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Nasir-i Khusraw and His Diwan.

During our months of working with Nasir-i Khusraw we acquired an almost physical picture of him, almost a memory in reverse, becoming clearer rather than more vague with time. Learned, sober, retiring, proud, bitter, ascetic, moral, intensely pious, sceptical before he believes but - once having assented with his Reason or Intellect to the tenets of faith - ready to sacrifice himself for his religion, ironic, outspoken, scathingly dismissive of anything or anyone he considers vulgar, debased or unintelligent - or even simply trivial or banal - he was not perhaps the mos enjoyable of companions.

At a time when his works are probably more widely admired than they are actually read, it is perhaps not surprising to find that the popular mind contains a different image of the poet; but how totally different from our own impression, based on our daily conversations (as it were) with the poet as a living personality. Myth has made Nasir-i Khusraw magician straight out of The Thousand and One Nights.

That he was an Ismaili all are agreed (excpt, perhaps inevitably, certain scholars who appear not to have read his poems). Around the Ismailis of his period a magical auras of images arises - the Old Man of the Mountain, the Assassins, and even certain tales of the Nights, such as that of Alauddin, which may be unconsciously based on Ismaili themes. Bit by bit, Nasir-i Khusraw was wrapped in this aura, till by the time the so-called Pseudo-Biography appears (probably first in the XVth century, but found fully evolved in the preface to the Tabriz lithograph edition of the Diwan) he has become the complete magus, engaged in occult battles with Assassin kings, master of the jinn, hermit, astrologer; all the astonishing in view of his repeated complaints that he is not the master of jinn ( I am no Solomon).

Now, as Ananda Commaraswamy has maintined, a myth is always true - or it is no true myth. Rather than dismissing the myth of Nasir-i Khusraw we would do better to ask what it means and whether it can help us to penetrate even more deeply into his Diwan than we could do by merely reading it.

First, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr likes to remind us, there are certain sages and poets around whom such stories cluster, and there are others to whom no magic is attributed. Almost without exception those thinkers who become known as miraculous figures are those whose involvement in spiritual matters is more than a merely intellectual participation. That Nasir-i Khusraw, who at first might appear much more staid than many another figure in Islamic literature, should be thought to have lived to the age 140 in a cave protected by talismans - this reveals something about his own spiritual practice as well as his influence on the imaginal history of the Persian world. It tells us that whatever he may actually have written, or even been and done, he was and is in some sense a figure of the miraculous to those who have inherited him.

If we can find no occultism in his poems, then, we must look elsewhere, we must look in a slightly slanted way, at an angel slightly askew, in order to find the seeds which generations have watered into magic blooms.

Most probably, all of the Diwan was written after Nasir-i Khusraws wanderings had ceased, after his search for wisdom amongst all sects had culminated in his meeting in Cairo with the Ismaili Imam, after his mission to Khorasan had ended with exile in Yamgan. It is the poetry of an old man, only in his best moods reconciled to the life of an exile, a hermit - a man who has precisely failed, at least outwardly, to mould the world closer to his hearts desire. When he cautions Ismaili missionaries, warning them that society at large will reward their preaching only with violence, he obviously speaks from direct experience. The golden court of the Fatimid Caliph was like a dream there in his bleak valley. He is no Faust - the magic is not to be found in his accomplishments in the world he despises, the world which rejected his mission.

The magical image of Ismailism in general is quite understandable. Many years after the days of Nasir-i Khusraw, the Nizaris of Alamut, though by no means the sort of people Marco Polo made them out, were certainly performing a sort of grand metaphysical spell when they declared that the Day of Resurrection had already occurred (in the esoteric sense of the unveiling of mysteries and interiorisation of the Divine Law), and that mankind was living in a totally spiritualised age.

The corpus of writings connected with the names of the great alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, the esoteric treatises of the Brethren of Purity, the Hermetic works assigned to the seventh Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, the cosmological speculations of the mysterious Umm al-Kitab - these and many other books and tales justify the air of secret knowledge surrounding a School which - after all - glorified in the Name Esoterists (al-batiniyyah).

Nasir-i Khusraw too was proud of the title. But if we search the Diwan for evidence of this sort of Ismaili philosophy, we shall for the most part come away disappointed. Here the doctrine of tawil (or spiritual hermeneutics as Corbin calls it) is mostly confined to a type of allegorisation whereby certain verses of the Quran or certain dogmas and traditions of Islam are shown to refer to people - to the Family of the Prophet, and especially to the Imams. If these figures refer again to cosmic principles in certain Ismaili works, there is little evidence that Nasir-i Khusraw shared such ideas. To him, the Imam is most of all the rightful ruler and sole legitimate interpreter of doctrine. True, we find verses on the emanationist cosmology of Ismailism (which resembles that of the Neoplatonist), but dealt with in a philosophical or theological rather than a mystical way. When Nasir approaches the language of the mystics (as in The Two Jewels for example) he seems to do so more in the manner of one propounding a riddle than one who cloaks the intensity of vision in veils of symbolism. What chiefly concerns him are problems dear to the Peripatetics, such as the eternity of the world, or to the theologians, such as free-will and determination. He is metaphysical, but not mystical in the sense of the later Sufi poets; above all, in the context of Persian literature, he is a moralist.

As a moralist, he often comes close to being a satirist; indeed poems like The Aging Rake, To a Merchant and The Decline of Khorasan are very successful satire, and very funny. Even a poem like A Wasted Pilgrimage, which as E.G. Browne points out comes closest to manifesting the sort of esoterism usually associated with Ismailism, can simultaneously be read (and translated) as an amusing commentary on the Pilgrimage-as-Grand-Tour. Much of Nasirs moralising is not at all the sort of message one expects from a Persian esoterist, at least one in the latter vein of Hafiz or Fakhr al-Din Araqi, but it is certainly not inconsistent with the esoteric point of view, as the marvellous qasidahs of Sanai also prove. Amongst Persian poets, Nasir-i Khusraw is usually ranked with the best six or seven, but while others command the lyric or narrative or mystical, he holds sway over the didactic realm of Persian verse.

This fact, plus the great difficulty and archaicism of his work, means that - aside from a few well-known tags - Nasir is probably the least known of all great Persian poets, even in Iran, not to speak of the West. And yet, once we have accepted that we are dealing with a type of poetry for which there is no longer much taste, especially in the Occident - once we have agreed to let down our defence agianst being preached at - we can finally begin to discover where the real magic of Nasir-i Khusraw is to be found.

If we were to undertake a statistical analysis of our authors Diwan (a task which, I trust, can safely be left to later generations) we might well find that the most frequently used word in it is SPEECH. The Word, the Logos - this is Nasirs principle, his main concern, his key. A man is known, he says, by his speech, what he says. In a world where language has been attacked as the prop for a facade hiding the existential abyss, and reduced to semiotics and linguistics; where the word is feared and mocked as inauthentic and oppressive; the reader must make a distinct effort of will to re-place himself imaginatively in a cosmos where the Logos is the Source, where the Name and the thing named are, on the level of correspondences, identical.

As in all religious systems which base themselves on the Word (whether in a form of a Book, a Scripture, or in the more condensed form of the invocation, the dhikr or mantra - or both), Islam refers itself consciously back to the Primordial Wisdom, the Golden Age in which man was given the Names. That Man is the animal-with-language means precisely that he is the central figure in the realm of manifestation, for it is through his command of language that he exercises his duties as kkalifat-Allah, the Vicegerent of God on earth. In Nasir-i Khusraws insistence on the centrality of the Word, we find the point where he participates most fully in the primordial aspect of the Tradition; where ritual and incantation blend with literature, where morality acquires a taste of transcendence. Even in his satires, there appears a reminiscence of the practices of the Aryan bards, whose curses could ruin the powerful; and in his most exalted moments (in the poem entitled, The Divan for example, or in the Ode of Night), we see Nasir-i Khusraw shaping reality through language in a way which can only be called magical. A good poet creates a world; a great poet then imposes that world, or rather superimposes it on the realm of ordinary reality. That Nasir has achieved this is proved by his status amongst Persian poets; it is also proved by his folk persona of magus and miracle worker. To understand him we must be prepared to more than merely read him; we must accept, at least for the time we read him, to participate in that world he created, and which blossoms again each time the Diwan is opened. Many Persian poets have boasted of their own greatness; Nasir is one of them. Some have been forgotten; others, like Nasir-i Khusraw, have been proved correct.

This is virtually the first book of Nasir-i Khusraws poetry to appear in a European language. In keeping with the theory that each age needs its own translations, we have tried to present him to a period which seems to require something other than the kind of translations from Persian popular in the XIXth and early XXth centuries. At their best ( as with FitzGerald for instance), these translations still stand as genuine donations to the literature they enriched, genuine trans-lations or carryings-across of elements from one culture to another. At their worst, they may have been good scholarship, but they were bad English poetry, much worse than the average translations made at the time from Far Far Eastern or Indian languages.

In preparing the present work, therefore, we have considered it necessary to break for the most part with the earlier custom of attempting to present Persian poetry in metre and rhyme. Most of the poems here are in free verse; as Eliot said, of course, free verse does not exist, and in fact an attempt has been made to produce something like genuine poetry through the use of rhythms and other devices natural to the language. Some poems are in what might be called rough blank verse, with lines of five stresses. A few use rhyme and regular metre. One advantage of this relative freedom is that meaning need never be sacrificed for scansion or rhyme - if meanings have been distorted, therefore, the reader may more justly complain. However, we have not sought to produce a trot or even a very literal version of the poems. In the cause of trying to develop in English something of Nasirs unique combination of elegance and directness (his Shakespearean ability to coin old saying), his ease of topical reference, his satirical punch, his highly persona voice, we - on the one hand - have certainly wandered at time a bit from strict literalness. Some readers may object that Nasir has become too contemporary, too colloquial, even too American! On the other hand, we have not followed FrtzGerald or Pound in actually re-writing our poet. Lines may have been dropped, images understandable only to Islamic readers may have been modified or given more general equivalents, but on the whole the poems read the line for line as they were conceived.

The arguments about methods of translation will never cease, because translation is that undefinable thing, an art - not a science. In our case, we have used the technique of collaboration between a scholar and a poet - and since these two gifts are rarely combined in one human being, we feel justified in hoping that whatever deficiencies the method may possess will be overlooked by readers in return for getting a readable and reasonably accurate version of great and greatly interesting poet.

Finally: we could never have produced this work with the help and encouragement of our teacher Seyyed Hossein Nasr. He, however, exercised no control over the actual process of translation, so that neither error nor ill-judgement must be imputed to anyone other than the authors.

Peter Lamborn Wilson

Tehran - May 26, 1977

Note: Readers will notice that the formal system of transliteration of Persian and Arabic words which we have used in the introductory material is replaced in the poems by much more informal system based loosely on pronunciation. We want the poems to be read as much as possible as poetry rather than scholarship. Difficult references are explained in the Notes on the Poems at the end of the book.


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