Saadi’s Gulistan

Scholars have placed the year of Saadi’s birth as early as 1194 CE and as late as 1218, though everyone agrees he was born in Shiraz and lived through the Mongol conquest of Persia. Saadi is a pen-name, and there is about his given name, as about the date of his birth, some confusion. In some biographies he is called Musharrif al-Din Muslih al-Shirazi, while others call him Muslihal-Din, which is actually an honorific, not a name. For a long time people took the first person accounts in some of the anecdotes of the Gulistan to be autobiographical, but scholars have called this tendency into question, pointing out, for example, that one of the scholars with whom the “I” in the Gulistan claims to have studied, Ibn al-Jawzi, died in 1200 CE, around the time Saadi was born.

Culturally, Saadi and his work have been seen by the West from a variety of perspectives. During the Enlightenment, for example, the Gulistan was held up as evidence that Muslims were really not so different from Christian Europeans after all, while during their colonial rule of India, the British used passages from the Gulistan—which was well-known in the Mogul courts, where the official language was Persian—to educate their colonial officers about the profound differences between themselves and the people they ruled. In the United States, Saadi had a profound influence on Thoreau and Emerson, who called the Gulistan a secular bible. Among the English Romantics, Byron called Saadi a Persian Catullus. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, an educated reader in England, and perhaps the United States as well, would have been expected to know at least who Saadi was, if not to have read the Gulistan itself.

Saadi completed the preface to his Gulistan, or Rose Garden, in 1258. A partial translation by Andre du Ryer, who called Saadi a prince among Turkish and Persian poets, appeared in French in 1634. Ryer’s insistence that Europeans needed to know about a writer whose fame was so widespread throughout the Muslim world has characterized Saadi’s treatment by the West at least until the twentieth century. In the 1600s alone, The Gulistan was translated into French, German, Latin and Dutch, but it wasn’t until 1806 that Francis Gladwin made the first complete translation of the text into English. My own translation is based primarily on Edward Rehatsek’s version of 1888, which is generally recognized as the most accurate English-language rendering of the text.