The faithful are gathered at the tomb, clustered beneath an intricately tiled cupola amid several acres of flowered grounds at one of Iran's main places of pilgrimage. Cloaked women kneel and press their heads against the stone coffin. Men reverently stroke it with their fingers. A single rose lies at the head.
On a chill fall night, the people of this southern city have come to pay homage not to an imam, an ayatollah or a military martyr, but to a long-dead poet, Hafez, a 14th-century writer whose sensual verse is understood to be about God, but nonetheless is a staple for courting couples, and a durable source of delight for Iranians.
He inspires. He entrances. He counsels. People come here not just in honor of his genius, but for guidance as well, following a ritual in which they hold a volume of Hafez's poems to their heart, ask a question, then open the book randomly for their answer.
"Hafez you have asked: Wherever you want to go it is good. . . . You are not going to be sad anymore," Jalal Azizi, 24, read aloud as his friend, Nehdi Mahdimosleh, stood listening, waiting for Hafez's wisdom about whether he should travel abroad as part of his carpet-trading business.
Apparently, Hafez favored globalization.
"He is one of the greatest," Mahdimosleh said. "Our culture is entwined with him."
In a country where the Koran is supposed to supply all the answers, and God guide all human endeavor, it is a somewhat surprising scene.
Islam is an impersonal faith in that it discourages the veneration or worship of men and women, as opposed to God. The Prophet Muhammad was explicit on this point, emphasizing to his followers that he was only a messenger. The ideas transmitted, he said, were what mattered, not the individual carrying them.
That notion--a contrast, for example, to Christianity's creation of a plethora of saints--was modified somewhat by the Shiite Muslims who dominate in Iran. They revere Muhammand's nephew Ali as a sort of saintly figure, for instance, and count on the return someday of a long-disappeared imam, or religious leader.
But the place of Hafez in Iran, and indeed of a whole gallery of Iranian poets, is something different altogether, approaching a sort of cultural beatification. Though the writers themselves often dealt with religious themes, and some, including Hafez, were regarded as powerful religious figures and mystics in their own right, they nevertheless fix Iran as a place with a deeply literary culture, and a national identity that remains in important ways distinct from the religious movement that has shaped its contemporary politics.
It is, moreover, a relatively well-read and deliberative population. Volumes of Hafez and other poets are commonly found alongside the Koran even in the poorest households, Iranians say. Ideas and their discussion matter here, and that may be one of the reasons why the initial extremes of the country's Islamic revolution are now being steadily tempered. If, in the first decade after the shah's monarchy fell, the country was preoccupied with its war against Iraq, and in the grip of a sort of fervent religiosity, then during this next era the national character appears to be reasserting itself.
Indeed, in the first years of the revolution, religious conservatives in Tehran removed a statue of the poet Ferdosi, whose epic poem "Shah Nameh" tried to rekindle pride in Persia's ancient culture at a time when Iranians were feeling slighted by the Arab conquerors who introduced Islam here in the 7th century.
Today, Ferdosi's statue has been restored; the "Shah Nameh" is read aloud without incident. Nationalist songs are sung in cafes, and there is a renewal of interest in the nationalist democrat Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected prime minister from the 1950s who was shunted aside when the United States helped the shah return to power.
And earlier this year the Iranian minister of culture held a rare ceremony at Persepolis, the ruined castle of the ancient Persian King Darius, to commemorate the Persian new year, No Ruz. The event at Persepolis coincided with a government ruling that it was okay to hold a traditional new year's bonfire, a practice criticized by conservative clerics because of its roots in Iran's pre-Islamic belief in Zoroastrianism.
To at least some of those at Hafez's tomb, the depth and age of their culture reinforce the current political trend toward reform and moderation.
"This shows we have a great and ancient civilization," Mahdimosleh said, and one whose people are eager, as reformist President Mohammed Khatemi has recommended, to engage the rest of the world in a "dialogue of civilizations"--not isolate itself or try to export revolution.
"As Khatemi says, it is the age of dialogue. We are a very old culture, and glad to have it."
Though Hafez is in part a religious figure, the mood at his tomb site is hardly pious or severe. Reverential, yes. But it doesn't take much prodding for Iranians to open their version of his Divan, or collected poems, and start reading aloud simply to enjoy the sound of the words.
On one of his almost weekly sojourns to the place, Reza Bordbar, 22, picked out a favorite.
"Though I am old, one night me, close in Thy embrace take, so that, in the morning, from Thy embrace, young I may rise," he read, as friends looked on.
"Be careful," Bordbar cautioned. "People in Iran like to talk about things they cannot see . . . A river, music, wine, a girlfriend. A kind of Paradise. . . . I am talking about God."
Perhaps. But plenty of Hafez fans in Iran take his talk about wine and women more literally, reasoning he was a man of such heightened sensibility that he glimpsed the divine in everyday pleasures--an aspect of Persian poetry familiar to the West through the work of Omar Khayyam, and an aspect of Persian culture not wholly at ease with the puritanism of the last 20 years.
"I love Hafez," said Massoud Karam, an 18-year-old student who paused on his visit to the tomb to enjoy an ice cream at the teahouse that is part of the Hafez complex, one of three such sites in Shiraz dedicated to mystic poets.
"He says that love is a good thing. . . . It is important to life. It is necessary. He says this about all the people of the world," Karam explained, as he set down his ice cream and explained how to proceed.
"If you want to use Hafez, you wish, and say, 'Hafez, help me to know,' and then open the book."
He did so, and read: "Come; so that the rose we may scatter, and, into the cup, the wine cast."