V. THE AGE OF SA’DI: 1150–1291

Five years after Omar’s death a poet far more honored in Persia was born at Gandzha, now Kirovabad, near Tiflis. As if in foil to Omar, Ilyas Abu Muhammad, later known as Nizami, lived a life of genuine piety, rigorously abstained from wine, and devoted himself to parentage and poetry. His Romance of Layla and Majnun (1188) is the most popular of all love stories in Persian verse. Qays Majnun (i.e., the Mad) becomes enamored of Layla, whose father compels her to marry another man; Majnun, delirious with disappointment, retires from civilization to the wilderness; only when Lay la’s name is mentioned does he return to brief sanity. Widowed, she joins him, but dies soon afterward; and Romeo Qays kills himself on her grave. Translation cannot render the melodious intensity of the original.

Even the mystics sang of love, but we have their solemn assurance that the passion they portrayed was but a symbol for the love of God. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, known to literature as Farid al-Din Attar (“Pearl of Faith, Druggist”), was born near Nishapur (1119), and received his final name from vending perfumes. Feeling a call to religion, he left his shop and entered a Sufi monastery. His forty books, all in Arabic, include 200,000 lines of poetry. His most famous work was the Mantiq al-Tayr, or Discourse of the Birds. Thirty birds (i.e., Sufis) plan a united search for the king of all birds, Simurgh (Truth). They pass through six valleys: Search, Love, Knowledge, Detachment (from all personal desire), Unification (where they perceive that all things are one), and Bewilderment (from losing all sense of individual existence). Three of the birds reach the seventh valley, Annihilation (of the self), and knock at the door of the hidden king. The royal chamberlain shows each of them a record of its deeds; they are overcome with shame, and collapse into the dust. But from this dust they rise again as forms of light; and now they realize that they and Simurgh (which means thirty birds) are one. They lose themselves henceforth in Simurgh, as shadows vanish in the sun. In other works Attar put his pantheism more directly: reason cannot know God, for it cannot understand itself; but love and ecstasy can reach to God, for He is the essential reality and power in all things, the sole source of every act and motion, the spirit and life of the world. No soul is happy until it loses itself as a part in this spirit as the whole; longing for such union is the only true religion; self-effacement in that union is the only true immortality.45 The orthodox denounced all this as heresy; a crowd attacked Attar’s house and burned it to the ground. However, he was relatively indestructible; tradition claims for him a life of 110 years. Before he died, we are told, he laid his hands in blessing upon the child who would hail him as master, and eclipse his fame.

Jalal-ud-Din Rumi (1201–73) was a native of Balkh, but lived most of his life at Konya. A mysterious Sufi, Shams-i-Tabrizi, came there to preach, and Jalal was so moved by him that he founded the famous order of Mawlawi, or Dancing Dervishes, which still makes Konya its capital. In a comparatively short life Jalal wrote several hundred poems. The shorter ones, collected as his Divan or Book of Odes, are marked by such depth of feeling, sincerity, and richness, yet naturalness, of imagery as place them at the top of all religious poetry composed since the Psalms, Jalal’s main work, the Mathnawi-i-Ma’nawi (Spiritual Couplets), is a diffuse exposition of Sufism, a religious epic outweighing in bulk all the legacy of “Homer.” It has passages of great beauty, but a thing of beauty, laden with words, is not a joy forever. The theme again is universal unity.

One knocked at the Beloved’s door, and a Voice asked from within, “Who is there?”—and he answered, “It is I.” Then the Voice said, “This house will not hold Me and Thee,” and the door stayed shut. Then went the Lover into the desert, and in solitude fasted and prayed. After a year he returned, and knocked again at the door. And again the Voice asked, “Who is there?” And the Lover said, “It is Thyself!” And the door was opened to him.46

I looked about me to find him. He was not on the Cross. I went to the idol temple, to the ancient pagoda; no trace of Him was visible there…. I bent the reins of search to the Kaaba; He was not in that resort of old and young. I questioned Ibn Sina [Avicenna] of His state; He was not in Ibn Sina’s range. I gazed into my own heart. There I saw Him. He was nowhere else.

Every form you see has its archetype in the placeless world;

If the form perishes, no matter, since its original is everlasting.

Every fair shape you have seen, every deep saying you have heard—

Be not cast down that it perished, for that is not so….

While the fountains flow, the rivers run from it.

Put grief out of your head, and keep quaffing this river-water;

Do not think of the water failing, for this water is without end.

From the moment you came into the world of being

A ladder was placed before you that you might escape.

First you were mineral; later you turned to plant;

Then you became animal; how should this be a secret to you?

Afterwards you were made man, with knowledge, reason, faith….

When you have traveled on from now, you will doubtless become an angel….

Pass again from angelhood; enter that ocean,

That your drop may become a sea….

Leave aside this “Son”; say ever “One,” with all your soul.48

And lastly Sa’di. His real name, of course, was much longer—Musharrit ud-Din ibn Muslih ud-Din Abdallah. His father held a post at the court of the Atabeg Sad ibn Zangi at Shiraz; when the father died the Atabeg adopted the boy, and Sa’di, following Moslem custom, added his patron’s name to his own. Scholars debate the dates of his earthly stay—1184–1283,49 1184–1291,50 1193–1291;51 in any case he almost spanned a century. “In my youth,” he tells us, “I was overmuch religious … scrupulously pious and abstinent.”52 After graduating from the Nizamiya College at Baghdad (1226) he began those extraordinary Wanderjahre which took him for thirty years through all the Near and Middle East, India, Ethiopia, Egypt, and North Africa. He knew every hardship, and all degrees of poverty; he complained that he had no shoes, until he met a man without feet, “whereupon I thanked Providence for its bounty to myself.”53 In India he exposed the mechanism of a miracle-working idol, and killed the hidden Brahmin who was the god of the machine; in his later rollicking verse he recommended a like summary procedure with all quacks:

You too, should you chance to discover such trick,
Make away with the trickster; don’t spare him; be quick!
For if you should suffer the scoundrel to live,
Be sure that to you he no quarter will give.
So I finished the rogue, notwithstanding his Avails,
With stones, for dead men, as you know, tell no tales.54

He fought against the Crusaders, was captured by the “Infidels,” and was ransomed. Gratefully he married the daughter of his ransomer. She turned out to be an intolerable vixen. “The ringlets of the lovely,” he wrote, “are a chain on the feet of reason.”55 He divorced her, encountered more ringlets, assumed more chains. He outlived this second wife, retired at fifty to a garden hermitage in Shiraz, and stayed there the last fifty years of his life.

Having lived, he began to write; all his major works, we are told, were composed after this retirement. The Pandnama is a Book of Wisdom; the Divan is a collection of short poems, mostly in Persian, some in Arabic, some pious, some obscene. The Bustan, orOrchard, expounds in didactic verse Sa’di’s general philosophy, relieved by passages of tender sensuality:

Never had I known moments more delicious. That night I clasped my lady to my breast and gazed into her eyes swimming with sleep. … I said to her: “Beloved, my slender cypress tree, now is not the time to sleep. Sing, my nightingale! Let thy mouth open as unfolds the rosebud. Sleep no more, turmoil of my heart! Let thy lips offer me the philter of thy love.” And my lady looked upon me and murmured low: “Turmoil of thy heart? Yet dost thou wake me?” … Thy lady has repeated all this time that she has never belonged to another. … And thou dost smile, for thou knowest that she lies. But what matter? Are her lips less warm beneath thy lips? Are her shoulders less soft beneath thy caress? … They say the breeze of May is sweet, as the perfume of the rose, the song of the nightingale, the green plain, and the blue sky. O thou who knowest not, all these are sweet only when one’s lady is there!56

The Gulistan, or Rose Garden (1258), is a medley of instructive anecdotes interspersed with delectable poetry.

An unjust king asked a holy man, “What is more excellent than prayer?” The holy man said: “For you to remain asleep till midday, that for this one interval you may not afflict mankind.”57 Ten dervishes can sleep on one rug, but two kings cannot be accommodated in a whole kingdom.58 If you court riches, ask not for contentment.59 The religious man who can be vexed by an injury is as yet a shallow brook.60 Never has anyone acknowledged his own ignorance, except that person who, while another is talking and has not yet finished, begins to speak.61 Had you but one perfection and seventy faults, your lover would discern only that one perfection.62 Hurry not … learn deliberation. The Arab horse makes a few stretches at full speed, and breaks down; the camel, at its deliberate pace, travels night and day, and gets to the end of its journey.63 Acquire knowledge, for no reliance can be placed on riches or possessions…. Were a professional man to lose his fortune, he need not feel regret, for his knowledge is of itself a mine of wealth.64The severity of the schoolmaster is more useful than the indulgence of the father.65 Were intellect to be annihilated from the face of the earth, nobody could be brought to say, “I am ignorant.”*66 Levity in a nut is a sign of its being empty.67

Sa’di was a philosopher, but he forfeited the name by writing intelligibly. His was a healthier philosophy than Omar’s; it understood the consolations of faith, and knew how to heal the sting of knowledge with the simple blessings of a kindly life; Sa’di experienced all the tragedies of the human comedy, and yet insisted on a hundred years. But he was a poet as well as a philosopher: sensitive to the form and texture of every beauty from a woman’s “cypress limbs” to a star that for a moment possesses by itself all the evening sky; and capable of expressing wisdom or platitude with brevity, delicacy, and grace. He was never at a loss for an illuminating comparison or an arresting phrase. “To give education to the worthless is like throwing walnuts upon a dome”;68 “a friend and I were associating like two kernels in one almond shell”;69 “if the orb of the sun had been in the wallet” of this stingy merchant, “nobody would have seen daylight in the world till Judgment Day.”70 In the end, despite his wisdom, Sa’di remained the poet, surrendering his wisdom with a whole heart to the rich slavery of love.

Fortune suffers me not to clasp my sweetheart to my breast,

Nor lets me forget my exile long in a kiss on her sweet lips pressed.

The noose wherewith she is wont to snare her victims far and wide

I will snatch away, that so one day I may lure her to my side.

Yet I shall not dare caress her hair with a hand that is overbold,

For snared therein, like birds in a gin, are the hearts of lovers untold.

A slave am I to that gracious form, which, as I picture it,

Is clothed in grace with a measuring rod, as tailors a garment fit.

O cypress tree, with silver limbs, this color and scent of thine

Have shamed the scent of the myrtle plant and the bloom of the eglantine.

Judge with thine eyes, and set thy foot in the fair and free,

And tread the jasmine under thy foot, and the flowers of the Judas tree….

O wonder not if in time of spring thou dost rouse such jealousy

That the cloud doth weep while the flowrets smile, and all on account of thee!

If o’er the dead thy feet should tread, those feet so fair and fleet,

No wonder it were if thou shouldst hear a voice from his winding sheet.

Distraction is banned from this our land in the time of our lord the King,

Save that I am distracted with love of thee, and men with the songs I sing.71

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