Fake Hafez: How a supreme Persian poet of love was erased


The ceiling decoration of the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran PHOTO/Jasminam/Getty Images

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:

Al Jazeera for more

Comments are closed.