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”

And so these thirty birds saw the Simorgh’s face reflected in their own face and realized that the Simorgh was nothing more than themselves.

The differences between phoenix and Simorgh:

1- Phoenix is ​​not considered a mythical Iranian creature and should not be confused, as Phoenix originates from Greece not from ancient Persia. On the contrary, Simorgh belongs to Iranian mythology.

2- Phoenix is ​​the only bird that has to die to be born, but Simorgh is a bird in its prime also known under the name “Homa-e Saadat”.

3- Simorgh is the symbol of unity, of the superior world, the bird of God and the manifestation of the soul and that of the perfect man; but phoenix is ​​the symbol of immortality.

4- Simorgh, according to Iranian poems, is a supernatural, abstract, theological, and omniscient creature. Notably, Attar Nishapuri also considers the phoenix to be an imaginary creature. Nima Yushich, a contemporary Iranian poet, has dedicated a poem to Qoqnus (phoenix). Nima has used the phoenix metaphorically in her poem, presenting his desire for literary rebirth and breaking with the norms of classical Persian poetry.

5-For Iranians, Simorgh is not just a bird, but a spiritual and mystical being. However, phoenix is ​​considered an eternal creature. Of course, this could be a reflection of the human subconscious, which wishes for immortality. However, according to Attar, phoenix is ​​also considered deadly.

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.

In 1948, he began writing for a monthly literary magazine called “Sokhan.” Two years later, his first story was published: “The woman behind the bronze door.” The second collection of poems, “Manifesto”, was published in 1951, where he showed his clear inclination for socialist ideology. In 1952 he got a job at the Hungarian Embassy as a cultural adviser. Meanwhile, he published his third book “Iron Poems and Feelings” which was banned and destroyed by the police.

In 1956 he became editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Bamshad. He separated from his wife with two sons and a daughter. In the spring of 1962, he met Ayda Sarkisian, from an Armenian-Iranian family who lived in the same neighborhood as him. They were married after two years, despite opposition from Ayda’s family, who did not like Ahmad because he was older than her and had been divorced twice. Despite everything, they were together until Shamlou’s death.

Ahmad Shamlou was undoubtedly an important figure in the field of poetry and translation (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). He always lived a poetic life and put poetry at the service of the highest human values. Ahmad was the presence and historical memory of a generation that, for almost half a century, flourished in many fields of thought and literature, lifting human myths from the darkness of time by piercing with its innovations the mystery of the little charm of friendship. For this reason, Shamlou considered poetry as a tool to establish freedom. In addition to poetry and translation, Ahmad, who had a theatrical voice, narrated and read classical Persian poems, recorded his translations and the famous quatrains by Omar Khayyam. Precisely because of the existence of that free vision in poetry, at the end of the 50s he chose his poems, totally ideological, to turn them into an audio tape with his voice. This tape later became the title of a collection of poems.


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.

A century earlier, poets expressed their loving feelings and emotions primarily in the introductory part of Ghasida, devoting little attention to ghazal, but devastating Mongol invasions changed the social landscape and fostered mysticism and the desire to escape from the world. On the other hand, the new Mongol rulers stimulated the literary genre of historiography, eager to have their exploits passed from generation to generation. Against this historical and literary background, Saadi was born in 1184 in Shiraz, in the Fars region. What we know about him is based on compilations of biographical information on poets, along with an anthology of poems and autobiographical information on his works. His father died when he was only 12 years old.

Saadi, already initiated into Sufism by the great mystic Suhrawardi, spent the last period of his life in serenity and died in Shiraz in 1291. Saadi’s literary output is varied. He only achieved fame after his return to Shiraz in 1256-57, when he composed Bustán (The Orchard) which is written entirely in verse and, a year later, Golestan (The Rose Garden), the majority of which consists of prose, considered as his main works.


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.

Iran became Islamized in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, after the Arab conquest, when the Arabic alphabet replaced the Persian. However, this language retained its grammatical forms, so from a morphosyntactic point of view, Persian remained the same as before and did not become a Semitic language. Iran’s pre-Islamic history was so opulent and radical that it has left clearly recognizable traces, beginning with the language. Before the Arab conquest, the Persian language went through two phases of evolution: Ancient Persian and Avestan.

Old Persian was the official language of the Achaemenid dynasty during the Persian Empire. Darius the Great (521 – 486 BC) introduced writing for his language, a simplified form of the cuneiform system.

Avestan is the language in which Avesta, the sacred text of the Zoroastrians, is written. Long transmitted orally, it was not written until after the 3rd century AD, during the reign of the Sassanids, and underwent a significant simplification compared to the old. He had not only one alphabet, but two: the Aramaic alphabet and the so-called Huzvaresh.

Even today, the various Iranian dialects continued to evolve until, in the 10th century, they emerged in the form of modern Persian. The main literary work of modern Iran is the epic poem “The Book of Kings”, whose author, Ferdowsi, lived until about 1000 AD. Today many dialect varieties are still spoken. Among them are Persian, the national language of Iran; Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan; Kurdish dialects, spoken in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq; and the dialects of the Pamir, on the Pamir Plateau, northwest of Afghanistan. Finally, the Iranian languages ​​of the North Caucasus, Ossetian, and Caspian dialects are the inheritors of the language of the last remaining Indo-European elements on the steppes, whom we call Scythians and Sarmatians.

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.

Parvin’s poetry, from the point of view of the expression of concepts and meanings, has rather the form of a “debate” and a “question-answer”. There are more than seventy examples of debates in her Divan (collection of poems) that made her eminent among Persian poets in this regard. In the power of words and the dominance of industries and rituals of speech, she was above famous speakers, and in the meantime, she paid special attention to debate and revived this method, which was that of the poets of northern Iran. .

Parvin’s life was accompanied by various socio-political moments, such as the constitutional revolution, the fall of the Qajar dynasty, the return of Reza Shah, and the First World War. All these events made Parvin become aware of the problems of her time and create a social atmosphere in her poems. Due to the absence of newspapers and other mass media at that time, the only way to become familiar with political issues was through dialogue with her father. Parvin’s poetry deals with themes such as oppression, the fight against poverty, justice and idealism. For this reason, some have considered her as one of the architects of Iranian history and political thought.

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.

In 1839, Edward Fitzgerald published an English translation of his “Rubayat” (quatrains). Since then, it has become one of the most popular classics in world literature. It must be taken into account that it is practically impossible to accurately translate a literary work into another language, and even less poetry, especially when it comes to mystical and philosophical messages of profound complexity. However, the popularity of Rubayat’s translation would indicate the richness of his thought. In his quatrains, Khayyam speaks of the brevity and vanity of life, but his poetry also contains other much deeper themes, such as an original meditation on death and the limits of human reason, powerless in the face of the mystery of existence. In the history of Persian literature the quatrain form has often been used to express inner emotions of a mainly mystical character, but he further enriched the quatrain by giving it a polythematic form.