Fuzuli Writes Poetry in Three Languages

Fuzuli is considered one of the greatest Turkish poets, whose literary work epitomizes the multicultural achievements of the Ottoman Empire’s divan literature. His poetry addressed topics ranging from religion to philosophy and was written in three different languages—Azeri-Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.

Summary of Event

Fuzuli (also known as Fuduli or Fizuli) was born Mehmed bin Süleyman Fuzuli in central Iraq around 1495. No less than six cities, including Baghdad and Karbala, have claimed him as a native son. He was descended from the Turkomans, and his immediate ancestors migrated to Iraq from what is now Azerbaijan. One tradition claims that his father was a mufti, or scholar of Islamic law. Poetry;Ottoman Empire
Mehmed bin Süleyman Fuzuli
Ismāՙīl I
Süleyman the Magnificent
Ismāՙīl I
Süleyman the Magnificent;Baghdad
Fuzuli, Mehmed bin Süleyman

His parents had the means to send their son to a madrasa (Islamic religious school) where he was educated not only in Islam, law, and philosophy but also in the classical literatures of Arabic and Persian. Raised as a speaker of Azeri-Turkish, he was effectively trilingual. He seems to have excelled as a student because, in addition to his poetry, he composed prose in Arabic and Persian on a wide variety of subjects relating to Islamic art, philosophy, and science. One legend claims that the young Fuzuli began to write verse after experiencing unrequited love for his teacher’s daughter (a story possibly conflated from the ill-starred romance in his Leylā ve Mecnūn, published during the seventeenth century and translated into English as Leylā and Mejnūn in 1970). Leylā ad Mejnūn (Fuzuli)[Leyla ad Mejnun (Fuzuli)] While his poetry is imbued with a deep feeling for human suffering and loss, it is guided by a transcendental quest for union with God and reveals his intimate knowledge of the esoteric Islam of mystical Shia and Sufism.

As a young man, Fuzuli moved to Baghdad, the city where he spent most of his life and the place with which he is most commonly identified. While Baghdad remained an important Middle East crossroads during his time, it was no longer the center of the Islamic universe, as it had been under the first caliphs or the fabled court of Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786-809). The city had been ravaged by the Mongols in 1258 and overrun by Tamerlane in 1401.

In Fuzuli’s own lifetime, Baghdad changed hands on at least two occasions. In 1508, Ismāՙīl I, the zealous Shīՙite founder of the Turko-Persian Ṣafavid Dynasty Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] , took the city in his quest to reestablish a Shīՙite caliphate. In 1534, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, a Sunni Muslim, conquered Baghdad and asserted Ottoman rule, which prevailed until the early twentieth century. While Baghdad remained a prize for the Ottomans Ottoman Empire;art and culture , the cultural and political center of their westward-expanding empire had long been Istanbul, which they had taken from the Byzantines, when it was called Constantinople, in 1453.

Fuzuli composed kasidas, or poems of praise, for both the Ṣafavid and Ottoman elite and enjoyed some patronage. For the Ṣafavids, he composed Bang-u-Badeh
Bang-u-Badeh (Fuzuli)[Bang u Badeh (Fuzuli)] , a poem celebrating the triumphs of Ismāՙīl. He dedicated his major work, Leylā ad Mejnūn, among others, to the Ottomans.

Despite his considerable poetic and prose output, he seems to have lived in humble circumstances. While his Shīՙite mysticism was convivial to the court of Ismāՙīl, it probably did little to endear him to the Sunni Ottoman elite who, while generally tolerant, remained wary of heterodoxy within their multicultural empire. Fuzuli died either of plague or cholera during a pilgrimage to the city of Karbala, the holy city of the Shīՙites, where he is buried in the shrine to Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet.

The young Fuzuli composed his first divan, or collection of poems, primarily in Azeri-Turkish. (A later divan was composed in Persian and Arabic.) His pen name was a complicated play on words that hinted at the Arabic words for “presumption” and “virtue.” While the word “divan” was derived from the Persian for “book,” it also had the more general meaning of a “court” or “assembly.” Divan poets wrote for and performed in an exclusive court setting, competing for favor with rulers such as Ismāՙīl and Süleyman the Magnificent, who were themselves recognized for versification. Similar to court poets in Europe at the time, a divan poet was a combination entertainer, propagandist, and public-relations specialist. The divan downplayed a lively Turkish oral tradition, which is evident in its harshly syllabic folk song or in its earthy folk literature such as the Dede korkut (c. ninth century; The Book of Dede Korkut, 1972) for the exoticism and sophistication of the Arab and Persian high literary canon. Indeed, one almost had to have had extensive madrasa training to begin to understand the divan poet’s breadth of theological and literary allusions and his skillful interweaving of Azeri-Turkish, Arabic, and Persian wordplay.

Just as the Ottoman sultans soon lost their exclusively Turkish identity and bloodlines through intermarriage with the various peoples whom they subjugated, so the divan poets such as Fuzuli promoted an Ottoman culture that was multicultural, polyglot, and elitist.

Fuzuli’s three languages were not considered equals. Arabic was the sacred language of Islam, including the Qur՚ān and Ḥadīth. Persian was the premier classical language of Fuzuli’s day, based upon its literary golden age—the eleventh and thirteenth centuries—which included such works as Firdusi’s Shahnamah (c. 1010; the book of kings), Rūmī’s Mathnawīi ma ՙnawī (late thirteenth century; The Mathnawi, 1926-1934), Saՙdi’s Gulistan (1258; The Rose Garden, 1806), and Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát (eleventh century; The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1879). Both Persian and Arabic had extensive literary traditions with well-established verse forms. The foremost of these were the masnawi, a couplet-based form used for long narrative or philosophical works; the kasida, or poem of praise; and the ghazal, a short poem on the theme of love with an intricate pattern resembling the European sonnet. By Fuzuli’s day, a complex literary syncretism was well under way, in which native-speaking Turkish poets adopted the forms and borrowed words and phrases from Arabic and Persian.

This literary syncretism is evident in Fuzuli’s magnum opus Leylā and Mejnūn, a romantic epic of thwarted love composed in the masnawi form but incorporating ghazals and other literary forms. This story was based on legends derived from pre-Islamic Arabic culture and centered on Gais, who falls in love with Leylā (or Layla). Gais professes his love for Leylā through songs that scandalize the girl’s father, who in turn forbids the two to marry. Gais becomes known as Mejnūn, or Majnun (Arabic for “madman”) and retreats in despair to the wilderness. After numerous plot twists, the pair are denied an earthly reunion and Majnun falls dead at Leylā’s grave.

Fuzuli was not the first poet to put his imprint on the story. Perhaps the best-known version is that of Neẓāmī (1141-1209), called Leyli o-Mejnūn (1188; The Story of Layla and Majnun, 1966). Neẓāmī fashioned the complete tale in Persian from various Arab legends. While Fuzuli adhered to the narrative established by Neẓāmī, his originality lies both in his literary inventiveness and in the allegorical underpinnings of his version of the tale. Much as British contemporary poet Edmund Spenser refashioned Arthurian legends into the Christian religious allegory of The Faerie Queene (1590-1609), so Fuzuli transformed the romantic tale of Leylā and Mejnūn into an Islamic allegory about the quest of the soul for mystical union with God. In a final vision, Leylā and Majnun are portrayed as united spiritual forms inhabiting a transcendental Eden.


In the centuries since his death, Fuzuli has come to be regarded not only as one of the greatest Turkish poets but also as a great Islamic one, transcending national boundaries. He is considered a national poet of not only Turkey but also Azerbaijan, although he spent his entire life in what is now Iraq.

His literary achievement helps to correct the Western world’s bias against the Ottoman Empire as the cultural and political “sick man of Europe”—an image based on the decadent latter days of the empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rather than its golden age under Süleyman the Magnificent.

The philosophical and religious depth of Fuzuli’s poetry (evident both in his longer works and in his ghazals) help to dispel the misconception of Ottoman divan literature as nothing more than the over-sensual and intellectually unsophisticated songs of women and wine.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Walter, Najaat Black, and Mehmet Kalpakli. Ottoman Lyric Poetry: An Anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Provides a brief overview of Fuzuli’s life and work and translations of several of his ghazals. The introductory essay examines the misconceptions of Ottoman poetry as sensual and not philosophical.
  • Gibbs, Elias J. W. Ottoman Literature: The Poets and Poetry of Turkey. London: M. W. Dunne, 1901. Provides translations and biographical information on Fuzuli and other Turkish poets. Though dated, this work remains the only complete survey of Ottoman literature in English.
  • Kunt, I. Metin, Christine Woodhead, and Metin Kunt. Süleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1995. Cultural history of the golden age of the Ottoman Empire and the court culture in which divan literature flourished.
  • Lewis, Bernard. Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. One of the best-known contemporary scholars of Islamic culture provides an introduction and translations of key poetic texts from rival cultural traditions of the ancient and medieval Middle East.

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