The Gulistan of Sa’adi Sheikh Muslih-uddin Sa’adi Shirazi
Of what use will be a dish of flowers.. to thee
Take only one leaf from this garden.. of me.
A flower endures.. but for five or six days,
The delight from my garden ..always stays.
Saadi of Shiraz: The 13th Century Persian Poet of Compassionate Wisdom
Painting of the poet Saadi. Courtesy Smithsonian Institute On March 20, 2009, which marks the Spring Equinox and is celebrated as the New Year’s Day in Iran, President Barack Obama sent a videotaped New Year’s message to the Iranian nation as a political gesture of good intention to open a new friendly chapter between the USA and Iran.
In his message, the President noted: “There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. 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.”
This brings into the spotlight, Saadi (also written Sa’di, rhymed with “sandy”), an eminent Persian poet of the thirteenth century, whose works, based on decades of studies, travels and experiencing life in the wide world, offer a rich reservoir of compassionate wisdom for us to live in peace, happiness, and cooperation. In the April 2009 issue of “The World and I,” I introduced Rumi, another Persian poet of the thirteenth century. This article invites readers to an introduction to Saadi’s life, thought, works, and impact on world literature.
Shiraz is an ancient and famous city in southwest Iran (Persia). Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire some 2500 years ago, was located near this city (its ruins still attract tourists and historians). Shiraz has been historically renowned for its red wine and eminent poets, most notably Saadi and Hafiz, who both were born in Shiraz and whose tombs in that city are shrines for pilgrims and poetry lovers from Iran and around of the world.
There is no independent record for the precise birth date of Saadi. From indirect evidence that scholars have gathered from Saadi’s poems, two dates have been suggested: 1184 or 1209. Earlier, scholars often cited 1184, but in the recent decades, the year 1209 is considered to be more probable because when Saadi wrote his book Gulistan (Rose Garden) in 1258, he mentions that he was already fifty years old.
The thirteenth century, during which Saadi lived, was marked by violent conflicts and bloodshed: European crusaders conducted military invasions to the western parts of the Muslim world, and the Mongol army of Genghis Khan and his successors invaded the eastern parts, destroyed cities and massacred populations. The city of Shiraz was luckily saved from the Mongol destruction -- thanks to the wise rulers of a local dynasty called the Atabeks of Fars, who tamed the Mongols by paying them.
The Atabeks ruled the Fars province during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and Shiraz was their capital. When Saadi was born, Atabek Saad bin Zangi was the monarch, and Saadi is believed to have adopted his pen-name from the name of this ruler because Saadi’s father was a scholar in his court. Saadi’s full name has also been debated among scholars but most agree that it was Mushrraf al-Din Muslih. This given name, Muslih (meaning “peacemaker”) was also the name of his father’s father and of his mother’s grandfather.
Saadi came from a family of scholars, from both father’s and mother’s lines. He lost his father (Mushrraf bin Muslih), at an early age and was educated by his maternal grandfather (Mas’ud bin Muslih). When Saadi was fourteen years old, he was sent to Baghdad to study in the prestigious university, the Nizamiyya of Baghdad. In his books, Saadi affectionately refers to two of teachers: The Sufi master Shihab al-Din Abuhafs Suhrawardi (died in 1234) and Shams al-Din Abul Faraj bin al-Jowzi.
In 1226, Saadi embarked on a world tour, and if we take literally all the stories he writes in his books, he covered a vast region from North Africa through the entire Middle East to India. He narrates stories of his visits to many important cities of the East, including Mecca, where he made pilgrimage several times. He seems to have twice married (first in Aleppo, now in Syria, and then in Sana’a, Yemen), and was once taken by the Crusaders as a slave but was purchased and released.
After thirty years of traveling, in 1256, Saadi returned to his hometown Shiraz, where Atabek Abibakr bin Saad was then the ruler. Saadi was welcomed by the court, but decided to live in the prestigious monastery of the Sufi master Abu Abdullah bin Khafif (882-992). A year after Saadi settled in Shiraz, the Mongols under Halagu Khan sacked Baghdad, killed the Abbasid Caliph and many inhabitants of the city including Saadi’s former teacher Abul Faraj. In this manner, the five-centuries old Abbasid Dynasty came to an end and the Mongols became the undisputed rulers of Asia.
In 1260, Atabek Abibakr bin Saad died and his young son Saad bin Abibakr came to power but lived only for one year, after whom the court in Shiraz was weakened by internal conflicts. (Some scholars have suggested that Saadi adopted his penname in honor of Saad bin Abibakr, but this is less probable.) Over the years, Saadi produced many poems, and was respected as a pious, wise, poet and learned figure in Shiraz. He also kept cordial relations with the court rulers and officials, and praised some of them in his poems.
Persian historians have recorded Saadi’s death to have happened on 8 December 1292. Saadi thus lived for at least 83 years, which was a long life span for the men of his generation. After his death, his tomb soon became a popular site for pilgrimage. His tomb was renovated in the eighteenth century when Karim Khan Zand was the Persian king in Shiraz, and most recently in 1951.
In 1257, Saadi wrote his first book, the Saadi Nameh (“Saadi-Book”), which later came to be known as the Bustan (Orchard). This book is written in the masnawi (rhymed couplet) form of Persian verse, and narrates many stories on various topics. It contains 10 chapters as follows:
(1) On Justice, management and good judgment; (2) On Beneficence; (3) On Love, intoxication and ecstasy; (4) On Humility; (5) On Acceptance and Satisfaction; (6) On Contentment; (7) On the World of Education; (8) On Gratitude for Well-being; (9) On Repentance and the Virtuous Path; and (10) On Communion and Conclusion of the Book.
In 1258, Saadi wrote his best-known work, the Gulistan (Rose Garden), which is a combination of rhymed prose and verse, and like his previous book, it contains many stories of his travels, hearsay and observations. It has 8 chapters:
(1) On the Manner of Kings; (2) On the Morals of Dervishes (wandering Sufis); (3) On the Virtues of Contentment; (4) On the Benefits of Silence; (5) On Love and Youth; (6) On Weakness and Old Age; (7) On the Effects of Education; and (8) On the Etiquette of Speech.
Saadi dedicated these two books to Atabek Abibakr bin Saad and his son Saad bin Abibakr. He also composed many other forms of poetry including ghazal (lyric ode or sonnet), qasidah (elegies), and rubaiyat (quatrains).
In Saadi’s time books were written by hand, not printed. Saadi had a large following in Shiraz and calligraphers thus copied his writings and even jotted down some of his public speeches. Shortly after Saadi died, calligraphers and scholars compiled his works in a Diwân (“Poetry Book”) or Kulliyât (“Collected Works”). The oldest extant manuscripts of this book date back to 1310-1326 and are preserved at various libraries in Tehran, Kabul, Calcutta, London, Tubingen, and St. Petersburg. One particular manuscript was calligraphed and edited by Ali bin Ahmad Abubakr Biston in 1326. He gave a new arrangement for Saadi’s 23 works, and this arrangement has been followed by many other calligraphers since then.
The first printing of the Kulliyât-e Saadi (The Collected Works of Saadi) was done in Calcutta in 1791-95, in two volumes and edited by the British Persian scholar J.H. Huntington. This work was reprinted several times in India and Iran. During 1937-41, the Iranian scholar Muhammad Ali Forughi brought out a critically edited version of the Kulliyât-e Saadi based on a comparison of numerous old manuscripts. This Persian work has been reprinted in a single volume several times in Tehran and is the widely-used edition.
Saadi’s poetry and teachings
Saadi is respectfully called by the Persians as “Shaikh (Master) Saadi” and “Afsah ul-Motakallemin” (The Most Clear Poet”) for the simplicity and yet depth of his verse.
In terms of subject-matter, Saadi’s poetry may be divided into:
(1) ethical/didactic, (2) love, and (3) mystical/religious.
However, this classification should not be considered as absolute. Indeed, it is possible for Saadi’s readers (even scholars) to easily misunderstand him. Therefore, three points should be kept in mind when reading Saadi:
(1) Saadi sometimes narrates ethical stories which describe realities and his observations rather that his own ethical idealism. In this sense, he shares the practical wisdom of ancient times.
(2) Although Saadi is an ethical teacher, he does not preach a dry set of morals that should be applied in all cases rigidly, but rather he favors a practical, wise, compassionate ethics.
(3) Some of Saadi’s love poems are actually of mystical/religious nature as they are addressed to the Divine presence.
By sentiment and practice, Saadi was a Sufi (Muslim mystic). A salient feature in his writings is, therefore, devotion and gratitude to God. In the opening verses of the Rose Garden, Saadi remarks that for every breath we take we should thank the Lord twice, the first time for the inhalation which sustains our life and the second time for the exhalation which brings delight rather than suffocation. Our daily bread, he continues, is the result of “the workings of the cloud, the wind, the Moon, the Sun, and the entire firmament.” So, even though the human can never possibly thank the Creator and the Creation for all these endowments, we should eat our daily food mindfully, thankfully, and humbly.
Saadi also show great compassion toward all life forms. This is beautifully illustrated in the following famous verse, which was a favorite of Sir William Jones, the renowned British Orientalist, who also first translated it:
Crush not yon ant, who stores the golden grain; He lives with pleasure, and will die with pain; Learn from him rather to secure the spoil Of patient cares and persevering toil.
Saadi teaches the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity to live in peace and to care for one another. The following poem of his decorates the Hall of the United Nations in New York (which was quoted by President Obama):
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.
Saadi’s wit is also outstanding. When asked, “Who did you learn politeness from?” he answered, “From the impolite people, for I simply avoided whatever disgusting manner I saw in them.” Here is another famous quote: “Whatever is produced in haste goes easily to waste.”
Saadi goes to Europe: His translators
Saadi happens to be the earliest Persian poet to be translated into the European languages. In 1634, a partial French translation of the Rose Garden (L’Emprise des Roses) by Andre du Ryer appeared in Paris. The following year, this French version was translated into German by Johann Friedrich Ochsenbach (Tubingen, 1635).
In 1651, George Gentz (Gentius) brought out in Amsterdam a Latin translation of the Rose Garden together with the Persian text; this book was widely used and quoted by European thinkers including Sir William Jones and Johann Gottfired von Herder. Adam Oelschlager (Olearius), a German diplomat who had visited Iran, translated both the Rose Garden (Hamburg, 1654) and the Orchard (Hamburg, 1696) into German. Although free-style translations, these works were widely read by European intellectuals, including the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who used some of Saadi’s poems in his West-Ostlicher Diwan (West-Eastern Diwan, a collection of Geothe’s poems in the Persian style).
Karl Heinrich Graf published the best German translations of both the Rose Garden (Leipzig, 1846) the Orchard (Leipzig, 1850). In the French language, reputed translations of Saadi’s Rose Garden were made by N. Semelet (Paris, 1834) and of the Orchard by Barbier de Meynard (Paris, 1880).
The first English translations of Saadi’s works appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in British India. Persian was the official language of Indian Mogul courts from 1526 to 1857. The officers and scholars of the British East India Company thus discovered Saadi’s works and incorporated them into India’s college education. William Jones, who established the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 in Calcutta and thus initiated the British Orientalism, first translated a few verses from Saadi.
The Rose Garden has been translated into English by many scholars: Stephen Sullivan (London, 1774, selections), James Dumoulin (Calcutta, 1807), Francis Gladwain (Calcutta, 1808), James Ross (London, 1823), S. Lee (London, 1827), Edward B. Eastwick (Hartford, 1852), Johnson (London, 1863), John T. Platts (London, 1867), E.H. Whinfield (London, 1880), Edward Rehatsek (Banaras, 1888, in some later editions incorrectly attributed to Sir Richard Burton), Sir Edwin Arnold (London, 1899, the first four chapters), L. Cranmer-Byng (London, 1905, “Wisdom of the East Series”), Celwyn E. Hampton (New York, 1913), and Arthur John Arberry (London, 1945, the first two chapters). Translations by Gladwin, Ross, Eastwick, Arnold and Cranmer-Byng have been reprinted several times. More recent English translations of the Rose Garden have been published by Omar Ali-Shah (1997, who also published a new French translation in 1969) and by Wheeler M. Thackston (2008).
There are also several English translations of the Orchard by H. Wilberforce Clarke (London, 1879), Adalat Khan (Calcutta, 1881, selections), G.S. Davie (London, 1882), D.M. Strong (London, 1904, selections), George Ranking (Oxford, 1906, the second chapter), Sir Edwin Arnold (1906, the third chapter), A. Hart Edwards (London, 1911, selections, a volume in the “Wisdom of the East Series”), Reuben Levy (1928), G.M. Wickens (Leiden, 1974, “Persian Heritage Series”), and Barlas Mirza Agil-Hussain (London, 1984, the first two chapters). Of these, Clarke’s and Wickens’ translations are comprehensive and accessible.
Relatively less attention has been given to the translation of Saadi’s other works, notably his lyrics, odes and sonnets (ghazal). Lucas White King was the first person who translated hundreds of Saadi’s ghazal poems into English (The Odes of Sa’di, 2 volumes, 1925; and an additional volume, 1926).
Saadi’s poems and parables have also been included in at least a dozen English anthologies of Persian poetry published throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from “The Flowers of Persian Literature” (edited by Samuel Rousseau, London, 1801), “Specimens of the Popular Poetry of Persia” (edited and translated by Alexander Chodzko, London, 1842), “Persian Poetry for English Readers” (by Samuel Robinson, Glasgow, 1883), “Flowers from Persian Gardens” (edited by Edward S. Holden, New York, 1901), to “A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry” (edited and translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, 1994).
Translations of Saadi’s works are also available in many other languages both European (Dutch, Italian, Russian, Polish, Romanian, etc.) and Eastern (Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and Bengali, etc.). Saadi enjoys a reputed name in world literature (even though less known to the public).
A detailed study of Saadi’s influence on French, German and English writers and thinkers is a formidable task, but which would be a valuable contribution to East-West literature and cross-cultural understanding. Here I only quote a few cases. Saadi’s revered position in the nineteenth century France is evident from the fact that two famous French figures of that century were named after him: Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot (1796-1832), a physicist who is considered to be the Father of Thermodynamics; and his nephew Marie Francois Sadi Carnot (1837-1894), an engineer and President of the French Republic from 1887 to 1894.
Victor Hugo published “Les Orientalies” in 1829 with poems clearly influenced by Saadi’s works. In “Persian Poetry in England and America” (1997, p. xvi), John D. Yohannan, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York, comments: “The favorite Persian Poet of the Enlightenment was Saadi, whose noble sentiments, maintained with commendable realism, harmonized with the neo-classical and rational bias of the age.”
Sir Edwin Arnold, in the preface to his translation of the Rose Garden, remarked: “The Shaikh [Saadi] was really the Horace and Marco Polo of the Far East combined into one rich and gracious nature. Ancient enough to carry with him a fine flavor of the Old World, he is a modern and as much for all times as the Roman poet himself or America’s Emerson.”
In 1919, the French scholar Henri Masse wrote his doctorate dissertation “Saadi the Poet, with Bibliography” (Essai sur le Poéte Saadi, suivi d’une Bibliographie), which is probably the first modern scholarly (and still unsurpassed) analysis of Saadi’s life, thought, and works.
Saadi and the American transcendentalists
The nineteenth-century Transcendentalist thinkers and writers in America, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, paid special attention to the classic Persian poets including Saadi. Emerson wrote a preface to the first American edition of the Gulistan or Rose Garden (previously translated by Francis Gladwin) published in 1865 by Ticknor and Fields in New York. Even before that, in 1842, Emerson had published a poem entitled “Saadi” in the literary journal, “The Dial.” The following are some excerpts from this poem:
Trees in groves, Kine in droves, In ocean sport the scaly herds, Wedge-like cleave the air the birds, To northern lakes fly wind-borne ducks, Browse the mountain sheep in flocks, Men consort in camp and town, But the poet dwells alone. …
Yet, Saadi loved the race of men, No churl immured in cave or den, In bower and hall, He wants them all, No can dispense With Persia for his audience; They must give ear, Grow red with joy, and white with fear, Yet he has no companion, Come ten, or come a million, Good Saadi dwells alone. …
In heaven, no star; on earth, no spark; Yet before the listener’s eye Swims the world in ecstasy, The forest waves, the morning breaks, The pastures sleep, ripple the lakes, Leaves twinkle, flowers like persons be, And life pulsates in rock or tree.
Saadi! So far thy words shall reach; Suns rise and set in Saadi’s speech.
A survey of journals and essays written by Emerson and Thoreau reveals the extent they loved Saadi’s works. On August 5, 1852 Thoreau entered the following in his journal: “The entertaining a single thought of a certain elevation makes all men of one religion … I know, for instance, that Sa’di entertained once identically the same thought that I do, and therefore, I can find no essential difference between Sa’di and myself. He is not Persian, he is not ancient, he is not strange to me. By the identity of his thought with mine he still survives.”
Saadi on himself
It is apt to sum up this essay on Saadi’s heritage by quoting his own poem (translated by Sir Edwin Arnold):
In many lands I have wandered, and wondered, and listened, and seen; And many my friends and companions, and teachers and lovers have been. And nowhere a corner was there but I gathered up pleasure and gain; From a hundred gardens the rose-blooms, From a thousand granaries grain.
A) About Saadi
The Poet Sa’di: A Persian Humanist, by John Yohannan (University Press of America and Biblioteca Persica, 1987)
Sa’di: The Poet of Life, Love and Compassion, by Homa Katouzian (OneWorld, Oxford, 2006)
“Sa’di,” by T.W. Haig and J.H. Kramers, in Encyclopedia of Islam, volume IV (London and Leyden, 1934), pp. 36-39.
“Poets and Prose Writers of the Late Saljuq and Mongol Periods,” by Jan Rypka in Cambridge History of Iran, volume V (Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 550-625
A Literary History of Persia, volume 2: From Firdawsi to Sa’di, by Edward G. Browne (Cambridge University Press, 1906, 1964), pp. 525-540
Classical Persian Literature, by Arthur J. Arberry (Allen & Unwin, London, 1958), pp. 186-213.
An Introduction to Persian Literature, by Reuben Levy (Columbia University Press, 1969)
(B) Saadi’s Works in English
The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di, translated by Edward Rehatsek (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1964; G.P. Putnam, New York, 1965)
The Gulistan (Rose Garden) (English translation with Persian text), translated by W.M. Thackston (Ibex Publishers, Bethasda, 2008).
The Rose Garden (The Gulistan), translated by Edward Eastwick (Octagon Press, London, 1979)
The Rose Garden (Gulistan), translated by Omar Ali Shah (Tracturs Books, 1997)
Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned: The Bustan of Sa’di, translated by G.M. Wickens (University of Toronto Press, 1974)
The Bustan of Saadi, translated by A. Hart Edwards (IndoEuropean Publishing, 2009)