1902 Encyclopedia > Nizami

Persian poet

NIZAMI (1141-1203). Shaikh Nizami or Nizam-uddin Abu Mohammed Ilyas Yusuf, the unrivalled master of the romantic epopee in Persia, who ranks in poetical genius as next to Firdausi, was born 535 A.H. (1141 A.D.).

His native place, or at any rate the abode of his father, was in he hills of Kumm, but as he spent almost all his days in Ganjah in Arran (the present Elisabethpol) he is generally known as Nizami of Ganjah or Ganjawi. The early death of his parents, which illustrated to him in the most forcible manner the unstableness of all human existence, threw a gloom over his whole life, and fostered in him that earnest piety and fervent love for solitude and meditation which have left numerous traces in his poetical writings, and served him throughout his literary career as a powerful antidote against the enticing favors of princely courts, for which he, unlike most of his contemporaries, never sacrificed a title of his self-esteem.

The religious atmosphere of Ganjah, besides, was most favorable to such a state of mind; the inhabitants, being zealous Sunnites, allowed nobody to dwell among them who did not come up to their standard of orthodoxy, and it is therefore not surprising to find that Nizami abandoned himself at an early age to a stern ascetic life, as full of intolerance to others as dry and unprofitable to himself. He was rescued at last from this monkish idleness by his inborn genius, which, not being able to give free vent to its poetical inspirations under the crushing weight of bigotry, claimed a greater share in the legitimate enjoyments of life and the appreciation of the beauties of nature, as well as a more enlightened faith of tolerance, benevolence, and liberality.

The first poetical work in which Nizami embodied his thoughts on God and man, and all the experiences he had gained, was necessarily of a didactic character, and very appropriately styled Makhzan-ulasrar, or "Storehouse of Mysteries," as it bears the unmistakable stamp of Sufic speculations (compare HAFIZ, vol. xi. p. 368). It shows, moreover, a strong resemblance to Nasir Khosrau’s ethical poems and Saan’i’s Hadikat-ulhakikat, or "Garden of Truth."

The date of composition, which varies in the different copies from 552 to 582 A.H., must be fixed in 574 or 575 (1178-79 A.D.), as the author states himself in the prologue that he was forty years old when he wrote it, and the prince to whom he dedicated it -- complying so far with the usual and custom of his time -- was Fakhr uddin Bahramshah, the ruler of the principality of Arzanjan, who died after a very long reign 622 A.H.

Although the Makhzan is mainly devoted to philosophic meditations, the propensity of Nizami’s genius to purely epic poetry, which was soon to assert itself in a more independent form, makes itself felt even here, all the twenty chapters being interspersed with short tales illustrative of the maxims set forth in each.

His claim to the title of the foremost Persian romanticist he fully established only a year or two after the Makhzan by the publication of his first epic masterpiece Khosrau and Shirin, composed, according to the oldest copies, in 576 A.H. (1180 A.D.) As in all his following epopees the subject was taken from what pious Moslems call the time of "heathendom,"- here, for instance, from the old Sassanian story of Shah Khosrau Parwiz, his love affairs with the princess Shirin of Armenia, his jealousy against the architect Ferhad, for some time his successful rival, of whom he got rid at last by a very ingenious trick, and his final reconciliation and marriage with Shirin; and it is a noteworthy fact that the once so devout Nizami never chose a strictly Mohammedan legend for his works of fiction.

Nothing could prove better the complete revolution in his views, not only on religion, but also on art. He felt, no doubt, that the object of epic poetry was not to teach moral lessons or doctrines of faith, but to depict the good and bad tendencies of the human mind, the struggles and passions of men; and indeed in the whole range of Persian literature only Firdausi and Fakhr-uddin As’ad Jorjani, the author of the older epopee Wis and Ramin (about the middle of the 11th century), can compete with Nizami in the wonderful delineation of character and the brilliant painting of human affection, especially of the joys and sorrows of a loving and beloved heart.

Khosrau and Shirin was inscribed to the reigning atabeg of Azerbaijan, Abu Ja’far Mohammed Pahlawan, and his brother Kizil Arslan, who, soon after his accession to the throne in 582 A.H. showed his gratitude to the poet by summoning him to his court, loading him with honors, and bestowing upon him the revenue of two villages, Hamd and Nijan. Nizami accepted the royal gift, but his resolve to keep aloof from a servile court-life was not shaken by it, and he forthwith returned to his quiet retreat.

Meanwhile his genius had not been dormant, and two years after his reception at court, in 584 A.H. (1188 A.D.), he completed his Diwan, or collection of kasidas and ghazals (mostly of an ethical and parenetic character), which are said to have numbered 20,000 distichs, although the few copies which have come to us contain only a very small number of verses.

About the same time he commenced, at the desire of the ruler of the neighboring Shirwan, his second romantic poem, the famous Bedouin love story of Laila and Majnun, which has so many points in common with Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and finished it in the short space of four months.

A more heroic subject, and the only one in which he made a certain attempt to rival Firdausi, was selected by our poet for his third epopee, the Iskandarnama, or "Book of Alexander," also called Sharafnama or Iqbalnama-i-lskandari ("The Fortunes of Alexander"), which is split into two divisions. The first or semi-historical part shows us Alexander the Great as the conqueror of the world, while the second, of a more ethical tendency, describes him in the character of a prophet and philosopher, and narrates his second tour through the world and his adventures in the west, south, east, and north. There are frequent Sufic allegories, just as in the Makhzan; and quite imbued with pantheistic ideas is, for instance, the final episode of the first part, the mysterious expedition of Alexander to the fountain of life in the land of darkness. (Compare Dr Ethé's essay, "Alexander's Zug zum Lebensquell," in Sitzungsber. d. bayerisch. Akad., 1871, pp. 343-405.)

As for the date of composition, it is evident, from the conflicting statements in the different MSS., that there must have been an earlier and a later recension, the former belonging to 587-589 A.H., and dedicated to the prince of Mosul, ‘Izz-uddun Mas'ud, the latter made for the atabeg Nusrat-uddin Abu Bakr of Tabriz after 593 A.H., since we find it a mention of Nizami’s last romance Haft Paikar, or the "Seven Beauties," which comprises seven tales related by the seven favorite wives of the Sassanian king Bahramgur.

In this poem, which was written 593 A.H., at the request of Nur-uddin Arslan of Mosul, the son and successor of the above-mentioned ‘Izz-uddin, Nizami returned once more from his excursion into the field of heroic deeds to his old favorite domain of romantic fiction, and added a fresh leaf to the laurel crown of immortal fame with which the unanimous consent of Eastern and Western critics has adorned his venerable head. The most interesting of the seven tales is the fourth, the story of the Russian princess, in which we recognize at once the prototype of Gozzi’s well-known Turandot, which was afterwards adapted by Schiller for the German stage.

The five mathnawis, from the Makhzan to the Haft Paikar, form Nizami’s so-called "Quintuple"(Khamsah) of "Five Treasurers" (Panj Ganj), and have been taken as pattern by all the later epic poets in the Persian, Turkish, Chaghatai, and Hindustani languages.

Nizami died at Ganjah in his sixty-fourth year, 599 A.H. (1203 A.D.).

Further Reading

The fullest account of Nizami is given in Dr. W. Bacher’s Nizami’s Leben und Werke (Leipsic [Leipzig], 1871; English translation by S. Robinson, London, 1873, reprinted in the same author’s Persian Poetry for English Readers, 1883, pp. 103-244). All the errors of detail in Bacher’s work have been corrected by Dr Rieu in his Catalogue of the Persian MSS. in the British Museum, vol. ii., 1881, p. 563 sq.

Principal editions of works of Nizami. – The whole Khamsah (lithographed, Bombay, 1834 and 1838; Teheran, 1845); Makhsan-ulasrar (edited by N. Bland, London, 1844; lithographed, Cawnpore, 1869; English translation in MS. by Hatton Hindley, in the British Museum Add. 6961); Khosrau and Shirin (lithographed, Lahore, 1871; German translation by Hammer in Shirin, ein persisches romantisches Gedicht, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1809); Laila and Majnun (lithographed, Lucknow, 1879; English translation by J. Atkinson, London, 1836); Haft Paikar (lithographed, Bombay, 1849; Lucknow, 1873); the fourth tale in German by F. Von Erdmann, Behramgur und die russische Fürstentochter, Kasan, 1844); Iskandarnama, first part, with commentary (Calcutta, 1812 and 1825; text alone, Calcutta, 1853; lithographed with marginal notes, Lucknow, 1865; Bombay, 1861 and 1875; English translation by H. Wilberforce Clarke, London, 1881; compare also Erdmann, De Expeditione Russorum Berdaam versus, Kasan, 1826, and Charmoy, Expédition d’Alexandre contre les Russes, St Petersburg, 1829); Iskandarnama-i-Bahri, second part, edited by Dr Sprenger (Calcutta, 1852 and 1869). (H.E.)

The above article was written by: C. Hermann Ethé, Ph.D., M.A., Professor of German and Oriental Languages, University College, Aberystwyth, from 1875; catalogued Arabic MSS. in the Bodleian Library, Persian MSS. in India Office Library; Examiner for Oxford University.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries