The three leading poets of the Court of Mahmood were one day conversing together in a garden of Ghazna. They were Unsari, Asjadi, and Farrukhi. A stranger from Nishapur arrived there and desired to join their conversation. Unsari resenting this untimely intrusion said to him: Brother! we are the Court poets and none but a gifted poet may participate in our conversation. Each of us will compose a verse in the same rhyme and if you could supply the fourth hemistich of the quatrain, you will be welcomed in our company, otherwise not. The stranger who was no other than Firdausi readily consented to this amazing condition and Unsari intentionally choosing a rhyme wherein three hemistichs could be composed but not the fourth one, started:
“Thine eyes are clear and blue as sunlit ocean”
“Their glance bewitches like a magic potion”
Farrukhi stated :
“The wounds they cause no balm can heal, nor lotion”
Instantly Firdausi alluding to a scarcely known legend of the ancient kings of Persia concluded :
“Deadly as those Give’s spear dealt out to Poshan.” Explaining the allusion, Firdausi exhibited such a rich knowledge of the ancient history of Persia, that the three Court poets were astounded by his poetical superiority as well as by his historical knowledge and readily admitted him to their society.
Firdausi, the author of the immortal Shah Nama, was the greatest of all the great Persian poets. Persia, the land of poetry, learning, and culture in the East, has produced some most outstanding poets in the world, including Rumi, Saadi, Hafiz, Anwari, and Firdausi. Firdausi towering high above them is universally recognized as one of the greatest epic poets of all times.
Hassan ibn Ishaq ibn Sharf alias Firdausi was born in Toos. The Tarikh Guzida (Select History) written by the historian Hamdullah Mustawfi in 1330 A.C., gives the name of Firdausi as Abul Qasim Hassan Ali of Toos. His birthplace is a controversial issue among historians. According to Chahar Maqala, it was Baz, a village of Bostan. The preface of Shah Nama gives it as Shadab. But it has now been established by modern reliable research scholars that he was born in the District of Toos, the place which produced renowned scholars of Islam like versatile Imam Ghazali and the encyclopaedist Nasiruddin Toosi.
It is related that on the birth of Firdausi, his father dreamt that the newly born child climbing the upper story of the house raised a strident cry which was responded from all sides. Elaborating on the dream Najibuddin predicted that the boy would one day become a great poet who would win a world-wide recognition. Firdausi, when he grew up, received thorough education.
Mahmood of Ghazna, the well-known Muslim conqueror, was a great patron of art and learning. Being a renowned scholar himself, he had drawn to his Court such well-known intellectual luminaries of Islam as Biruni, Firdausi, Unsari, Farrukhi and Daqiqi. He had built a magnificent college and a big museum at Ghazna, which rivaled Baghdad and became the highest seat of learning in the East. He contemplated having a thorough research conducted into the ancient history of Persia and was in search of a competent poet who could undertake this gigantic work, but no such versatile poet was available.
According to one source, he summoned Firdausi for this task. Firdausi on his way to the Court of Mahmood met the three leading poets, referred to above, in a suburban garden of Ghazna. Unsari was so much impressed by the genius of Firdausi that he introduced him to the Sultan saying that he was the most competent and pre-eminently fit person to undertake the task of versifying the national epic.
This account is based on the research of Daulat Shah. Other historians maintain that Firdausi first appeared in the Court of Ghazna, where the abovementioned poetic competition was held.
Mahmood entrusted this important assignment to Firdausi and allotted him an apartment in the Royal Palace, fully equipped with all sorts of weapons and paintings depicting battle scenes and palace life in ancient Persia.
Mahmood offered to pay him one gold coin for each couplet, apart from one thousand gold coins on completion of one thousand couplets. But Firdausi declined to accept the payment piecemeal and consented to receive full payment on the completion of the assignment.
It may be noted that the Shan Nama was begun long before Firdausi’s arrival in the Court of Mahmood. It took 35 years for its compilation as stated by Firdausi in one of his couplets and Mahmood’s reign lasted for 31 years only.
Hence Firdausi had begun it in his native town under the patronage of Abu Mansoor, the Governor of Toos. Salan Khan succeeded Abu Mansoor as the Governor of Toos. By this time, the fame of Shah Nama had reached Mahmood who summoned Firdausi to his Capital. At first, Firdausi declined this offer but soon he recollected the prophecy of Shaikh Mashooq and consented to go to Ghazna.
Firdausi immediately applied himself to the most arduous task and after labouring on it unremittingly for over a decade, he completed the monumental epic poem comprising sixty thousand couplets. But, according to one version, contrary to the agreement, Firdausi was paid in silver instead of gold coins. This broke his heart and obliged him to write a touching satire of Mahmood. In fact, his exclusiveness had offended Ayaz, the favourite of Mahmood.
Moreover, there was an influential group in the Court of Mahmood constantly working against Firdausi and his admirer Prime Minister, Hassan Memandi. This rival group was greatly instrumental in the breach of the earlier offer made to Firdausi.
The great poet, broken-hearted and friendless, left Ghazna and roamed about in the neighbouring dominions in search of a peaceful place. But as ill-luck would leave it, no neighbouring ruler was prepared to give him a lasting asylum, being afraid of incurring the hostility of Mahmood, who was offended by Firdausi’s satire. At last, he reached Baghdad, where he was welcomed by the Abbaside Caliph. Here he wrote his another long poem ‘Yusuf and Zulaikha’.
Stung by remorse and qualms of conscience, Mahmood, at last, softened towards Firdausi and despatched the agreed money to him. But it was too late. When the camels carrying the award of Shah Nama were entering Toos through one gate, the funeral of Firdausi appeared from the other. Browne in his Literary History of Persia (Vol. !, page 137) quotes one Nizami of Samarqand vide Chahar Maqala by Daulat Shah, compiled a century after the death of the poet, as saying. In the year 514 A.H. (1120-21 A.C.) when I was in Nishapur, I heard Amir Muizzi say that he had heard Amir Abdur Razzaq of Toos relate as follows: Mahmood was once in India, returning thence towards Ghazna. It chanced that on his way there was a rebellious chief possessed of a strong fortress. Next day, Mahmood encamped at its gates and despatched an Ambassador to him, bidding him come before him on the morrow to do homage and pay his respects at the Court, where he should receive a robe of honour and return to his place. Next day, Mahmood rode out with the Prime Minister on his right hand. The Ambassador had turned back and was coming to meet the King. “I wonder,” said the King to the Minister, “what reply he will have given?” The Minister answered :
“And should the reply with my wish not accord,
Then Afrasiyab’s field, and the mace and the sword.”
“Whose verse is it”, enquired Mahmood? “For he must have the heart of a man”. “Poor Abul Qasim Firdausi composed it”, answered the Minister, “he who for five and twenty years labored to complete such a work and reaped for it no advantage”. “You speak well”, said Mahmood, “I deeply regret that this nobleman was disappointed by me. Remind me at Ghazna to send him something”. So, when the Sultan returned to Ghazna, the Minister reminded him and Mahmood ordered that sixty thousand dinars worth of indigo should be given to Firdausi, and that this indigo should be carried to Toos on the King’s own camels and that apologies should be tendered to Firdausi.
“For years the Minister had been maneuvering till at last he achieves his end. So now he caused the camels to be loaded and the indigo safely reached, Tabaran.” But even as the camels were entering through the Rudbar gate, the funeral of Firdausi emerged from the gate of Razan. Outside the gate there was a garden belonging to Firdausi, and there they buried him and there he lies to this day.
They say that Firdausi left a very high spirited daughter, to whom they would have given the King’s gift: but she would not accept it, declaring that she did not need it.
“The postmaster wrote to the King who ordered that the money should be given to Imam Abu Bakr ibn Ishaq for the repair of the Serai at Chaha, which stands on the road between Merv and Neshapur at the confines of Toos. When this order reached Toos and Nishapur, it was faithfully executed and the restoration of the rest-house at Chaha was effected with this money.”
When the famous traveler Nasir Khusroe visited Toos in 430 A.H. he found a big caravanserai there, which, he was told was built out of the money awarded to Firdausi. According to Farhang Rashidi and Chahar Maqala, this was named as ‘Chah’.
But modern research has established that the story of Sultan Mahmood siling from his commitment to pay 60,000 gold coins is more a fib than a fact. It was least expected from such a generous patron of learning like Sultan Mahmood.
Firdausi’s works include Shah Nama, Yusuf and Zulaikha and a considerable number of lyrical fragments, collected, translated and edited by Dr. Etha.
It is on Shah Nama universally recognized as one of the best epic poems in the world, that Firdausi’s reputation as a poet rests. In their high estimate of this monumental poem, the Western, as well as Eastern writers and critics, are unanimous, with the exception of Professor Browne, who, ignorantly considers it to be inferior to the Arabic Muallaqat.
Maulana Shibli Nomani, the author of the famous Sherul Ajam, has refuted this underestimate of Firdausi most convincingly. Professor Browne has based his conclusions regarding the value of Shah Nama on minor flaws. He has failed to appreciate its sublimity of thought, its beauty of expression, its thoroughness of description, its faithful portrayal of difficult situations and emotions in which the minutest details have not escaped the imaginative eye of the great poet.
The combat and battle scenes as pictured in Shah Nama can very favorably be compared with the great Greek Classics lilied and Odessy. Firdausi has out-matched Homer, his Greek counterpart, in this vital department of epic poetry.
The Shah Nama which was completed in 400 A.H. took 35 years for its completion. It was begun by Firdausi 20 years before his arrival at Ghazna, and not at the behest of Mahmood as wrongly contended. Firdausi has very faithfully verified the events of the ancient history of Persia. A German Professor has written a book detailing the sources of Shah Nama.
The outstanding qualities of Shah Nama have enabled it to rank among the greatest poems in the world are many. The poet has an unrivaled hold over the Persian language and in his long poem comprising sixty thousand couplets he has very rarely used Arabic words at a time when Arabic had become almost the literary language of the Islamic world, including Persia. Thus, he succeeded where Ibn Sina had failed.
One who reads Shah Nama is struck by the thoroughness of the poet’s description. He has very faithfully portrayed scenes of life in ancient Persia. He has a deep insight into the secrets of human nature and has very sincerely pictured subtle human emotions both on the occasions of war and peace. In this respect, he has outmatched not only all oriental but also Western poets.
He is a master-craftsman who has faithfully verified diverse and difficult situations and emotions. Brevity and lucidity of expression, thoroughness of description, and flawless portrayal of emotions as well as true picturing of battle scenes have made Shah Nama an immortal epic poem in the world.
Homer is acclaimed as the greatest epic poet of the West, while Viyas, the author of Mahabharat is known as the greatest Indian epic poet, but Firdausi is far greater of the two. How splendidly he begins the story of Sohrab and Rustam!
The story of Sohrab and Rustam now hear!
Other tales thou hast heard: to this also give ear.
A story it is to bring tears to the eyes,
And wrath in the heart against Rustam will rise.
If forth from this ambush should rush the fierce biast.
And down in the dust, the young orange should cast.
Then call us it just, or unkind and unfair.
And say we that virtue or rudeness is there?
Shah Nama became a very popular poem throughout the world of Islam. For centuries its couplets were on lips of everybody and were oft-quoted in literary discourses and pursuits for Khorasan to Baghdad.
Firdausi has been universally acclaimed as a great poet both in the East and the West. Anwari, another renowned Persian poet, sag’s about him :
Aan ki Ustad bood o ma Shagird
Aan Khudwand bood o ma Bandah
(He was my teacher and I am his pupil. He was the god of poetry and I am his worshipper).
The celebrated historian Ibn Athir states that the Arabic language despite its phenomenal development could not produce anything which could rival Shah Nama. Sir Gour Osley has compared Firdausi with Homer. Maulana Shibli Nomani in his monumental work Sherul Ajam has classed Firdausi among the greatest poets of the world.