Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Response 2, Roya Ahmadi-Moghadam

Epics and Didactic Poetry

The most influential epics of Persian poetry were written by Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Aside from the literary value of the work as a whole, Shahnameh has arguably helped defined Iranian culture and ensure the preservation of the Persian language.1

Though there are many narratives that focus on different characters throughout the book, much of the literary work focuses on the age of heroes –one which is of course the highly celebrated and legendary character of Rostam. In discussion, many individuals (including myself) chose the story of Sohrab’s death —one of the most tragic episodes in the Shahnameh. Rostam faces, unbeknownst to him, his only son who us fighting for the opposing side. In combat, Rostam fatally stabs Sohrab who, as he lays dying, recounts how his father, the mighty Rostam, is what had brought him to the battlefield. Rostam, realises the truth as he sees Tahmina’s bracelet on the young man’s arm, but alas it is too late and so Rostam is left to lament ‘the person who was dearer to him than all others.’2 Ferdowsi writes:

His guilty sword distained with filial gore,

He beat his burning breast, his hair he tore;

The breathless corse before his shuddering view,

A shower of ashes o’er his head he threw;

“In my old age,” he cried, “what have I done?

Why have I slain my son, my innocent son!3

Ferdowsi’s narrative here serves to show his audience the foolishness of excessive pride in glory and triumphalism; although Rostam may have been rightfully defending the Iranian forces from the Turani enemies his underlying pride and desire for power, our victorious leader is left with no prize except his own heartbreak.4

The insertion of an underlying moral/lesson or the strong suggestion of what constitutes proper ethics are by no means unique to Ferdowsi, and, rather, are embraced by poets before and long after his time. As Arbary puts it, “didactic writing seems to have been endemic in Persia, the homeland of saws and proverbs.” 5 

In this sense, we can connect Ferdowsi with later poets whose styles and messages would widely diverge from his own heroic epics.

For example, Rumi’s poetry, like Ferdowsi’s advocates for letting go of our greed and pride, but carries the sentiment a step further and urges us to abandon worldly fixations and see the truth through our love for others and the divine in a characteristically Sufi manner.

Rise vig’rous youth! be free; be nobly bold:

Shall chains confine you, thou they blaze with gold?

Go; to your vase the gather’d main convey:

What were your secrets? The pittance of a day!

New plans for wealth your fancies would invent;

Yet shells, to nourish pearls, must lie content.

The man, whose robe love’s purple arrows rend

Bids av’rice rest, and toils tumultuous end.

Hail, heav’nly love! true source of endless gains!

Thy balm restores me, and thy skill sustains.5

Rumi effectively delivers this message to his audience with the use of strong imagery and metaphors. Rumi writes that the attachment to our material possessions has literally bound us to this world with chains of gold and dares readers to break free of these constraints. Furthermore, he notes that “shells, to nourish pearls, must lie content.” In other words, to reach truly great gains (i.e. “heav’nly love”) we must let go of our greed and constant search for material gain, and look towards the truth of love and the light of spiritual divinity.

Didactic poems and epics ultimately aim to teach lessons and give readers moral guidance, which is exactly what both Ferdowsi and Rumi accomplish. Though their styles and approaches are very different we see a similarity in them –and across most Persian poets– in their ability to masterfully weave their own commentary regarding human beings’ sense of morality and ethics into eloquent literary works.

Coffee Shop Performances of Shahnameh

Coffee shops have long been one of the common gathering places in Iranian culture and were used to share art, host intellectual discourse, and even settle important agreements.6 Dramatic performances called Naqqāli are among one of the oldest traditional art forms and have “long played an important role in society, from the courts to the villages.” In the performance the Naqqāl (performer) will recount great epics (like Ferdowshi’s) or other stories in verse/prose while simultaneously acting out scenes with grand gestures and movements. Often, instrumental music and painted scrolls will accompany the performer to further enrich the story. Live music helps to mirror the emotion and tone of the Naqqāl creating a greater level of understanding and focus in the audience; As the music intensifies we lean further in awaiting some climactic resolution, and as it changes tone we feel as though we can understand the character’s anger, joy, pride, or heartbreak.

While Naqqāls are thought of primarily as entertainers, they are also “bearers of Persian literature and culture,” who must be aware of “local cultural expressions, languages and dialects,…traditional music” and, most importantly, have the ability to retain the stories of a rich oral culture while maintaining a captivating stage presence.7

Most of us, I would assume, would still be drawn to ask: Why just one man over a whole cast? One might speculate that the tradition itself could be simply a matter of practicality (only one actor can be used to tell a complex narrative, meaning Naqqālis would be fairly accessible and require little organization), or that by intentionally limiting the cast of such a reenactment forces the audience to engage and listen closely, to watch the performer as he quickly shifts from the narrator, to the hero, to his foe.

Whatever the reason, we see that once again, Persian poetic and literary traditions are inherently connected; The tradition of  Naqqāli ties multiple forms of art together resulting in a performance style that is a culmination of ideas reflective of Iranian society and culture.


We have again and again come back to the fact that calligraphy is considered by Muslims as the highest form of art and has an inherent tie to both Middle Eastern art and music. Calligraphy reinforces the melodic nature of the word with its stylized letters, while also adding its own layer of artistic value purely in regards to its aesthetic appeal –indeed, the beauty in the written manifestation of the poetry is profound even to those who cannot read or understand Farsi/Arabic.

Sufi’s in particular place distinct emphasis on the interpretations of each letter and its stoke. The letters themselves may be associated with various ideas – for example, alif is strongly tied with God and the divine, while the cupped shape of a letter like nūn implies protection.8 The message that the pen stokes tell seems to be almost as, if not as important as the actual text itself. 

The artist’s purpose and intention behind his stroke, is therefore much more meaningful than his precision. While the proportions of the letters and overall symmetry of the piece should be taken into account, I find that, personally, if I dwell on these details my final product looks forced and listless. By taking a page from Sufi scholars and focusing on the meaning I want to invoke rather than worry about how close of a match my writing is too the sample, I find my strokes more lively and soft, with the curves and bends of one letter playfully intertwining with the next. 

  1. Bekhrad, Joobin “The Book Of Kings: The Book That Defines Iranians.” BBC Culture, August 2018.
  2. The Tragedy Of Sohrab. British Library.
  3. Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Yassavoli Publications, 2005.
  4. Mahallati, Mohammad Jafar Amir. Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shiʻi Islam. University of Toronto Press, 2016.
  5. Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Yassavoli Publications, 2005.
  6. “A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee: From Traditional Persian Coffee Houses To Modern Cafés” Tehran Times, September 2011. 
  7. “Naqqāli, Iranian Dramatic Story-telling”  UNESCO Intangeble Cultural Heritage 
  8. Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York University Press, 1984.

Leave a Reply