Sa'di Shirazi

The pen-name for Musharraf al-Din Mosleh al-Din, Persian poet, one of the greatest figures in classical Persian literature - and let's be honest here: the competition is pretty steep. Measured by popularity among the people, educated or otherwise, no Iranian poet can compete with him.

Brief personal history

Virtue is necessary because the form may be painted
In halls with vermilion or verdigris.
If a man possesses not excellence and goodness
What is the difference between him and a picture on the wall?
It is no virtue to gain the whole world.
Gain the heart of one person if thou canst.

Sa'di was born in the city of Shiraz in 1184 or 1185 and was orphaned in early childhood. During his youth he studied in the reknowned Nezamiyya school in Baghdad and acquired the traditional scholastic religious learning, which is still being taught in places like Qom in Iran.

During the 12th century the Mongols first started their invasion of Iran. This caused many an eminent scholar to seek refuge abroad, and Sa'di promptly followed suite and spent several years wandering through Anatolia, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. He also refers in his work to travels in India and Central Asia, but these cannot be confirmed.

What happened during these wandering years is not altogether clear, but it appears that Sa'di was taken captive by the Franks in North Africa and put to work in the trenches of the fortress of Tripoli. When he re-emerged in his native Shiraz he was an elderly man. Probably discouraged by his earlier adventures, Sa'di seems to have stayed in Shiraz until his death, reported to have taken place in 1292 (which would make him very old indeed).

Two gardens of wisdom

Of what use will be a dish of roses to thee?
Take a leaf from my rose garden.
A flower endures but five or six days
But this rose garden is always delightful.

Sa'di's best known works are the Bustan (1257; translated into English as The Orchard in 1882) and the Gulestan (1258; The Rose Garden, 1964). The Bustan is entirely written in beautiful flowing verse (epic metre) and consists of stories illustrating the standard virtues every Muslim should strive to possess: justice, liberality, modesty and contentment.

The Gulestan is mainly in prose and contains insightful stories and personal anecdotes. The text is interspersed with a variety of short poems in different metres, containing aphorisms, maxims of Islamic virtues and humorous reflections. However, Sa'di is far from being a stern schoolmaster here: the morals preached in the Gulestan border on expediency, e.g. a well-intended lie is admitted to be preferable to a seditious truth. Sa'di demonstrates an amazing blend of profound awareness of the absurdity of human existence and the ability for compassion. Sa'di's voice as a narrator is very gentle, most of the time his advice is offered with a smile.

The most famous part of the Gulestan are the first and second books, which contain stories about kings and dervishes, of worldly justice and pious conduct. It is often with these that a Western student of Persian begins his studies, at least according to the age-old scholarly tradition of using Sa'di's ornate Persian to introduce a novice into the intricacies of the language.

Particularly in the Middle East, Sa'di is also remembered as a great panegyrist and lyricist, the author of a number of impressive odes portraying the scale of human experience. Especially noteworthy is the lament on the fall of Baghdad after the Mongol invasion in 1258. He also wrote a number of works in Arabic. The ability for human kindness and cynicism, humour and resignation displayed in Sa'di's works, together with a tendency to avoid the hard dilemma of making judgements, make him to me - and to thousands of others - the most lovable writer in Iranian culture.

The following story is from the fifth chapter of the Gulestan, dealing with love and friendship:

Story 15

The beautiful wife of a man died but her mother, a decrepit old hag, remained in the house on account of the dowry. The man saw no means of escaping from contact with her until a company of friends paid him a visit of condolence and one of them asked him how he bore the loss of his beloved. He replied: 'It is not as painful not to see my wife as to see the mother of my wife.'

The rose has been destroyed and the thorn remained.
The treasure has been taken and the serpent left.
It is better that one's eye be fixed on a spear-head
Than that it should behold the face of an enemy.
It is incumbent to sever connection with a thousand friends
Rather than to behold a single foe.


Encyclopedia Britannica
Encyclopedia of Islam

The whole English translation of the Gulestan can be found in