Many poets belonged to Sufi brotherhoods, some of which reflected the organisation of the princely courts in their reliance on and devotion to a spiritual leader, the pīr or shaykh. Other individuals followed the Sufi path as wandering dervishes. Sufism followed the mystical branch of Islam that emphasised the essential unity of religions and the centrality of love. It favoured direct experience of divine love, rather than the study of orthodox theology from books. The Sufi path could be either one of slow progression through various stages or an experience of intense spiritual ecstasy, resulting in loss of self and submersion in divine unity. One allegory for this journey is ʿAṭṭār's best-known work, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr (Conference of the Birds), which conveys the idea of the journey towards spiritual perfection through a group of birds setting out with their leader to find the mythical Simurgh, a symbol of the Divine.
The lover and beloved became the stock theme of the great mystic poets such as Rūmī, Saʿdī and Ḥāfiẓ, some of whom were themselves prominent spiritual leaders. Their poetic forms ranged from quatrains or rubaʿiyāt and medium-length lyrical verse such as the ghazal to longer narrative stories in rhyme, known as masnavī. Increasingly, these were copied into beautiful manuscripts, often as highly ornamented as the poetry itself.
Manuscript copied by the scribe Nāṣir ibn Ḥasan of Mecca, before 1465. Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, known to Persians as Mawlānā ('our master'), was born in Balkh (now part of modern-day Afghanistan). His family fled Mongol invaders, settling in Konya (now part of the Republic of Turkey). In this cosmopolitan, multilingual and multifaith community, Rūmī became a conventional Islamic preacher, until in midlife he met a wandering dervish, Shams al-Tabrīzī. Thereafter, Rūmī became a mystic Sufi and a writer. His six-volume Masnavī, of which the opening verses are seen here, is a mixture of spiritual poetry, interpretations of the Qurʾān, witty parables, jokes and folklore. (MS. Elliott 251, fols. 3b)Manuscript of Mīr ʿAlī Shīr Navāʾī's work Sadd-i Iskandar or Alexander's Wall, copied in 1485. This masterful illustration, attributed to Qāsim ʿAlī, from Navāʾī's Chagatai Turkish-language version of Niẓāmī's Iskandar narrative conveys a dreamlike vision of revered Persian poets. Niẓāmī is shown seated in a scholar's white turban and with a long beard, his scribe's tools in front of him. He welcomes Jāmī, who is kneeling and introducing Navāʾī, who is respectfully covering his hands with the sleeves of his green robe. (MS. Elliott 339, fol. 95v) Manuscript of the Būstān or Flower Garden of Saʿdī, copied c. 1590-1600. The poet Saʿdī chose his pen name, or takhalluṣ, to reflect his relationship to his patron, prince Saʿd ibn Zangī of Shiraz. The Būstān was the first of his major works written in honour of this patron. It consists of a series of moralistic tales addressed to princes in general. In this illustration, a prince is shown enthroned and in conversation with a bearded, turbanned figure who kneels at his feet, a silken robe draped over his shoulders. (MS. Pers. c. 39, fol. 6a) Manuscript of the Būstān or Flower Garden of Saʿdī, copied c. 1515-20. The 13th-century poet Muṣliḥ al-Dīn Saʿdi of Shiraz, like many other people at that time, fled the invading Mongols, travelling as far as Baghdad, Egypt and Mecca. More than 20 years later he returned to his hometown and embarked upon his most productive years as a writer. He is best known for his moralistic epics, the Gulistān and the Būstān. The Būstān is divided into 10 chapters. This illustration shows Saʿdī entering a gathering of scholars. (MS. Marsh 517, fol. 34a) Manuscript copied by the scribe Naʿīm al-Dīn of Shiraz, 1493. This beautiful illustration is from a manuscript of Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār's great Sufi allegory Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, known in the West as the Conference of the Birds. It is placed early in the narrative in which the Hudhud, or Hoopoe, tells the assembled birds about the Simurgh, a symbol of the Divine, and tries to persuade them to journey with him to find it. The artist has placed the magnificently plumed Simurgh in the picture, so that the viewer can see what the Hoopoe is describing. (MS. Elliott 246, fol. 25b) Manuscript of the Dīvān or poetical works of Ḥāfiẓ copied by the scribe Quṭb al-Dīn, between 1593 and 1690. Ḥāfiẓ is generally considered the master of the classical form of Persian lyric poetry. His verse elevated erotic love to the realm of metaphysics. Although trained in orthodox religion he was openly critical of religious fundamentalism and hypocrisy. Ḥāfiẓ wrote poems of praise for princes, as well as love lyrics that have remained bestsellers in the Persian-speaking world for the past 600 years. (MS. Elliott 163, fol. 55b) Manuscript of the Dīvān or poetical works of Ḥāfiẓ, copied before 1717. Like this illustration, the verse of Ḥāfiẓ is highly ornamented. Built of complex wordplay, ambiguity and metaphor, it can be read on many levels. Consequently, the lyrics of Ḥāfiẓ have been notoriously difficult to translate from Persian into other languages. Yet in his homeland, his poetry is still admired at all levels of society - so much so that it remains common practice to read omens, or fāl, from the pages that fall open when handling a copy of Ḥāfiẓ's Divan. (MS. Pers. e. 53, p.29)
Manuscript of the Dīvān or poetical works of Ḥāfiẓ, copied by Mīr ʿAlī Kātib, 1521. The opening line of the collected poems of Ḥāfiẓ is in Arabic, and attributed to Ummayad Caliph Yazīd ibn Muʿāwiyah (d. 683), who was known for his impiety. When asked how he came to borrow poetry from such a one as Yazīd, Ḥāfiẓ is reputed to have said: 'If you saw a dog running away with a diamond, would you not stop him and take the jewel from his unclean mouth?' (MS. Ouseley Add. 175, fols. 12b-13a)