Jami, the last great poet in classical Persian, was man of great talents born into the flowering of culture under the Timurid rulers at Herat. Moulana Nuruddin Abdorrahman Jami, to give him his full name Jam means wine goblet was born at a small town in Khorasan, now Afghanistan, in 1414, and died in Herat in 1492. He learned Arabic and Persian from his father, was further educated in Herat, but then studied under Ghazi-zadeh Ruhm in Samarqand, returning to Herat to study philosophy and mathematics.

A deeply religious man, Jami then joined the dervish circle of Khaja Saaduddin Kashghari. When the poet who was a Sunni in a predominantly Shia community made the haj to Mecca in 1472 he was very well known. Lavish offers were made to him from the courts of the Ottoman and Timurid rulers, but, against the pattern of the times, Jami preferred his own quiet search for truth to honours and luxury under foreign rulers. He wrote many books of poetry, theology and grammar 44 to 99, accounts differ and at the age of 70 completed his masterpiece: Yusuf and Zulaikha. Jami was an independent man with a good sense of humour, and often annoyed his fellow writers with sharp comments on their wisdom and humility.

Jami wrote copiously, and among his prose works are Nafahatul Uns (Breaths of the Breeze of Friendship), Beharistan (Abode of Spring) and biographies of Sufi Saints. Baharistan, which he wrote for his son, is in the style of Saadi's Rose-Garden. In addition to Saadi, he modelled himself on Hafez and Nizami. Best known among the poetry are Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones of Grace: over 25,000 couplets), Salaman and Absal (a version of Leila and Majnun), Khiradnameh Iskandar (Alexander's Wisdom) and Yusuf and Zulaikha. Zuleika, the daughter of the king of Mauretania, saw repeatedly in a dream someone of such beauty that she fell in love with the vision. Finally, the apparition is named as Egypt, the figure as Yusuf (Joseph), and Zuleika plays the part of Potiphar's wife.

Persian has a long history, but was eclipsed by Arabic after the conquest, becoming again the outstanding literary language of western Asia from the 13th to 15th centuries. Among the great names are Firdawsi, Rumi, Saadi, Hafez, Khosrow, Nizami, Attar and Jami. All are different, though apt to sound similar in translation, given the difficulty in conveying the beauty of language (on which the poetry depends) without losing its subtlety of thought. Complex allusions, the diffuse mystical strain of the imagery and its constant reference to medieval Islamic thought all make for difficulties.

What may be useful to contemporary poets (who have other themes and objectives) is the illustration of what is possible through a highly-polished language, without concession to 'speech of the tribe': the poetry works within a long-established tradition by further refining a high art form. Firdawsi (d. c.1220) wrote the Iranian national legend in the 50,000-line-long masnavi of Shahnama. Rumi (d. 1273) was a prolific and multi-faceted writer: his Masviya ma'navi alone runs to 27,00 lines and incorporates Sufi thought, ethics, anecdotes and stories. Attar's (d. c. 1220) Mantiq al-tayr is an allegory of the soul's path to the divine. Nizami (d. 1209), a master story teller, assembled five long romances in a khamsa. Amir Khosrow of Delhi (d. 1325) and Jamir (d. 1492) both learned from him. Saadi of Shiraz (d. 1292) wrote mellifluous ghazals on earthly and spiritual beauty. Hafez (d. 1390) blended the secular and mystical in ghazals that operated on many levels of meaning which influenced Goethe and western literature.

Jami should be read with some understanding of his times: art, history, literature, philosophy and culture, which are fascinating enough. For the literature, try as always the bibliography in the The New Princeton Encyclopedia section on Persian Poetry, E. Browne's A Literary History of Persia (1902-24: affordable as Indian reprints), and A. Schimmel's A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry(1992: good bibliography). Many sites sell books/CDs on Persian art and poetry.

Suggestion: A Two-Colored Brochade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry. Annemarie Schimmel. University of North Carolina Press. 1992. $64.61

Something of a specialist's book: a hardback of 558 pages detailing the extraordinary nature of imagery in Persian classical poetry. Not cheap, but the only work outside journal articles to explain what will otherwise remain inaccessible and baffling to western readers. Wide-ranging and illustrated with the author's translations.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.