Abu-Muhammad Muslih al-Din bin Abdallah Shirazi, Saadi Shirazi
(Persian: ابومحمد مصلح الدین بن عبدالله شیرازی) better known by his pen-name as Saʿdi (Persian: سعدی) or simply Saadi, was one of the major Persian poets of the medieval period. He is not only famous in Persian-speaking countries, but has also been quoted in western sources. He is recognized for the quality of his writings and for the depth of his social and moral thoughts. Saadi is widely recognized as one of the most prominent and greatest poets of the classical literary tradition.
A native of Shiraz, his father died when he was an infant. Saadi experienced a youth of poverty and hardship, and left his native town at a young age for Baghdad to pursue a better education. As a young man he was inducted to study at the famous an-Nizamiyya center of knowledge (1195–1226), where he excelled in Islamic sciences, law, governance, history, Arabic literature, and Islamic theology.
The unsettled conditions following the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm and Iran led him to wander for 30 years abroad through Anatolia (he visited the Port of Adana, and near Konya he met proud Ghazi landlords), Syria (he mentions the famine in Damascus), Egypt (of its music and Bazaars its clerics and elite class), and Iraq (the port of Basra and the Tigris river). He also refers in his work about his travels in Sindh (Pakistan across the Indus and Thar with a Turkic Amir named Tughral), India (especially Somnath where he encountered Brahmans) and Central Asia (where he meets the survivors of the Mongol invasion in Khwarezm).
He also performed the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and visited Jerusalem. Saadi traveled through war wrecked regions from 1271 to 1294. Due to Mongol invasions he lived in desolate areas and met caravans fearing for their lives on once lively silk trade routes. Saadi lived in isolated refugee camps where he met bandits, Imams, men who formerly owned great wealth or commanded armies, intellectuals, and ordinary people. While Mongol and European sources (such as Marco Polo) gravitated to the potentates and courtly life of Ilkhanate rule, Saadi mingled with the ordinary survivors of the war-torn region. He sat in remote tea houses 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, and learning, honing his sermons to reflect the wisdom and foibles of his people. Saadi’s works reflect upon the lives of ordinary Iranians suffering displacement, plight, agony and conflict during the turbulent times of Mongol invasion.
Saadi was also among those who witnessed first-hand accounts of Baghdad’s destruction by Mongol Ilkhanate invaders led by Hulagu during the year 1258. Saadi was captured by Crusaders at Acre where he spent seven years as a slave digging trenches outside its fortress. He was later released after the Mamluks paid ransom for Muslim prisoners being held in Crusader dungeons.
When he reappeared in his native Shiraz, he was an elderly man. Shiraz, under Atabak Abubakr Sa’d ibn Zangy (1231–60) was enjoying an era of relative tranquility. Saadi was not only welcomed to the city but was respected highly by the ruler and enumerated among the greats of the province. In response, Saadi took his nom de plume from the name of the local prince, Sa’d ibn Zangi. Some of Saadi’s most famous panegyrics were composed as a gesture of gratitude in praise of the ruling house and placed at the beginning of his Bustan. The remainder of Saadi’s life seems to have been spent in Shiraz.
The Journey of Saadi Shirazi
Due to the Mongol Empire invasion of the Muslim World, especially Khwarizm and Persia/Iran, Saadi like many other Muslims was displaced by the ensuing conflict thus beginning a 30 year journey. He first took refuge at Damascus and witnessed the famine in one of the most efficient cities of the world. After the frightful Sack of Baghdad in 1258 by Hulegu and the Ilkhanate Horde, Saadi visited Jerusalem and then set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. It is also believed that Saadi may have also visited Oman and other lands south of the Arabian Peninsula.
Saadi then visits Mamluk Egypt, of Sultan Baibars. He mentions the Qadis, Muftis of Al-Azhar, the grand Bazaar, music and art. At Halab Saadi joins a group of Sufis who had fought arduous battles against the Crusaders. Further Saadi travels to Turkey first, mentions the port city of Adana and the wealthy Ghazi landowners in Anatolia.
Saadi mentions Honey-gatherers in Azerbaijan, fearful of Mongol plunder. Saadi finally returns to Persia where he meets his childhood companions in Isfahan and other cities. At Khorasan Saadi befriends a Turkic Emir named Tughral. Saadi joins him and his men on their journey to Sindh where he met Pir Puttur, a follower of the Persian Sufi grand master Shaikh Usman Marvandvi (1117–1274), Saadi then traveled across the Indus River and when they reach the Thar Desert, Tughral hires Hindu sentinels. Tughral later enters service of the wealthy Delhi Sultanate and Saadi is invited to Delhi and later visits the Vizier of Gujarat. During his stay in Gujarat Saadi learns more of the Hindus and visits the large temple of Somnath; Saadi flees the temple due to an unpleasant encounter with the Brahmans.
Soon after Saadi returns to his native Shiraz and earns the patronage of its leaders.
His best known works are Bostan (The Orchard) completed in 1257 and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) in 1258. Bostan 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. Gulistan 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. Saadi 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. Gulistan was an influence on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine.
Saadi is also remembered as a panegyrist and lyricist, the author of a number of 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 found in Ghazaliyat (Lyrics) and his odes in Qasa’id (Odes). He is also known for a number of works in Arabic.
Of the Mongols he writes:
In Isfahan I had a friend who was warlike, spirited, and shrewd. His hands and dagger were forever stained with blood. The hearts of his enemies were consumed by fear of him; even the tigers stood in awe of him. In battle he was like a sparrow among locusts; but in combat,
“after long I met him: O tiger-seizer!” I exclaimed, “what has made thee decrepit like an old fox?”
He laughed and said: “Since the days of war against the Mongols, I have expelled the thoughts of fighting from my head. Then did I see the earth arrayed with spears like a forest of reeds. I raised like smoke the dust of conflict; but when Fortune does not favour, of what avail is fury? I am one who, in combat, could take with a spear a ring from the palm of the hand; but, as my star did not befriend me, they encircled me as with a ring. I seized the opportunity of flight, for only a fool strives with Fate. How could my helmet and cuirass aid me when my bright star favoured me not? When the key of victory is not in the hand, no one can break open the door of conquest with his arms.
“The enemy were a pack of leopards, and as strong as elephants. The heads of the heroes were encased in iron, as were also the hoofs of the horses. We urged on our Arab steeds like a cloud, and when the two armies encountered each other thou wouldst have said they had struck the sky down to the earth. From the raining of arrows, that descended like hail, the storm of death arose in every corner. Not one of our troops came out of the battle but his cuirass was soaked with blood. Not that our swords were blunt—it was the vengeance of stars of ill fortune. Overpowered, we surrendered, like a fish which, though protected by scales, is caught by the hook in the bait. Since Fortune averted her face, useless was our shield against the arrows of Fate.”
Alexander Pushkin, one of Russia’s most celebrated poets, quotes Saadi in his masterpiece Eugene Onegin:
as Saadi sang in earlier ages,
“some are far distant, some are dead”.
In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel wrote ‘Pantheistic poetry has had, it must be said, a higher and freer development in the Islamic world, especially among the Persians … The full flowering of Persian poetry comes at the height of its complete transformation in speech and national character, through Mohammedanism … In later times, poetry of this order [Ferdowsi’s epic poetry] had a sequel in love epics of extraordinary tenderness and sweetness; but there followed also a turn toward the didactic, where, with a rich experience of life, the far-traveled Saadi was master before it submerged itself in the depths of the pantheistic mysticism taught and recommended in the extraordinary tales and legendary narrations of the great Jalal-ed-Din Rumi.” (Hegel on the Arts translated by Henry Paolucci, 2001, p.155–157).
Saadi distinguished between the spiritual and the practical or mundane aspects of life. In his Bostan, for example, spiritual Saadi uses the mundane world as a spring board to propel himself beyond the earthly realms. The images in Bostan are delicate in nature and soothing. In the Gulistan, on the other hand, mundane Saadi lowers the spiritual to touch the heart of his fellow wayfarers. Here the images are graphic and, thanks to Saadi’s dexterity, remain concrete in the reader’s mind. Realistically, too, there is a ring of truth in the division. The Sheikh preaching in the Khanqah experiences a totally different world than the merchant passing through a town. The unique thing about Saadi is that he embodies both the Sufi Sheikh and the travelling merchant. They are, as he himself puts it, two almond kernels in the same shell.
Saadi’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 something that Dr. Iraj Bashiri quite skillfully captures in his transcreation of the Prologue of the work:
“In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Laudation is due the most High, the most Glorious, Whose worship bridges the Gap and Whose recognition breeds beneficence. Each breath inhaled sustains life, exhaled imparts rejuvenation. Two blessings in every breath, each due a separate salutation.
Whose hand properly offers and whose tongue,
The salutation due Him, and not be wrong?
Says He: “Ingratiate yourself, O family of David,
Unlike the unthankful, that I thee bid!”
Subjects proper, best admit to all transgression,
At His threshold, with contrite expression;
How otherwise could mortal creatures ever,
Make themselves worthy of His discretion?
The shower of His merciful bounty gratifies all, and His
banquet of limitless generosity recognizes no fall. The inner secrets
of His subjects, He does not divulge, nor does He, for a rogue’s
slight frailty, in injustice indulge.
O generosity personified!
To the Christian and the Magi,
You bestow with pleasure,
From Your invisible treasure.
O ardent benefactor!
You will lift Your friends high,
There is solid proof of that,
Not abandoning enemies to die!
He has ordered the zephyr to cover, with the emerald carpet of spring, the earth; and He has instructed the maternal vernal clouds to nourish the seeds of autumn to birth. In foliage green, He has clothed the trees, and through beautiful blossoms of many hues, has perfumed the breeze. He has allowed the life-imparting sap to percolate and its delicious honey to circulate. His power is hidden in the tiny seed that sires the lofty palm.
The clouds, the wind, the moon, and the sun,
For your comfort, and at your behest, run;
They toil continuously for your satisfaction,
Should not you halt, monitor your action?”
Regarding the importance of professions Saadi writes:
O darlings of your fathers, learn the trade because property and riches of the world are not to be relied upon; also silver and gold are an occasion of danger because either a thief may steal them at once or the owner spend them gradually; but a profession is a living fountain and permanent wealth; and although a professional man may loose riches, it does not matter because a profession is itself wealth and wherever you go you will enjoy respect and sit on high places, whereas those who have no trade will glean crumbs and see hardships.
Chief among these works is Goethe’s West-Oestlicher Divan. Andre du Ryer was the first European to present Saadi to the West, by means of a partial French translation of Gulistan in 1634. Adam Olearius followed soon with a complete translation of the Bustan and the Gulistan into German in 1654.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was also an avid fan of Sadi’s writings, contributing to some translated editions himself. Emerson, who read Saadi only in translation, compared his writing to the Bible in terms of its wisdom and the beauty of its narrative.
The most famous aphorism of Saadi
Saadi is well known for his aphorisms, the most famous of which, Bani Adam, in a delicate way shows the essence of Ubuntu and calls for breaking all barriers between the human beings:
بنى آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرینش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضوها را نماند قرار
Thus are similar in their creation,
If one ingredient feels the pain,
Other ingredients will not restrain,
If you’re careless about humans sufferings,
You’re not deserved to be called human beings,
The poem is translated by A.Marandi as:
Humans are peers of a united race,
Thus in creation, share the same base.
If one is affected with pain,
Others share the faith of same.
When you are indifferent to this pain,
You shall not earn the Humans’ name.
Also translated by M. Aryanpoor as:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!
by H. Vahid Dastjerdi as:
Adam’s sons are body limbs, to say;
For they’re created of the same clay.
Should one organ be troubled by pain,
Others would suffer severe strain.
Thou, careless of people’s suffering,
Deserve not the name, “human being”.
By Dr. Iraj Bashiri:
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.
By Shoaib Harris Sharifi.:
The children of Adam are part of a whole,
In creation being of one essence and soul.
If misfortune afflicts a member with pain,
Other members upset will remain.
If you feel free of fellow human’s pain,
The designation of Adam you cannot claim!
This translation is by Richard Jeffrey Newman:
All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit the right to be called human.
The translations above are attempts to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original while translating into English, but may distort the meaning. What follows is an attempt at a more literal translation of the original Persian:
“Humans (children of Adam) are inherent parts (or more literally, limbs) of one body,
and are from the same valuable essence (or more literally, gem) in their creation.
When the conditions of the time hurts one of these parts,
other parts will be disturbed.
If you are indifferent about the misery of others,
it may not be appropriate to call you a human being.”
U.S. President Barack Obama quoted the first two lines of this poem in his New Year’s greeting to the people of Iran on March 20, 2009:
But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی
The poem is translated by Siavash Bakhtiari as:
Humans are ingredients of the same potion,
Iranian Poets – The Eminent Iranian Poets – Poets of Iran – Persian Poets