Once in a flower garden in Iran, a thoughtful poet perceived that a friend of his was exceedingly preoccupied with a bunch of flowers and had no time to look at anything else. The poet asked him what it was that captivated him so much in these flowers which were sure to fade before sunset. His friend replied by asking him what could possibly replace the beauty of flowers. The poet said, for people like you who are attracted to the beauty of flowers whose life-span is at most five or six days, I will write a book called the Gulistan (garden of flowers) which will last indefinitely.
The name of the poet was Shaykh Muslihuddin Sa’di and he was born in Persia in the year of 1184 AD. His father Abdullah was a descendent of Sayyadina Ali RA and was nobleman in the service of the court of Ata Beg Tughal. Sa’di lost his parents early in his life and so he fell into poverty. His elder brother somehow managed to keep the family by owning a fruit shop.
Sa’di’s life consisted of three periods. Until 1226 he was busy with his studies. From 1226 to 1256, he spent his life as a traveller in different countries of the world. And the last part from 1256 – 1291 he spent in Shiraz writing, contemplating and admonishing people as a Sufi. In those days, Shiraz was a great centre of learning and Sa’di was admitted into a big madrasa there where he received his primary education. Then he left for higher education in the famous Nizamiyya Madrasa of Baghdad. He studied philosophy and science under the able guidance of Farah Ibn al-Jawahir. Then he studied logic, history, geography, philosophy, tafsir, hadith, fiqh, etc. He was very religious from his boyhood and he was a strict follower of the Shari’a. While in Bahdad he received extensive instruction in tasawwuf (sufism) from several Sufis that he came in contact with and became a follower of the famous Sufi Shaykh Shihabu’d-din as-Suhrawardi (died 1234) whose influence and association had a great impact oh him. Sa’di was a master of several languages but he wrote only in his mother tongue, Persian, and occasionally in Arabic.
After the end of his studies in Baghdad he came back to Shiraz, but found that his chief patron Sultan Ata Beg had been killed by the Khwarizmi Sultan, Ghiyathu’d-din Isfahani. Following this political upset the general people were subjected to looting and exploitation by the Mongols and Turks, and their miseries knew no bounds. Seeing their misery, he found the situation unbearable and he left the country and decided to go on travelling from country to country.
From 1226 – 1256, for a period of thirty years, he travelled from Shiraz to Khurasan, to Tatar, to Balkh, to Kashghar, Ghazna, Punjab, Somnath, Gujarat, Yemen, Hijaz, Abyssinia, Palestine, Syria, Damascus, Ba’albek, North Africa, Asia Minor, etc. In each of these places he stayed for months or years, studied the people and gained many and varied experiences. From Somnath he went to Gujarat, and then to Punjab and then to Delhi. From Delhi he went to the Yemen where he lost his son by his first wife. He was very upset at this loss. From the Yemen he went to Abyssinia where he took part in a jihad. Then he went to Makkah and performed the Hajj. In all, he performed Hajj fourteen times on foot. From Makkah to went to Damascus and then Ba’albek. In Damascus and Ba’albek he started giving sermons on religion and people gave him the title of Shaykh. His lectures and sermons were received with great appreciation.
Then he left for Jerusalem and for some time he hid himself in a lonely place far from other people. At this time, he fell into the hands of Frankish soldiers who arrested him and sent him to Tripoli to work as an ordinary prisoner digging ditches. He experienced how painful the life of a prisoner was and was forced to spend some time in this inhuman life in captivity. At last a friend of his from Aleppo got him released on payment of a large ransom and also gave him his daughter in marriage. However this wife was very hot-tempered and ill-spoken. He could not bear her and had to leave Aleppo and Asia Minor and finally ending his journeying in his birthplace, Shiraz, in the year 1256.
The great contribution that Shaykh Sa’di made to the Islamic world lies in his two great couplets, famous equally in the Arab and non-Arab world, on the person of the Prophet, and which are read with equal zeal and fervour by both Arabs and non-Arabs. They are:
Shaykh Sa’di died at the ripe age of 110 in the year 1291 AD in Shiraz and was buried there, where later the poet Hafiz was also buried. His grave bears no extraordinary monument except an epitaph of a few couplets from his Bustan, the first couplets of which are: O traveller! You have stepped on my dust. Beware! You have to remember me for the sake of the Almighty’s dust. Sa’di will certainly be buried in dust because he was like dust while he lived. (Bustan)
In the Islamic world, particularly in the East, nobody is considered literate and cultured if he does not quote from Sa’di. The famous Sufi poet, Abdu’r-Rahman Jami’ (14114-1492), says, The intellectual world calls Sa’di’s ghazals a salt cup, but for centuries, the educated people of the East have been committing to their memory Sa’di’s ghazals and have been accepting his morals and ethics as their ideal.