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Nizami

Category: Mystic

 

“Niẓāmī”Ganjavī,  (Persian: نظامی گنجوی, Nezāmi-ye Ganjavi‎‎; Kurdish: Nîzamî Gencewî‎; Azerbaijani: Nizami Gəncəvi)  whose formal name was Jamāl al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās ibn-Yūsuf ibn-Zakkī (d. 599/1203 or 605/1209) was a 12th-century Persian poet, considered to be not only amongst the greatest Persian poets and thinkers, but the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature. 

UNESCO made 1991 ‘the year of Niẓāmī’ in honour of the 850th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric [collected essays]
The poet Nizami Ganjavi (1140–1202) is one of the giants of the Persian literary tradition. …..Nizami’s narrative poetry includes the romantic dimensions of human relations as well the heroic, and plumbs the human psyche with an unprecedented depth and understanding. To be sure, a profound spiritual consciousness pervades his poetry, …. Nizami brought about a comparable expansion of the language of poetry, as well. He was among the first poets in Iran to wed the lyric style of court poetry, with its rhetorical intricacy and metaphoric density, to narrative form …. For him, the precise, beautiful, and signifying language of the poet, is his dominant concern. For Nizami, poets have a status nearly divine.

 

But Niẓāmī’ was also a mystic, a fact probably not appreciated today as the symbolism of his poetry is not well understood, and so we have placed him in the category of mystic rather than that of a poet.

He was also a Sufi, and much of his ‘romantic’ poetry, although perfectly capable of being understood at the superficial level of love poems, have a secondary meaning which derives from “the passions of the soul in its progress to eternity”.

Jami – Nafahatol Ons
although most of Nezami’s works on the surface appear to be romance, in reality they are a mask for essential truths and for the explanation of divine knowledge

 

His poems have had an impact both near to his birthplace -  Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, the Kurdistan region and Tajikistan – but also in places far removed from his place of birth. 

Giacomo Puccini, for example, used a story from Haft Paykar for his opera Turandot.

The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric [collected essays]
No exhaustive reckoning has ever been made of the poets in Persian, Turkish, Pashto, Kurdish, and Ordu (and other languages of the Persianate tradition) who emulated Nizami's example by imitation, but by all indications the figure must be staggering. The extraordinary dissemination of Nizami's panj ganj throughout Persian and Persianate literature is a remarkable and largely unexplored phenomenon.

Works

Niẓāmī’s fame rests on his five masnavīs or Five Treasures, known collectively as the Ḫamsa, or Quintet:

  • Maḫzan al-asrār,[1184]
  • Ḫusraw u Shīrīn, [1185]
  • Laylī u Majnūn, [1192]
  • Haft Paykar, [1197]
  • Iskandar-nāmah [1200-1202]

He also wrote a divan, some fragments of which still exist.

 

Haft paykar [Seven Beauties]

Haft Paykar is considered the most intricate of the masnavīs of the Ḫamsa, Niẓāmī’s Haft paykar (Seven Beauties) is a poem on the pleasures of love as experienced by the Sasanian Prince Bahram Gor in his love for seven princesses of the seven climes. Haft paykar ‘lends itself to a mystical interpretation’.

Iskandar-nāmah [The Book of Alexander]

The longest poem of Niẓāmī’s Ḫamsa, the Iskandar-nāmah (Book of Alexander) is an account on the adventures and exploits of Alexander the Great. It is divided into two parts, Šarafnāmah and Ḫiradnāmah.

Ḫusraw va Šīrīn  [Ḫusraw and Šīrīn]

Ḫusraw u Shīrīn, the first of Niẓāmī’s romantic epics, portrays the romance between the last great Sasanid monarch, Ḫusraw II (590-628), and his mistress Shīrīn. “Though their love had been recorded by many writers and appears in Firdawsī’s Šāh-nāmah, there is no doubt that Niẓāmī’s intense portrayal of their affair is the romantic tale’s apogee”. Niẓāmī’s rendition of the dramatic romance has been considered one of the great masterpieces of world literature and appropriately called “the best historical fable of love and a treasure of eloquence, counsel and wisdom”.

 

Laylī va Majnūn    [Laylī and Majnūn]

Possibly the most popular romance of the Islamic world, Laylī u Majnūn is the story of the ill-fated love between Majnūn, traditionally associated with the poet Qays of 1st/7th century Najd, and Laylī (Laylā). Having sighted his beloved one time and never after, the broken-hearted poet becomes insane with intoxicated love, hence earning the epithet Majnūn (crazy). The often repeated tragic romance of Laylī and Majnūn appeared in numerous versions prior to Niẓāmī’s, both in prose and poetry. But it was Niẓāmī’s epic poem of Laylī u Majnūn that gave the story its highest expression as he displayed the utmost original talent in “his psychological portrayal of the richness and complexity of the human soul when confronted with intense and abiding love”. Laylī u Majnūn also lends itself to a mystical interpretation’.

 

Maḫzan al-asrār   [Treasure of Mysteries]

Maḫzan al-asrār is a philosophical/metaphysical poem comprised of over 2200 couplets. According to scholars “Niẓāmī’s utter mastery of the Persian language and his unconventional usage combine to make nearly each couplet enigmatic and often difficult to understand”. And the reason is that of all his poems this contains the most symbolism and the most mystical thought.  Practically every mystical concept and every symbol is present in this poem and it is a masterpiece of succinct and poetic usage of concept and symbol.  Again according to scholars “The poem’s mystical dimension is real but much more elusive than in later Sufi poetry”.

Underlying symbolism

One of the major problems with recent translations of Nizami, is that the translators – usually westerners - have no grounding in the symbolism employed in all spiritual works.  This means that the more recent translations cannot be used as examples of his works.  In order to demonstrate we have taken this poem:

 

I went to the Tavern last night, but I was not admitted
I was bellowing yet nobody was listening to me
Either none of the wine-sellers were awake
Or I was a nobody, and no one opened the door for a Nobody
When more or less half of the night had passed
A shrewd, perfect man (rind) raised his head from a booth and showed his face
I asked him: “to open the door”, he told me: “go away, do not talk nonsense!
At this hour, nobody opens doors for anybody
This is not a mosque where its doors are open any moment
Where you can come late and move quickly to the first row
This is the Tavern of Magians and rinds dwell here
There are Beauties, candles, wine, sugar, reed flute and songs
Whatever wonders that exist, are present here
Muslims, Armenians, Zoroastrian, Nestorians, and Jews
If you are seeking the company of all that is found here
You must become as dust upon the feet of everyone in order to reach your goal
O Nezami! if you knock the ring on this door day and night
You won't find anything except smoke from this burning fire

The tavern is the spiritual world, as it is a source of wine – spiritual input.  ‘Bellowing’[we suspect this translation is incorrect] is the effect of the practises of Sufis, who in their trance states may cry out loud in ecstasyCandles are symbolic, Magians are specific roles, flutes and reeds are symbolic, songs are symbolic.  We suspect that the translation of ‘wine-sellers’ and ‘rinds’ is incorrect.  Smoke is symbolic.  Ring is symbolic.  The poem is actually about the fact that once one has entered the spiritual realm in ecstasy, the labels placed on people no longer exist, all you find is mystics and the only way this can be achieved is to ‘Squash the big I am’.    

Life

 

Niẓāmī (his pen-name) was a native of Ganja (modern Gyandzha, formerly Kirovabad, Azarbaijan) and spent most of his quiet life there far removed from court life. Biographers and researchers differ as to the exact date of his birth, but usually place it within the six-year period of 535-540/1141-46. The dates given for the death of Niẓāmī differ by 37 years. His traditional death dates are 599/1203 or 605/1209.

Niẓāmī ‘s mother Ra’iseh was the daughter of a Kurdish chieftain.  According to Haji Lotf Ali Beig his father was from Tafresh, a dependency of Qom.  His father, whose name was Yusof is mentioned once by Nezami in his poetry. In the same verse, Nezami mentions his grandfather's name as Zaki. Nizami’s father emigrated to Ganja/Ganjeh and Nizami lived his whole life there.  There appears to be some dispute as to whether Niẓāmī was born near Qom or in Ganja.  He was orphaned early and was raised by his maternal uncle Khajeh Hasan who took responsibility for him.

Niẓāmī married and had three wives, two of whom were the daughters of kings.  He had a son by his first wife whom they called Mohammad. Nezami’s life was however, full of tragedy. 

Wikipedia
Nezami’s first wife, Afaq, was a Kipchak slave girl, sent to him by Fakhr al-Din Bahramshah, the ruler of Darband, as a part of a larger gift. She became Nezami's first and according to Iraj Bashiri: "most beloved wife". Afaq died after "Khosrow and Shirin" was completed. Mohammad was seven at the time. Nezami's other wives, too, died prematurely – the death of each coinciding with the completion of an epic, prompting the poet to say, "God, why is it that for every mathnavi I must sacrifice a wife!".

 

In his sorrows he is ‘natural, gentle, calm dignified and eloquent’.

Although he was a confirmed Sunni, he combined tolerance with great respect for other beliefs.  In not one of his works does he attack the Shi’as or any other sect or religion.  In the Treasury of Mysteries, for example, he recounts a very positive and helpful story concerning Jesus.  He returned malice, envy or criticism with polite explanations and loving advice or tender feelings.  In effect he had achieved an extremely advanced stage of mysticism – and may well have completed the spiritual path.  Hashemi of Kerman called Nezami “the revealer of mystic forms, the unique pearl of the ocean of divine benevolence

Despite achieving great fame, Niẓāmī shunned all attempts to induce him to court or influence the poems he wrote.  He cherished peace, his privacy, his family and his spiritual quest:

In honour of Nizámi, it is related that Ata Beg was desirous of forming and cultivating an acquaintance with him, and with that view ordered one of his courtiers to request his attendance. But it was replied, that Nizámi, being an austere recluse, studiously avoided all intercourse with princes. Ata Beg, on hearing this, and suspecting that the extreme piety and abstinence of Nizámi were affected, waited upon him in great pomp for the purpose of tempting and seducing him from his obscure retreat; but the result was highly favourable to the poet; and the prince ever afterwards looked upon him as a truly holy man, frequently visiting him, and treating him with the most profound respect and veneration.

Niẓāmī’ lived at a time when there were great upheavals in the political affair of Persia.  The defeat, capture and death of Sanjar, the consequent disintegration of the great Saljuq Empire, the rise and fall of the Kharazm Shas and the Atabeks, the fall of the haznavids, the activities of the Assassins and the first signs of the invasion of the Mongols.  Some of the upheavals of the time favoured the spread of Persian literature.  When the Seljuqs took control of Ganja from the Shaddadids in 1075, they spread Persian literature westwards to their courts. In the middle of the 12th century, the Seljuks control of the region weakened, but their provincial governors, virtually autonomous local princes, further encouraged Persian culture, art and poetry in their courts. Persian culture characteristically flourished when political power was diffused and Persian remained the primary language.

The Life and times of Niẓāmī’ of Ganjeh - Gholam Hosein Darab MA

As a writer of mystic, just as of romantic poetry, he is still unrivalled by any poet of any period, a comparison will convince us of the greatly superior force, purity, melody and beauty of language and spiritual conviction.  Every line of the Treasury of Mysteries is a living witness to his absolute certainty that devotion, humility and ‘self forgetfulness’ are the corner stones of total annihilation, which in turn is necessary for unification with god and the foundation of the edifice of eternal life.

and finally...

Hafiz

Not all the treasured store of ancient days
Can boast the sweetness of Nizami's lays.

 

References

Translated into English, much of the lyricism and joy of Niẓāmī ‘s language is lost, but the words are still immensely powerful, and all his poems are shot through with symbolism.  Thus the only translation that has any place on this site is one that takes every word of his poems and translates it word for word absolutely precisely, as unless this is done the symbolism and the subtlety are lost. 

  • Makhzanol Asrar  - Thankfully, for the Makhzanol Asrar [The Treasury of Mysteries] just such a translation exists - that by Gholam Hosein Darab who was, at the time of his translation the Senior lecturer in Persian at the School of Oriental and African studies in the University of London.  Printed in 1945, this translation was the first into English and was clearly a labour of love for Gholam who also provided an introductory essay on the life and times of Nezami.  Here we have used extracts – taking a poem as a whole, but making reference to the symbolism
  • LAILÎ AND MAJNÛN  - We have used the translation by James Atkinson who was at the time of translation an employee of ‘The Honorable East India Company’s Bengal Medical Service’.  He has produced a rhyming poem from the original, as such it will not be a word for word translation, but he was clearly in tune with what Nezami had in mind, because the result is very powerful.  Although we have made reference to some symbolism in the observations, the objective of the story is not to impart symbolic truths.  At the simple literal level it is a powerful love story, but it is principally intended to be an allegory of spiritual longing.  It is aimed at fellow travellers on the spiritual path.  And it is a warning that unless one is prepared and disciplined, once one has tasted the wine of spiritual input, the longing becomes unbearable and can send some men [and women] mad.  The entire poem is provided, which is quite long.
  • Eskandar Nameh - An English translation of the Sharaf-Nama by Henry Wilberforce-Clarke was published in 1881 under the title Sikandar Nama e Bara and is available online LINK
  • Haft paykar    The most intricate of the masnavīs of the Ḫamsa, Niẓāmī’s Haft paykar (Seven Beauties) is a poem on the pleasures of love.  An English translation  by C. E. Wilson, B.A. (LOND.) as it says "For Fourteen Years Professor of Persian, University College, London" is also available online LINK

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