Abul Qasim Ferdowsi

Ferdowsi, Abul Qasim


Born circa 940 in Tus; died there 1020 or 1030. Persian and Tadzhik poet.

Ferdowsi was the son of an impoverished aristocratic landowner. In 976 he began a continuation of the epic poem Shah-nameh, which had been begun by the poet Daqiqi. Ferdowsi completed the first version in 994 and a second version in 1010. The Shah-nameh was presented to Sultan Mahmud al-Ghazni (ruled 998–1030). The sultan was strongly displeased with the epic because its description of monarchy was in opposition to despotism and to his aggressive policies. This fact, the true reason for the sultan’s rejection of Ferdowsi’s work, has been established by the Soviet scholars E. E. Bertel’s, B. G. Gafurov, and S. P. Tolstov. Ferdowsi received no reward for his 35 years of work on the Shah-nameh, and in addition was persecuted and spent many years in exile. There is a tradition that Ferdowsi composed a satire on Sultan Mahmud.

The Shah-nameh, the national epic of the Persians and Tadzhiks and a masterpiece of world literature, is a lengthy poem consisting of 55,000 bayts (couplets). It was immensely popular from the moment of its first appearance. As the poem was copied and recopied over the course of time, the text became altered by many errors and insertions.

The first scholarly edition of the Shah-nameh (1829), based on a comparison of 17 manuscript copies, was prepared in India by the British scholar T. Macan. The edition of the French scholar J. Mohl, based on a comparison of 30 manuscripts, was published in Paris (1838–78). Both editions were based on manuscripts that had appeared after the 15th century and that were not described by the respective editors. The German scholar J. A. Vullers prepared a text based on a synthesis of the Macan and Mohl editions; three of the nine volumes of his edition were published between 1877 and 1884. Vullers’ edition was completed in Tehran by the Iranian scholars S. Nafisi, Iqbal, and M. Minowi for the millennial jubilee of Ferdowsi, held from 1934 to 1936.

The first scholarly edition of the Shah-nameh, based on E. E. Bertel’s’ modern methods of textual criticism and using the oldest manuscript copies, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, was published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (vols. 1–9, 1960–71). Since 1971 a new edition of this text has been undergoing republication in Tehran. Specialized glossaries for the epic include the Lughat-i-Shah-nameh by Abdal Qadir Baghdadi (begun 1656) and the Glossary for Ferdowsi’s Shah-nameh and Concordance of the Poetry of the Shah-nameh by the German scholar F. Wolff (both published 1935).

A number of lyric poems and an epic poem based on themes from the Bible and the Koran, Yusuf and Zuleikha, are also attributed to Ferdowsi, but it is unlikely that he is their author.

The Shah-nameh is divided into 50 padishahs (reigns) ranging in length from several dozen to several thousand bayts. There are lengthy dastans (tales) in some of the padishahs. The most important dastans include “Zal and Rudabah,” “The Seven Exploits of Rustam,” “Rustam and Suhrab,” “Siyavush,” “The Seven Exploits of Isfandiyar,” “Rustam and Isfandiyar,” and “Bizhan and Manizheh.” The epic is divided into three parts—mythological, heroic, and historical—the last part beginning with the appearance of Iskander, or Alexander the Great. In the mythological part of the epic there are cosmogonic concepts and adaptations of ancient Iranian myths, which to a certain extent had appeared before the Common Era in the Avesta. The Iranian tales in the heroic part of the Shah-nameh were contaminated by the Sistani (Saka-Scythian) heroic cycle; the Sistani element became predominant, and therefore Rustam, rather than a shah, is the hero of that part.

Each padishah follows a definite pattern: an introduction, speech from the throne, the narration, last will and testament, and the ending. To a great extent the Shah-nameh retains features of the heroic epos, with its elaborate stereotyped phrases for the description of duels and quarrels. Literary traditions, expressed in philosophical disputes and didactic admonitions, were another important influence. The court panegyric influenced the form of the epic’s historical part.

Ferdowsi’s highly concise and expressive style combines epic stereotypes with individualized authorial intonations. The use of hyperbole is not selective, as in the heroic epos, but extends to descriptions of the appearance, inner life, and exploits of the heroes. Ferdowsi uses many epithets and similes, but relatively few metaphors. He avoids abstract imagery and concepts based on Islam and medieval philosophy, as well as Arabic terms and echoes of Arabic literature. However, his penchant for Persian archaisms is apparent.

The Shah-nameh deals throughout with the struggle between good and evil, often depicted as an opposition between justice and injustice. This opposition is expressed as an unceasing conflict between Persia (the source of good) and Turan (the bearer of evil) and in images reflecting Ferdowsi’s ideas of the ideal ruler; the work presents an entire gallery of just rulers. The other fundamental theme in the Shah-nameh is the author’s love for his native country, Persia. The heroes and shahs of the epic consider it their sacred duty to defend their fatherland’s independence from foreign invaders.

In an age when Islam’s influence was unlimited, Ferdowsi extolled reason as man’s highest gift and a pledge of victory and immortality: “And he in whom the light of reason burns will commit no evil deeds in the world.”

The Shah-nameh expresses sympathy for working people, particularly peasants. Ferdowsi urges rulers to show concern for working people, to exempt them from payment of taxes during natural disasters, and to protect them from the tyranny of officials. His sympathy for the common people is expressed both through imagery and in lyric digressions, particularly those that depict popular uprisings; examples are the legendary uprising led by the smith Kaweh and the historical fifth-century revolt led by Mazdak. The epic is thus fundamentally oriented toward the common people, despite the author’s clearly expressed legitimist world view. Ferdowsi believed that the throne could be occupied only by a member of the legitimate dynasty, who was the possessor of fan (divine grace). However, if the crowned head enters on the path of injustice, this fan deserts him. Ferdowsi thus acknowledges the people’s right to overthrow a tyrant by force.

The Shah-nameh has been translated many times into numerous European languages. One of the epic’s parts was translated from German into Russian in the 19th century by V. A. Zhukovskii, and another part was translated from German into Russian in the 20th century by S. Sokolov. The Soviet translators M. Lozinskii, S. Lipkin, V. Derzhavin, Ts. Banu, M. D’iakonov, and I. Sel’vinskii have translated most of the work.

The importance of the Shah-nameh for later Persian and Tadzhik literature and for the literatures of other Eastern peoples has been immense. The work has inspired many imitations and cyclic epic poems.


In Russian translation:
Kniga tsarei Shakhname. Translated by M. Lozinskii. Edited and with notes and an article by F. A. Rozenberg. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
Shakhname, vols. 1–4. [Translated by Ts. B. Banu and A. Lakhuti. Article and notes by A. A. Starikov. Edited by A. Lakhuti and A. N. Boldyrev.] Moscow, 1957–69.
Shakhname, vols. 1–2. Translated by V. Derzhavin and S. Lipkin. [Introductory article by I. S. Braginskii. Preparation of text and notes by M. N. O. Osmanov.] Moscow, 1964.


Bertel’s, E. E. Abu-l-Kasim Firdousi i ego tvorchestvo. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
D’iakonov, M. Ferdousi: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Osmanov, M. N. O. Firdousi: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo. Moscow, 1959.
Nöldeke, T. Das iranische Nationalepos, 2nd ed. Berlin-Leipzig, 1920.
Massé, H. Firdousi et l’épopée nationale. Paris, 1935.
Afshan, Iraj. Kitabshinasi-i Firdawsi. Tehran, 1968.