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Sa'di

A native of Shiraz his father died when he was an infant, Saadi experienced a youth of poverty and hardship, Saadī left his native town at a young age for Baghdad to persue a better education. As a young man he was inducted to study at the famous an-Nizzāmīya center of knowledge (1195-1226), there he excelled in Islamic Sciences, law, governance, history, Arabic literature and theology.

The unsettled conditions following the Mongol invasion of Khwarzim and Iran led him to wander for 30years 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 Sind (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 also visited Jerusalem[1]. Saadi traveled in those regions from 1271 to 1294, due to the Mongol onslaught he lived in desolate areas met caravans fearing for their lives on once lively silk trade routes, he lived in isolated refugee camps where he met Bandits, Imams, men who formerly owned great wealth or commanded armies, intellectuals and ordinary people. Saadi clearly seems to have learned Psychology and Psychoanalysis from those experiences and encounters. While Mongol and European sources (such as Marco Polo) gravitated to the potentates and the good life of Ilkhanate rule, Saadi mingled with the ordinary survivors of the Mongol onslaught. He sat in remote teahouses 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, learning, honing his sermons, and polishing them into gems illuminating the wisdom and foibles of his people. His life clearly reflects upon the lives of ordinary Muslims, who suffered displacement, plight, agony and conflict, during those turbulent times.

Saadi was also among those who witnessed first-hand accounts of its destruction by Mongol Ilkhanate invaders led by Hulagu during the Sack of Baghdad in the year 1258. Saadi was captured by Crusaders at Acre, he later spent 7 years as a slave digging trenches outside its fortress. He was later released after the Mamluks paid ransom for Muslim prisoners that were 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, and composed some of his most delightful panegyrics as an initial gesture of gratitude in praise of the ruling house and placed them at the beginning of his Bustan. He seems to have spent the rest of his life in Shiraz.

The Journey of Saadi Shirazi

Due to the Mongol Empire invasion of the Muslim World, especially Khwarizm and Iran, Saadi like many other Muslims was displaced by the ensuing conflict thus beginning a 30year 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.

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 ardious battles with the Crusaders. Further Saadi travels to Turkey first the 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 Iran where he meets his childhood companions in Isfahan and other cities. At Khorasan Saadi befriends a Turkic Amir named Tughral. Saadi joins him and his men on their journey to Sind there he met Pir Puttur (on whose tomb is an inscription claiming he was a comtempory of Saadi), 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 fled 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 works

The first page of Bostan, from an Indian manuscript.

His best known works are Bostan ("The Orchard") completed in 1257 and Gulistan ("The Rose Garden") in 1258. Bustan 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.

For Western students, Bustan and Gulistan have a special attraction; but Saadi is also remembered as a great panegyrist and lyricist, the author of a number of masterly general 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 to be found in Ghazaliyat ("Lyrics") and his odes in Qasa'id ("Odes"). He is also known for a number of works in Arabic. The peculiar blend of human kindness and cynicism, humour, and resignation displayed in Saadi's works, together with a tendency to avoid the hard dilemma, make him, to many, the most typical and loveable writer in the world of Iranian culture.

Of the Mongols he writes: In Isfahan I had a friend who was warlike, spirited, and shrewd. His hands and dagger were for ever 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".

Monument of Saadi on Golestan square in Shiraz

Saadi distinguished between the spiritual and the practical or mundane aspects of life. In his Bustan, for example, spiritual Saadi uses the mundane world as a spring board to propel himself beyond the earthly realms. The images in Bustan 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 translation 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?"

Saadi's mausoleum in Shiraz

Tomb of Saadi in his mausoleum

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. Saadi is well known for his aphorisms, the most famous of which adorns the entrance to the Hall of Nations of the UN building in New York with this call for breaking all barriers:

بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند

که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند

چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار

دگر عضوها را نماند قرار

تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی

نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

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. 

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