“What do sad people have in common? It seems they have all built a shrine to the past and often go there and do a strange wail and worship. What is the beginning of Happiness? It is to stop being so religious like that.” – Hafiz

How do we stop being “so religious like that?” Do we stop being religious? Or, can we stop being religious but come back to God? And how would that feel? In his recent essays and forthcoming book, Richard Kearney wagers that contemporary thinkers of God should consider coming back to God; we should consider “ana-theism”: a going back to God after one or many movements away. But if we were to go back to God, what difference would leaving God have made? In Paul Ricoeur’s terms, what religious meaning can atheism have? Or, if we were to go back to God, but noticed that others had left, what difference would that make? Kearney argues that these movements ought to make a difference. For Kearney, there is no simple re-instantiation of theism after the atheistic critique. The atheistic moment has left its mark, and thus any going back to God would not be a return to theism but a turn to anatheism.

I propose to find a sort of “anatheism” at play in the work of the medieval poet Hafiz of Shiraz. Hafiz is our ancient contemporary, living at a time when religious strife was as real and threatening as it is today. “Hafiz” is a pen-name meaning “one who knows the Koran by heart,” used by Khwajeh Shamsu’d-Din Muhammad between approximately 1325-1390 AD.[1] The historical place of his birth, Shiraz, Iran, is the present site of religious conflict. But his work reminds us that the world was not always cut up as it is today. The world has many joints: we do not have to divide it into the theistic and non-theistic, or worse, anti-theistic. And yet we may find it difficult to think outside these binaries when considering contemporary arguments or poetics. Hafiz’s unique historical context permitted him to express himself beyond and between these binaries, thus the contemporary reader who turns back to these poems may find new linguistic and poetic resources to express a position—such as Kearney’s—that resists the dualism inherent in the current debate between theists and atheists.

Before giving this reading, I need to make one important cautionary note: I do not pretend to be a scholar either of Hafiz’s work or of Persian poetry. Rather, I would like you to see this as a phenomenology—an account—of my reading of Hafiz’s text. When the world of his text animates the world of this reader, I am set in a motion that I have identified as anatheistic: a motion between the theistic and atheistic, divine and profane. This essay presents not scholarly analysis, but attests to the possibility of a certain reading of Hafiz’s poetry that is well-described by the term “anatheism.”

But first, let me situate this amalgam term within the dualism of atheism and theism, and then let’s see if drawing on Hafiz can present the concept with a living poetic face.

What is Anatheism? And is it New?

When we speak of atheism, we immediately think of doubt. Doubt certainly has a place in the contemporary world. In fact, doubt may well describe the condition of that world. But in the words of Hannah Arendt, in the modern era atheism and theism, “belief no less than non-belief,” are equally grounded in doubt.[2] Following the critiques of the God of metaphysics by Nietzsche, Freud and others, and the multiplicity of religions with a public face, doubt tends to creep in on faith. Given that doubt so strongly conditions modern human existence, any contemporary theism seems to necessarily be an ana-theism, a returning to God only after leaving in a moment of doubtful withdrawal. Anatheism, in Kearney’s terms, would be a movement toward the sacred, “a religion beyond religion, before religion, and after religion.”[3]

In fact, Kearney does not propose the neologism, anatheism, to designate anything “new” or particularly modern. But there may be something usefully ambiguous and non-dualistic about anatheism that seems new in our modern context. Anatheism describes neither a belief system at one historical moment nor any fixed stance in relation to the divine or secular; it does not prescribe or imply a new theism, nor is it a going back to a particular theism from the past. Rather, it describes—and perhaps even prescribes—a movement between the two. The turning and returning implied by the prefix (ana) is fundamental to the concept. Anatheism moves between not only belief and nonbelief, but between traditions. As part of the human condition, anatheism would not be “the prerogative of any one particular religion” but would be open to the possibility of multiple traditions.[4]

Hafiz’s work exemplifies two key components of anatheism: the poetic imaginary and hospitality. For Kearney’s vision of anatheism, the poetic imaginary is key to escaping the dualism of theism vs. atheism. The space of poetry is the space of the possible: the place of alternatives, of imaginative variations on the present condition. The dualistic division of theists from atheists, rationalists from non-rationalists, is not the only alternative, as poets have always known. Hafiz works in a metaphoric specificity that has always refused such simple reductions.

Secondly, Hafiz inhabited, and invites his readers to inhabit, a place of hospitality. As a court poet supported by patrons, Hafiz often found himself to be the guest in the house of his employer.[5] He was victim to the whims of various patrons and to changing, sometimes hostile, regimes.[6] Among other things, he learned that “when you’re the guest in the tavern,” you ought “to be respectful toward the revelers.”[7] In a sense, Hafiz exemplifies anatheism both in content and form.

But let us beg hospitality from Hafiz for a few pages and let his work speak for itself.

Learning Hospitality from Hafiz

To the modern ear, Hafiz is easily construed as a mere love poet. He invokes often a “Beloved,” and his poems are full wine, musk, nights and dinner parties. However, it is a particular kind—or rather, a diversity of kinds—of love that Hafiz presents. This love always balances on the knife-edge of hospitality.

“If God invited you to a party,” asks Hafiz, “and said, ‘Everyone in the ballroom tonight will be my special Guest,’ How would you treat them when you arrived?”.[8] That is, if you were God’s guest, how would you treat your fellow guests? And how would you know your host? Hafiz asks, “What happens to the guest who visits the house of a great musician? Of course his tastes become refined.”[9] By staying in the house of God, the guest learns the rules of hospitality…and how to respect all the other guests. A guest and a host navigate the rituals of hospitality; they might share a deep affection or a profound resentment but the rules of hospitality under-gird the structure of conversation. When we meet a stranger, Hafiz says, do not ask after her history: “O my dear, Do not ask us how we are, be a stranger and ask of no comrade’s story.”[10] According to Hafiz, God, for whatever reason, has invited many people to celebrate in this house, and we must respect them no matter how strange their games.

Though in some poems God plays the host, Hafiz often refers to his God as a guest, Friend, lover, and even a “trickster” and “sportive cavalier.”[11] Hafiz happily addresses God in the second person with jocular familiarity. Like one old man talking to another, he begs God “not to sue this old man” for speaking God’s words as if they were his own. In fact, Hafiz’s God seems to depend on him for speech.

Hafiz’s God even seems to be in love with him. Hafiz asks that God share his birthmarks with him, as lovers do when they spend too much time in bed.[12] When God seems to be in the arms of others, Hafiz makes jealous and angry comments.[13] God is the “voyaging friend” who goes away and must be remembered, though he does not remembers his lovers.[14] At one point, Hafiz even repudiates his master to “stop calling me pregnant woman.” But the master replies that he can see “so clearly that God has made love with you and the whole universe is germinating inside your belly.”[15] Not only does God love Hafiz, but their love has also been consummated.

All this talk of consummate love indicates neither a leaving of the sacred for the profane, nor a case of world-flight, but an expression of falling in love with this world. Hafiz tells himself—in the third person, as is often the case—“Hafiz, if it’s Presence you want, do not be absent from Him.”[16] Hafiz mocks ascetics and “false-monastery dwellers” that do not notice the presence of the beloved all around them.[17] They look to “the book” while Hafiz looks to “the bowl” of wine—of life—which God has given him to drink. For Hafiz, “Every place is the house of love.”[18] This may seem a remarkable comment in light of contemporary Western views of Islam. But Hafiz—like his contemporaries Dante and Chaucer—wrote before the contemporary division of sacred from profane, religious from secular, and perhaps even theist from atheist.[19] John Caputo, who like Kearney, highlights the centrality of the theme of hospitality within the Western tradition, argues that hospitality “could very well be taken as the emblem of morality in the biblical sense.”[20] Hafiz’s work shows that this same thematic flows through this other of the Abrahamic traditions as well.

The “I” of Hafiz’s poems does not confess his or her personal love for another particular human lover, rather, a persona or series of personae, conveys a love for some indeterminate beloved.[21] As his interpreters point out, the indeterminacy of Persian pronouns heightens the ambiguity. But this refraction of love through a persona is not a representation of a faded image of an original. Rather, presentation through persona diversifies and amplifies the love so that “every reader thinks he is discovering an allusion to his desire.”[22] To use Ricoeur’s terms, an implied author—identical to neither a character nor a real person—is assumed by the reader due to the narrative style of the poems.[23] But the love presented is idealized and never coalesces into a clear, unitary story. This multiplicity and ambiguity calls attention to itself, particularly as one reads through the endless number of ghazals in Hafiz’s complete works. No one could possibly feel so much for one lover or rehearse the same images in so many varieties for one person. One begins to suspect that either Hafiz has many lovers or that the lover he does have exceeds the personal.

This ambiguity allowed Hafiz to escape persecution by both his patrons and more conservative Islamic leaders. But ambiguity – in the richest sense of the term—also allows him to escape the dualism of sacred and profane, theistic and atheistic. Hafiz is always in search of and wooing his Beloved. The medium of poetry is well-suited—if not uniquely suited—to this effective equivocality. Love is personified: love both divine and human appears with the face of another. That other is metaphorically the human and the divine; the other person both is and is not god. As Ricoeur reminds us, a metaphor says precisely that something is and is not something else; metaphors achieve ontological, not only semantic, shifts in meaning.[24] Just as Ricoeur finds that the metaphors in the Song of Songs cannot be reduced to either the sexual or the matrimonial as some cautious readers would like,[25] the personae of Hafiz’s poetry do not resolve into neat categories of worldly and other-worldly, theistic and atheistic.

What is Poetry doing in/for Philosophy?

But does this say enough? Can metaphor do the work of philosophy or theology? The skeptical atheist or theist might want to dismiss Hafiz as a mystic and poet who does not demand rigorous study in a philosophical debate. Yet the strength of poetic language is that it can enter the site of the conversation between atheists and theists without accepting the terms of the debate: that is, without presenting an argument.

Kearney and Ricoeur accord a special status to the poetic and narrative. But why? Have they absconded from philosophy? This decision “for a hermeneutic retrieval of imagination may seem quaint,” or perhaps worse, lacking rigor or substance.[26] Perhaps poetry is the place for imaginative imagery, and philosophy is the place for argument.[27] For example, according to a Fregean model of language, the unreal—the imagined—does not “refer” to anything, really. Ulysses, for example, would have no referent, as Ricoeur points out.[28] But according to Ricoeur’s hermeneutical model of fiction—and poetry—the text calls up a world of its own, a possible world, whose references refigure this world. That we see anatheism especially well in poetry is neither arbitrary nor surprising; it is poetry which can bring up a new world of possibilities other than those of speculative discourse.

The decision to attest to the power of the imaginary should be seen not as avoiding commitment to a rigorous philosophical stance but as an inquiry into the responsibility of philosophy. Is the role of philosophy to describe a state of human affairs, or to provoke and motivate inquiries into possibilities of human capacities?

Addressing the confrontation of atheism and theism requires just this special imaginative rather than descriptive skill. To see her way out of dualism, the inquirer must ask not “Which shall I choose, atheism or theism?” but “How else might we imagine the situation? What meaning might one have for the other? How does it feel to move between one and the other?” Hafiz, like many poets—including, G.M. Hopkins, Paul Celan, Franz Wright, Louise Gluck, Fanny Howe, Cezlaw Milosz and others—offers a phenomenological account of the movement toward and away from faith and doubt. Certainly not all poets perform an anatheistic movement, and those that do, do not accomplish it through the same devices and tropes as Hafiz. In Hafiz, it is the ambiguity of pronouns and characters, the refraction of the personae, and the particular conventions of his historical circumstances as a court poet that sparks an anatheistic movement. With his repeated invocations and allusions to wine and pleasure, Hafiz woos the reader into a fragile space of court life where we are all dependent on an unknown host’s hospitality.

In his forthcoming book, Kearney focuses on the work of several twentieth century modern novelists who “who retrieved sacred moments of epiphany and transubstantiation at the heart of the ordinary universe.”[29] These authors—Joyce, Woolf and Proust—excel in their ability to present the divine in the quotidian: to amplify this world rather than retreat from it. Where for Frege Ulysses would have no referent, for Kearney, the novel expands our capacity to refer, to use language at all. Kearney’s work is rife with allusion to poetry but veers from a sustained study of anyone poet. Yet if anything, the work of Hafiz and other like-minded mystical poets aims equally, if not excellently, at the space of poetic possibility where anatheism appears (and disappears). Perhaps—if a suggestion for further anatheistic work can be made—a philosophy of the poetique du possible entails more reflection on poetry per se.

Capable Poets and Weak Gods: Language as the House of Being

We have said that in Hafiz’s poems, God has given hospitality to many guests, all of whom we must respect. But what is this house of God in which we find ourselves as guests? Heidegger has called language the ‘house of being’, and anatheism calls attention to language and its peculiar relation to hospitality. In “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” Ricoeur advocates a moving away from religion through atheism to a post-secular faith. Ricoeur’s transit prefigures that which is described by Kearney. Ricoeur, however, also indicates the site in which theism and atheism must dialogue; that is, in the site in which all dialogue occurs: language. Anatheism requires a new relation to language, a certain “linguistic hospitality.”

Faith after religion would accept the atheistic critiques to welcome a God who “through his weakness is capable of helping.”[30] This would be a God who finds himself a guest of humanity, at their dinner table, dependent upon their bizarre customs, in-fighting, and fickle hospitality before he can receive the sustenance he desires.

In a conversation, Kearney and Derrida discussed atheism and the notion of seeking faith through this moment. Derrida comments that sometimes he “would argue that you have to be an atheist of this sort in order to be true to faith.” Derrida also agreed with Kearney that he also would consider himself “a seeker of love and justice.” But he followed that with the statement “It is not that I am happy with this. It is a suffering.”[31]

So too for Hafiz, seeking faith, love, and justice causes suffering. He must pass through many dark hours, experiencing the abandonment and apparent injustice of his lover. Hafiz and the Beloved alternatively act and suffer: it is Hafiz, after all, who actively writes the poems and seeks the beloved. But Hafiz is also often spurned or unsatisfied by the Beloved; the Beloved, by turn, seems to require – not unlike the court patrons—the praise and attention of Hafiz. To seek this beloved—and I do not say find—we must suffer with Hafiz through these dark moments of loss. There is a lack of the beloved, of Theos, in atheism. But this lack is always followed lines later by a return of the beloved, an anatheism, all the more joyful for the passage through loss.

But anatheism resists being reduced to a fixed joyful state after a momentary loss. Anatheism, rather than a rigid state of belief like theism or atheism, is a movement of faith: a passage, a turning and returning. In Kearney’s words, it is neither “a new religion,” nor “a final step in a dialectic moving from theism through atheism to a final synthesis of consensus.”[32]

Kearney playfully alludes to recent condemnations of religion as “contagion”: for example, Daniel Dennett’s polemical denigration in his book Breaking the Spell of religion as comparable to a parasite.[33] While Dennett suggests that we must ferret out this unwelcome, dangerous byproduct of human evolution, Kearney welcomes this parasite. If God is the parasite, then we are happy to host. And yet even then, the situation is not so clear; perhaps—to exploit Dennett’s claims—we have yet to discover that it is God who is host and we who are guests.

Given the philosophical research prompting anatheism, one might take it to be rather cerebral, as simply one more intellectual attempt to overcome the primitive religious stance.[34] But anatheism does not suggest an abstract faith that disowns the religious. Anatheism, by contrast, would welcome—if not demand—a returning to the ritual, liturgical, and embodied. Like Hafiz, the anatheist must be in love with this world in order to heed a call to action.

But it is still language that lets the poet speak of his experience of moving toward the divine. Language, the logos, is “that which links the poet to this gathering power under the sign of that which surpasses.”[35] The poet can fall under the sway of the language… which is to say, under the sway of God.

Hafiz describes this as being drunk on God. Or drunk with God. Or drunk just thinking about God. Hafiz himself is caught in the enthusiasm of his situation. Hafiz gives his readers back their language after doubt took away the word “God.” The atheistic critique cleansed it of its affiliation with consolation and accusation, and the poet returns it, though transfigured. After religion, “we experience language as a gift.”[36] And it is the poet who has reminded us of the giver.

Conclusion—Politics and a Phenomenology of Reading

It is not insignificant that Hafiz is a poet of Iran. We cannot whisper, write or think the word “Iran” in the U.S., however secular our discourse purportedly is, without thinking of God. We cannot name this country without noticing that the name of God appears with it.

We find that “with or without religion… the name of God is too important to leave in the hands of special interest groups.”[37] Those special interest groups include both members of religious sects and of atheists; anyone who sets the terms of secular discourse must perform an anatheism, turning back to the theological terms if only to relocate them. “God” is a word with an etymology that tugs on entire languages; to use or not to use the term shifts entire systems of signification. Consequently, the move to secularity in the public sphere has resulted in a seismic displacement of all sorts of linguistic and political categories and possibilities, many of which need to be renewed.

I want to return to my previous suggestion that this essay reflects a phenomenology of reading. That is to say, this essay indicates an experience of reading Hafiz which mirrors anatheism as a philosophical movement. Hafiz does not prompt me to take up Islam. Nor has Hafiz converted me to anatheism. Rather, reading Hafiz prompts a movement towards an already familiar sacred tradition, made strange—thus both terrifying and intriguing—by a turn through the atheistic and mystical. This reading redescribes faith precisely as this movement, rather than as assuming a belief stance, either theistic or atheistic. But the movement carries off the page and into the world. The benefit of understanding faith as moving, as active, is not merely to escape being pinned down in an abstract philosophical discussion. Kearney’s book progresses through the fictional to the political; likewise, anatheism itself aims toward the political. To move from text to action, we must allow this movement to refigure our relation to this real political world. Anatheism both compels and accommodates political action. Leaving aside the dualistic terminology of debate, we bear witness to the messy interplay in this world—in the behavior of our neighbors, ourselves, our guests–of faith, religion, good intentions, bad faith, reasonable critique, and proud hope. The rules of hospitality certainly do not provide sufficient instructions to generate political treatises, but they do ask that we look into the particular faces of our political neighbors and that we accord them a certain linguistic hospitality. That is, we can attempt through action—in speech and politics—to resignify philosophical and theological terminology rather than accepting pre-established mutually exclusive categories. Anatheism is one such resignification.


[1] Hafiz, The Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz, trans. Peter Avery (Archetype: London, 2007) 7.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “Religion and Politics,” in Essays in Understanding, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1994) 369.

[3] Richard Kearney, After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Continental Philosophy, ed. John Manoussakis (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2005) 8.

[4] Kearney, After God, 8.

[5] Hafiz, Collected, 13.

[6] Elizabeth Gray, “Introduction” to Hafiz, in The Green Sea of Heaven (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1995) 2-4.

[7] Hafiz, Collected, 156.

[8] Hafiz, The Gift, trans. Daniel Ladinisky (New York: Penguin Books, 1999) 47.

[9] Hafiz, Gift, 178.

[10] Hafiz, Collected, 333.

[11] Hafiz, Collected, 66.

[12] Hafiz, Gift 162.

[13] Hafiz, Collected, 105.

[14] Hafiz, Collected, 519, 188.

[15] Hafiz, Gift, 92.

[16] Hafiz, Collected, 18.

[17] Hafiz, Collected, 240.

[18] Hafiz, Collected, 188.

[19] Hafiz, Collected, 9.

[20] John Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) 263.

[21] Gray, “Introduction,” 8.

[22] Gray, “Introduction,” 8.

[23] See, Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) 160.

[24] Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. 3rd edition (Routledge, 2003) see Study 8.

[25] Paul Ricoeur, “Nuptial Metaphor,” in Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutic Studies, ed. André LaCoque and Paul Ricoeur, trans. David Pellauer
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 268.

[26] Peter Gratton and John Manoussakis, Traversing the Imaginary: Richard Kearney and the Postmodern Challenge (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007)

[27] Ricoeur perhaps more than Kearney and certainly more than Derrida, tends to maintain a firmer distinction between speculative and poetic discourse. See Rule of Metaphor, Study 8.

[28] See, Ricoeur, Rule of Metaphor, Study 7.

[29] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Going Back to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, Forthcoming, 2008) 3.

[30] Paul Ricoeur, “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” in The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde (Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007) 460.

[31] Quoted in, Gratton and Manoussakis, Traversing the Imaginary, 27.

[32] Kearney, Anatheism, 6.

[33] It must be admitted that Dennett makes many excellent descriptive statements about the often-horrifying state of human affairs involving religion. What pricks this reader’s suspicion is that he attempts to investigate the natural phenomenon of human religiosity with the nonchalance of a biologist watching birds. If Dennett’s method actually represents natural science, then by the end of the book, one must either suspect all natural science of extreme bias or suspect Dennett himself of some strong biases.

[34] In “Religion, Atheism, Faith” Ricoeur seems to imply something like this, though he seems to depart from this in his later work, say, for example, “The Nuptial Metaphor”. Kearney addresses this transition in Ricoeur in Anatheism, forthcoming.

[35] Ricoeur, “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” 464.

[36] Ricoeur, “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” 465.

[37] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 2.