The first poet who frankly acknowledged his indebtedness to Sana'l as a writer of a didactical masnavl was Ilyas ibn Yusuf NizamI of Ganja (1141-1209). He claimed that he could surpass his predecessor in a didactical poem, Makhzan al-asrar ('Treasury of Secrets'), a masnavl of moderate size (about 2,250 distichs) for which he chose another metre, the sari\ than Sana'! had used. The rather trivial reason of this literary rivalry was that NizamI dedicated his work to another Bahramshah, a semi-independent ruler of Erzincan in Eastern Anatolia. In this case, however, the panegyric is of little importance. Just as in the Hadiqa, the discourse is a continuous sermon, but NizamI made a very clear plan for his poem. It is divided into twenty chapters, called maqalas, each with the same structure: first, a theoretical part, then an exemplary story and finally a conclusion attached to the story. Each chapter closes with an apostrophe to the poet himself containing his pen name just as this is done in the final line of a ghazal. Several of the stories in the Makhzan al-asrar have become well known; for example the Saljuq Sultan Sanjar hearing the advice of a poor old woman, King Nushirvan and his minister listening to the conversation of two birds in a ruined village, and Jesus explaining to his disciples the meaning of the shining teeth of a dead dog.
The contents of Nizami's poem are indicated in the headings added to each chapter. It should, however, be considered that it is written in the typically homiletic style which also characterises its model. Usually the poet soon strays away from the subject he started with so that it is often difficult to follow the meandering line of his thoughts and exhortations. The general message of the discourse cannot be missed, however. NizamI preaches on the ideal way of life drawing the attention of his reader to the supreme rank of man among the creatures of this world, the approaching end of his life and the necessity to become aware of his eternal destination. In a few chapters he speaks more specifically about the duties of a king, but on the whole he addresses himself to mankind in general rather than to his royal patron.
A special feature of the poem is the extensive introduction which contains the account of the experiences the poet claims to have had during his solitary vigils, called khalvat. There is no indication that one should take these vigils to the letter, that is as the report of actual Sufi practices. They really are nothing but a literary fantasy used by Nizami to expose his ideas on the duties of the spiritually inclined poet he wanted to be. The aim he pursues in this work is to transcend the limitations of the secular literature of the courts. In a mannered and highly rhetorical style he relates the allegory of a search for his own heart. With this Nizami joins in a discussion on the destination of Persian poetry which had started with Sana'I and was continued by others, in the
first place by 'Attar.
After this early didactical work, NizamI turned to narrative poetry. His four other masnavis are together with the Makhzan al-asrar known as the Khamsa, the 'Five Poems'. One of these, Majnun and Layla, tells about the self-denying love of the 'possessed' (majnun) Arabic poet Qays for a girl from another bedouin tribe, which became a favourite example for mystical poetry. In an inserted admonition, Nizami emphasises that the story could be read as a parable of mystical love as well as a tale of earthly love.13 The remaining poems - Haft Paykar, 'The Seven Images', Khusrau and Shirin, and Iskandar-nama ('The Book of Alexander') - deal with subjects related to the epic history of Iran. It is a difficult to decide whether or not these masterpieces of Persian narrative poetry should be dealt with in this survey. On the surface, they are typical products of the secular literature of the courts, the mentality of which they faithfully reflect. Even if Nizami frequently gives in to moralising and wise reflections, overt formulations of mystical ideas are rare and, moreover, mostly restricted to the introductions of the poems where the literary convention prescribed the treatment of religious themes like the praise of God and the Prophet. The prominence given to descriptions of Muhammad's Ascension to Heaven in these introductions undoubtedly suggests the possibility of an alternative, symbolic reading of these tales about frantic poets, amorous kings and conquerors of the world. This certainly conforms with the lofty concept of the poet's calling so strongly expressed in Nizaml's first work. However, a one-sided esoterical reading of these romances would be mistaken as it would ignore the basic duality of meaning which is such a fascinating feature of Nizaml's art.14
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