Monday, November 22, 2010

The Legacy of Ferdowsi

Fig 1.
The poet Ferdowsi Tusi
Ferdowsi and the Survival of Iranian-Zoroastrian Literature
If the Arabs and their religious zealots who ruled the Iranian Aryan lands from c. 650 CE had tried to obliterate Iranian-Zoroastrian literature, they had not anticipated that some 350 years after the Arab invasion of Iran, Hakim Abul-Qasim Mansur – otherwise known as Ferdowsi Tusi, the Tusi Poet from Paradise – would ensure that a great body of the literature would survive and even be revered.

Indeed, many Iranians consider Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh to be the greatest literary work of all time. In the auction houses of the world, single pages of Shahnameh manuscripts sell for millions of dollars . Yet, in his closing years, a destitute Ferdowsi had to flee the wrath of the prevailing despot Sultan Mahmoud. When Ferdowsi passed away, Aboul Kasim Gourgani, chief sheikh of Tus, proclaimed Ferdowsi to be an infidel who had devoted his life to the glorification of fire-worshippers and misbelievers (sic), and therefore refused to pray over Ferdowsi’s grave. [Ref: Edward Henry Palmer, 1902 Encyclopaedia]

Fig 2. Facade to Ferdowsi's Mausoleum in Tus, Iran.
So how did Ferdowsi succeed in making the Shahnameh a favoured text that even rulers who otherwise persecuted Zoroastrians could not resist patronizing? What was Ferdowsi’s mission? What underlying messages did he seek to convey? What is his legacy? What can we do with his endowment?

First, Ferdowsi worked with the system while stretching the boundaries of propriety to the limits of personal safety. Next, he appealed to the glory of the Iranian nation and the vanity of rulers who sought the legitimacy of a royal tradition that stretched to the beginnings of history.

Ferdowsi’ Goals and the Revival of Persian (Parsi) Language
One of Ferdowsi’s stated goals was to revive the Persian language. He succeeded and elevated Persian to a level of great beauty, culture, and sophistication by writing the Shahnameh in Classical Persian – and not Arabic, the then favoured language of court literature. The Persian vernacular of his day had just emerged from Middle Persian Pahlavi and had become heavily admixed with Arabic words. Ferdowsi reversed the trend by expunging as many Arabic words as he could from the Persian he used. If the Shahnameh transliterations this author possesses are correct, Ferdowsi even used the term Parsi and not Farsi to name the Persian language, Farsi being the Arabic version of Parsi.

Fig 3. Built by Reza Shah in 1925,
Ferdowsi's mausoleum is now suffering greatly from neglect
Photo Credit: Payvand Iran News. Photo by Mehdi Bolourian, Mehr News Agency
Language and Meaning
In expunging Arabic words and replacing them with classical Persian, Ferdowsi also engaged in an exercise that is less apparent. He subtly linked the words he used to Zoroastrian values and concepts. For instance, he used the words Khoda and Yazdan to refer to God and the Divine – words with direct links to Zoroastrianism. Today, ironically, throughout the traditional Aryan lands, orthodox Muslims are trying hard to stop the use of Khoda in reference to their God.

Ferdowsi also sought to correct myths and slurs against Zoroastrians, one of the most prevalent being the labelling of Zoroastrians as ‘fire-worshippers’. The lines that I refer to are those commonly translated as, “Do not say that the Zoroastrians were fire-worshippers. They were worshippers of one God.” Let us examine the transliterated text: “Ma pandar ka atash parast bodand. Parastandeh pak-e yazdan bodand.” This author translates the lines as follows: “We imagine they were fire-worshippers. They were worshippers of a pure Divinity.” When translated directly, the words go far beyond correcting a myth. Pak-e Yazdan, Pure Divinity, can carry several connotations, one of them being a true God. Further, if Divinity or Godliness is the repository of a community’s highest values and ideals and if the Zoroastrians worshipped a pure Divinity, then the lines beg the question: how does one describe what the other worshipped? The capacity that allows the reader to make meaning in several layers is yet another achievement in Ferdowsi’s use of language, an achievement he made possible with the use of sophisticated poetry.

Use of Poetry. A Tradition Established by Zarathushtra
In using poetry, Ferdowsi continued a tradition established by Zarathushtra himself. Ferdowsi’s style of incorporating allegory and poetry was later continued by Omar Khayyam (c. 1050-1122), Hafiz (c. 1325-1388 CE) and others.

Fig. 4. Scene from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Illustration by René Bull
"Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse and thou
Singing beside me in the wilderness -
The wildness in paradise now!"
Edward Fitzgerald adaptation
Connotations Using Khoda and Wine in Verse
In using Khoda as the word for God and in mentioning the use of wine and other practices not consistent with the new regime in the Iranian Aryan lands, Ferdowsi and subsequent poets used poetry, subtlety, allegory and word-play to convey ideological messages. The connotations can be many. For instance, in speaking about the pleasures of wine, we have the direct meaning as well as meanings in layers below. Perhaps the poets were emboldening the revival of an old culture that the Arabs that sought to supplant with their own. Perhaps they were alluding to the desire for freedom to enjoy life according to ancient Iranian customs free from Arab Islamic prohibitions. Perhaps, that the individual was sovereign to make choices based on wisdom. Or that Iranians had a cultural heritage that was sophisticated and mature enough for them to figure out for themselves what was good or bad – without the need for patronization by an imposed foreign culture typified by Azi Zahak, the foreign king who ousted legendary King Jamshid (5) and who Ferdowsi ‘Arabized’.

The Tradition Continues. Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam, who closely followed Ferdowsi in time, spawned a number of imitators as well. As such, there are times when we cannot be sure about the original authorship of some verses such as:

“How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting?
Better go drunk and begging round the taverns.
Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours
Will make a cup, bowl, one day a jar.”

Consider the juxtaposition of religion, wine and clay. What is the ‘wine’ that is better that the imposed religious norms? What is the ‘clay’ that can be fashioned into something one day?

“When once you hear the roses are in bloom,
Then is the time, my love, to pour the wine;
Houris and palaces and heaven and hell*-
These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.”
(*reward and punishment for following the prevailing religious norms?)

“O cleric, we are more active than you,
Even so drunk, we are more attentive than you,
You drink the blood of men, we drink the blood of grapes,
Be fair, which one of us is more bloodthirsty?”

Then in a line “Enjoy wine and don't be afraid, God has compassion” could the poet be trying to embolden rebellion? To whose concept of God does the poet refer? Certainly not the one in whose name transgressors and infidels are killed. So deep down, was the author really talking about enjoying wine?

The Tradition Continues. Hafiz
Continuing the tradition, Hafiz (also spelt Hafez) wrote: “Dar kharabat-e moqan noor-e khoda mibinam” (Ghazal 357). Shahriar Shahriari translates ‘kharabat-e moqan’ as the ‘tavern of the magi’ and therefore this author translates the line as: “In the tavern of the magi, I see the Light of God.” We can hardly imagine that the magi owned taverns. If so, what was the tavern of the Zoroastrians where Hafiz saw the Light of God?

Fig 5. A mobed (Zoroastrian priest) feeds a temple's eternal flame
This very powerful message above echoes Ferdowsi’s ‘pak-e Yazdan’ and other references. Hafiz is also credited as writing: “In the monastery of the magi, they honour us. The fire that never dies, burns within our hearts.”

How Strongly Does the Eternal Flame Burn?
However, is the sacred eternal fire of Zoroastrians – the one that should never die in every Zoroastrian's heart – inexorably dying out? Is it now burning on the fumes of a past grandeur that enlivens the pages of the Shahnameh?

Tragic Cycles of Glory & Lament
There is one clear message that Ferdowsi has left us. It is not hidden. Yes, the Shahnameh extols an Iranian-Zoroastrian heritage that is rich and glorious. But it also laments that Zoroastrians have been their own worst enemy. The Shahnameh's epic, the Avesta, other Zoroastrian texts, and now history, chronicle three glorious but tragic cycles. The Aryans rose to great heights when they were noble and sunk to great depths when they lost their grace, their khvarenah, their farr. The tragic cycles began with renowned King Jamshid who lost his grace and exemplified the saying that 'pride goes before a fall'. Next came the glory of the Achaemenians and King Cyrus, only to end in internal weakness and the devastation wrought by the barbarous Alexander. But sadly we had still not learnt the lesson of history that internal dissent leaves the Aryan lands vulnerable, and Arabic devastation followed Sassanian rule – as had Zahak supplanted Jamshid's rule in the very first cycle. Relating the legend of Jamshid, Ferdowsi wrote, "That poet spoke well who said, 'When you become a king, seek to be a servant.'"

Fig 5. Scene from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Illustration by René Bull
"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly---and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing"
Edward Fitzgerald adaptation
If Zoroastrians are to regain their grace, they will need to do more than becoming giddy on the heady wine of past glory. They will need to learn from the lessons of the Shahnameh that Ferdowsi spent his life trying to preserve. Internal dissent hardly exemplifies the creed of good thoughts, words and deeds to which Zoroastrians pledge themselves. Is that conduct wise? Wisdom is an ideal to which Zoroastrians are supposed to aspire and one which Ferdowsi holds as a beacon to light the path forward and see the dangers.

Ferdowsi’ Legacy. The Need for Enlightened Leadership
Ferdowsi and subsequent poets have left us a legacy of hope and lament. The question is what we will do with this gift. The Shahnameh is more than just a Book of Kings; it is a book on leadership and the qualities of enlightened leadership. And each Zoroastrian is a potential leader.

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