The Book of Kings
An age of invasions
About 2,200 years ago, brilliant civilizations were flourishing
in Asia and in Europe. While ancient Egypt was another very important cultural pole on
the edges of the Mediterranean Sea, ancient Greece was rapidly expanding: the
time of the great philosophers, Socrates, Plato and his disciple Aristotle was
still close, and the Acropolis shone on the whole Mediterranean basin, while Rome and Carthage
were at each other’s throat.
Thousand of miles east of the Peloponnese, the great kingdom of
Persia dominated immense Eurasia with the Persian civilization fostering cultural
links with the no less brilliant Hindu civilization. This was the time of the
historical Buddha. Meanwhile, the followers of Lao Tsu were spreading his philosophy of the Tao in
a China sheltered from the formidable Mongolian tribes by the recently erected famous
Great Wall. Unable to cross this colossal wall noticeable from the moon
which will safeguard Chinese civilization from their invasion attempts for centuries,
the Turko-Mongol hordes turned away from it to swarm onto Central Asia and the Iranian
plateau before reaching Europe around 450 AD, under the banner of the terrible Attila,
king of the Huns and "the scourge of God."
Two centuries later, with the Sassanid Empire extending from the
borders of present Afghanistan to the banks of Mesopotamia, the invasions from the
west by rising Islam’s conquering Arabs chattered Persia’s central power. This, in
turn, opened the empire’s northern border to the Tartar barbarians and other Mongolian
The Arabs, whose numbers were in fact very small by comparison
with the Persian Empire’s denizens, had difficulty in conquering this immense
country. To overcome the numerous pockets of resistance they encountered, they then
literally hired an army of mercenaries from Turkmen tribes of Asian origin. Once they
achieved military control of ancient Persia, this Turkish army eventually took the reins of
the country’s political power.
The main characteristic of all these Turko-Mongol tribes who
successively invaded Persia does not only lay in their common racial origin: one can
indeed notice that all these invaders whose numbers and culture are much lesser than
their Iranian "hosts’" successively merged and fused with the great Persian
civilization. As soon as a conquering tribe would settle down and begin to
civilize, another would arrive through the northern plains, only to undergo, after two
or three generations, the same fate as the previous one: the military conquerors were
culturally conquered and swallowed up by the civilization they were supposed to have
subjected. And this story ceaselessly repeated itself throughout Iran’s
history, practically till the beginning of the twentieth century!
Well before the seventh century CE’s Arab invasion, numerous
very ancient books of Hindu origin, such as the tales of the Thousand and One Nights,
the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, as well a very substantial anthology that range from
history to the epic, called "XodaÔ Namak,"
existed in Sassanid times’ Persia. Preserved with great care by the scholars of the time, these books were written in Pahlavi, the
Indo-European language then commonly spoken in Iran. As the invading Arab conquerors’
armies on their way to propagate their new Islamic religion approached from the
South-West, the wise men took the precaution to send the most invaluable works amongst their
impressive libraries to the north of the country. During the next decades, the scientific
works, some of which are the founding grounds of mathematics, were gradually translated into
Arabic. This allowed for their dissemination to the very confines of the Muslim
territories, i.e. Spain and Central Europe. This is how the famous "Al Jabr’" —later to become known
in the West as "algebra"— has come to us as an Arab contraption!
The history books and the poetry collections were, on the other
hand, translated for the main part into Persian, the Indo-European language spoken by
Northern Iranians who lived in the Khorasan province, a vast area of the country
covering most of Central Asia. Tous was the name of one of its cities.
To this very day, some of these works constitute the foundations
of Persian culture: in the good city of Tous lived, about a thousand years ago, a certain
Ferdowsi who was to undertake the monumental task of translating into Persian what
he considered to be the most essential parts of the "XodaÔ
Namak", hence fashioning the famous
Book of Kings. Indeed, the
Arab armies had been an overbearing and devastating example of the Persian nation’s military as well as political
incapability to face multiple invasions. This had not escaped Ferdowsi’s notice who consequently decided
to protect the Aryan culture and civilization at all costs by raising his own version
of an invisible "Great Wall of China." Such was, he reasoned, his
true mission. This explains why Ferdowsi did not translate all of the
XodaÔ Namak. First of all, the task was enormous. Knowing how low the average
life expectancy was at the time, a whole life probably would not have been sufficient.
Ferdowsi was, in his great wisdom, well aware of this fact.
Beside, not all various chapters of the
had the same spiritual force: some merely narrated historical or epic events while others concealed
an authentic mystical message, a deep esoteric meaning. Being, above all, an accomplished mystic Sufi, Ferdowsi was
perfectly able to identifyand select the passages with a high spiritual content. Those he
decided to translate into Persian and record in a book much less voluminous than its
original model, although already quite sizable: the
or Book of Kings.
The Book of Kings
Staging a constant confrontation between Light and Darkness
where mystic knights defend the values of justice, Beauty, Good, and Truth against
malefic forces continuously at work, always regenerated and never short of guiles or dark
designs, the Shah Nameh
is, as a result, a book of indisputable spiritual chivalry. While
certain popular traditions glorify traditional physical force, the
extols, instead, the force of humility in front of God.
The more humbled in front of God the hero is, the more he bows
to his will and implores his help and support, and the likelier he is to prevail, make
decisive advances, and deal fatal blows to his treacherous foes.
Armed by the hand of God, the spiritual knight safeguards
civilization and its values from anarchy, injustice, and chaos.
These knights have had to pass seven successive spiritual trials
in order to purge themselves from the dragon symbolizing their lower soul, their
animal drives and their ego’s seat before acquiring this status. This animal soul of
theirs, also called "nafs,"
is the sum of all primitive instincts, sexuality, violence and
aggressiveness at the service of self-complacency, vanity and personal self-centered ambition.
Only he who controls his
nafs can hope to reach the
ultimate step where he comes into contact with the Simorgh, the legendary mythical bird living in the eighth reach, i.e. the
world of immortality, heavenly Paradise, beyond the intermediate worlds inhabited by
beings still lingering on the long path to perfection. This Simorgh represents, for its
part, the ultimate evolution of the mystic’s soul who, upon having reached the end of its
journey, has become a magnificent and all-knowing dweller of the spiritual heavens.
The mystic knights are placed under the protection of a
spiritual guide —or "pir" in Persian— portrayed as a white haired young man, young as in the
eternal youth of those who have reached immortality and, at the same time, white haired
as in the wisdom and knowledge of the very old.
This guide, named Zal, is continually in touch with the Simorgh.
Since he holds the Simorgh’s feathers, whenever he is confronted with an
insuperable impediment, he places one of them in the fire and the Simorgh responds to Zal’s call
by descending into the material world to aid him.
The knights’ spiritual guide Zal also is the father of Rostam,
the most famous and bravest knight of the Iranian epic.
Having torn the veil separating the sensible from the
supersensible worlds, these knights are now active on both sides of this veil. Thereupon, most of
the Shah Nameh’s
events take place simultaneously in both worlds. Accordingly, the
reader must expect "shuttling" between both material and invisible worlds.
The reader must also reflect upon the mystical significance of
this Book of Kings’ chivalry tales Ferdowsi raised as an invisible wall against
barbarousness and materialism.
Bare eyes may not be able detect it. Yet this wall is no less
real: to spot it, one needs a sixth sense latent in all souls. But only mystics have learnt
how to develop and use this sense.
Indeed this bulwark has, to this day, effectively insured the
survival of an apparently subdued civilization as well as of a Persian culture that
preserved its identity for over a thousand years by indefatigably and fully assimilating invading
outsiders who literally dissolved into it.
As mentioned earlier, this
is one of the pillars of Persian mystic culture: Mowlana Rumi hints at Rostan in his writings. So does Hafez of
Shiraz, who drafted many poems—or "Ghazals"— in the style of the
Shah Nameh. Hafez had a copy of the
made for his personal library, and he makes numerous references to it.
Likewise, Saadi imitated the rhythms and style of Ferdowsi’s
Book of Kings—of
which he quotes many passages—when he drafted his "Boostan," a book of
admonitions, in poetic form.
The Book of Kings’
influence on Persian literature and poetry is so immense it remains to this day the object of comprehensive scholarly research.
Despite the voluminous amount of papers he left behind, Ferdowsi
speaks very little about his family and his personal life. The great mystic Sufi
that he was insists more on his own love for the prophet Ali. Ferdowsi undertook the translation of the
Book of Kings
from Pahlavi into Persian as his existence’s spiritual mission. It was to occupy the next
thirty-five years he still had to live.
Ferdowsi was a well-to-do man with a substantial wealth when he
began his translation. Knowing his was a long-term endeavor, he realized it was going
to be very timeconsuming and costly. He thus hired two full-time assistants, a translator
and a scribe, to work with him on the writing of the
Ferdowsi’s "enterprise" worked as a workgroup along a well organized assembly line: the translator
would translate a sentence aloud, which Ferdowsi would attempt to transpose
forthwith into Persian verse which the scribe would in turn put down on paper; then the
scribe would read aloud what he had just written, so that Ferdowsi could amend, if necessary,
his verses which the scribe would then rewrite. The procedure would then repeat for
the next sentence of the original Pahlavi.
This technique precluded Ferdowsi from exercising any other
professional activity for he composed himself the Persian verses of this unimaginable
monumental piece. Because of that, he had to sell bit-by-bit all of his belongings in order
to keep paying wage to his coworkers and pursue his translation and versification work. The only way
of financing his work without drawing from his personal assets would have been to
seek subsidies from the state, a common occurrence in those times. Nonetheless,
Ferdowsi was well aware that monarchs primarily endow works that flatter and glorify
them, and that because of this, he truly was highly unlikely to obtain his king’s support
for such a long poem of ancient epics that did not praise the king of Persia in any
close or remote fashion.
Hence Ferdowsi withdrew from the world to accomplish his
translation. After two decades, the main fundamental parts amongst the most important
passages that contained authentic spiritual messages had been translated. By then,
Ferdowsi was practically ruined. Some his friends advised him, given his old age for the
time—he was over sixty—to send the king a copy of his work to seek financial help
from him. This would have enabled him to pursue the Persian translation and
versification of the Book of Kings.
Now, fate had it that at that precise time, the Shiite dynasty
that ruled Persia was brutally overthrown by Turkish invaders.
They were Sunni. And Ferdowsi was notorious as a Shiite who
continually mentioned his faith and his love for Ali in his writings…
Ferdowsi’s request for funding came back from the new Turkish
headman of Iran, king Mahmoud, with the answer that should he agree to conceal his
Shiite views, he would then pay him thirty thousand golden coins —a colossal sum which
would allow him to pursue comfortably his translation— whereas if he kept publicly
proclaiming the prophet Ali’s glory, he would have him crushed under his elephants’
But Ferdowsi had the courage of his opinions!
Above all, he wanted to be able to appear with his head high in
front of his master Ali upon his permanent arrival in the next world.
As a perfect mystic, he was certain of life’s continuance after
physical death, and ceaselessly readied himself for it, contending that: "Our true
dwelling is elsewhere."
For he had seen in a dream the important spiritual mission
assigned to him. He knew without fail that he would eventually sink into poverty.
Nonetheless he had resigned himself to it because the certainty that this mission was his
earthly existence’s most important matter inhabited him. He could thus not give it up for
Far from yielding to the king and complying with his demands,
Ferdowsi chose instead to ignore his threats. He even publicly insulted him, before taking
at once the path to exile and becoming an itinerant dervish who roamed from city to city
for about fifteen years…Indeed Ferdowsi lived over the age of eighty-three.
The fate of the ancient texts
The XodaÔ Namak
comprised the history of Persia throughout
seven millennia, from prehistoric legendary times to the time of the Sassanid kings
who had ordered the collection of a number of ancient tales from various sources to
compose this imposing book.
A few decades after the Arab invasion and the Sassanid emperors’
fall, pockets of Persian nationalism began to give birth, in various areas of this
immense territory, to practically independent actual feudal states. To assert their Aryan identity
before the Arab invader, these states began to translate the very old texts harboring the
values of Indo-European culture into Persian. Such was the case, in the fourth century
of the Hegira (around 1,000 CE), of the state of Safarid, located in present Baluchistan,
east of Iran, where a prose translation of the
XodaÔ Namak was first initiated.
Likewise, a considerable impulse towards the translation of
ancient texts, including that of "Kalileh and Demnah," blossomed in Samanid, the last
independent Iranian state where Persian culture and Shiite tradition was flourishing
before the Turkish invasion.
The adventures this "Kalileh and Demnah" underwent deserve to be
narrated, so that one can fully comprehend how chaotic the fate of an ancestral text
can be and how it can undergo many successive translations. Let us open a parenthesis
on this subject: The original text of the "Kalileh and Demnah" was written in
Sanskrit about five thousand years ago. Brought to Iran during Sassanid times, it
was translated into Pahlavi, the common language of the time, by wise men from the royal
court. A certain Ibn Moqafa then translated the text into Arabic after the Sassanids
fell. Then, as we wrote earlier, the Samanids translated "Kalileh and Demnah" into
Persian: the great poet Roudaki put it into verse at that time. This very text by
Roudaki was later imported to Europe and translated into Latin where it greatly inspired
seventeenth century CE French fable writer La Fontaine for the great majority of his fables,
which were in fact nothing but a loose French translation of Roudaki’s poems! Lastly, La
Fontaine’s fables influenced in turn in Khadjar times, i.e. in the nineteenth
century CE, an Iranian poet by the name of Iradj Mirza, who translated some of them into
Persian, in the form of very simple and very popular verses… thus completing the loop!
Birth of a vocation
Iran considered Roudaki, who had translated "Kalileh and Demnah"
into Persian poems, as the biggest poet of his time. Born in Samanid times the same
year Roudaki died, Ferdowsi who was immersed in this nationalist Shiite culture
could not fail to be influenced by his illustrious elder.
It could not escape Ferdowsi’s daily notice that a number of his
fellow countrymen knew protracted passages of "Kalileh and Demnah" by heart. He then
understood that, because of its ability to live in people’s memory, poetry was his
message’s best vehicle. Further, Ferdowsi had, since his early youth, an unquestionable gift for
poetry. He versified with great ease, creating for his own pleasure and for art’s sake
attractive musical poems, telling histories excerpted from very ancient tales.
A few years earlier, another poet, named Daqiqi, had undertaken
the task of translating the XodaÔ Namak
into Persian. A Zoroastrian, Daqiqi had begun
his translation with a passage telling the prophet Zarathoustra’s story but his slave
murdered him after he completed the translation of one thousand lines.
Ferdowsi was only forty years old when this murder took place.
Unlike other poets of his time, he did not frequent the royal court, preferring instead to
live his life away from worldliness, between poetry, his hobby, and the management of
his business, for he belonged to a well-to-do social class called "Dehqan" made up of
deeply rooted landowners: his family owned vast lands tilled by numerous
Ferdowsi was entertaining the idea of translating the
for his own pleasure when one night, he had a dream which was determining for the
remainder of his long earthly existence. In this dream, he met Daqiqi in a magnificent
flowery garden shaded by big trees. Daqiqi held in his right hand a cup of delicious
Ferdowsi, he raised slightly his cup and told Ferdowsi this wine
must be drunk only in king Kavous’ honor. Kavous was the famous king of the great Persian epic told in the
and Ferdowsi understood right away, once he collected himself, that
Daqiqi had just entrusted him from the next world with the mission of translating the
According to some stories, Ferdowsi went the next day to a Sufi
master who lived in his city of Tous, to ask him for permission and for the courage to
perform this long-term mission. This master was known as Sheik Mahmoud Ma’chouq Toussi.
When he accepted this mission, Ferdowsi was perfectly aware that
undertaking this pursuit would bring him no material benefit. On the contrary, he
would have to devote most of his wealth to it.
He also realized this was a twenty or thirty years affair, if
Despite all the difficulties this meant for him, he threw
himself into this mission because, besides being firmly convinced of the necessity of defending
Aryan culture vis-‡-vis Arab occupants, Ferdowsi believed above all in the truthfulness
of messages delivered through the channel of dreams.
Indeed Ferdowsi himself wrote that dreaming is a path towards
supersensory knowledge, a window on the metaphysical world:
During sleep, clear minds see the reality of all things as one
sees the fire on the water.
Do not think that the dream you see is a light matter, for dream
is a faculty proper to prophets,
Ferdowsi even gives a number of technical explanations in regard
to dreams, and in particular to the influence of the moon and the travel of
celestial bodies and other cosmic bodies as contributing to the creation of the adequate
conditions for the supersensible world’s door to open in the human soul. For he who, like Ferdowsi, believes in the truthfulness of
dreams, the message of a dream is even more important than an order personally handed down by
the king himself: it definitely stands at a higher level since messages delivered in
dreams emanate from higher spirits which represent divinity itself…
This is why this mission became a top priority for Ferdowsi.
Nothing would be able to make him deviate from the path he had taken: Ferdowsi now took
into account the message contained in his dream whose secret he had decoded.
What matters most, indeed, is not the ability to dream, but
rather the ability to interpret these dreams. To be able to decipher the symbols that are the
most common mode of expression of dreams, it is necessary to know their language.
This knowledge is generally recognized as being germane to prophets and clairvoyants.
Ferdowsi goes on to explain that the learning and the mastery of
this language have nothing to do either with experience, nor with age, nor with
academic transmission. Rather, it is an entirely innate faculty. Some are capable of
it, as if their soul knew this language, just as we may know a language other than the one that
we usually speak.
That is why stories that he went to a Sufi master to confirm
this mission and receive his spiritual support are definitely believable, and even very
Ferdowsi also writes in
that he saw Daqiqi who told him in a dream:
I have already translated one thousand verses; when you reach
the passage which I translated, quote exactly my verses, so that my
own name also abide in history…
Ferdowsi very scrupulously honored this request!
When, in the course of his own translation, he gets to the
passage previously translated by Daqiqi, he stops translating, quotes very faithfully Daqiqi’s
one thousand thirty five lines, not without criticizing afterwards his style which he
finds approximate and not much to his taste…
It should also be noted that this last dream is a direct
exchange, which by no means calls upon the symbolic language most often encountered in significant
This infers that Ferdowsi saw Daqiqi in two different dreams,
very remote in time: a first dream, entirely symbolic, seen before taking up his translation
of the Book of Kings,
and which was to determine his vocation, and the second, much more
direct, undoubtedly seen just before getting to the translation of the passage
already previously translated by Daqiqi, located about forty thousand lines after the beginning
of the Shah Nameh.
This probably puts these two dreams almost twenty years apart, a time
during which Ferdowsi translated without respite!
Many fanciful and unfounded stories on Ferdowsi’s life,
contrived by story tellers decades after his death, exist. In this matter as in many
others, it is necessary to know how to sort things, and sift seeds from weeds, so as not to lose
the thread of what his existence and his deep motives really were.
The surest, in this particular case, is to trust only what
Ferdowsi himself reported, and amongst others things, the two above mentioned dreams, which
show well to what point Ferdowsi was persuaded of the truthfulness of dreams.
In view of what himself wrote on the subject, it cannot be
doubted that Ferdowsi was, throughout his life, led on the spiritual path by way of dreams.
The poet’s death
We remember that in Ferdowsi’s time, while he had already
completed the major part of the Book of Kings,
Sultan Mahmoud’s Turkish armies invaded Persia. From then on, Sunni Moslems dominated the country and Shiites were removed
from strategic positions and even chased by the country’s new masters. Shiite Persians
would, from then on, hide their actual faith under the appearances of orthodox Sunnis.
In the eleventh century CE, more exactly in the year 412 of the
Hegira, Ferdowsi breathed his last at age eighty-three.
Now, that Ferdowsi was a Shiite was notorious. His poems, which
refer ceaselessly to his faith and love for Ali, broadcast it.
For this reason, the imam of the city of Tous where Ferdowsi had
lived and just died, refused to bury him religiously in the Muslim cemetery. So, the
late poet’s close relatives subsequently took his body to bury him in a small garden located
outside of the city’s bulwarks. Just as his body was going through the city gate on
its way to its resting place, a messenger of the Sultan was entering the town through exactly
the opposite door, carrying the thirty thousand golden coins the Turkish Sultan had
eventually agreed to give Ferdowsi to subsidize his work… But it was too late! And
the poet’s daughter sent the messenger with all his gold back, refusing categorically, as
her father would probably have done, the monarch’s belated reward.
The Sultan decided to use these thirty thousand golden coins to
build a dike, which allowed for the irrigation of the city of Tous.
Twenty-seven years after Ferdowsi’s death and the episode of the
golden coins bearing messenger, a famous traveling Sufi by the name of Nasser Khosrow
vouched having seen that dike dedicated to the
Book of Kings’
Let us return to Ferdowsi’s burial: it is customary, upon a
Muslim’s death, for a cleric to pray over his body. And the imam of Tous had refused to bestow
this ultimate honor upon the Shiite poet.
The chroniclers report that Sheik Abol Qassem Coraqani, the Sufi
Grand Master of the time who was considered to be the spiritual guide of his time,
took himself to Ferdowsi’s burial where he led the prayer. Now, considering the troubled
circumstances of the time, when Shiites, and Sufis in particular, had better be as discreet
as possible vis-‡-vis the Sunni occupant, this gesture from the Grand Master means a lot.
Indeed, he certainly would not have taken the risk to display so openly his Shiite
belief by defying the official imam’s religious authority had there been no master to disciple
bond between him and the deceased. This heavily symbolic gesture shows with certainty
that Ferdowsi was a very close disciple of the mystic Grand Master.
Several historians have claimed in earnest that the Sufi Sheik
was not actually present to Ferdowsi’s interment. It would thus have been a very private
affair, without the presence of any religious authority. The latter historians say the Sheik
went to Ferdowsi’s grave not on the same day but the day after the burial, and it is at
this time that he recited the prayer of the dead in honor of his deceased follower.
What is certain, it is that Sheik Abol Qassem Coraqani wrote
having seen at this moment a dream showing the state of Ferdowsi’s soul after his physical
death. The sheik writes he met in Paradise, in a luxuriant, green and flowery garden,
Ferdowsi dressed with a big "abba" or dervish dress, green in color, with a crown on his
head in the center of whichshone a magnificent jewel bright green in color too.
For a mystic like the Sheik, all these symbols show without
ambiguity the very high spiritual rank occupied by the great poet’s spirit in the mystic
heavens of the eighth climate, beyond the seven intermediate worlds inhabited by the
vast company of lesser evolved souls.
It is upon awakening that the Sheik allegedly went, after he saw
this dream, across the city to recite the prayer of the dead on Ferdowsi’s grave.
The way of dreams
This dream by Sheik Abol Qassem Coraqani is, after the two
above-mentioned ones, what determined the poet’s vocation as a translator, the third
dream of utmost importance in Ferdowsi’s life.
This third dream reveals to us the poet’s spiritual connection
to the Sufi Grand Master of his time. For him, dreaming was part of the world of prophecy,
and a holy spirit was capable of seeing everything through the mirror of dreams!
Yet, Ferdowsi was not a cleric attached to dogma and literalism
but rather, a mystic upholding his spiritual beliefs on his experiences of the
invisible world in his master’s pathway.
Indeed his hometown of Tous was at the time the historic center
of Sufism: most mystic great masters of Iranian Sufism lived right there, in the heart
of the Khorasan province, and at the time of Ferdowsi, around 1,000 CE.
All that which constitutes the essence of Sufism, its meditation
techniques, the Zekr
and the Fekr,
the very word "dervish," originates from this cradle of historical Sufism: it is
in this part of the country, and more particularly in the city of
Tous, that the transition from ancient Mazdean Iran to esoteric Islamic Iran as represented by
Shiite Sufism took place.
Indeed, when the Arabs invaded Persia through Mesopotamia, the
magi of the time collected the most important manuscripts and, to safeguard them
from the invaders, sent them to the far North Eastern part of the country, towards the
province of Khorasan.
When, following the decisive battle of Qadessieh, the last
Sassanid king fled, all the writings recording the ancient Aryan Mazdeans’ science, culture
and spirituality had been brought together far away from the major cities of central
and Southern Iran, on the outer reaches of central Asia’s mountains. Thus, this region
became for the keepers of ancient Zoroastrian mysteries and the ancestral knowledge of
Persian tradition a kind of sanctuary where the flame of the magi’s wisdom kept glimmering.
During the Christianizing of Europe between the sixth and the
tenth century of the Christian era, the ancient druids’ had endeavored to keep their
sacred science, which was not written but exclusively orally transmitted from master to
disciple, alive by merging into the new monastic orders. Subsequently, those keepers of the
Celts’ esoteric learnedness in the West used the construction of cathedrals to
try and pass their science on. Likewise, the magi of ancient Persia used similar stratagems
to insure the survival of what constituted the essence and the spiritual foundations of
their civilization. Luckily, a good part of this knowledge was written, barely veiled in the
form of tales and epic stories.
As the country got progressively Islamized, the erudite
translators adapted the Mazdean values to the features of conquering Islam, in particular to the
Qur’anic verses having an esoteric value. There indeed are two types of verses in the
Qur’an: those that simply have an exoteric value, without hidden meaning, and those that have
an esoteric meaning, a deeply spiritual message, conveying universal truths.
It is in this atmosphere of Persian nationalism and active
spirituality in the background of an irresistible Islamization that Ferdowsi was born in the year
329 of the Hegira in the city of Tous where he lived, surrounded with the most important
spiritual Sufis masters of his time.
Ferdowsi thus quotes in his
about forty dreams that are essential to the understanding of the story and progression of events. We can
even say that, in general, every event of the
Shah Nameh arises from a dream explaining
and motivating it. As we stated earlier, before having consequences in the physical
world, the Book of Kings
first takes place in the invisible world.
The values of Iranian spirituality
This feature is characteristic of the Persian
for whom supersensory knowledge plays a fundamental role, contrary, for example, to
the Greeks known to be more rationalistic and less visionary.
The Book of Kings
epitomizes these fundamental values of
Iranian culture and spirituality: the eternal preeminence of the supersensory world
on the physical world, man’s powerlessness to change his fate without assistance from
spiritual forces, and the necessity for each one to take care first hand of his own
spiritual progress, knowing that, rich or poor, prince or beggar, everyone shall have to leave
this world some day. It is thus advisable to ready ourselves for this unavoidable step.
Such are the essential messages of the
Its knights are powerless in front of death and cannot change
It is a book of wisdom, replete with mystic symbols, and placed
under the protection of the wings of the Simorgh, the great mythical bird who inhabits
spiritual heavens and intervenes in Persian history under the guise of the winged man
of Persepolis’ famous bas-reliefs.
The great knight Rostam is the only one of the epic to have
successfully passed the seven tests of spiritual chivalry, and as such, the Simorgh’s shadow
is always over his head.
In his book The
Language of Birds, Attar explains how a
bird should proceed in order to pass the seven spiritual tests. In his
Ferdowsi shows the role played by the Simorgh in the history of humanity.
Thus the Shah Nameh
is essentially, above all, a mystic book.
Nonetheless Ferdowsi was not able to complete his monumental
work. The XodaÔ Namak contains stories
that convey a spiritual message, such as the legend of the old man Arach, which Ferdowsi would no doubt have liked to translate
The legend of the old man Arach
This legend takes place during an invasion. A Turkish army had
descended from the northern mountains towards the Iranian plateau where it defeated
the Persian army and penetrated all the way to the center of the country. The
defeated Iranians asked for a truce bounding new borders. The Turks wanted to further humiliate
their defeated opponents.
They then suggested that an Iranian archer, placed at the edge
of the territory conquered by the Turkish advance, would cast an arrow northward, in the
direction of the former border located thousands of miles from there. The point of
impact of the Iranian arrow would bound the new border! The Turks chortled: even cast by an
experimented archer and carried over by the wind, an arrow could not reasonably span
over a few hundreds yards! There could be no doubt in their minds that they had got
hold of the most part of the rich Iranian plains. They knew this would humble the
brilliant Persian civilization…
Then an old man by the name of Arach volunteered to cast the
While he may not have been a man of great physical strength,
Arach was a man of a great wisdom, a substantially evolved man. He rose to the top of a
mountain and launched his arrow.
But at the very same time, he had his soul leave his physical
body and carry the arrow in the airs all the way to the Turkish border, where it pierced the
trunk of a tree in the city of Marv, in present Tajikistan. Borne by the old man’s soul, the
arrow had journeyed for a whole day, and thus traveled for two or three thousand miles!
Arach had sacrificed himself for Persia’s independence by
putting his soul in this arrow.
The message of Arach’s legend is that a spiritually evolved man
can, even singlehandedly, perform miracles, and, in this particular case, succeed where an
entire army had failed, i.e. in driving the enemy out and in guaranteeing
the country’s independence.
This tale is a critical regarding the role of substantially
evolved men in a nation’s historical evolution.
Iran’s history is, in particular, strewed with interventions of
isolated mystics who likewise influenced the course of historic events in a decisive
This legend excerpted from the
shows, if need be, that the main lead of the ancient Book of
Kings in Pahlavi was also about pure
spirituality, not the heroic knights’ deftness or physical force.
Immersed since his earliest childhood in the Sufi culture of his
home town of Tous, Ferdowsi believed in these same values and this eminently
spiritual book immediately found an echo in the heart of the young poet who was enthused
with it: what Ferdowsi actually reveals his reader throughout his
Book of Kings
is his own personality and his spiritual life, as in a mirror of the soul.