The Story Of The Trapped Arm

Persian Poetry in Translation

Sufic Element: Hafiz and Rumi



After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Persian poetry began to be written in the New Persian language.  The principal sources of poetry in this traditional poetry period were royal and provincial courts and Sufi centers.  The Sufis or mystical poets, were generally not part of the courtly life, and tended to write personal poems rather than praise patrons.  After the Mongol invasion of Persia, Sufi thought began to enter Persian literature, and patterns of patronage began to change.  The qasidas, a poem written mainly by court poets which does not address the subject of love, gave way to a more popular Persian poetic form, the ghazal.  A poem written with love as the main subject, the ghazal's prevailing mood is one of sadness, for love is not a joyful state in this style of Persian poetry.  Themes that dominate the ghazal include, longing in separation from the beloved, the brevity of moments of union, and the pain of unrequited passion are themes that dominate the ghazal (1).


The ghazal began to flourish in the 12th century.  Two distinct paths, secular and mystical, can be traced in its development.  The secular ghazal had as its subject earthly love.  Jalal al-Din Rumi one of the finest Persian poets, wrote mystical ghazals.  His poems are ecstatic poems of spiritual love expressed in the vocabulary of earthly love.  Mystical poetry developed an elaborate symbolic vocabulary of wine and physical beauty, along with the imagery of earthly love.  The Sufis used symbolism which

revolved around wine to express ecstatic exaltation and spiritual knowledge while beauty symbolized the absolute perfection of God (2).  The Sufic ghazal is different from other ghazals, because it strives to present the theme in a perfectly unified manner (2).  In the 14th century, the two streams of the ghazal began to merge.  This movement resulted in the poetry of another great Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz.  He extended and combined the imagery of secular and mystical poetry and created ghazals with multiple levels of meaning, all simultaneously present and inseparable (1).


In order to better understand the Sufic element in Rumi and Hafiz's poetry, one needs to comment on the social, religious, and political situation during their lifetime.  The Mongol invasion of Persia and it's neighbors left millions of people dead and entire cities destroyed.  Rumi, born in 1207, was a young boy at the time, who had to flee his home in Balkh because of the Mongol army.  Years later, when he went to Konya in Turkey, he wrote his famous poem, "The Song of the Reed" in which he expressed his feelings having been exposed to all the destruction happening around him.  The poem is written from the heart of a person who has lost his whole family, all his neighbors, the surrounding community and the nation in which he had trusted for protection (2).  He writes about the reed's separation from the reedbed and it's longing to return to it's original state.  His use of symbolism in this poem reflects not only his separation from Balkh, but from God.  As a Sufi poet, his goal is union with the godhead, therefore, he describes the pain of separation since he is not able to become part of the Whole.


Poets like Rumi, turned to God and self-reflection during and after the Mongol invasion.  Rumi's ghazals and other poems written in a different style all seem to be influenced by what he experienced during the Mongol invasion.  Themes such as longing and separation are recurrent.  In his poems addressing his friend, Shams of Tabriz, Rumi once again uses Sufi symbolism to express his love and longing for Shams.  Rumi's poetry sprang out of loneliness for this companion of his spirit (3).  There were several other characters in Rumi's life for whom he wrote poetry, but from a Sufic standpoint, Rumi expressed love for his friends and also implied love of God at the same time. 


His famous work, Masnavi-i-Manavi is a poem in 27,000 lines containing Sufi philosophy and ethics, meditations, anecdotes, and tales of all kinds (1).  These poems were created as part of a constant, practical and mysterious discourse Rumi was having with the dervish community he was part of in Konya.  The focus changed from stern to ecstatic, from everyday to esoteric, as the needs of the group arose.  The introduction of music and movement were parts of his poetry, with the main Sufic element being love.  The conflict between love and cosmic reason is what Sufism is all about (2).


Hafiz of Shiraz was born in the early 14th century, approximately a century after Rumi.  He spent most of his life in Shiraz.  During his lifetime, people in Shiraz were very interested in talking about poetry and discussing the merits and demerits of poets (4).  Different kings ruled over Shiraz while Hafiz was alive, and his Sufic ghazals reflect the uneasiness that characterized their rule, in particular, the rule of Timur or Tamerlane (5).  Like Rumi who witnessed the destruction by the Mongols, Hafiz was exposed to the ruthlessness of Timur.  Several of his poems address the political situation in his time, and from a Sufic standpoint, Hafiz uses a lot of Sufi symbolism.  Each verse of his has several meanings, and the Sufic element seems to be embedded in his discussion of the present times and everyday life.


Hafiz belonged to the Malamatiyyah group of Sufis, an eccentric group that sought proximity to the beloved through conscious self-degradation (5).  It's members consciously attracted blame to themselves. It was their belief that by doing this they will not attract popularity, and therefore, can express thoughts openly, without concern for public opinion.  Since, Hafiz was part of this group, his poetic expression can be seen in the light of his beliefs.  However, interestingly, he wrote for the public, in a style that was understandable for them, despite the multiple symbolism.  Using the ghazal, Hafiz conveyed to his contemporaries the wisdom of his age as well as the mood of his time (5).  His poetry mainly revolved around the Quran of which he was a scholar.  Rumi, on the other hand, wrote for the community of dervishes he was part of, for his friends, and for God.  His poetry seems to be more mystical in nature than Hafiz's works.




1. Preminger, Alex & Brogan, T.V.F. (editors) (1993). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


2. Bashiri, Iraj - web site. 1997.


3. Moyers, Bill (1995). The Language of Life. NY: Doubleday.


4. Dalal, G. A. (1995). Ethics In Persian Poetry. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.


5. Bashiri, Iraj (1979). Hafiz and the Sufic Ghazal, Studies in Islam, Vol. XVI - 1.

On a warm Saturday afternoon, Khurram's wife promised to cook his favorite Persian dish which is filled with tasty nuts. He was excited about helping her in the kitchen. Happily he reached deep into the jar filled with nuts and grabbed as many as he could fit in his hand.

When he tried to pull his arm out of the jar, it was stuck. As hard as he pulled and twisted his arm, the jar would not release it. He cried and grumbled loudly, but nothing helped. Even his wife pulled on the jar with all her strength, but it did not help. His arm was stuck in the neck of the jar.

After several failed attempts they called out to their neighbors for help. One neighbor, Jamal, came running over and asked how the arm came to be stuck in the jar. With a voice filled of pain and frustration Khurram told his story.

"Oh,I know how to help you, but you must do exactly as I say," said Jamal.

"Yes, I promise to do everything you say, if you can just free me from this terrible jar," Khurram replied.

"Okay, then push your arm further into the jar," Jamal requested.

Khurram thought this request was strange and wondered why he should put his arm further into the jar when he wanted to get it out of there, but he did as he was told.

Jamal continued, "Now open your hand and drop the nuts you have been holding." This request upset Khurram, because he wanted the nuts for his favorite dish, but reluctantly, he followed directions.

Jamal then said, "Make you hand very small and slowly pull your arm out of the jar."

Khurram did as he was told and without any trouble he pulled his arm out of the jar. All the other neighbors who had collected around cheered and clapped, but Khurram wasn't completely satisfied. He said, "My arm is free now, but what about the nuts?"

Hearing this, Jamal tipped over the jar and let several nuts roll out onto a plate. Wide-eyed and with his mouth open in surprise, Khurram asked, "Are you a magician?" 

Note: I have also read this same story elsewhere with different characters namely, a monkey and a wise owl. It is an old Persian tale. -  © zensufi