Bibi Jan Hayati: Life and works
by Eliza Tasbihi, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada (2014)
Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, has always provided equal opportunity for both men and women to engage in spiritual practice. Sufi orders in Iran in particular have a long history of women writing Sufi texts and participating in spiritual gatherings. One of the Sufi Orders that has long encouraged the equality of men and women’s spirituality is the Nimatullahi Sufi Order founded by Shah Nimatullah Vali (d. 1431). Being a poet himself, Shah Nimatullah encouraged the use of poetry during Sufi ceremonies as a means for transmitting spiritual principles.
Among the well-known Iranian Sufi poetesses is Bibi Jan Hayati. Born in the second half of the 18th century in the city of Bam, she was raised in a noble and a well-respected Sufi family. Soon the family moved to Tehran, where Bibi Jan’s elder brother, Rawnaq ‘Ali, was hoping to attain a high-ranking position in the military. After her father passed away, Bibi Jan was raised under the tutelage of her brother who ultimately entered the Sufi path and played a large role in shaping Bibi Jan’s spiritual life. Through her brother, Bibi Jan met and eventually married Nur ‘Ali Shah Isfahani (d. 1797), one of the masters of the Nimatullahi Order. Her age at the time of marriage would have been between 15 and 18 years old and she bore her husband a daughter. She soon became an active member of the Order, dedicating her entire Divan (collected poems) to her husband. Indeed, the early sources speak of Bibi Hayati primarily as the sister of Rawnaq ‘Ali and the wife of Nur ‘Ali Shah, reflecting the male dominated culture of her time, where women were expected to avoid social recognition and unnecessary attention.
Upon her husband’s encouragement, Bibi Jan started composing love poetry. It is also upon his recommendation that Bibi Jan chose the nickname Hayati, derived from the Persian word “hayat” or life.
Your face is the manifestation of the divine
The sun and the moon are particles from the ray of your beauty,
To your look I gave up my life (hayat), and gained spiritual life (Hayat)
There is no supremacy and power except His! (Quatrain #22)
The term Hayat or Hayati reflects Bibi Jan’s spiritual transformation, also pointing to her appreciation for her husband with whom she walked the Sufi path of love and unity. The significant character of her Divan is the mystical aspect of her poetry. Her poetry indicates her sensibility and poetic talent, her familiarity with Persian poetic forms, literature, meters and structure as well as Sufi terminology and musical instruments. They are rich in rhetoric, images, sentiment, metaphors, symbols and also rhyming and musical elements. Her poems demonstrate an intense sense of passion and emotion towards her husband and lover, albeit framed by Sufi spirituality.
The sun of my being shines
Forth again from Nur ‘Ali,
The aurora of the soul
Cast upon Hayati’s heart (Ghazal #87)
There is debate about when Bibi Hayati died. Some sources say that she passed away in 1853, which could indicate that she remarried after her husband’s death. Other sources claim that she died in 1798, one year after her husband, leaving her collected poetry unedited. Had she lived and remarried after her first marriage, one would expect her to have left behind many additional poems, whereas her only extant poetry is her Divan, which she composed during her life with Nur ‘Ali.
Most of Bibi Hayati’s poems consist of short ghazals (love poems) ranging from 5 to 10 verses composed in the genre of Sufi poetry and in various poetic meters. It is suggested that Bibi Hayati’s poetic style was heavily influenced by Hafez’s poetry. Her Divan has been published twice in Iran, first in 1935, with no introduction or explanatory notes. The second edition was published in 1970 and supplemented with a comprehensive biography of the poetess and explanatory notes by the late master of the Nimatullahi Order, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh (d. 2008).
The following is a list of sources in which Bibi Hayati’s life and works are discussed.
Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, NY: Khaniqah Nimatullahi’s publications, 1983.
Fatimah Jahangard, Pujhuhish-i dar Divan-i Hayati Kirmani, Tehran: Kirman: Markaz-i Kirman-shinasi, 2008.
‘Ali Akbar Mushir-Salimi, Zanan-i Sukhanvar, Tehran: Shirkat- sahami-i chap va IntisharatiI kitab-i Iran, 1956.
Muhammad Hassan khan ‘Itemad al-Saltanah, Tazkirah Khayrat al-Hasan, 3 volumes manuscripts, Tehran: Majlis library, 1928.
Muhammad Zihni, Tazkirat al-Khavatin, Mumbai: Mirza Muhammad Malik al-
Kuttab Shirazi publisher, 1885.
Zabih al-allah Mahallati, Rayahin al-Shari’ah, 6 voles, Qom: dar-al Kutub al-Islamiya, 1996.