Sufism, desert and poetry in Iran

The Persian mystical tradition assimilates the spiritual search to the crossing of the desert valleys. Sufism lists seven of these valleys: search, love, knowledge, detachment, unity with God, wonder, and annihilation. The road is dangerous. Asceticism in order to purify the soul; the denial of carnal passions; the renunciation of earthly desires: all these thorns await on the path of the mystic.

Gold, the possession of goods that flatter the eyes and the heart and arouse envy and desire – all the vanities in the world – appear like mirages on the path of the thirsty traveler.

All caravans need a guide to cross the desert; no one would be foolish enough to venture out onto the sandy expanses without someone to guide them. Similarly, the Iranian mystical tradition calls on the seekers of truth to seek the help of the “Pirs”, teachers who can show them the way. No disciple would venture on the path of devotion without the help of an initiator to instruct and impart the necessary knowledge. Like a caravan leader, the spiritual master is in charge of the proselyte’s chain of instruction.

Sohrab Sepehri

Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), prominent Iranian poet and painter, was born in Kashan on October 7, 1928. The talented Iranian artist made his name and became notable with the publication of “Sound of the Passage of Water”, which marked a milestone in his poetic activity, to which two other volumes were added. In 1969, he participated in the Paris Biennale and shortly after exhibited his paintings in a gallery in New York, where he lived for a brief period.

Having been born into a family known for art and literature, it led him to also fall for art. Sohrab’s father was a post office clerk, craftsman, and builder of a traditional Persian musical instrument, the tar, while his grandmother was also a fairly gifted poet. Kashan and the surrounding villages played a significant role in both his poetry and his paintings. In fact, in his poems his hometown stands out, which, among other things, has a rich and glorious history:


Simorghand Mount Qaf

Attar, the great Iranian poet of the twelfth century, describes in The Language of the Birds the journey that these birds undertake in search of their king. Guided by the hoopoe, a bird rich in mythological associations that was Solomon’s companion and can avoid mirages and spot pools of water from a distance, they set out for Mount Qaf, where Simorgh, the king of birds, lives. Many of them cannot bear the heat, hunger and thirst and, for fear of the unknown, they prefer not to overtake any further. Others show the courage to face dangers. Due to the lack of food, water and shade, many die on the way. Only thirty birds (in Persian, si-morq) reach their goal, flying over Qaf and discovering their “inner self”

Ahmad Shamlou

Shamlou, famous Iranian poet, was born on December 12, 1925 in Tehran. His father was an army officer from Kabul, Afghanistan. Indeed, Ahmad, having to follow his father, spent his early school years in different cities: Zahedan in southeastern Iran, Mashhad in the northeast, and Rasht in the north. In 1938, Shamlou left the institute and enrolled in the Tehran Technical School, one of the best of the time, where he also learned German. In 1942, his father took him to northern Iran, then occupied by the Soviet army. Shamlou began to write his revolutionary ideas, so he was arrested by the Red Army for his political ideas and sent to Rasht. He was released from prison in 1945 and moved with his family to Azerbaijan.


Musleh al-Din Abdollah Saadi is one of the most recognized poets in Persian literature. His long life spanned the entire 13th century, considered the classical period of Persian lyric poetry, which historically coincides with the first Mongol invasions, begun in the autumn of 1219, which caused the fall of the Abbasid caliphate.

The new Mongol rulers formed new courts far removed from local populations and showed little interest in the Ghasida (eulogy) literary genre, then in full swing. Rather, they were interested in alluding to his political and territorial conquests in the prose of historical works. In the process of lyrical poetry production, the genre of Ghasida lost its importance in favor of the poetic genre of ghazal (sonnet), which reached its technical perfection with Saadi.


Abdollah Jafar Ibn Mohammad Rudaki, founder of Perso-Tajik literature. Rudaki was born in 858 in the village of Pandj-Rudak, near Pandjikent, situated between Samarkand and Bukhara (in Transoxiana, Central Asia). From a young age he began to write verses, he liked to play the lute (chang in Persian) and had a beautiful voice. He was one of the first poets to use the newly developed Persian alphabet, a transcription of the Pahlavi language with the Arabic alphabet. Rudaki’s poetry captivated the hearts and minds of his contemporaries. His Ghasidas  were the adornment of the parties of the royal palaces and of the meetings of scholars whose philosophical content surprised any listener. The poet reflected on the essence of phenomena and the constant movement of natural and social changes through his poetry at times at specific times. According to some documents, Rudaki’s literary heritage included more than one hundred thousand beyts (verses) of poetry. Rudaki died in 941 AD.  and his tomb is in his native town marked by a blue and white marble mausoleum. His poetry is simple in style, as court poetry should be, reflecting the charm of pre-Islamic Iranian poetry. Avoid Arabism and do not use verses from the Qur’an. Above all, his poetry is accessible to today’s schoolchildren who can enjoy his verses without the need for explanations or interpretations.

The Poetry and Classical Poets of Iran

Main forms and rhythmic patterns

The ancient Persian language of the Achaemenid Empire, preserved in numerous cuneiform inscriptions, was an Indo-European language with strong affinities with Sanskrit and Avestan (the language of Zoroastrian sacred texts). After the fall of the Achaemenids, the ancient language evolved into Middle Persian or Pahlavi (a name derived from Parthavi meaning Parthian) in the province of Pars. Pahlavi was used throughout the Sassanid period, although little remains today of what must have been considerable literature. About 100 texts are preserved in Pahlavi, most on religion and all in prose. However, the Pahlavi novel collections provided much of the material for Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

After the Arab conquest, knowledge of Arabic became necessary, since it was not only the language of the new rulers and the State, but also the religion that they brought with them and, later, the new knowledge. Although Pahlavi continued to be spoken in private life, Arabic dominated in official circles for a century and a half. With the weakening of the central power, a modified form of Pahlavi emerged, with its Indo-European grammatical structure intact but simplified, and heavily infused with Arabic words. This was the modern Persian spoken today.

Persian: the language spoken in Iran

Indo-Iranian is one of the main branches of the linguistic family, whose speakers are one of the first Indo-European peoples integrated into history. One of the languages ​​of this family has become the classical language of a culture as ancient and special as that of Iran. In the first millennium BC, the Indo-Iranians appeared definitely divided into its two branches, Hindu and Iranian, and settled in a continuum from Iran to India, passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan. From this moment on, the two peoples must be considered separately. Therefore, one of these languages ​​is precisely Persian, that is, modern Persian. Farsi is of Indo-European origin and completely different from Semitic languages ​​such as Arabic or Hebrew.

Parvin Etesami

Born in Tabriz, she is a 20th century Iranian poet. From childhood, Parvin learned Persian, English and Arabic from her father. From an early age, she began composing poems under the supervision of her father and talented teachers such as Dehkhoda and Bahar.

Persian and Arabic literature always amazed her and at the age of eight she began to write poetry, especially structured and delicate pieces that her father translated from foreign books (French, Turkish and Arabic). In this way, she naturally experienced her literary talent developing a particular multilingual style.

In her poems, Parvin follows the style of the pioneers, especially Nasser Khosrow, and her poems contain mainly moral and mystical themes. She expresses wisdom and moral issues with such simple and eloquent language.

Omar Khayyam

He was a prominent Persian astronomer, mathematician, and poet. Being the court astronomer of the Seljuk Sultan of Persia, Omar reformed the Persian solar calendar, but his fame, especially among the Anglo-Saxons, in Europe and America, is due to his quatrains due to the English poetic adaptation of a selection of them made by E. Fitzgerald with a beautiful sense of art. He lived between 1044 and 1123 AD. and his full name was Ghiyath ad-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim Khayyam. In “History of Western Philosophy”, Bertrand Russell points out that Khayyam is the only man recognized as both a poet and a mathematician at the same time. His work on algebra was highly appreciated throughout medieval Europe.