Firdausi (934-1020) was a Persian poet of the first rank in the long history of the Persian civilization. He wrote one of the greatest national epics in world literature.
Firdausi was born in the province of Tus, some 12 miles northeast of present-day Meshed. Firdausi was the pen name of the poet. His personal name and that of his father, according to al-Bundari, was Mansur ben Hasan. Firdausi's family was of old Iranian gentry stock and thus rich enough to be independent. He studied philosophy, astronomy, poetry, and astrology. He was happily married to an educated musician. They had a son, who died at the age of 37, and a daughter, who survived him.
Firdausi grew up in a world that had been controlled by the Islamic religion and the Arabs for about 300 years. This culture was foreign to the natural heritage of the Iranian peoples. It was thus with the writing of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Firdausi that Persian literary influence began to grow in a nonpolitical way in the Arab world.
Firdausi began to write his masterpiece, the Shahnameh, at about the age of 40. His main motive in undertaking this great task was to revive the glory of ancient Iran. A youthful contemporary of Firdausi, the gifted but ill-fated Dakiki, originally conceived the idea of narrating the story of Iran's history in heroic verse, but he was assassinated. Thus Firdausi took up the task. His main sources were his own imagination and the Khvatainamak (Book of Sovereigns), a prose epic in the ancient language Pahlavi, compiled from earlier chronicles about A.D. 640 under the last Sassanian kings in Iran.
"Book of Kings"
The Shahnameh is an epic of nearly 60,000 couplets. It chronicles the story of Iran for a period reckoned traditionally as more than 4 millennia. The work is divided into several parts covering four dynasties, the Pishdadian, the Kayanian, the Ashkanian, and the Sassanian. The descriptions of the first two are drawn from mythology; the third is only partly historical; and the fourth is the most factual.
The narrative begins with a description of primitive rulers followed by the golden age of King Jamshid, presumably 3000 B.C. Then follows the thousand years of foreign rule under cruel tyrants such as Zahak, who typifies the sway of Semitic invaders. Gradually Iran frees itself, only to be subjected to new wars with the country of Turan.
The romantic episodes of the loves of Zal and Rudabah serve as a prelude to the birth of their son Rustam, the supreme hero of the epic, whose martial exploits and tragic fate—slaying his unknown son Sohrab in a battle between Iran and Turan—dominate the earlier portion.
With the end of the Kayanian dynasty come the epoch of the Achaemenian kings and then Alexander the Great. Finally, after scantily covering the 500 years of Parthian rule, Firdausi praises the rise of Sassanian rule from A.D. 226 to 650. Thus the poem, despite its length, keeps ever in view the unifying purpose to exalt the fallen glory of Iran.
Rejection and Travels
Firdausi was 40 when he began the poem and 71 when he finished it. His growing fame at this time led him to the court of Mahmud of Ghazni, in what is now Afghanistan. Firdausi traveled there to present his works. On reading the biographers one is led to believe that his main dissatisfaction was the inadequacy of his reward. But the underpinnings of disagreement went further.
In the first place, Firdausi was a Shiite and Mahmud a Sunnite—representing the opposite poles of Islam. Furthermore, Firdausi had praised a vizier hostile to Mahmud. Finally, Firdausi was offended by Mahmud's lack of interest in poetry. In fact, Mahmud was to pay Firdausi a gold dirhem for each couplet but reneged and gave him 60,000 silver dirhems instead, which Firdausi rejected. In rage, Firdausi broke with the ruler and had to flee for his life.
After 10 years of wandering in poverty he found refuge in Tabaristan southeast of the Caspian Sea. To his new princely benefactor he dedicated the long poem "Jusuf and Zulaikha," the love story of Potiphar's wife for Joseph, a masterpiece of romantic verse that he took from the Old Testament by way of the Koran. Firdausi spent his last years in Tus in relative quietude.
In both the major extant works of Firdausi is seen a poet of extraordinary ability. He combined harmoniously what he drew from historical sources with his personal inspiration. As for his style, whether in the fantastic elements demanded by the epic or in the gracefulness of his descriptions of everyday life, he excels at describing and explaining facts or sentiments in a clear, concise manner. His style is firm but eloquent, never giving into baseless extremes.
His poetry very seldom contained Arabic words, except in his descriptions of Alexander the Great, which came largely from Arabic sources. Just as Dante did with Italian, Chaucer with English, or the Gutenberg Bible with the Latin Vulgate, he was in his day a popularizer of the vernacular. Arabic was the holy Islamic language of Allah in the Koran just as Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church. It was the Shahnameh of Firdausi that recongealed the Persian language into a coherent force that soon was to be the court language for most of the Islamic world.
Further Reading on Firdausi
In English, the best translation of the Shahnameh is by George and Edmond Warner (9 vols., 1905-1925). Studies of Firdausi include a rare work, published by Columbia University, Firdausi Celebration, 935-1935, edited by David Eugene Smith (1936); Issa Sadiq, Ferdousi (1945); and P. B. Vachha, Ferdousi and the Shahnama: A Study of the Great Persian Epic of the Homer of the East (1950). Excellent background works are Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of the Persians (1906), and Jan Rypka, ed., History of Iranian Literature (1956; trans. 1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Ferdousi: a critical biography, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies; Costa Mesa, Calif., U.S.A.: Distributed exclusively by Mazda Publishers, 1991.