Firdawsi (Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Firdusi, Abu Ol-Qasem Mansur)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Firdawsi (Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Firdusi, Abu Ol-Qasem Mansur)

Firdawsi (Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Firdusi, Abu Ol-Qasem Mansur) (ca. 935-ca. 1020) Persian poet and historian

The legendary historiographer Firdawsi won lasting acclaim for writing Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1010), Persia's dynastic epic. Born Abu Ol-Qasem Mansur, in Tus (present-day Mashhad, Iran) he grew up privileged and was schooled in Shia Islam. At a transitional moment after throwing off three centuries of Arab rule, Persians of the Ghaznavid empire (975-1187) sought a revival of the culture and language that dominated the courts of the Achaemenid monarchs—Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes, the heroes of the Greek historian HERODOTUS'S Histories (444 B.c.). Firdawsi began his masterpiece with the world's creation, taking his epic to the seventh-century Islamic conquest of Persia. The work took 35 years to complete. He declared, “I shall not die, these seeds I've sown will save / My name and reputation from the grave” (Firdawsi 2006, xi). Like the Roman poet VIRGIL, author of the AENEID (17 B.c.), Firdawsi assumed that the Shahnameh would assure his global fame and restore the sovereignty of the pre-Islamic Samanid dynasty of Khorasan in northeastern Iran. He presented the kingly saga at the court of his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who paid him only one percent of the original commission. Embittered and homeless, Firdawsi refused the pittance. He wandered the southern and northern extremes of the country before returning home to die in Tus and be buried in his yard.

Written in Pahlavi Persian, Firdawsi's sober, morally complex narrative of 120,000 lines upholds Islamic monotheism and honors Koranic CREATION LORE and mythos as the forefunners of FABLE and legends of tribal warfare and kingmak- ing. Like the suite of themes in Elias Lonnrot's KALEVALA (1836), the Finnish national story, the Persian epic covers Aryan civilization; IndoIranian history; the origin of Zoroastrian fire worship; the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror of Persia; and the feats of Rustam, the Persian Hercules. The narrative concludes with the fall of Zoroastrianism after Arab seizure of the Sassanid empire in A.D. 652, when the Umayyad caliph ’Uthman ibn ’Affan of Arabia supplanted the Iranian emperor, Shah Yazdegerd III. Over the reign-by-reign account, the poet scrutinizes a universal concern: What behavior behooves the good? Like the last words of the Hebrew king David in 2 Samuel 23:3, the poet exalts justice as the basis of rule, but he balances jurisprudence with celebration, dining, wine sharing, and Zoroastrian feast days that marked the Persian court as a place of enjoyment.

Firdawsi entwined familiar HERO tales with his perception of inborn ambition and hubris, a feature his writings share with those of GREEK DRAMATISTS, Confucius (see ANALECTS), and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. At the fall of the Persian Empire, the vizier Rostam interprets the stars and declares, “I am the time's most sad and sinful man; / This house will lose all trace of sovereignty / Of royal glory, and of victory” (833). The prediction foresees four centuries of fragmentation heralded in “the turning heavens—it's from there / That we are granted comfort and despair… . The stars are with the Arabs” (834, 835). The PROPHECY maligns Arab conquerors as liars, criminals, and brutalizers who lop off their enemy Mahuy's hands, feet, ears, and nose and seat him on a horse “left wandering the hot sands till he died of shame” (853). In a single sentence, Firdawsi foresees the fall of Persia and the rise of Arabs as a triumph of religion: “The pulpit replaced the throne” (853). His vivid epic influenced Gulistan (The Rose Garden, 1258), the sage parables of the Persian poet Saadi (Sheikh Saadi, ca. 1210-ca. 1290).


Curtis, John, and Nigel Tallis, eds. Forgotten Empire:

The World of Ancient Persia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Firdawsi, Abolqasem. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Viking, 2006.