NIZĀMĪ was born about 1141 at Ganja (Elizabethpol) in the old province of Arrān (now part of Russian Transcaucasia). To this place his father, a Sunnī, had come to live from the district of Tafrish, a dependency of Qum in Jibāl, led probably by the feuds which prevailed between the Shī‘ahs and Sunnīs in that district. Ganja was famous for the piety and learning of its inhabitants, who were rigid Sunnīs, and would not permit anyone to settle among them who differed from them in religious views. To this influence, no doubt, Nizāmī owed his early tendency towards asceticism and learning. The former he retained all his life; the latter he deprecates in his later works as of little account to the Ṣūfī before the knowledge of God, which is gained, not by learning, but by following the Ṣūfī path under the guidance of a spiritual chief.

His rigid asceticism is attested by, at least, all Persian writers, and by his own words, notably, in the Sikandar Nāma and the Haft Paikar. In the former he says that by wine, to which he repeatedly alludes, he means the rapture of the knowledge and love of God, and protests vehemently that he never tasted wine in his life.

He never, as other poets, frequented the courts of kings, but was sought out by them, and wrote some of his poems at their invitation. Dr. William Bacher’s assumption that at the age of 40 he adopted quite a tolerant attitude towards human nature and a moderate indulgence of the senses is based upon a complete misapprehension of a passage in Nizāmī’s first work, the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār, “the Treasure-house of Secrets,” in which he conceives the word dil, “heart,” to be used by the poet in the sense of a generous expansion of heart and a jovial outlook upon things mundane, whereas it should undoubtedly be taken in the usual Ṣūfī and Neo-Platonic sense of the place, when purified, of the manifestation of the Deity, the perfect Ṣūfī being called ṣāḥib-dil, “the master of heart.” We have only to turn to the admirably lucid expositions of Jāmī in the Tuḥ­fatu ’l-Aḥrār for any light which the more subtle language of Nizāmī may seem to some to require in such particulars. The misconception alluded to is due in part to a misapprehension of the expression rāh-zanān-ī ḥavās, which means “those bandits, the senses”, and not Sinnentöter, “killers of the senses”; i.e., enemies to moderate sensual indulgence! That he was by no means, however, a man of morose temperament is evident from the touches of humour we find in the Haft Paikar. And à propos of this, Jāmī in the Bahāristān remarks that the Believer is cheerful; the Infidel it is who is gloomy and morose.

The uninitiated may perhaps wonder why an accomplished Ṣūfī poet should appear to be lamenting the darkness of doubt, and urging himself to give up negligence and the senses, and to strive after the attainment of the “heart”, in order to attain to ḥaqqu ’l-yaqīn, the absolute feeling of the Truth and identifica­tion with It; but the poet is really instructing the neophyte by detailing his own past experiences.

By another misapprehension of the sense Dr. Bacher, in common with some others, assumes that the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār was written when the poet was 40 years old. Nizāmī really implies that the genius in collaboration with the intellect of one of 40 years’ experience should not be trusted, but that the Ṣūfī aspirant should at once seek a real friend, i.e., the heart, dil, in the Ṣūfī sense. Nizāmī, too, himself states that his second work, Khusrau and Shīrīn, was composed in 1175; i.e., when he was 34 years of age. He wrote the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār probably in about 1171 or 1172, when he was a little over 30. According to Nizāmī himself Lailī and Majnūn was written in 1188; the Sikandar Nāma in 1191; the Haft Paikar in 1198. A second recension of the Sikandar Nāma was made, probably, in about 1200.

After an ascetic life, uniformly maintained, and in the later part of which he went into complete retirement from the world, he died in about 1202 at Ganja.

From the statements of the biographers and his own assertions in the Haft Paikar, he appears to have made an extensive study of the sciences then known, but an examination of that work will show that his knowledge of geography, at least, was far from accurate. Astronomy (astrology) seems to have been his favourite study, and of this he appears to have had a consider­able knowledge. He apparently believed, too, in the influence of the stars, but only as the agents of the pre-ordinances of the Deity.

It may seem strange on the surface that the Author of the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār should afterwards have composed only poems apparently exoteric, but closer observation of these poems will show that a sub-current of the mystic doctrine runs through them all. In addition also to our own observations we have the testimony of Jāmī, who in the Nafaḥātu ’l-Uns asserts that all Nizāmī’s poems are purely Ṣūfī, though ostensibly only exoteric stories. Then, too, what are the Odes of Ḥāfiz? On the surface nothing but songs in praise of love, wine, and nature; but in reality expositions, or rather symbolical images of Ṣūfīism. A close and deep study of the Haft Paikar, especially, amongst his other works, will reveal such glints of Ṣūfī teaching as will convince us that Jāmī’s estimate is a true one.

At the same time, it should be added that the subjects of most of Nizāmī’s poems were suggested by the prevalent taste of the times, and that though he complied with this so far as the exoteric sense was concerned, he, at the same time, admitted an under-current of Ṣūfīism, in order to comply with his own predilections and those of the select few.

In excuse for giving an exoteric form to the first poem he wrote after the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār, namely Khusrau and Shīrīn, he says in that poem:—

Marā chunMakhzanu ’l-Asrārganjī,
Chi bāyad dar havas bi-n’mūd ranjī?
Va-līkin dar jahān imrūz kas nīst
Ki ūrā bar havas-nāma(h) havas nīst.

A treasure like the “Makhzan” being mine,
Why to a work on passion’s sway incline?
Yet still there’s no one in the world to-day
Who lusts not for a work on passion’s sway.

The treatment of the Makhzanu ’l-Asrār is absolutely original, for though Nizāmī was well acquainted with the Ḥadīqa of Sanā’ī, as we see by his allusion to it in a passage in the colophon to his own work—strangely misunderstood, by the way, by Dr. Bacher—the style he uses is quite different. Sanā’ī is perhaps more obscure and subtle even than Rūmī, but Nizāmī uses a mode of expression which is rare, though not unique, among Persian poets, who, though often obscure, are generally what may be called conventionally obscure. Nizāmī, on the other hand, like many European poets, is unconventionally obscure. He employs images and metaphors to which there is no key save in the possession of the poetic sense and of sound judgment. In a poet like Jāmī, a great admirer and imitator of Nizāmī, the style, in spite of its frequent quaint conceits, is so lucid that we can almost anticipate the sense. In Nizāmī we cannot do so, but have to use our best judgment and imagination.

In his later works Nizāmī follows the path of Firdausī, of whom he was a great admirer; but he by no means follows him servilely; in all he wrote we see the imprint of his own genius, and a striking originality of thought and expression. In Nizāmī we see Nizāmī and not Firdausī. His thoughts are deeper, his expression is more trenchant, crisp, and epigrammatic, though perhaps often more studied and artificial, and generally more obscure and subtle. In plain narrative he is equally flowing and perspicuous, whilst in situations requiring exalted imagination and dramatic force he is superior. In fine, he may be considered a greater creator than his predecessor.

His nearer adherence to Firdausī’s style in the Sikandar Nāma may be accounted for by the close similarity of the subjects of that poem to those of the Shāh Nāma.

His defects are those common to all Persian poets, who have little skill in delineating character, or in inspiring a sense of the spirit of nature. Each different character is cast in its own conventional mould, and has no individuality, whilst the depicting of nature is also conventional and artificial. Emotional, especially pathetic situations, it is true, are often drawn with great artistic power, but the expression to which they lead in those affected is not convincing. To enter a little more into detail upon these three topics, there is in the delineation of character an almost total absence of the real, whilst the ideal is represented only by a set, conventional form which is far from being a type. The depicting of nature reveals, it is true, the most close and accurate observation, but the images offered are fantastic: they are neither poetic nor scientific, and convey nothing of the spirit of nature such as we see it in Shelley and Wordsworth. Contrast, for example, Nizāmī’s description of a garden with Shelley’s exquisite lines in the Sensitive Plant.

Then, in the expression of the rapture, yearning, and sorrow of the lover, taken at least in an exoteric sense, there is nothing convincing, such as we find it in the impassioned lines of a Shakespeare or a Petrarch. But then, of course, we must remember that the real sense is esoteric, and that a mere symbolic suggestion may be sufficient for the mystic.

The Haft Paikar is more immediately connected with Ṣūfīism than any work of the Panj Ganj except the Makh­zanu ’l-Asrār. It depicts, so far as the esoteric sense is concerned, the progress of the Ṣūfī through the seven Stages, symbolized by the seven colours which were supposed to belong to the spheres of the seven planets. Nizāmī, however, uses a more natural and satisfactory succession than that offered in the Rev. W. H. T. Gairdner’s The Way of a Mohammedan Mystic, in which the Stages are divided as follows:—

1st Nafs-i Ammāra, the Soul Depraved.
2nd Nafs-i Lavvāma, the Soul Accusatory.
The two summarized under Sharī‘ah, the Law.
3rd Nafs-i Mulhama, the Soul Inspired.
4th Nafs-i Muṭma’inna, the Soul Tranquil.
Summarized under Tarīqa, the Way.
5th Nafs-i Rāẓīya, the Soul God-satisfied.
6th Nafs-i Marẓīya, the Soul God-satisfying.
Summarized under Ma‘rifa, the Gnôsis.
7th Nafs-i Ṣāfīya va Kāmila, the Soul Clarified and Perfect; which embodies Ḥaqīqa, the Truth.

The 1st Stage is referred to the Moon and the First Day;
The 2nd Stage, to Mercury and the Second Day;
The 3rd Stage, to Venus and the Third Day;
The 4th Stage, to the Sun and the Fourth Day;
The 5th Stage, to Mars and the Fifth Day;
The 6th Stage, to Jupiter and the Day of Assembly (Friday);
The 7th Stage, to Saturn and the Day of Rest (Sabt).

Nizāmī, with more attention to Ṣūfī thought and the old mythology, enumerates the Stages as follows:—
The 1st, as referable to Saturn and Saturday;
The 2nd, to the Sun and Sunday;
The 3rd, to the Moon and Monday;
The 4th, to Mars and Tuesday;
The 5th, to Mercury and Wednesday;
The 6th, to Jupiter and Thursday;
The 7th, to Venus and Friday.

The sphere of Saturn is black; that of the Sun, yellow; of the Moon, silvery-green; of Mars, red; of Mercury, blue; of Jupiter, sandal-wood coloured; of Venus, white.

Black is naturally associated with the dark veil between the Deity and man in his undisciplined state; white, with the absolute colourlessness of the Deity and his dissociation from all but Himself.

The Stories if closely studied show these and the intermediate Stages of the Ṣūfī aspirant in his progress from the natural state of humanity, Nāsūt, to that of Lāhūt, in which he is merged in the Deity and is of Him.

It should be observed that as regards the reference of the planets to the Climes, Nizāmī follows an arrangement of his own, and that in this particular authorities differ.

On account of the ostensibly exoteric nature of the work, I have found it possible to translate it into blank verse without departing in any way from the literal sense of the original.

With regard to the Notes, I have endeavoured to elucidate all the linguistic difficulties, and have explained all the historical, geographical, astrological, and other references to the best of my ability.

The press-marks of the India Office MSS. used by me towards the fixing of a text have probably been altered since, but identifica­tion should, I think, be easy.

The lithographed texts used are indicated by initials.

The system of transliteration is the same as that employed in my translation of the Masnavī.