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Jahan Malek Khatun: Poet-Princess in an Uncertain World

ahan Malek Khatun, daughter of Masud Shah, Injuid King of Shiraz and Fars, used the pen name Jahan, which means "world." It is indeed likely that, as their only child to survive to adulthood, she did mean the world to her parents, because she was brought up in a position of privilege uncommon for most women of her time and place-she was educated as well as any princeling and encouraged to write poetry. While her royal position was often precarious and may have committed her into danger and exile for some years, it is nonetheless also no doubt responsible for the fact that we have, in Jahan's Divan ("Complete Poems") "the only complete collection by a woman writing in Persian…from before the nineteenth century" (Davis, "Introduction", xlvi). The significance of her work, not only in the context of her own culture, but also in the lens of today's post-feminist reclamation of early poetic role-models, is clearly profound.


As Brookshaw summarizes in "Odes of a Poet-Princess," "The history of fourteenth century Shiraz is one of murder, intrigue and civil unrest," and precise dates are uncertain, especially given the complexity of the official medieval calendar, the Jalali calendar. We can say, however, that Jahan lived through the reigns of at least four kings, most of which ended violently.

Jahan's parents married in 1324, and while we have no birth date for Jahan, we know that after her father was killed in 1342 and her uncle Abu Es'haq both became king and assumed her guardianship, some time between 1343 and 1347 she married his nadim-"his bosom-buddy, drinking companion, and confidant-Amin al-din Jahromi" (Davis, "Introduction," xlii).

The ten years of Abu Es'haq's reign were relatively stable with literature flowering at his court, often frequented by Jahan's more famous male contemporaries Hafez and Obayd-e Zakani, and it seems likely that the poetry-loving king encouraged his niece's literary aspirations despite her gender.

During this period Jahan also bore a daughter, about whom nothing is known except that she must have died young, a fact gleaned from the twenty-three moving poems Jahan wrote mourning the child:

Grant her a place in paradise,
And may the throngs
Of lovely houris welcome her
Where she belongs. (Khatun, 138)

Unfortunately in 1353 the Mozaffarid usurper Mobaraz al-din wrested control of Shiraz away from Abu Es'haq, who initially fled, but was brought back and executed in 1357, possibly alongside Jahan's husband. While Jahan's precise whereabouts are uncertain during this period, if we interpret several of her poems autobiographically, it seems that she was held captive at one point, and also spent some time alone in exile:

Here, in the corner of a ruined school
(More ruined even than my heart), I wait
While men declare that there's no goodness in me.
I sit alone, and brood upon my fate. (Khatun, 182)

Mobarez al-din's five-year rule was strict and orthodox-he closed wine shops and despised poetry, even considering "having the grave of Sa'di destroyed because he thought the great poet's verses weren't Islamic enough" (Davis, "Introduction", xv). Happily his more politically astute son, Shah Shoja, deposed him in 1358, and wine, music and poetry became permitted once more. Jahan returned to Shiraz, along with Hafez and Obayd, and all three lived relatively peacefully until their deaths. Brookshaw interprets the poetic evidence as suggesting that Jahan lived until at least 1382 and possibly as late as 1393 ("Jahan-Malek Katun").

Then Jahan all but disappeared completely from view, which probably occurred for several reasons. Firstly, no original or early manuscript of her works was preserved in Iran-two are in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, one in Istanbul, and one in Cambridge. In addition, although women's rights have made great strides in Iran since 1850, and particularly since the 1990s, as Brookshaw points out, "until the beginning of the twentieth century, literacy among women in Iran was extremely low," and "the composition and performance of poetry was considered by many to be improper for women" ("Odes of a Poet-Princess"). Add to this the political turmoil of Iran during the latter half of the twentieth century surrounding the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and it is perhaps less surprising that no one considered publishing the Complete Poems of Jahan Malek Khatun until 1995.


To assess the significance of Jahan's work, it seems necessary to examine it from several angles. Firstly, we need to understand how her poetry compares with the works of her male contemporaries, in particular Hafez, and to judge whether her gender either distinguishes her poems or is indeed itself distinguishable. Secondly, we should attempt some interpretation of the extent to which her poetry plays an autobiographical role, especially given the dearth of factual biography available to us. Finally we should relate these findings to their importance to women, both in the Islamic environment that arose in Iran in the centuries following her death, and to women today.

Before considering Jahan's poetry in more depth, however, it is necessary to outline some of the conventions of fourteenth-century Persian poetry, detailed in Dick Davis's introduction to Faces of Love. As Brookshaw points out, Jahan is:

primarily a gazal poet. Her divan contains 4 odes ( qaṣida), one strophe-poem (tarjiʿband) a lengthy elegy (marṯia)[1], 12 fragments ( moqaṭṭaʿ), 357 quatrains (robāʿi), and 1,413 love lyrics ( ḡazal ). ("Jahan-Malek Katun")

The ghazal is a lyric poem of praise, which, according to Davis, "is virtually always concerned with a relationship between a speaker and an addressee in which the addressee is conceived of as infinitely superior to the speaker…a beloved/lover, a patron, or God." Although this relationship is similar in some ways those of Renaissance courtly love poems, in the ghazal this address is typically complicated by a deliberate ambiguity as to which of these types of relationship is being referred to. Often the personal pronoun used to indicate the addressee also shifts between you and he throughout the course of the poem. When Davis adds that "Persian pronouns have no gender distinction, so that the same word may be translated as 'he,' 'she,' or 'it'" the potential for confusion becomes even greater ("Introduction", xxi).

However, scholars of Persian poetry tend to agree that if the subject of a ghazal is the beloved, the addressee is typically a young male, pederasty being a common and accepted practice of that era. For Jahan Khatun this presented a problem, and her ghazals more generally involve heterosexual couples, although she often chooses to write as the man addressing the woman.

The pederastic themes, and to a lesser extent the multiple references to wine-drinking (both practices were contrary to orthodox Islam) are sometimes explained away as allegorical. As Davis observes:

The interpretation of Persian poetry that apparently deals with secular love and wine as being in reality mystical and Sufi in its subject matter was well-established by the fourteenth century. ("Introduction", xxvii).

By contrast, Jahan's ghazals, which have far fewer references to wine and drunkenness, also "have little (if any) Sufi or mystical content, whether covert or overt" (Brookshaw, "Jahan-Malek Katun"). Furthermore, she occasionally makes use of tropes rooted in the kitchen and domestic life, such as "…'cooking pot of desire'…[and] 'the wash-basin of our love fell from the roof'" (Brookshaw, "Odes of a Poet-Princess", 177). These small and probably unconscious diversions from the prevalent male aesthetic of the era foreshadow the emergence of a distinct feminine aesthetic in the poetry of women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which became, in its turn, the basis for contemporary women's poetry.

Let's begin by examining a conventional ghazal by Jahan, rendered by Dick Davis into the form we commonly understand as a ghazal in English, which is summarized by the Academy of American Poets as follows:

The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets-and typically no more than fifteen-that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. Each line of the poem must be of the same length, though meter is not imposed in English. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet's signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet's own name or a derivation of its meaning.

In the following poem, no genders are delineated, which we have seen is the norm in Persian lyric poetry. Nevertheless, Jahan talks about the beloved using some of the conventions which would imply that the speaker is a male, and the addressee a young boy:

Come here a moment, sit with me, don't sleep tonight,
Consider well my heart's unhappy plight, tonight;

And let your face's presence lighten me, and give
The loveliness of moonlight to the night, tonight.

Be kind now to this stranger, and don't imitate
Life as it leaves me in its headlong flight, tonight.

Be sweet to me now as your eyes are sweet; don't twist
Away now like your curls, to left and right, tonight.

Don't sweep me from you like the dust before your door;
Dowse all the flames of longing you ignite, tonight.

Why do you treat me with such cruelty now, my friend,
So that my tears obliterate my sight, tonight?

If, for a moment, I could see you in my dreams,
I'd know the sum of all this world's delight, tonight. (Khatun, 154)

The poem's addressee has sweet eyes, and his hair curls on either side of his face. Brookshaw asserts, "The beloved's hair must be long, hang down his back, and be divided into two forelocks at the front" and further on, "Imagery related to sugar…features prominently in the fourteenth-century ghazal and the poetry of Jahan-Malik Khatun is no exception" ("Odes of a Poet-Princess," 179). As Brookshaw concludes after comparing Jahan's ghazals to those of Hafez and Obayd, "it is clear…that [Jahan's] poetry is not only of a similar caliber but that it is also of a similar style and diction."

But even if Jahan is writing as a male, using the poetic conventions of the time, "the fact that she is in reality a woman, and that her audience would know this, frequently tweaks the poetic conventions" (Davis, "Introduction", xlix). Furthermore, we should acknowledge the appearance of a domestic trope in "Don't sweep me from you like the dust before your door."

Finally, we should examine Jahan's trademark punning on her signature in the last line: "the sum of all this world's delight," which has a particular significance to her gender. Male poets such as Hafez often choose to exploit the convention that the poet's name should appear in the last line of a ghazal by concluding with a hyperbolic boast. Consider, for example, the final couplet of Hafez's Ghazal #3:

Hafez, when you write ghazals you thread pearls,
Scattering stars in a candelabra.

Jahan, on the other hand, generally used her name instead for its versatile meaning of 'world.' Interestingly, Hafez's boasting sometimes sets up an effect that jars against the supposed humility of the speaker in the face of the unattainable beloved, whereas Jahan's closure resonates consistently with the tone of the poem, making it arguably an intrinsically more moving composition.

As Jahan was primarily a ghazal poet, we should analyze a second ghazal. However, Dick Davis summarizes the problems faced by the translator of ghazals from Persian to English in his introduction to Faces of Love -these include the long lines (fourteen syllables per half line, one couplet being one full line) and the monorhyme. Davis offers ballad stanzas as "close approximations (sometimes breaking in a different place, for example 10/4)" (lxvii). What follows is a fine example:

How would it be, my soul's love, if you healed
My heart for me,
And pitied my poor state, and didn't stay
Apart from me?

Your ruby lips are fire, your face is like
The shining moon;
It would be right for you to visit me,
My dear, and soon.

You swore a thousand times you'd come, which you
Have not yet done-
Of all the promises you've made, why don't
You keep just one?

I have endured a wretched lifetime of
Your tyranny;
Tell me, my dear, how long will you go on
Tormenting me?

How often will you swear to me, "I'll come"
And then desert me?
Your leaving me's a brand-how long do you
Intend to hurt me?

Why do you injure all your friends like this
And make me into what my enemies
Would wish for me?

My heart, how long will all this longing last?
Calm down and rest;
You'll certainly upset the world if you
Don't stop this quest! (Khatun, 168-9)

Each stanza here represents a couplet in the source ghazal, and in place of monorhyme, Davis uses a "new rhyme for each 'stanza' or couplet" ("Introduction," lxix). Once again, Jahan follows the conventions and produces a poem on a par with anything penned by Hafez: "As in much Arabic poetry, the beloved and his or her beautiful face are frequently likened to the moon," meanwhile "the beloved's lips are…compared to wine-red rubies" (Brookshaw, "Odes of a Poet-Princess", 180).

Of passing interest here is the mention of Jahan's enemies in the penultimate stanza-no doubt as a princess she was more prone that the average poet to accumulating powerful enemies. More importantly, once again the signature "world" appears in a context loaded with semantic and symbolic meaning. That the speaker's heart can "upset the world" is true enough if the world is Jahan herself, although it implies a dichotomy between the speaker's emotional core and what she thinks of as herself, a logical thinking being; but, that the speaker's heart can upset the actual world-the world surrounding the speaker-might very well be true if the love object is a forbidden one. As Davis writes in his introduction, "Did she have other lovers besides her husband? Some of her poems seem to imply this, or at least to suggest that she has been in love with more than one person (xliii)."

The opposing view, of course, is that the poems were simply exercises, and that Jahan's aim was solely to achieve, as far as possible "the language and style of her male contemporaries and, in so doing,…[produce] poetry of a comparable standard and complexity. Indeed, Jahan herself states in the introduction to her divan that "all great men know that, in order for their name to live on after death, they must write poetry or prose," an admission which supports the theory of her poetry as exercise (Brookshaw, "Odes of a Poet-Princess," 177).

A further interpretation by Davis of at least some of the ghazals is that she is using "the rhetoric of hopeless love to comment on her hopeless political situation, after her immediate family lost power in Shiraz." Davis goes on to point out that when everyone follows the same conventions, such as in fashion, you can nevertheless pick out the followers who do it best, and even make a guess as to some of their personality traits ("Introduction," liii).

In addition, conventional as the ghazals often are, there are moments when Jahan's poetry leaps the chasm of the centuries and elucidates a romantic truth so clear and meaningful, one can't help feeling it must bear some autobiographical significance:

My love's an ache no ointments can allay now;
My soul's on fire-how long you've been away now!
I said, "I will be patient while he's gone."
(But that's impossible…it's one whole day now…)


I swore I'd never look at him again,
I'd be a Sufi, deaf to sin's temptations;
I saw my nature wouldn't stand for it-
From now on I renounce renunciations.

This last fragment is a good example of what Davis means when he says, "Jahan Khatun's poems…contain virtually no trace of any serious interest in Sufism (though she jokes about it a couple of times." But these verses exhibiting such wry self-awareness of her inability to resist the call of the beloved feel too honest and personal to be mere conventional exercises in poetry writing. At such moments one almost feels one could draw a direct line from Jahan Malek-Khatun to the aphorisms of Edna St. Vincent Millay and even Dorothy Parker, both of whom wrote autobiographically.

The effort to delineate the significance of Jahan's work to the women of her day is hampered by a lack of historical commentary. Brookshaw suspects that "given Jahan-Malik's royal status, it is possible that her poetry was considered unsuitable for the eyes (or ears) of men to whom she was not closely related." Nevertheless he speculates as to the means by which Jahan's poetry might have found an audience: "Timurid women owned private gardens to which they invited guests and in which the [sic] hosted wine parties and other celebrations, both formal and informal. Could the situation have been similar in Injuid and Muzaffarid Shiraz?" ("Odes of a Poet-Princess, 176).

However it came about, there is no doubt that Jahan was at least mildly famous during her lifetime and immediately after her death. She was one of twenty female poets included in Fakhiri Hiravi's 1555 anthology of female poets writing in Persian, and, as translated by Brookshaw, Hiravi "writes that Jahan was one of the most famous poets of Shiraz and that she was incomparably beautiful. He says that the zurafa[2] and the nudama[3] always gathered in her majlis[4], and that she was their leader" ("Odes of a Poet-Princess," 174).

Perhaps Lambton summarizes Jahan Malek's position the most accurately when she observes, "The status of the women of the imperial household was a mixture of privilege and authority on the one hand and subjection on the other" (Qtd in Brookshaw, "Odes of a Poet-Princess", 176). Jahan's poetry, obliquely autobiographical and subtly-gendered, was easily on a par with that of Hafez and yet his has been the voice resonating down the centuries. Modern feminist scholars of medieval Persian poetry, with access to Davis's translations, now have the opportunity to expand that focus.

Works Cited

Brookshaw, Dominic Parviz. "Odes of a Poet-Princess: The Ghazals of Jahan-Malik Khatun." [Book info required.]

---. "Jahan-Malek Katun." Encyclopaedia Iranica, online edition, 2014, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/jahan-malek-katun (accessed on 25 May 2014).

Davis, Dick. "Introduction." Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Mage, 2012. Print.

---. "Re: Article." Message to Anna M. Evans. 17 Aug, 2013. E-mail.

Hafez. "Ghazal #3." Trans. Roger Sedarat. Cerise Press Vol 4 Issue 10, Summer 2012. Web. 25 May 2014.

Khatun, Jahan Malek. "Jahan Malek Khatun." Trans. Dick Davis. Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Mage, 2012. Print.

"Poetic Form: Ghazal." Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. 25 May, 2014.


[1] Dick Davis disagrees with this characterization: "It is obvious that the poems that make up the section…are separate poems (they are for example in different forms-rubai, ghazal and qateh)…My guess is that she wrote them over the years on or for a relevant anniversary, perhaps her daughter's birth or death. This was a known medieval practice" ("Re: article").

[2] troop of men

[3] boon-companions

[4] banquets

Jahan Khatun
Years: 1325-1390
Birthplace: Iran
Language(s): Persian
Forms: ghazal
Subjects: Courtly love
Entry By: Anna M. Evans
32 Poems
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