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Saʻdī and His Mystical Humanist Literature at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Hirad Dinavari, Area Specialist for the Iranic World, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Among the great treasures housed in the rare book Persian collections in the African and Middle Eastern Division are a number of manuscripts showcasing the great works of the legendary Sufi mystical poet: Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, better known by his pen name as Saʻdī of Shiraz.

Born in the city of Shiraz in 1210 and buried there as well in 1291, the thinker, philosopher, poet, and writer wrote his works in Persian and Arabic and has been an inspiration through centuries not just in his native Iran and the adjacent Persian speaking lands but throughout the greater Islamic world. Over the span of his life, Saʻdī traveled extensively, living outside Iran for more than 30 years. Places in which he lived include Central Asia, western China, and Adana and Konya in Anatolia. He also studied and visited Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo in the Arab lands. In Persian he is given the honorific title of Ustad-i Sukhan, which translates roughly as the “Master of Words.” His classic works, the “Gulistān” (Rose Garden) and the “Bustān” (Orchard), have for centuries been memorized and passed down from generation to generation, scribed by various calligraphers and manuscript authors, and has impacted the literary cultures of South Asia, Central Asia and various Persianate and Turkic lands.

Kitāb-i kullīyāt-i Shaykh Saʻdī ʻalayhi al-raḥmah,” 1792, Iran, image 59. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division

Since 2015, the Library of Congress has cataloged and digitized all of its Persian manuscripts, and among them are ten of these Persian language treasures that are compilations of works by Saʻdī, including various copies of the “Gulistān” and the “Bustān” copied in Iran, Central Asia, India and Turkey. These classic works created in various calligraphic styles and regional aesthetics share a humanistic mystical message, often told through the language of poetry or via anecdotal tales, which seeks to highlight the unity and oneness of all mankind regardless of language, ethnicity, race, religion, and creed. One of the classic poems titled “Bani Adam” (Mankind or Children of Adam) from the book of “Gulistān” captures his unifying message perfectly. A very literal English translation of the opening versus, along with the Persian text, reads as:

بنى آدم اعضای یکدیگرند        Human beings are members of one unit,

که در آفرینش ز یک گوهرند       since in their creation they are of one essence.

چو عضوى بدرد آورَد روزگار       When the conditions of the time brings a member to pain,

دگر عضوها را نمانَد قرار      the other members will suffer in pain and discomfort.

تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی      You, who are indifferent to the misery of others,

نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی       it is not befitting that they should call you a human being.

A more poetic English translation that captures the Persian rhyme scale would read as follows:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other

Having been created of one essence.

When the calamity of time afflicts one limb

The other limbs cannot remain at rest.

If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others

Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.

(“Saʻdī, Gulistân,” Rehatsek, Edward, 1819-1891, tr. Benares, Kama Shastra Society, 1888)

The Library’s Rare Persian Sa’dī manuscripts, feature the poem above and many more poems, tales and written gems which are a window into understanding the worldview, debates and aesthetics of 13 century Persian and Islamic lands. Below you can see a few sample pages from these Saʻdī manuscripts displaying their beauty, such as ornate opening pages, elaborate gold embossed leather and lacquer bindings, and the Nastaliq calligraphic style used to write them. Contemporary readers and researchers can utilize and study these items, as they learn the Persian language, the classics in Persian literature and explore Sufi thought and philosophy.

Kitāb-i kullīyāt-i Shaykh Saʻdī ʻalayhi al-raḥmah.” 1792, Iran. Image 6. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Kitāb-i Būstān-i Shaykh Saʼd raḥimahu Allāh.” 1535, Iran. Image 5. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Kitāb-i Būstān-i Shaykh Saʼdī raḥimahu Allāh.” 1535, Iran. Image 6. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“[Gulistān],” Central Asia, 18th Cent. Image 58. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“[Gulistān],” Turkey, 1593 Interlinear, Persian & Turkish. Image 10. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“[Gulistān],” Central Asia, 18th Cent. Image 124. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

 

“[Gulistān],” 1602, Iran. Image 1. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“[Gulistān],” 1602, Iran. Image 3. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Kitāb-i kullīyāt-i Shaykh Saʻdī ʻalayhi al-raḥmah.” 1792, Iran. Image 1. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“[Gulistān],” Central Asia, 18th Cent. Image 125. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

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One Comment

  1. Carolyn Brown
    January 28, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    Thank you, Hirad, for this glimpse into a distant world whose wisdom still rings true in our time. I find deeply provocative (in a good sense) the idea, also found in Confucian texts, that at a deep level one has to become human; it is not an automatic given.

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