Article abstract: Saʿdi’s literary works, particularly his worldly-wise and entertaining classics, The Orchard and The Rose Garden, have made him one of the leading writers of Iran, where he is fondly known as “Shaykh Saʿdi” or simply “the Shaykh.”
Like the expedient morality of his writings, the facts of Saʿdi’s life are difficult to pin down. Much information about him is available but untrustworthy; most of it tends to be legendary or to come from autobiographical passages in his writings, where Saʿdi indulged the common human impulse to invent or correct oneself and in addition needed to make his stories fit his points (though not all do). As one of his characters puts it, “a man who has seen the world utters much falsehood.” Moreover, G. M. Wickens, one of his translators, warns, that “Saʿdi is most often portrayed with shrewd and subtle features, enlivened by a wicked, enigmatic smile.” The intermingling of fact, fiction, and uncertainty about Saʿdi leaves his biography undependable but ontologically correct, since his main point is that one can never “know” oneself, anybody else, or anything with certainty.
Not even Saʿdi’s real name is certain. The best opinion is that his true name was Mosharrif al-Din ibn Moslih al-Din or some variation of this (sometimes with “Abdullah” or “Saʿdi Shirazi” tacked on). Saʿdi is a takhallus (pen name) taken from the rulers of Fars Province during Saʿdi’s lifetime—Saʿd ibn Zangi, his son Abu Bakr ibn Saʿd, and his grandson Saʿd ibn Abu Bakr. In Persian, which uses the Arabic alphabet, the name Saʿdi contains an ʿayn (here indicated by a turned comma, or reverse apostrophe), a separate sound or tightening of the throat for which there is no exact equivalent in English. To indicate this pronunciation, the name is sometimes transliterated as “Saadi.”
Saʿdi was born in Fars Province, a southern region whose ancient name, Persis, the early Greeks extended to all Iran (which was thus known in the West until recently as Persia). As this etymology suggests, Fars Province has played a central role in Iranian history, and such was especially the case during Saʿdi’s lifetime. Saʿdi’s father was a minor official at the court of the provincial ruler, Saʿd ibn Zangi. When Saʿdi’s father died, Saʿd ibn Zangi assumed responsibility for the young Saʿdi’s care and education. After schooling in Shiraz, Saʿdi attended the Nizamiya College in Baghdad, then perhaps the world’s best educational institution. According to some accounts, Saʿdi spent his time there carousing and having a good time. In the Bustan (1257; The Orchard, 1882), Saʿdi says that he had a teaching fellowship requiring hours of instructional drudgery. In any case, he apparently had the opportunity for an excellent education, even if he was not himself cut out for the academic life.
Following his university studies, Saʿdi entered upon the second of three main periods in his life, each of which represented a drastic change. He now began a period of wandering and adventure that, by the standard accounts, lasted for some thirty years. What motivated him to take to the road is not known, but it could have been any of a number of things—his desire to leave university life, the appeal of roaming, the influence of the dervishes or Sufis, or the approach of the conquering Mongol hordes. The Mongols, known as “the Scourge of Islam,” were then devastating whole territories, leaving mountains of skulls piled up outside burned cities. In strange ways, Saʿdi’s fate intertwined with theirs, much as his achievement stands in opposition to what they represented. If the Mongols caused him to flee, they thereby brought about the period of wandering that constituted his real education and the source of his wisdom.
Saʿdi’s travels ranged throughout the Muslim lands, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Anatolia (now Turkey), Palestine, Egypt, and other parts of North Africa. He visited the holy city of Mecca in Arabia numerous times. Sometimes he stayed with or traveled in the company of dervishes, members of the mystical Sufi fraternal orders, then at their height in the Islamic world. It is possible that he joined one of the Sufi orders for a time, even if his easygoing, skeptical temperament was not really compatible with Sufi discipline and emotionalism (ecstasy induced by various practices—such as chanting or whirling—to celebrate an all-embracing love). He did enjoy the singing, dancing, and company. Wandering about as a mendicant dervish also enabled him to travel more safely and to get handouts and hospitality, sometimes by preaching sermons that were good practice for writing his great didactic works.
His travels were naturally not without incident and occasionally perilous adventure. For example, in the Gulistan (1258; The Rose Garden, 1806), Saʿdi says that he was captured in Palestine by Christian Crusaders and put to work digging moats. What most offended him about the experience was that the other prisoners in his work gang were “infidels” (or “Jews,” depending on the translation); unfortunately, Saʿdi displays the typical Muslim bigotry of his time. Eventually, a friend from Aleppo came by, recognized Saʿdi, and...
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