The Shahnameh, which literally means “The Book of Kings” is an Iranian epic poetry in Persian language containing the history and legends of prehistoric and historic Iran with all their greatness and pettiness, romance and tragedies, heroes and villains, glory and shame. It was composed about a thousand years ago by a poet who is better known by his pen-name Firdausi Toosi. It covers 81/2 thousand years out of the 10 thousand years of the Zoroastrian religious history.
It comprised of about 60,000 couplets in pure classical Persian language, of which about 4,000 are lost to us now. The Shahnameh ranks among the greatest epics of the world along with the Iliad and Odyssey of the West and Ramayana and Mahabharat in the East.
Considering the vast period that the Shahnameh embraces and the delicacy of its style, it is hardly equaled and certainly not surpassed by any other epic. For this reason, Firdausi is regarded, and rightly so as the Homer of the East.
The Shahnameh has been written in purest possible classical Persian language. According to the Arabic and Persian scholar E.G. Browne, it contains only about 7 to 8% Arabic words. It is significant to note that the Shahnameh was written when all around the Persian language was being Arabicised during the Ghaznavi dynasty and under the patronage of a Ghaznavi king, whose mother tongue was not Farsi. Firdausi managed to keep the Persian of the Shahnameh generally bereft of Arabic influences which had started creeping in during the Ghaznavi and Saljughi dynasties.
The first extensive rendering of the Shahnameh was done in English almost a century ago by Alexander Rogers in 1907. The Shahnameh has been translated also into Gujarati. Recitations of versified translations of Shahnameh are very popular among the Parsis, and till recently were recited with lot of emotions and dramatics. Even today, the recitation of Shahnameh in Gujarati verses is carried out.
The Shahnameh covers three main dynasties of Iran – the Peshdad, the Kayan and the Sasan. Of these the Kayan dynasty occupies about 55% of the Shahnameh, the other two dynasties occupying about 10 % and 35% of the Shahnameh respectively. It is interesting to note that the Achaemenian and the Parthian – two of the major historic dynasties are almost overlooked in the Shahnameh. The great paladin Rustom is undoubtedly the hero of the Shahnameh, and significant space is devoted to his exploits and his relationships with other kings, especially of the Kayanian dynasty.
There are some who believe that the Peshdadian and Kayanian dynasties are mythological and not historical, since there is no chronicled records or archaeological evidences available for that period. I would humbly beg to differ with this view. One should remember that these dynasties covered a period roughly between 9000 to 6000 BC. This period belongs to the realms of pre-history, when the art of writing had not yet properly evolved. Thus, we have to depend on the Avestan and Pahlavi texts for constructing much of the history of this period. Presently, archaeological findings dating around 4000 BC are being unearthed near the Central Asian regions in and around ancient Iran.
Much of Zoroastrian religious history is connected with the Peshdad and Kayan dynasties, the biggest event being the advent of Prophet Zarathushtra. If one disregards this period as mere mythology, one looses out on the most important period of Zoroastrian and pre-Zoroastrian history.
There are strong reasons to believe that the Shahnameh is based on Avestan scriptures, especially Yashts, Pahlavi texts and Persian books on history like the Bāstān Nameh which was composed during the reign of Nosherwan Adel and Khudā Nameh by Dāneshwar Dehkān which was composed during the reign of Yazdezard Sheriyar.
Shahnameh is not just about History, as is generally believed. It is a heritage of the world with special interest to Zoroastrians in particulars and Iranians in general. One has just to scratch the surface and one could unearth a vast treasure trove of wise and philosophical sayings on life. The nuggets of information on Zoroastrian religion is an added bonus.
It is said that Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs was so inspired by the Shahnameh that he composed in Zafar Nameh in the metre of the Shahnameh, and it transformed the Sikhs into a virile and marital race. The Shah of Iran had set the ten syllabic couplets of the Shahnameh into special marital tunes and soldiers marched and perform other exercises to its tunes to instill a sense of patriotism and valour in them.
The Shahnameh was composed by a poet whose pen name was Firdausi Toosi. His original name was Abul Qasim Hasan. He was destined to be great as a dream interpreter had prophesied to his father that a son would be born to him who would be famous in the four corners of the world and that his fame will echo in the world long after him.
Right since childhood Firdausi had a fascination for nature, poetry, Iranian languages and ancient Iranian History. He was enthralled by the stories of great Iranian kings and heroes. He had his early education under the able guidance of his learned father Fakhruddin Ahmed who himself was a renowned preacher of his times. Firdausi was an avid learner and he never missed an opportunity to find out more about religion, history, literature and poetry. He learnt the art of prosody from Asadi Toosi, the well-known poet of Toos. Thus, it was just a matter of time before his passion turned to life-long commitment.
Firdausi seemed to have realised the greatness of his own work and the great impact it would have for centuries to come, for he says:
Basi ranj bordam dar in sāle si,
Azam zindeh kardam ba din Pārsi
Chu Firdausi andar Zamaneh na bud,
Bad ān bud ke bakhtesh javāneh na bud
Harān kas ke dārad hush o rāyo din,
Pas az marg ba man kunad āfrin
“I toiled for thirty years, and brought alive the religion of the Parsis,
There will be none in the world like Firdausi, whose only misfortune was that luck was not on his side.
Whoever will have intelligence, wisdom and discernment, will sing my praises after my death.”
Firdausi immortalized Iran’s Peshdadian, Kayanian and Sasanian dynasties. Curiously enough, however, Firdausi completely skipped the Achaemenian dynasty, so much so the last kings of the Achaemenian dynasty are referred to as those of the Kayanian dynasty. Moreover he just makes a passing reference to the Arshkanian dynasty.
Though Firdausi had realized the great impact his work would have, he was wise to the fact that the descriptions in the Shahnameh may not be believed and respected by all who read tit. People may refer to them as poetic license and hyperbole and so he forewarned the readers of our times with these prophetic lines
To inrā darugho fasānah ma dān,
Ba yaksān ravesh dar zamānah ma dān
“Do not consider these falsehoods and fabrications, remember that times keep on changing.”
During the last few years of his life Firdausi stayed in Baghdad where he composed the romantic ballad `Yousuf & Zuleikha’ having almost 9000 couplets. This ballad was greatly appreciated by Amir Momin, the Caliph of Baghdad. Though this ballad was written in the same metre as the Shahnameh, it lacks the majesty, brilliance and fluency of Firdausi’s earlier works.
Firdausi passed away in 1020 AD, a totally heart-broken, shattered and bitter old man. Even his daughter did not accept the belated award sent by the Sultan, which was later handed over to Imam Abu Bakar Ishar who expended the money for the two causes which were close to Firdausi’s heart – one of building a dam on the river in Toos and the other of repairing the rest-house at Toos.
In 1934, His Imperial Majesty, the late Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, had a splendid memorial erected near the tomb of Firdausi to mark the spot where the mortal remains of the great bard were buried nearly a thousand years ago.
In the Shahnameh we see some of the kings marrying queens of other nations and beliefs. On closer scrutiny one would realise that many of the tragedies in ancient Iran were on account of such intermarriages. In fact, it would not be wrong to surmise, as has been done by other eminent historians, that one of the major causes, of the downfall of the Iranian empire, were such intermarriages, which were largely done by kings to protect their political interests. As Firdausi has been faithful to facts and he also faithfully documented his own ideas. He has expressed in more place than one, that while marrying, one has to take great care of the lineage of the spouse one selects. He attributes the savagery of Zohak and the meanness of the Sultan to their birth and parentage.
Often, with regards to old classics, like the Shahnameh, it is asked whether, they are relevant in present day and times. This question can be on the basis of History and Philosophy. Firstly, History, I believe is always relevant, as it teaches invaluable lessons to the future generations, from the mistakes committed in the past. Secondly, it is not just coincidental that 11% of the Shahnameh comprises of exhortations and philosophies regarding facts of life which are unchangeable and ever relevant. Ethics and morals which make men great, the frailties of humans which lead to their fall, the ephemeral nature of life, the preciousness of each of God’s creations in the mosaic of the world, greatness and goodness of God, belief in the triumph of good over evil are the beautiful philosophies which make the Shahnameh timeless.
Lines like the ones below from the Shahnameh, in praise of God, can be appreciated and loved by all, irrespective of their age, colour, nationality or religion. They are sure to take one closer to God, and enable one to better appreciate His greatness
Setāyash kunam izade pāk rā,
Ke guyā o binā kunad khāk rā
Ba muri dehad māleshe narrah shir,
Kunad parshah bar pile jangi dalir
Jahānrā bulandii o pasti toi,
Nadānam toi, harche hasti toi.
“I offer my prayers to the Pure Worshipful One,
Who bestowed speech and sight to a lump of clay.
Who makes the ferocious tiger helpless before an ant,
And who gives victory to a mosquito over an elephant.
The loftiest and the minutest in the world is because of Thee,
I do not claim to understand, but I can say that the existence of everything is through thee.”
Ansari, one of the greatest detractors of Firdausi in his initial years, and a rival poet, gives one of the best tributes to Firdausi:
Āfrin ba ravāne Firdausi – Ān humāyun nehād farkhundā,
U nā ustā buvad va mā shāgerd – U Khudavand buvad va ma bandā
“Praise be unto the soul of Firdausi, he was not just like a master before us the disciple, he was like a God to us the lesser humans.
Firdausi has carved his place in the hearts of all Persian speaking people in general and Zoroastrians in particular. Efforts like the one undertaken today will ensure that neither he, nor the labour of his love will be forgotten for a long time to come. We cannot end without agreeing with the following lines of Firdausi:
Bināhā i ābād gardad kharāb
Zi bārā o az tābish i āftāb
Pai afgandam az nazm i kākh i buland
Ke az bād o bārān niyābad gazand.
“The homes that are dwellings of today,
Will sink under shower and sunshine to decay
But the lofty palace of poetry I created
Will never be destroyed by storm or rain.”