1902 Encyclopedia > Nasir Khosrau

Nasir Khosrau
Persian poet
(1004-88)




NASIR KHOSRAU. Abri Diu in ed din Nasir b. Khosrau, the first great didactic poet of Persia, was a descendant of the imam 'Ali Rida, and was born, according to his own statement in one of his kasidas, 394 A.H. (1,004 A.D.), at Kubadiyan, near Balkh in Khorasan. The first forty-two years of his life are obscure ; we learn from incidental remarks of his that he was a Sunnite, probably according to the Hanafite rite, well versed in all the branches of natural science, in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology, in Greek philosophy, and the interpretation of the Koran; that he had a comprehensive knowledge of many other philosophic systems and religious creeds professed in the East; and that he was, withal, much addicted to worldly pleasures, especially to excessive wine drinking, the renunciation of which forms a prominent topic in his later odes. He had studied Arabic, Turkish, Greek, the vernacular languages of India and Sind, and perhaps even Hebrew ; he had visited Multa.n and Lahore, and been - probably in an official capacity - an eye-witness of the splendid Ghaznavide court under Sultan Mahmild, Firdousi's patron, and his son Mas'Ad. Later on he had chosen Mery for his residence, and was the owner of a house and garden there. When he first steps into the full light of history, in 437 A.H. (1045 A.D.), we see him in the position of a financial secretary and revenue collector of the Seljuk sultan Toghrulbeg, or rather of his brother Jighirbeg, the emir of Khorasan, who had conquered Mery in 1037. The introductory passages of the Safarncima, together with a number of verses in the above-mentioned kasida, which belongs to the same period, clearly manifest the peculiar state of mind in which Nasir was at that time. Like Faust he had fathomed the depth of all human knowledge, like him he had passed through the whirlpool of passions and sensual pleasures, he had tried to drown his doubts and troubles in the wine cup, and yet he had only grown more and more dissatisfied with himself ; nothing could quench his ever-increasing thirst for a higher intelligence, for a more profound comprehension of the Godhead, and the manifestations of the divine power in the universe. He had evidently reached the turning-point of his life, and, inspired by a heavenly voice (which he pretends to have heard in a dream), he abjured all the luxuries of life, and resolved upon a pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, hoping to find there the solution of all enigmas, and to return a thoroughly reformed man. The graphic description of this journey is contained in the Safarndma, a book that, quite apart from the personal interest we feel in the author, ranks high among the memoirs of travel as giving us the most authentic account of the state of the Mussulman world and the condition of Persia, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the middle of the 1 1 th century. The minute sketches of Jerusalem and its environs, moreover, are of the highest practical value, even at the present day, for our explorations in the Holy Land. During the seven years of his journey (1045-52 A.D.) Nash visited Mecca four times, and performed all the rites and observances of a zealous pilgrim ; but the fascinating influence of the Holy City upon his mind was greatly outweighed by that of Cairo, the capital of Egypt, and the residence of the Fatimite sultan Mostansir billab, the great champion of the Shi`a, and the spiritual as well as political head of the house of 'Ali, which was just then waging a deadly war against the `Abbaside caliph of Baghdad, and the great defender of the Sunnite creed, Toghrulbeg the Seljdk. At the very time of Nasir's visit to Cairo, the power of the Egyptian Fatimites was in its zenith ; Syria, the Hijaz, Africa, and Sicily obeyed Mostansir's sway, and the utmost order, security, and prosperity reigned in Egypt. Cairo appeared as an earthly paradise in Nasir's eyes ; he became, as his poems clearly indicate, thoroughly imbued there with Shia doctrines, and their successful introduction into his native country was henceforth the sole aim and object of his life. The hostilities he encountered in the propagation of these new religious ideas after his return to Khorasan in 1052 and Sunnite fanaticism compelled him at last to flee, and after many wanderings he found a refuge in Yumgan, in the mountains of Badakhshan, where he spent as a hermit the last decades of his life, and gathered round him a considerable number of devoted adherents, who have handed down his doctrines to many following generations. The Dabistan (translated by Shea and Troyer, Paris, 1843, vol. ii. p. 419 sq.) fixes his flight from Khorasan in 456 A.H. (1064 A.D.), but there is strong evidence in some of his kasidas that this event took place some four or five years before that date; and as his death occurred in 481 A.H. (1088 A.D.) he must have lived in his exile from twenty-five to thirty years. His "nom de plume" was " Hujjat."

Most of Nesir's lyrical poems were composed in his retirement, and their chief topics are - an enthusiastic praise of 'Ali, his descendants, and Mostansir in particular ; passionate outcries against Khorasan and its rulers, who had driven him from house and home; the highest satisfaction with the quiet solitude of Yam& ; and utter despondency again in seeing himself despised by his former associates, and for ever excluded from participation in the glorious contest of life. But scattered through all these alternate outbursts of hope and despair we find precious lessons of purest morality, and solemn warnings against the tricks and perfidy of the world, the vanity of all earthly splendour and greatness, the folly and injustice of men, and the hypocrisy, frivolity, and viciousness of fashionable society and princely courts in particular. It is the same strain which runs, although in a somewhat lower key, through his two larger mathnawis or double-rhymed poems, the Rushandinanta, or "book of enlightenment," and the Sa' Matnama, or "book of felicity." The former is divided into two sections : the first, of a metaphysical character, contains a sort of practical cosmography, chiefly based on Avieenna's theories, but frequently intermixed both with the freer speculations of the well-known philosophical brotherhood of Basra, the Ikliwan-es-safa,1 and purely Shi'itic or Isma'ilitic ideas ; the second, or ethical section of the poem, abounds in moral maxims and ingenious thoughts on man's good and bad qualities, on the necessity of shunning the company of fools and double-faced friends, on the deceptive allurements of the world and the secret snares of ambitious craving for rank and wealth. It concludes with an imaginary vision of a beautiful world of spirits who have stripped off the fetters of earthly cares and sorrows and revel in the pure light of divine wisdom and love. If we compare this with a similar allegory in Nesir's diwan, which culminates in the praise of Mostansir, we are fairly entitled to look upon it as a covert allusion to the eminent men who revealed to the poet in Cairo the secrets of the Isma'ilitic faith, and showed him what he considered the "heavenly ladder " to superior knowledge and spiritual )Miss. The passage, thus interpreted, lends additional weight to the correctness of Dr Ethe's reconstruction of the date of the Rushandindma, viz., 440 A.H. (1049 A.D.), which, notwithstanding M. Schefer's objections, is warranted both by the astronomical details and by the metrical requirements of the respective verses. That of course does not exclude the possibility of the bulk of the poem having been composed at an earlier period ; it only ascribes its completion or perhaps final revision to Nasir's sojourn in Egypt.

A similar series of excellent teachings on practical wisdom and the blessings of a virtuous life, only of a severer and more uncompromising character, is contained in the Scidclatn‘Pm,a; and, judging from the extreme bitterness of tone manifested in the "reproaches of kings and emirs," we should be inclined to consider it a protest against the vile aspersions poured out upon Nasir's moral and religious attitude during those persecutions which drove him at last to Yumgan. Of all the other works of our author mentioned by Oriental writers there has as yet been found only one, the Zfid-elmusa-firin (in the private possession of M. Schefer, Paris); and we can very well dismiss the rest as being probably just as apocryphal as Nasir's famous autobiography (found in several Persian tadhkiras or biographies of poets), a mere forgery of the most extravagant description, which is mainly responsible for the confusion in names and dates in older accounts of our author.

See Sprenger's Catalogue of the Libraries of the King of Oudh, 1854 ; H. Ethel, "Ndsir Chusran's Rushanciincima," In Z. D. H. G., xxxiii., xxxiv., 1879-80 ; E Fagnan, " Le livre de la fdlicitd," in vol. xxxiv. of the same journal, 643-674; Ch. Schefer, Sefer Nameh, publid, traduit, et annot4 Paris, 1881 ; H. Ethel, in Collinger Nachrichten, 1882, pp. 124-152, and Z. D. M. G., 1882, pp. 478-508. Fagnen in Jour'. As., 7th stir., vol. xiii. p. 164 sq., and Hien, Cat. Pers. NM. in Br. Met., concluded that the poet and the pilgrim were different persons. The opposite view was developed by Ethel. (H. E.)







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