On the Ill-Advised Love Affairs of Persian Kings

Khosrow sees Shirin for the first time

In Persian literature, the king is always falling in love with the wrong people. The objects of his affection have a wide range of responses. Sometimes they return his love, sometimes they are flattered by his attentions. But more often, it seems, they reject him, scorn him, reprimand him, or are in it for something else. Classical Persian Literature is littered with scenes of Sultan Mahmoud’s often hopeless love for his slave boy, Ayaz. Bumbling Kay Kavus falls for the conniving Sudabeh, who visits tragedy upon his family by bringing about his son’s execution. And who could forget Khosrow, who falls in love with the seemingly unattainable, sassy Armenian princess Shirin, whom he doesn’t deserve?

To the uninitiated eye, the very first tale of Rumi’s epic Masnavi-ye Ma’navi (Spiritual Couplets) is a prime example of kingly follies. However, Rumi’s commentary on the story would have us approve of the king’s conduct. See if you can figure out why:

A king marries a slave girl he falls in love with at first sight. Unbeknownst to him, she’s in love with the goldsmith back home. Separated from her lover, she quickly falls physically ill with lovesickness. The king, feigning kindness, sends for the goldsmith and allows the two lovebirds to be together. Her condition improves dramatically, until the king has the handsome goldsmith poisoned. When he grows ill and loses his youthful good looks, the girl is revolted and returns to the king, while the goldsmith dies alone. C’est romantique, non?

While Rumi (or Molana) is much more well-known in the West, he drew much inspiration for his work from the author who is the subject of today’s post, Farid al-Din ‘Attar Nishapuri (d. ~1221). Witness the famous (apocryphal) quote attributed to Rumi:

عطار روح بود و سنایی دو چشم او                     ما از پی عطار و سنایی آمدیم

‘Attar was the spirit, Sana’i his two eyes. We have followed in the footsteps of ‘Attar and Sana’i.

According to legend, ‘Attar is supposed to have met Rumi when the latter was a young boy, fleeing the Mongol conquests on his way from Balkh (in modern-day Afghanistan) to Anatolia. Rumor has it that ‘Attar gave him a copy of his Asrār-nāme, or Book of Secrets, a generous gift considering the value of paper at the time. While we now know this to be likely the stuff of legend, later literary historians and Rumi followers were not entirely remiss in trying to bridge the physical gap between these two writers who shared a textual and spiritual tradition.

What follows is a typical anecdote I have translated from that very book, Asrār-nāme, a collection of didactic tales which tries to initiate the reader into Sufi practice and thought. This anecdote gives a brief scene between a king and a madman he has fallen in love with. The story proper is followed by ‘Attar’s commentary on it and his exhortations to the reader not to be concerned with worldly goods.

 The king had lost his heart to a madman.

     “O crazy one!” he said. “Ask me for whatever you need. Since my crown gleams sunlike and crimson-gold, why don’t you ask for something, so I can grant it?”

     “Oblivious one, lost in flirtation!” said the madman. “Keep this fly away from me from now on. It bites me so much, you’d think it saw no one else!”

     “That is not within my power,” replied the king. “A fly takes no orders from me.”

     “If you can’t even control a fly, how can you rule a whole kingdom?! For shame.”


     [O Reader], you’ve spent much time with kings and masters. Seek flight from these people — choose manliness.

     For, you see that many people are caught up with searching for material things.

     Because it’s in man’s nature to adapt, he accepts uprightness from all people.

     Like them, pay attention to their states of being. You should also be ashamed of your ignorance.

     Whether you are a powerful, wealthy person, or a dervish with a hundred unmet needs, neither condition brings you profit or loss.

     Why then has your soul left your body over this sorrow?

     Look at the dervish and the rich man on the path to shame; see what will become of you in the end.

     If ten years were taken off your life, you’d not be upset, if some money came your way.

     Your money is worth more to you than your life and soul.

     I know no hatred, for the only thing one gains from it is madness.

     O naive one! How long will you sit there? Be content, if you are an initiate.

     Lacking pillows, make do with a brick. Lacking beauty, make do with ugliness.

     Since you gave half your soul for this half loaf of bread, you must bear whatever comes to pass in this world.

Translation by: Michelle Quay


Original Text:

Asrar-name 19.6

بر دیوانهٔ بی دل شد آن شاه

که ای دیوانه از من حاجتی خواه

چو خورشیدست تا جم چرخ و رخشم

چرا چیزی نخواهی تا ببخشم

بشه دیوانه گفت ای خفته در ناز

مگس را دار امروزی ز من باز

که چندان این مگس در من گزیدند

که گویی در جهان جز من ندیدند

شهش گفتا که این کار آن من نیست

مگس در حکم و در فرمان من نیست

بدو دیوانه گفتا رخت بردار

که تو عاجزتری از من بصد بار

چو تو بر یک مگس فرمان نداری

برو شرمی بدار از شهریاری

بگرد خواجه و شه چند گردی

گریزی جوی زین خلقان بمردی

چو می‌بینی که دایم خلق بسیار

بماندند از پی دنیا طلب کار

کجا چون طبع مردم خوی گیرست

ز هر کس آدمی عادت پذیرست

چو ایشان حال ایشان باز دانی

تو نیز از جهل خود در آزمانی

ترا گرچه توانگر سیم دارست

و یا درویش در صد اضطرارست

ترا از هر دو چون سود و زیان نیست

چرا پس در تنت زین غصه جان نیست

ز درویش و توانگر در ره آز

ببین تا خود چه می‌گردد بتو باز

اگر کم گردد از عمر تو ده سال

غمت نبود گر افزونت شود مال

ترا مالت ز عمر و جان فزونست

ندانم کین چه سود او جنونست

الا ای بی خبر تا کی نشینی

قناعت کن اگر مرد یقینی

چو بالش نیست با خشتی بسربر

چو خوبی نیست با زشتی بسربر

چو دادی نیم نان این نیم جان را

فرا سر بر چنان کاید جهان را


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