1. The Persian language and its Divisions.—2. Zendic Literature; The Zendavesta.—3. Pehlvi and Parsee Literatures.—4. The Ancient Religion of Persia; Zoroaster.—5. Modern Literature.—6. The Sufis.—7. Persian Poetry.—8. Persian Poets; Ferdasi; Essedi of Tus; Togray, etc.—9. History and Philosophy.—10. Education in Persia.
1. THE PERSIAN LANGUAGE AND ITS DIVISIONS.—The Persian language and its varieties, as far as they are known, belong to the great Indo-European family, and this common origin explains the affinities that exist between them and those of the ancient and modern languages of Europe. During successive ages, four idioms have prevailed in Persia, and Persian literature may be divided into four corresponding periods.
First. The period of the Zend (living), the most ancient of the Persian languages; it was from a remote, unknown age spoken in Media, Bactria, and in the northern part of Persia. This language partakes of the character both of the Sanskrit and of the Chaldaic. It is written from right to left, and it possesses, in its grammatical construction and its radical words, many elements in common with the Sanskrit and the German languages.
Second. The period of the Pehlvi, or language of heroes, anciently spoken in the western part of the country. Its alphabet is closely allied with the Zendic, to which it bears a great resemblance. It attained a high degree of perfection under the Parthian kings, 246 B.C. to 229 A.D.
Third. The period of the Parsee or the dialect of the southwestern part of the country. It reached its perfection under the dynasty of the Sassanides, 229-636 A.D. It has great analogy with the Zend, Pehlvi, and Sanskrit, and is endowed with peculiar grace and sweetness.
Fourth. The period of the modern Persian. After the conquest of Persia, and the introduction of the Mohammedan faith in the seventh century A.D., the ancient Parsee language became greatly modified by the Arabic. It adopted its alphabet, adding to it, however, four letters and three points, and borrowed from it not only words but whole phrases, and thus from the union of the Parsee and the Arabic was formed the modern Persian. Of its various dialects, the Deri is the language of the court and of literature.
2. ZENDIC LITERATURE.—To the first period belong the ancient sacred books of Persia, collected under the name of Zendavesta (living word), which contain the doctrines of Zoroaster, the prophet and lawgiver of ancient Persia. The Zendavesta is divided into two parts, one written in Zend, the other in Pehlvi; it contains traditions relating to the primitive condition and colonization of Persia, moral precepts, theological dogmas, prayers, and astronomical observations. The collection originally consisted of twenty-one chapters or treatises, of which only three have been preserved. Besides the Zendavesta there are two other sacred books, one containing prayers and hymns, and the other prayers to the Genii who preside over the days of the month. To this first period some writers refer the fables of Lokman, who is supposed to have lived in the tenth century B.C., and to have been a slave of Ethiopic origin; his apologues have been considered the model on which Greek fable was constructed. The work of Lokman, however, existing now only in the Arabic language, is believed by other writers to be of Arabic origin. It has been translated into the European languages, and is still read in the Persian schools. Among the Zendic books preserved in Arabic translations may also be mentioned the “Giavidan Kird,” or the Eternal Reason, the work of Hushang, an ancient priest of Persia, a book full of beautiful and sublime maxims.
3. PEHLVI AHD PARSEE LITERATURES.—The second period of Persian literature includes all the books written in Pehlvic, and especially all the translations and paraphrases of the works of the first period. There are also in this language a manual of the religion of Zoroaster, dictionaries of Pehlvi explained by the Parsee, inscriptions, and legends.
When the seat of the Persian empire was transferred to the southern states under the Sassanides, the Pehlvi gave way to the Parsee, which became the prevailing language of Persia in the third period of its literature. The sacred books were translated into this tongue, in which many records, annals, and treatises on astronomy and medicine were also written. But all these monuments of Persian literature were destroyed by the conquest of Alexander the Great, and by the fury of the Mongols and Arabs. This language, however, has been immortalized by Ferdusi, whose poems contain little of that admixture of Arabic which characterizes the writings of the modern poets of Persia.
4. THE ANCIENT RELIGION OF PERSIA.—The ancient literature of Persia is mainly the exposition of its religion. Persia, Media, and Bactria acknowledged as their first religious prophet Honover, or Hom, symbolized in the star Sirius, and himself the symbol of the first eternal word, and of the tree of knowledge. In the numberless astronomical and mystic personifications under which Hom was represented, his individuality was lost, and little is known of his history or of his doctrines. It appears, however, that he was the founder of the magi (priests), the conservators and teachers of his doctrine, who formed a particular order, like that of the Levites of Israel and of the Chaldeans of Assyria. They did not constitute a hereditary caste like the Brahmins of India, but they were chosen from among the people. They claimed to foretell future events. They worshiped fire and the stars, and believed in two principles of good and evil, of which light and darkness were the symbols.
Zoroaster, one of these magi, who probably lived in the eighth century B.C., undertook to elevate and reform this religion, which had then fallen from its primitive purity. Availing himself of the doctrines of the Chaldeans and of the Hebrews, Zoroaster, endowed by nature with extraordinary powers, sustained by popular enthusiasm, and aided by the favor of powerful princes, extended his reform throughout the country, and founded a new religion on the ancient worship. According to this religion the two great principles of the world were represented by Ormuzd and Ahriman, both born from eternity, and both contending for the dominion of the world. Ormuzd, the principle of good, is represented by light, and Ahriman, the principle of evil, by darkness. Light, then, being the body or symbol of Ormuzd, is worshiped in the sun and stars, in fire, and wherever it is found. Men are either the servants of Ormuzd, through virtue and wisdom, or the slaves of Ahriman, through folly and vice. Zoroaster explained the history of the world as the long contest of these two principles, which was to close with the conquest of Ormuzd over Ahriman.
The moral code of Zoroaster is pure and elevated. It aims to assimilate the character of man to light, to dissipate the darkness of ignorance; it acknowledges Ormuzd as the ruler of the universe; it seeks to extend the triumph of virtue over the material and spiritual world.
The religion of Zoroaster prevailed for many centuries in Persia. The Greeks adopted some of its ideas into their philosophy, and through the schools of the Gnostics and Neo-Platonists, its influence extended over Europe. After the conquest of Persia by the Mohammedans, the Fire-worshipers were driven to the deserts of Kerman, or took refuge in India, where, under the name of Parsees or Guebers, they still keep alive the sacred fire, and preserve the code of Zoroaster.
5. MODERN LITERATURE.—Some traces of the modern literature of Persia appeared shortly after the conquest of the country by the Arabians in the seventh century A.D.; but the true era dates from the ninth or tenth century. It may be divided into the departments of Poetry, History, and Philosophy.
6. THE SUFIS.—After the introduction of Mohammedanism into Persia, there arose a sect of pantheistic mystics called Sufis, to which most of the Persian poets belong. They teach their doctrine under the images of love, wine, intoxication, etc., by which, with them, a divine sentiment is always understood. The doctrines of the Sufis are undoubtedly of Hindu origin. Their fundamental tenets are, that nothing exists absolutely but God; that the human soul is an emanation from his essence and will finally be restored to him; that the great object of life should be a constant approach to the eternal spirit, to form as perfect a union with the divine nature as possible. Hence all worldly attachments should be avoided, and in all that we do a spiritual object should be kept in view. The great end with these philosophers is to attain to a state of perfection in spirituality and to be absorbed in holy contemplation, to the exclusion of all worldly recollections or interests.
7. PERSIAN POETRY.—The Persian tongue is peculiarly adapted to the purposes of poetry, which in that language is rich in forcible expressions, in bold metaphors, in ardent sentiments, and in descriptions animated with the most lively coloring. In poetical composition there is much art exercised by the Persian poets, and the arrangement of their language is a work of great care. One favorite measure which frequently ends a poem is called the Suja, literally the cooing of doves.
The poetical compositions of the Persians are of several kinds; the gazel or ode usually treats of love, beauty, or friendship. The poet generally introduces his name in the last couplet. The idyl resembles the gazel, except that it is longer. Poetry enters as a universal element into all compositions; physics, mathematics, medicine, ethics, natural history, astronomy, grammar—all lend themselves to verse in Persia.
The works of favorite poets are generally written on fine, silky paper, the ground of which is often powdered with gold or silver dust, the margins illuminated, and the whole perfumed with some costly essence. The magnificent volume containing the poem of Tussuf and Zuleika in the public library at Oxford affords a proof of the honors accorded to poetical composition. One of the finest specimens of caligraphy and illumination is the exordium to the life of Shah Jehan, for which the writer, besides the stipulated remuneration, had his mouth stuffed with pearls.
There are three principal love stories in Persia which, from the earliest times, have been the themes of every poet. Scarcely one of the great masters of Persian literature but has adopted and added celebrity to these beautiful and interesting legends, which can never be too often repeated to an Oriental ear. They are, the “History of Khosru and Shireen,” the “Loves of Yussuf and Zuleika,” and the “Misfortunes of Mejnoun and Leila.” So powerful is the charm attached to these stories, that it appears to have been considered almost the imperative duty of all the poets to compose a new version of the old, familiar, and beloved traditions. Even down to a modern date, the Persians have not deserted their favorites, and these celebrated themes of verse reappear, from time to time, under new auspices. Each of these poems is expressive of a peculiar character. That of Khosru and Shireen may be considered exclusively the Persian romance; that of Mejnoun the Arabian; and that of Yussuf and Zuleika the sacred. The first presents a picture of happy love and female excellence in Shireen; Mejnoun is a representation of unfortunate love carried to madness; the third romance contains the ideal of perfection in Yussuf (Joseph) and the most passionate and imprudent love in Zuleika (the wife of Potiphar), and exhibits in strong relief the power of love and beauty, the mastery of mind, the weakness of overwhelming passion, and the victorious spirit of holiness.
8. PERSIAN POETS.—The first of Persian poets, the Homer of his country, is Abul Kasim Mansur, called Ferdusi or “Paradise,” from the exquisite beauty of his compositions. He flourished in the reign of the Shah Mahmud (940-1020 A.D.). Mahmud commissioned him to write in his faultless verse a history of the monarchs of Persia, promising that for every thousand couplets he should receive a thousand pieces of gold. For thirty years he studied and labored on his epic poem, “the Shah Namah,” or Book of Kings, and when it was completed he sent a copy of it, exquisitely written, to the sultan, who received it coldly, and treated the work of the aged poet with contempt. Disappointed at the ingratitude of the Shah, Ferdusi wrote some satirical lines, which soon reached the ear of Mahmud, who, piqued and offended at the freedom of the poet, ordered sixty thousand small pieces of money to be sent to him, instead of the gold which he had promised. Ferdusi was in the public bath when the money was given to him, and his rage and amazement exceeded all bounds when he found himself thus insulted. He distributed the paltry sum among the attendants of the bath and the slaves who brought it.
He soon after avenged himself by writing a satire full of stinging invective, which he caused to be transmitted to the favorite vizier who had instigated the sultan against him. It was carefully sealed up, with directions that it should be read to Mahmud on some occasion when his mind was perturbed with affairs of state, and his temper ruffled, as it was a poem likely to afford him entertainment. Ferdusi having thus prepared his vengeance, quitted the ungrateful court without leave-taking, and was at a safe distance when news reached him that his lines had fully answered their intended purpose. Mahmud had heard and trembled, and too late discovered that he had ruined his own reputation forever. After the satire had been read by Shah Mahmud, the poet sought shelter in the court of the caliph of Bagdad, in whose honor he added a thousand couplets to the poem of the Shah Namah, and who rewarded him with the sixty thousand gold pieces, which had been withheld by Mahmud. Meantime, Ferdusi's poem of Yussuf, and his magnificent verses on several subjects, had received the fame they deserved. Shah Mahmud's late remorse awoke. Thinking by a tardy act of liberality to repair his former meanness, he dispatched to the author of the Shah Namah the sixty thousand pieces he had promised, a robe of state, and many apologies and expressions of friendship and admiration, requesting his return, and professing great sorrow for the past. But when the message arrived, Ferdusi was dead, and his family devoted the whole sum to the benevolent purpose he had intended,—the erection of public buildings, and the general improvement of his native village, Tus. He died at the age of eighty. The Shah Namah contains the history of the kings of Persia down to the death of the last of the Sassanide race, who was deprived of his kingdom by the invasion of the Arabs during the caliphat of Omar, 636 A.D. The language of Ferdusi may be considered as the purest specimen of the ancient Parsee: Arabic words are seldom introduced. There are many episodes in the Shah Namah of great beauty, and the power and elegance of its verse are unrivaled.
Essedi of Tus is distinguished as having been the master of Ferdusi, and as having aided his illustrious pupil in the completion of his great work. Among many poems which he wrote, the “Dispute between Day and Night” is the most celebrated.
Togray was a native of Ispahan and contemporary with Ferdusi. He became so celebrated as a writer, that the title of Honor of Writers was given him. He was an alchemist, and wrote a treatise on the philosopher's stone.
Moasi, called King of Poets, lived about the middle of the eleventh century. He obtained his title at the court of Ispahan, and rose to high dignity and honor. So renowned were his odes, that more than a hundred poets endeavored to imitate his style.
Omar Kheyam, who was one of the most distinguished of the poets of Persia, lived toward the close of the eleventh century. He was remarkable for the freedom of his religious opinions and the boldness with which he denounced hypocrisy and intolerance. He particularly directed his satire against the mystic poets.
Nizami, the first of the romantic poets, flourished in the latter part of the twelfth century A.D. His principal works are called the “Five Treasures,” of which the “Loves of Khosru and Shireen” is the most celebrated, and in the treatment of which he has succeeded beyond all other poets.
Sadi (1194-1282) is esteemed among the Persians as a master in poetry and in morality. He is better known in Europe than any other Eastern author, except Hafiz, and has been more frequently translated. Jami calls him the nightingale of the groves of Shiraz, of which city he was a native. He spent a part of his long life in travel and in the acquisition of knowledge, and the remainder in retirement and devotion. His works are termed the salt-mine of poets, being revered as unrivaled models of the first genius in the world. His philosophy enabled him to support all the ills of life with patience and fortitude, and one of his remarks, arising from the destitute condition in which he once found himself, deserves preservation: “I never complained of my condition but once, when my feet were bare, and I had not money to buy shoes; but I met a man without feet, and I became contented with my lot.” The works of Sadi are very numerous, and are popular and familiar everywhere in the East. His two greatest works are the “Bostan” and “Gulistan” (Bostan, the rose garden, and Gulistan, the fruit garden). They abound in striking beauties, and show great knowledge of human nature.
Attar (1119-1233) was one of the great Sufi masters, and spent his life in devotion and contemplation. He died at the advanced age of 114. It would seem that poetry in the East was favorable to human life, so many of its professors attained to a great age, particularly those who professed the Sufi doctrine. The great work of Attar is a poem containing useful moral maxims.
Roumi (1203-1272), usually called the Mulah, was an enthusiastic follower of the doctrine of the Sufis. His son succeeded him at the head of the sect, and surpassed his father not only in the virtues and attainments of the Sufis, but by his splendid poetical genius. His poems are regarded as the most perfect models of the mystic style. Sir William Jones says, “There is a depth and solemnity in his works unequaled by any poet of this class; even Hafiz must be considered inferior to him.”
Among the poets of Persia the name of Hafiz (d. 1389), the prince of Persian lyric poets, is most familiar to the English reader. He was born at Shiraz. Leading a life of poverty, of which he was proud, for he considered poverty the companion of genius, he constantly refused the invitation, of monarchs to visit their courts. There is endless variety in the poems of Hafiz, and they are replete with surpassing beauty of thought, feeling, and expression. The grace, ease, and fancy of his numbers are inimitable, and there is a magic in his lays which few even of his professed enemies have been able to resist. To the young, the gay, and the enthusiastic his verses are ever welcome, and the sage discovers in them a hidden mystery which reconciles him to their subjects. His tomb, near Shiraz, is visited as a sacred spot by pilgrims of all ages. The place of his birth is held in veneration, and there is not a Persian whose heart does not echo his strains.
Jami (d. 1492) was born in Khorassan, in the village of Jam, from whence he is named,—his proper appellation being Abd Arahman. He was a Sufi, and preferred, like many of his fellow-poets, the meditations and ecstasies of mysticism to the pleasures of a court. His writings are very voluminous; he composed nearly forty volumes, all of great length, of which twenty-two are preserved at Oxford. The greater part of them treat of Mohammedan theology, and are written in the mystic style. He collected the most interesting under the name of the “Seven Stars of the Bear,” or the “Seven Brothers,” and among these is the famous poem of Yussuf and Zuleika. This favorite subject, which every Persian poet has touched with more or less success, has never been so beautifully rendered as by Jami. Nothing can exceed the admiration which this poem inspires in the East.
Hatifi (d. 1520) was the nephew of the great poet Jami. It was his ambition to enter the lists with his uncle, by composing poems on similar subjects. Opinions are divided as to whether he succeeded as well as his master, but none can exceed him in sweetness and pathos. His version of the sad tale of Mejnoun and Leila, the Romeo and Juliet of the East, is confessedly superior to that of Nizami.
The lyrical compositions of Sheik Feizi (d. 1575) are highly valued. In his mystic poems he approaches to the sublimity of Attar. His ideas are tinged with the belief of the Hindus, in which he was educated. When a boy he was introduced to the Brahmins by the Sultan Mohammed Akbar, as an orphan of their tribe, in order that he might learn their language and obtain possession of their religions secrets. He became attached to the daughter of the Brahmin who protected him, and she was offered to him—in marriage by the unsuspecting parent. After a struggle between inclination and honor, the latter prevailed, and he confessed the fraud. The Brahmin, struck with horror, attempted to put an end to his own existence, fearing that he had betrayed his oath and brought danger and disgrace on his sect. Feizi, with tears—and protestations, besought him to forbear, promising to submit to any command he might impose on him. The Brahmin consented to live, on condition that Feizi should take an oath never to translate the Vedas nor to repeat to any one the creed of the Hindus. Feizi entered into the desired obligations, parted with his adopted father, bade adieu to his love, and with a sinking heart returned home. Among his works the most important is the “Mahabarit,” which contains the chronicles of the Hindu princes, and abounds in romantic episodes.
The most celebrated recent Persian poet is Blab Phelair (1729-1825). He left many astronomical, moral, political, and literary works. He is called the Persian Voltaire.
Among the collections of novels and fables, the “Lights of Canope" may be mentioned, imitated from the Hitopadesa. Persian literature is also enriched by translations of the standard works in Sanskrit, among which are the epic poems of Valmiki and Vyasa.
9. HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY.—Among the most celebrated of the Persian historians is Mirkhond, who lived in the middle of the fifteenth century. His great work on universal history contains an account of the origin of the world, the life of the patriarchs, prophets, and philosophers of Persia, and affords valuable materials, especially for the history of the Middle Ages. His son, Khondemir, distinguished himself in the same branch of literature, and wrote two works which, for their historical correctness and elegance of style, are in great favor among the Persians. Ferischta, who flourished in the beginning of the seventeenth century, is the author of a valuable history of India. Mirgholah, a historian of the eighteenth century, gives a contemporary history of Hindustan and of his own country, under the title of “A Glance at Recent Affairs,” and in another work he treats of the causes which, at some future time, will probably lead to the fall of the British power in India. The “History of the Reigning Dynasty” is among the principal modern historical works of Persia.
The Persians possess numerous works on rhetoric, geography, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, few of which are entitled to much consideration. In philosophy may be mentioned the “Essence of Logic,” an exposition in the Arabic language of the doctrines of Aristotle on logic; and the “Moral System of Nasir,” published in the thirteenth century A.D., a valuable treatise on morals, economy, and politics.
10. EDUCATION IN PERSIA.—There are established, in every town and city, schools in which the poorer children can be instructed in the rudiments of the Persian and Arabic languages. The pupil, after he has learned the alphabet, reads the Koran in Arabic; next, fables in Persian; and lastly is taught to write a beautiful hand, which is considered a great accomplishment. The Persians are fond of poetry, and the lowest artisans can read or repeat the finest passages of their most admired poets. For the education of the higher classes there are in Persia many colleges and universities where the pupils are taught grammar, the Turkish and Arabic languages, rhetoric, philosophy, and poetry. The literary men are numerous; they pursue their studies till they are entitled to the honors of the colleges; afterwards they devote themselves to copying and illuminating manuscripts.
Of late many celebrated European works have been translated and published in Persia.