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Ecstatic Love, Human Rights and Peace in Iran

By Beth Harris

Perhaps a key to understanding Iranian culture is reading poetry by Hafiz.  When we visited Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz on the last day of our delegation, we learned that more Iranians own a book of poetry by the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz (Shamsu-d-Din Muhammed-e Hafez) than the Koran. With this in mind, I will begin my blog post with a poem by Hafiz. 

I Have Learned So Much

So much from God
That I can no longer

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed

Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.
(From The Gift, translated by Daniel Ledinsky)

For me, this poem expresses a profound sense of personal liberation, which can also serve as a foundation for radical equality and the possibility of peace.  

Our last day in Iran was spent in the southern city of Shiraz, the heart of Persian, and now Iranian, art and culture. Our guide told us that the people of Shiraz have a reputation for being very laid back, perhaps too laid back.  Hmmm, I thought, sounds like the reputation of my hometown, Ithaca, NY.  Here we visited the beautiful Eram garden, the Pink Mosque, and were introduced to the legacies of Iran’s most beloved poet and the Persian empire’s most peace-loving leader, who eschewed the title of king. The Sufi poet Hafiz (1350-1390) praised the transformative powers of ecstatic love and condemned religious hypocrisy, and the leader Karim Khan Zand (1705-1775) identified himself as Vakil—a term based in Islamic law referring to the people’s advocate. The visions and influence of these two men crystalized for me the importance of Persian history and culture to the contemporary collective identities and cultural narratives of Iranians. 

The Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, when he defeated a number of small kingdoms and consolidated his rule. Eventually Cyrus the Great governed one of the largest empires in history, encompassing territory in Europe, Africa and Asia. He created a political system based on human rights principles that provided the foundation for contemporary human rights law and continues to inspire Iranians seeking a nation that embraces diverse religious and cultural influences.  While Cyrus ruled by Zoroastrian law of Asha, based on truth and righteousness, he allowed the diverse citizenry of his conquered territories local rule and religious freedom and respected labor rights for his workers who built the infrastructure of the empire. 

We visited Cyrus the Great’s tomb on our way to Shiraz a day before it was closed to be public. Since the early 2000s, Iranians have traveled to Cyrus the Great’s tomb on October 29 to celebrate the beginning of the Persian empire. In 2016, there were 15-20,000 participants celebrating Cyrus’s commitment to human rights. One participant said, “Some conservative leaders in Iran claim that celebrating the anniversary of Cyrus the Great goes against the values of the Islamic Republic. I don't agree: we were there to pay tribute to a man who treated everyone under his rule with respect and dignity. That's our message: people deserve respect, no matter what their religious or ethnic background.” The following year, local officials announced the closing of the tomb site from October 27-30, and the practice of pre-emptive closure continued this year. 

When we visited the tomb of Hafiz in Shiraz, our guide shared that love of Hafiz’s poetry is universal in Iran.  People across economic classes, both religious and secular, believe that the poet represents their inner voices and memorize his verses. His words have become proverbs, and many look to his poems for advice and solace. In the forward to The Divan of Hafiz, Mohammad A. Eslami-Nodushan writes that some religious clerics regarded Hafiz as “religiously suspect”, as he challenges the certainty of religious dogma. The poet’s pervasive themes of the sublime importance of love and wine are interpreted both as earthly pursuits and as symbolic references to love as an impassioned relationship with the divine beloved, not bound by reason, and to wine as representing “spiritual ecstasy.” Hafiz also references pre-Islamic Iran, with wine representing “enlightenment.”  

A tomb for Hafiz, who was a court poet in Shiraz, was first built 62 years after he died.  The current more substantial memorial dome was established in 1773 by Karim Khan Zand “Vakil,” an avid patron of the arts who drew many poets and artists to Shiraz, He established Shiraz as the capital of Persia and ruled from 1751 until his death in 1779. Under his rule, he led the Persia to recovery from 40 years of devastating war and is remembered for establishing peace, security and prosperity for his people and those whom they traded with.  He shared King Cyrus the Great’s commitment to human rights and diplomacy over militarism.  The Vakil’s presence continues to be felt in Shiraz today.  We visited the Vakil bazaar, where we heard a man performing Hafiz’s poetry. There are also a Vakil mosque and the Vakil Bath.  Our final group picture in Shiraz is in front of Karim Khan Citadel, which served as the home for this remarkable leader.  

The commitments to human rights and peace demonstrated by Persian King Cyrus the Great and Karim Khan “Vakil” and the understanding of the relationship between inner freedom and external harmony evoked by the poetry of Hafiz reminded me of our visit the Tehran Peace Museum, where we had first learned about Cyrus’s declaration of human rights in 550 BC.  The motto of the Peace Museum: 
“Real peace comes from our hearts (inner peace) and leads to peaceful relations in the family and community and among nations. Let’s inspire others with non-violence every day. Let’s be messengers of peace in every interaction.

Before we entered the museum, our tour guide Shahrom had advised us that though we may be committed peacemakers, the people of Iran who had directly experienced the brutality, devastation and unhealed wounds of war on their own land have a more profound commitment to peace.  Iraq’s war on Iran led to around one million deaths of Iranians and 250,000-500,000 Iraqi deaths (1980-1988).  It is estimated that more than 100,000 Iranians have suffered from the effects of Iraq’s chemical weapons during the war. Our guides through the Peace Museum still suffered terribly from the wounds from Iraq’s chemical weapons, which were made available by the US government.  And salting their wounds now are the US sanctions on Iran, which are preventing their much-needed medicines from entering their country, a condition now documented in this Human Rights Watch report, Maximum Pressure: U.S. Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health. I came to Iran with the hope of ending the sanctions and reviving the Nuclear Accord.  At the Peace Museum, I shared this message of friendship, peace and diplomacy from Jewish for Peace. 

As I return home, I feel sickened by the US assault on Iran—through the US supply of weapons, including chemical weapons, to Iraq in its war against Iran; through U.S. military bases now ringing Iran’s borders; and through economic sanctions prohibiting those wounded by US weapons from healing.  It’s time for Americans to open our hearts to the suffering, wisdom and love of the Iranian people.   It’s time to end US aggression against Iran and instead begin reparations.  This is the path to peace and freedom.