Stanford scholar reveals complex view of Islam in Iranian poetry

Aug. 17, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

In her dissertation about Persian poetry, doctoral student Ahoo Najafian offers a rare glimpse into the poetry of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the English-speaking world.

While Khomeini is better known as the former supreme leader of Iran, literary critiques of Khomeini’s poetic output are hard to come by since his chosen form, the ghazal, is not widely studied by today’s critics. Najafian, who is completing her Ph.D. in religious studies at Stanford, reveals the subversive flavor of his poetry that often contradicted his political texts.

Complex view of a leader

As a 10-year-old seminary student, Khomeini began to write poems in his diary that drew attention from his peers. Khomeini’s poetry stayed otherwise under wraps until his daughter-in-law published Khomeini’s poems after his death in 1989. Even from this collection, however, 55 years worth of Khomeini’s poems are missing from the period in which Khomeini was exiled from Iran.

“We have his poems as a young man,” Najafian said. “We have his poems as the leader of a nation. But we don’t have the [poems] in between to see [his] development.”

Khomeini mostly wrote love poems in his earlier years, but his later poetry showed a growing fascination with mystical themes. His political supporters and critics alike were most shocked by the iconoclastic themes of these later poems, which challenged his legacy as Iran’s dogmatic religious and political leader.

“The interesting thing about Khomeini is that he is using these themes: writing against established religion [and] established political positions, saying we should all be beyond that,” Najafian said.

According to Najafian, the opposition between Khomeini’s theocratic politics and more mystical poetry is part of what makes his poetry so unique.

His choice of a poetic form called the “ghazal” also signals his rebellious spirit, Najafian argues.

Though ghazals are traditionally love poems, the poets of Iran’s constitutional revolution (1906-1911) imbued their poems with political fervor by casting the independent Iranian nation as the beloved in their passionate ghazals. Khomeini was inspired by these unconventional political ghazals and chose to write most of his poems in that style, even though the restrictive form had fallen out of favor by his time.

Najafian, long interested in literature, became intrigued by contemporary ghazal poetry because the form has many critics and receives little attention.

“The fact that there are still people writing ghazals and they have readership is what fascinated me,” Najafian said. “If we want to [understand] these people, maybe we should read what they are reading.”

Complex view of Islam

To Najafian, Khomeini’s poetry is especially significant today because it defies a simplistic binary of “bad Islam” and “good Islam” in the popular imagination. As the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini is closely associated with political Islam, which some people today view negatively due to the rise of extremist militant groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas. Yet Khomeini’s poetry is imbued with the mysticism and sufism that have gained the popular label “good Islam” due to their nonviolent character, Najafian said.

“We see all the terrorists and say that’s bad Islam without bringing into conversation the inner life of these Muslims,” Najafian said. “Why is it that religion becomes a defining characteristic of any person with such a background?”

Najafian pointed out that the dichotomy supposes that a “real Islam” exists, which some people have achieved more completely than others. She believes that poetry is a natural way of exploring the ambiguities and complexities of Muslim identity.

“And maybe in order to show the complexity, we should start to show the complexity of the term Islam itself,” Najafian said. “What is the best way to convey this complication to people? Maybe literature is a good starting point.”


Contact Aditi Chatradhi at aditichatradhi19 ‘at’

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