The Persian writer and poet Musliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī of Shiraz (ca.1210-1291 or 1292) are without a doubt one of the best-known and most skilful writers of classical Persian literature. With an established reputation even during his lifetime, his works have been select reading for royal princes and ʻset textsʼ for more humble students of Persian the world over. It is hardly surprising then that a corresponding number of deluxe copies survive of his works. A previous post (What were the Mughals’ favourite books?) described some copies of his best known works, the Būstān (ʻFragrant Gardenʼ or ʻOrchardʼ) and the Gulistān (ʻRose Gardenʼ), in the Library’s collection. Another sumptuous manuscript, which has also been digitised, is an early 17th century copy of his Kullīyāt (ʻCollected Worksʼ), IO Islamic 843 which was completed in 1034 (1624/25) by Maḥmūd, a scribe of Shiraz (al-kātib al-Shīrāzī), during the reign of Shah ʻAbbas (r. 1588-1629).
Very little is known about the poet’s life. Born in Shiraz, Saʻdī left his hometown to study in Baghdad. After a period of study at the Nizamiyah Madrasah, Baghdad, he set off on travels that lasted over thirty years. His experiences and adventures found their way into his writings, including being a prisoner of the Crusaders in Syria, visiting Kashgar, and killing a temple priest at Somnath in India. Many of these tales, however, have been proved to be anecdotal rather than biographical. Saʻdī returned to Shiraz in 1257, already a widely recognised poet and completed his two most famous works: the Būstān in 1257 and the Gulistān in 1258. These two works of poetry and prose respectively, contain anecdotes from the life of the author, moral teachings, and advice for rulers. Many stories communicate elements of Sufi teachings through their dervish protagonists. Other works reflect the changing political situation in Shiraz. Several of his poems are dedicated to the Salghurid dynasty, which ruled in Fars from 1148 to 1282, while later works are addressed to their successors the Mongols and their administrators.
For anyone inspired by celebrations of St Valentine’s day, Persian literature has much to offer. Whether it be platonic adoration, romantic affection, or star-crossed disappointment, Persian poetry, in particular, has something to say about it. With a written tradition stretching over a millennium, much of it still preserved in manuscripts; we explore here a few select examples of epic and romantic compositions from the British Library’s growing collection of digitised Persian manuscripts available online to observe wonderful and alternative responses to love, physical and spiritual.
by Maria Popova
What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.
As a lover of children’s books with timelessphilosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds(public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartographyworld: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.
At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy — discontent — upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
I’wve seen the world. I know many secrets.
Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.
We must go and find him.