A Cup of Sufi Wine

There is something about circles
The Beloved likes.

by Sana Riaz

There is something about circles
The Beloved likes.

When Hafiz wrote these words during the composition of his poem “Circles” in the fourteenth century, he was probably not aware of the lasting power they possessed. Five centuries later, in the mid-1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his first collection of essays which included one of his most well-known works. This essay was titled “Circles.” And so began a spiritual and intellectual movement in the world.

Khawaja Shams ud-Din Mohammed Hafiz-e-Shirazi – also known as “Hafiz of Shiraz” – was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest medieval poets of Persia (now Iran). At an early age, he learned the Koran by heart, and from the little that is known about him, he was a devout admirer of the Sufi mystics Rumi and Saadi. It is said that Hafiz knew all the works of these Sufi poets by heart. His poems are filled with Sufi ideas of divine union with the Beloved, and Emerson found his God – the oversoul – in the poetry of Hafiz.

A passionate disciple of the Sufi mystics, I began reading Saadi, Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Hafiz at an early age. Years later, while conducting research on Emerson for my Early American Literature class at the University of North Florida, I came across an essay that began like this:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end

Goose bumps exploded all over my skin. I reached into the depths of my memory and rummaged around until I pulled out a thin, weak strand of memory. It was a collection of broken but shockingly similar words by Hafiz I had read a long time ago:

a pregnant belly…fruit…plump and round…something about circles…Beloved likes…

With feverish excitement I came home and pored over the yellowed pages of Daniel Ladinsky’s I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy, a translation of Hafiz. I reread the poem “Circles” and then returned to Emerson’s essay, also titled “Circles.” The resemblance was unmistakable. The only difference was this: for Hafiz, circles are God’s signature upon the world, while for Emerson circles are the very nature of God. Perhaps it was the love of Sufi poetry, or a frantic anxiety at the possibility of unearthing a possible relationship between Sufi thought and Western literature, that this otherwise unremarkable discovery sparked a personal interest in Emerson. I went through his early essays and poetry, and this led to the translations that Emerson had produced on the works of Hafiz.

The poem that has most drawn its influence from Hafiz is Emerson’s completed “Bacchus.” It is an imitation of one of Hafiz’s verses in the Saki Nama(transliterated as The Book of the Cupbearer by Joseph von Hammer). “Bacchus” is acknowledged as an imitation and not a translation of Hafiz, as Emerson himself wrote to Elizabeth Hoar in a letter. Of particular interest in the poem is the imagery of the wine. The meanings attributed to wine in Persian poetry can be traced to their connection with the Sufi mystics. In Sufi literature, wine symbolized a union with divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience with God. “Bacchus” celebrates the wine of Hafiz and regards it as more than the mere juice of the grape, seeing in it instead the power of union with the divine. For Emerson, the oversoul is “that Unity within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” And so, the wine of Hafiz becomes Emerson’s oversoul. In this context, the term oversoul is understood as the collective indivisible Soul, of which all individual souls or identities are included. Oversoul has more recently come to be used by Eastern philosophers as the closest English language equivalent of the Vedic concept of Paramatman. (In Sanskrit the word param means “supreme” and atman means “soul”; thus Paramatman literally means “Supreme-Soul”).

A comparison of Emerson’s translation “From the Persian of Hafiz, I” and its imitation “Bacchus” reveals an uncanny influence of Sufi thought on the latter. Both poems regard the wine as a symbol of divine ecstasy. Both celebrate the intellect’s agility, the spirit’s delight, the dissolution of ego, the singing of the soul. If wine is the spring, oversoul is the first sip. If wine is the womb, oversoul is the umbilical cord. The end is always the same – ecstasy.

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Today, the presence of Sufi poetry in the world is more palpable than ever. The body of work that Coleman Barks has produced on Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi from 1976-2003 is a monument to Sufi poetry. In his introduction to The Essential Rumi, he calls Rumi’s poetry food and drink, nourishment for the part that is hungry for what they give. Barks describes his love for Rumi a different level of soul-connecting and a sense of reckless longing. Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi is an imaginative story of the spiritual encounter between Rumi and the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. The book was an instant bestseller in Turkey, selling more than 750,000 copies. It was published in the U.S. in February 2010 and in the UK in June 2010. As contemporary writers like Barks and Shafak discover, translate, and rethink Sufi thought, it is becoming increasingly evident that modern readers want less of that which is ephemeral and seek more what is eternal – the soul.