gulistan cover cropped 2Pub­lisher: Global Schol­arly Pub­li­ca­tions (with the Inter­na­tional Soci­ety for Iran­ian Cul­ture)
For­mat: Paper
ISBN: 1–59267-037–7

Con­tact me with ques­tions about Selec­tions From Saadi’s Gulistan.

(Please note: This book is now out of print and, as far as I know, the pub­lisher has no plan to reprint it. If you would like to see a copy of the book, con­tact me and I will be glad to send you a PDF file of the uncor­rected proof. If you would like to see the book reprinted, please go to Global Schol­arly Pub­li­ca­tions’ web­site, con­tact Parviz Morewedge, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, and tell him how you feel.)

Saadi, the 13th cen­tury Iran­ian poet whose books are among the best-loved works of clas­si­cal Iran­ian lit­er­a­ture, occu­pies a place in the Iran­ian Per­sian not unlike the one occu­pied by Shake­speare in our own. Gulis­tan, his most pop­u­lar work, which was trans­lated into French in the 1660s by Andre du Ryer, pro­vided post-Crusades Europe with its first sym­pa­thetic view of the Mus­lim world. Du Ryer felt that Europe needed to know about a poet whose human­is­tic val­ues mir­rored those of his Enlight­en­ment con­tem­po­raries. Since then, Gulis­tan has been trans­lated into a wide range of lan­guages, includ­ing Russ­ian and Japan­ese, though its most com­mon tar­get lan­guage has been Eng­lish. This is not sur­pris­ing, given the degree to which the val­ues expressed in Gulis­tan pre­fig­ure many of those that are cen­tral to Amer­i­can cul­ture, includ­ing respect for the indi­vid­ual, tol­er­ance of oth­ers and the need, the right, the oblig­a­tion to speak truth to power. Saadi’s most famous lines, which are inscribed in the Hall of Nations in the UN build­ing in New York City, come from Gulis­tan. You might have heard Pres­i­dent Obama quote the trans­la­tion on the UN wall in his Norooz video mes­sage to Iran. Here is my translation:

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,
you for­feit the right to be called human.

A noble sen­ti­ment, one with which few peo­ple any­where would dis­agree, but it is, as I have given it to you here, taken out of con­text, and so it lacks some of the bite that it has in the orig­i­nal, where it is the cul­mi­na­tion of the fol­low­ing story:

An Arab king who was noto­ri­ous for his cru­elty came on a pil­grim­age to the cathe­dral mosque of Dam­as­cus, where he offered the fol­low­ing prayer, clearly seek­ing God’s assis­tance in a mat­ter of some urgency:

The darvish, 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 the king was done pray­ing, he noticed me immersed in my own prayers at the head of the prophet Yahia’s tomb. The monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you darvishes because 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 own 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! Give
your peo­ple jus­tice before jus­tice finds 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,
you for­feit the right to be called human.

In con­text, in other words, these lines do not merely express a noble and human­is­tic sen­ti­ment; rather, they pro­pose a prin­ci­ple of lead­er­ship, of gov­ern­ing, and they are spo­ken by a man who is rel­a­tively pow­er­less to one whose power clearly means more to him than jus­tice. Gulis­tan is full of sto­ries like this, which makes it a book worth learn­ing from, and which makes Saadi a clas­si­cal Iran­ian poet about whom it behooves us to know something.

Sam­ple Poems

from “Ado­ra­tion and Preamble”

I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, “Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.”

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,”
it said, “I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.”

Sto­ries 8–10 from Pade­sha­han — Kings

Story 8

When he was asked what crime his father’s viziers had com­mit­ted, Hor­muzd replied, “None. I put these men in jail because they feared my power with­out respect­ing it. I knew that to pro­tect them­selves from the capri­cious­ness they saw in me and the harm they thought might come to them because of it, they might try to kill me. So I had no choice. I took the advice of the sages, who said:

The power to wipe out a hun­dred men
should not replace your fear of one who fears you.
Watch when a cat is fight­ing for its life;
it plucks the tiger’s eyes out with its claws.
To stop the stone the shep­herd might throw down
to crush its head, the viper bites, and lives.’”

Story 9

The sol­dier kneel­ing before the king gave this report: The fort had been taken; the enemy’s forces were pris­on­ers of war. By his majesty’s good for­tune, the entire dis­trict was now paci­fied and sub­ject to his rule.

He was an Arab king, sick with old age and wait­ing to die. “This mes­sage is not for me,” he sighed deeply, “but for my true ene­mies, the heirs to my throne.”

I’ve lived until the end of my desires,
each one ful­filled accord­ing to my wish,
but now I’m old, tired, and I can hear,
in each breath I have left, Fate’s hand strik­ing
Death’s drum in the rhythm of my dying.
The plea­sures of my past will not return.
The time I spent on them has real­ized me
no profit. Eyes, bid this head farewell.
Palm, fore­arm, the fin­gers of my hand,
take leave of each other. You who were my friends
come close one last time. This life I leave
leaves in its wake only igno­rance.
I have accom­plished noth­ing. Be on your guard.

Story 8 from Darvis­han — Darvishes

In response to the praise being heaped upon him by the peo­ple he was with, the great man raised his head and said, “I am as I know myself to be.”

You who list my virtues one by one,
please stop, you’re hurt­ing me: The traits you name
are those that all can see. You do not know
the oth­ers lying hid­den in my heart.

When peo­ple look at me, they see a man
who does what’s right, and so I please their eyes,
but under­neath that sur­face I am evil,
and ashamed, and I walk with my head held low.
I am like the pea­cock, praised for the col­ors
of his tail, but ashamed of his ugly feet.

Story 20 from Ghena’at — Contentment

The mid­win­ter night had fallen. Not too far away, the king saw a lamp shin­ing in the win­dow of a dehqan’s house. “We will warm our­selves there,” he said, “and return to the hunt­ing party in the morn­ing.” One of the royal advi­sors, how­ever, insisted that it would be bet­ter for the group to make camp on the spot, chas­ing the cold away with their own fire and sleep­ing in their own tents. It would be beneath his majesty’s dig­nity to spend the night in the house of a mere peasant.

While the king was con­sid­er­ing the vizier’s words, the dehqan—who had over­heard everything—approached the group bear­ing a tray of food. Bow­ing low to the ground, the peas­ant offered this meal to the sul­tan say­ing, “It is not that a dehqan’s hos­pi­tal­ity would insult the sultan’s dig­nity so deeply. It is rather that the royal advi­sors do not want the sultan’s pres­ence to raise the dig­nity of a dehqan, even for the briefest moment, to a level approach­ing their own.”

The king was so impressed by the dehqan’s wit that he rejected the vizier’s advice on the spot. The next morn­ing, as he was prepar­ing to leave, the king gave the dehqan a royal robe as a ges­ture of thanks. The dehqan walked a few steps beside the monarch and, loudly enough so the king’s entourage could hear, recited the fol­low­ing lines:

The sultan’s majesty remained intact
despite this dehqan’s mea­ger offer­ing;
but in the dehqan’s sim­ple heart great joy
is ris­ing, reach­ing for the morn­ing sun,
the cor­ner of your shadow at my door.

Story 10 from Khamooshi — Silence

The poem failed to impress the leader of the gang of thieves in whose honor it had been writ­ten. So he ordered the poet who was recit­ing it to be stripped of his robe and sent out naked into the world.

As soon as the poet left the leader’s tent, he was attacked from behind by a pack of dogs. He tried to pick up a stone to defend him­self, but the stone was frozen to the ground. “You sons of whores!” the poet cried out. “You let your dogs run loose but tie down your stones!”

The thieves’ leader heard these words from inside the tent and laughed. “O philoso­pher,” he said, “what would you ask of me?”

Give me my robe,” was the poet’s reply, “if you will make me a present of it.

Let me leave in peace; I’ll expect no gift.
A man hopes to receive the good he deserves.
From you, I hope for noth­ing. Just don’t hurt me.”

After hear­ing these words, the leader decided to have pity on the poet and gave him back his robe, as well as a sheep­skin jacket and some money.

Story 19 from Eshgh va Javani — Love and Youth

When the Arab king heard how Maj­nun had been dri­ven by his love for Laila to for­sake every­thing and wan­der the desert as a man pos­sessed, he ordered his ser­vants to bring Maj­nun to him, and when this was accom­plished and Maj­nun was stand­ing before the king in his court, the king reproached him, ask­ing what fault Maj­nun had dis­cov­ered in the human soul that he had cho­sen instead to live like an ani­mal. Maj­nun replied:

My clos­est friends blame me for lov­ing her,
but if they saw her they would under­stand.
And you, my love, rav­isher of my heart,
let your face shine once on those who scold me
and they will miss the lemons in their hands,
and slice their flesh, and bleed for your beauty.

Then they will know the truth and, like Potiphar’s wife, I will be able to say, “This is the one you blamed me for.”

The king was intrigued and ordered Laila to be brought to him. His ser­vants searched the encamp­ments of sev­eral Arab fam­i­lies until they found her and brought her into the palace court­yard. The king looked at her for some time, exam­in­ing her out­ward form very care­fully, but no mat­ter which angle he looked from, all he could see was an ugli­ness that became more and more despi­ca­ble to him as he thought about how highly Maj­nun had praised her. The plainest hand­maiden in his harem was more beau­ti­ful than the dark woman he saw before him.

Maj­nun could tell from the look on the king’s face what he was think­ing and said, “To per­ceive Laila’s beauty and the mys­tery it reveals to those who can see it, you need to look through my eyes.”

If the leaves on the trees ring­ing this glade
had heard what I heard of the glade’s story,
they would have lamented it with me. Dear friends,
say to this man who does not seem to care,
“Love has not yet wounded you, and so
you can­not know the agony that over­flows
Majnun’s heart.” When you do, we’ll share our tales.
Till then there is no point to talk of bees
with some­one who has never felt their sting.
Until we live the same expe­ri­ence,
words will show you only its empty shell.

Story 18 from Ta’alim va Tar­biyat — Education

I over­heard a rich man’s son and a poor man’s son argu­ing as they stood near the grave of the wealth­ier boy’s father. “My father’s cof­fin,” the rich boy was say­ing, “has a mar­ble grave­stone dec­o­rated with a mosaic of turquoise-like gems, and his epi­taph has been carved in the most ele­gant script. Your father’s grave, on the other hand, is noth­ing more than two bricks pushed together with two hand­fuls of mud thrown over them.”

The poor son lis­tened qui­etly. Then he said, “By the time your father gets out from under that heavy stone, mine will already be in paradise.”

An ass walks lightly with a light bur­den.
Just so, a darvish who car­ries on his back
noth­ing but his own poverty will arrive
at death’s gate at ease with the life he’s lived
and with his fate; but a wealthy man, whose life
lacked noth­ing, will find it hard to die,
for death means leav­ing lux­ury behind.
In the end, the pris­oner who escapes
with noth­ing will be hap­pier than a prince
whose wealth lies just beyond the bars of his cage.

#33 from Adab’eh Soh’bat — Prin­ci­ples of Social Conduct

Every­one thinks his own think­ing is per­fect and that his 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 that I will die
a Mus­lim, like you.” If tomor­row the earth
fell sud­denly void of all wis­dom
no one would admit that it was gone.