ʿAlī Shīr Nav

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ʿALĪ SHĪR NAVĀʾĪ (ah 844906/14411501 ce), more fully Mīr Niām al-Dīn ʿAlī Shīr Navāʾī; Central Asian poet, biographer, and patron of arts, letters, and Islamic institutions. Navāʾī was a man of versatile accomplishments who, born into the upper aristocracy of the city of Herāt (now in Afghanistan), devoted his life to public service and the arts. Honored in the eastern Islamic world, he is regarded as the greatest classical poet of the Soviet Uzbek people and a significant contributor to Persian cultural history.

The period during which Navāʾī lived saw much political conflict owing to the disintegration of rule by the descendants of Timur (Tamerlane). Small princedoms, chiefly of Turkic origin, intrigued for domination and caused much instability among the upper classes. In Navāʾī's family, changing fortunes gave the young boy opportunities to meet a variety of scholars and mystics who shaped his intellectual and religious development. For most of his adult life he was a political and personal intimate of Sultan usayn Bāyqarā (d. 1506), who provided him with further opportunity for interaction with men of letters and led to the writing of his biographical collection, Majālis al-nafāʿis (Gathering of spirits), composed in Chaghatai, the eastern Turkic literary language.

During this period, Herāt was not only the leading center for the arts but also a place where mysticism, and especially the Naqshbandī ūfī order, flourished. Navāʾī, who has been described as a man spiritual rather than public by inclination, appears to have been an initiate into the Naqshbandī khāngāh (ūfī hospice) headed by his friend, the great mystic poet ʿAbd al-Ramān Jāmī (d. 1492). Although he did not follow the ascetic path, Navāʾī never married and professed to be a dervish. Since he was a Sunnī Muslim, his lack of prejudice toward Shīʿī Muslims has led to speculation that he may have favored that sect. His friendliness toward the Shīʿah, however, probably reflects the relatively tranquil religious atmosphere of his day, particularly in contrast to the early sixteenth century, when bitter Sunnī-Shīʿī political struggles rent the natural cultural and socioeconomic relationships that had existed across the Iranian plateau.

Navāʾī's devotion to public and religious affairs is demonstrated by the fact that during his lifetime he restored and endowed about 370 mosques, madrasah s (Islamic colleges), caravansaries, and other pious institutions; the Mīr ʿAlī Shīr Mosque in Herāt was named for him. He wrote a total of twenty-nine literary works, mainly poetical, and some in imitation of mystical texts. Most of these are in Chaghatai, but a few are in Persian, under the pen name Fānī. Because of his position as an early champion of Chaghatai, Navāʾī has held a special place in modern Central Asian culture. His life story, embellished with apocryphal tales, has penetrated into the folk literature, theater, and opera of the Perso-Turkic culture of the region.


The most comprehensive historical study of Navāʾī remains V. V. Barthold's Russian-language essay that appears in Four Studies on the History of Central Asia, vol. 3, Mīr ʿAlī-Shīr: A History of the Turkmen People, translated by Vladimir Minorsky and Tatiana Minorsky (Leiden, 1962). Uzbek, Russian, and Tajik literary studies of Navāʾī of more recent vintage share with Barthold's essay a reluctance to discuss the religious aspects of Navāʾī's life, focusing instead on his contributions to art, architecture, music, calligraphy, painting, and especially literature. Of these a prominent example is Evgenii E. Bertel's's Izbrannie Trudy: Navoi i Dzhami, 4 vols. (Moscow, 1965).

The best source for understanding Navāʾī within the cultural context of his period is Edward G. Browne's A Literary History of Persia, vol. 3, The Tartar Dominion, 12651502 (1920; reprint, Cambridge, U.K., 1951).

Eden Naby (1987)