Kissed through a Poem

22 February 2022

Hafiz | “Dancing Dervishes”, Folio from a Divan of Hafiz | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org)

اندر غزل خویش نهان خواهم گشتن
تا بر دو لبت بوسه دهم چونٓش بخوانی

I will hide myself within my poem
So when you read it, I may kiss your lips.

This mesmerizing couplet is quoted in the hagiography of the great mystic Abū Saʿīd b. Abī ʾl-Khayr (d.ca. 1049). A singer (qavvāl) performed this couplet at a musical audition (samāʿ) in which Islamic mystics were listening to music, dancing in ecstasy, and showing their devotion to the immaterial Beloved. When Abū Saʿīd heard this couplet, he was so moved that he asked after the identity of the poet. When told that the poet was ʿAmāra of Marv, he said to his disciples: “Rise, that we may visit his grave.” Through this gesture, Abū Saʿīd showed his appreciation of the couplet’s aesthetic value. Abū Saʿīd was a charismatic spiritual leader who attracted many to his sermons in which he deployed poetry to illustrate mystical subjects. Poetry became an indispensable vehicle for theorizing theological concepts and to meditate on the spiritual beloved. Poetry became a rich repository for gnomic wisdom, and a medium used in rites and rituals from the 11th century onwards.

This single couplet is a window to Sufi rituals, the nature of Persian lyric poetry, and the notion of love. A primary use of such erotic lines was to enter a state of rapturous ecstasy during the samāʿ sessions, a Sufi practice that was relentlessly criticized by Islamic theologians. They condemned samāʿ practices because of the use of musical instruments, what they regarded as frivolities, and for homoerotic relationships, all of which could draw pious Muslims from the right path.

The singer selected this erotic line to stir the audience’s emotions for a spiritual purpose. As the participants in the samāʿ sessions were male, such poetry could resonate with homoerotic feelings. An example is given by Khvāja ʿAbdullāh Anṣārī of Herat (d. 1089), a Quran commentator, who refers to frequenting samāʿ, and how he tore his robe during a trance. He abandoned samāʿ when a fellow mystic asked him, “who was the young man you were dancing with?” Anṣārī answers: “what do you mean? Which young man?” The man explains, “the young man with a long narcissus in his hand. Every time he brought the narcissus near your nose, you became ecstatic. It was as if you became restless in the samāʿ.” I asked him: “Please do not share this report with anyone.”

The couplet has been used by generations of poets, male and female, in religious and profane contexts for different purposes in the subsequent centuries. Its strength lies in its power to emotionally move. In these simple words, the poet shows his separation from the beloved, his intense longing, and his craving to kiss the beloved’s lips. The separated lover transforms himself into words that will convey his presence when the beloved recites them. The poet plays with notions of absence, separation, and concealment in the first half-verse which he contrasts to presence, union, and revelation in the second halfverse. When the beloved recites the couplet (the sense of hearing), it turns into the medium of touch. The couplet’s aesthetic lies also in the beloved’s delayed awareness: the moment s/he realizes that the lover has kissed his/her lips through words, is when s/he has pronounced them. The first hemistich expresses the lover’s desperation, his inability to attain the beloved’s physical being, while the second hemistich emphasizes physicality. The first hemistich also uses the device of ‘astonishment,’ why would a writer want to hide within his own poem? The climax is achieved when the beloved realizes that s/he has become the subject, being kissed. Without the beloved’s reading, the lover cannot execute his plans, i.e., kissing the beloved’s lips. This also applies for the audience who unexpectedly realizes how the poet-lover, hidden within words, steals a kiss. The couplet also contrasts the materiality of the written form with the poet-lover’s ephemeral existence. It references the orality of this poetic tradition. Such poems were composed to be sung in a courtly setting. For Abū Saʿīd it was a religious setting and a spiritual singer at the samāʿ gathering, who brought the audience to ecstasy with his musical performance of this single poetic line. This example shows how profane poetry was used in a religious ritual. Abū Saʿīd probably composed poetry himself and used them in sermons to express spiritual subjects. A volume of poetry is attributed to him, which enjoys enormous popularity in Persian-speaking world today.

Another aspect of this couplet is how love, both earthly and heavenly, homo and hetero-eroticism, is depicted. The couplet is probably part of a longer poem, a panegyric, a love-lyric, but the longer poem has not survived the teeth of time. Such poems were usually written for a secular courtly audience. In the tradition of Persian court poetry, the beloved is chiefly a male, a handsome young man, an appealing cupbearer, a musician, a fearless soldier and even the boon-companion of kings and viziers. The fact that a religious singer sings this poem reveals how such profane courtly poems were circulated and how such singers selected a specific line for their own repertoire to be performed during a Sufi ritual. All references to profane love receive transcendental signification. The earthly love is interpreted as spiritual love, beloved becomes Beloved, wine turns to God’s breath breathed into man’s body, etc. The inclusion of the couplet in the hagiography of one of the greatest mystics of medieval Persian history exhibits how secular life and spirituality intermingled. Abū Saʿīd must have detected the couplet’s spiritual signification. Apparently the poem reminds mystics that God, as the lover of mankind, is the object of desire and that the presence hidden in the lines correspond to God’s presence in the mystic’s being.

This couplet is just one example displaying the appeal of profane poetry in a spiritual context and the predilection of a highly respected spiritual figure such as Abū Saʿīd for deploying poetry for a spiritual purpose. The aesthetic of this couplet made it a source of inspiration for both religious and secular poets seeking to express their emotions for the object of their love.

The idea of kissing the beloved with words or an object also appears in other poetic cultures. Emily Dickenson (1830-1886) composed her poem Love in which she states, “I hide myself within my flower,…”. Another example is Leo Vroman’s (1915-2014) Voor wie dit leest (“For whoever Read This”) where he expresses almost the same idea in the last stanza:

Lees dit dan als een lang verwachte brief,
En wees gerust, en vrees niet de gedachte
Dat U door deze woorden werd gekust:
Ik heb je zo lief.

(Read this as a long awaiting letter,
And be assured, and fear not the thought
That you’ve been kissed by these words:
I love you so much.)

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
Utrecht, 22 February 2022


Abū Saʿīd Abū ʾl-Khayr, Asrār al-towḥīd fī maqāmāt al-shaykh Abī Saʿīd, 2 Vols., ed. M.R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī, Tehran: Āgāh, 1371/1992, p. 267.
Abū Saʿīd Abū ʾl-Khayr, Sukhanān-i manẓūm-i Abū Saʿīd-i Abū ʾl-Khayr, ed. S. Nafīsī,Tehran: Ḥaydarī, 1334/1955.
Dickenson, E., Collected Poems, Philadelphia / Pennsylvania: Courage Books, 1991, p. 35, stanza VII.
Jāmī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, Nafaḥāt al-uns min ḥażarāt al-quds, ed. M. ʿĀbidī, Tehran: Iṭṭilāʿāt, 1344/, p. 346.
Meier, F., Abū Saʿīd-i Abū ʾl-Ḫayr, Wirklichkeit und Legende. Acta Iranica, 3/4, Tehran/Liège: Bibliothèque Pahlavi, 1976, p. 225.

© Asghar-Seyed-Gohrab and Beyond Sharia ERC Project, 2022. Any unlicensed use of this blog without written permission from the author and Beyond Sharia ERC Project is prohibited. Any use of this blog should give full credit to Asghar Seyed-Gohrab and Beyond Sharia ERC Project.

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