The Persian poet Shaikh Muslih-al-Din Sadi (ca. 1184-1291) is known in Iran today as its greatest ethical and worldly-wise poet. His works have a poignancy seldom equaled in world literature.
Born in Shiraz, Sadi was the son of a minor poet. His father's patron was Sad ben Zangi, from whom the younger poet took his takhallus, or poetical pseudonym, of Sadi.
Unfortunately, all our knowledge of Sadi must be derived from his own writings. Generally his life is broken into three main periods. First, he is thought to have studied in Shiraz, his birthplace, and in Baghdad until 1226, leaving these cities only to go on pilgrimages to different religious shrines. While in Baghdad, he studied under the well-known Sufi Shaikh Shihabud-Din Suhrawardi, of whose unselfish piety Sadi makes mention in his first major work, the Bustan. He proved to be a very fine student and soon gained fame as a wit and poet of short descriptive passages. His early poetry on the whole represented well the clever, half-pious, half-worldly side of the Persian character.
It was during the second period, from 1226 to 1256, that Sadi traveled widely and gained the experiences that were to be expressed so cogently later in his works. He left Shiraz largely because the old social and political infrastructure was breaking down. This was a period of warring and chaos in Persia. Sadi visited central Asia, India, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Morocco.
Sadi then returned home to his native town of Shiraz in 1256 to record his many experiences. This marks the third distinct period in his life. A year after his return he finished the Bustan (Fruit Garden). This is a collection of poems on ethical subjects always evidencing a practical train of thought. Then, in 1258, he finished the Gulistan (Rose Garden), which is a collection of moral stories in prose interspersed with verse. His last major work, the Diwan, was completed near the end of his life and is more biographical in nature.
Much has been said of the "ethical" nature of Sadi's writing, but this is so in a unique sense. The moral of the first story in the Gulistan is that "an expedient falsehood is preferable to a mischievous truth." The fourth story tries to show that the best education of a man is useless if he has inherited criminal tendencies. The eighth warns that a cornered cat will scratch out the eyes of a leopard. The ninth reiterates the sad truth that often a man's worst enemies are the inheritors of his wealth. And the fourteenth commends a soldier who deserted because his pay was in arrears.
As a moralist, Sadi gained much from the vicissitudes of life that he experienced on his travels. His knowledge of the world adds much to his cosmopolitan view. He seems to look upon the world with sympathetic humor and not harsh satire. And yet he is sometimes Machiavellian. Revenge is sometimes recommended in place of mercy, insincerity in place of veracity. Above all, man is encouraged to keep his independence from other people.
The different aspects of Sadi's morality make it difficult to believe in his sincerity. However, with a Persian poet it is often difficult to separate what belongs to the poet himself and what are concessions to his patrons. In any case, his popularity in the Eastern world should not be overlooked. Sadi has shown himself in all his humanity, and he has satisfied the predilections of the Persians for moralizing, a trait they have had since pre-Islamic times.
Finally, when speaking to the philosophy of his day— mysticism—there is no doubt that Sadi was a diligent student and believer. But when referring to the Sufis of his day, he is always more of a moralizer than a mystic. It was precisely the perishability of the world that made it of value for Sadi. He preached a this-worldliness with only a moderate fatalism, and he disapproved of extreme piety.
Edward Rehatsek's translation The Gulistan, or Rose Garden of Sa'di (1964), includes an excellent biographical preface by W. G. Archer and a fine introduction by G. M. Wickens. There is no definitive full-length biography of Sadi. The best sources are Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (4 vols., 1906-1909), which discusses the full range of Persian literature and relates Sadi to many of his contemporaries, and Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (1937; 10th ed. 1970). For good discussions of the Sufism of Sadi see A. J. Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (1950), and Idries Shah, The Sufis (1964).