Story of Ferdowsi and Shahnameh
According to the Chahar Maqaleh (the most ancient and important of our extraneous sources of information): "Master Abul Ghasem Ferdowsi was one of the (land owners) of Tous, from the village called Bazh in the district of Tabaran a large village capable of supplying a thousand men. There Ferdowsi enjoyed an excellent position, so that he was rendered quite independent of his neighbors by the income which he derived from his lands, and he had but one child, a daughter. His one desire in putting the Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings) into verse was, out of reward which he might obtain for it, to supply her with an adequate dowry. He was engaged for thirty-five years on this work ere he finished the book and to this end he left nothing undone, raising, his verse as high as heaven and causing it in sweet fluency to resemble running water. What genius indeed could raise verse to such a height as he does in the letter written by Zal to Sam, the son of Nariman, when he desired to ally himself with Rudaba the daughter of the King of Kabul:
Then to Sam straightaway sent he a letter:
Filled with fair praises, prayers and greetings, First made the mention of the World-Maker, Who doom dispensed and doom fulfilled, 'On Norman's son Sam', wrote he, 'the sword-lord', Marl-clad and mace-girt, may the Lord's peace rest! Hurler in horse-troops in hot contented fights, Feeder of carrion-fowls with foemen's flesh-feast, Raising the roar of strife on the red-war field, From the grim war-clouds grinding the gore-shower, Who, by his manly might merit on merit Heaps, till his merit merit outnumbers. In eloquence I know no poetry in Persian which equals this and but little event in Arabic.
Reasons for the Composition of Shahnameh The foundation of Shahnameh, called by Ibnul-Athir the Persian Quran, was laid by Mansur bin Ahmad Daqiqi during the reign of Nuh bin Mansur, the most illustrious monarch of Samanian dynasty who claimed his descent from Bahram Chubeen.
With the occupation of throne in 563 A.H. Nuh bin Mansur earnestly desired that the history of his ancestors be written in verse form. He sent for Daqiqi and entrusted the work of composing Shahnameh to him. Daqiqi wrote about thousand verses, when he fell victim to his slave's dagger.
The incidents have been mentioned by Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh as follows: A youth with a fluent tongue and of good nature brought to me one thousand verses, containing the history of Iran from Gushtasp to Arjasp.
The incident of Daqiqis murder by his slave is referred in Shahmameh by Ferdowsi thus: A Youth had a bad natured friend who had an enmity with him. All of a sudden, as ill-luck would have it, he (the youth) was killed by his slave.
Shibli Numani writes: "When Ferdowsi was born, his father saw in a dream the child going on the terrace and giving a loud call. The call was responded from all sides. Next morning Ferdowsi's father went to one Najibu'd-Din and asked him what the dream meant. Najibu'd-Din's reply was that the child could turn out to be the world's most renowned poet."
Shibli further states that, as Ferdowsi's ancestors were Zoroastrians, he had decided early in life to write the history of Persia in verse form to glorify the achievements of the Persian monarchs. Luckily one thousand verses written by Daqiqi fell into his hands and he started the work in right earnest.
When Ferdowsi completed the Shahnameh after thirty-five years of labour, probably in the beginning of the year A.D. 999, it was transcribed by Ali Daylam and recited by Abu Dulaf both of whom, together with the Governor of Tous, Husayn bin Qutayba, from whom Ferdowsi had received substantial help and encouragement, are mentioned in the following passage of the Shahnameh:Of the men of renown of this city, Ali Daylarn and Abu Dulaf have participated in this book.From them my portion was naught save 'Well done!' My gall-bladder was like to burst with their 'Well done!' Hayayy the son of Qutayba is a noble man, who asks me not for unrewarded verse, I know nothing of either of the root or the branches of the land-tax, I lounge (at ease) in the midst of the quilt.
Hayayy the son of Qutayba was the revenue collector of Tous, and deemed it his duty at least to abate the taxes payable by Ferdowsi, "whence naturally", Ferdowsi adds, "his name will endure till the Resurrection, and Kings will read it."
The Shahnameh having been transcribed in seven volumes by Ali Daylam, Ferdowsi set out with it for Ghazna, taking with him Abu Dulaf. He succeeded in interesting the Prime Minister, Abul-Qasim Ahmad bin al-Hasan al-Maymandi, in his work, which was, by his instrumentality, brought to the notice of Sultan Mahmoud, who expressed himself as greatly pleased with him. There is yet another version, "One day Unsuri, Asjadi and Farrukhi (three great poets of the court of Sultan Mahmoud), sat conversing together in a garden in Ghazna, there came a stranger from Nishapur, who made as though to join them. Unsuri, not desiring the intrusion of this provincial, said to him, 'O brother, we are the King's poets, and none but poets may enter our company. Each one of us will, therefore, compose a verse in the same rhyme, and if thou canst in thy turn supply the fourth verse of the quartette, then we will admit thee in our society.' So Ferdowsi (for he it was who was the intruder) consented to the test, and Unsuri purposely choosing a rhyme wherein three verses might easily, but four, as he imagined, by no means be made, began: Unsuri: The moon is not radiant as thy brow Asiadi: No garden-rose can make thy cheek, I throw Farrukhi: Thy lashes through the hardest breastplate pierce Ferdowsi: Like spear of Giu in Pushan's duel fierce)"
Being called upon to furnish an explanation of the allusion in tile verse, Ferdowsi displayed so great a knowledge of the ancient legends of Persia that Unsuri told Sultan Mahmoud that here at length was one competent to complete the work of versifying the national Epic which had been begun by Daqiqi.
Mahmoud was very much pleased and entrusted the work of versifying the national epic to Ferdowsi. He also ordered that the poet be given a house near the palace furnished with all the paraphernalia of swords, spears, armours and other weapons used in fighting by the ancient warriors and also with the pictures of kings and heroes of Iran.
The account given of Ferdowsi's first appearance at the Court of Ghazna is not corroborated by Nizami Arudi, the author of Chahar Maqaleh which is the most ancient and reliable sources of our information, and Professor Noldeke is undoubtedly right in rejecting it as purely fictitious.
So the Shahnameh was completed by Ferdowsi. "Unfortunately the Prime Minister Abul Qasim al Maymandi had enemies who were continually casting the dust of perturbation into the cup of his position, and Mahmoud consulted with them as to what he should give to Ferdowsi. They replied, 'Fifty thousand dirhams, and even that is too much, seeing that he is in belief a Rafidi (Shi'ite) and a Mutazili. Of his Mu'tazili views they alluded this verse as a proof:
Thy gaze the Creator can never descry,Then wherefore, by gazing, doest weary thane eye? While to his Rafidi proclivities these verses bear witness: The wise man conceives the world as a sea, wherefrom the fierce wind have stirred up waves, Thereon are seventy ships afloat, all with sails set, And amongst them one vessel, fair as a bride decked with, colour like the eye of the cock, Wherein are the Prophet and Ali with all the Family of the Prophet and his Vicar, If thou desires Paradise in the other World, take thy place by the Prophet and his Trustee If ill accrues to thee thereby, it is my fault, know this that this way is my way, In this I was boom, and in this, I will pass away, know for a surety that I am as dust at feet of Ali."
Dawlatshah Samarqandi gives another reason of Mahmoud's displeasure. He writes that it was Ayaz, Mahmoud's favourite slave, who poisoned the ears of his master against Ferdowsi.
In the preface to Shahnameh it is mentioned that Hasan Maymandi, the Prime Minister himself, was the cause of Ferdowsi's ruin. The reason given is that noblemen from Ghazni used to send presents to Ferdowsi and he used to thank them through the verses. Maymandi did not approve this but Ferdowsi ignored Maymandi and wrote: I am not anybody's slave, neither have I cared for wealth nor aspired to high position. Why should I go towards the door of the Minister when I am independent of King's favour.
Whatever be the reason of Mahmoud's displeasure and bias towards Ferdowsi, one thing is certain, that Mahmoud failed to recognize the worth and labour of Ferdowsi and paid only twenty thousand dirhams to him. Ferdowsi was bitterly disappointed. He went to the bath, and, on stepping out, purchased a glass of sherbet, and divided the money between the keeper of the bath and the sherbet vendor. Same night he fled from Ghazna, went to Herat and remained in hiding for six months. In the meantime Mahmoud's messengers had gone to Tous in search of Ferdowsi. When they turned back hence, Ferdowsi feeling secured, set out from Herat for Tous, taking Shahnameh with him. From Tous, the fugitive poet went to Tabaristan "to the Ispahbad Shahriyar bin Shirwin of the House of Buwand, who was King there, and this is a noble House which traces its descent from Yazdagird, the son of Shahriyar."
While at Tabaristan, Ferdowsi wrote a hundred couplets of satire on Mahmoud in the Preface to his Shahnameh. He read these hundred couplets to the Ispahbad, saying, "I will dedicate the Shahnameh to thee instead of to Sultan Mahmoud, since this book deals wholly with the legends and deeds of thy forebear."15 The Ispahbad treated Ferdowsi with honour and kindness, expressed his sorrow at Mahmoud's unjust behaviour to Ferdowsi and said, "Mahmoud is my liege lord, let the Shahnameh stand in his name, and give me the satire which you have written on him, that I may expunge it, and bestow on you some recompense; and Mahmoud will surely summon thee and seek to satisfy thee fully. Do not, then, throw away the labour spent on such a book and reconcile thin heart to the Sultan."
And next day he sent Ferdowsi 1,00,000 dirhams, buying each couplet of the satire on the Sultan at a thousand dirhams. So Ferdowsi sent him those verses and he ordered them to be expunged. Ferdowsi also destroyed the rough copy of the satire. Thus the satire was done away with and only these few verses are preserved: "They cast imputations on me saying: "That man of many words Hath grown old in the love of the Prophet and 'Ali'." If I speak for my love for these I can protect a hundred such as Mahmoud, No good can come of the son of a slave, Even though his father hath ruled as King, How long shall I speak on this subject? Like the sea I know no shore. The King had no aptitude for good Else would he have seated me on a throne, Since in his family there was no nobility He would not bear to hear the names of the noble."
No doubt the Ispahbad rendered a great service to Mahmoud who was thereby placed very much under his gratitude. Continues Nizarrd Arudi in his Chahar Maqaleh, "Mahmoud was once in India and was returning thence to Ghazna. On the way as it chanced, there was a rebellious chief possessed of a strong fortress, and next day Mahmoud encamped at the gates of it, and sent an ambassador to him, bidding him to come before him on the morrow, do homage, pay his respect to the Court, receive a robe of honour and return to his place. Next day Mahmoud rode out with the Prime Minister on his right hand, for the ambassador had turned back and was coming to meet the King. "I wonder", said the latter to the Minister, "what answer he will have given?" Thereupon the Minister recited this verse of Ferdowsi: Should the answer come contrary to my wish, Then for me the mace, the field (of battle), and Afrasiyab. "Whose verse", inquired Mahmoud, "is that for it is one to inspire courage?" The Minister replied that poor Abul Qasim Ferdowsi had composed it, he who had laboured for twenty-five years to complete such a work and had reaped no benefit from it. "You have done well", said Mahmoud, "to remind me of this, for I deeply regret for this nobleman was disappointed by me. Remind me at Ghazna, to send him something."
On reaching Ghazna Mahmoud sent sixty thousand dinars with apologies to Ferdowsi. But even as the camels carrying dinars entered the Rudbar Gate the dead body of Ferdowsi was borne forth from the Gate of Razin. Amir! after my death he came to my grave. After my passing away my Messiah remembered to send medicine for me. Now there was a preacher at Tabaran who did not allow Ferdowsi's corpse to be buried in the Muslim cemetery because he was a Rafidi. No pleadings of the mourners could move him. Ultimately Ferdowsi was buried in a garden belonging to himself outside the gate of the city. Ferdowsi had left a very high-spirited daughter and she refused to accept the King's gift. When Mahmoud was informed of this he ordered that the money be spent for the restoration of a rest house of Chaha which stands on the road between Merve and Nishapur at the confines of Tous. He also ordered the preacher to be expelled from Tabaran, and to be exiled from his home, as a punishment, for not allowing Ferdowsi's body to be buried in the Muslim cemetery. Both the orders of the Sultan were strictly carried out. Shahnameh is very popular in Iran and also wherever the Persian language is cultivated. "So far as Persia is concerned, national pride in such a monument to the national greatness has certainly always been a most potent factor. The Persian estimate, however formed, has naturally passed on to all students of Persian in other lands, whether in Asia or Europe, and was adopted as an article of faith by the early European Orient lists. In the case of later and more critical European scholars other factors have come into play, such as the undoubted philological interest of a book comparatively so ancient and so notoriously sparing of the use of Arabic words, the Classical of Hellenistic sentiment, which tends to exalt the genius of Aryan at the expense of Semitic peoples, and the importance of the contents of the book from the point of view of Mythology and Folk-lore."
Professor E.G. Browne found many defects in Shahnameh. He found its meter and its similes monotonous, and the Epic, itself, of inordinate length. But Professor Cowbell wrote a noble eulogy as under: "AugusTous said that he found Rome of brick, and left it marble, and Ferdowsi found his country almost without a literature, and has left her a poem that all succeeding poets could only imitate and never surpass, and which, indeed, can rival them all even in their peculiar styles, and perhaps stands as alone in Asia as Homer's epics in Europe ... His versification is exquisitely melodious, and never interrupted by harsh forms of construction, and the poem runs on from beginning to end, like a river, in an unbroken current of harmony. Verse after verse ripples on the ear and washes up its tribute of rhyme, and we stand, as it were, on the shore, and gaze with wonder into the world that lies buried beneath a world of feeling and thought and action that has passed away from earth's memory for ever, whilst its palaces and heroes are dimly seen mirrored below as in the enchanted lake of Arabian story."
A splendid encomium, indeed, for Ferdowsi for his thirty-five years labour spent for reviving and revitalizing Persia through the Shahnameh, his Persian Epic. Shahnameh is essentially a history of the Persian kings (mythological and historical) and the heroes of Iran. The central figure in the History of Kings is Rustom, yet Shahnameh contains many ethical verses, a few of which are quoted below:
(1) It is an old adage that "Knowledge is 'Power'." This proverb is partially true because generally speaking power means strength, army etc. Power really means 'wisdom' and 'intelligence'. Ferdowsi has clarified this in one verse:
One who has wisdom is powerful.
(2) There is vast difference between an individual and collective work and efforts. An individual or a dictator will not agree to consult others, while in collective work even a child's opinion can be accepted and acted upon.
This point is dealt by Ferdowsi in the verse given below:
I have heard from a wise man that there is much wisdom in the world but it is scattered among the people; and hence all people must be gathered together.
(3) It is said that true friends are seldom found in this world, but it depends on ourselves to make a friend true or false. If we are sincere, true and sympathetic, others will act in the same manner with us, but if we are insincere, false and lacking in sympathy for others we cannot expect others to be good to us. Ferdowsi writes:
If the enemy is a thorn it is because of your own sowing, If he is a brocade it is because of your own weaving.
(4) One should neither be over-philanthropist nor a miser. Ferdowsi recommends the middle path:
Rustom the possessor of Raksh (name of a horse) has said, 'If you want to earn a name bestow dirhams, Not so much that you become poor because people of the world shun an indigent person Eat, put on (nice) clothes and bestow, but save for the rainy day.
(5) One must try to make everyone one's friend, one should not be satisfied with a few friends:25 Till you possess earth (die) go on sowing friends.
(6) Reward and punishment are inevitable. If we harm any body we must be prepared to receive reprisal in return:
Son of Zal (Rostom) said, "When you dig the pit dig it according to the estimate of the size of body" (one who digs a well or pit for others falls himself).
(7) Do what you can today, do not leave it for tomorrow. This is a hackneyed and oft-quoted saying. Ferdowsi expresses this maxim in a beautiful verse:
Flowers which have blossomed today in the garden;If you pluck them tomorrow they will be of no use.
(8) Root of excellence and perfection is action, not knowledge; says Ferdowsi:
Practice is better than precept.
(9) Cut your coat according to the cloth; that is, do not spend beyond your means. Sa'di says:
If you have no income spend less, because the sailors sing this tune, If there is no rain in summer the Tigris will become a dry stream.
Ferdowsi expresses the same idea thus:
If some stones are removed from the mountain and if they are not replaced, In the end the whole mountain will disappear. Ferdowsi not only admonishes to spend less but also tells to replace the money spent from the capital.
(10) Friend's reprimand is better than enemy's love:
If the father imprisons the son, It is better than an enemy showering flowers on him.
(11) Greatness cannot be achieved without sacrifice:
The person who wants to achieve greatness, First will have to wash his hands in his own blood.
(12) A wise enemy is better than a foolish friend.
(13) It is better to die in honour than to live in disgrace.
(14) The hero of Shahnameh is Rustom. In his fight with the Khaqan of China, Rustom has overpowered him. In the midst of victory Ferdowsi reminds Rustom of the vicissitudes of life and not to humble the fallen enemy.
This is the way of the deceitful world, O Rustom sometimes high, sometimes low, Since the Creation of heaven war is sometimes poison sometimes honey.
(15) Rustom. has overpowered his own son Sohrab without recognizing him. Immediately Ferdowsi begins to think. An animal recognizes his offspring while Rustom, a human being, does not recognize his son, why? Is he blind because of selfishness or because he wants to assert his superiority?
A horse recognizes its foal, fish in water and wild boar in jungle know their offspring's, But man, because of greed and selfishness, does not distinguish his son from his enemy.
(16) Virtue and chastity are the most prized treasure of women. Ferdowsi, in Shahnameh, has shown great respect for women, considered them equal to men in the management of affairs of state and never degraded them. In reply to who has seen a faithful horse, woman and sword?
Ferdowsi has put in the mouth Of Bahram the following verse:
God's religion is firmly established because of her (the woman), She guides the young on the path of virtue. What better praise can there be for woman than this?
(17) To Ferdowsi religion and kingship cannot be separated from one another:
Religion and Kingship are so closely knit that one would say they are under one coverlet. There can be no kingship without religion nor religion with out kingship.
(18) Everyone is free to follow his religion and worship God in his own way. Someone said to Nawshirwan, "Christians and. Jews are allowed to live in your kingdom although they are your enemies. Their religion is Devil's religion.
Nawshirwan's reply was that the splendour and glory of the kingdom depended on people of various religions inhabiting the state. Ferdowsi's Shahnameh is a national epic, a historical epic, a story of kings and heroes but a book full of ethical verses.
Shahnameh ( The Epic of Kings )
One of the definite classics of the world, it tells kings and heros tales of ancient Persia.
By: Hakim Abul-Ghasem Ferdowsi Toosi