Hakīm Abu'l-Qāsim Ferdowsī Tūsī known as Ferdowsi was a highly revered Persian poet. He was the author of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran and related societies.
The Shahnameh was originally composed by Ferdowsi for the princes of the Samanid dynasty, who were responsible for a revival of Persian cultural traditions after the Arab invasion of the seventh century. The Shahnameh chronicles the legendary history of the pre-Islamic kings of Iran from Keyumars to Yazdegerd III. Ferdowsi continued work on the poem after the Samanids were conquered by the Ghaznavids. The new ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turk, may have lacked the interest in Ferdowsi's work shown by the Samanids, resulting in him losing favor with the royal court. In later passages of his poem, Ferdowsi complains about poverty and the ravages of old age. Ferdowsi spent over three decades (from 977 to 1010) working on the Shahnameh, which became one of the most influential works of Persian literature.
Ferdowsi was born into a family of Iranian landowners (dehqans) in 940 C.E. in the village of Paj, near the city of Tus in the province of Khorasan, in northeastern Iran. Ferdowsi was a Shi'a Muslim, which is attested by the Shahnameh and also confirmed by early accounts. Little is known about Ferdowsi's early life, even his precise name is in doubt. According to the 13th-century Arab translator of the Shahnameh, Bondari, the poet's full name was "al-Amīr al-Ḥakīm Abu’l-Qāsem Manṣūr ibn al-Ḥasan al-Ferdowsī al-Ṭūsī". It is not known when or why he adopted the pen name "Ferdowsi" ("man of paradise"). The poet had a wife, who was probably literate and came from the same dehqan class. He had a son, who died aged 37, and was mourned by the poet in an elegy which he inserted into the Shahnameh.
Ferdowsi belonged to the class of dehqans. These were landowning Iranian aristocrats who had flourished under the Sassanid dynasty (the last pre-Islamic dynasty to rule Iran) and whose power, though diminished, had survived into the Islamic era which followed the Arab conquests of the seventh century. The dehqans were intensely patriotic (so much so that dehqan is sometimes used as a synonym for "Iranian" in the Shahnameh) and saw it as their task to preserve the cultural traditions of Iran, including the legendary tales about its kings.
The Muslim conquests of the seventh century had been a watershed in Iranian history, bringing the new religion of Islam, submitting Iranians to the rule of the Arab caliphate and promoting Arabic culture and language at the expense of Persian. By the late 9th century, the power of the caliphate had weakened and local Iranian dynasties emerged. Ferdowsi grew up in Tus, a city under the control of one of these dynasties, the Samanids, who claimed descent from the Sassanid general Bahram Chobin (whose story Ferdowsi recounts in one of the later sections of the Shahnameh). The Samanid bureaucracy used the New Persian language rather than Arabic and the Samanid elite had a great interest in pre-Islamic Iran and its traditions and commissioned translations of Pahlavi (Middle Persian) texts into New Persian. Abu Mansur ʿAbd-al-Razzāq , a dehqan and governor of Tus, had several local scholars compile a prose Shahnameh ("Book of Kings"), which was completed in 957. Although it no longer survives, Ferdowsi used it as one of the sources of his epic. Samanid rulers were patrons of such important Persian poets as Rudaki and Daqiqi. Ferdowsi followed in the footsteps of these writers.
Details about Ferdowsi's education are lacking. Judging by the Shahnameh, there is no evidence he knew either Arabic or Pahlavi. Although New Persian was permeated by Arabic vocabulary by Ferdowsi's time, there are relatively few Arabic loan words in the Shahnameh. This may have been a deliberate strategy by the poet.
Life as a poet
It is possible that Ferdowsi wrote some early poems which have not survived. He began work on the Shahnameh around 977, intending it as a continuation of the work of his fellow poet Daqiqi, who had been assassinated by a slave. Like Daqiqi, Ferdowsi employed the prose Shahnameh of ʿAbd-al-Razzāq as a source. He received generous patronage from the Samanid prince Mansur and completed the first version of the Shahnameh in 994. When the Turkic Ghaznavids overthrew the Samanids in the late 990s, Ferdowsi continued to work on the poem, rewriting sections to praise the Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud. Mahmud's attitude to Ferdowsi and how well he rewarded the poet are matters which have long been subject to dispute and have formed the basis of legends about the poet and his patron (see below). The Turkic Mahmud may have been less interested in tales from Iranian history than the Samanids. The later sections of the Shahnameh have passages which reveal Ferdowsi's fluctuating moods: in some he complains about old age, poverty, illness and the death of his son; in others, he appears happier. Ferdowsi finally completed his epic on 8 March 1010. Virtually nothing is known for sure about the last decade of his life.
Ferdowsi was buried in his own garden, burial in the Muslim cemetery of Tus having been forbidden by a local cleric. A Ghaznavid governor of Khorasan constructed a mausoleum over the grave and it became a revered site. The tomb, which had fallen into decay, was rebuilt between 1928 and 1934 on the orders of Reza Shah and has now become the equivalent of a national shrine.
According to legend, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni offered Ferdowsi a gold piece for every couplet of the Shahnameh he wrote. The poet agreed to receive the money as a lump sum when he had completed the epic. He planned to use it to rebuild the dykes in his native Tus. After thirty years of work, Ferdowsi finished his masterpiece. The sultan prepared to give him 60,000 gold pieces, one for every couplet, as agreed. However, the courtier Mahmud had entrusted with the money despised Ferdowsi, regarding him as a heretic, and he replaced the gold coins with silver. Ferdowsi was in the bath house when he received the reward. Finding it was silver not gold, he gave the money away to the bathkeeper, a refreshment seller and the slave who had carried the coins. When the courtier told the sultan about Ferdowsi's behaviour, he was furious and threatened to execute him. Ferdowsi fled Khorasan, having first written a satire on Mahmud, and spent most of the remainder of his life in exile. Mahmud eventually learned the truth about the courtier's deception and had him either banished or executed. By this time, the aged Ferdowsi had returned to Tus. The sultan sent him a new gift of 60,000 gold pieces but as the caravan bearing the money arrived in Tus it met a funeral procession: the poet had died from a heart attack.
Ferdowsi's Shahnameh is the most popular and influential national epic in Iran and other Persian-speaking nations. The Shahnameh is the only surviving work by Ferdowsi regarded as indisputably genuine. He may have written poems earlier in his life but they no longer exist. A narrative poem, Yūsof o Zolaykā (Joseph and Zuleika), was once attributed to him but scholarly consensus now rejects the idea it is his. There has also been speculation about the satire Ferdowsi allegedly wrote about Mahmud of Ghazni after the sultan failed to reward him sufficiently. Nezami Aruzi, Ferdowsi's early biographer, claimed that all but six lines had been destroyed by a well-wisher who had paid Ferdowsi a thousand dirhams for the poem. Introductions to some manuscripts of the Shahnameh include verses purporting to be the satire. Some scholars have viewed them as fabricated, others are more inclined to believe in their authenticity.
Ferdowsi is one of the undisputed giants of the Persian literature. After Ferdowsi's Shahnameh a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries within the cultural sphere of the Persian language. Without exception, all such works were based in style and method on Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, but none of them could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity as Ferdowsi's masterpiece.
Ferdowsi has a unique place in Persian history because of the strides he made in reviving and regenerating the Persian language and cultural traditions. His works are cited as a crucial component in the persistence of the Persian language, as those works allowed much of the tongue to remain codified and intact. In this respect, Ferdowsi surpasses Nizami, Khayyam, Asadi Tusi, and other seminal Persian literary figures in his impact on Persian culture and language. Many modern Iranians see him as the father of the modern Persian language.
Ferdowsi in fact was a motivation behind many future Persian figures. One such notable figure was Reza Shah Pahlavi who established an "Academy of Culture" in Iran, in order to attempt to remove Arabic and Turkish words from the Persian language, replacing them with suitable Persian alternatives. In 1934, Reza Shah set up a ceremony in Mashad, Khorasan celebrating a thousand years of Persian literature since the time of Ferdowsi, titled "Ferdowsi's Millenary Celebration" inviting notable European as well as Iranian scholars. Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, is a university established in 1949 that also takes its name from Ferdowsi.
Ferdowsi's influence in the Persian culture is explained by the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
The Persians regard Ferdowsi as the greatest of their poets. For nearly a thousand years they have continued to read and to listen to recitations from his masterwork, the Shah-nameh, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker. The language, based as the poem is on a Dari original, is pure Persian with only the slightest admixture of Arabic.
When the sword of sixty comes nigh his head
give a man no wine, for he is drunk with years.
Age claps a stick in my bridle-hand:
Much have I labored, much read o'er
Of Arabic and Persian lore,
Collecting tales unknown and known;
Now two and sixty years are flown.
There was a paladin, a Turk by race,
A man of influence and named Bizhan;
He dwelt within the coasts of Samarkand
Where he had many kin. Ill-starred Mahwi
'Tis but crude policy when women rule,
But yet there was a lady-Púrándukht-
Surviving of the lineage of Sásán,
And well read in the royal volume: her