Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two almond kernels in the same shell.-Saad Shirazi

Poet, prose writer and thinker, Muslihuddin Abu
Muhammad Abdullah ibn Mushrifuddin Sa'di, also referred
to as Shaykh Sa'di and Sa'di Shirazi, was born in Shiraz in
or around 1200. He died in Shiraz in or around 1292 of old

Little is known about the formative years of the poet's life
other than that his father, Mushrifi Shirazi, was a religious
man and of a religious persuasion. When Sa'di was about
twelve years old, his father passed away and the family
came under the protection of Sa'di's uncle who had a small
shop in Shiraz. With the help of his uncle, Sa'di completed
his early education in Shiraz. The end of his elementary
education coincides roughly with the invasion of Central
Asia by Chingiz Khan and the devastation of Khujand,
Samarqand, and Bukhara, the Iranian peoples' most
cherished cultural centers.

Sa'di left increasingly turbulent Shiraz for Baghdad where
he could study the Arabic language, Arab literature, hadith,
the Qur'an,and commentaries on the holy book at the
Nizamiyyah Academy. Once his education was complete,
he left Baghdad and until 1256, traveled extensively in the
Middle East, especially in Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco,
and Abyssinia and in the eastern Islamic lands, particularly
in Turkistan. In the east, he might have traveled as far as

Sa'di's travels coincide with a time when Chingiz Khan
(1206-1227) passed the scepter of Mongol power to Ogadai
Khan (1221-1241) and when, under Khan Mongke (1251-
1258), Batu Khan devastated Russia and Eastern Europe. In
this respect, Sa'di is very much like Marco Polo who
traveled in the region from 1271 to 1294. There is a
difference, however, between the two. While Marco Polo
gravitated to the potentates and the good life, Sa'di mingled
with the ordinary survivors of the Mongol holocaust. He sat
in remote teahouses late into the night and exchanged views
with merchants, farmers, preachers, wayfarers, thieves, and
Sufi mendicants. For twenty years or more, he continued
the same schedule of preaching, advising, learning, honing
his sermons, and polishing them into gems illuminating the
wisdom and foibles of his people.

1256 is the date usually assigned for the time when Sa'di's
zeal for travel gave in to his desire to document the fruits of
his travels. He returned to his home town of Shiraz which,
under Atabak Abubakr Sa'd ibn Zangy (1231-60) was
enjoying an era of relative tranquility. Not only was he
welcomed to the city but was respected highly by the ruler
and enumerated among the greats of the province. In
response, Sa'di composed some of his most delightful
panegyrics as an initial gesture of gratitude in praise of the
ruling house and placed them at the beginning of his

Intended as a vehicle for the transmission of his poetic and
literary gifts, the Bustan (orchard) is an exquisite piece of
didactic poetry composed in 1257. It is comprised of ten
sections of verse, each a dissertation on wisdom, justice,
compassion, good government, beneficence, earthly and
mystic love, resignation, contentment, and humility.
Dedicated to Abubakr Zangy, over the centuries, many of
its verses have become popular proverbs, an indication of
the level of excellence at which the public holds this
contribution of the Shaykh.

Within a year of the composition of Bustan, Sa'di authored
another volume which he entitled Gulistan. Dedicated to
Sa'd ibn Zangy, the Gulistan (rose garden) is intended to
pass to subsequent generations the essence of the Shaykh's
sermons. The volume consists of a cycle of eight rhymed
prose partitions each interspersed with poetry. The themes
 discussed include the manners of kings, the morals of dervishes,
 the preference of contentment, the advantages of keeping silent,
 as well as youth, old age, and the like. The following,
 translated by this author, illustrates Sa'di's attitude towards 
wealth and authority vis-a-vis freedom and enjoyment of a 
tranquil life:

Astride a horse I am not, nor camel-like carry a load,
Subjects I have none, nor follow any sultan's code;
I worry not for what exists, nor fret for what is lost,
I breathe with extreme ease, and live at very little

The volume is melodious in style with a predominance of
love in it. It expresses the poet's true emotions in its prose
as well as in its exemplary poetry. Furthermore, it is a gold
mine for effective use of metaphor displaying mystic love
in the guise of earthly love, and is redolent with contempt
for priesthood and authority. The first Persian literary
contribution to be translated into a Western tongue, the
Gulistan was translated by Rahatsek in Banares in 1888.
Sa'di's collected works includes 65 odes out of which 20 are
in Arabic. His odes are dedicated to such diverse themes as
spring, Shiraz, didactic matters, and religion. Only 20 of his
odes are devoted to either advising rulers or praising them.
Sa'di also wrote 200 quatrains, 7 elegies, and 737 sonnets.
Sa'di distinguished between the spiritual and the practical or
mundane aspects of life. In his Bustan, for example,
spiritual Sa'di uses the mundane world as a springboard to
propel himself beyond the earthly realms. The images in
Bustan are delicate in nature and soothing. In the Gulistan,
on the other hand, mundane Sa'di lowers the spiritual to
touch the heart of his fellow wayfarers. Here the images are
graphic and, thanks to Sa'di's dexterity, remain concrete in
the reader's mind. Realistically, too, there is a ring of truth 
in the division. The Shaykh preaching in the Khaniqah
experiences a totally different world than the merchant
passing through a town. The unique thing about Sa'di is that
he embodies both the Sufi Shaykh and the traveling
merchant. They are, as he himself puts it, two almond
kernels in the same shell.

Although Sa'di's name is associated with many famous
names in the West, three have been instrumental in the
development of his persona. Sir William Jones, for whom
Sa'di was a household name while in India, introduced Sa'di
to England. From there, Sa'di's fame traveled to Europe and
was picked up by Victor Hugo, Honore-de Balzac, and
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who added an international
dimension to Sa'di's fame and moved it across the Atlantic
in the direction of the American Transcendentalists Ralph
Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Among the devoted
readers of this distinguished international group of poets,
Sa'di became as well-known as Omar Khayyam is known

Fame, however, is a fleeting thing. Back in Britain, using
Sa'di's volumes as a textbook for learning the Persian
language, Edward Fitzgerald prepared his first edition of the
Ruba'iyyat of Omar Khayyam and published it
anonymously (1859). Its appeal surpassed that of the works
of Sa'di. In fact the popularity that the second edition of the
Ruba'iyyat received was unmatched by any other translation
of secular Asian poetry into English. Neither translations of
Sa'di's quatrains nor the translation of his other works in
quatrain form could turn the tide. Sa'di was thus forced to
share his fame with Khayyam and later with Hafiz.

Sa'di's prose style, described as "simple but impossible to
imitate" flows quite naturally and effortlessly. Its simplicity,
however, is grounded in a semantic web consisting of
synonymy, homophony, and oxymoron buttressed by
internal rhythm and external rhyme. Iranian authors over
the years have failed to imitate its style in their own
language, how can foreigners translate it into their own
language, no matter what language?

After the composition of the Gulistan, in 1258, Sa'di went
into retirement and was heard of no more. He is the
quintessential Muslim humanist, the first such wise man to
be recognized in the West.

The world honors Sa'di today by gracing the entrance to the
Hall of Nations in the United Nations in New York City
with a call for breaking all barriers. In the present author's
translation, it reads:

Of One Essence is the Human Race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base.
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.
The Unconcern'd with Others' Plight,
Are but Brutes with Human Face.

A Brief Chronology
1200? Sa'di is born in Shiraz
1206 Temuchin takes the title of Chingiz Khan
1220 The Khwarazm Shah is defeated by Chingiz Khan;
Sa'di's primary education in Shiraz ends
1226 Sa'di's education at the Baghdad Nizamiyyah ends
1227 Chingiz Khan dies
1241 Greater part of Russia is subjugated by Batu Khan
1243 Mongols defeat Seljuqs of Rum near Sivas
1256 Hulagu Khan takes Assassin stronghold of Alamut;
Berke, Batu Khan's brother, accepts Islam; Sa'di's
travels end
1257 Sa'di's Bustan is completed
1258 Hulagu Khan takes Baghdad; Sa'di's Gulistan is
1259 Sa'di's retirement begins
1260 Mongols defeated by the Mamluks at 'Ayn Jalut
1271 Marco Polo travels through Persia to China
1273 Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi dies
1290? Sa'di dies in Shiraz

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