Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi (Persian: ابوالقاسم فردوسی طوسی; c. 940–1020), or just Ferdowsi (فردوسی) was a Persian poet and the author of Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), which is one of the world’s longest epic poems created by a single poet, and the national epic of Greater Iran. Ferdowsi is celebrated as the most influential figure in Persian literature and one of the greatest in the history of literature.
Ferdowsi belonged to the class of dehqans. These were landowning Iranian aristocrats who had flourished under the Sassanid dynasty (the last pre-Islamic dynasty to rule Iran) and whose power, though diminished, had survived into the Islamic era which followed the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. The dehqans were attached to the pre-Islamic literary heritage, as their status was associated with it (so much so that dehqan is sometimes used as a synonym for “Iranian” in the Shahnameh). Thus they saw it as their task to preserve the pre-Islamic cultural traditions, including tales of legendary kings.
The Islamic conquests of the 7th century brought gradual linguistic and cultural changes to the Iranian Plateau. By the late 9th century, as the power of the caliphate had weakened, several local dynasties emerged in Greater Iran. Ferdowsi grew up in Tus, a city under the control of one of these dynasties, the Samanids, who claimed descent from the Sassanid general Bahram Chobin (whose story Ferdowsi recounts in one of the later sections of the Shahnameh). The Samanid bureaucracy used the New Persian language, which had been used to bring Islam to the Eastern regions of the Iranian world and supplanted local languages, and commissioned translations of Pahlavi texts into New Persian. Abu Mansur Muhammad, a dehqan and governor of Tus, had ordered his minister Abu Mansur Mamari to invite several local scholars to compile a prose Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), which was completed in 1010. Although it no longer survives, Ferdowsi used it as one of the sources of his epic. Samanid rulers were patrons of such important Persian poets as Rudaki and Daqiqi, and Ferdowsi followed in the footsteps of these writers.
Details about Ferdowsi’s education are lacking. Judging by the Shahnameh, there is no evidence he knew either Arabic or Pahlavi.
According to legend, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni offered Ferdowsi a gold piece for every couplet of the Shahnameh he wrote. The poet agreed to receive the money as a lump sum when he had completed the epic. He planned to use it to rebuild the dykes in his native Tus. After thirty years of work, Ferdowsi finished his masterpiece. The sultan prepared to give him 60,000 gold pieces, one for every couplet, as agreed. However, the courtier whom Mahmud had entrusted with the money despised Ferdowsi, regarding him as a heretic, and he replaced the gold coins with silver. Ferdowsi was in the bath house when he received the reward. Finding it was silver and not gold, he gave the money away to the bathkeeper, a refreshment seller, and the slave who had carried the coins. When the courtier told the sultan about Ferdowsi’s behaviour, he was furious and threatened to execute him. Ferdowsi fled Khorasan, having first written a satire on Mahmud, and spent most of the remainder of his life in exile. Mahmud eventually learned the truth about the courtier’s deception and had him either banished or executed. By this time, the aged Ferdowsi had returned to Tus. The sultan sent him a new gift of 60,000 gold pieces, but just as the caravan bearing the money entered the gates of Tus, a funeral procession exited the gates on the opposite side: the poet had died from a heart attack.