The Persian poet Sa'di (ca. 1200-ca. 1291) was the author of the classic literary works Bustan (translated as The Orchard) and Gulistan (translated as The Rose Garden). Moralistic books that contain teachings and stories on love, religion, and other aspects of life, these volumes by Sa'di are central to the literature of Iran and are the source of a number of popular proverbs in that culture.
The thirteenth-century poet Sa'di (pronounced SAH-dee) is regarded as one of the greatest figures in Persian literature. He is best-known for his major works Bustan, or The Orchard and Gulistan, or The Rose Garden.. Both of these works are filled with semi-autobiographical stories, philosophical meditations, pieces of practical wisdom, and humorous anecdotes and observations. The books are valued not only for their elegant language and entertaining style, but also for their role as a rich source of information about the culture in which Sa'di lived and worked. He is considered as having an influence on the culture and language of Iran that equals in significance the role of playwright and poet William Shakespeare in the history of English language and literature.
What is known about the life of Sa'di is primarily drawn from folk legend and his own semi-autobiographical stories, which were likely embellished to suit his literary needs. Therefore, the information that exists is somewhat suspect. It is generally believed, however, that the writer was born around the year 1200 in the town of Shiraz, Persia (now Iran). Shiraz was located in the region of Fars Province, which was known in antiquity as Persis, a name the Greeks used for the entire country, bringing about the name Persia. The popular name Sa'di was actually an assumed pen-name for the author, whose given name may have been Masharrif al-Din ibn Moslih al-Din, or some similar form of this name. The pseudonym was drawn from the names of the leaders who ruled Fars Province during his lifetime: Sa'd ibn Zangi, his son Abu Bakr ibn Sa'd, and grandson Sa'd ibn Abu Bakr. Sa'd ibn Zangi played an important role in Sa'di's life, taking the boy into his care and providing him with an education after the death of Sa'di's father, a court official for the ruler. After completing his studies in Shiraz, Sa'di was sent to Baghdad to attend Nizamiya College, possibly the finest institution of learning in the world at that time. But the young man was not much interested in academics; in his later writings he recalled his duties as a teaching assistant to be a tiring chore. He much preferred to spend his time in a more celebratory fashion and devoted a great deal of energy to socializing and enjoying himself.
Wandered Middle East for Thirty Years
After leaving the college, Sa'di entered a lengthy period in which he traveled extensively, simply traveling to various towns and countries in search of adventure. This phase of his life probably lasted about 30 years, and his wanderings led him all over the Middle East and to parts of Asia and Northern Africa, including such countries as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps India. It is thought that he began this style of life in order to escape the Mongol forces that were invading and conquering large parts of his homeland; it may also be that he was a follower of the Sufi dervishes, a nomadic mystical Moslem order that engaged in chanting and dancing to achieve religious ecstasy. Whether he was truly committed to Sufi doctrine or not, he benefitted from traveling with them, as it insured him a greater amount of safety and hospitality during these years.
Sa'di's books are filled with tales that are supposedly based on incidents from his itinerant years. In The Rose Garden he relates how he was captured in Palestine by Christian Crusaders and forced into manual labor digging moats. He was only released after a friend passed by and, upon recognizing Sa'di, bought his freedom from the captors for ten dinars. The friend later engaged his daughter to the writer with a dowry of 100 dinars. Sa'di's new wife was apparently a nagging woman and he probably left her. But she did provide him with good material for his book. He wrote that during one argument she attempted to put him in his place by reminding him that her father had saved him. Sa'di's quick response was that while it only cost his father-in-law 10 dinars to rescue him, it took 100 dinars to marry off his daughter. Sa'di is reported to have had another wife in Arabia, with whom he had a child who died. There is no indication that he remained with her either.
Wrote Classic Persian Texts
After a number of other troublesome adventures, including being run out of India for his insults to religious figures there, Sa'di finally ended his rambling life around 1250 and settled in his home town. There he lived a secluded life and engaged in writing the works that would make him famous. His first major work, The Orchard, was completed in 1257. This book is designed as a kind of guide on morality and other aspects of life and draws upon literary, religious, and folk themes to create pithy maxims and philosophical reflections. It is written mostly in verse form, utilizing the mathnavi style of rhymed couplets. His next and last important book was The Rose Garden, a 1258 work that also touches on ethical issues, but in a more informal, light-hearted manner than The Orchard. The Rose Garden contains verse, mostly written in quatrains, as well as prose writings such as humorous stories and instructive homilies. Both of the books are organized into chapters on topics applying to specific areas of life, ranging from "On Love, Intoxication, and Delirium" to "On the Advantages of Silence."
Around 1258 Mongol invaders conquered the city of Baghdad, killing its entire population of more than one million people. While Sa'di was safe from such a threat, thanks to an arrangement made with the Mongols by the leader of Fars Province, he mourned the loss of the great center of Islamic culture and composed a lament on the occasion. This period also seemed to mark the end of Sa'di's literary prowess; while his two major works earned him great acclaim in his later years, he did not compose anything more of note. But his place as a literary icon was well secured. Copies of The Orchard and The Rose Garden began to be circulated throughout Persia and he was celebrated by his contemporaries as "the Shaykh" or "wise old man." He was even invited to stay at the court of Abu Bakr ibn Sa'd, but Sa'di opted to continue his quiet private life. More than thirty years after the appearance of his best-known works, Sa'di died in Shiraz, probably around 1291.
Works Translated in the West
While the writings of Sa'di have been a central part of the literature of Iran for seven hundred years, English translations of his works did not appear until Victorian times. Western readers have since come to enjoy the wisdom and witticisms of Sa'di, but have also had some hesitation over his blatantly sexual content. Another aspect that may disturb modern readers is Sa'di obvious racism regarding Jews and blacks (a typical attitude for people of his culture during his time). But despite these cultural barriers to a complete appreciation of his work in the West, Sa'di remains a cultural treasure in Iran, where his sayings permeate the language to such a degree that it is said only the Koran is quoted more often. For the rest of the world, the writings of Sa'di serve as a lively means of studying the cultural beliefs and practices of thirteenth-century Persia, which in turn can illuminate the modern culture of that land.
Further Reading on Sa'di
Arberry, A. J., Classical Persian Literature, Macmillan, 1958.
Levy, Reuben, An Introduction to Persian Literature, Columbia University Press, 1969.