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
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
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
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
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), 12 fragments ( moqaṭṭaʿ), 357 quatrains (robāʿi),
and 1,413 love lyrics (
). ("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
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
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
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
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
Tell me, my dear, how long will you go on
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
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
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
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
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
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 and the nudama always gathered in her majlis, 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.
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,
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").