Firdusi Composes the

Firdusi’s long narrative poem and the national Iranian epic, the Shahnamah, treats the legendary history of Persia from the beginning of the world to the overthrow of the Persian Empire by invading armies of Islam in the seventh century.

Summary of Event

Firdusi was born to rich landowners (a class called dihqan) in a village near what is now Mashad, Iran. Though little is known of his early life, his financial independence allowed him to take up poetry Poetry;Persia
Persia;poetry as a lifelong pursuit. By the time he became interested in writing his epic, Arab influence had dominated Iran for two hundred years, having supplanted Persian rule and installing Islam as the official religion over Zoroastrianism. However, the force of Persian culture was still strong, especially when the capital of Islamic (and Arab) power was moved to Baghdad in the eighth century and the caliph himself was half Persian and was advised by a Persian minister of state. [kw]Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah (1010)
[kw]Shahnamah, Firdusi Composes the (1010)
Shahnamah (Firdusi)
Iran;1010: Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah[1490]
Iraq;1010: Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah[1490]
Cultural and intellectual history;1010: Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah[1490]
Historiography;1010: Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah[1490]
Literature;1010: Firdusi Composes the Shahnamah[1490]

Firdusi saw the time as ripe for both the preservation and glorification of the Persian heritage. Tales of battle and extraordinary heroism were already part of that heritage, much of it oral. Several written sources, now lost, were available to Firdusi as well. An unfinished poem by the Persian poet al-Daqīqī Daqīqī, al- (d. c. 976-981), of about a thousand lines, had found its way into his hands, as well as a prose version of the history of Persian kings.

Drawing on these works, Firdusi began his own Shahnamah (the book of kings) in about 980. The work took him twenty-five to thirty years to complete, and is a massive, complex text of more than fifty thousand rhyming lines. Each is composed of twenty-two syllables, so that the comparable length of the poem in English is more than 100,000 lines. Its technical brilliance is unchallenged in Persian literature. The language is a purposely archaized version of Modern Persian. Although by Firdusi’s time, Arabic words had significantly infiltrated the Persian vocabulary, the nationalistic intent of Shahnamah receives greater emphasis by the fact that hardly any Arabic loanwords or expressions are found in the work.

Tradition says that on its completion, Firdusi sent the poem to the Muslim sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna Maḥmūd of Ghazna (r. 997-1030). Perhaps for political reasons, Maḥmūd rewarded Firdusi with only one thousand units of gold, a sum the poet found insulting. He contemptuously gave it away as gratuities, and Maḥmūd angrily ordered Firdusi to be trampled by elephants. Firdusi fled and went into hiding. Months later, Maḥmūd relented and sent the poet his rightful sum, but before the money arrived, Firdusi had died.

In form and structure, the Shahnamah is a legendary history of Persia seen through the lives and conquests of its rulers, some fifty kings and queens—an episodic narrative poem more suggestive of medieval romance than classical Greek and Roman epics. Epics such as Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) or Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), for instance, typically began in media res, in the middle of things, relating the actions of its hero through a series of flashbacks, and then bringing the story back to the present. The Shahnamah, in contrast, begins with the creation of the world, and the action centers not just on an Achilles or an Aeneas but deals with scores of rulers and great individuals during a period of thirteen hundred years. In the epic, armor-clad warriors fight on horseback with shields and lances, much like the knights of medieval story and legend. Even their Persian designation as pahlavans evokes the image of English and French “paladins” of the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance courts. However, the main focus of the battles and other tales within the work is on the idea of the shah or king as the center, the source, of all significant human activity. The shah is the one constant historical reality, the benchmark of civilization, for better or for worse.

Even the wickedness of the villains comes from their roles as king or in their attempts to stay in power. In the famous tale of Rustam and Isfandiyār, for example, itself a self-contained story of more than sixteen hundred verses, Shah Goshtasp tricks his son Isfandiyār into fighting Rustam, knowing that Rustam is fated to kill Isfandiyār, thereby eliminating him from taking over Goshtasp’s throne. Rustam is the quintessential Persian hero. A largely legendary warrior, he lived for more than nine hundred years and was pious, fearless and loyal. Despite his obviously mythical character, he takes on human complexity by his stubbornness and his fiery temper, like Roland in the French national epic Chanson de Roland (eleventh century; Song of Roland, 1880). Firdusi does not condone the wickedness or incompetence of a shah like Goshtasp. Despite the nationalistic ardor of the work, Firdusi is not writing propaganda, and he tells his stories with classic objectivity.

Although figures such as Rustam are invested with legendary and mythic qualities, they often are drawn with traits that make them legitimately tragic figures. In another tale, a version of which was composed by the English poet Matthew Arnold, Rustam fights and kills his son Sohrab, each unaware of the other’s identity. Sohrab is young, impetuous, and proud; Rustam is old but unyielding and equally proud, as only an epic hero can be. Each pays the price for the flaw in his own character. The tragic elements in these stories gain universal significance not just in the portrayal of human strengths or weaknesses but in Firdusi’s concept of justice. The tyranny of shahs like Goshtasp or the wickedness of rulers such as the last Sāsānian king, Yazdegerd III Yazdegerd III (r. 632-651), also called Yazdegerd the sinner, is not condoned or even judged by the poet. The shah as institution is a given, like earth, air, fire, and water. Implicit, however, in their conduct and subsequent fate is the Islamic view of history as divine judgment. God will eventually mete out his justice.

Textual evidence reveals that the tales and episodes of Firdusi’s poem were not composed in the order in which they finally appear. One curious example of the work’s diffusiveness is Firdusi’s insertion late in the poem of an elegy to his dead son in which the poet insists that as an old man of sixty-five, he should have died before his son who was only thirty-seven. In spite of these occasional narrative intrusions, the poem maintains an intrinsic unity and cohesion. Fully two-thirds of the epic draw on ancient and legendary material. Some of the stories tell of events as early as 500 b.c.e. at the courts of Cyrus and King Darius III, whose reigns are depicted in the Shahnamah as Dara and Dārāb.

The opening section presents an account of the creation of the world “out of nothing” and quickly tells of the coming of the first shah, thereby establishing the primacy of the king as a seminal force in the shaping of the civilization that is about to emerge. The discovery of fire, for example, is said to have been made during the reign of Hūshang. Jamshīd, an early shah who has similarities to Yama, the Indian god of the Underworld, reigned for seven hundred years. These shahs are depicted as kinds of demiurges, humankind’s ancestors, the shaping forces that prepare the way for humanity itself. In this respect, Firdusi’s treatment of the primordial era is distinctly non-Islamic, a celebration of indigenous culture.


In the final analysis, the Shahnamah is a celebration of Persian civilization by a brilliant melding of oral and folk traditions with the insight and grace of true poetry. It has woven and strenghtened a Persian and Iranian national consciousness, a consciousness that still holds in the twenty first century.

Further Reading

  • Browne, Edward G. A Literary History of Persia. 4 vols. 1902-1924. Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1964-1969. This is still the standard account of classical Persian literature, usefully woven into a historical narrative that places authors’s lives and works in their contemporary setting. Volume 2 contains valuable information relating to Firdusi. Bibliography provided in volume 1.
  • Clinton, Jerome W., trans. In the Dragon’s Claws: The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar from the Persian Book of Kings. Washington, D.C.: Mage, 1999. The famous tale of Rustam and the shah’s son rendered into English blank verse. Provides a concise introduction to the work, particularly the moral and ethical issues implicit in the tale.
  • Davidson, Olga. Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. An important work focusing on Firdusi’s use of the oral tradition.
  • Davis, Dick. Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi’
    “Shahnameh.” Washington, D.C.: Mage, 1994. A thoroughly researched exposition of the work and a study of its influence as a major literary monument.
  • Davis, Dick. “The Problem of Ferdowsi’s Sources.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 116, no. 1 (January-March, 1996). Argues that Firdusi used mainly versified oral sources rather than written sources for his epic, and any written sources used most likely were in verse form that came from an oral tradition. Bibliographic footnotes.
  • Firdusi. The Epic of the Kings: Shahnamah, the National Epic of Persia, by Ferdowsi. Translated by Reuben Levy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Few translators have dared to tackle the Shahnamah, most of them in the nineteenth century. This volume contains the free-flowing prose translation of some of its most famous episodes.
  • Meisami, Julie Scott. Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Explores the writing of Persian-Iranian history during Firdusi’s time and discusses the Shahnamah as historical prose. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Robinson, B. W. The Persian Book of Kings: An Epitome of the Shahnama of Firdawsi. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. A concise introduction to and summary of Firdusi’s epic work. Illustrated with early Persian paintings depicting events and actions. Includes a list of kings addressed in the book, a bibliography, and an index.