Fake Hafez: How a supreme Persian poet of love was erased
That so many of the poems attributed to Hafez are fake reveals a Western appropriation of Muslim spirituality.
This is the time of the year where every day I get a handful of requests to track down the original, authentic versions of some famed Muslim poet, usually Hafez or Rumi. The requests start off the same way: “I am getting married next month, and my fiance and I wanted to celebrate our Muslim background, and we have always loved this poem by Hafez. Could you send us the original?” Or, “My daughter is graduating this month, and I know she loves this quote from Hafez. Can you send me the original so I can recite it to her at the ceremony we are holding for her?”
It is heartbreaking to have to write back time after time and say the words that bring disappointment: The poems that they have come to love so much and that are ubiquitous on the internet are forgeries. Fake. Made up. No relationship to the original poetry of the beloved and popular Hafez of Shiraz.
How did this come to be? How can it be that about 99.9 percent of the quotes and poems attributed to one the most popular and influential of all the Persian poets and Muslim sages ever, one who is seen as a member of the pantheon of “universal” spirituality on the internet are … fake? It turns out that it is a fascinating story of Western exotification and appropriation of Muslim spirituality.
Let us take a look at some of these quotes attributed to Hafez:
Even after all this time,
the sun never says to the earth,
‘you owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that!
It lights up the whole sky.
You like that one from Hafez? Too bad. Fake Hafez.
Your heart and my heart
Are very very old friends.
Like that one from Hafez too? Also Fake Hafez.
Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living in better conditions.
Beautiful. Again, not Hafez.
And the next one you were going to ask about? Also fake. So where do all these fake Hafez quotes come from?
An American poet, named Daniel Ladinsky, has been publishing books under the name of the famed Persian poet Hafez for more than 20 years. These books have become bestsellers. You are likely to find them on the shelves of your local bookstore under the “Sufism” section, alongside books of Rumi, Khalil Gibran, Idries Shah, etc.
It hurts me to say this, because I know so many people love these “Hafez” translations. They are beautiful poetry in English, and do contain some profound wisdom. Yet if you love a tradition, you have to speak the truth: Ladinsky’s translations have no earthly connection to what the historical Hafez of Shiraz, the 14th-century Persian sage, ever said.
He is making it up. Ladinsky himself admitted that they are not “translations”, or “accurate”, and in fact denied having any knowledge of Persian in his 1996 best-selling book, I Heard God Laughing. Ladinsky has another bestseller, The Subject Tonight Is Love.
Persians take poetry seriously. For many, it is their singular contribution to world civilisation: What the Greeks are to philosophy, Persians are to poetry. And in the great pantheon of Persian poetry where Hafez, Rumi, Saadi, ‘Attar, Nezami, and Ferdowsi might be the immortals, there is perhaps none whose mastery of the Persian language is as refined as that of Hafez.
In the introduction to a recent book on Hafez, I said that Rumi (whose poetic output is in the tens of thousands) comes at you like you an ocean, pulling you in until you surrender to his mystical wave and are washed back to the ocean. Hafez, on the other hand, is like a luminous diamond, with each facet being a perfect cut. You cannot add or take away a word from his sonnets. So, pray tell, how is someone who admits that they do not know the language going to be translating the language?
Ladinsky is not translating from the Persian original of Hafez. And unlike some “versioners” (Coleman Barks is by far the most gifted here) who translate Rumi by taking the Victorian literal translations and rendering them into American free verse, Ladinsky’s relationship with the text of Hafez’s poetry is nonexistent. Ladinsky claims that Hafez appeared to him in a dream and handed him the English “translations” he is publishing:
“About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz as an Infinite Fountaining Sun (I saw him as God), who sang hundreds of lines of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give that message to ‘my artists and seekers’.”
It is not my place to argue with people and their dreams, but I am fairly certain that this is not how translation works. A great scholar of Persian and Urdu literature, Christopher Shackle, describes Ladinsky’s output as “not so much a paraphrase as a parody of the wondrously wrought style of the greatest master of Persian art-poetry.” Another critic, Murat Nemet-Nejat, described Ladinsky’s poems as what they are: original poems of Ladinsky masquerading as a “translation.”
I want to give credit where credit is due: I do like Ladinsky’s poetry. And they do contain mystical insights. Some of the statements that Ladinsky attributes to Hafez are, in fact, mystical truths that we hear from many different mystics. And he is indeed a gifted poet. See this line, for example:
I wish I could show you
when you are lonely or in darkness
the astonishing light of your own being.
That is good stuff. Powerful. And many mystics, including the 20th-century Sufi master Pir Vilayat, would cast his powerful glance at his students, stating that he would long for them to be able to see themselves and their own worth as he sees them. So yes, Ladinsky’s poetry is mystical. And it is great poetry. So good that it is listed on Good Reads as the wisdom of “Hafez of Shiraz.” The problem is, Hafez of Shiraz said nothing like that. Daniel Ladinsky of St Louis did.
The poems are indeed beautiful. They are just not … Hafez. They are … Hafez-ish? Hafez-esque? So many of us wish that Ladinsky had just published his work under his own name, rather than appropriating Hafez’s.
Ladinsky’s “translations” have been passed on by Oprah, the BBC, and others. Government officials have used them on occasions where they have wanted to include Persian speakers and Iranians. It is now part of the spiritual wisdom of the East shared in Western circles. Which is great for Ladinsky, but we are missing the chance to hear from the actual, real Hafez. And that is a shame.
So, who was the real Hafez (1315-1390)?
He was a Muslim, Persian-speaking sage whose collection of love poetry rivals only Mawlana Rumi in terms of its popularity and influence. Hafez’s given name was Muhammad, and he was called Shams al-Din (The Sun of Religion). Hafez was his honorific because he had memorised the whole of the Quran. His poetry collection, the Divan, was referred to as Lesan al-Ghayb (the Tongue of the Unseen Realms).
A great scholar of Islam, the late Shahab Ahmed, referred to Hafez’s Divan as: “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-read, widely-memorized, widely-recited, widely-invoked, and widely-proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” Even accounting for a slight debate, that gives some indication of his immense following. Hafez’s poetry is considered the very epitome of Persian in the Ghazal tradition.
Hafez’s worldview is inseparable from the world of Medieval Islam, the genre of Persian love poetry, and more. And yet he is deliciously impossible to pin down. He is a mystic, though he pokes fun at ostentatious mystics. His own name is “he who has committed the Quran to heart”, yet he loathes religious hypocrisy. He shows his own piety while his poetry is filled with references to intoxication and wine that may be literal or may be symbolic.
The most sublime part of Hafez’s poetry is its ambiguity. It is like a Rorschach psychological test in poetry. The mystics see it as a sign of their own yearning, and so do the wine-drinkers, and the anti-religious types. It is perhaps a futile exercise to impose one definitive meaning on Hafez. It would rob him of what makes him … Hafez.
The tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, a magnificent city in Iran, is a popular pilgrimage site and the honeymoon destination of choice for many Iranian newlyweds. His poetry, alongside that of Rumi and Saadi, are main staples of vocalists in Iran to this day, including beautiful covers by leading maestros like Shahram Nazeri and Mohammadreza Shajarian.
Like many other Persian poets and mystics, the influence of Hafez extended far beyond contemporary Iran and can be felt wherever Persianate culture was a presence, including India and Pakistan, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Ottoman realms. Persian was the literary language par excellence from Bengal to Bosnia for almost a millennium, a reality that sadly has been buried under more recent nationalistic and linguistic barrages.
Part of what is going on here is what we also see, to a lesser extent, with Rumi: the voice and genius of the Persian speaking, Muslim, mystical, sensual sage of Shiraz are usurped and erased, and taken over by a white American with no connection to Hafez’s Islam or Persian tradition. This is erasure and spiritual colonialism. Which is a shame, because Hafez’s poetry deserves to be read worldwide alongside Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, Tagore and Whitman, Pablo Neruda and the real Rumi, Tao Te Ching and the Gita, Mahmoud Darwish, and the like.
In a 2013 interview, Ladinsky said of his poems published under the name of Hafez: “Is it Hafez or Danny? I don’t know. Does it really matter?” I think it matters a great deal. There are larger issues of language, community, and power involved here.
It is not simply a matter of a translation dispute, nor of alternate models of translations. This is a matter of power, privilege and erasure. There is limited shelf space in any bookstore. Will we see the real Rumi, the real Hafez, or something appropriating their name? How did publishers publish books under the name of Hafez without having someone, anyone, with a modicum of familiarity check these purported translations against the original to see if there is a relationship? Was there anyone in the room when these decisions were made who was connected in a meaningful way to the communities who have lived through Hafez for centuries?
Hafez’s poetry has not been sitting idly on a shelf gathering dust. It has been, and continues to be, the lifeline of the poetic and religious imagination of tens of millions of human beings. Hafez has something to say, and to sing, to the whole world, but bypassing these tens of millions who have kept Hafez in their heart as Hafez kept the Quran in his heart is tantamount to erasure and appropriation.
We live in an age where the president of the United States ran on an Islamophobic campaign of “Islam hates us” and establishing a cruel Muslim ban immediately upon taking office. As Edward Said and other theorists have reminded us, the world of culture is inseparable from the world of politics. So there is something sinister about keeping Muslims out of our borders while stealing their crown jewels and appropriating them not by translating them but simply as decor for poetry that bears no relationship to the original. Without equating the two, the dynamic here is reminiscent of white America’s endless fascination with Black culture and music while continuing to perpetuate systems and institutions that leave Black folk unable to breathe.
There is one last element: It is indeed an act of violence to take the Islam out of Rumi and Hafez, as Ladinsky has done. It is another thing to take Rumi and Hafez out of Islam. That is a separate matter, and a mandate for Muslims to reimagine a faith that is steeped in the world of poetry, nuance, mercy, love, spirit, and beauty. Far from merely being content to criticise those who appropriate Muslim sages and erase Muslims’ own presence in their legacy, it is also up to us to reimagine Islam where figures like Rumi and Hafez are central voices. This has been part of what many of feel called to, and are pursuing through initiatives like Illuminated Courses.
Oh, and one last thing: It is Haaaaafez, not Hafeeeeez. Please.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.