Coronavirus and Persian Literary Humanism

This article is a contribution from Mehdi Ghavideldostkohi, lecturer and Persian language instructor at Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. It covers a fascinating relation between Persian literature and the current pandemic outbreak – and what this means for human affinity.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchezwhile announcing the extension of quarantine in Spain, spoke to people and recited verses of Sa’di (d.1291) the 13th-century Persian poet, asking people for unity and empathy with each other against coronavirus. He quoted Sa’di as saying: 

All Adam’s sons are limbs of one another,

Each of the selfsame substance as his brother:

So, while one member suffers ache and grief,

The other members cannot win relief.

Thou, who are heedless of the brothers’ pain,

It is not right at all to name the Man. 

The above-mentioned stanza (Bani Adam or human kind) from Golestān ( a collection of moral tales, composed 1259 ) is universally famous posted in the entrance to the Hall of Nations of the UN building, New York. These verses were also quoted by former U.S. president Barak Obama in a videotaped message to Iranians to mark the Iranian New Year (Nowrouz) in March 2009.

Moreover, in his inaugural lecture as the Chair of Persian at the Collège de France, the nineteenth-century Orientalist Casimir Barbier de Meynard declared that “of all Oriental poets, Saʿdi is perhaps the only one who could be understood in Europe.” 

Why does Persian literature and in particular Sa’di receive a good deal of attention?

It should be noted that Persian literature has a long, complex and remarkable history and represents the most glittering jewel in the crown of Iranian history and culture, the greatest single contribution of Iran to human civilization. Persian poetry in particular, famous the world over the through the words of Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam, Ferdowsi and Sa’di, is one the most elevated poetical legacies of humankind. 

When it comes to classical Persian literature, Iran produced a vast number of writings (poetry and rhymed prose) from the beginning of the ninth century to the ending of the fifteenth century. Classical Persian literature has been represented as a tradition and geographically includes from Central Asia to the Subcontinent where resulted to a Persianized culture in India.

As is well known, Sheykh Mosleh al- Din Sa’di (ca. 1209– 1291) is a Persian poet and prose writer of the thirteenth century and is one of the greatest masters of classical literary tradition. As the most widely celebrated moralist writer, is known as the Master of Eloquence (ostad-e sokhan). He was born, raised and lived in the fable city of in Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture, travelled widely in the region, and eventually returned to Shiraz.  The almost century- long life of Sa’di was spent during the tumultuous epoch of the Mongol invasion. He was a contemporary of Rumi (.1273), one of the greatest Persian poet and Sufi philosopher. His two most famous books are Bustan, in poetry and Golestān, in highly stylized prose and poetry. He also wrote a highly regarded collection of lyric poems (ghazals).

In connection with Orientalism, Persian language and literature, which was the court language of India, became Europeanized manly because of European colonialism and in particular British colonialism. The height of British colonial interests in India coincided with the rise of Persophilia among British colonial offers and Orientalists.  Sa’di was paramount in the mind of the British colonial offers, because his work as regarded “as the best means of acquiring a proper understanding of Muslim manners and morals.  

Sa’di’s books, were indispensable sources of education at traditional Perso-Islamic schools (madraseh) not only in Iran, but also in Transoxiana and Mughal India for centuries. India, under the governance of Muslim rulers—the Delhi Sultanates (1206–1526) and the Mughals (1526–1857)—had chosen Persian as the official language of the court for administration and political exchange.  

The transmission of Persian literature to early modern Europe begins with Saʿdi’s Golestān, first appeared in French in 1634 and the first translation into a European language was carried out by André Du Ryer (1580–1660), (Gulistan ou l’Empire des Roses Composé par Saʿdi, Prince des Poëtes Turcs & Persans (Paris 1634). Fifteen years after, in 1651, the Königlicher Rosengart, the third translation appeared, a Latin version by the German orientalist and scholar Georgius Gentius in Amsterdam. Later influenced Goethe’s Westöstlicher Diwan as well as Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. 

In 1771, Sir William Jones introduced the Golestān as the primary text of Persian instruction for officials of British India at Fort William College and at Haileybury College in England. 

Sa’di’s great reputation among Western philosophers, intellectuals and literati, beginning in the seventeenth century but especially in the age of Enlightenment and after. It was the tales and wisdoms Golestān that impressed Voltaire and his fellow Encyclopédistes, to the point where Lazare Carnot, the mathematician and French revolutionary leader, named his son, a leading nineteenth – century physicist, after Sa’di, and, later, the latter’s nephew, a French president, was called ‘Sa’di Carnot’.

In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson (d.1882) portrays Sa’di as his ideal poet.  Sir Edwin Arnold (d.1904) an English poet showed his admiration to Sa’di in With Sa’di in the Garden. E. M Forster, an outstanding critic of English literature and a prominent novelist, became familiar with Persian language in India, also describes Persian literature as a great literature. In Germany Sa’di was equally attractive to the German poet, Goethe.

In sweden, Eric Hermelin (1860-1944), a Swedish author and prolific translator of Persian works of literature, translated Golestan (Lustgården and also persisk balsam) from Persian in1918. The translations of Sa’di’s works followed by many others in different countries and has been translated into Russian, Italian, Polish, Hindi, Romanian, Czech, and Arabic. 

Indeed, Sa’di’s works is all about Adab. Persian literary humanism (Adab) as it has emerged and spread over the last 1,400 years, like a mighty and magnificent river, from Bengal to Istanbul and from central Asia to the eastern coasts of Africa, and with the contemporary map of Iran as its epicentre, by way of a historical retrieval of an otherwise ahistorical phenomenon code- named “literature.” Adab is one of the richest and aesthetically most provocative words in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish. In all of these languages, with slight variations in both pronunciation and connotations, it suggests a commanding allusion to proper etiquette, finesse, flair, grace, or the art of living gracefully— a grace that extends from the way you speak and think, to the manner in which you clothe and carry yourself, to the disposition of your character and culture. The German Bildung is probably the closest word in any European language to what Adab means in Persian and its adjacent languages. But Adab, at the same time, categorically relates to literature as belles- lettres, literature as the summation of all linguistic arts that are beautiful and make for equally beautiful living, an art that informs a literature that becomes a testimony of your having achieved (not inherited) a living grace.

Even though Sa’di was a prolific writer in all forms of verse, especially ghazal (lyrical poems ), Sa’di’s Bustan (Orchard or fragrant garden) (1257) and Golestān (Rose- Garden) (1259) remain, to this day, two of the greatest literary masterpieces of the entire spectrum of Persian literary imagination.

Bustan, is divided into ten chapters, amounting to some four thousand couplets. Each chapter is devoted to a key humanist ideal like justice, magnanimity, love, humility, remembrance and cultivation of good character. In Bustan, which represents his philosophy of life and ethical musings and justice, nothing disturbs the balance of life more than tyranny: Sa’di writes: 

 [Don’t bother even an ant / For it too has life, and sweet life is precious!]” 

A story on beneficence from Bustan:

Someone crossing the desert a thirsty dog found,

The last breath was just left in the life of the hound. 

That Faith-approved man used as bucket his hat,

And in place of a rope, tied his turban to that.

He bared both his arms and made ready to save,

To the poor, helpless animal, water he gave.

The Prophet, the state of that person explained,

And release for his sin from the Maker obtained.

If you are a tyrant, beware and reflect!

The patch of the generous and faithful, select!

He, in saving a dog, did not sympathy waste,

When is goodness in keeping of good men effaced?

Be as generous as ever you possibly can!

God shuts not the portal of joy upon man.

Sa’di’s Golestān, is a collection of moral tales, that is very popular with Iranians down to the preset day. Golestān means ‘rose garden’ and the title means that the collection of short poems and rhymed prose is like a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers. 

Golestān consists of an introduction and eight chapters: “On the Attributes of Kings,” “On the Disposition of Dervishes,” “On the Virtue of Contentment,” “On Benefits of Silence,” “On Love and Youth,” “On Weakness and Aging,” “On the Influence of Education, “On the Proper Etiquette of Companionship.”

A story on the Attributes of Kings:

According to one anecdote in Golestān, there was a king called khosraw. He had a legendary vizier called Bozorgmehr. The king was very lately riser, but the vizier was very early riser. The vizier always said, “Rise early and you will be in luck.” One day the king arranged for some thieves to rob the vizier as he left home at the crack of dawn, taunting him that this proved he would not necessarily be in luck if he rose early. He replied that the thieves have risen earlier, and so they were luckier than him.

In introduction, Sa’di said he composed a rose garden (Golestān) that would remain permanently immune from the passage of time; and added in verse:  

What of a bunch of flowers, if you pardon? 

Take a leaf instead from my Rose Garden 

Flowers will remain only for a few days 

This Rose Garden will be fresh always 

 

Here is one rose for you to smell: (A short and brilliant anecdote in Golestān🙂

 

An unjust king once asked a dervish, “What kind of worship is best?” “For you, sleep,” the dervish replied, “so the people may have some rest from your tyranny.” 

Obviously, coronavirus outbreak is all about human connectedness. In the time of coronavirus pandemic human beings have a need for connectedness and humanitarianism. The “human” in the Persian literary humanism represents a universal call, and in particular Sa’di’s virtues, as an enchanting sense of humor are accepted universally. His books, Golestān and Bustan are fundamentally books of instruction and advice for how to live. Sa’di shows that the world in the time of coronavirus, could be a much better place if its human inhabitants had a little more regard and compassion for one another.

Mehdi Ghavideldostkohi

Sources:

1. Arberry, A. J. (1960), Shiraz: Persian City of Saints and Poets, University of Oklahoma Press, p.123.
2. Katouzian, Homa (2013) Iran: Politics, History and Literature, New York: Routledge, p. 119.
3. Dabashi, Hamid (2012) the World of Persian Literary Humanism, Harvard University press, p.3
4. Ibid. p.3
5. Reuben, Levy (1945) Persian Literature, Oxford University Press. p.60.
6. Ibid.p. 85.
7. Ibid.
8. Katouzian, Homa (2006) Sa’di: The Poet of Life, Love and Compassion, Oxford: OneWorld Publications,
p.7.
9. Dabashi, Ibid, p.88. see also: Sedarat, Rager (2019) Emerson in Iran: The American Appropriation of
Persian Poetry, State university of New York Press.
10. Javadi, Hasan (2005) Persian Literary influence on English Literature, California: Mazda Pub. P. 181.
11. Yarshater, Ehsan (2015) Ventures and Adventures of the Persian Language, in Talattof, Kamran (ed.)
Persian Language, Literature and Culture, London: Routledge, p.201.
12. Dabashi, Hamid (2015) Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene, Harvard University Press.
13. Dabashi, Ibid. p.1.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid. p.155.
16. Ibid.
17. Davie, G. S. (2018) The Garden of Fragrance: Being a complete translation of the Bustan of Sa’di from
the Original Persian into English Verse, London: Facsimile Publisher. p.91-92.
18. Dabashi, Ibid, p. 27, 36, 157.
19. Katouzian, Homa (2009) the Persians: ancient, medieval and Modern Iran, (New Haven: Yale
University press). p 61.
20. Katouzian, Ibid, Sa’di: The Poet of Life, Love and Compassion, p.32.