Nizami and his Legacy
BAKU, Azerbaijan, August 1
Niẓām Al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās Ibn-Yūsuf Ibn-Zakkī, was born around 1141 in the town of Ganja, Azerbaijan. By the time of his death in 1209, he would leave his stamp on Azerbaijani history, Persian literature and global culture. He is known to everyone as “Nizami”. Nizami was a sage, a mystic, and above all, a poet. I am honored to be serving as the Co-Chair of the International Institute that bears his name: the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, (NGIC) which is devoted not just to uphold his legacy, but to promote the values that he espoused, and be a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.
President Ilham Aliyev declared 2021 a year to celebrate the 880th anniversary of his birth. It is a momentous and joyous occasion in Azerbaijan, for Nizami is a towering figure in Azerbaijani history, and his work undoubtedly contributed to the development of the Azerbaijani cultural identity. But it is also a joyful occasion for all lovers of literature and those who believe in the values and ethics that Nizami espoused and exemplified. It is a happy occasion for all those who value the history of Islamic thought, as Nizami was one of the great exemplars of an open, tolerant and serene understanding of Islamic thought.
Nizami left an enormous body of works of great cultural significance, but his talents are best exemplified by the five epic poems that constitute the Khamsa, which are a pinnacle of world literature. Their status was recognized by the testimony of no less a figure than the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who considered that Nizami was “A gentle, highly gifted spirit, who, […], chose for the material of his poems the sweetest encounters of the deepest love.”
Today we recognize the multi-faceted personality of Nizami as a scholar, a sage, a mystic, a poet and a man of great wisdom, but above all as a poet. His work lives on and has inspired artists, musicians, writers, and poets in many parts of the world.
So, this meeting, is really about emphasizing that Nizami was above all an Azerbaijani poet, who lived his entire life in Ganja, but whose cultural legacy is one that is a source of pride not just to the citizens of Azerbaijan but also to the entire Turkic, Persian and Muslim World. So it is with great figures who have contributed to the collective consciousness of humanity and the cultural history of our complex and interacting civilizations.
Is that an overstatement? No. I believe that the ethics of Nizami, articulated in the cultural legacy of his great artistic creations, are relevant to us in this very different and highly complex world.
He was a man of peace who advocated non-violence, even when referring to his enemies. But Nizami went further. Not only did he advocate not doing harm to one’s enemies, but also believed that the best way to use one’s short time here on this earth was to be good. To live a good life, to do good deeds, to practice the virtue of “goodness” for its own inherent value. He reminded his readers that the “only seed worth growing is the seed of goodness”… that starts with being kind to one’s friends and neighbors and then grows beyond the limits of village and town to embrace all of humanity.
He considered that the virtues of a ruler must include justice and the concern for the conditions of his people. A good ruler must strive to bring his people peace and prosperity. True, and more recently, undergirding these, we recognize the importance of laws that would guarantee each individual a sense of freedom, justice and equality, and guarantee society a certain sustainability. Nizami spoke to all of these issues with skill and insight.
Indeed, I can recall many passages from his epic poems and his Divan, where he underlines the virtues of a ruler being committed to ensuring Peace and Justice. And being a Muslim Hakim (or Sage), he valued the Sharia’s concept of equality before the law. In fact, he enjoined his son to study the law, but warned him to … “let the law instruct you in God’s service, Let it not teach you how to lie…”.
Nizami espoused diversity and openness to all cultures… not just tolerance of the differences in these cultures but a true appreciation of the value of diversity, for he underlined how each culture and each tradition had its own pearls to contribute to those who were wise enough to invest time and effort in learning about them.
But what about his attitudes towards women? An important issue in our days, it has often been seen as a litmus test for issues of human rights in all societies. Gender issues are unavoidable, as they involve how a man relates to his mother, his sister, his wife and his daughter… Not just an attitude that he can take towards a different cultural or ethnic group with whom his interactions may be quite limited or even restricted to studying from afar their cultural contributions.
Although Nizami wrote over eight centuries ago, Women in Nizami’s epic romantic poems are endowed with great beauty, elevated on a pedestal and are objects of desire that inspire men to great deeds as when Farhad literally moves mountains to win the love of Shirin. But the greatness of Nizami is that he does not limit himself to this typical idealized view of women, so prevalent in his times, and found in so many of the chivalry tales in east and west, where beautiful and chaste damsels in distress inspire courageous knights to slay the dragon and rescue the damsel.
Nizami portrayed women as full-blooded creatures, well rounded, who evolved over time, and who could be the equal of men in every way, even in the most unusual, such as physical strength (recall the story of the coquettish Fitna in the Haft Paykar, who carried a calf up sixty steps). In Nizami’s world women learn, and his princesses are educated, skillful and wise as well as beautiful.
Thus Nizami’s views of women as complete beings that can match men in intellect, determination and even physical strength, as well as being beautiful evanescent creatures that attract and inspire men, is noteworthy. It is one more interesting facet of the magnificent sage of Ganja.
Virtue and Vice
In all great legacies there are discussions of virtue and vice. Nizami went further as he emphasized virtue in all things. He suspected power and its abuse and condemned intrigue, so often practiced by those who want to get close to power. He valued the path to wisdom by avoiding egoism, rejecting greed, and discarding covetous feelings towards others.
All these values are woven into the tapestry of his works. They are values that continue to have relevance and to inspire all those who come into contact with his works. Yes, he continues to inspire, and in the twentieth century, Abdel Naiem Hassanein, Egypt’s most eminent specialist of Persian literature, would devote his master work (in Arabic) to Nizami and his times. He appropriately titled it: “Nizami Ganjavi: the Poet of Virtue” … An appropriate testimonial to the great Azerbaijani and his enduring legacy.
Nizami's work is more than a paramount symbol of great Azerbaijani or Persian or Turkic or Arabic or even Muslim literature. It is indeed part of the global heritage of humanity. From his abode in Ganja, his writings have transcended the local boundaries of Azerbaijan and created a world that spoke to all humans. His work is a cultural legacy that, like all great legacies, reached universality through deep-rooted traditions interpreted with great art. It has distilled profound wisdom, espoused lofty values and deployed great insights. It combines the story-teller’s skill with the lyrical language of the poet, but what makes it great art is its richness of expression, characterization, use of metaphor, and sheer virtuosity of storytelling. In all of that Nizami is unequalled.
In addition, we all feel that beyond the art and craft of the wordsmith and the story-teller, there is the sincerity of Nizami. You feel that his sense of justice is not feigned. His spirituality reflects genuine piety, not a showy religiosity. His deep concern for the human condition is not just for the characters in his epics, but for all people. In doing so, he joins the ranks of the immortals. Nizami’s masterpieces, his Khamsa, like all great classics, from Homer to Shakespeare to the recent past, have stood the test of time. So it is most appropriate that his works are valued and appreciated everywhere, and that he is celebrated not just in his native Azerbaijan but in the whole world.
Co-chair of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center (NGIC)
Vice-President of the World Bank 1992-2000, Emeritus Librarian of Alexandria
Secretary General Nizami Ganjavi International Center