Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nada Kessou – Heroism in Epic Persian Poetry, Didactic Poetry, Coffeehouse Performances & Calligraphy.

Nada Kessou

Persian poetry consists of the perpetual use of figurative language and narration to convey epic, heroic, and didactic notions. Poetry is interwoven with music: the proximity of the characters and assimilation to one’s life bares open the vulnerabilities of all audiences to inherently relate.
Therefore, this paper will prove the interdisciplinary traits of epic and didactic poetry, coffeehouse performances alongside calligraphy through breaking down Rustum and Sohrab’s heroism in conflict with their fate. Finally, the analysis of lines from Rumi, Sa’Di, and Yasimi’s didactic poems from Arberry will yield the floor to a discussion on calligraphy as a spiritual exercise. 

First, one of Persian poetry’s most prominent themes is heroism, assuming that war is zero-sum. Heroism, alongside chivalry at the time, was almost seldom showcased by conflict and war. Ferdowsi gave naissance and, consequently, fame to heroic poetry in which he delivers life stories and teaches moral values. In Rustum and Sohrab’s story, Ferdowsi condemns the protagonists’ adoption of fake personas consistent with the values of their respective societies. Both of them needed to prove the qualities of bravery, courage, and nobility to be admired in society. As they gladly adopted them for themselves, it was harder for them to find each other. Ferdowsi’s message is furthermore emphasized by the heads of relatives being decapitated in the rivalry to prove that people in war are not far removed, still human and, close to us.

  Ferdowsi hence showcases the irony of life. He states that as soon Rustum finds his son after his long quest journey, he fatally wounds him. The impetus behind Ferdowsi’s poems is that pride and anger never lead to prosperous endings: if Rustum were not to be so concerned about his reputation as a warrior and ruled by his own skepticism, he would not have killed his son.

This universal sense of estrangement and compelling need to live up to specific standards separates us from who we indeed are, and consequently, how we see each other. The Persian crusades’ sole impetus was chivalry. Ferdowsi tries to convey that the costs of war are not only confined to human life and money, but also the astronomical cost of un-friendship as it deprives us of the opportunity to befriend others.

Having had an enormous moral impetus, Ferdowsi’s poems later became famous in coffeehouse performances; in fact, it is a mythical historical representation of the Persian empire. Coffeehouses are usually male-dominated atmosphere of coffeehouses, inviting hence to chivalry and gallantry. After the advent of Islam, music and dance stopped after imposing restrictions (7th century). Being the only form of narration having survived, ‘Naqqals’ legitimized their art within restrictions of Islam by using stories with the themes of Imams or greetings (Salawat = prayers).

The ‘Naqqali’ performances echo an ethnonational cultural identity. The art of drama story-telling crystallized the Persian language. Ferdowsi’s works were eternalized to the extent that coffeeshop ‘Naqqali’ equated “Killing Sohrab.” The ‘Naqqalis’ in coffee shops were held of high social status: they excelled in improvisation and eloquence, perfected swift exaggerated movements to depict the Iranian national epic. The Naqqali follows a narration of stories with a distinctive tone, feelings, expressions, gestures, and movements. Musical instruments can also be used sometimes.

A stark characteristic is that the Naqqali involves an individual actor playing several roles. The actors were virtuous and talented, using intonation, rhythm, and articulation to convey heroism. Excitement and enthusiasm are altered by walking, getting up, clapping hands, and moving tools (wands). This monologue theater uses repetition, yelling, vibrating tones, and word accentuating.

The coffeehouse performances also focus on the use of pure Persian words in the age of Arabic influence on literature. In Muslim Persian culture, the epic of the kings was a commendation of God, and Shahnameh is the Persian Quran where nationhood values are inscribed.

Second, it is crucial to mention epic poetry’s complement: Didactic poetry. Didactic poetry aims to deliver a moral and teaches values. Of the various didactic poets, Rumi is considered to be one of the most prominent ones: In a culture of “materialism and illusory appearances,”[i] Sufi poets controversially appear to be red flags. They assume that whatever happens to us is explained by more than what we experience with our senses. These poems were a reminder about the “Unseen Power,” the “Formless Being” for whom everything is brought into existence.

In order to understand the functions of didactic poetry, Sa’di’s poem “Jesus and the sinner” will be brought to light:

“Shrinking with shame, his conscience stricken sore,
As shrinks a beggar at a rich man’s door,
Tears of repentance rolling down his face

‘The ignorant and learned both are saved,
Both I accept since both to me have prayed;
The lost one, humbled, with repentant tears
Has cried to me, his cry has reached my ears”


The author is wounded and overwhelmed by his disgraceful acts. His morality aches. The metaphor of a ‘beggar shrinking in front of a rich’ bourgeois shows the vulnerability the prior is in. He is in a situation where he can sell his labor and life to subsist and survive. The last lines show that the agonizing ‘cries’ sounded so loud God has heard them from the 7th sky, or otherwise that God is omnipresent and can hear us all.

The moral is that worshipping the creature rather than the Creator is the biggest sin. Therefore, a Believer who breaks the commandments of God is better than one who pretends and lies underneath a veil of religion. A non-believer breaks the primordial commandment of God. Both are no longer slaves of righteousness, but the believer still holds genuine piety at least and aims to change, understanding the wages of sin and repenting. None of the individuals is immune, and no one is exempt.

Moving to “Socrates’ House,” Yasimi says:

‘This one said: ‘It will never do;
    It’s small and poky, and all askew’

He laughed aloud, and made reply:
It’s everything I require on Earth;
 All I pray is, that it might be,

Filled with friends who are true to me.’


The author discusses that despite the small size and narrowness of the room, companionship remains most crucial. He transcends the material world into the moral, ethical one. This draws parallelism to perennial philosophy that holds eternal truth. In a society of friends, there is no need for justice.

Last but not least, Rumi says in “The Unseen Power:”

We are the flute, our music is all Thine;
We are the mountains echoing only Thee;
Pieces of chess Thou marshalled in line


Rumi discusses praise and mercy: God is the sole and only object of praise, as we are a reflection of God’s desires on the ordinary Earth. As much as thine is the spirit of the flute and what gives the music its essence, we reflect God in this ordinary life, and until we get to the metaphysical, most graceful world, we need to reflect it in the best way possible. The phrase ‘Marshallest in line’ refers to how God is guiding and ushering us, taking us to the correct and most righteous path.

The power of ethics established in didactic poetry is further enhanced in calligraphy. The aesthetic aspect brings a figurative portrait that implicitly entails and crystallizes notions of protection, courage, bravery through the shapes and curvatures of letters. The genius of Islamic calligraphy isn’t only a reflection of creativity and endless versatility, it also resides in the balance calligraphers establish between communicating a text and expressing the meaning it conveys through a formal aesthetic code[ii] (i.e., how letters convey meaning, “Noo’n” conveys protection, how the “Alif” showcases God’s pride, humble superiority inspiring respect). I have learnt furthermore how the birth of calligraphy’s function in religion stems mainly from the fundamental forbiddance of the “representation of living beings” in Islam[iii]. By practicing my calligraphy, the talismanic component felt like a reminder in architecture to glorify God.

In sum, this article discusses the influence of Ferdowsi on Persian culture not only in literature, but also the social norms of communities with regards to coffee house performances, despite them lessening more and more.
Though based on opposite concepts (heroism and humility), epic poetry is, nevertheless, deeply embedded with didactic poetry; giving moral lessons to a spectrum of audiences. Last but not least, a reflection on calligraphy showed the extent to which the talismanic component present in didactic poetry is showcased in writing as a spiritual exercise.

[i] Spencer, Robert, Christine Douglass-Williams, Anjuli Pandavar, Hugh Fitzgerald, and Dave Gaubatz. “Jihad Watch.” Jihad Watch, October 3, 2019.

[ii] “V&A · Calligraphy in Islamic Art.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed October 4, 2019.

[iii] “The Representative of Allah on Earth.” Al, December 24, 2013.

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