Art & Culture
Read Time: 10 min

sa’di of shiraz

Redux Extra February 3, 2021
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Aside from the fact that he lived and wrote during the 13th century CE, little is known for certain about the life of Sa’di Shirazi, one of the most important poets in the Persian literary canon. We know that he studied at the Nezamiyeh College of Baghdad, that he traveled widely–though just how widely is a matter of some debate—that he called the city of Shiraz in the south of Iran his home, and that he lived, as they say, to a ripe old age. The scholar Homa Katouzian places Sa’di’s birth in 1208, or maybe a couple of years earlier, and there is general agreement that he died sometime between 1291 and 1294. Beyond that, at least in terms of biographical fact, not much else is certain. What is certain is that the work he left us stands shoulder to shoulder with other masterpieces of world literature. In Iran, he is revered as both a love poet and a poet of moral guidance, but it is as the latter—through translations of his Golestan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Orchard)—that he is best known in the west.

In fact, Sa’di’s Golestan was the first work of literature from the Muslim world to be translated into a European language, in 1634 by the French diplomat André du Ryer, who called Sa’di “a prince of Persian poets.” What attracted du Ryer to Sa’di’s work, along with many, many subsequent translators, were the qualities that led another scholar, John D. Yohannan, to dub the poet “the quintessential Moslem [sic] humanist.” In the early 2000s,when I was commissioned by the now-defunct International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC) to produce literary translations of some of the masterworks of classical Persian poetry, Sa’di’s Golestan and Bustan were, for that same reason, the first two books ISIC asked me work on.

ISIC’s goal was to make available to the American public a window into the culture and history of the Iranian people that stood in direct opposition to the dehumanizing and demonizing images that were dominant here at the time. This was shortly after the September 11th attacks, when the “Clash of Civilizations” was the lens through which our politicians, our punditry, our media, and many scholars as well viewed the Muslim world. It was also at the height of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, which targeted Iran as one of three nations “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Not only Sa’di’s work, but especially Sa’di’s work, seemed an important corrective, and I was fortunate to be able to share and discuss my versions of Sa’di with audiences who would not otherwise have been exposed to it.

The books I published back then—Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan and Selections from Saadi’s Bustan—are unfortunately out of print, but I offer here three pieces, two from Golestan and one from Bustan that illustrate what du Ryer saw in Saʿdi’s work and what ISIC was hoping the American public would see as well. The pieces from Golestan are based on the 1888 translation by Edward Rehatsek; the one from the Bustan is based on the translation done by G. M. Wickens in the 1970s.

Sa’di’s Traveling Tale of Tolerance and Respect

The second poem from “On Generosity,” which is the second chapter of Bustan, had a very interesting life. Sa’di completed Bustan in 1257. The second poem is often called something like “The Story of Abraham and The Stranger,” but, since Sa’di did not title his poems, I have called it “Don’t Knot The Rope of Generosity.” A half-century or so after Bustan was finished, in the mid-1700s, the same story was published as Benjamin Franklin’s Parable Against Persecution. In between, the story was used by a Christian Hebraist named Gentius to argue for more lenient treatment of the Jews of Ham-burg and by the English clergyman Jeremy Taylor to argue for greater tolerance among the different Christian denominations of his time. If only because of the animosity against Islam unleashed and normalized during the Trump administration, that message of tolerance should speak to us today as well.

It’s interesting, though, to consider the difference between Sa’di’s original version and each of the three subsequent versions that I’ve mentioned. In each of those cases, Sa’di’s conclusion was omitted, focusing the narrative on God’s response to Abraham’s behavior. In Sa’di’s version, the conclusion focuses on the spiritual integrity of the Zoroastrian—gabr was an epithet for Zoroastrian at the time—who refused to compromise his religious beliefs for the food Abraham was offering him. (The self-deprecating irony of Sa’di’s last two lines are no doubt a reference to the fact that, in writing Bustan—which is dedicated to his royal patron, Abu Bakr bin Sa’d bin Zangi—Sa’di has done the opposite, selling his learning for whatever the king was paying him.)

Don’t Know The Rope of Generosity

I heard that once a week went by when no one wandering the world stopped at the tents of Allah’s Friend, whose practice was to eat his meals only at the proper time, unless a poor or homeless person came to his door. So he stood outside his tent and looked around. At the edge of the valley, he saw a man whose hair age had powdered white, sitting bent and lonely in the desert like a willow. Abraham called out his warmest welcome, “Apple of my eyes! Honor, if you will, my salt and bread. Eat with us!” Recognizing Abraham for who he was, the old man sprang to his feet, eager to accept the invitation. Abraham’s attendants gave the lowly guest a seat of honor, called for the table to be set, and took their own seats; but when they said together, “In God’s Name…” no words escaped the old man’s mouth. Abraham spoke, “I do not see in you the passion and sincerity of faith commonly found in men of your great age. Aren’t we obliged each time we eat to thank the One who filled our plates?” The old man answered, “I will not speak of God except as I have learned to do from my teachers. I am Zoroastrian.” Once God’s favored messenger found out the destitute old man was just a gabr, he chased him like a stray dog from the tent. (The pure of heart cannot abide such filth!) But then, from Heaven, the voice of God’s reproof came down, “Dear Friend! I have fed this man, and given him his life these hundred years, but you, in a single moment, were filled with hate. Why refuse him hospitality just because he bows before a fire?” Don’t knot the rope of generosity because you find, in this one, trickery and cunning; in that one, fraud and deceit. *** A learned man of faith who sells for bread the path to a pure heart bargains poorly: neither reason nor God’s holy law approves the exchange of faith for worldly things. Yet you, if you are wise, should gladly pay. When someone sells so cheaply, you have to buy.

A Poem For Our Times

A careful reading of the above poem makes clear that Sa’di, who was a devout Muslim, did not believe that Zoroastrianism and Islam were equally “true” as religious faiths. Rather, the poem suggests, he believed that people were due a basic level of decency and generosity simply because they were human beings; and his respect for the Zoroastrian more than likely grew out of his belief in some version of the Sufi proverb, which says there are “as many paths to God as there are souls on earth”—though Sa’di almost certainly believed that path must ultimately lead through Islam.

The second poem I’d like to share with you, which I have titled “If Knowledge Fell From The Earth,” from Chapter 8 of Golestan (“On Rules of Conduct”), expresses that same idea by satirizing people so deeply entrenched in the absolute rightness of their own beliefs that they cannot imagine granting even a modicum of legitimacy to any other way of being. Update the identities of the two people arguing, and the scene the poem portrays is one with which we are today, sadly, all too familiar.

If Knowledge Fell From The Earth

Everyone thinks their own thinking is perfect and that their child is the most beautiful: I watched a Muslim and a Jew debate and shook with laughter at their childishness. The Muslim swore, “If what I’ve done is wrong, may God cause me to die a Jew.” The Jew swore as well, “If what I’ve said is false, I swear by the holy Torah I will die a Muslim, like you.” If knowledge fell off the earth, no one would admit their own stupidity.

Sa’di’s Most Famous Lines

Sa’di’s most famous lines—they are actually woven into a carpet hanging in the United Nations—are both an assertion of universal human connection and a critique of those who would deny it:

All men and women are to each other

the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn

from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;

and when this life we share wounds one of us,

all share the hurt as if it were our own.

You, who will not feel another’s pain,

no longer deserve to be called human.

Taken on their own, these lines are entirely unobjectionable. Who could possibly disagree with them? In their full original context, however, they are a prime example of what we would today call speaking truth to power. This characteristic of Sa’di’s work—you find similar moments throughout Bustan and Golestan—is especially notable since the power to which Sa’di was speaking, his patron Abu Bakr, could easily have had the poet put to death if he found the truth too threatening. Each of the two poems above, for example, risked the charge of apostasy, which was punishable by death, and the lines I just quoted are from a story in the first chapter of Golestan, “Kings,” which contains advice on how to rule that could easily be construed as treasonous: be just to your people or you risk losing your kingdom. I have called this story “The Limbs of a Single Body.” (A dervish is a Sufi mendicant.)

Why All This Matters

The classical Persian poets who are right now best known in the United States are Rumi and Hafez, each of whose work also stands among the great masterpieces of world literature. You can find memes with quotes attributed to them all over the Internet and many people, including many celebrities, sincerely see them as transcendent New Age gurus, finding in their words comfort and succor in hard times, not to mention personal growth and enlightenment. The versions of those poets in which those people find so much value, however, by Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky respectively, are ahistorical and deracinated. You would not know from reading them that either poet had been a practicing Muslim (and, in Rumi’s case, a cleric) or that the wisdom Barks and Ladinsky present as transcending all boundaries of space, time, and culture is rooted in a concrete, specific, and historically situated practice and understanding of Islam.

In an article that she wrote for The New Yorker back in 2017, “The Erasure of Islam From The Poetry of Rumi,” Rozina Ali highlighted an often overlooked danger in the way Barks and Ladinsky remove “the spiritual [content of the poems they purport to translate] from [their] religious [and historical] context.” Given this characteristic of Barks’ and Ladinsky’s work, Ali suggests, one could read their versions of Rumi and Hafez and think that those poets were diametrically opposed to Islam, at least as Islam has been portrayed in the US, where government leaders have “diagnosed [the religion] as a ‘cancer’…and [where] policymakers [have] suggest[ed] that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.” To the degree that Barks and Ladinsky willfully denude these poets of who they were as Muslims, in other words, one could argue that their translations actually contribute to the demonization of Islam that is so prevalent in the US today.

The Limbs of A Single Body

An Arab king notorious for his cruelty came on a pilgrimage to the cathedral mosque of Damascus, where I had immersed myself in prayer at the head of John the Baptist’s tomb. The king prayed with deep fervor, clearly seeking God’s assistance in a matter of some urgency:

The dervish, poor, owning nothing, the man

whose money buys him anything he wants,

here, on this floor, enslaved, we are equals.

Nonetheless, the man who has the most comes

before You bearing the greater need.

When he was done praying, the monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you dervishes be-cause you are passionate in your worship and honest in the way you live your lives. I fear a powerful enemy, but if you add your prayers to mine, I am sure that God will protect me for your sake.”

“Have mercy on the weak among your people,” I replied, “and no one will be able to defeat you.”

To break each of a poor man’s ten fingers

just because you have the strength offends God.

Show compassion to those who fall before you,

and others will extend their hands when you are down.

The man who plants bad seed hallucinates

if he expects sweet fruit at harvest time.

Take the cotton from your ears! Your people

deserve justice. Deliver it! Or justice will find you.

All men and women are to each other

the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn

from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;

and when this life we share wounds one of us,

all share the hurt as if it were our own.

You, who will not feel another’s pain,

no longer deserve to be called human.

At least in Bustan and Golestan, Sa’di is a far more worldly, didactic, and civic-minded poet than either Rumi or Hafez, and, as I hope this very brief introduction to his work has suggested, there is much in what he wrote that is relevant to our lives today. When Benjamin Franklin wrote his Parable Against Persecution, he did not know he was adapting for his own purposes a poem that had been written by a Muslim in 13th century Iran; nor was he aware of the path that poem had traveled to get to him. Nonetheless, he used that poem to speak to the issues of his own time in a very powerful way. The Parable was perhaps Franklin’s most anthologized piece of writing, and it was quoted as well in sermons and other contexts where people wanted to promote the value of religious tolerance.

Unlike Franklin, we know that Sa’di was Muslim—in fact, we have no excuse for not knowing—and so it is important to acknowledge that if Sa’di speaks to us now, as I think he does, he speaks to us as a Muslim, and that the value and beauty we find in his message, just like the beauty and value that exists in the poetry of Rumi and Hafez, come to us from nowhere else but within the culture Islam. Still, it would be a mistake to allow the power of that message to overshadow the fact that Sa’di was what the American poet Hayden Carruth often called “a working poet,” someone concerned not simply with delivering a message, but with distilling into language the kind of emotional, psychological, and intellectual exploration of human experience that is the purpose of art. For that reason, my primary concern as a co-translator of Sa’di’s work—even though they are dead, I think of Edward Rehatsek and G. M. Wickens as my collaborators—was to make translations that would stand on their own as accessible and enjoyable contemporary American poetry. I hope, even if only in the three poems I have presented here, that I have succeeded.

Professor Richard Jeffrey Newman has been teaching ESL, Technical Writing, Women’s Studies, and Creative Writing in Nassau Community College’s English Department since 1989. He currently serves as Classroom Vice President of his faculty union. Newman has published two books of poet-ry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (Cav-anKerry Press 2006). He has also published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), as well as three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Professor Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. His website is

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