Persian Sufi poetry represents a mine of wisdom, insight into human nature and lofty vision. One of the great masters of Persian literature is Shaykh Muslihuddin Sa’di. He was born in Shiraz, Iran in 1184 A.D. in a family of learned men. His father passed away while Sa’di was still a child. He and his mother experienced great hardships in consequence of the loss of his father. Since childhood Sa’di was endowed with a keen intellect and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which took him to the famed Nizamiya Madrasa in Baghdad. After completing his formal education there, Sa’di travelled extensively across the Islamic world and benefited from the company of scholars and sages. He became a disciple of the celebrated Sufi scholar and saint, Shaykh Shihabuddin Suharwardi. In one of his couplets he speaks about his mentor with great reverence and fondness.
My wise mentor Shihabuddin,
While setting on a voyage, advised me about two things:
One was that I should not become conceited,
The second was that I should harbour no malice towards others.
Sa’di finally settled in Shiraz and spent the remaining years of his life there. He died at the age of 108 in 1292.
Sa’di had the knack of expressing and conveying profound ideas in a simple, down-to-earth manner through parables, similes and metaphors. He had a realistic, pragmatic approach to life and had no taste for asceticism. His teachings are imbued with a deep humanism and a cosmopolitan outlook. Sa’di’s name has been immortalised by his two major works, Gulistan and Boostan. These books have enjoyed great popularity across the Persian-speaking world, especially in Iran, India and Turkey. Adam Olearius translated Gulistan into German in 1651. An abridged translation of Boostan was published by A. Hart Edwards. An English translation of passages from Gulistan and Boostan, with the Persian text, was published by Mohammed Kazem Kamran in 2001.
Compassion and fellow-feeling
Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “All of mankind is (like) God’s family and the dearest of them in the sight of God is the one who is the kindest and most helpful to God’s family.” Inspired by this Tradition, the Sufi saints regarded service to mankind as the most sublime form of devotion to God. Shaykh Sa’di, for example, observed: “Religion consists only in the service of people; it does not lie in the rosary or prayer-rug or the mystic’s cassock.”
Sa’di was a great believer in the unity and brotherhood of mankind. Some of his most eloquent compositions deal with this theme. Thus he says:
Human beings are like the limbs of the body,
Since they are created from the same substance.
When times cause pain in one limb,
Other limbs cannot remain at ease.
You who are indifferent to the sufferings of others,
Do not deserve to be called a human being.
In one of his verses in Gulistan he says:
Hurt not the hearts of men as far as possible,
If you do so, you will destroy your own roots.
In Boostan Sa’di narrates the moving story of a king whose heart bled for his subjects.
The story is told of Abdul Aziz that he had a pearl of great beauty and
value set in a ring. Shortly thereafter, a severe drought occurred in the country,
causing great distress and hardship among people. Moved by compassion,
the king ordered the pearl to be sold and the money that it fetched to be
distributed among the poor.
Someone chided the king for doing this, saying: “Never again will such
a stone come into thy hands.” The king had tears in his eyes and he
said: “Ugly is an ornament upon the person of a king when the hearts
of his people are distressed by want. Better for me is a stoneless ring
than a distressed people.”
Happy is he who sets the ease of others above his own. The virtuous
desire not their own pleasure at the expense of others.
Cultivating moral virtues
The cultivation of moral virtues occupies a central place in Sa’di’s compositions. Dwelling on the virtues of humility and modesty, Sa’di narrates the following parable.
A drop of rain trickled from the clouds,
When it saw the ocean’s vast expanse it felt small and said to itself:
“What am I in comparison with the vast ocean?
Indeed I do not even exist when compared to it.”
Since the rain-drop regarded itself with contempt,
A pearl-oyster nurtured it within its bosom.
The heavenly sphere elevated it to such a status that—
It became an illustrious royal pearl.
It attained greatness because it displayed humility.
It knocked at the door of nothingness and hence became worthy.
An honourable wise man will always be modest.
A branch laden with fruits will always touch the ground.
Highlighting the virtues of tolerance and magnanimity, Sa’di says”
Be tolerant whenever you are confronted by violence—
As a peaceful disposition shuts the door of dispute.
With sweet words, gentleness and politeness, you can pull an elephant—
By a strand of hair.
Show kindness whenever you see strife,
As soft silk cannot be cut by a sharp knife.
The celebrated Sufi saint, Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti, who lies buried in Ajmer (India), is reported to have said: “A man who is dear in the sight of God possesses three qualities: affection like that of the sun, generosity like that of the earth, and humility like that of the earth. One finds an echo of this thought in some of the verses of Shaykh Sa’di. Thus he says:
In the land of Bilqan I met a pious man, to who I said:
Rid me of my ignorance with your instructions.”
He replied: “Go and become tolerant like the earth,
Or else bury in the earth all that you have learnt.”
In an eloquent passage in Boostan, Shaykh Sa’di dwells on the afflictions of conceit.
Expect not him who is possessed of worldly vanities to follow the path
of religion, nor look for godliness in him who wallows in conceit.
The story of the honey-seller, narrated by Sa’di in Boostan, points to the painful consequences of bad temper.
If you desire dignity, do not, like the mean, look at your fellow human
beings with contemptuous eyes. Seek no position more honourable than
that of being known to the world as a man of laudable character.
Do not consider him not great who, being of equal rank, is haughty towards
you; when you make a similar display before others, you do not
appear before them as the arrogant appear before you.
If you are eminent, laugh not. If you are wise, look at them that are lowly.
Many have fallen from high whose place has been taken by the fallen.
Though you be free from defect, revile not me who is full of blemishes.
A man of smiling countenance sold honey, captivating the hearts of all
by his pleasant manners. His customers were as numerous as flies around
the sugar-cane. If he were to sell poison, people would have bought it for honey.
Harbouring malice against others and back-biting is a widespread human weakness. Sa’di dwells on the futility of this trait in his inimitable manner.
A forbidding-looking man regarded him with envy, being jealous of the
way his business prospered. One day he paraded the town with a tray of honey
on his head and a scowl on his face. He wandered about, crying his wares,
but no one cared to buy. At nightfall, having earned no money, he went and
sat dejectedly in a corner, with a face as bitter as that of a sinner fearful of retribution.
The wife of one of his neighbours jokingly remarked: “Honey is bitter to one
of sour temper.”
Someone said: “Stealing is better than back-biting.” I replied: “This
sounds strange to me. What is good about stealing that you give it preference
over slander?” “Thieves,” he explained, “live by virtue of their strength and
daring. The slanderer sins and reaps nothing.”
Expatiating on the theme, Sa’di says: “It is permissible to slander only three persons. The first is a tyrannical king who oppresses his subjects; it is lawful to speak of his misdeeds so that people may beware of him. The second is a shameless person. One should not consider it a sin to speak ill of him, for by his own actions are his faults revealed. The third one is a cheat; say what you know of his evil ways.”
The Sufis greatly emphasize the immense benefits of keeping the company of wise and God-fearing people because it facilitates the unfolding and flowering of man’s benign, angelic potentialities. Sa’di brings out this theme in an eloquent manner.
I once received some fragrant mud from a dear friend in a public bath,
I said to it: “Are you musk or ambergr—
Because I am intoxicated by your fragrance.”
It replied: “I was some worthless mud,
But was in the company of a rose for sometime.
The beauty of my companion has influenced me,
Otherwise, I am the same ordinary mud which I was before.”
Who is a true friend? Sa’di says:
Do not consider him to be a friend who—
Boasts of friendship and brotherhood when you are prosperous.
In my opinion, a true friend is one who
Helps his friend in times of need and adversity.
Sa’di narrates an interesting story of a pious man who decided to leave his monastery.
A pious man came to a school after quitting the monastery
And leaving the company of pious men.
I said to him: “What was the difference between a scholar and a pious devotee—
That prompted you to prefer the company of the former?
He replied: “The pious devotee seeks his own salvation—
Whereas the learned scholar endeavours to save others from drowning.”
In one of his eloquent verses, Sa’di points to the ephemeral nature of wealth and says that it does not necessarily bring about well-being. He says:
Wellbeing is not dependent on wealth, but on competence and skill.
Greatness comes, not from age, but from wisdom.