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Sohrab Books
1 Camberry Close
Hants RG21 3AG U.K.
ISBN 1-870312-04-X

Christ and Christianity in Persian Poetry

Bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti

[ List of Books by Bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti | گفتگویی با اسقف حسن دهقانی تفتی و همسرشان مارگارت ]
¤ Introduction

1) Classical Poets from Ferdowsi onwards.
Classical poetry can itself be divided into two groups:

  1. An awareness of Christian thought in Persian Poetry
  2. Classical poets who actually mention the name of Jesus

2) Modern Poets.

3) Christian Poets today.

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Classical Persian Poets: Christ In Persian Poetry

b) Classical poets who actually mention the name of Christ

Or the name of Jesus, or the 'Breath of Christ' which was symbolic of 'life' in their poems.

We must realise that, particularly among classical poets, a great deal of their information was received through the Quran and Islamic sources. But of course there were also Christian contacts, namely monasteries of the day and prevalent stories. There was a translation of the New Testament in Arabic in the 9th century Christian Era; that means that 300 years after Islam the whole of the New Testament was translated into Arabic; and also portions of it into Persian, so the poets could have had access to these sources.

First we come to Ferdowsi (940 - 1020 A.D.). He mentions the name of Jesus in the lines engraved in large nasta'liq characters on a marble tablet on the Mausoleum erected at Tus. These lines are translated by Mr. Sharp thus:

'These tales, which relate to the monarchs of old,
In volumes of elegant verse I have told.
The men of renown, and ofprowess and fame,
Whose'deeds are recorded herein name by name,
Time swept them aside, and death stilled heart and brain-,
But here in my verses they live once again.
Like Jesus, whose voice called the dead back to life,

I've wakened dead heroes of struggle and strife.
At long last each noble construction decays,
Assaulted by wind and the sun's scorching rays.
But I have erected a Palace of Rhyme:
No blast shall o'erthrow it, nor passage of time.'

Another classical poet who has sung about Christ is Nasser Khossrow (11th Century).

Edward Browne says about him in his 'Literary History of Persia'

It would appear that the poet had some knowledge of the contents of the Bible . . . .'

In the following lines by Nasser Khossrow, translated by Norman Sharp, Jesus is mentioned:

Persian Poetry By Naser Khossrow
'Whene'er a knife you take, it's not meant for assault.
God notes the deeds you do: He overlooks no fault.
That knife was never forged at a tyrant's behest,
Not to 'Mtoxicate was the grape juice expressed.
Jesus beside the road beheld a figure slain.
Finger on lip, he gazed distraught with grief and pain.
'Whom didst thou kill? He said, 'that slain hast been through hate,
And he who murdered thee meet also the same fate.'
Lift neer a scornful finger.- speak no angry word,
Lest swift and forceful retribution be incurred.'

Also by him and translated by Norman Sharp are these lines:

Persian Poetry By Naser Khossrow
'Account him no man, who is faithless and false,
Though Adam as father he claim;
Though Mary his mother be, none ranks with Christ,
Whose name is above ev'ry name.'

Then we come to Ghazzali - known in the West as Algazel (12th century 1059 - 1111) though not very famous for his poems, he was a great mystic and he has a lot about Christianity in his poems. Dr. Kenneth Cragg has this to say about him:

'The great Al-Ghazzali Justified his use of John's Gospel by his belief that God had granted to Jesus a special 'Khossossiat' or personhood, where he was allowed to use theopathic language which had only metaphorical value'.

In his celebrated work 'Ehya Uloom-el Din' Ghazzali attributes many sayings to Jesus, some of which are obviously from the Gospels. Some are from other sources:

e.g. i 'Lay up your treasure with Him who will not waste it.' 3.151 (Matthew 6:19)

e.g. i Jesus one day walked with his disciples and they passed by the carcase of a dog. The Apostles said:'How foul is the smell of this dog.' But Jesus said: 'What pearls are its teeth!' 3.108

About a century later Nezami from Ganjeh now in the USSR, put this lovely story into poetry. The Revd. Norman Sharp has translated it thus:

'Withhold thy gaze from others'faults and defects,
But note the faults that thine own mirror reflects!
In all men much there is to praise and to blame:
The blame ignore; the praise then only proclaim!
The peacock's feathers gleam with colour and gold.
Its legs, which are uncomely, none need behold.
The Christ pursued on foot His usual way,
And through a market place He passed on that day.
Nearby a dog had died, and lay still and prone,
Its former beaut could no longer be shown.
Some casual bystanders saw with disgust
The corpse decaying and the hair full of dust.
Said one, 'This gruesome sight without any doubt
Is like the noxious smoke a snuffed light gives out.'
Another said,'This horror might cause in us
Poor vision or heart failure quite disastrous.'
Each one in turn invective cast, merciless;
Each scorned afresh the lifeless corpse, pitiless.
When came the turn of Jesus freely to speak,
Said He, 'The view of its wide mouth makes it clear
Its teeth than pearls are whiter, and so appear.'
Seek not others'faults, nor thy virtue extol;
Lament thine own defects, and poor self control.'

We now go to Mowlavi or jalal al-Din Rumi (Died in 1273), whom I mentioned before.

He has a lovely poem about the blind and the lame coming to Jesus for healing. This is a famous poem which has been translated by Norman Sharp who had it printed, together with a picture painted by Mussavar ul Mulk. However, I also found another translation of the same poem by E.H. Whinfield and quote this:

Persian Poetry by Jalal Al-Din Rumi Mowlavi

'The house of 'Isa was the banquet of men of heart.
0 afflicted one, quit not this door.
From all sides the people ever thronged,
Many blind and lame, halt and afflicted,
At the door of the house of 'Isa at dawn,

That with his breath he might heal their ailments.
As soon as he had finished his orisons
That holy one would comc forth at the third hour.
He pondered those impotent folk sitting,
Troop by troop, at his door in hope and expectation.
He spoke to them saying.- 'O stricken ones,
The desires ofyou all have been granted by God,
Arise, walk without pain or affliction,
Acknowledge the mercy and beneficience of God.'
Then all, like camels whose feet are shackled,
When you loose their feet on the road,
Straightway rush in J'OY and delight to the halting place,
So did they run upon their feet at his command.'

We have got the first verse of this poem over the doorways of most of our churches in Iran, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why the fanatics have left our churches unmolested.

Now we come to Sa'adi who died in Shiraz in the year 1294. One of the stories in his 'Bootsan' compiled in 1257 is an enlarged edition of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican recorded in St. Luke's Gospel 18:9-14. It is a smafl beautiful parable about humility - how a Mullah goes and prays to God in a pompous way. Then a very poor person prays in a humble way 'I am a sinner - please forgive me'. Christ says that the poor person was forgiven, but not the other one who was proud. Sa'adi made this into a very long poem. The following is part of that poem translated by Captain H. Wilberforce Clarke - it is a literal translation:

'A compiler of the traditions, thus related, in talk -
That, in the time of 'Isa (on him be peace!)
A certain one had squandered his life.-
Had passed it in ignorance and error.
I heard that 'Isa entered from the desert;
He passed by the cell of a certain 'A bid
The recluse came down from his room (cell);
He fell, hard on the earth, at His feet.
In this corner, the old sinner weeping.
Saying: 'O hand seizer! (helper) come to the complaint of my state. '
And, on that side - the Abid, head full of pride,
His eye-brows gathered together, on the sinner from afar.
Knew he not that in the Court of the Independent One (God)
Helplessness is better than pride and presumption

At this threshold of God, thy weakness and thy wretchedness
Are better than thy devotion, and self-beholding.
The sinner, God-t@aring,
Is better than the Saint, dcvotion-displaying.'

Then we come to Mahmoud Shabistary who died in 1320. In 'Gulshan-l-Raz'(Rose Garden of Mystery) he has a poem about Jesus which is rather difficult to understand in Persian, but Mr. Sharp has translated it with his usual sensitivity:

Gholshan Raaz Shabastary
'That man a liege of Christ I hold to be,
Who from all ties and trammels is set free.
To whom the Holy God is fane and shrine,
Whose home the Spirit, ageless and divine.
Such men of Christ's pure Spirit have received,
Who was Himself of Holy Ghost conceived.
Thou also hast from God the soul inmost,
Which is the sign in thee of Holy Ghost.
Whoever earth's entanglements decries,
Enters the Holy Presence in the skies.
Whoever on angelic pureness bent,
Like Christ, ascends the starry firmainent.
So Jesus said, who now is heaven's light,
'The Father's Voice is calling from the height.
Dear son, go thou to thy Father's heart!
Others have gone; remain not thou apart!'

Then we come to Hafiz, perhaps the greatest among the Persian poets (Died in Shiraz in 1389).

A.J. Arberry, in a small book, has collected 50 poems of Hafiz. One of the sonnets is a translation by R. Le Gallienne, starting thus:

'In th e garden sky I sa w th e n e w m oon reaping
And minded was I of my own life's field:
What harvest wilt thou to the sickle yield
When through thy fields the moon-shaped knife goes sweeping?...'

In this sonnet there is a line in which Christ's name is mentioned and is very well known. Unfortunately R.Le Gallienne left this out in his translation, but Mr. Sharp has done a good rendering of it into English which runs as follows:

'If thou, like Christ, be pure and single-hearted,
Who once ascended far beyond the sky,
Thy life will shine with beams of light, whereby
The sun will brighten by thy light imparted.'

Those of us who have visited the tomb of Hafiz in Shiraz have noticed these lines inscribed in large lettering of the Naskh character on glazed 'le on the Eastern wall of the compound where the tomb 's situated.

Hafiz has got another well known sonnet in which Christ and the Holy Ghost are mentioned. Arberry has rendered it into English. He has the gift of poetical translation - obviously himself a poet at heart - he is not worried about form and literal translation, but with the spirit and the inner meanings. This is how he has used his gift on this famous sonnet,

'Long years my heart had made request
Of me, a stranger, hopefully
(Not knowing that itself possessed)
That jamshid's chalice I shall win
And it would see the world therein.'

The last but one line goes like this:

'And if the Holy Ghost descend
In grace and power infinite
His comfort in these days to lend
To them that humbly wait on it,
Theirs too the wondrous works can be
That Jesus wrought in Galilee,'

I think it is a beautiful translation, and if it be not counted as literary blasphemy, perhaps in this case he has improved on Hafiz!

There is no time to quote lines from Sanale, Khaqani, Attar, jami and others, but we cannot leave this section without mentioning Hatif of Isfahan who died in 1783. He is not a very famous poet in Persian literary history, but he has a'Tarji'a Band'which has made him famous. It is perhaps one of the best single poems in Persian Mystic poetry. The poet goes to a fire temple, to a church, and to a pub, and everywhere he finds that people worship the same One God. The part which deals with Christianity is an attempt to explain the mystery of the Trinity. The description of a discourse with a beautiful girl in church perhaps reveals the Armenian influence in Persia from the time of Shah Abbas onwards.

Here is Mr. Sharp's translation of that part of the'Tarji'a Band'dealing with the mystery of the Holy Trinity:

Hatef Esfahani - Persian Poetry
Hatef Esfahani - Persian Poetry
'Once in a church I saw a Christian maid.
'Thou who dost hold my heart in thrafl!'I said.
'Thou whose unraveled girdle is entwined
With every hair of mine, and forms one braid!

Till when from faith in Unity astray?
Triune to call the One, art not afraid?
How can as Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The onc true God be fittingly arrayed?'
Parting her lovely lips, sweet words she spoke,
Smiling and laughing, answered undismayed,
'If of God's Unity thou art assured,
Call us not infidels, nor us upbraid!
Iii triplc mirrors God in endless love
Has his resplendent countenance displayed.
Silk will not three things be, though it appears
Sometimes as satin, damask or brocade!'

While thus in colloquy we were absorbed,
This noble chant the church bell loudly played,

'God is but one: there can no other be.
One is the Lord, and there is none but He.' 17

Norman Sharp's translation here, as elsewhere, is admirable. He keeps to the rhyme and rhythm. He has even found three different words for one material, namely'silk', which Hatif has used in the original Persian.

Now we come to Contemporary Poets I shall mention just one: Dr. Hamidi Shirazi who has a poem directly about Christianity. Again Mr. Sharp has translated it, and has this to say about it:

'These Persian verses of Dr. Hamidi Shirazi are a poetical translation of part of the famous inscription on a large stone tablet set up in China by Persian Christians in 78 I.'

Hamid Shirazi - Persian Poetry
'One Holy Person of the Trinity,
The Christ of God, the Light of Heavn and earth,
As man appeared among the sons of men;
Concealed his glory, majesty and worth.
The angels in the world above rejoiced;
The vault of heaven rang with joy and mirth.
To shepherds watching in the fields at night
They brought the tidings of his holy birth.
From a pure virgin by Divine command
Appeared the light that lighteneth man's days.
A brilliant star proclaimed the glad event:
In the far heaven shone its ardent blaze.
The Persian Magi saw, the effulgent star,
Illumining the sky like solar rays.
Towards Bethlehem withoyful steps they sped
To offer Him their precious gifts andpraise.' 18

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