Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nada Kessou – Persian poetry, Ode & Calligraphy

Nada Kessou

Persian poetry often makes use of ‘Odes’ or ‘Qaṣīdahs,’ defined as courtly poems on several occasions in which the individual’s feelings and meditation become unified. It can be glorifying, elegiac, or breeding satire. Most of the themes discussed relate to Islam or proverbial Persian literature. Its characteristic lies in maintaining a single end-rhyme constant throughout the entire verse. The latter repeats itself at the end of the first half-line of the first verse. Pre-Islamic ‘Ode’ introduces a short nostalgic or romantic prelude in memory of the Beloved called the “Nasib”. Its aim is to grasp the reader’s attention. Odes are also lengthy and didactic, religious or paean.

Figurative language and narration have always been key, conducive elements heroism, mysticism, and didactic notions. The latter can be used as a requisite to ‘Ode.’ This paper will, hence, explore the other functions of Persian poetry in ‘Ode.’ Ode memorization played a crucial role in perpetuating the Persian language; therefore, reflections will be done in the process of taking pleasure into memorizing some lines, practicing calligraphy and replenishing the musicality behind it. 

The following pieces of writing would prelude to the importance and relevance of Ode in Persian literature. The following extracts are taken from Arberry 3[i]. For instance, Rudaki says in “Lament in Old Age:”

“Not a one remaineth to me, lost through weakness and decay,

Whose fault? “T’ws surely Saturn’s planetary rule,” you say.

No, the fault of Saturn ‘twas not, nor the long, long lapse of days;

‘What then?’ I will answer truly: ‘Providence which God displays.’

That same thing which once was healing, may become a source of pain;

And the thing that now is painful, healing balm may prove again—”[ii]

In this passage, Rudaki mentions ‘Divine Providence;’ the governance of God by which He directs every and anything in the universe. His complete control over everything beats the odds of chance or fate. This being said, one shouldn’t be praising or idolizing nature. “Saturn’s planetary rule for those who believe in determinism, astrology” showcases that nature is indeed God’s work in this world and His reflection, but nature itself has no inherent power over us. Therefore, Rudaki concludes that Believers ought not to use it as a compass to guide us through our life’s happenings.

The last two lines discuss God’s works relating to how things are eternally and perpetually changing; we have no control over what the results will be. Unlike God, we are not omnipresent; hence, we can’t know what things will become. The paradigm shifts in this world and shift in life’s events from “bad” to “good” or vice versa are catalysts to the Divine test to His Believers; a testament to a Believer’s willingness to be patient and thankful to God in any and all circumstances. The nature of dividedly decided events takes place within the knowledge of Allah, with us being at His will. 

Naser Khsrow conveys further didactic messages through the art of ‘Odes.’ An extract from “Message”[iii] entails his ideas:

“Thy body to there is a fetter, and the world a prison-cell:

To reckon as home this prison and chains do you deem it well/

Thy soul is weak in wisdom and naked of works beside:

Seek for the strength of wisdom: thy nakedness strive to hide.”[iv]

The writer attempts to explain that, as much as this colossal galaxy is a small dot in the universe, each individual is, in turn, a very small piece of this universe. God the Almighty is omnipresent and sovereign. This ‘Ode’ is a reminder for us: before we act anyhow, we should show humility, consideration, and respect. We were created as weak individuals, and we will die in a state of weakness, bodily and spiritually. “Even those of us who are blessed with robust health must ultimately succumb to the weakness of old age. Our spirits are plagued with heedlessness.”

The ‘Ode’ shows that the greatness of God ultimately strips us from the vanity and selfishness we hold. The imagery of “prison,” chains, ropes and shackles shouldn’t breed an association of Islam with violence; but rather ought to show Humanity’s weakness and vulnerability with regards to God. This draws a parallelism between the raindrop lost in the ocean’s metaphor; where the writer says: “If this is existence, I am a nonbeing.” The cosmos hearing the humility of raindrop turns it to a precious pearl.

Another extract showing ‘Ode” is one of Asadi titled “Night and Day:”

“When the day thus long had listened to the night, its wrath was stirred

‘Cease!’ it cried, ‘for surely never bath a vained claim been heard! 

Heaven’s Lord doth give precedence, in the oath which he hath sworn,”[v]

This poem seems to entail how futile and sterile fights spark between complementary parts of society. The Day and Night both each have distinct qualities; however, their vanity and pride lead them to exhibit that anger and destroy a potentially symbiotic relationship between the two. They spark from the need of gaining recognition and validation, out of making the other feel useless, helpless and senseless. In this poem, it seems almost insane for such a thing to occur as ‘the Night’ and ‘the Day’ to fight. This personification is common in Chinese culture (the Yin and Yang.) Despite both having primordial acts in this world, contributing equally to the dynamics of seasons, calendars and time; the Night thought it was special and wanted to make the other feel ordinary. This can be reflected in people’s relations’ nowadays, where appearance is all the matters.

Persian literature discusses tales quite often as well. For instance, let’s take a look at an extract from tale 91 titled “The doctor’twas that died:”[vi]

And all the foolish fellow’s life will come to naught! ’ 

It chanced that night the doctor died 

Since that time forty years have lapsed, and still the champion lives! [vii]

These lines show that everything works by the grace of God in opposition to determinism and freewill. This translates to men having free will over their actions; however, that free will itself is a reflection of Divine Decree. God is the sole, ultimate and independent reason behind anything, it is hence correct to relate any and all in existence to God (monotheism.) Additionally, man is still held accountable for the inconsiderate actions undertaken; they cannot simply be blamed on Divine Decree. This brings up the idea of Maktub in the Lawh Al-Mahfuz, meaning that God has our fate written down and it is not up to Humans to change it or declare knowledge over Al Ghayb. The ‘doctor’ presumed he was the most knowledgeable in the situation and his statements were almost devoid of pity and eventually. Eventually, the tables have turned for him to die instead of the champion. 

Ode’s endowment to calligraphy is a great one: it showcases itself as a spiritual exercise. In fact, practicing our writing of the Persian alphabet and some of Sa’di’s famous lines crystallized some of the most important didactic ideas and perennial philosophies of humility, respect, and integrity. This formal esthetic code leaves place for the creativity of the apprentice; as each student develops or follows a different font harmonious with the meaning conveyed in the text. 

Persian literature additionally extends to musicality. Hearing the melody of ‘[viii]بنی آدم اعضای یکدیگرند’ seemed to emphasize the feelings of unity. The harmonic scale used and intense pauses emphasize the importance of the unity of the Human Race as one body[ix], once a body member is in pain, the remainder aches in agony and impotence. ‘[x]آمدي جانم به قربانت ولي حالا چرا’ on the other hand follows a hopeless romantic tone, where the author compares the coming of his beloved with the advent of Sohrab and Rustum to war: the Beloved’s visit is as useless and the father’s recognition of his son in the deathbed of the battlefield. Both samples showcase a contemporary take on a mournful national epic. They also use propletic statements and rhetorical speech to foreshadow a mournful, undesirable outcome or a didactic moral. 

In sum, this article discusses the influence of Ode in Persian not only literature but also culture, despite memorization lessening more and more; showing Ode as a deliberately open form devoid of lyricism; expressing sheer reality. Last but not least, a reflection on calligraphy showed the extent to which the talismanic component present in Ode and Qasidah is showcased in writing as a spiritual exercise and as a way to perpetuate the Persian language.

[i] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[ii] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[iii] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[iv] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[v] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[vi] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[vii] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Vol. 3, Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[viii]Bani Adam Azaye Yekdigarand. HooniakTV,

[ix] “Bani Adam”.

[x] آمدي جانم به قربانت ولي حالا چرا؟, Iranian National Agency,

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