Golestan


Golestan
(Gulistan)
   by Sa’di
(1258)
   SA’DI of Shiraz composed the second of his major works, Golestan (The Rose Garden), in Shiraz after a 30-year career as a traveling scholar. Part of a longstanding Persian literature of advice and moral counsel, the text is a collection of prose passages and short lyrics aimed at instructing the reader in moral behavior in a variety of situations. Like most Muslim classics, Golestan is written in the adab tradition (a word that implies etiquette or appropriate behavior). In literature adab refers to an ideal of literature combining erudite intellectual knowledge and polished literary style with moral and ethical instruction. In this, the Golestan has succeeded so well that over the centuries it has been perhaps the classic literary model of prose style in Persian. The text of the Golestan begins with a preface, in which Sa’di describes how he came to write the Golestan: he was, He says, living a life of contemplation when a friend came to visit him. The friend encouraged him to share his wisdom, for the sake of others. Later, as the two of them strolled through a park and his friend gathered flowers, Sa’di announced that flowers would all fade, but that he would compose a book, a “Rose Garden,” that would never wither. At that, the friend threw away his flowers and promised to take in the flowers of wisdom that Sa’di would compose.
   The Golestan proper comprises eight books, each with a general organizational topic (although anecdotes sometimes are only distantly related to the purported topic of the book in which they appear). The titles of the books include “On the Character and Conduct of Kings,” “On the Ethics of Dervishes,” “On the Virtues of Contentment,” “On the Advantages of Silence,” “On Love and Youth,” “On Feebleness and Old Age,” “On the Effect of Education,” and “On the Conduct of Society.” The topics Sa’di covers in these books range from mystical devotion to political justice to erotic love, and on all these topics Sa’di provides commonsense wordly wisdom. Each anecdote ends with a moral, provided either by Sa’di or by one of the characters in the story. Sa’di’s main emphases are the virtues of charity, humility, industry, prudence, and acceptance, but the world he presents is clearly a real contemporary world where moral choices must sometimes be practical and expedient. The first anecdote of the Golestan, for instance, involves a shah who has condemned an innocent man to death. As the prisoner begins to curse the shah, the ruler asks his ministers what the man is saying. The first minister tells him that the man was quoting the KORAN’s admonition against showing anger. But as the shah begins to relent, the second minister informs him of what the man is truly saying. The shah’s conclusion is that the lie was better than the truth, since it promoted peace and goodwill.
   This kind of practical worldly wisdom appears also in anecdotes demonstrating self-interest and an attitude of “what goes around comes around”: In the 35th anecdote of Book I, Sa’di recounts being in a boat and watching two men drowning. The boatman dives in to help, but in his eagerness to save one man, he is forced to allow the other to drown. He then reveals that the man he saved had helped him years earlier when he was stranded in the desert. The one that drowned had flogged him when he was a child.
   The most admired books of the Golestan are the first two, on the conduct of shahs and the behavior of dervishes. Since these two groups represented the political and the spiritual exemplars of society, it was natural that their behavior would be of particular interest to readers. The ideal shah, of course, was one who treated his people justly and compassionately. That such was not always the case is clear from a number of Sa’di’s anecdotes. In the sixth anecdote of Book I, for instance, a Persian shah oppresses his people and appropriates their wealth, until many of his subjects flee his realm. His court minister advises him that generosity and mercy are the things that give a ruler his people’s support, and that the shah has displayed none of these qualities. The minister is thrown in prison, but soon after, the shah is deposed by a rebel army.
   Dervishes, too, need to be models of spirituality, humility, and generosity, and many of Sa’di’s anecdotes illustrate those behaviors. But dervishes might fall short of expectations as well: In the sixth anecdote of Book II, a dervish visits the house of a king,where in order to appear holy he eats very little of the banquet set before him, and spends more time praying than he typically would.When he returns to his home, he orders a large meal, and his son asks why he didn’t eat at the king’s dinner. The dervish says that he acted as he had in order to serve his purposes. The son tells him that now he needs to go back to praying, since what he has done has served no purpose in heaven. In general, fiction is not considered appropriate in classical Muslim literature, but since the Golestan uses fiction for didactic purposes, it is acceptable. Certainly the characters of Sa’di’s anecdotes never rise above conventional types, but the appeal of the work has always been its commonsense moral instruction and the eloquence of its language. In addition, the book makes use of Sufi mystical thought, and recent criticism has noted that beneath the popular reading of the text is a more complex allegory discernable only to Sufi initiates. In particular, the sensual erotic love described in the text, particularly in book 5 on “Youth and Love,” refers metaphorically to a desire for unity with God, who is the beloved. The huge popularity of the Golestan among Persian readers, for whom, like Shakespeare in English, it pervades everyday speech in the form of proverbs, led to its early popularity in the West as well. The text was translated into Turkish in the 14th century, and in the 17th century into German, French, English, Dutch, and Latin. Sa’di’s work is said to be the most popular text of Muslim literature, after the Koran itself.
   Bibliography
   ■ Rehatsek, Edward, trans. The Gulistan, or Rose Garden, of Sa’di. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.
   ■ Ali-shah, Omar, trans. Saadi: The Rose Garden (Gulistan). Paris: Tractus, 1997.
   ■ Yohannan, John D. The Poet Sa’di: A Persian Humanist. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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