Ferdowsi and the Ethics of Persian Literature

In the late 10th century, Ferdowsi Tusi, the greatest Persian Poet, who revived the Persian language, culture, and philosophy, wrote:

به آموختن گر ببندی میان        به دانش روی برسپهر روان

“If learning is what you would hold most dear,
With wisdom you will stride the turning sphere.”

In the late 18th century, UNC was founded as the first public university for higher education in the United States. They generously opened their doors to anyone who was seeking knowledge from any nation around the globe. Their commitment to the arts, humanities and sciences have helped young minds discover ways to rejuvenate old hearts and to propel mankind into outer space. UNC’s dedication to promoting mutual understanding, peace, and harmony among all nations fulfills the words of the great Persian Poet Hafez Shirazi, who in the 14th century wrote:

درخت دوستی بنشان که کام دل ببار آرد        نهال دشمنی بر کن که رنج بی شمار آرد

“Plant the seed of friendship that brings you peace and serenity;
Uproot the bushes of enmity, which bring you trouble and animosity.”

In the late 10th century the master Persian poet, Ferdowsi Tusi, dedicated thirty years of his life to write his epic poem, The Book of Kings or Shahnameh. Through 60,000 lines of poetry, the Shahnameh revived Persian language, history, philosophy and culture almost 400 years after the Arab invasion of the Persian Empire.

ﺑﺴﯽ رﻧﺞ ﺑﺮدم ﺑﺪﯾﻦ ﺳﺎل ﺳﯽ        ﻋﺠﻢ زﻧﺪه ﮐﺮدم ﺑﺪﯾﻦ ﭘﺎرﺳﯽ

“I endured thirty years of hardship
and revived the Persian nationality with the PARSI language.”

Ferdowsi begins his majestic book in the name of knowledge, and starts by saying:

بنام خداوند جان و خرد

“In the name of the Lord of the soul and wisdom,”

Ferdowsi not only considered knowledge and wisdom the main essential pillar of human life, but also he expresses the same belief about art and culture:

ھﺮآ ﻧﮑﺲ ﮐﮫ ﺑﺎ داﻧﺶ و ﺑﺎ ھﻨﺮ        ﭼﮫ آﯾﺪ ﮔﺮ او را ﻧﺒﺎﺷﺪ ﮔﮭﺮ

“Those who have knowledge, art, and culture,
why worry if they lack treasure?”


ھﻨﺮ ﺑﺮﺗﺮ از ﮔﻮھﺮ آﻣﺪ ﭘﺪﯾﺪ

“Art was created more precious than jewels.”


که فرهنگ باشد ز گوهر فزون        چنین گفت آن بخرد رهنمون

“So said the wise master, “Culture is worth more than diamonds.”

Ferdowsi celebrates art of all kind, emphasizing poetry, literature, and philosophy as critical representatives of a society’s conscience for humanity and life in general. He highlighted values such as wisdom, knowledge, art, justice, integrity and respect – including towards one’s enemy. His writings influenced all other great Persian poets, for centuries to come.

Throughout his 60,000 lines of poetry, Ferdowsi Tusi repeatedly recommends patience, peace, forgiveness, justice, and honest dissent, even with one’s enemy.

Even though he strongly advocates peaceful behavior, Ferdowsi is aware of human flaws; throughout the pages of his book he recommends humane, compassionate, and civilized conduct during time of war:

ﻧﺒﺎﯾﺪ ﮐﮫ راه ﭘﻠﻨﮓ آورﯾﻢ        ﮐﮫ ﺑﺎ ھﺮ ﮐﺴﯽ رای ﺟﻨﮓ آورﯾﻢ
ھﻤﮫ ﺑﺮدﺑﺎری ﮐﻦ و راﺳﺘﯽ        ﺟﺪا ﮐﻦ ز دل ﮐﮋی و ﮐﺎﺳﺘﯽ

“Do not behave like a vicious tiger, ready to attacking everyone.
Be patient, tolerate dissent, and search for truth.”

He recommends that,

وﮔﺮ آﺷﺘﯽ ﺟﻮﯾﺪ و راﺳﺘﯽ       ﻧﺒﯿﻨﯽ ﺑﮫ دﻟﺶ اﻧﺪرون ﮐﺎﺳﺘﯽ

از او ﺑﺎز ﺑﺴﺘﺎن و ﮐﯿﻨﮫ ﻣﺠﻮی       ﻧﮕﮭﺪار اورا ھﻤﯽ آ ﺑﺮوی

“If one’s enemy asks for peace, with honesty and grace,
Be decent, accept it, avoid revenge, let him save face.”

ﭼﻮ ﭘﯿﺮوز ﮔﺸﺘﯽ زﺗﻦ ﺧﻮن ﻣﺮﯾﺰ        ﭼﻮ ﺷﺪ دﺷﻤﻦ ﺑﺪ ﮐﻨﺶ در ﮔﺮﯾﺰ
ﭼﻮ ﺧﻮاھﺪ زدﺷﻤﻦ ﮐﺴﯽ زﯾﻨﮭﺎر        ﺗﻮزﯾﻨﮭﺎرده ﺑﺎش و ﮐﯿﻨﮫ ﻣﺪار

“In victory avoid bloodshed, if your enemy retreats,
and if he surrenders, forgive, and do not look for revenge.”

Four hundred years later, Hafez Shirazi, one of the many Persian students of Ferdowsi’s school of thought, writes,

ﺧﻮﺑﺎن ﭘﺎرﺳﯽ ﮔﻮی ﺑﺨﺸﻨﺪﮔﺎن ﻋﻤﺮﻧﺪ        ﺳﺎﻗﯽ ﺑﺸﺎرﺗﯽ ده ﭘﯿﺮان ﭘﺎرﺳﺎ را
آﺳﺎﯾﺶ دو ﮔﯿﺘﯽ ﺗﻔﺴﯿﺮ اﯾﻦ دو ﺣﺮف اﺳﺖ        ﺑﺎ دوﺳﺘﺎن ﻣﺮوت ﺑﺎ دﺷﻤﻨﺎن ﻣﺪارا

“When good men speak in Persian, the stream of life runs well;
This good news to the wise men, my friend, hasten to tell.
What keeps this twofold world in peace, let the twofold sentence show:
Give amity to every friend, courtesy to every foe!”

Through Ferdowsi’s tale of the Seven Labors (haft khan) of Rustam, he revived the ancient Persian Gnostic and mystical Illuminationist philosophy, paving the way for Attar’s Seven Valleys of Love, and Suhravardi, the master of Illuminationist philosophy. In the Seven Labors of Rustam, Iran’s great mythological hero Rustam defeats and kills the White Dragon – a symbol of greed. Rustam then drops the dragon’s blood in the eye of the corrupt, greedy and materialistic King Kay Kavus and cures his moral and spiritual blindness.

This theme inspired another great Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi, to write:

ﭼﺸﻢ ﺗﻨﮓ ﻣﺮد دﻧﯿﺎ دوﺳﺖ را        ﯾﺎ ﻗﻨﺎﻋﺖ ﭘﺮ ﮐﻨﺪ ﯾﺎ ﺧﺎک ﮔﻮر

“The greedy eye of the man who loves this world
will be filled either with contentment or the earth of the grave.”

Ferdowsi advised all to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, as reflected in following line:

اگر جفت گردد زبان با دروغ        نگیرد ز بخت سپهری فروغ

“A tongue that is joined to a lie
receives no radiance from heaven’s fortune.”

Three centuries later, Awhadi Maraghai, another great Persian poet and a follower of Ferdowsi’s school, said,

راستی کن که راستان رستند        در جهان راستان قوی دستند

“Be truthful, for the truthful ones are free;
in this world the truthful ones are mighty.”

The mystical thinkers of Iran have agreed that the ancient story of Jamshid’s world-revealing cup is a mystical symbol for the interior of the soul and its spiritual connections to the heavens and the world of illumination. In the same way, Omar Khayyam says,

مائیم که اصل شادی و کان غمیم        سرمایه دادیم و نهاد ستمیم
پستیم و بلندیم و کمالیم و کمیم      آئینه زنگ خورده و جام جمیم

“We are the root of happiness, and we are the mine of sorrow;
we are the fund of justice, and the product of oppression.
We are low and high, we are perfection, we are less
we are the rusty mirror; we are the cup of Jamshid.”

So the experience of the rusty mirror applied to the cup of Jamshid would be the cause of his downfall, when in his later years he became a tyrant.

In a similar fashion, Hafez alluded to this central symbol of divine knowledge in a memorable passage:

مشکل خویش بر پیر مغان بردم دوش        کو به تأیید نظر حل معما می‌کرد
گفتم این جام جهان بین به تو کی داد حکیم       گفت آن روز که این گنبد مینا می‌کرد

“I brought my problem to the Magian master last night,
So he could solve the riddle with his powerful vision.
I said, “When did He give you the world-seeing cup, O master?”
He said, “On the day He made this shining dome!””

These later examples bring out meanings that are implicit in the writings of Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is considered Persia’s national epic poem. It spans the history of fifty generations of rulers and subjects, where races and nationalities change, but culture, justice, humanity and human values remain the same. Ferdowsi Tusi is not only the voice of Persian consciousness and character, but also a universal voice of humanity’s core values across all races and cultures.

به پاکی گرائید و نیکی کنید        دل و پشت خواهندگان مشکنید

“Be pure and do good,
And don’t break the hearts of the needy.”