The main thoroughfare of Tabriz was thronged with her populace. The inhabitants of the metropolis of Mongol conqueror Hulaku Khan had come out of their homes and lined both sides of the main road to witness the imperial procession which was passing along it. The procession was attended by all the Ministers, Courtiers, and high dignitaries of State, including the celebrated Prime Minister, Khwaja Shamsuddin, and his talented brother Khwaja Alauddin, who were greatly instrumental in converting the son of Hulaku Khan to Islam. Suddenly the imperial procession came to a halt and Prime Minister, Khwaja Shamsuddin and his brother alighted from the royal coach and hurriedly advanced towards a frail bodied old man, who was standing among the spectators. They respectfully bowed before him and kissed his hands :
“Sire! How are you here? You should have graced our humble residence with your benevolent presence,” remarked the Prime Minister.
“I have just arrived in Tabriz and was on my way to your residence when I happened to come across this procession and did not want to disturb you here”, replied the old man.
The two brothers came back to their royal coach. The Imperial son of Hulaku Khan was highly surprised at the unusual respect paid by his celebrated Prime Minister to the battered frail bodied old man and enquired.
“Who is he that received so high respect from you learned brothers?”
“He is our father,” the Prime Minister.
“But your father died long ago?” retorted the Emperor.
“He is our spiritual father,” replied the Prime Minister. “Sire, you would have heard the name of Saadi, the well-known poet, moralist, and sage of Persia. It was he”.
The Emperor expressed his great desire to meet Sheikh Saadi. Next day the Prime Minister and his brother called on the Sheikh and implored him to accompany them to the Emperor. The pious Sheikh shunned Imperial Society but, on the imploration of the two brothers who were his disciples, he consented to visit the Emperor. On arrival at the Imperial palace Sheikh Saadi was respectfully received by the Emperor and at the end of their prolonged meeting, he requested the Sheikh to give him some advice. The Sheikh replied, “After death, only good deeds will help you. Now it is up to you to collect and carry good or bad deeds with you”. The Emperor was highly impressed by the spiritual advice of the Sheikh and requested him to compose it in verse, which he did instantly. The recitation of these couplets moved the Emperor to tears.
Muslehuddin Saadi, the originator of Persian lyric and the greatest ethical writer that the world has produced, was one of the three prophets of Persian poetry, the other two being Firdausi and Anwari. “No Persian writer enjoys to this day”, writes Browne, “not only in his own country but also wherever his language is cultivated, a wider celebrity or a greater reputation”.
His date of birth is a disputed point among the historians, but according to majority of them, he was born at Shiraz about 1184 A.C. and died more than a centurian in 1291 A.C. His father, whom he lost at an early age, was in service of Atabek Saad bin Zangi, ruler of Shiraz, hence he took ‘Saadi’, as his pen name.
His parents played a great part in his early education which moulded his character. On his father’s death, he was taken under the protection of Atabek Saad bin Zangi and was sent to Baghdad where he joined the famous Nizamiah University. Here he received education from Ibn Jauzi. His long life, which, according to several reports, lasted for 120 years, has been divided into three distinct periods. The first period lasting up to 1226 A.C. was the period of study, spent mostly at Baghdad. Even during this period, he made several trips including one mentioned in Book V of Gulistan to Kashgar in 1210 A.C. when Sultan Khwarizm Shah had made peace with Cathay (The ancient name of China). In Baghdad, he came under the influence of the celebrated Sufi Saint Sheikh Shahabuddin Shurawardy, an event which was greatly instrumental in building up his role as a great moralist. In one of his anecdotes in ‘Bostan’, Saadi speaks highly of the deep piety and humanity of the Sufi Saint. Ibn Jauzi was another learned figure of Baghdad whose deep erudition greatly benefited young Saadi.
The second period lasting up to 1256 A.D. was a period in which Saadi made extensive travels in the world of Islam. Leaving his native city of Shiraz in 1226 due to unsettled conditions in Fars, he wandered from India in the East to Syria and Hejaz in the West, gaining rich experience which he incorporated in his two immortal books ‘Gulistan’ and ‘Bostan’, To his departure from Shiraz he alludes in the preface to Gulistan :
“O Knowest thou not why, an outcast and exile, Inland of the stranger a refuge I sought? Disarranged was the world like the hair of a negro When I fled from the Turks and the terror they brought.”
He travelled in a true dervish fashion, mixing with all sorts of people, at times wandering miles in trackless deserts, at others carrying a water bag on his back in Jerusalem, sleeping by roadside, and seeing life in all its nakedness. He observed the diversities of life and studied the characteristics of different nationalities, societies and regions from different angles. The ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ was not confined to a particular region. It was extensive and spread over a large part of the Islamic world. He visited Balkh, Ghazna, Punjab, Somnath, Gujarat, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Baalbak, Damascus, Baghdad, Egypt, North Africa and Asiatic Turkey. He wandered through the great educational and cultural centres of Islam, including Baghdad, Damascus, Balkh, Ghazna and Cairo. He has incorporated his rich first-hand experiences in his momentous books: ‘Gulistan,’ and ‘Bostan,’ which have made them the most popular ethical works in the world. “In his own writings (specially in Gulistan)”, writes Browne, “he appears now painfully stumbling after the pilgrim caravan through the burning deserts of Arabia, now, bandying jests with a fine technical flavour of grammatical terminology with schoolboys at Kashghar, now a prisoner in the hands of Franks, condemned to hard labour in the company of Jews in the Syrian town of Tripoli, now engaged in investigating the mechanism of a wonder-working Hindoo idol in the temple of Somnath”.
Saadi was a good humourist who excelled in quick repartees. Writing in his well-known work, ‘Sheruj Ajam’ (The Oriental Poetry), Maulana Shibli Nomani describes an incident in Sheikh’s life, when, wandering through the Syrian forests he was caught by the Jews and was assigned the digging of a ditch in Tripoli. A few days after, an old friend of Saadi happened to pass that way and was astonished to find him in such a plight. On enquiry, Saadi recited two couplets asking him to realise the condition of a person who shunned the society of human beings to be made to live among animals. The friend was deeply moved by his couplets, paid 10 dinars for freedom and married his daughter to Saadi for 100 dinars. His wife was very arrogant and haughty. One day, she taunted him that he should not forget that he was freed by her father. The Sheikh replied instantly, “Yes, he freed me for 10 dinars but enslaved me for 100 dinars.”
According to some sources, “Saadi had met Amir Khusrou in India. He returned to Shiraz after the death of Saad Zangi”.
Saadi was, in fact, a dervish who was greatly loved and respected by the rulers, administrators, nobles and people of his time. The rulers and their administrators, vied with each other to please the Sheikh and sent to him large sums of money to be distributed among the poor. Once Khwaja Shamsuddin, the celebrated Grand Vizier of Hulaku Khan’s son sent 50 thousand gold coins for the Sheikh, which he was reluctant to accept. But the Grand Vizier, who was a disciple of the Sheikh persuaded him to accept the money for God’s sake. At last, the money was accepted and a magnificent caravan Sarai was built with it.
During the last days of his life, Saadi retired to a secluded hut built in the suburb of Shiraz. He spent his time in prayers and fasting. Here the rulers and the ruled often assembled to pay their respects to the great moralist,
Saadi combined in him the rare qualities and capabilities of a poet, a Sufi, a jurist, and a moralist. He had observed life from diverse angles. On his return to his native town, Shiraz, in 1256 A.C. he settled down to literary work. This marks the beginning of the third period of his life lasting till his death, being the most important period of his life mainly devoted to literary creations. In 1257, he wrote his famous ‘Bostan’ (Orchard) in verse, and a year later in 1258, he completed his well-known ‘Gulistan’ (Garden) in prose, a collection of anecdotes, drawn from rich stories of observation and experience, based on ethical reflections and maxims of worldly. wisdom. “Both the books are so well-known”, writes Browne, “and have been translated so often in so mar.y languages that it is unnecessary to discuss them at length”. His ‘Gulistan’ and ‘Bostan’ are the first classics to which the student of Persian is introduced. In Persian lyric, he occupies a place only second to Hafiz.
His Gulistan and Bostan are undoubtedly the most popular ethical works in the world. These have been widely translated into Western as well as Eastern languages including English, French, German, Russian, Latin, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, and Hindi. The oldest copy of the ‘Kulliyat-i-Sheikh’ (The works of Saadi) exists in the London Museum Library. This was copied by Abu Bakı ibn Ali ibn Muhammad, 36 years after the death of Saadi. It contains ‘Gulistan’, ‘Bostan’, Arabic and Persian panegyrics, elegies, lyrics, quatrains, etc. But the works which have established his fame and immortalized his name among the men of letters in the world are Gulistan, Boston, and his Persian lyrics. Saadi is very popular in Europe. His book ‘Bostan’, was published in Vienna in 1850 and in London in 1891. The German translation of the book was published in Jena in 1850 and in Leipzig in 1882, the French translation was published in 1880 and the English translation was published in London in 1879. His other hook in prose, ‘Gulistan’, was even more popular than Boston. The book was published in English in Calcutta in 1806, in Hertford in 1850 and again in 1863, in London in 1823, 1852, 1880 and 1890; in French, it was published in 1631, 1704, 1789 and 1858; in Latin, it was published in 1651 and again in 1655; in German, it was published in 1654, 1822 (in Hamburg), 1846 (in Stuttgart) and 1806 (in Leipzig); in Russian, it was published in Moscow in 1857; in Polish, it was published in Warsaw in 1879; in Turkish it was published in Constantinople (Istambul) in 1874 and again in 1876; in Arabic, it was published in 1263 A.H. and in Urdu, it was published in Calcutta in 1852./Sherul Ajam of Maulana Shibli Nomani).
Saadi, as noted before, had a many-sided personality. But his real fame rests on his ethical writings. Both in verse and prose he is matchless and unique as a moralist and ethical teacher. Even before Saadi, ethical poetry existed in Persian and produced such well-known poets as Sinai, Khayyam, and Attar, but Saadi carried it to a height where none could reach. His ethical writings do not suffer from the insipidity of a missionary. Ethical teachings when deprived of imaginative touches become philosophy rather than poetry. Saadi has drawn valuable morals from ordinary tales created out of his observation or imagination. His favourite ethical subjects are justice, kindness, love, generosity, hospitality, contentment and thankfulness. In his teachings regarding contentment he has emphasised on self-respect rather than on the negative ascetic attitude of inactivity, leaving everything to fate. He states, “By God, it is better to dwell in Hell rather than go to Paradise with the help of one’s neighbour”. Again, he remarks that if you would adopt contentment you would not find any difference between the king and the beggar. Why do you bow before a king, leave your lust and you are yourself a king. He is very outspoken in his criticism of bad rulers and their ministers. His approach has always been free from all prejudices and partisanship.
Saadi represents the half pious and half worldly side of Persian character. Worldly wisdom rather than mysticism are his chief characteristics. The secret of his popularity as the greatest ethical teacher in the world rests on his catholicity. “His work Gulistan”, writes Browne, is matter of every taste, the highest and the lowest, the most refined and the most coarse, and from his pages sentiments may be called worthy, on the one hand, of Eckhardt or Thomas. A Kampis or, on the other, of Caesar, Borgia and Heliogabalus. His writings are a microcosm of the East, alike in its best and its most ignoble aspects, and it is not without good reason that, whenever the Persian language is studied, they are, and have been for six centuries and a half, the first book placed in the learner’s hands. In his ethical writings, pious sentiments abound but these are predominantly practical. He has exposed the fickle nature of autocrats. “Wise men”, states Saadi, “have said that one ought to be much on one’s guard against the fickle nature of kings, who will at one time take offence at a salutation, and at another bestow honours in return for abuse.”
Saadi is a great champion of downtrodden, destitute, orphans, widows and all those who should be helped on humanitarian grounds. His repartees and ethical writings have melted many a tyrant’s heart. He has a soft corner specially for orphans because he had himself tasted the pangs of losing his father at an early age. In ‘Bostan’ he states:
“Protect thou the orphan whose father is dead;
Brush the mud from his dress, ward all hurt from his head.
Thou knowest not how hard his condition must be;
When the root has been cut; is there life in the tree?
Caress not and kiss not a child of thine own
In the sight of an orphan neglected and alone.
If the orphan sheds tears, who his grief will assuage?
If his temper should fail him, who cares for his rage?
O ! see that he weeps not, for surely God’s throne
Doth quake at the orphan’s most pitiful moan!
With infinite pity, with tenderest care,
Wipe the tears from his eyes, brush the dust from his hair”
As a lyrist, Saadi occupies a place only second to Hafiz. But Hafiz, too, has acknowledged the greatness of Saadi as a lyrist known for the simplicity of his diction and the sincerity of his ideas. Hafiz has stated, “Saadi had been the master of lyric”. Another great Persian lyrist and versatile genius Amir Khusrou has admitted that he has followed Saadi in his lyrics. Browne is reluctant to admit that Saadi was inferior to Hafiz. But, according to Maulana Shibli Nomani, an authority on the subject, Saadi ranks only second to Hafiz as a lyrist. The chief characteristics of his lyrics are his sincerity of ideas, simplicity of diction and originality of expression. He is the father of Persian lyric, whose sincerity and naturalness has added much poetic appeal to his lyrics. But the exuberance and sentimentalism of Hafiz distinguish him from the simplicity and sincerity of Saadi.
Saadi has also written some fine panegyrics and elegies. In panegyrics, he followed the Arab panegyrists and confined himself to facts and even fearlessly giving the praised person his valuable advice. In elegies, he introduced national elegies. On the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 A.C., at the hands of Hulaku Khan, he wrote a pathetic elegy mourning the loss sustained by the metropolis of Islam, which went against the interest of his patron Abu Baky Zangi who had allied himself with the Mongol tyrant.
Saadi, the sage of Persia, loved and respected by all, passed away in 691 A.H. at a ripe age of 120 years. He was buried in the suburbs of Dilkusha, now called Saadiya, which is a favorite resort of pilgrims drawn from distant parts of the Islamic world.