Iranian, Indian and Pakistani poets between mysticism and self-realization

Text: Giti Nassouri

Persian and Indian culture have been two of the oldest and most fertile grounds poetry. Poetry is visible in the lives of different social classes. More than being the preoccupation of a social and cultural elite, poetry has been the means through which the ordinary people living in these cultures made their lives and deaths endurable, beautiful and meaningful. In Persian culture for instance; even before the introduction of modern education, ordinary people knew their genius poets through whom they could express their hope and despair at any moment of their life. There appeared different genres of epic, satire, romance and mystic within Persian poetry. Ferdowsi (940-1020) in epic, Nezami Ganjavi in romantic epic, Ubayd Zakani (1300-1371) in satire, Faridudin Attar (1145-1221) in mystic are arguably the greatest masters of these genres of Persian poetry. Persian poets such as Rumi (1207-1273) and Hafez (1315-1390) synthesized aspects of all the existing genres into their poetry. Hafez is still very popular, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that a copy of Hafez’ collected works can be found in almost every Iranian home. Poets like Hafiz and Rumi were capable of transmitting the beauty and meaning of their poetry into the neighboring culture, the Indian culture.

In this regard, I would like to mention the rich poetic tradition in contemporary Iran, India and Pakistan. Poetry reading competition is an old tradition among Iranians and the Urdu speaking population in India and Pakistan. In the poetry competitions, the first participant recites a verse of a poem and the next participant reply with another verse, which starts with the last letter of the verse used by the first participant and so on. The competition continues until one of the participants fail to recite a verse according to the rules. Every participant is only allowed to use a verse only once; repetition of verses is not accepted. The poetry competition is called “Mushaereh” in Persian and “Bait bazi” in Urdu. The poetry competition which for centuries had been both entertaining and educational seems unfashionable these days in Iran, India and Pakistan. But in the past it was the easiest way of persuading young people to make themselves familiar not only with their literature and cultural heritage but with what it meant to be human.

I would like say a few words about three remarkable poets, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Iqbal Lahori who made great impacts on the Iranian, Indian and Pakistani culture and whose voice have transcended the language and culture within which and through which they presented their work of poetry.

Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi known as Rumi is widely considered as literature’s greatest mystical poet and as one of the most influential poets worldwide. Rumi’s poetry has inspired other writers and readers for centuries. His work has been translated into various languages and he has been one of the bestselling poets in the US.

Rumi’s poetry writing began at the age of 37 after his meeting and friendship with Shams Tabrizi. Shams Tabrizi, a Sufi Master who remained his spiritual mentor until his death, was one of his biggest influences. Rumi had a deeply spiritual relationship with Shams, and this spiritual relationship transformed Rumi from being a sober theologian and a preacher to an impassioned seeker of truth and divine love. The death of Shams, which affected Rumi deeply, brought out new aspects of his spirituality, which he expressed in his poetry. Rumi composed thousands of strong emotional verses in his poems as a way to express his grief at the loss of his friend. He believed passionately that music, poetry and dance were among the mystical ways of connecting with the divine.

Here is one of Rumi’s poems in Persian played with traditional Iranian music:

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian who received the Nobel Prize

Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941) was a Bengali mystic and poet, who wrote poetry in both Hindi and Bengali languages and translated some of his own poems into English. Along with familiarity with western literature and culture, he held on to his native literature and cultural heritage. But Tagore’s love for his native literature and culture did not prevent him thinking universally. Tagore’s most celebrated book of the poetry is called Gitanjali, published in 1910. The English translation of the book, which was a great success made him well-known in the literary circles in Europe and the United States. Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Gitangli with its emotional and mystical content is described as Nature Mysticism. Although Tagore had a Hindu background, the spirituality of his book is generally expressed in universal terms, which can be understood by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or any other faith. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote about Tagore’s poems:

“These lyrics – which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention – display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.”

Muhammad Iqbal, known as Shair-e-Mushriq or Poet of the East 

Muhammad Iqbal (November 9, 1877 – April 21, 1938), also known as Allama Iqbal, is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in Urdu literature, with literary work in both Urdu and Persian.

Pakistani, Indian and other international scholars of literature, regard Iqbal as an outstanding classical poet. Although he never visited Iran, he wrote most of his poetry in Persian (about 60% of his poetry is in Persian). The fact that he neither visited Iran nor formally studied Persian, did not prevent him from producing amazing works of Persian poetry. In Iran, Iqbal is known as Iqbal-e Lahori (Iqbal of Lahore) and his Persian works are highly appreciated. Rumi was a spiritual guide for Iqbal, and Rumi’s poetry and philosophy had a deep influence on Iqbal’s mind.

Allama Iqbal’s remarkable poetry focuses on selfrespect and self-realization. He believed that “selfrespect and self-realization could mobilize our internal energies and provide us the real dynamics of success.

Finally, I will share some of the beautiful verses composed by these three giants of Persian, Bengali and Urdu literature.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Failure is not fatal until
we surrender trying again
is the key of glorious victory”

Muhammad Iqbal

Giti Nassouri is a librarian at the National Library of Norway. For many years, she has worked at the section for multilingual library at Oslo public library (Deichmanske Bibliotek). There she was in charge of Bengali, Hindi, Panjabi, Dutch, Greek, Dari, Pashto, Persian and Urdu book collections, which has been transferred to the National Library of Norway.


Tema morsmål – support for multilingual education

Tema Morsmål is a website that offers resources to support different mother tongues and multilingual work in child care, mother tongue education and bilingual education in schools.

It offers learning resources in a wide variety of mother tongues for all employees in kindergartens and schools, focusing especially on multilingual staff in kindergartens, mother tongue teachers, bilingual teachers and teachers in special Norwegian schools and for minority language children and parents.

Tema Morsmål communicates current information about native language and multilingualism, both nationally and internationally, from research environments to educational practice and builds networks for the site’s current audiences.

The website’s main language is Norwegian but it has also versions in Arabic , in Dari, in Sorani Kurdish, in Lithuanian, in Pashto, in Persian, in Polish, in Russian, in Somali, in Spanish, in Tamil, in Thai, in Tigrinya, in Turkish and in Urdu.

Litteraturcentrum Uppsala

Litteraturcentrum Uppsala  is a collaboration of Studiefrämjandet, Kultur i länet, Kulturrådet, Uppsala city, Uppsala regional library and Svenska Pen. Its aim is to support local reading and writing and the regional literary field including a multilingual context. The centre is based in Uppsala, and it is a part of the culture plan of the Uppsala region.

The people involved in the activities of Litteraturcentrum Uppsala use at least the following languages: Swedish, Sami, Arabic, Bengali, Dari, French, German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Wolof, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, Spanish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Estonian, Kokborok, Beluch, English, Tamil, Georgian, Turkish etc.


Anisur Rahman, the project leader for LItteraturcentrum Uppsala describes the work:

“We are interested in both the artistic and social effects of literature. We work locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, and have established productive partnerships with several organizations, including literary organizations, local theatres and schools. Our centre is now a platform for both professional and amateur writers in diverse mother languages. It is a meeting point for native, foreign, immigrant and exiled writers. We publish more than a hundred writers a year in our literary anthology from our creative writing workshops every year. We host more than a hundred literary events a year.

Our centre in Uppsala together with Litteraturcentrum in Tranås, Litteratur resurscentrum in Norbotten and similar project in Jämtland-Harjedalen is now Sweden’s international literary checkpoint where we have growing network and exchange with different continents. All are welcome on board to read and write in diverse languages in defense of free word and free thought.”

Anisur RahmanAnisur Rahman is Uppsala’s guest writer 2009–2011 in the ICORN system and currently project leader for Litteraturcentrum Uppsala, Studiefräjandet Uppsalaregion,

Multilingual Library, Helsinki, Finland

The Multilingual Library is located in Pasila Library, Helsinki and its collections cover over 80 languages. Customers living outside of Helsinki can order all materials to their local libraries around Finland.

The Multilingual library also hosts a blog about current topics related to literature and multilingualism. The blog has blogs in English and occasionally in other languages, e.g. in Somali, Persian and Arabic.

Customers who cannot find their own language among the language collection can suggest items to add to the collection.

In the book collection you find books at least in the following languages:

Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Byelorussian, Catalan,  Chinese,  Czech, Danish, Dari, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek,  Greenlandic, Gujarati,  Hebrew,  Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Karelian, Khmer, Komi, Korean, Kurdish, Latin, Latvian, Lingala, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mari, Nepalese, Norwegian, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romani, Romanian, Russian, Sanskrit, Sámi, Sign language, Slovakian, Slovenian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Tamili, Tatar, Telugu,  Thai, Tigrinya,  Turkish,  Ukrainian,  Urdu, Vietnamese and Yiddish

The mother languages of the permanent staff at Pasila Library, which is the physical location of Multilingual Library, include Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian, Estonian and Somali.



International Library, Stockholm, Sweden

The International Library is part of the Stockholm Public Library and it is in central Stockholm. It has a multilingual collection of books in around 200 languages. People living elsewhere in Sweden can order books from the international library to their local libraries.

The library´s website has language versions in Swedish, in Arabic, in English, in French, in Chinese, in Persian, in Russian and in Spanish.

In the webpage of the International Library you can also find interesting archives related to multilingual issues, like the interview archive and book recommendations for and from readers in different languages, apart of the previously mentioned at least in Polish, Bulgarian, Portuguese and Urdu.

The collection includes books in the following languages: Acholi, Afar, Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Ashanti, Azerbaijani, Baluchi, Bambara, Basque, Bemba, Bengali, Berber language, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Buli, Burmese,  Catalan, Cebuano, Chewa, Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Dari, Edo, Efik, English, Greenlandic, Estonian, Ewe, Fanti, French, Fulani,  Galician, Geez, Georgian, Greek, Gujarati, Hausa, Hebrean, Hindi, Igbo, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Kikuyu, Kirgisyan, Kongo (Kikongo), Korean, Krio, Kurdish (Kurmandji and Sorani), Kymric (Cymric/Welsh), Lao/ Laos,











Det flerspråklige bibliotek, Oslo, Norway

Det flerspråklige bibliotek, Oslo, Norway:
The multilingual collection of the National Library of Norway has books and films in 69 languages. Libraries around Norway can order materials for their customers.

The library also offers special packages with books and other materials for multilingual reading promotion. One of the tools  are the adventure bags with bilingual editions of selected stories in several different languages. For the celebration of mother language day there are special material packages as well. Other institutions can book these materials through their local library.



Danish Library Centre for Integration, Copenhagen, Denmark

Danish Library Centre for Integration, Copenhagen, Denmark
The Danish Library Centre for Integration (SBCI) lends books, music, and films to Danish public libraries. Most of the collections are in Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. They also host Verdensbibliotek, a digital library with online access to music, films and e-books from all over the world.