This book provides an important survey of the major themes and techniques employed by the poet, Nasir Khusraw, and includes a significant number of new English translations of his verses. This poetry, in spite of being written by one of Ismailism’s finest intellectuals and one of Persian literature’s finest poets, has received surprisingly little attention from translators to any language (the only other full book of translations being Nasir–i Khusraw: Forty Poems from the Divan, tr. by P.L. Wilson and G. R. Aavani, Tehran 1977). Thus, this current book goes a long way in beginning the process of presenting Nasir’s poetry to an English–speaking audience. Professor Schimmel herself draws explicit attention to the need for additional scholarly work, such as studies of Nasir’s use of rhythmical patterns and in–depth analyses of his ‘theology’ in the widest sense.
Nasir Khusraw (1004–ca. 1077), one of the most fascinating figures not only of Ismaili and Islamic history, but also of the entire Middle Ages, has left a rich legacy behind, both in his own considerable writings and in the imaginations of those who believed in him and those who sought his downfall. Of his writings that still survive, we have his Safarnama (a record of his seven–year journey from Central Asia to Jerusalem, Cairo, Mecca and back home again), six volumes of philosophical and religious texts explaining Ismaili doctrines, and poetry, much of it contained in the Divan.
After a 10 page Introduction summarising Nasir’s biographical information, the major features of his journey, the contents of his writings, and the history of Western and Iranian scholarship on him, the book is divided into three chapters. The first chapter, ‘Nasir–i Khusraw as a Poet,’ (pp. 11–24) describes his techniques as a poet, including the structure of his most frequent poem form, the qasida, and how he often chooses the most difficult rhymes and metres to show both his skill and the seriousness of his topics instead of, for example, the ‘dancing’ rhythms of Rumi. This chapter also explores Nasir's vivid use of language to express profound philosophical ideas, heartfelt descriptions of nature (which he sees as signs of the Creator), and devotion to religion and the use of intellect, rather than “frivolous love songs” or other traditional court poetry. The result of such poetry, as Professor Schimmel points out, is that “the reader enjoys the combination of erudition, witty puns and true poetical feeling.”
The second chapter, on ‘The Contents of Nasir–i Khusraw’s Poetry’, (pp. 25–43) delves even further into his poetic subject matter, basing a discussion of his most frequent themes on a generous number of illustrative verses. These themes include his sadness of exile in Yumgan; the passage of time and the onset of old age; how this world will pass but the soul will live on eternally; the importance of religious rituals (such as prayer, ablution, and fasting) as well as ta‘wil (the esoteric interpretation of these rituals and the Qur’an); the virtue of having patience (‘patience is like olives, and victory its oil’), and the pre–eminence of knowledge as the goal of human beings. This chapter shows that Nasir’s intention was to “spread wisdom, advice, counsel by means of his poetry”, as Professor. Schimmel shows in her translation of these lines:
Make a shield from knowledge, for there is
No stronger shield against calamities
Whosoever owns the shield of knowledge
Will not suffer the blows of Time.
Chapter three, ‘Selected Poems from the Divan’, (pp. 44–96), is the largest of the book’s chapters, taking up almost half the volume, filled as it is with even more samples of Nasir’s poetry and discussions of the dominant themes. It first discusses those poems which provide biographical details of the poet’s date of birth, his earliest searches for knowledge, and how he turned to God for consolation. Then, poems treating the Prophet Muhammad and his message of the Qur’an are presented, showing the Qur’an as a precious pearl, a mine of wisdom. Demonstrating his immense technical skills as well as his devotion, Nasir has one entire qasida in which the final word of each line is ‘Muhammad’ and another qasida arranged similarly, in which the final word of each line is ‘Ali’. With his emphasis on knowledge and reason, Nasir often wove into his verses the Nasir Khusraw’s poetry in the context of other poets of his day, especially its connection to the Sufi poets, as well as more recent poets, such as Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938). The reader thus benefits from the depth and breadth of Professor Schimmel’s knowledge of Persian poetry and Islamic spirituality, while gaining a rich understanding ofNasir Khusraw’s poetic style.