains and fetters. Nezami, the creator of the best Persian metric romances, describing the night of his union with the bride of the world, speaks of a chamber where there is no room for nonexistence. It was in this station that the great martyr of love, Mansoor Hallaj, cried out: I am the truth and was taken to the gallows.

In conclusion, I wish to reiterate that Persian poetry is the most precious national wealth of Persia and the most intoxicating wine of Shiraz we can offer mankind around the world.

And may peace be upon the
passionate pilgrims of the world.
November 2007, Tehran, Iran

Professor Hossein Elahi Ghomshei is a specialist in Persian mystical literature, aesthetics, and English and American literature. His weekly lectures on Persian literature on Iranian national television have made him Iran's favorite television personality, with a more than 86-percent popularity rating among viewers of all ages.

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