(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Firdusi’s Shahnamah is the supreme example of the epic in the Persian language. Through centuries of foreign invasion and conquest, it has served as a major means of preserving Iran’s cultural identity.

Early Life

Firdusi, the national poet of Iran, flourished during the tenth and early eleventh centuries. What Homer was to the ancient Greeks and Vergil was to the Romans, Firdusi has been for centuries to all speakers of Persian. He was born in the vicinity of Tus, near modern Mashhad, in the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan, but nothing is known regarding his parentage or his formative years. Even his personal name is unknown, Firdusi being a pen name, from the word firdaus, meaning paradise. What is reasonably certain is that he belonged to the ancient class of hereditary landowners known as dihqans and that during the earlier part of his long life he enjoyed a modest financial independence, presumably an income derived from property inherited from his father.

Apart from a visit to Baghdad, Firdusi seems to have spent his entire life in Khorasan or in the adjoining regions of Afghanistan and Mawarannahr (the modern Uzbekistan). Either in Tus or in the course of his later wanderings, he would have imbibed the cultural traditions and the pride in the values of the pre-Islamic Iranian past which were cultivated among the dihqan class and at the courts of local Iranian dynasts such as the Samanids of Bukhara, the Buyids of western Iran, and the Ziyarids of Tabaristan. Among both rulers and landowners there lingered a nostalgic attachment to the memory of the imperial Sassanid dynasty, which had ruled over the Iranian plateau and the surrounding regions from the early third to the mid-seventh century.

In such a milieu, Firdusi began to compose and organize his great epic, the Shahnamah (c. 1010; the book of kings), a paean to the glories of ancient Iran and its famous rulers. The actual completion of this enormous undertaking (Shahnamah manuscripts can range from forty-eight thousand to more than fifty-five thousand distichs, or two-line units) is said to have taken at least thirty-five years, with perhaps sometime around 975 as its starting point and 1010 as its terminal date. Although the twelfth century belletrist Nezami-ye ʿAruzi states that Firdusi’s reason for writing the Shahnamah was to earn a reward sufficient to provide a proper dowry for his daughter and sole surviving child, it is difficult not to imagine its composition as a labor of love, a self-appointed mission. Nevertheless, it does appear that at some time in middle life Firdusi’s financial resources became depleted, for whatever reason, and that consequently he was compelled to go in search of patrons.

Life’s Work

The late tenth century was an inauspicious time for a poet who sang of ancient Iranian greatness to find a patron. The openhanded Iranian rulers of Firdusi’s youth had all but disappeared, and the age of the Turkish warlord was dawning. In the north, beyond the Amu Darya, the noble Samanids of Bukhara had been swept away by the seminomadic Qarakhanids. On the Iranian plateau itself, the celebrated Turkish conqueror Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (reigned 998-1030) held sway from his capital in eastern Afghanistan. To him, perhaps as a last resort, Firdusi made his way. Almost everything which is known of the dealings of Sultan Mahmud with Firdusi originated a century or more after the death of both men and therefore partakes more of literary legend than of historical fact. Supposedly, Mahmud initially encouraged Firdusi to complete his epic and to dedicate it to him (Mahmud was a great “collector” of poets, mainly panegyrists, and men of letters, some of whom he forcibly recruited). On receiving it, however, he declined to pay Firdusi the princely sum originally promised, dismissing him with a payment which the poet regarded as insulting. It is not clear whether Mahmud acted thus out of niggardliness or because, as some scholars have suggested, Firdusi’s subject matter, the splendors of ancient Iran, offended the ruler’s self-esteem as a Turk and the son of a slave. More likely than either explanation is the possibility that Firdusi’s enemies at court whispered in the ear of the Sunni Muslim sultan that the poet was a secret Shi’ite.

According to Nezami-ye Aruzi, Firdusi, bitterly disappointed at his paltry reward, went to a bathhouse in Ghazna, where he bathed and ordered a cup of sherbet. He then took the sultan’s gift and divided it between the bathhouse keeper and the sherbet seller. To offer so public an insult to a ruler was rash in the extreme, and Firdusi promptly fled from Ghazna to Herāt, and thence to Tus and Tabaristan. His pursuers never caught up with him. Perhaps they lost the trail or—more probably—Mahmud called off the hunt, unwilling to go down in history as the persecutor of the greatest poet of the age. Finally, if Nezami is to be believed, Mahmud relented and belatedly made amends by sending to Firdusi a valuable consignment of indigo loaded on the sultan’s own camels. As the caravan entered one of the gates of Tabaran, a town in the Tus district where Firdusi had been living, however, the corpse of the poet was being carried out the opposite gate. Firdusi’s daughter, a woman “of very lofty spirit,” proudly spurned the sultan’s gift.

The Iranians have always ranked Firdusi among their greatest poets, along with Jalāl al- Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), Saʿdi (c. 1200-1291), Hafiz (c. 1320-c. 1390), and Jami (1414-1492). Unlike these other poets, however, Firdusi displays virtually no interest in contemporary religious issues or values and no trace whatsoever of a mystical calling. Still, his writing is rooted in a strong tradition of personal ethics, tempered by a strain of unmistakable pessimism, both of which are...

(The entire section is 2430 words.)