Hakim Abu'l-Qasim Firdowsi Tusi commonly transliterated as Ferdowsi (or Firdausi, Firdavsi), (940-1020 C.E.) is a highly revered Persian poet. He was the author of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran and related societies.
Ferdowsi is best known for his literary epic Shahnameh, to which he devoted most of his life. Shahnameh was originally drafted by Ferdowsi for the Princes of Samanids, who were responsible for revival of the Persian cultural traditions after the Arab invasion. Ferdowsi would live to see the Samanids conquered by the Ghaznavid Turks. The new ruler Mahmud of Ghaznavi would lack the same interest in Ferdowsi's work as that shown by the Samanids, resulting in him losing favor with the royal court. Ferdowsi died in 1020 C.E. in "poverty and embittered by royal neglect" though confident that the work that he had created would last the test of time.
Ferdowsi's literary masterpiece is in many ways a political, social reflection of his time period. Shahnameh marks a transitional period for the Persian culture, in a sense that in one hand it represents the summation of what has transpired before and the irretrievable Persian golden age, and on the other what is to come in way of adaptation of a new cultural identity and creation of a new "self-image. "As such an accurate historical background is consequential to understanding the message and the importance of Shahnameh and indeed of Ferdowsi's ordeal.
Shahnameh and indeed Persian history is greatly affected by the Arab invasion of Persia at seventh century C.E. This plays a critical role, since at least from a western perspective, Persia's history is divided in half with thirteen hundred years before the event, with domination of the Achaemenid empire originating from Persis, later Parthians, and finally the Sassanids, and thirteen hundred years after the event with advents of multiple Persian empires. For Persians the Arab invasion must have come as a shock, for it seemed that at least for a while that the Persian identity would be indistinguishable from those of other lands subsumed in the Caliphate. This made the worry of loss of a Persian identity much more imminent for Ferdowsi.
The Umayyads also often treated Persians (even converts) as second-class citizens. The Abbasids who came after Umayyads were more receptive to Persian influences and saw a Persianization of their court if not of the Caliphate. This eventually led to creation of multiple Persian power centers within the Caliphate: In Baghdad, the Buyids, claiming decent from the Sassanids and having a Shiite sympathy, rose to power, while in the northeast the Samanids ruled through the tenth century claiming decent from Bahram Chubineh, a famous Sassanid general.
It was the Samanids who promoted Ferdowsi, allowing him to realize his dream of creation of a unique new Persian language and it was during this time that funded by the Samanid court, Ferdowsi began a painstaking task of creating a unique Persian cultural identity. Ferdowsi's work is also unique in this sense because it puts the Persian creation myths center stage. His work is what some scholars consider to be a "Persian renaissance".
His masterpiece, the Shahnameh, is the most popular and influential national epic in Iran and other Persian speaking nations. The Shahnameh (Book of Kings), or "The Great Book" consists of the translation of an even older Middle Persian work titled the Book of Lords. It has remained exceptionally popular among Persians for over a thousand years. It tells the history of old Persia before the Arab conquest of the region. This tale, all written in poetic form and in Dari Persian, starts 7,000 years ago, narrating the story of Persian kings, knights, system of laws, religion, victories and tragedies. It is significant to understand that Shahnameh is not just a literary work, but also has elements of history. It covers some 3600 years in four dynasties, the first dynasty of which is mythical, the second legendary, and those in third and fourth historical, spanning the historical events of 150 B.C.E. to 632 C.E. It is perhaps Ferdowsi's genius to allow his fictional character Rostam to maneuver through what is essentially historical accounts of late Sassanid kings.
The main source of Ferdowsi for historical and some of the mythological events was "Khodaynama", a book which was gathered and written during the Sassanid era. Though commissioned by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni to write a poetic version of an old book with expected applaud for the king Ferdowsi takes on a far greater task incorporating Persian history, and his desire for a new Persian identity. This task was to take him some thirty years or more, which he reflects upon in one of his verses:
" ... I suffered during these thirty years, but I have revived the Iranians (Ajam) with the Persian language; I shall not die since I am alive again, as I have spread the seeds of this language ... "
One of Ferdowsi's well known verses is the following, reflecting in part his educated view point:
"Knowledge is power"
Ferdowsi is one of the undisputed giants of the Persian literature. After Ferdowsi's Shahnameh a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries within the cultural sphere of the Persian language. Without exception, all such works were based in style and method on Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, but none of them could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity as Ferdowsi's masterpiece.
Ferdowsi has a unique place in Persian history because of the strides he made in reviving and regenerating the Persian language and cultural traditions. His works are cited as a crucial component in the persistence of the Persian language, as those works allowed much of the tongue to remain codified and intact. In this respect, Ferdowsi surpasses Nezami, Khayyam, Asadi Tusi, and other seminal Persian literary figures in his impact on Persian culture and language. Many modern Iranians see him as the father of the modern Persian language.
Ferdowsi's influence in the Persian culture is explained by the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The Persians regard Ferdowsi as the greatest of their poets. For nearly a thousand years they have continued to read and to listen to recitations from his masterwork, the Shah-nameh, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker. The language, based as the poem is on a Dari original, is pure Persian with only the slightest admixture of Arabic.