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Persian Literature


Ahura Mazda and Ahriman
Zarathustra "Zoroaster Hymns of the Zend Avesta"

Ferdowsi "Shahnameh"

Omar Khayyam
Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmi

The Thousand and One Nights

"The Arabian Nights"  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV, PART V
Illustrations by V. Sterrett
Illustrations by E. Dulac





Persian literature, body of writings in New Persian (also called Modern Persian), the form of the Persian language written since the 9th century with a slightly extended form of the Arabic alphabet and with many Arabic loanwords. The literary form of New Persian is known as Farsī in Iran, where it is the country’s official language, and as Darī in Afghanistan (where it and Pashto are official languages); it is written with a Cyrillic alphabet by Tajiks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For centuries New Persian has also been a prestigious cultural language in western Central Asia, on the Indian subcontinent, and in Turkey.


Ancient Iran

Symbol of Ahura Mazda, the Persian God
Ahura Mazda and Ahriman
Zarathustra "Zoroaster Hymns of the Zend Avesta"

The Iranian languages belong, together with the Indo-Aryan languages of the Indian subcontinent, to one of the oldest branches of the Indo-European linguistic family. There exist documents written in the Old Iranian languages that have survived for nearly three millennia. The oldest texts are the Gāthās, 16 (or perhaps 17) short hymns written in an archaic form of an Old Iranian language called Avestan, named for the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism. The Gāthās have been handed down as a part of the Avesta along with several more recent texts. It is generally accepted that they contain the original teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who lived in the first half of the 1st millennium bce. His hymns show traces of versification, the precise prosody of which is still imperfectly known. Also important to early Iranian literature are the remnants of ancient myths preserved in the Avesta, especially in the yashts, which are texts addressed to Iranian deities. The names of several kings and heroes who later appear as semihistorical figures in Persian epic poetry are also here mentioned; the myths to which these texts refer were well known to the original audience but are now lost.

The only other Old Iranian language found in extant texts is the Old Persian used by the Achaemenian kings for inscriptions in cuneiform writing (6th–4th century bce). These inscriptions contain royal edicts and similar texts composed in a very formal style; they contributed little to the development of literature in Iran. However, in some collateral sources (including the Bible) there are indications that epic literature existed in the oral tradition of reciters at court.

The conquest of the Achaemenian Empire by Alexander the Great about 330 bce caused a radical break in Iranian culture. During the new era, which lasted until the Arab conquest of the 7th century ce, Iran was deeply influenced by Hellenism. Greek and Aramaic became the dominant languages. For almost 500 years Iranian languages were not used in writing. The oldest preserved documents that use Middle Iranian languages date only from the 3rd century ce. They consist of inscriptions of the Sāsānian kings and religious texts of the Manichaeans, the followers of the gnostic prophet Mani (3rd century ce). The most widely used written language was Middle Persian, better known as Pahlavi, which remained in use with the Zoroastrians into Islamic times. Only a few literary works have survived from this period, notably two episodes later incorporated into the Iranian epic as it was recorded by Ferdowsī in the 11th-century Shāh-nāmeh (see below Early poets and the Shāh-nāmeh): Ayādgār-i Zarērān (“Memorial of Zarēr”), about the establishment of Zoroastrianism, and Kārnāmag-ī Ardāshīr, on the founder of the Sāsānian dynasty. The myths, legends, and romanticized historical tales of this epic tradition were probably assembled into a continuous story in the early 7th century ce under the last Sāsānian king. After the coming of Islam, this text was translated from Pahlavi into Arabic prose. Both versions were later lost, but their contents survived in the works of historians writing in Arabic.

Lyrical poetry was still an oral tradition of minstrels, even at the royal court, and has left no traces. Texts written in other Middle Iranian languages, such as Sogdian and Khotanese Saka, had no more than a marginal influence on the literature of the Islamic period.


Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509, showing Zoroaster (left, with star-studded globe).

Ahura Mazda and Ahriman
Zarathustra "Zoroaster Hymns of the Zend Avesta"

Zoroaster, Old Iranian Zarathushtra, or Zarathustra (b. c. 628 bc, probably Rhages, Iran—d. c. 551, site unknown), Iranian religious reformer and founder of Zoroastrianism, or Parsiism, as it is known in India. (See Zoroastrianism; Parsi.)

A major personality in the history of the religions of the world, Zoroaster has been the object of much attention for two reasons. On the one hand, he became a legendary figure believed to be connected with occult knowledge and magical practices in the Near Eastern and Mediterranean world in the Hellenistic Age (c. 300 bc–c. ad 300). On the other hand, his monotheistic concept of God has attracted the attention of modern historians of religion, who have speculated on the connections between his teaching and Judaism and Christianity. Though extreme claims of pan-Iranianism (i.e., that Zoroastrian or Iranian ideas influenced Greek, Roman, and Jewish thought) may be disregarded, the pervasive influence of Zoroaster’s religious thought must nevertheless be recognized.

The student of Zoroastrianism is confronted by several problems concerning the religion’s founder. One question is what part of Zoroastrianism derives from Zoroaster’s tribal religion and what part was new as a result of his visions and creative religious genius. Another question is the extent to which the later Zoroastrian religion (Mazdaism) of the Sāsānian period (ad 224–651) genuinely reflected the teachings of Zoroaster. A third question is the extent to which the sources—the Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures) with the Gāthās (older hymns), the Middle Persian Pahlavi Books, and reports of various Greek authors—offer an authentic guide to Zoroaster’s ideas.

A biographical account of Zoroaster is tenuous at best or speculative at the other extreme. The date of Zoroaster’s life cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty. According to Zoroastrian tradition, he flourished “258 years before Alexander.” Alexander the Great conquered Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenids, a dynasty that ruled Persia from 559 to 330 bc, in 330 bc. Following this dating, Zoroaster converted Vishtāspa, most likely a king of Chorasmia (an area south of the Aral Sea in Central Asia), in 588 bc. According to tradition, he was 40 years old when this event occurred, thus indicating that his birthdate was 628 bc. Zoroaster was born into a modestly situated family of knights, the Spitama, probably at Rhages (now Rayy, a suburb of Tehrān), a town in Media. The area in which he lived was not yet urban, its economy being based on animal husbandry and pastoral occupations. Nomads, who frequently raided those engaged in such occupations, were viewed by Zoroaster as aggressive violators of order, and he called them followers of the Lie.

Zoroaster’s teachings.
According to the sources, Zoroaster probably was a priest. Having received a vision from Ahura Mazdā, the Wise Lord, who appointed him to preach the truth, Zoroaster apparently was opposed in his teachings by the civil and religious authorities in the area in which he preached. It is not clear whether these authorities were from his native region or from Chorasmia prior to the conversion of Vishtāspa. Confident in the truth revealed to him by Ahura Mazdā, Zoroaster apparently did not try to overthrow belief in the older Iranian religion, which was polytheistic; he did, however, place Ahura Mazdā at the centre of a kingdom of justice that promised immortality and bliss. Though he attempted to reform ancient Iranian religion on the basis of the existing social and economic values, Zoroaster’s teachings at first aroused opposition from those whom he called the followers of the Lie (dregvant).

Ahura Mazdā and the Beneficent Immortals.
Zoroaster’s teachings, as noted above, centred on Ahura Mazdā, who is the highest god and alone is worthy of worship. He is, according to the Gāthās, the creator of heaven and earth; i.e., of the material and the spiritual world. He is the source of the alternation of light and darkness, the sovereign lawgiver, and the very centre of nature, as well as the originator of the moral order and judge of the entire world. The kind of polytheism found in the Indian Vedas (Hindu scriptures having the same religious background as the Gāthās) is totally absent; the Gāthās, for example, mention no female deity sharing Ahura Mazdā’s rule. He is surrounded by six or seven beings, or entities, which the later Avesta calls amesha spentas, “beneficent immortals.” The names of the amesha spentas frequently recur throughout the Gāthās and may be said to characterize Zoroaster’s thought and his concept of god. In the words of the Gāthās, Ahura Mazdā is the father of Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit), of Asha Vahishta (Justice, Truth), of Vohu Manah (Righteous Thinking), and of Armaiti (Spenta Armaiti, Devotion). The other three beings (entities) of this group are said to personify qualities attributed to Ahura Mazdā: they are Khshathra Vairya (Desirable Dominion), Haurvatāt (Wholeness), and Ameretāt (Immortality). This does not exclude the possibility that they, too, are creatures of Ahura Mazdā. The good qualities represented by these beings are also to be earned and possessed by Ahura Mazdā’s followers. This means that the gods and mankind are both bound to observe the same ethical principles. If the amesha spentas show the working of the deity, while at the same time constituting the order binding the adherents of the Wise Lord, then the world of Ahura Mazdā and the world of his followers (the ashavan) come close to each other. The very significant eschatological aspect of Zoroastrianism is well demonstrated by the concept of Khshathra (Dominion), which is repeatedly accompanied by the adjective Desirable; it is a kingdom yet to come.

Monotheism and dualism.
The conspicuous monotheism of Zoroaster’s teaching is apparently disturbed by a pronounced dualism: the Wise Lord has an opponent, Ahriman, who embodies the principle of evil, and whose followers, having freely chosen him, also are evil. This ethical dualism is rooted in the Zoroastrian cosmology. He taught that in the beginning there was a meeting of the two spirits, who were free to choose—in the words of the Gāthās—“life or not life.” This original choice gave birth to a good and an evil principle. Corresponding to the former is a Kingdom of Justice and Truth; to the latter, the Kingdom of the Lie (Druj), populated by the daevas, the evil spirits (originally prominent old Indo-Iranian gods). Monotheism, however, prevails over the cosmogonic and ethical dualism because Ahura Mazdā is father of both spirits, who were divided into the two opposed principles only through their choice and decision.

The Wise Lord, together with the amesha spentas, will at last vanquish the spirit of evil: this message, implying the end of the cosmic and ethical dualism, seems to constitute Zoroaster’s main religious reform. His monotheistic solution resolves the old strict dualism. The dualist principle, however, reappears in an acute form in a later period, after Zoroaster. It is achieved only at the expense of Ahura Mazdā, by then called Ohrmazd, who is brought down to the level of his opponent, Ahriman. At the beginning of time, the world was divided into the dominion of the good and of the evil. Between these, each man is bound to decide. He is free and must choose either the Wise Lord and his rule or Ahriman, the Lie. The same is true of the spiritual beings, who are good or bad according to their choices. From man’s freedom of decision it follows that he is finally responsible for his fate. Through his good deeds, the righteous person (ashavan) earns an everlasting reward, namely integrity and immortality. He who opts for the lie is condemned by his own conscience as well as by the judgment of the Wise Lord and must expect to continue in the most miserable form of existence, one more or less corresponding to the Christian concept of hell. According to Avestan belief, there is no reversal and no deviation possible once a man has made his decision. Thus, the world is divided into two hostile blocks, whose members represent two warring dominions. On the side of the Wise Lord are the settled herdsmen or farmers, caring for their cattle and living in a definite social order. The follower of the Lie (Druj) is a thieving nomad, an enemy of orderly agriculture and animal husbandry.

Eschatological teachings.
The Gāthās, the early hymns, many of which may have been written by Zoroaster, are permeated by eschatological thinking. Almost every passage contains some reference to the fate awaiting men in the afterlife. Each act, speech, and thought is viewed as being related to an existence after death. The earthly state is connected with a state beyond, in which the Wise Lord will reward the good act, speech, and thought and punish the bad. This motive for doing good seems to be the strongest available to Zoroaster in his message. After death, the soul of man must pass over the Bridge of the Requiter (Činvat), which everyone looks upon with fear and anxiety. After judgment is passed by Ahura Mazdā, the good enter the kingdom of everlasting joy and light, and the bad are consigned to the regions of horror and darkness. Zoroaster, however, goes beyond this, announcing an end phase for the visible world, “the last turn of creation.” In this last phase, Ahriman will be destroyed, and the world will be wonderfully renewed and be inhabited by the good, who will live in paradisiacal joy. Later forms of Zoroastrianism teach a resurrection of the dead, a teaching for which some basis may be found in the Gāthās. Through the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of the world bestows a last fulfillment on the followers of the Wise Lord.

Cultic reforms.
Zoroaster forbade all sacrifices in honour of Ahriman or of his adherents, the daevas, who from pre-Zoroastrian times had degenerated into hostile deities. In the prevailing religious tradition, Zoroaster probably found that the practice of sacrificing cattle, combined with the consumption of intoxicating drinks (haoma), led to orgiastic excess. In his reform, Zoroaster did not, as some scholars would have it, abolish all animal sacrifice but simply the orgiastic and intoxicating rites that accompanied it. The haoma sacrifice, too, was to be thought of as a symbolic offering; it may have consisted of unfermented drink or an intoxicating beverage or plant. Zoroaster retained the ancient cult of fire. This cult and its various rites were later extended and given a definite order by the priestly class of the Magi. Its centre, the eternal flame in the Temple of Fire, was constantly linked with the priestly service and with the haoma sacrifice.

Influence and assessments.
After the conversion of Vishtāspa to such teachings, Zoroaster remained at the court of the king. Other officials were converted, and a daughter of Zoroaster apparently married Jāmāsp, a minister of the king. According to tradition, Zoroaster lived for 77 years, thus indicating that he died about 551 bc. After his death, many legends arose about him. According to these legends, nature rejoiced at his birth, and he preached to many nations, founded sacred fires, and fought in a sacred war. He was viewed as a model for priests, warriors, and agriculturalists, as well as a skilled craftsman and healer. The Greeks regarded him as a philosopher, mathematician, astrologer, or magician. Jews and Christians regarded him as an astrologer, magician, prophet, or arch heretic. Not until the 18th century did a more scholarly assessment of Zoroaster’s career and influence emerge.

The Most Rev. Franz Cardinal König

The Arab invasion

The Sāsānian empire, which at the beginning of the 7th century was still one of the two great powers in the Middle East, crumbled almost instantaneously when the Bedouin invaded Iran. The conquest was completed about 640. The Caliphate that came to be established was an Islamic state ruled by Arabs, but very soon non-Arabs who had assimilated themselves to the new situation began to participate in the affairs of the Muslim community. The contribution made by the descendants of the Sāsānian elite to the development of the political and administrative institutions of the Caliphate increased in the 8th century after Baghdad was founded as the capital of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty, close to the place where the Sāsānian kings once had their palace. Iranians contributed much to the development of the scholarly traditions of Islam. The linguistic and literary sciences dealt primarily with the Qurʾān and with the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arabs, both of which provided the norms for classical Arabic and its use in Arabic literature. These sciences included, on the one hand, grammar and lexicography and, on the other, the theories of metrics, rhyme, and rhetorics. They also included philological conventions for the collection, arrangement, and preservation of texts. Together these constituted a tradition of dealing with literary texts that became a model to all literatures that subsequently emerged in the Islamic world. Among its features were the divan (dīwān)—the collection of one poet’s output in a systematically arranged volume—and several types of anthologies. Tools of this kind were important for the preservation of literature and its distribution to outlying parts of an extensive empire. They also contributed to the standardization of form and style in poetry.

During the early ʿAbbāsid period (8th–9th centuries), the activity of translators was lively. Particularly famous was the book of Indian fables known as Kalīlah wa Dimnah (“Kalīlah and Dimnah”), which in the 6th century had been translated from Sanskrit to Middle Persian. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ made an Arabic version during the 8th century that was later retranslated into Persian. He also translated the Khwatāy-nāmak (“Book of Kings”), a compilation of the stories about the kings of Iran put together in Sāsānian times. This mostly legendary history of ancient Iran found a place in Islamic historiography and literature in particular on account of its value as an example of the “mirror for princes” genre (collections of texts intended to demonstrate the principles of proper kingship).

The emergence of New Persian

Persian was the first language in Muslim civilization to break through Arabic’s monopoly on writing. Already under the Sāsānians a standard form of Persian had come into being that was called Fārsī-yi Darī (“Persian of the Court”). From the centre of the empire it had spread to the provinces and had even marginalized other Iranian languages with a tradition of writing, such as Sogdian in Central Asia. In the course of the 9th century this prestigious variant of Persian emerged again as a written language in the Iranian lands that were farthest from Baghdad, the centre of ʿAbbāsid power. This New Persian (as it is called by linguists) did not differ very much from the Middle Persian of the Sāsānian period except in its vocabulary. Three centuries of Arabic hegemony had caused an influx of Arabic loanwords, which amounted to about half of the total word material of Persian. The Persian alphabet was also borrowed from the Arabs with the addition of only a few signs for Persian sounds unknown to Arabic. All Arabic loanwords retained their original orthography whatever their pronunciation in Persian might be.

The emergence of written Persian was facilitated by the political fragmentation of the Caliphate. From the 9th century onward, a number of semi-independent rulers came to power who only in name accepted the suzerainty of the ʿAbbāsids. The most successful were the Sāmānid emirs of Bukhara in western Central Asia. In the 10th century they controlled most of eastern Iran and present-day Afghanistan. The Sāmānids belonged to the local Iranian aristocracy and even claimed a pedigree going back to the Sāsānian kings. Though they remained faithful to Islam, they did much to promote the literary use of Persian and the survival of Iranian traditions. Balʿamī, one of their officials, adapted in Persian two important works by al-Ṭabarī, a native Persian writing in the early 10th century exclusively in Arabic: a commentary on the Qurʾān and a huge chronicle of Islamic history that included an account of the ancient kings of Iran. At the same time, the writing of poetry in Persian was established as a court tradition. The works of the Sāmānids have been preserved only as fragments, but they show clearly that already in the 10th century most of the formal and generic characteristics of classical Persian poetry were in use.

Classical poetry

The classical Persian poets and theoreticians saw the aim of their art primarily as the continuation of Arabic poetry in another language. For them, poems that were not written according to the rules of Arabic prosody did not count as serious poetry. It is difficult to assess in detail what has survived from pre-Islamic Iranian poetry because so little is known about oral Middle Persian poetry. One of the essential differences between classical Persian poetry and pre-Islamic literature was precisely the introduction of the recording in writing of poems composed on principles already evolved in Arabic philology.

The prosody of classical Persian verse is based on the distich, called a bayt, which consists of half lines that are metrically identical (isometric hemistichs). Persian metrics are based strictly on the quantity of syllables in which three values are distinguished: a short syllable, a long syllable, and an extended syllable (which is counted as a long syllable plus a short one). The individual metres allow only minor variations. In theory they are regarded as derivations of ideal patterns, but in practice each of the approximately 30 variations constitutes a separate metrical pattern. The best-known metre is the motaqāreb (Arabic: motaqārib), which was especially applied to epic poetry.

Rhyme is used in all kinds of Persian poetry, but its distribution provides one of the main distinctions for the poetic forms. A fundamental type is monorhyme—the repetition of the same rhyming sound at the end of each distich, with the exception of the first distich, in which the first hemistich also uses that same rhyme (such a poem would be represented by the rhyme scheme aabaca). On this principle are the qaṣīdeh (Arabic: qaṣīdah) and the ghazal constructed, as are the stanzaic poems and partly also the Persian robāʿī, or quatrain, although the latter occurs in two different patterns of rhyme, aaba and aaaa. Another short form is the qiṭʿah, or muqaṭṭaʿah, called a “fragment” because the first hemistichs of such poems do not rhyme. The only form not conforming to the rule of monorhyme is the masnawi, or poem in couplets, in which each distich has a separate internal rhyme, which changes with each new distich (aabbcc and so on). A special feature of Persian rhyme is the radīf, a kind of refrain consisting of the same particle (a word or a short phrase) added after each instance of the rhyme throughout a poem.

In Persian, different types of poetry are often associated with specific poetic forms, but not exclusively. In court poetry, for instance, the special form of the panegyric is the qaṣīdeh, its length varying between 15 and more than 100 distichs. The main part of the qaṣīdeh expresses extensive praise of the merits of the poet’s patron by way of a conventional repertoire of topoi. The most attractive part of the poem is usually the nasīb, or introduction, which addresses topics such as love, nature, and wine. At the courts, panegyrical odes served a ceremonial purpose, with poets required to present them at festivals marking the New Year or at ʿĪd al-Fiṭr, the holiday that concludes Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Other occasions for panegyrics were births and deaths, the foundation of buildings, military campaigns, or royal hunts. However, panegyrics could also take the form of stanzaic poems or dedicatory sections in epic poems. A qaṣīdeh could also be used by religious poets as a homiletic or didactic poem.

Ghazals are much shorter poems, usually no more than 7 to 10 distichs. They are known to have existed—as a type of oral poetry accompanied by music—long before the earliest written records in which they first appear. The first collections of ghazals handed down in divans date from the beginning of the 12th century. Very soon the ghazal developed into one of Persian literature’s most important poetic forms. One of its unique features is the convention by which the poem is concluded by a passage of one of two distichs in which the name of the poet (usually a pen name) is mentioned. By origin the ghazal is a poem of love, but several subsidiary subjects became attached to this theme. Quite early the ghazal was adopted by mystics as a medium for the expression of love for the divine. The imagery of a ghazal lent itself easily to allegorization or at least to a type of ambiguity that pointed toward both secular and transcendental referents.

The rhyme pattern of the masnawi, only rarely used in Arabic poetry, gave Persian poets scope for a rich and varied epic literature. A division of masnawis into categories of heroic, romantic, and didactic provides a convenient but rough classification. Narrative plays a role in each of these types, and didacticism is not quite absent from poems that aim first to tell a story.

The qiṭʿa and the robāʿī are best suited for epigrams. These shorter forms were used for satire and topical poetry but also for mystical verse. They were frequently inserted in prose texts to highlight special points in a discursive or narrative context.

Court poetry

The period when rulers of Iranian origin were in power was only a short interlude before the arrival of Turkish tribes from Central Asia. At first the Turks were military slaves to the Muslims, but soon they established their own dynasties. The first were the Ghaznavids, residing at Ghazna (now Ghaznī, Afg.), shortly followed by the Qarakhanids of Central Asia and by the Seljuqs, whose massive invasion in the middle of the 11th century also caused great demographic changes in the Islamic Middle East. For centuries the Turks remained the dominating political force in Iranian lands and in Anatolia, where they laid the foundation for modern Turkey. They underwent a process of Islamization that was profoundly influenced by Persian civilization. As a part of this process, the Seljuqs copied the courtly traditions of their Iranian predecessors, including the patronage of poetry, which was considered to be most valuable for building up the prestige of kingship in the Iranian style.

Early poets and the Shāh-nāmeh

The first significant Persian poet was Rūdakī. He flourished in the 10th century, when the Sāmānids were at the height of their power. His reputation as a court poet and as an accomplished musician and singer has survived, although little of his poetry has been preserved. Among his lost works is a versified translation (probably from the Arabic) of the fables collected in Kalīlah wa Dimnah.

Also during the 10th century, several attempts were made to produce a Persian version of the epic tradition that had already been incorporated into Arabic historiography. Daqīqī made one such attempt; he began a poetic version of which no more than a fragment—dealing with the establishment of Zoroastrianism—is still extant. This fragment survived as a result of Ferdowsī, the greatest epic poet of Persia, who included Daqīqī’s lines in his Shāh-nāmeh (“Book of Kings”), an epic poem of approximately 50,000 distichs that he completed about 1010.

The story told in the Shāh-nāmeh starts with Gayōmart, the first king but also the first man, and ends with the death of the last Sāsānian king at the time of the Arab invasion. It is a mixture of myth, legend, and history, some of which can be traced back to the Avesta and the Vedic literature of India (Vedic religion). In the view of world history presented in the Shāh-nāmeh, Iran is at the centre of events, and Iranian kingship is presented as a universal institution. However, Iran’s dominating position is also challenged: first by the Arab usurper Ẕaḥḥāk (a humanized dragon derived from ancient mythology) and then by the king of Tūrān, a rival empire situated in Central Asia. Behind these conflicts is the Zoroastrian idea that throughout the history of the world a divine element and a demonic element are fighting with each other until in the end good prevails over evil. In their struggle against Tūrān, the kings of Iran are supported by a number of vassal lords, in particular by a clan of local rulers, the family of Rostam, who is the main hero of Ferdowsī’s poem. In the first section of the Shāh-nāmeh, which is entirely legendary, a number of long stories are included, the most famous of which is the tragic fight between Rostam and his son Sohrāb. It ends with the father’s unwitting killing of his own son. The later parts of the poem come closer to the actual history of Iran: they deal with the campaigns of Alexander the Great and the lives of the Sāsānian kings, but here also many elements are clearly legendary. The Shāh-nāmeh quickly became of great importance to Iranians as the literary expression of their national sentiments.



Rūdakī, byname of Abū ʿAbdollāh Jaʿfar ibn Moḥammad (b. c. 859, Rudak, Khorāsān—d. 940/941, Rudak?), the first poet of note to compose poems in the “New Persian,” written in Arabic alphabet, widely regarded as the father of Persian poetry.

A talented singer and instrumentalist, Rūdakī served as a court poet to the Sāmānid ruler Naṣr II (914–943) in Bukhara until he fell out of favour in 937. He ended his life in wretched poverty. Approximately 100,000 couplets are attributed to Rūdakī, but of that enormous output, fewer than 1,000 have survived, and these are scattered among many anthologies and biographical works. His poems are written in a simple style, characterized by optimism and charm and, toward the end of his life, by a touching melancholy. In addition to parts of his divan (collection of poems), one of his most important contributions to literature is his translation from Arabic to New Persian of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, a collection of fables of Indian origin. Later retellings of these fables owe much to this lost translation of Rūdakī, which further ensured his fame in Perso-Islamic literature.




Ferdowsi "Shahnameh" (PART I, PART II)



Ferdowsi: Shahnameh (PART I, PART II)

also spelled Firdawsī, Firdusi, or Firdousi, pseudonym of Abū Ol-qasem Manṣūr

born c. 935, near Ṭūs, Iran
died c. 1020, –26, Ṭūs

Persian poet, author of the Shāh-nāmeh (“Book of Kings”), the Persian national epic, to which he gave its final and enduring form, although he based his poem mainly on an earlier prose version.

Ferdowsī was born in a village on the outskirts of the ancient city of Ṭūs. In the course of the centuries many legends have been woven around the poet’s name but very little is known about the real facts of his life. The only reliable source is given by Neẓāmī-ye ʿArūẓī, a 12th-century poet who visited Ferdowsī’s tomb in 1116 or 1117 and collected the traditions that were current in his birthplace less than a century after his death.

According to Neẓāmī, Ferdowsī was a dehqān (“landowner”), deriving a comfortable income from his estates. He had only one child, a daughter, and it was to provide her with a dowry that he set his hand to the task that was to occupy him for 35 years. The Shāh-nāmeh of Ferdowsī, a poem of nearly 60,000 couplets, is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in the poet’s early manhood in his native Ṭūs. This prose Shāh-nāmeh was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, the Khvatāy-nāmak, a history of the kings of Persia from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrow II (590–628), but it also contained additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sāsānians by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century. The first to undertake the versification of this chronicle of pre-Islāmic and legendary Persia was Daqīqī, a poet at the court of the Sāmānids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1,000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsī, with due acknowledgements, in his own poem.

The Shāh-nāmeh, finally completed in 1010, was presented to the celebrated sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna, who by that time had made himself master of Ferdowsī’s homeland, Khūrāsān. Information on the relations between poet and patron is largely legendary. According to Neẓāmī-ye ʿArūẓī, Ferdowsī came to Ghazna in person and through the good offices of the minister Aḥmad ebn Ḥasan Meymandī was able to secure the Sultan’s acceptance of the poem. Unfortunately, Maḥmūd then consulted certain enemies of the minister as to the poet’s reward. They suggested that Ferdowsī should be given 50,000 dirhams, and even this, they said, was too much, in view of his heretical Shīʿīte tenets. Maḥmūd, a bigoted Sunnite, was influenced by their words, and in the end Ferdowsī received only 20,000 dirhams. Bitterly disappointed, he went to the bath and, on coming out, bought a draft of foqāʿ (a kind of beer) and divided the whole of the money between the bath attendant and the seller of foqāʿ.

Fearing the Sultan’s wrath, he fled first to Herāt, where he was in hiding for six months, and then, by way of his native Ṭūs, to Mazanderan, where he found refuge at the court of the Sepahbād Shahreyār, whose family claimed descent from the last of the Sāsānians. There Ferdowsī composed a satire of 100 verses on Sultan Maḥmūd that he inserted in the preface of the Shāh-nāmeh and read it to Shahreyār, at the same time offering to dedicate the poem to him, as a descendant of the ancient kings of Persia, instead of to Maḥmūd. Shahreyār, however, persuaded him to leave the dedication to Maḥmūd, bought the satire from him for 1,000 dirhams a verse, and had it expunged from the poem. The whole text of this satire, bearing every mark of authenticity, has survived to the present.

It was long supposed that in his old age the poet had spent some time in western Persia or even in Baghdad under the protection of the Būyids, but this assumption was based upon his presumed authorship of Yūsof o-Zalīkhā, an epic poem on the subject of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which, it later became known, was composed more than 100 years after Ferdowsī’s death. According to the narrative of Neẓāmī-ye ʿArūẓī, Ferdowsī died inopportunely just as Sultan Maḥmūd had determined to make amends for his shabby treatment of the poet by sending him 60,000 dinars’ worth of indigo. Neẓāmī does not mention the date of Ferdowsī’s death. The earliest date given by later authorities is 1020 and the latest 1026; it is certain that he lived to be more than 80.

The Persians regard Ferdowsī as the greatest of their poets. For nearly a thousand years they have continued to read and to listen to recitations from his masterwork, the Shāh-nāmeh, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker. The language, based as the poem is on a Pahlavi original, is pure Persian with only the slightest admixture of Arabic. European scholars have criticized this enormous poem for what they have regarded as its monotonous metre, its constant repetitions, and its stereotyped similes; but to the Iranian it is the history of his country’s glorious past, preserved for all time in sonorous and majestic verse.

John Andrew Boyle

The proliferation of court patronage

In the first decades of the 11th century, Ghazna was the most important centre of Persian literature. This was the result of the cultural policy of the sultan Maḥmūd (reigned 998–1030), who assembled a circle of scholars, philosophers, and poets around his throne in support of his claim to royal status in Iran. The leading poet was ʿUnṣurī, whom the sultan appointed as his “lord of the poets” with the authority to test the talents of any poet seeking to be admitted to the sultan’s court. ʿUnṣurī’s qaṣīdehs were highly appreciated for their rhetorical virtuosity. He also wrote a number of romantic poems in masnawi form, which are almost completely lost now, except for some fragments from the love story of Vāmeq and ʿAz̄rāʾ (Arabic: Wāmiq and ʿAdhrāʾ), an adaptation of a long Greek narrative of the Hellenistic period. Other renowned poets of Maḥmūd’s circle were Farrukhī, who excelled in attractive nasībs to his poems of praise, and Manūchihrī, a specialist in long stanzaic poems.

The Ghaznavid poets glorified in their panegyrics the raids of the sultan’s army into the Indian subcontinent. These campaigns resulted in a permanent conquest of the Punjab, where Lahore (now in Pakistan) became the residence of a Ghaznavid prince as the viceroy of Hindustan. In the second half of the 11th century, a tradition of court poetry was established in Lahore. The major representative was Masʿūd Saʿd Salmān. He was an official of the viceroy’s administration, but he fell into disgrace and had to spend long years in exile in remote fortresses. He wrote several poems to bring his dismal condition to the attention of the Ghaznavid sultan and thereby established a genre of Persian prison poetry.

In the 11th and 12th centuries other Turkish rulers continued the tradition of patronage established by the Ghaznavids. The most important court was that of the Great Seljuq sultans, who resided first at Eṣfahān (now in Iran) and then at Merv in Khorāsān (near modern Mary, Turkm.). The prominent masters of the panegyric qaṣīdeh were Muʿizzī and Anvarī, who both flourished in the first half of the 12th century. The latter is particularly famous for his renewal of panegyric poetry through the introduction of learned allusions and sophisticated rhetorical devices. In modern Iranian criticism these features are seen as the first signs of a change from the comparatively simple and natural idiom of the early poets, called the “style of Khorāsān,” to the much more sophisticated “style of Iraq” (i.e., “Persian Iraq” [ʿIrāq ʿajamī], a name once used for central and western Iran). These geographical terms refer to a westward shift by Iran’s literary centres, which gained momentum in the course of the 12th century when the Seljuq empire began to fall apart. Small states emerged in all parts of the country, usually under the rule of atabegs, the governors of young princes of the Seljuq house who had seized power on their own behalf. Persian poetry benefited greatly from this political process because the centres of literary patronage proliferated.

Already by the mid-11th century the tradition of Persian poetry had been introduced in the region of Azerbaijan (today in northwestern Iran) by Asadī, who had migrated to Azerbaijan from his native town of Ṭūs (now Mashhad) in Khorāsān. As a poet, he had become the most important successor to Ferdowsī through his Garshāsp-nāmeh, a heroic epic in masnawi form telling about the adventures in India and Sri Lanka of Garshāsp, a supposed ancestor of Rostam’s. Asadī was also the author of Lughat-i furs (“Vocabulary of the Persians”), which explained words used by the poets in eastern Iran and intended to promote Persian poetry in the west.

About the middle of the 12th century two outstanding poets emerged under the patronage of local rulers in western Iran. At the court of Shīrvān, Khāqānī wrote qaṣīdehs exploiting the possibilities of imagery and such figures of speech as simile and metaphor in a very personal style. Although he stayed within the conventions of court poetry, he also followed the trend toward the treatment of ethical and religious themes that was gaining strength in his days. His most famous poem is the qaṣīdeh Aywā-e Madāʾin (“The Portico of Madāʾin”), an evocation of the palace of the Sāsānians on the banks of the Tigris in what is today Iraq. It was intended as a reminder of the vanity of worldly power and glory. The masnawi titled Tuḥfat al-Irāqayn (“The Present from the Two Iraqs”), written on the occasion of a pilgrimage to Mecca, cleverly knits together panegyric, admonition, and allegory.

The second outstanding poet to emerge in western Iran during the 12th century was Neẓāmī, who displayed in his poetic style a mannerism similar to Khāqānī’s. But the genre in which Neẓāmī excelled made his works more accessible. His great fame rests on a group of masnawis known collectively as the Khamseh (“The Quintuplet,” or “The Five”; they are in fact individual works that only later were treated as a set of poems). The first, Makhzan al-asrār (The Treasury of Mysteries), is a didactic poem; the other four are usually classified as romantic masnawis, though they also contain elements that belong to the heroic epic. (Love stories had already been incorporated into the Shāh-nāmeh and appeared as a separate genre in the works of earlier poets, in particular in the adaptation of an ancient Iranian tale in Vīs wa Rāmīn [“Vīs and Rāmīn”] by Fakhr al-Dīn Gurgānī, written about 1050.) Two of Neẓāmī’s poems are tales about Sāsānian kings who were historical figures: Khosrow wa Shīrīn (“Khosrow and Shīrīn”) tells the story of the love of Khosrow II (reigned 590–628) for an Armenian princess, and in Haft paykar (“The Seven Beauties”) the life of Bahrām V (reigned 420–438) serves as a framework for seven fairy tales narrated to the king each night when he visits one of the pavilions of his seven brides, who are all princesses from one of the seven climes identified by medieval cosmology. Astrological associations involving planets, precious stones, and colours are woven into the poem. For the masnawi Laylī wa Majnun (“Layla and Majnun”) Neẓāmī found his material in poems attributed to the 6th-century Arab poet Imruʾ al-Qays that are embedded in anecdotes about his love for a Bedouin girl belonging to another tribe. Neẓāmī made these separate tales into a continuous romance treating all aspects of a love affair that cannot find its fulfillment in this world. The last poem is the Iskandar-nāmeh (“Book of Alexander the Great”), which consists of two parts: the first deals with Alexander’s military campaigns, and the second contains his conversations with the sages and philosophers assembled at his court. Neẓāmī’s poem is based on Ferdowsī’s treatment of the same story, but Neẓāmī’s ultimate source is a Greek-language romance written in Egypt before 300 ce. The Khamseh became a model that later poets emulated. The most successful imitations were the romances composed in the 14th century by Amīr Khosrow, who was a poet and mystic as well as a courtier of the sultans of Delhi, and in the 15th century by Jāmī.

The qiṭʿa and the robāʿī

Collections of qiṭʿas (fragments) and robāīyāt (quatrains) are to be found in almost all the divans of the court poets. These short poems were the small coinage of literary communication, used for the exchange of repartees in a conversation between a poet and his patron or among poets and courtiers. Often these poems were improvisations that were later written down because the wittiness displayed in them was highly appreciated.

Their contents could be of all kinds. Qiṭʿas were used for topical poems, satires, and light verse, the comic force of which lay often in their use of coarse language and perceived obscenity. Separate from the divans, robāīyāt were assembled in anthologies. They provide glimpses into literature written outside the courts.

Many epigrams were also handed down as poems composed by famous philosophers, scholars, and mystics, but usually the philological evidence is too uncertain to confirm such attributions. The most celebrated case is that of Omar Khayyam, a mathematician and astronomer of great renown who was credited with the authorship of robāīyāt expressing a skeptical view of the world and advocating hedonism as the sole comfort in a life without meaning. Within a few centuries after his death, in 1131, the number of robāīyāt ascribed to Omar grew to more than 1,000. After the English writer Edward Fitzgerald translated Omar’s poetry as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (1859), Omar became to Western readers the greatest Persian poet. Mahsatī, a female poet to whom are attributed robāīyāt of a secular and occasionally bawdy kind, would have lived about the same time as Omar. But it is doubtful whether she was a historical figure, because she also appears as the heroine of a romantic story that contains many of the poems put to her name.

Omar Khayyam


Omar Khayyam, Arabic in full Ghiyāth al-Dīn Abū al-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nīsābūrī al-Khayyāmī (b. May 18, 1048, Neyshābūr [also spelled Nīshāpūr], Khorāsān [now Iran]—d. December 4, 1131, Neyshābūr), Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet, renowned in his own country and time for his scientific achievements but chiefly known to English-speaking readers through the translation of a collection of his robāʿīyāt (“quatrains”) in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), by the English writer Edward FitzGerald.

His name Khayyam (“Tentmaker”) may have been derived from his father’s trade. He received a good education in the sciences and philosophy in his native Neyshābūr before traveling to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), where he completed the algebra treatise, Risālah fiʾl-barāhīn ʿalā masāʾil al-jabr waʾl-muqābalah (“Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra”), on which his mathematical reputation principally rests. In this treatise he gave a systematic discussion of the solution of cubic equations by means of intersecting conic sections. Perhaps it was in the context of this work that he discovered how to extend Abu al-Wafā’s results on the extraction of cube and fourth roots to the extraction of nth roots of numbers for arbitrary whole numbers n.

He made such a name for himself that the Seljuq sultan Malik-Shāh invited him to Eṣfahān to undertake the astronomical observations necessary for the reform of the calendar. (See The Western calendar and calendar reforms.) To accomplish this an observatory was built there, and a new calendar was produced, known as the Jalālī calendar. Based on making 8 of every 33 years leap years, it was more accurate than the present Gregorian calendar, and it was adopted in 1075 by Malik-Shāh. In Eṣfahān he also produced fundamental critiques of Euclid’s theory of parallels as well as his theory of proportion. In connection with the former his ideas eventually made their way to Europe, where they influenced the English mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703); in connection with the latter he argued for the important idea of enlarging the notion of number to include ratios of magnitudes (and hence such irrational numbers as √2 and π).

His years in Eṣfahān were very productive ones, but after the death of his patron in 1092 the sultan’s widow turned against him, and soon thereafter Omar went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He then returned to Neyshābūr where he taught and served the court as an astrologer. Philosophy, jurisprudence, history, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy are among the subjects mastered by this brilliant man.

Omar’s fame in the West rests upon the collection of robāʿīyāt, or “quatrains,” attributed to him. (A quatrain is a piece of verse complete in four lines, usually rhyming aaaa or aaba; it is close in style and spirit to the epigram.) Omar’s poems had attracted comparatively little attention until they inspired FitzGerald to write his celebrated The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, containing such now-famous phrases as “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,” “Take the Cash, and let the Credit go,” and “The Flower that once has blown forever dies.” These quatrains have been translated into almost every major language and are largely responsible for colouring European ideas about Persian poetry. Some scholars have doubted that Omar wrote poetry. His contemporaries took no notice of his verse, and not until two centuries after his death did a few quatrains appear under his name. Even then, the verses were mostly used as quotations against particular views ostensibly held by Omar, leading some scholars to suspect that they may have been invented and attributed to Omar because of his scholarly reputation.

Each of Omar’s quatrains forms a complete poem in itself. It was FitzGerald who conceived the idea of combining a series of these robāʿīyāt into a continuous elegy that had an intellectual unity and consistency. FitzGerald’s ingenious and felicitous paraphrasing gave his translations a memorable verve and succinctness. They are, however, extremely free translations, and more recently several more faithful renderings of the quatrains have been published.

The verses translated by FitzGerald and others reveal a man of deep thought, troubled by the questions of the nature of reality and the eternal, the impermanence and uncertainty of life, and man’s relationship to God. The writer doubts the existence of divine providence and the afterlife, derides religious certainty, and feels keenly man’s frailty and ignorance. Finding no acceptable answers to his perplexities, he chooses to put his faith instead in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world. The idyllic nature of the modest pleasures he celebrates, however, cannot dispel his honest and straightforward brooding over fundamental metaphysical questions.

Religious poetry

The most important environments outside the courts where Persian literature could thrive were those provided by religious minorities and mystical circles. In the 10th century the Ismāʿīlī branch of Shīʿism had come into power in Egypt and established the Fāṭimid dynasty. From Cairo intensive propaganda was targeted at the Sunni ʿAbbāsid caliphs of Baghdad. In the Sāmānid period, Ismāʿīlī missionaries gained a considerable influence over the intellectual elite of the eastern Iranian provinces, taking advantage of the new opportunities offered to them by the rebirth of Persian as a written language. Later, under the Ghaznavids, who strongly supported Sunni Islam, a reaction set in, and the minority groups of Ismāʿīlīs were persecuted. Nāṣir-i Khusraw, a Ghaznavid official who in 1045 went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, visited Cairo and was there converted to the Ismāʿīlī cause. After his return he sought refuge in the mountainous region of Badakhshān (today divided between Afghanistan and Tajikistan). While in hiding he wrote expositions of the tenets of Ismāʿīlism in Persian prose. His most famous work is Safar-nāmeh (“Book of Travel”; Eng. trans. Diary of a Journey Through Syria and Palestine), a travelogue of his journey to Arabia and Egypt. In long qaṣīdehs and in a masnawi, the Rawshanāʾī-nāmeh (“Book of Light”), he set forth his ethical teachings. This didactic poetry influenced Sufi (Islamic mystical) poetry.

Probably the first Persian poems written by mystics were robāīyāt. An extensive collection of these poems is attributed to Abū Saʿīd ibn Abū al-Khayr, who died in 1049. He would be the first mystical poet in Persian literature, but one of his hagiographers asserts that he did not write any poetry himself; he instead merely used anonymous quatrains in his preaching that were circulating among the Sufis of Khorāsān. Another eponym linked to a set of robāīyāt is Bābā Ṭāhir. He is a historically vague personality thought to have lived during the 11th century as a wandering dervish in the mountains of western Iran. These poems are written in a nonclassical Persian that includes many colloquialisms.

Much more is known about the 12th-century poet Sanāʾī. He began his career as a poet at the court of Ghazna but turned his back on professional poetry, seeking instead the patronage of preachers and mystics for whom he wrote poems in all the poetic forms available to secular literature of his time. His major work is Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah wa sharīʿat al-ṭarīqah (“The Garden of Truth and the Law of the Path”; Eng. trans. in part The Walled Garden of Truth, or The Enclosed Garden of Truth), a lengthy didactic poem in masnawi form written as a sermon, which ends with a moralizing address to the Ghaznavid sultan. A remarkable work is Sayr al-ʿibād ilā al-maʿād (“The Journey of the Servants to the Place of Return”), a short masnawi that describes in allegories the stages passed by the soul on its way through life, from a fetus to a fully developed human being. In addition to writing didactic qaṣīdehs, which resemble those of Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Sanāʾī was the first Persian poet who left a sizable collection of ghazals. In these poems the blending of the secular and the transcendental, which later became characteristic of this genre, can be seen. An important motif introduced by Sanāʾī is the idealization of the qalandar, a type of outlaw who defies all rules of good behaviour and abandons himself to drunkenness and debauchery. The term was adopted by dervishes who practiced a nonconformist way of life that rejected not only the world but also conventional piety, which they decried as hypocrisy. The qalandar acquired a strong symbolic value as a motif in Sufi poetry, especially in ghazals.

Even more detached from secular poetry was Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār. He was born in Nīshāpūr, Iran, and was perhaps an apothecary, as his name ʿAṭṭār—literally, “perfumer” or “apothecary”—implies. No ties of patronage are known in his case, nor are his connections to the Sufi communities existing in his time very clear. His output in poetry and prose is, however, considerable, although a number of the works carrying his name are forgeries made after his death. Among his genuine works is a group of didactic masnawis in which narrative plays an important role. In most of these poems ʿAṭṭār used the device of a frame story, the most famous example of which is the tale in Manṭiq al-ṭayr (“The Speech of the Birds”; Eng. trans. The Conference of the Birds); in it birds search for a king, whom after a perilous journey they find in the mythical bird Sīmurgh. That name, according to a popular etymology, means “Thirty Birds,” a reference to the 30 birds that survive the quest and attain their goal, which amounts to finding themselves in the Sīmurgh. Within these frame stories ʿAṭṭār employs a wealth of anecdotes to illustrate the details of his discourse. He also left a divan with mystical ghazals and didactic qaṣīdehs. His numerous robāīyāt were collected in the Mukhtār-nāmeh (“Book of Selection”).

The third major mystical poet was Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, also known as Mawlānā. Born in the city of Balkh (now in Afghanistan), he traveled westward at an early age with his family to settle at Konya, the residence of the Seljuq rulers of Rūm (Anatolia). A religious teacher, he became the spiritual head of a community of students that gradually developed into a circle of mystics who cultivated ritual based on poetry, music, and dance. Rūmī’s mysticism was intensified through his acquaintance with the dervish Shams al-Dīn of Tabrīz, in whom he recognized a manifestation of transcendental beauty. Even after Shams’s disappearance, Rūmī identified with him to such an extent that he signed most of his more than 3,000 ghazals with Shams’s name. Rūmī also wrote a didactic masnawi in six volumes known as the Mas̄navī-yi maʿnavī (“The Spiritual Masnawi,” or “The Spiritual Couplets”). This poem, undoubtedly the masterpiece of Persian mystical poetry, combines the stylistic influences of both Sanāʾī and ʿAṭṭār. After Rūmī’s death, his circle was institutionalized as the Mawlawiyyah order of Sufis, also known as the Mevlevis and often identified in the West as the “whirling dervishes.” They became one of the great mystical organizations in the Ottoman Empire.

Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī


Rūmī, in full Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, also called by the honorific Mawlānā (b. c. Sept. 30, 1207, Balkh [now in Afghanistan]—d. Dec. 17, 1273), the greatest Sufi mystic and poet in the Persian language, famous for his lyrics and for his didactic epic Mas̄navī-yi Maʿnavī (“Spiritual Couplets”), which widely influenced mystical thought and literature throughout the Muslim world. After his death, his disciples were organized as the Mawlawīyah order.

Jalāl al-Dīn’s father, Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad, was a noted mystical theologian, author, and teacher. Because of either a dispute with the ruler or the threat of the approaching Mongols, Bahāʾ al-Dīn and his family left their native town in about 1218. According to a legend, in Nīshāpūr, Iran, the family met Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, a Persian mystical poet, who blessed young Jalāl al-Dīn. After a pilgrimage to Mecca and journeys through the Middle East, Bahāʾ al-Dīn and his family reached Anatolia (Rūm, hence the surname Rūmī), a region that enjoyed peace and prosperity under the rule of the Turkish Seljuq dynasty. After a short stay at Laranda (Karaman), where Jalāl al-Dīn’s mother died and his first son was born, they were called to the capital, Konya, in 1228. Here, Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad taught at one of the numerous madrasahs (religious schools); after his death in 1231 he was succeeded in this capacity by his son.

A year later, Burhān al-Dīn Muḥaqqiq, one of Bahāʾ al-Dīn’s former disciples, arrived in Konya and acquainted Jalāl al-Dīn more deeply with some mystical theories that had developed in Iran. Burhān al-Dīn, who contributed considerably to Jalāl al-Dīn’s spiritual formation, left Konya about 1240. Jalāl al-Dīn is said to have undertaken one or two journeys to Syria (unless his contacts with Syrian Sufi circles were already established before his family reached Anatolia); there he may have met Ibn al-ʿArabī, the leading Islamic theosophist whose interpreter and stepson, Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qunawī, was Jalāl al-Dīn’s colleague and friend in Konya.

The decisive moment in Rūmī’s life occurred on Nov. 30, 1244, when in the streets of Konya he met the wandering dervish—holy man—Shams al-Dīn (Sun of Religion) of Tabrīz, whom he may have first encountered in Syria. Shams al-Dīn cannot be connected with any of the traditional mystical fraternities; his overwhelming personality, however, revealed to Jalāl al-Dīn the mysteries of divine majesty and beauty. For months the two mystics lived closely together, and Rūmī neglected his disciples and family so that his scandalized entourage forced Shams to leave the town in February 1246. Jalāl al-Dīn was heartbroken; his eldest son, Sulṭān Walad, eventually brought Shams back from Syria. The family, however, could not tolerate the close relation of Jalāl al-Dīn with his beloved, and one night in 1247 Shams disappeared forever. In the 20th century it was established that Shams was indeed murdered, not without the knowledge of Rūmī’s sons, who hurriedly buried him close to a well that is still extant in Konya.

This experience of love, longing, and loss turned Rūmī into a poet. His poems—ghazals (about 30,000 verses) and a large number of robāʿīyāt (“quatrains”)—reflect the different stages of his love, until, as his son writes, “he found Shams in himself, radiant like the moon.” The complete identification of lover and beloved is expressed by his inserting the name of Shams instead of his own pen name at the end of most of his lyrical poems. The Dīvān-e Shams (“The Collected Poetry of Shams”) is a true translation of his experiences into poetry; its language, however, never becomes lost in lofty spiritual heights or nebulous speculation. The fresh language, propelled by its strong rhythms, sometimes assumes forms close to popular verses. There would seem to be cause for the belief, expressed by chroniclers, that much of this poetry was composed in a state of ecstasy, induced by the music of the flute or the drum, the hammering of the goldsmiths, or the sound of the water mill in Meram, where Rūmī used to go with his disciples to enjoy nature. He found in nature the reflection of the radiant beauty of the Sun of Religion and felt flowers and birds partaking in his love. He often accompanied his verses by a whirling dance, and many of his poems were composed to be sung in Sufi musical gatherings.

A few years after Shams al-Dīn’s death, Rūmī experienced a similar rapture in his acquaintance with an illiterate goldsmith, Ṣālāḥ al-Dīn Zarkūb. It is said that one day, hearing the sound of a hammer in front of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn’s shop in the bazaar of Konya, Rūmī began his dance. The shop owner had long been one of Rūmī’s closest and most loyal disciples, and his daughter became the wife of Rūmī’s eldest son. This love again inspired Rūmī to write poetry. After Ṣālāḥ al-Dīn’s death, Ḥusām al-Dīn Chelebi became his spiritual love and deputy. Rūmī’s main work, the Mas̄navī-yi Maʿnavī, was composed under his influence. Ḥusām al-Dīn had asked him to follow the model of the poets ʿAṭṭār and Sanāʾi, who had laid down mystical teachings in long poems, interspersed with anecdotes, fables, stories, proverbs, and allegories. Their works were widely read by the mystics and by Rūmī’s disciples. Rūmī followed Ḥusām al-Dīn’s advice and composed nearly 26,000 couplets of the Mas̄navī during the following years. It is said that he would recite his verses even in the bath or on the roads, accompanied by Ḥusām al-Dīn, who wrote them down. The Mas̄navī, which shows all the different aspects of Sufism in the 13th century, often carries the reader away with loose associations of thought, so that one understands what subjects the master had in mind at a particular stage of his life. The work reflects the experience of divine love; both Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn and Ḥusām al-Dīn were, for Rūmī, renewed manifestations of Shams al-Dīn, the all-embracing light. He called Ḥusām al-Dīn, therefore, Ḍiyāʾ al-Ḥaqq (“Light of the Truth”); ḍiyāʾ is the Arabic term for sunlight.

Rūmī lived for a short while after completing the Mas̄navī. He always remained a respected member of Konya society, and his company was sought by the leading officials as well as by Christian monks. His burial procession, according to one of Rūmī’s contemporaries, was attended by a vast crowd of people of many faiths and nationalities. His mausoleum, the Green Dome, is today a museum in Konya; it is still a place of pilgrimage, primarily for Turkish Muslims.

Ḥusām al-Dīn was Rūmī’s successor and was in turn succeeded by Sulṭān Walad, who organized the loose fraternity of Rūmī’s disciples into the Mawlawīyah, known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes because of the mystical dance that constitutes their principal ritual. Sulṭān Walad’s poetical accounts of his father’s life are the most important source of knowledge of Rūmī’s spiritual development.

Besides his poetry, Rūmī left a small collection of occasional talks as they were noted down by his friends; in the collection, known as Fīhi mā fīhi (“There Is in It What Is in It”), the main ideas of his poetry recur. There also exist sermons and a collection of letters (Maktūbāt) directed to different persons. It is impossible to systematize his ideas, which at times contradict each other, and changes in the use of symbols often puzzle the reader. His poetry is a most human expression of mystical experiences, in which readers can find their own favourite ideas and feelings—from enthusiastic flights into the heavens to matter-of-fact descriptions of daily life.

Rūmī’s use of Persian and Arabic in his poetry, in addition to some Turkish and less Greek, has resulted in his being claimed variously for Turkish literature and Persian literature, a reflection of the strength of his influence in Iran and Turkey. The influence of his writings in the Indian subcontinent is also substantial. By the end of the 20th century, his popularity had become a global phenomenon, with his poetry achieving a wide circulation in western Europe and the United States.

Annemarie Schimmel

Classical prose

In the classical tradition the concept of "literature" was almost synonymous with poetry. Prose was used for utilitarian purposes, particularly in scholarship, religion, and the affairs of government. In all these domains the Persian language was in competition with the more prestigious Arabic. In theology, science, and literary scholarship, Persian works were mostly popularized versions of more sophisticated works in Arabic, but this does not always mean that the former are of lesser interest. The Kīmiya-yi saʿādat (after 1096; The Alchemy of Happiness) by the theologian and mystic al-Ghazālī, for instance, is one such work: it is a condensed version of the author’s own work in Arabic on Islamic ethics, the Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (The Revival of Religious Sciences). Written in a lively conversational Persian, Kīmiya-yi saʿādat offers a coherent overview of Muslim ethics in an accessible form. Much later, during the 17th century, Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī wrote a series of books in Persian on the popular beliefs of Iranian Shīʿites; these books were also composed to parallel his learned works in Arabic.

Persian prose contains a treasure of narratives. In books belonging to the mirror for princes genre, for instance, the demonstration of proper political practice by means of anecdotes was usually more important than theoretical expositions. Their authors were mostly officials and courtiers, such as the great 11th-century statesman Niẓām al-Mulk, who wrote his Siyāsat-nāmeh (The Book of Government) for the Seljuq sultan, and ʿUnṣur al-Maʿālī Kay Kāʾūs, an 11th-century prince of a deposed dynasty serving the Ghaznavids, who wrote the Qābūs-nāmeh (“The Book of Qābūs”). The Chahār maqāleh (“Four Discourses”) by Niẓāmī ʿArūẕī focuses not on the ruler himself but on four important functionaries at court: the secretary, the poet, the doctor, and the astrologer. Fables could be equally useful in illustrating maxims of the ethics of kingship. A 12th-century Persian adaptation of the Kalīlah wa Dimnah by Naṣr Allāh Munshī as well as other texts based on frame stories and borrowed from India, such as the Sindbad-nāmeh (“Book of Sindbad”; Seven Wise Masters) and the Bakhtiyār-nāmeh (“Book of Bakhtiyār”), represent a branch of the same genre. Another Persian prose genre is the chivalrous novel; Dārāb-nāmeh (“Book of Dārāb”) by Abū Ṭāhir Ṭarsūsī and Kitāb-i Samak-i ʿAyyār (“Book of Samak the Knight-Errant”) by Farāmurz Khudādād ibn ʿAbd ʿAllāh Kātib al-Arrajānī were written in the 12th century in a simple style and served as a continuation of the heroic epic on a more popular level.


Seven Wise Masters
, also called The Seven Viziers, The Story Of The Seven Sages, or Sinbadnameh, (“The Book of Sindbad”), a cycle of stories, presumably Indian in origin, that made its way through Middle Persian and Arabic into Western lore. In the frame story, an Oriental king entrusted the education of his son to a wise tutor named Sindbad (not to be confused with the sailor of The Thousand and One Nights). During a week when the prince was ordered by Sindbad to maintain silence, his stepmother tried to seduce him. Having failed, she tried to accuse the prince before the king and sought to bring about his death by relating seven stories. Each of her narratives, however, was confuted by seven sages, who in turn told tales of the craft of women. The prince’s lips were at last unsealed and the truth was exposed.

The oldest surviving text of the story is in Middle Arabic and is included in The Thousand and One Nights (nights 578–606 in Sir Richard Burton’s translation, vol. 6, 1886). The Arabic text gave rise to Hebrew, Syrian, and Spanish translations (13th century); the Greek version (11th century) is derived from the Syrian. Of the Persian versions the most important is that of al-Samarqandī (12th century). The tales entered Latin via the Greek version, in the 12th century, under the title Dolopathos, which was translated into French. The German, English, French, and Spanish chapbooks of the cycle are generally based on a Latin original.



The Thousand and One Nights

"The Arabian Nights"  (PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV, PART V)
Illustrations by V. Sterrett
Illustrations by E. Dulac

The Thousand and One Nights, also called The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, Arabic Alf laylah wa laylah, collection of Oriental stories of uncertain date and authorship whose tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor have almost become part of Western folklore.

As in much medieval European literature, the stories—fairy tales, romances, legends, fables, parables, anecdotes, and exotic or realistic adventures—are set within a frame story. Its scene is Central Asia or “the islands or peninsulae of India and China,” where King Shahryar, after discovering that during his absences his wife has been regularly unfaithful, kills her and those with whom she has betrayed him. Then, loathing all womankind, he marries and kills a new wife each day until no more candidates can be found. His vizier, however, has two daughters, Shahrazad (Scheherazade) and Dunyazad; and the elder, Shahrazad, having devised a scheme to save herself and others, insists that her father give her in marriage to the king. Each evening she tells a story, leaving it incomplete and promising to finish it the following night. The stories are so entertaining, and the king so eager to hear the end, that he puts off her execution from day to day and finally abandons his cruel plan.

Though the names of its chief characters are Iranian, the frame story is probably Indian, and the largest proportion of names is Arabic. The tales’ variety and geographical range of origin—India, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, and possibly Greece—make single authorship unlikely; this view is supported by internal evidence—the style, mainly unstudied and unaffected, contains colloquialisms and even grammatical errors such as no professional Arabic writer would allow.

The first known reference to the Nights is a 9th-century fragment. It is next mentioned in 947 by al-Masʿūdī in a discussion of legendary stories from Iran, India, and Greece, as the Persian Hazār afsāna, “A Thousand Tales,” “called by the people ‘A Thousand Nights’.” In 987 Ibn al-Nadīm adds that Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbdūs al-Jashiyārī began a collection of 1,000 popular Arabic, Iranian, Greek, and other tales but died (942) when only 480 were written.

It is clear that the expressions “A Thousand Tales” and “A Thousand and One…” were intended merely to indicate a large number and were taken literally only later, when stories were added to make up the number.

By the 20th century, Western scholars had agreed that the Nights is a composite work consisting of popular stories originally transmitted orally and developed during several centuries, with material added somewhat haphazardly at different periods and places. Several layers in the work, including one originating in Baghdad and one larger and later, written in Egypt, were distinguished in 1887 by August Müller. By the mid-20th century, six successive forms had been identified: two 8th-century Arabic translations of the Persian Hazār afsāna, called Alf khurafah and Alf laylah; a 9th-century version based on Alf laylah but including other stories then current; the 10th-century work by al-Jahshiyārī; a 12th-century collection, including Egyptian tales; and the final version, extending to the 16th century and consisting of the earlier material with the addition of stories of the Islamic Counter-Crusades and Oriental tales brought to the Middle East by the Mongols. Most of the tales best known in the West—primarily those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad—were much later additions to the original corpus.

The first European translation of the Nights, which was also the first published edition, was made by Antoine Galland as Les Mille et Une Nuits, contes arabes traduits en français, 12 vol. (vol. i to vol. x, 1704–12; vol. xi and xii, 1717). Galland’s main text was a four-volume Syrian manuscript, but the later volumes contain many stories from oral and other sources. His translation remained standard until the mid-19th century, parts even being retranslated into Arabic. The Arabic text was first published in full at Calcutta (Kolkata), 4 vol. (1839–42). The source for most later translations, however, was the so-called Vulgate text, an Egyptian recension published at Bulaq, Cairo, in 1835, and several times reprinted.

Meanwhile, French and English continuations, versions, or editions of Galland had added stories from oral and manuscript sources, collected, with others, in the Breslau edition, 5 vol. (1825–43) by Maximilian Habicht. Later translations followed the Bulaq text with varying fullness and accuracy. Among the best-known of the 19th-century translations into English is that of Sir Richard Burton, who used John Payne’s little-known full English translation, 13 vol. (9 vol., 1882–84; 3 supplementary vol., 1884; vol. xiii, 1889), to produce his unexpurgated The Thousand Nights and a Night, 16 vol. (10 vol., 1885; 6 supplementary vol., 1886–88).


Most writers of these works were members of the state bureaucracy. From the 12th century onward, their flowery style became a model of prestigious Persian prose, not only in official compositions but also in other genres. This manner of writing was characterized by an excessive use of learned Arabic words and redundant phrases, and it was given a poetic tone by the introduction of rhymed prose (sajʿ) and the insertion of lines of verse. This stilted style was noticeable especially in historiography, which produced an abundance of works beginning in the Mongol period (see below The Mongol and Timurid period). There is a marked difference between the bombastic style of these later historians and the direct but elegant prose of Bayhaqī, an 11th-century official of the Ghaznavids, whose work became a model even to modern Persian writers.

The mystics of Persia left a particularly rich heritage of prose writings that is not less important than their achievements in poetry. Moreover, they created works across a great variety of prose genres, several of which were unknown in Arabic literature. These include volumes of letters to adepts, collections of conversations by important sheikhs, mystical commentaries on the Qurʾān, and treatises on Sufi topics. Especially remarkable are works on the theory of love composed in an epigrammatic style. The oldest and most celebrated example is the 12th-century Sawāniḥ ("Flashes [of the Mind]"), an essay on the psychology of mystical and secular love by Aḥmad al-Ghazālī (a brother of the theologian al-Ghazālī), whose subtle, epigrammatical style was imitated in the 15th century by Jāmī in his Lawaʾiḥ ("Flashes [of Light]"), a treatise on Sufism. Suhrawardī, a highly original 12th-century thinker in the traditions of both Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic mysticism, wrote a number of short allegorical texts in Persian prose. Many Sufi hagiographies describe either the life of a single mystical master or, as the collections assembled by ʿAṭṭār (in Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ [“Memoirs of the Saints”]) and Jāmī (in Nafaḥāt al-uns [“Breezes of Intimacy”]) do, the tradition of Sufism as a whole.

A very successful form of Persian prose, the tadhkirah, was an amalgam of biography and anthology. The oldest work of this kind still extant is ʿAwfī’s 13th-century Lubāb al-albāb (“The Quintessence of the Hearts”). In the late 15th century Dawlatshāh composed his Tadhkirat al-shuʿarāʾ ("Memoirs of the Poets"), from which title was derived the appellation for this genre of poetical biography. It flourished until the 19th century in all countries where Persian letters were cultivated. The tadhkirahs constitute a rich, though not always reliable, source of knowledge about the lives of the Persian poets.

After the emergence of Persian literature, the most important works on literary theory continued to be written in Arabic, though not seldom the authors were Iranians. The influence of Arabic terminology, ideas, and descriptive conventions remained very strong until the 20th century. The most comprehensive textbook of Persian poetics was composed by Shams-i Qays (Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Qays Rāzī) in the 1220s.

The Mongol and Timurid period

About 1220 the Mongols, led by Chinggis Khan, devastated Iran, especially in the east, where they destroyed several cities. Thirty years later a Mongol state was established in Iran by Chinggis Khan’s grandson Hülegü. Before the end of the 13th century, the Īl-Khans, as the new rulers were called (Il-Khanid dynasty), had become Muslims and had assimilated Persian civilization, mainly as a result of their officials, most of whom were Iranians. Tabrīz, the capital of the Mongols, became a cultural centre where old traditions were safeguarded but innovations were also attempted. An important development during this period was the opening of contacts with China, which had also been incorporated into the Mongol empire. Chinese artists came to Tabrīz and contributed significantly to the development of miniature painting as a major artistic tradition in Iran. The works most frequently illustrated were Ferdowsī’s Shāh-nāmeh and Neẓāmī’s Khamseh.

At the same time, the Mongols’ Iranian officials developed Persian historiography. An important achievement was the Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh ("The Collection of Chronicles"), written by Rashīd al-Dīn, who became a vizier of the Īl-Khans in 1298. This is a general history not only of Islam but also of other civilizations known to the author.


Sa'dī and Hāfez

The rule of the Mongols in Iran came to an end in 1335. Timur, in a series of destructive campaigns, attempted later in the 14th century to restore their empire. His efforts produced a unified state that did not last long, and in the 15th century political power in the region again became fragmented. The descendants of Timur, known as the Timurids, resided mainly in Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) and Herāt (now in Afghanistan) and from there exerted control over Iran’s eastern regions, while other rulers reigned over the remaining parts of Iran. This situation favoured the flowering of literature and the arts. One of the provincial cities in Iran that became important as a cultural centre was Shīrāz in the southern province of Fārs. Writers, poets, and painters were able to find shelter with the local dynasties there; these dynasties had, in fact, been offering protection since the Mongol raids of the 13th century.

About 1258, the year Hülegü’s hordes sacked Baghdad and murdered the last ʿAbbāsid caliph, the poet Saʿdī returned to his native Shīrāz after a series of long journeys through the Middle East. As a present to the city, he claimed, he brought with him the masnawi Būstān (The Orchard), the most brilliant specimen of Persian didactic poetry. Directly afterward he wrote, in prose, the Gulistān (The Rose Garden), which treated the same moralistic themes as in The Orchard but in a more playful manner. With the latter work Saʿdī won his reputation as one of the greatest Persian writers not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, where the The Rose Garden was introduced as early as the 17th century. To Iranians he is moreover a master of the ghazal; indeed, it is often claimed that he established the classical form of the Persian ghazal. Numerous lines from his poetry and the The Rose Garden have become proverbs in Persian. One of the first to follow Saʿdī’s lyrical style was Amīr Khosrow, through whom Persian poetry became established on the Indian subcontinent.

With the 14th-century poet Ḥāfeẓ, who wrote hardly any other poems than ghazals, the development of this genre reached its zenith. Although he was undoubtedly dependent on the work of older poets, Ḥāfeẓ succeeded in combining the elements handed down to him by tradition in a strikingly new manner. The most remarkable features of his ghazals are the kaleidoscopic shifts of imagery and motives within a single poem. It often seems as if the individual lines stand largely on their own, and the internal unity of the ghazals and their themes are difficult to determine. This has given rise to many variant readings, including different line ordering, that exist even in the oldest manuscripts of his divan. Modern Western critics have tried to identify rules that govern the internal coherence of a typical ghazal by Ḥāfeẓ.

Another question often raised is whether Ḥāfeẓ’s poems speak of mystical or of earthly love. In the past the former position was taken by most commentators in the Middle East, although modern literary scholars in Iran have pointed to Ḥāfeẓ’s undeniable ties with the court of Shīrāz and have emphasized the secular aspects of his art. Both interpretative possibilities have their supporters among Western critics. Ḥāfeẓ’s frequent references to behaviour that includes indulgence in wine drinking and flirtation with young cupbearers are sometimes taken as a direct reflection of his participation in the conviviality of the court of Shīrāz. There is also a streak of sharp sarcasm in his poetry that is aimed at the representatives of respectable religious life; not only are pious scholars, Islamic judges, preachers, and the guardians of public morality his targets, but so too are the ascetic Sufis. The persona of the antinomian qalandar, who figured two centuries earlier in the ghazals of Sanāʾī, appears again in the poems of Ḥāfeẓ, usually under the appellation of rind. The poet’s own attitudes are subsumed by the abstract term rindī (“vagabondry”); some have ascribed to Ḥāfeẓ the stance of a rebel to the social order. However, because antinomianism was also a prominent strain in medieval Persian mysticism, an alternative reading of these motives—as the expression of a total rejection of worldly values—cannot be excluded.


Saʿdī, also spelled Saadi, byname of Musharrif al-Dīn ibn Muṣlih al-Dīn (b. c. 1213, Shīrāz, Iran—d. Dec. 9, 1291, Shīrāz), Persian poet, one of the greatest figures in classical Persian literature.

He lost his father, Muṣliḥ al-Dīn, in early childhood; later he was sent to study in Baghdad at the renowned Neẓāmīyeh College, where he acquired the traditional learning of Islam. The unsettled conditions following the Mongol invasion of Persia led him to wander abroad through Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. He refers in his work to travels in India and Central Asia, but these cannot be confirmed. He claimed that he was held captive by the Franks and put to work in the trenches of the fortress of Tripoli (now in Lebanon); however, this story, like many of his other “autobiographical” anecdotes, is considered highly suspect. When he returned to his native Shīrāz, he was middle-aged; he seems to have spent the rest of his life in Shīrāz.

Saʿdī took his nom de plume from the name of a local atabeg (prince), Saʿd ibn Zangī. Saʿdī’s best-known works are the Būstān (1257; The Orchard) and the Gulistān (1258; The Rose Garden). The Būstān is entirely in verse (epic metre) and consists of stories aptly illustrating the standard virtues recommended to Muslims (justice, liberality, modesty, contentment) as well as of reflections on the behaviour of dervishes and their ecstatic practices. The Gulistān is mainly in prose and contains stories and personal anecdotes. The text is interspersed with a variety of short poems, containing aphorisms, advice, and humorous reflections. The morals preached in the Gulistān border on expediency—e.g., a well-intended lie is admitted to be preferable to a seditious truth. Saʿdī demonstrates a profound awareness of the absurdity of human existence. The fate of those who depend on the changeable moods of kings is contrasted with the freedom of the dervishes.

For Western students the Būstān and Gulistān have a special attraction; but Saʿdī is also remembered as a great panegyrist and lyricist and as the author of a number of masterly general odes portraying human experience and also of particular odes such as the lament on the fall of Baghdad after the Mongol invasion in 1258. His lyrics are to be found in Ghazalīyāt (“Lyrics”) and his odes in Qaṣāʿīd (“Odes”). Six prose treatises on various subjects are attributed to him; he is also known for a number of works in Arabic. The peculiar blend of human kindness and cynicism, humour, and resignation displayed in Saʿdī’s works, together with a tendency to avoid the hard dilemma, make him, to many, the most widely admired writer in the world of Iranian culture.





Ḥāfeẓ, also spelled Ḥāfiz, in full Moḥammad Shams al-Dīn Ḥāfeẓ (b. 1325/26, Shīrāz, Iran—d. 1389/90, Shīrāz), one of the finest lyric poets of Persia.

Ḥāfeẓ received a classical religious education, lectured on Qurʾānic and other theological subjects (“Ḥāfeẓ” designates one who has learned the Qurʾān by heart), and wrote commentaries on religious classics. As a court poet, he enjoyed the patronage of several rulers of Shīrāz.

About 1368–69 Ḥāfeẓ fell out of favour at the court and did not regain his position until 20 years later, just before his death. In his poetry there are many echoes of historical events as well as biographical descriptions and details of life in Shīrāz. One of the guiding principles of his life was Sufism, the Islamic mystical movement that demanded of its adherents complete devotion to the pursuit of union with the ultimate reality.

Ḥāfeẓ’s principal verse form, one that he brought to a perfection never achieved before or since, was the ghazal, a lyric poem of 6 to 15 couplets linked by unity of subject and symbolism rather than by a logical sequence of ideas. Traditionally the ghazal had dealt with love and wine, motifs that, in their association with ecstasy and freedom from restraint, lent themselves naturally to the expression of Sufi ideas. Ḥāfeẓ’s achievement was to give these conventional subjects a freshness and subtlety that completely relieves his poetry of tedious formalism. An important innovation credited to Ḥāfeẓ was the use of the ghazal instead of the qasida (ode) in panegyrics. Ḥāfeẓ also reduced the panegyric element of his poems to a mere one or two lines, leaving the remainder of the poem for his ideas. The extraordinary popularity of Ḥāfeẓ’s poetry in all Persian-speaking lands stems from his simple and often colloquial though musical language, free from artificial virtuosity, and his unaffected use of homely images and proverbial expressions. Above all, his poetry is characterized by love of humanity, contempt for hypocrisy and mediocrity, and an ability to universalize everyday experience and to relate it to the mystic’s unending search for union with God. His appeal in the West is indicated by the numerous translations of his poems. Ḥāfeẓ is most famous for his Dīvān; among the many partial English translations of this work are those by Gertrude Bell and H. Wilberforce Clarke.



After Hāfez the ghazal continued to be the most important form of lyric poetry in Persian. In histories of Persian literature, the 15th century is usually described as a period of little originality. Poets strove for rhetorical virtuosity instead of inventiveness, especially in their handling of the ghazal. The stories told in masnawi verse or in prose were mostly allegories, of which a poem by Fattāḥī, which relates the adventures of Ḥusn (“Beauty”) and Dil (“Heart”), provides a good example. However, this century produced one really great poet: Jāmī, a sheikh of the Naqshbandiyyah, a powerful Sufi order, who was a close friend of the Timurid sultan of Herāt. Jāmī was a prolific poet well aware of the great tradition that lay behind him. He assembled his many ghazals in three divans at different stages of his life. As a writer of masnawis, he extended the repertoire of Neẓāmī’s Khamseh to a set of seven poems, under the title Haft awrang (“The Seven Thrones,” or “The Constellation of the Great Bear”; both names are references to the constellation Ursa Major). Jāmī added not only more didactic poems but also new subjects: the tale of the love between Yūsuf and Zulaykhā (the biblical wife of Potiphar), based on the story as it is told in sura 12 of the Qurʾān, and Salmān and Absāl, derived from Greek sources. In both works the allegorical meanings to be read into the stories are made explicit by the poet.



Jāmī, in full Mowlanā Nūr Od-dīn ʿabd Or-raḥmān Ebn Aḥmad (b. Nov. 7, 1414, district of Jam—d. Nov. 9, 1492, Herāt, Timurid Afghanistan), Persian scholar, mystic, and poet who is often regarded as the last great mystical poet of Iran.

Jāmī spent his life in Herāt, except for two brief pilgrimages to Meshed (Iran) and the Hejaz. During his lifetime his fame as a scholar resulted in numerous offers of patronage by many of the contemporary Islāmic rulers. He declined most of these offers, preferring the simple life of a mystic and scholar to that of a court poet. His work is notably devoid of panegyrics. His prose deals with a variety of subjects ranging from Qurʾānic commentaries to treatises on Ṣūfism (Islāmic mysticism) and music. Perhaps the most famous is his mystical treatise Lava’iḥ (Flashes of Light), a clear and precise exposition of the Ṣūfī doctrines of waḥdat al-wujūd (the existential unity of Being), together with a commentary on the experiences of other famous mystics.

Jāmī’s poetical works express his ethical and philosophical doctrines. His poetry is fresh and graceful and is not marred by unduly esoteric language. His most famous collection of poetry is a seven-part compendium entitled Haft Awrang (“The Seven Thrones,” or “Ursa Major”), which includes Salmān o-Absāl and Yūsof o-Zalīkhā. Although this collection is modeled on the works of the 13th-century romantic poet Neẓāmī, it bears Jāmī’s unmistakable mark of originality and intellectual vigour.

The Ṣafavids and the introduction of Shīʿism

About 1500 the history of Iran took a new turn that had great consequences both politically and culturally. It was then that the Ṣafavids were able to found a unified state in Iran. They also introduced the beliefs of the Ithnā ʿAsharīyyah sect of Shīʿite Islam as a national religion that replaced the predominantly Sunni Islam to which most Iranians had adhered since the time of the Arab conquest. Initially, the Ṣafavid shahs continued the tradition of artistic patronage established by previous dynasties. Architecture and miniature painting flourished as never before. In literature the conventions of court poetry lived on, but no great works were produced.

The only poet whose name could be mentioned next to the older masters is Ṣāʾib of Tabrīz, who specialized in writing ghazals during the 17th century. At the beginning of his career, Ṣāʾib had spent some years at Indian courts. By the time he had returned to Iran and settled in Eṣfahān, his poetry showed the influence of new tendencies referred to as the “Indian style.” The most important of this style’s features was a much freer use of imagery: poets such as Ṣāʾib disregarded the rule of “harmony of images” that had always been kept in Persian poetry, a rule that decreed that the poet should never bring together images belonging to incompatible spheres and that, within the context of one or more lines, the poet should use only those images accepted as harmonious by tradition. Actually, this style had first appeared in Iran about the end of the 15th century, the ghazal poet Bābā Fighānī being often mentioned as an early exemplar, but it became much more pronounced in Persian poetry written in India. From the late 16th century onward many poets left Iran, disappointed by the lack of patronage under the Ṣafavids, to try their fortune at the Indian courts. A largely independent Indo-Persian tradition came into being that survived into modern times. The Indian style in its most extreme form is exemplified by the poetry of Bīdil, but even later the Indo-Persian tradition produced such major 19th- and 20th-century figures as Mīrzā Asadullāh Khān Ghālib and Sir Muḥammad Iqbāl.

In Iran a reaction to the loosening of stylistic norms came about in the later half of the 18th century. Standards of good poetry were sought in the works of the earliest poets who had practiced the unadulterated style of Khorāsān. A neoclassical ideal of poetry continued to dominate Persian literature until the 20th century.

After the introduction of Shīʿism in Iran under the Ṣafavids, writers and poets turned their attention increasingly to Shīʿite topics. The central subject was the martyrdom of the 12 imams—the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and the leaders of the Shīʿite community after the Prophet’s death—and in particular the death of the third imam, al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, who in 680 was killed at the Battle of Karbalāʾ in what is today Iraq. This event was evoked in a poem of 12 stanzas written during the 16th century by Muḥtasham. For generations this poem has been used in commemorations of Ḥusayn’s death. The ritual function, so important to Shīʿite literature, gave birth to the only form of drama known in the Persian classical tradition: the taʿziyyah, a word that originally meant “consolation” and was applied to various forms of religious mourning. Since the 19th century the word taʿziyyah has referred in particular to passion plays performed by lay actors enacting the sufferings of the 12 Shīʿite imams. The plays mainly centre on the fate of the holy martyrs at the Battle of Karbalāʾ, which was of fundamental significance to the concept of Shīʿite martyrdom. The performance of taʿziyyahs reached its height in the period of the Qājār dynasty (1796–1925), but the plays experienced a revival at the turn of the 21st century.

Modern Iran

In the early decades of the 19th century, contacts between Iran and Europe rapidly increased, while two wars with Russia (1804–13 and 1826–28) made apparent Iran’s military weakness. Among enlightened members of the Qājār elite the necessity of reforms was deeply felt. This led to the first attempts at a modernization of Iranian society. These efforts were aimed primarily at strengthening the army through better training and equipment and through the assistance of foreign advisers. In general, these reforms sought to implement technical improvements.

Measures were also taken that concerned the areas of education and culture. One of them was the reintroduction and increasingly widespread use of the printing press in Iran, which had been without a press since the 17th century. In order to improve the efficiency of government and the spread of information, an attempt was made to simplify the written language as it was used by officials and historians. Young men were sent abroad to study at European universities. They came home not only with new scientific and technical skills but also with a knowledge of Western languages and literatures. About 1850 the Dār al-Fonūn (Polytechnic School) was founded at Tehrān; it was the first modern academic institution in Iran.

In the later 19th century, genres hitherto unknown to classical literature were introduced by the playwrights Mirza Jaʿfar Qarachaʿdaghi and Mirza Aqa Tabrizi and the novelists Abd al-Rahim Talibuf and Zayn al-ʿAbedin. Their criticism of political and social conditions helped to prepare the minds of intellectuals for political changes. In the first decade of the 20th century this developed into a revolutionary mood that burst out in an uprising against the authoritarian rule of the Qājār shahs that became known as the Constitutional Revolution. In 1906 a constitution and a parliament (the Majles) were instituted in Iran. Poets severed their ties to the ancient tradition of patronage and joined in the struggle as independent engagé writers. ʿAref Qazvini and Muḥammad Taqī Bahār were among those who left the courts and addressed themselves directly to the Iranian people in revolt. A new political press opened its columns to writers and poets of revolutionary texts. ʿAli Akbar Dekhoda was an influential satirist of daily events and made a contribution to the modernization of Persian prose.

Under the rule (1925–41) of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the freedom of expression previously won was cut short, although the modernizing policies of the regime were indirectly helpful in creating the conditions for the emergence of a new Persian literature. Nima Yushij was the first to propose a radical renewal of Persian poetry, not only of its contents but also of its prosody and imagery, but he found the opposing forces of tradition to be very strong. His earliest poems, influenced by French Romanticism and Symbolism, appeared in the 1920s. But it was not until the 1940s that his ideas were adopted by a young generation of poets who went on to create a “new poetry” (shiʿr-i now) in Iran. Leading modernizers were Ahmad Shamlu, Forough Farrokhzad, Mehdi Akhvan-e Sales, and Nader Naderpour. They represented different directions of modernization, and they distanced themselves from the classical tradition in various ways. A special place was occupied by Sohrab Sepehri, whose mystical evocations of nature are much beloved by Iranian readers. By about 1960 this revolution in Persian poetics had won the field, and the new style had become firmly established. In spite of their preoccupation with a search for contemporary forms of poetic expression, poets of the 20th century did not stand aloof from the great issues in Iran’s modern history. Many poets suffered censorship, imprisonment, and exile, both before and after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1978–79.

Modern prose owes much to the small volume of short stories Yakī būd, yakī nabūd (Once Upon a Time), published in 1921 by Mohammed Ali Jamalzadeh. These stories became a landmark in the development of realistic prose narrative, which had no precedent in the Persian tradition. Sadeq Hedayat followed in the footsteps of Jamalzadeh by using the short story to portray the conventional lives of common people as well the confusions of modern intellectuals. To the latter subject he applied the devices of surrealistic writing in the short novel Būf-e kūr (1937; The Blind Owl), which found international recognition and was translated in many languages. Bozorg Alavi wrote stories and novels dealing with, on the one hand, the deeper causes of psychological problems and, on the other, the experiences of leftist intellectuals in their struggle. His novel Chashmhāyash (1952; Her Eyes), for instance, recounts a personal tragedy within a group of political activists.

After Reza Shah’s fall in 1941, when for a short time there was greater freedom of the press in Iran, another generation of prose writers emerged, the most prominent representatives of which were Sadeq Chubak, a clever writer whose short stories show the influence of the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, and Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whose long essay Gharbzadegī (1962; “Westoxication”) became widely influential as an indictment of the slavish imitation of the West in Iranian society under the Pahlavi regime. Simin Daneshvar, his wife, had much success with her novel Savūshūn (1969; “The Sacrifice”; Eng. trans. A Persian Requiem, or Savushun), which describes the disruption of traditional society by foreign occupation during World War II. Among prose writers of the later 20th century, the influence of modern narrative techniques, inspired by Western writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner, was strong, particularly in the works of Hushang Golshiri. His depiction of the decay of the ancient Iranian aristocracy in Shāzdeh Eḥtejāb (1968; “Prince Iḥtijāb”; Eng. trans. The Prince), a short novel that was also made into a film, is one of many instances of the symbiosis of literature and the visual and performing arts in modern Persian literature. A symbiosis of the arts also marks the work of Ghulam Husayn Saʿidi (Gholam-Hossein Saʿedi), who wrote short stories as well as plays for the theatre and scripts for successful Iranian films.

The participation of women writers in modern literature increased considerably during the second half of the 20th century. Best known outside Iran is Shahrnoush Parsipour’s novella Zanān bidūn-i mardān (1978; Women Without Men), which recounts the attempts of five women to overcome the limitations put upon their lives by male dominance in a traditional society. Like many other contemporary Iranian writers, Parsipour uses the narrative technique of magic realism in imitation of such Latin American authors as Gabriel García Márquez. In contrast to the late-20th-century tendency by writers to apply modern narrative techniques to their novels stands the social realism of Mahmoud Dawlatabadi. His great novel Kalīdar, published in 10 parts (1978–84), depicts the lives of nomads in the plains of Khorāsān, the author’s native region.

Poetry remained a prominent form of literature in Iran through the early 21st century. Following various international trends in poetic expression, many different schools of poetry further developed the modernist principles introduced by Nima Yushij. Of the great classical poets, Omar Khayyam and Ḥāfeẓ in particular survived as respected figures from the past who are today still considered to be relevant to modern poets. The Islamic Republic of Iran, applying criteria of political, religious, and moral correctness, placed severe limits on the free expression of writers and poets, although there were brief periods when government censorship was relaxed. From the 1980s onward, a substantial Persian emigré literature emerged in the United States and Europe.

J.T.P. de Bruijn






Persian philosopher and scientist
Arabic Ibn Sīnā, in full Abū ʾAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā
born 980, Bukhara, Iran
died 1037, Hamadan

Iranian physician, the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of Islam. He was particularly noted for his contributions in the fields of Aristotelian philosophy and medicine. He composed the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (“Book of Healing”), a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia, and The Canon of Medicine, which is among the most famous books in the history of medicine.

Early years
Avicenna, an ethnic Persian who spent his whole life in the eastern and central regions of Iran, received his earliest education in Bukhara under the direction of his father. Since the house of his father was a meeting place for learned men, from his earliest childhood Avicenna was able to profit from the company of the outstanding masters of his day. A precocious child with an exceptional memory that he retained throughout his life, he had memorized the Qurʾān and much Arabic poetry by the age of 10. Thereafter, he studied logic and metaphysics under teachers whom he soon outgrew and then spent the few years until he reached the age of 18 in his own self-education. He read avidly and mastered Islamic law, then medicine, and finally metaphysics. Particularly helpful in his intellectual development was his gaining access to the rich royal library of the Sāmānids—the first great native dynasty that arose in Iran after the Arab conquest—as the result of his successful cure of the Sāmānid prince Nūḥ ibn Manṣūr. By the time he was 21 he was accomplished in all branches of formal learning and had already gained a wide reputation as an outstanding physician. His services were also sought as an administrator, and for a while he even entered government service as a clerk.

But suddenly the whole pattern of his life changed. His father died; the Sāmānid house was defeated by Maḥmūd of Ghazna, the Turkish leader and legendary hero who established Ghaznavid rule in Khorāsān (northeastern Iran and modern western Afghanistan); and Avicenna began a period of wandering and turmoil, which was to last to the end of his life with the exception of a few unusual intervals of tranquillity. Destiny had plunged Avicenna into one of the tumultuous periods of Iranian history, when new Turkish elements were replacing Iranian domination in Central Asia and local Iranian dynasties were trying to gain political independence from the ʿAbbāsid caliphate in Baghdad (in modern Iraq). But the power of concentration and the intellectual prowess of Avicenna was such that he was able to continue his intellectual work with remarkable consistency and continuity and was not at all influenced by the outward disturbances.

Avicenna wandered for a while in different cities of Khorāsān and then left for the court of the Būyid princes, who were ruling over central Iran, first going to Rayy (near modern Tehrān) and then to Qazvīn, where as usual he made his livelihood as a physician. But in these cities also he found neither sufficient social and economic support nor the necessary peace and calm to continue his work. He went, therefore, to Hamadan in west-central Iran, where Shams al-Dawlah, another Būyid prince, was ruling. This journey marked the beginning of a new phase in Avicenna’s life. He became court physician and enjoyed the favour of the ruler to the extent that twice he was appointed vizier. As was the order of the day, he also suffered political reactions and intrigues against him and was forced into hiding for some time; at one time he was even imprisoned.

This was the period when he began his two most famous works. Kitāb al-shifāʾ is probably the largest work of its kind ever written by one man. It treats of logic, the natural sciences, including psychology, the quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music), and metaphysics, but there is no real exposition of ethics or of politics. His thought in this work owes a great deal to Aristotle but also to other Greek influences and to Neoplatonism. His system rests on the conception of God as the necessary existent: in God alone essence, what he is, and existence, that he is, coincide. There is a gradual multiplication of beings through a timeless emanation from God as a result of his self-knowledge. The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb) is the most famous single book in the history of medicine in both East and West. It is a systematic encyclopaedia based for the most part on the achievements of Greek physicians of the Roman imperial age and on other Arabic works and, to a lesser extent, on his own experience (his own clinical notes were lost during his journeys). Occupied during the day with his duties at court as both physician and administrator, Avicenna spent almost every night with his students composing these and other works and carrying out general philosophical and scientific discussions related to them. These sessions were often combined with musical performances and gaiety and lasted until late hours of the night. Even in hiding and in prison he continued to write. The great physical strength of Avicenna enabled him to carry out a program that would have been unimaginable for a person of a feebler constitution.

The last phase of Avicenna’s life began with his move to Eṣfahān (about 250 miles south of Tehrān). In 1022 Shams al-Dawlah died, and Avicenna, after a period of difficulty that included imprisonment, fled to Eṣfahān with a small entourage. In Eṣfahān, Avicenna was to spend the last 14 years of his life in relative peace. He was esteemed highly by ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah, the ruler, and his court. Here he finished the two major works he began in Hamadan and wrote most of his nearly 200 treatises; he also composed the first work on Aristotelian philosophy in the Persian language and the masterly summary of his Kitāb al-shifāʾ, called Kitāb al-najāt (Book of Salvation), written partly during the military campaigns in which he had to accompany ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah to the field of battle. During this time he composed his last major philosophical opus and the most “personal” testament of his thought, Kitāb al-ishārāt wa al-tanbīhāt (Book of Directives and Remarks). In this work he described the mystic’s spiritual journey from the beginnings of faith to the final stage of direct and uninterrupted vision of God. Also in Eṣfahān, when an authority on Arabic philology criticized him for his lack of mastery in the subject, he spent three years studying it and composed a vast work called Lisān al-ʿArab (The Arabic Language), which remained in rough draft until his death. Accompanying ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah on a campaign, Avicenna fell ill and, despite his attempts to treat himself, died from colic and from exhaustion.

Besides fulfilling the role of the master of the Muslim Aristotelians, Avicenna also sought in later life to found an “Oriental philosophy” (al-ḥikmat al-mashriqīyah). Most of his works directly concerning this have been lost, but enough remains in some of his other works to give an indication of the direction he was following. He took the first steps upon a path toward mystical theosophy that marked the direction that Islamic philosophy was to follow in the future, especially in Persia and the other eastern lands of Islam.

Avicenna’s influence
In the Western world, Avicenna’s influence was felt, though no distinct school of “Latin Avicennism” can be discerned as can with Averroës, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher. Avicenna’s Book of Healing was translated partially into Latin in the 12th century, and the complete Canon appeared in the same century. These translations and others spread the thought of Avicenna far and wide in the West. His thought, blended with that of St. Augustine, the Christian philosopher and theologian, was a basic ingredient in the thought of many of the medieval Scholastics, especially in the Franciscan schools. In medicine the Canon became the medical authority for several centuries, and Avicenna enjoyed an undisputed place of honour equaled only by the early Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. In the East his dominating influence in medicine, philosophy, and theology has lasted over the ages and is still alive within the circles of Islamic thought.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr


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