2023.11.13, an abridged and pre-edited version an earlier essay | By Olga M. Davidson
Since 2001, I have been working on an ongoing project of translating and commenting on the so-called Preface of the Bāysonghori Recension of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi, which had been commissioned in the year 1426 CE and published—that is, made public—in the year 1430 CE under the aegis of a Timurid prince named Bāysonghor. While working on this project for well over two decades by now, I am nearing the point where I am ready to prepare an online version of my translation and commentary, based on a series of essays I have already published over the last two decades, both in print and online, about my ongoing research delving into both the Preface and the actual text of this Bāysonghori Recension of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi. As I contemplate such an online publication of translations and comments, I have found that all my existing essays about the Bāysonghori Recension center on one single unifying fact about the poetry of Ferdowsi as reflected in the Preface and the actual text of this Recension. That fact is what I describe in my presentation here as the “ecumenism” of Ferdowsi, which is connected to a second fact. And that fact is this: Ferdowsi’s verses are contextualized in the Preface as tolerant of West as well as East Persian epic traditions, also of Shiʿite as well as Sunni world views. But this second fact needs to be appreciated in the light of a third fact. And the third fact, which is a matter of history, is simply this: it is evident, historically, that the primary patron of Ferdowsi was decidedly partial to East Persian epic traditions and, even more evidently, he was decidedly intolerant of Shiʿite and other non-Sunni religious adherents. That patron was Maḥmud ibn Sebüktegīn of Ghazni, sultan and ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire from 998 to 1030 CE. In my presentation here, I offer an explanation in terms of the historical context of the commissioning of the Bāysonghori Recension, and I take into account recent theories about literary reception in the premodern world.
Let me review briefly the three facts that I see in play before I begin my argumentation.
The first fact, as I argue, is that the poetry of Ferdowsi as published in the Bāysonghori Recension dating from the fifteenth century CE is “ecumenical,” as I call it.
The second fact, as I also argue, is that such “ecumenism” makes room for West Persian as well as East Persian epic traditions.
And the third fact, which does not have to be argued because it is so well-known to experts in Persian history, is that the historical context for the patronage of poetry by Ferdowsi, dating back to the life and times of the poet himself in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE, was incompatible with West Persian epic traditions and downright hostile to non-Sunni world views.
As I said at the beginning, I have dealt with all three of these facts, as I see them, in my printed and online publications over the last two decades. But now I must add that I cannot here go into detail about all aspects of my publications dealing with the ecumenism of Ferdowsi. Instead, I delimit my presentation by focusing on the ecumenism of Ferdowsi with regard to religion. As I hope to show, such ecumenism can best be understood in terms of the reception of this poet’s poetry—a reception extending from the poet’s own life and times in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE all the way to the era of th
And, in order to unpack some key elements in my argumentations, I have to start by making general comments about the term “reception” and about various kinds of relevant reception, which I will describe in general terms, within scare-quotes, as the “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions.
The term ecumenism, which I just highlighted, can be linked with another term, globalism. Both terms are ordinarily used in the context of studying world literature as it is understood today, and all three of these terms, including now world literature, are relevant to an assertion that we see being made in the text of the Bāysonghori Preface about the newly-edited version of the Shahnama, which as I already noted was composed over four hundred years earlier than the actual composition of the Shahnama in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries BCE. Basically, the Preface asserts that the poem is universal in its appeal. In terms of such an assertion, then, this monumental poem could be described as world literature.
But there is an impediment here, in that the world in which the literature represented by the Shahnama came to life was different from the world today. To put it in a slightly different way, the world literature of the Shahnama was different from the world literature of today.
If this statement holds, then the terms I have highlighted so far will need to be adjusted in the context of my analyzing the historical background that shaped the two texts under study here, that is, both the poetic Shahnama composed by Ferdowsi and its prosaic Preface commissioned by the prince Bāysonghor. For such an analysis, I find it useful to highlight the importance of another term I am using, reception—precisely in the context of analyzing the relevant historical background.
The terms ecumenism and globalism are suited to the study of world literature as viewed in the world of today, where the word world ideally includes all of humanity, that is, everyone who inhabits Planet Earth. Such idealism admittedly tends to be “westernized,” as in the work of William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community(1963/1991), for whom the “ecumene” of the world today arose from European interactions in the realms of science and technology combined with political and economic know-how. By contrast, the world of Ferdowsi as mediated in the edition and preface commissioned by the prince Bāysonghor in 1426 CE was an empire that included all of humanity inhabiting whatever realms were controlled—either for real or at least notionally—by the dynasty of the Timurids as represented in this case by Bāysonghor. In other words, this world of Ferdowsi was an imperial project.
Having noted the rootedness of the terms ecumenism and globalism in the historical context of what I have so far been describing as imperial projects, I am now ready to adjust these terms before I apply them further to the historical realities surrounding the Shahnama in the era of the Timurid prince Bāysonghor. Basically, my adjustment amounts to this: the ecumenism and globalism of the poem, asserted in the Preface to the poem, is limited in reality, if not in ideology. Although the preface to the poem asserts an idealized universal acceptance of the poem, such universalism is in reality limited to the historical confines of the empire ruled by the Timurid dynasty at the time.
The idea of universal acceptance, asserted in the Bāysonghori Preface to the Shahnama, is relevant to the term receptionas used by literary critics. This term is nowadays generally applied to re-readings, in the present, of literature once read in the distant past. In terms of such a general understanding, the re-readings in the present are neutral about valuing or devaluing the readings in the past. In the case of the Bāysonghori Preface, however, the attitude is not neutral but one-sidedly positive in evaluating the Shahnama as read in the present, by contrast with negative as well as positive evaluations in the past. In the “present time” of the Bāysonghori Preface, the text of the monumental poem that it introduces is supposedly perfect and thus worthy of universally positive evaluation. So, I adjust the use of the term reception with reference to the Shahnama as introduced by the Bāysonghori Preface.
An additional adjustment must be noted here: as we will see in the stories told in the Bāysonghori Preface, the reception of the Shahnama can be viewed not only as the act of reading the poetry composed by Ferdowsi but also as the act of listening to the performance of his compositions.
Aside from the traditional reception of the Shahnama as viewed from the standpoint of the Bāysonghori Preface, I would argue that various kinds of modern reception can be just as favorable. I would also argue that the poetry of Ferdowsi can have a universal appeal even outside its historical contexts. So long as this poetry is translated effectively, as for example in the English-language renditions by Dick Davis (2006), the Shahnama can becomes “user-friendly” for non-Iranians as well as Iranians.
Of the four Lives of Ferdowsi, I focus on the grandest one. It is found embedded in the Bāysonghori Preface, to be abbreviated as BP in my citations. This Preface is in its own right a grand introduction to a truly monumental book, the Bāysonghori Shahnama. The production of this book, containing the Shahnama of Ferdowsi in its most expansive form, around 58,000 verses in length, was commissioned by a Timurid prince whom I have already mentioned at the beginning of my presentation.
If the Shahnama were to be “owned” exclusively by Iranians, there would always linger an assumption, implicit or even explicit, that this masterpiece of poetry cannot really be appreciated properly by non-Iranians. In translation, however, this poetry can be recognized by non-Iranians together with Iranians as a jewel of World Literature that truly rivals such “Western” classics as Virgil’s Aeneid or the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey—to cite perhaps the most formidable points of comparison.
The argument that I just presented about the value of reading the Shahnama of Ferdowsi in translation can be extended, I argue, to a parallel reading of four surviving biographies of Ferdowsi. I will hereafter refer to these four narratives as Lives of Ferdowsi.
For over two decades by now, as I said at the beginning, I have been working on a long-term project of translating the Bāysonghori Preface into English, together with a running commentary. While working on this project for all these years, I have published a series of essays about the Life of Ferdowsi as contained in the Bāysonghori Preface, citing in these essays earlier versions of the translation-in-progress to which I have just referred. My presentation here is an abridged version of the seventh of my essays published to date (Davidson 2020, online, and 2021, printed)..In what follows, I will occasionally indicate at the start of a paragraph,, within square brackets, the numbering of a closely corresponding paragraph in the unabridged seventh essay.
[§17.] In studying the narratives preserved in the Lives of Ferdowsi, especially in the Bāysonghori Preface, I will focus here on one particular story that tells about the feelings of disappointment experienced by the poet Ferdowsi in reaction to the indifference or even hostility of the Sultan Maḥmud of Ghazna, king of kings, whom the poet hoped to have as his primary patron—and who, as patron, would have been expected to reward Ferdowsi for producing poetry that glorified him. The poet’s reaction to the negativity of the Sultan, according to this story, was to change course and compose verses that now turned around and blamed Maḥmud instead of praising him. These negative verses of blame are conventionally known as the “Satire.” In the version of the Life of Ferdowsi as transmitted in the Bāysonghori Preface, we read a retelling of the story of the Satire. Even more, the verses of the Satire are extensively quoted in the Bāysonghori Preface.
[§18.] Many experts who study the Shahnama have a big problem with the retelling, in the Bāysonghori Preface, of the story about the Satire—and even more so with the actual quoting, as it were, of verses from the Satire. The problem can be restated by way of asking three questions:
One, how could Ferdowsi in the Shahnama praise the Sultan for his greatness and then go ahead and undo that praise?
Two, if he did try to undo such praise, how in fact could it possibly get undone?
And, three, if the poet really intended to undo the praise that he had already lavished on the Sultan in various passages of the Shahnama by then turning around and blaming him in the Satire, why would the text of the Bāysonghori Preface, which introduces the Shahnama that contains all those praises of the Sultan by the poet, include in this same introduction the blame that is intended to undo the praise—together with a framing story that justifies the blame?
[§19.] All three of these questions are reactions to a basic fact, which is this: the acts of praise for Maḥmud by Ferdowsi were organically embedded inside the text of the Shahnama and could therefore not be readily extricated from that text. And there is a second basic fact: the embedding of the praise was chronologically layered. That is to say, Ferdowsi praises Maḥmud at several different points within the length of the Shahnama—and these points in time are regularly contextualized, as when the praise happens at a point where the poet is referring to a particular phase of his own life. It is like saying: I the poet praise you the Sultan because you are great, and I praise you at a point in time when I am X years old and when Y things have been happening to me. For an appreciation of these two facts, namely, the embedding of the praise and the chronological layering of that praise, I recommend a thorough reading of a book by Shapur Shahbazi (1991), who conscientiously tracks all the self-references of Ferdowsi throughout the vast corpus of verses contained in the transmission of the Shahnama through the ages.
[§20.] Although I disagree, as we are about to see, with the solution proposed by Shahbazi himself in confronting the problem that I have just outlined, I must put on record my deep respect for his systematic approach in collecting all the details to be gleaned from the text of the Shahnama itself about the life and times of Ferdowsi. For Shahbazi, the one and only reliable source we have for learning any details about the life of Ferdowsi is the actual text of the Shahnama, which I label here as Source A.
[§21.] Before we consider the solution proposed by Shahbazi, however, I ask this hypothetical question: what if Ferdowsi, in “real life,” simply changed his mind about the Sultan Mahmud? I thought you were a great man, but you are not, and so I will now blame you instead of praising you. Such a question, simplistic as it is, runs the risk of viewing the poet himself in a bad light. How could Ferdowsi praise Maḥmud so lavishly and for so long in the course of his lengthy poetic career? Was the poet all that naïve? Or was he perhaps insincere? I did not really mean it when I said, wherever I was praising you in my poetry, that you were oh so generous, but now, finally, after all these years, I can say for sure that you were in fact always mean-spirited.
[§22.] The very idea of entertaining such hypothetical questions about naïveté or insincerity is understandably unappealing to experts who insist on defending the character of Ferdowsi, since, to their own way of thinking, such questions undermine the moral integrity of the poet and even of the poetry.
[§23.] I have reached the point where I am ready to consider the solution proposed by Shahbazi (1991). Defending the poetic integrity of Ferdowsi, he argues that the story about the Satire is an invention, and that the Satire itself is a “forgery,” in the sense that Ferdowsi himself could never have composed it (pp. 8, 97–103). Shahbazi goes even further: he argues that Ferdowsi himself never even went to the court of Maḥmud, and that he merely sent copies of his poetry to the Sultan (pp. 18, 83–103).
[§24.] But then the question remains: why would such a story about the Satire get to be retold—and why would the verses of the Satire get to be requoted—in the prestigious Bāysonghori Preface, which at the same time introduces the text of the very same Shahnama that proclaims as its patron the same king of kings who is defamed by the Satire?
[§25.] I propose a different solution. Let me start, however, by making three concessions. First, I accept the idea that the Ferdowsi of the Satire is a Ferdowsi who is different from the Ferdowsi of the Shahnama as we know it. Second, I also accept the idea that this different Ferdowsi would seem to be a false poet, not a true one, to some Iranians. And, third, I would even accept the idea that the verses of the Satire would seem to be a “forgery.” But I should quickly add: the Satire would seem to be a forgery only to some Iranians in the era of Prince Bāysonghor, especially to those who embrace a Sunni world view, but not to other Iranians, especially to those whose world view is Shiʿite and not Sunni. In terms of my proposed solution to the problem confronting us today as we read in the Bāysonghori Preface both the Satire and the story that contextualizes the Satire, what we see in this part of the Preface is a life of Ferdowsi that contradicts other lives of the poet. I use here the word “life” not in the everyday sense of “a real life” but in the literary sense of a vita, that is, of a story of a life—a story that is a myth. And I use the word “myth” here not in the everyday sense of “a story that is not true”—which is what Shahbazi means when he says that the story about the Satire is “merely a myth” (p. 91). Rather, I use the word myth in the anthropological sense of a narrative that conveys, by way of storytelling, the truth-values of the society in which the given narrative had evolved in the first place. Such an anthropological understanding of myth is in fact far closer to the original meaning of the ancient Greek word mūthos, from which the modern word myth has been borrowed.
In a paper by Gregory Nagy (2015.12.18) about the Lives of Homer, he says that his aim is “to show that the narratives of these Lives are myths, not historical facts, about Homer.” In this context, he adds an important qualification:
To say that we are dealing with myths, however, is not at all to say that there is no history to be learned from the Lives. Even though the various Homers of the various Lives are evidently mythical constructs, the actual constructing of myths about Homer can be seen as historical fact. The claims made about Homer in the Lives can be analyzed as evidence for the various different ways in which Homeric poetry was appropriated by various different cultural and political centers throughout the ancient Greek-speaking world.
A theoretical term that Nagy and I both use in addressing the question of finding historical contexts for the transmission of poetry is reception. And, we argue further that there had existed two parallel media for the reception of both ancient Greek poetry and medieval Persian poetry: one medium was of course the text, which had to do with whatever was written to be read, but there was also the parallel medium of oral tradition, which had to do with whatever was composed to be performed for listeners.
[§28.] Since I am focusing on the Bāysonghori Preface, which as we saw was an introduction to a vastly expanded version of the Shahnama, produced in 1430 CE, I need to focus also on the kind of reception that was in store for the poetry of Ferdowsi in that era. For the moment, then, I must concentrate not on the life and times of the poet Ferdowsi himself, who flourished in the late tenth and early eleventh century CE, but on the status of the poetry attributed to him in the era of the text of the Shahnama as published by the prince Bāysonghor over four hundred years later, in 1430 CE. How this poetry was received in 1430 and thereafter is what I need to highlight here.
[§29.] I have already elaborated earlier here on the ecumenism, as it were, of Prince Bāysonghor in producing an augmented form of the Shahnama that spoke to the widest possible range of reception—as would befit the empire of the Timurid dynasty, which demonstrated its claim to imperial greatness by trying to outdo even the cultural as well as political ambitions of the Sultan Maḥmud, who had once been, so many years earlier, the ultimate patron of the Shahnama.
[§30.] What I see, then, is a rivalry between Bāysonghor and Maḥmud as patrons of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi. I say it this way because, even though the two of them are separated by hundreds of years, Bāysonghor is competing with Maḥmud in promoting the Shahnama. That is why, I think, the Bāysonghori Preface can give some credit to Maḥmud as a potential supporter of Ferdowsi, but the ultimate credit must go to Bāysonghor for his full support. Moreover, the Bāysonghori Preface makes Maḥmud look bad occasionally, especially in the Satire, but even this negativity about Maḥmud is primarily motivated, I think, by a correlative positiveness: Maḥmud must be demeaned as a foil for the sake of elevating someone else who is supposedly a far better patron of poetry, and that ultimate patron must be the princely figure of Bāysonghor himself.
In the seventh of my earlier essays (Davidson 2020/2021), I already focused on a striking passage taken from the Satire embedded in the Bāysonghori Preface, that is, in the introduction to the Bāysonghori Shahnama. I will end my presentation here by quoting my translation of that passage. But first I propose to provide here a detail about the reception of the Shahnama before the era of Bāysonghor.
In Episode 20 in the Chahār Maqāla of Neẓāmi ʿArużi, composed somewhere around1155–1157 CE [SS 2n4], we read that Ferdowsi, who is a dehqān or landowner in Ṭōs, spends 25 years composing the Shahnama, hoping that the reward for his labors will provide a dowry for his daughter, who is his only child. The governor of the city, whose name is Ḥoyayy son of Qotayba, treats fairly the landowner poet, not oppressing him with taxes. When the poet completes the Shahnama, then and only then (so it seems, in terms of the narrative) the composition is transcribed, by a scribe named ʿAli Daylam, in 7 volumes. Then and only then (so it seems, in terms of the narrative) the composition is performed by a “reciter” named Abu Dolaf. After that, together with Abu Dolaf the reciter, Ferdowsi sets out for Ghazna, capital of Sultan Maḥmud. There he finds as patron a kāteb ‘scribe’ of the Sultan. This scribe, named Aḥmad-e Ḥasan [Maymandi], “presents” the Shahnama to Maḥmud. The Sultan “accepts” it and is grateful to Aḥmad-e Ḥasan. But Aḥmad-e Ḥasan has enemies, and, when the Sultan asks these other men how much he should pay to Ferdowsi (I note here that payment is somehow assumed) these detractors suggest 50,000 dirham-s [= silver coins], and even this sum would be too much, they say, given that Ferdowsi is a rāfeżi ‘rejecter’ [of Sunni values]. So, Maḥmud, Sunni that he is, follows the advice of the detractors, and the poet “receives” only 20,000 dirham-s. Insulted, Ferdowsi spends the sum on a “bath-man” and a “drink-seller.” Then, “fearing the wrath” of the Sultan, he flees to Herāt, where he spends six months hiding in the house of Esmāʿil Warrāq, father of the poet Arzaqi. Then, when it is safe for him to travel, he takes “his” Shahnama to Tabarestān, to the court there of the king Spahbad Shahryār. This king treats Ferdowsi kindly, and the poet composes a “satire” in 100 verses against Maḥmud, “offering to dedicate” his Shahnama to Spahbad Shahryār, since the poet’s Shahnama “glorifies” the ancestors of this king. (I note a contrast here with the king Maḥmud as patron, whose ancestry is questioned in the Satire.) But Spahbad Shahryār “was one of the vassals of Maḥmud,” and, “appealing” to the Shiʿite orientation of Ferdowsi, he “advised” him to “follow the path of the House of the Prophet” and to seek no “worldly gains.” The king offered a gift of 60,000 dirham-s to the poet and persuaded him to destroy the Satire; Ferdowsi went ahead and destroyed the hundred verses, so that now “only six verses are extant.” Now, an added detail (almost as an afterthought): Ferdowsi was also persuaded to retain the “original” dedication to Maḥmud. That was the additional advice of the vassal-king. (Further below, I describe this maneuver as catch and kill.) After that, Ferdowsi eventually goes back to Ṭōs, where “he spent the rest of his life in poverty and in fear of the Sultan.” But, meanwhile, Aḥmad-e Ḥasan is working on Maḥmud to forgive Ferdowsi “and to reward him properly.” One day, as Maḥmud is dictating a letter threatening an adversary, he asks Aḥmad-e Ḥasan for the right wording, who then quotes for the king a memorable passage from Ferdowsi. Now Aḥmad-e Ḥasan guilt-trips Maḥmud, how this “poor poet” had labored for 25 years and “was left unrewarded.” Finally, Maḥmud repents and sends to Ferdowsi 60,000 dinār-s [gold coins] plus an apology. But, too late. The caravan that is bringing all the gold enters Tabarān via Gate Rudbār while the corpse of Ferdowsi exits via Gate Razān. A cleric in Tabarān forbids burial in the cemetery, and so Ferdowsi is buried in his own orchard, inside the Gate. His tomb is still there, and ‘I [= Neẓāmi ʿArużi] made a pilgrimage’ to it, ziārat kardam, in the year 510 [= 1116 CE]. “They say” that Ferdowsi left a daughter, who refused the gift. The amount was spent on a rebāt ‘hostelry’ on the road between Marv and Nishāpur. [In my paraphrase here, wordings formulated by SS pp. 2–3 are embedded in double-quotation-marks.]
[§32.] In this source, a lengthy narrative of Neẓāmi ʿArużi that I have just now finished epitomizing here, I find a stunningly interesting point of comparison with a kind of event that is still with us today. I indulge myself here by making the comparison. As we see in the version of the story as told by Neẓāmi ʿArużi, Ferdowsi reacts to being rejected by Maḥmud, king of kings, by seeking the patronage of another king. This alternative patron is well disposed toward Ferdowsi but fears retaliation from Maḥmud, since this particular king is a mere vassal of the king of kings. I should quickly note here, in passing, that Maḥmud and this “vassal-king” were not really contemporaries, in terms of history. In any case, in terms of the story, this alternative patron persuades Ferdowsi to destroy most of his verses that blamed Maḥmud. In return for destroying these verses, Ferdowsi now receives a reward from this alternative patron. Such a reward, I find, is comparable to a ploy known today in the world of tabloid journalism as catch and kill. The owner of a given tabloid, pretending that he wants to publish an incriminating story about a Very Important Person, proceeds to buy the story from the seller of the story, but the real purpose of the publisher is not to publish the incriminating story but, rather, to keep that story from ever getting published, thus protecting the Very Important Person. Here is a relevant article about catch and kill: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ronan-farrow-gets-new-book-deal-investigative-title-catch-kill-1111126.
[§33.] I have drawn attention to this point of comparison because it brings home to us the sheer liveliness of Lives of Poets stories. For me, at least, these stories are at times just as engaging as the poetry they elucidate. And, for those who are newcomers to, say, the poetry of Ferdowsi, I think that the experience of reading in translation the Lives of Ferdowsi—especially the Life that we find in the Bāysonghori Preface—would enhance the experience of reading the Shahnama itself, which I had described from the start as a jewel of World Literature.
[§34.] With these thoughts in mind, I close this essay by showing here a sample taken from the Satire as quoted in the Bāysonghori Preface (MAR 403–404). This sample gives an idea of the poetic power that drives the Satire, which is a poem that one observer (Vaccha 1950:72, to the dismay, however, of Shahbazi 1991:89n56) has described as “perhaps the most terrific denunciation of an individual in the history of literature”:
جهاندر اگر نیستی تنگدست
مرا برسرگاه بودی نشست
If the king, who possesses the world, had not been so tightfisted,
my place would have been on a seat of dignity.
چو فردوسی اندر زمانه نبود
بد آن بد که بختش جوانه نبود
Ferdowsi was peerless in his time,
Sadly he was not favored by fortune
چنان پادشاهی و بخشنده ای
زشاهان گیتی درخشنده ای
Such a king and such a potential benefactor,
a most splendid one among the kings of the world,
نکرد اندراین نامه از بن نگاه
زگفتار بدگویش آمد گناه
did not delve all that deeply into this book.
His iniquity was galvanized by the calumny of the backstabbers.
بسی رنج بردم دراین سال سی
عجم زنده کردم بدین پارسی
I labored hard in these past thirty years,
bringing to life what was incomprehensible, through the Persian language so pure.
Bahār, M.-T., ed. 1935. Tārikh-e Sistān. Tehran.
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