Persian literature is dominated by a highly sophisticated tradition of poetry dating to the tenth century. Persian poetry can generally be divided into two forms: the lyrical and the epic. The major lyrical forms are the qasida, ghazal, and rubai. The basic form of epic poetry is the masnavi.
The qasida, a long mono-rhyme (aa, ba, ca) similar to an ode, is mostly used as a speech or in praise of somebody as well as for secular or religious moralism. It consists of three parts – a prologue, the actual praise or tribute, and a final appeal to the patron. It was also used to praise of God and the Prophet. The chanted qasida is part of the religious tradition of Arabic and Persian–speaking Nizari Ismailis.
The ghazal, rhythmically similar to the qasida only shorter in length, consists of couplets; each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (radif) and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (qafia). Ghazals generally focus on mystical love and include the poet’s name or pen name in the final couplet. Modelled on the pre-Islamic Arabic ode, this form is used extensively in Sufi mystical poetry in several languages to express devotion.
A rubai is a two-line stanza with two parts (or hemistichs) per line, hence the word rubaiyat which is derived from the Arabic root for “four” meaning “quatrains.” The Persian quatrain is defined by the number of lines but also by its rhyme (aa, ba) and its meter. Umar Khayyam (d. 1131) is considered the master of the rubai.
Epic poetry is composed in the form of masnavi, where each couplet has an internal rhyme – aa, bb, cc. The masnavi, suited for long compositions, can be divided into three groups: the heroic, romantic, and instructional. Farid al-Din ʿAttar (d. 1221) is well-known for his mystical narrative in masnavi form, especially Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds). Rumi’s (d. 1273) Masnavi is commonly considered the masterpiece of Persian mystical work.
From the tenth to the thirteenth centuries in eastern Iran, poetry was produced mostly in courtly settings under the patronage of the rulers. The predominant form was the qasida, although the ghazal began to gain popularity. Some of the notable poets of this time include Rudaki (d. 940), Sanai (d. ca 1150), Anvari (d. 1187), among others. This period also witnessed the production of classics in all categories.
Sanai’s Hadiqat al-haqiqa (The Garden of Truth) became the model for future didactic epics. Nizami (d. 1209), “the unrivalled master of the romantic epic”* wrote a series of five romances that became the model for subsequent romance literature. These works were compiled into the Khamsa (The Quintet). Firdausi’s Shahnama (The Book of Kings), the celebrated Iranian national epic consisting of more than 50,000 couplets, was also written during this period.
The ghazal gained prominence in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Some notable composers include Amir Khusrau (d. 1325), Hafiz (d. 1389), Sadi (d. 1292) among others.
In the modern period, under the influence of the European literature – the novel, novelette, and short story – the free-verse movement popularized the prose genres which replaced the long mono-rhyme styles.
Glossary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Azim Nanji, Dictionary of Islam, Penguin Books, London, 2008
*Ahmet T. Karamustafa, “Muslim Literature in Persian and Turkish,” The Muslim Almanac Editied by Azim A Nanji, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1996
Compiled by Nimira Dewji