HAJW and its synonym hejā are two of the many terms which denote types of humorous writing or light verse in Persian (cf. the list of more than two hundred items drawn up by Ḥalabi, pp. 97-180, and the article HUMOR). The wide range of meaning attached to the word “satire,” which in English is the nearest equivalent of hajw, requires a further specification to assign hajw its proper place within the wider areas of Persian humorous literature. Its special meaning was determined to a large extent by its history. Already in pre-Islamic Arabia both terms were current as references to the almost magical force that was attributed to the words of the poets in bedouin warfare. Through their poetic invectives poets could damage an opponent’s reputation, either personally or collectively as a member of a rival tribe (Goldziher). Essential to the effectiveness of hajw as a verbal weapon was that its smears on the name of a victim should reach the ears of as many people as possible. Therefore, a lampoon also had to be a successful poem in its own right. A display of wit and rhetorical virtuosity in the poem were necessary tools to achieve the goal.
In the Islamic period hajw survived under the quite different conditions of urban literature and acquired the status of an accepted literary genre, both in Arabic and Persian poetry (Van Gelder). Satire aimed maliciously at personal enemies was seen as the exact opposite of madḥ, the panegyric which was the most prominent genre of court literature. According to Key-Kāvus, anything said in praise of someone could be turned around and then used as an argument in hajw. Although one should not make a habit of composing satires, as such it is not to be condemned (pp. 190-92).
The conventions of courtly life, where poets were competing with each other for patronage, assigned a special place to this kind of poetry: it could be used, on the one hand, to remind a patron of the rewards due to the poet, if only by the threat of turning praise into biting satire; on the other hand, to humiliate the person as well as the poetry of a rival in the never-ending fight for the patron’s favor. No special poetic form was created for this type of satire. It could be molded into any form, but the short forms of the qeṭʿa or moqaṭṭaʿa and the robāʿi or quatrain were the most appropriate, because they could easily be improvised and memorized. Hajw poetry often betrays features of oral poetry, insofar as it is essentially a verbal reaction to a topical situation from which it derived its full colors. A rare example of purely literary satire is the hajw-nāma that Ferdowsi would have written against his patron Sultan Maḥmud, which, if Neẓāmi ʿArużi’s report is to be believed, was meant to be inserted in the introduction of the Šāh-nāma (see also FERDOWSI II). The offensive argument in this satire is the reference to Maḥmud’s low descent, an attack to which the sultan must have been extremely vulnerable:
If the king’s father had been king,
He would have placed on my head a golden crown.
And if the king’s mother had been a princess,
I would be up to my knees in silver and gold.
As there is no greatness in his ancestry,
He cannot bear to hear the name of great men.
A tree which by nature is bitter,
You may plant it in paradise’s garden,
You may water it from the eternal stream,
And irrigate its roots with purest honey,
In the end its essence will come to effect:
It will bring forth nothing but bitter fruit.
Ferdowsi adds the advice to beware of a poet’s revenge because:
An offended poet will write a satire,
And satire remains till the Resurrection (Ferdowsi, pp. xc-xcii)
Invective poetry strives to achieve its aim by soliciting the laughs of the bystanders at the cost of the satirist’s victim. If it is stripped of this malicious intention, it can still be appreciated as humorous verse, and hajw is actually often put together with hazl into the same category of light verse. The latter term, as well as its synonyms moṭāyaba and ṭanz, covers the entire range of humor in poetry which is not meant to be aggressive. Obscenity is one of its most conspicuous features, and the same could be said of hajw, which targets the opponent’s good name by insinuating his cuckoldry, sexual intercourse with boys and animals, and other kinds of scandalous behavior. The free mention of the taboo words for the sexual organs plays an important role in satirical language.
It should be considered, however, that in all kinds of humorous literature a great comic force was attributed to obscenity. Undoubtedly, the satiric bite of hajw was enforced by the use of foul language, but this need not always be the principal ingredient. In the following specimen of hajw, by which the Central Asian court poet Rašidi replies to the criticism of his rival ʿAmʿaq, the poetic effect resides entirely in the clever reversal of the critic’s argument, whereas the invective “cuckold” (qaltabān) is no more than an additional insult:
You blame my poems for being tasteless (bi-namak, lit. ‘without salt’)?
You may have a point there, perhaps.
My poetry is like sugar and honey
And in both, salt does not taste good;
The poems you made are turnips and beans:
It is you, cuckold, who needs the salt! (Neẓāmi ʿArużi, p. 74)
Also, Anwari’s sneer at the stinginess of a patron is remarkable for its wit, but can hardly be called obscene:
If the Emir gives you no more than a small present,
Take it, since coming from him this is very much.
His liberality is like circumcision:
It happens only once in your lifetime. (Divān II, p. 183)
Although much of the effect of satirical poetry is lost as soon as it is detached from the situation for which it was intended, still many specimens were considered interesting enough to be preserved for posterity. Dictionaries and anthologies, such as Asadi’s Loḡat-e-Fors and ʿAwfi’s Lobāb al-albāb, quote many examples of hajw written by the earliest Persian poets. During the 11th and 12th centuries, when courtly panegyric was in full flower, the genre of hajw also had its greatest day. Probably the best specimens can be found among the moqaṭṭaʿāt of Anwari, but he was only one of many poets who tried their hand at this genre. A famous literary duel of the period is that which Ḵāqāni fought with his rival Abu’l-ʿAlā of Ganja (cf. Rypka, 203). No poet, however, became more closely associated with the genre than Moḥammad b. ʿAli Suzani, who lived at the court of the Qaraḵānids of Samarqand in the middle of the 12th century. In his Divān, two different types of hajw poems can be distinguished. The first consists of a series of odes or qaṣidas, in many of which the satire serves as an introduction to the praise of one of his patrons. The second are poems in the ḡazal or short lyric form among which the “answers” (jawāb) to the works of other poets are the most interesting. His best known victims are either poets who were not his contemporaries, such as Sanāʾi, or poets whom Suzani probably never met, since they lived in another part of Persia, such as Qewāmi of Ray. These jawābs should therefore be regarded as persiflage rather than satire in the strict sense. They were meant to amuse the courtiers whom Suzani served, and the excessive use of coarse language for which Suzani has become notorious undoubtedly reflects the tone of the conversation in those circles.
The satirizing of groups of people is attested for the first time in a group of topical poems from the 11th and 12th centuries, for instance a qaṣida by ʿAmʿaq, who describes an imaginary journey through a stony desert full of “inferior and despicable men,” obviously people in his environment at whom he aims his invectives; a maṯnawi or verse in couplet form by Masʿud-e-Saʿd-e-Salmān describing the conviviality at the Ghaznavid court of Lahore; and Sanāʾi’s Kār-nāma-ye Balḵi, where he makes fun of his fellow-poets in Ghazna. These works undoubtedly contain passages that should be classified as hajw, although it is difficult to make out whether the intention was really to be aggressive or merely to indulge in a comparatively harmless kind of jesting (cf. de Bruijn, pp. 194-200).
In the prose works of ʿObayd-e Zākāni (14th century), the greatest satirist of Persian literature, a note of so-cial criticism may be discerned, especially in his Aḵlāq al-ašrāf (“The Morals of the Noble”), but the target at which he aims is not specific enough to fit the definition of hajw as it is used in the present article. However, the tradition of poetic invective remained alive and was practiced by many, among whom the 19th-century poet Yaḡmā should be singled out for mention.
In modern Persian literature the term hajw is still in use, but its social function has changed essentially. At the time of the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century the pattern of courtly patronage, which for centuries had provided the main structure of literary life in Iran, fell apart. Poets and prose-writers of the mašruṭiyat, such as ʿĀref, Bahār, and Dehḵodā, turned hajw into a weapon in politics. Even when they satirized individuals, the purpose was to attack them for political reasons, not to revile them on account of personal grievances. The effectiveness of their satire was enhanced by the emergence of a free press, through which it could reach a much wider public than the traditional forms of hajw. During the years following upon the collapse of the Constitutional Movement, Iraj Mirzā earned himself a reputation as a poet of satire which was intended to criticize injustices in Iranian society, in particular with regard to the rights of women. His tone is usually rather mild and humorous, but he did not shrink from using taboo words just as the classical poets of satire had done.
Anwari, Divān, ed. M. T. Modarres-e Rażawi, 3rd ed., Tehran, 1373 Š./1993, II. A. Bausani, “HIDJĀʾ ii – Persia,” in EI2.
J. T. P. de Bruijn, Of Piety and Poetry, Leiden, 1983.
Ferdowsi, Šāh-nāma,ed. Jules Mohl as Firdousi, Le livre des rois, Paris, 1838, I, Preface [Hajw-nāma: pp. xxxvi-xxxix (French translation), lxxxviii-xcii (Persian text)].
G. J. van Gelder, The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Towards Invective Poetry in Classical Arabic Literature, Leiden, 1989.
Ignaz Goldziher, “Ueber die Vorgeschichte der Higâʾ-Poesie,” in Abhandlungen zur arabischen Philologie, Leiden, 1896, I, pp. 1-121.
ʿAli-Aṣḡar Ḥalabi, Moqaddema bar ṭanz o šuḵ-ṭabʿi dar Irān, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1365 Š./1986.
ʿOnṣor al-Maʿāli Key-Kāvus, Qābus-nāma, ed. Ḡ.-Ḥ. Yusofi, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1352 Š./1973.
M. J. Maḥjub, Sabk-e Ḵorāsāni dar šeʿr-e fārsi, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966.
Neẓāmi ʿArużi Samarqandi, Čahār Maqāla, ed. M. Qazvini, rev. M. Moʿin, 3rd imp., Tehran, 1333 Š./1954.
Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., pp. 83-84.
Ṣafā, Adabiyāt II, pp. 354-56.
Paul Sprachman, “Persian Satire, Parody and Burlesque,” in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., Persian Literature, 1988, pp. 226-48.
Idem, Suppressed Persian, Costa Mesa, Calif., 1995.
Ḥakim Suzani Samarqandi, Divān, ed. Nāṣer-al-Din Šāh-Ḥosayni, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959.
Riccardo Zipoli, “The Obscene Sanâ’i,” Persica XVII, 2001, pp. 173-94.
(J. T. P. de Bruijn)
Originally Published: December 15, 2003
Last Updated: March 1, 2012
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Vol. XI, Fac. 6, pp. 568-570