Sana'i, Hakim

views updated

Hakim Sana'i

A popular and influential poet in the royal court in Ghazna (now in Afganistan) during the late 11th and early 12th centuries, Hakim Sana'i (Abu al-Majd Majdud ibn Adam) (circa 1050–1131) is best known for his classic mystical poem The Walled Garden of Truth and the Law of the Path. He is considered one of the finest artists in the Sufi (Islamic mystic) tradition.

Abu al-Majd Majdud ibn Adam is most commonly referred to in historical texts as Hakim Sana'i, which he used as his pen name. The epithet "hakim" ("wise one") was typically reserved for people of great learning. However, he is also referred to variously as Madjdud Sana'i, Adam al-Ghaznawi, Adam Sanai al-Ghaznavi, and simply Sana'i.

Beginnings of a Poet

Sana'i was born in what is now the Afghan city of Ghazna. Most sources give 1050 as the year of his birth, although, like his name, the date varies somewhat. His father was a teacher, but to what extent and in what disciplines Sana'i himself was educated is uncertain.

As a young man, Sana'i seems to have had a talent for enlisting the interest and help of potential patrons from all classes of Ghaznian society. There are records of his interactions with state officials, soldiers, Islamic clergymen, scholars, and artists. Perhaps his most important relationships were with several prominent academics from the Hanafi School of Law.

Sanai's cultivation of numerous patrons and allies, together with his tremendous talent as a poet, led to his appointment as the official court poet of the sultans of Ghazna. His panegyrics—the lofty, elaborate writings in which he lavishly praised the rulers—made him the darling of the court.

Physical and Spiritual Journey

Sana'i appears to have suddenly abandoned his career as a professional poet after making the acquaintance of a "drinker of dregs" (in modern terms, a drunkard) in about 1114. Whether this person was the reason the poet left his career or not, it is known that Sana'i shortly thereafter left the city of his birth. Records indicate that Sana'i was strongly influenced by the drunkard, who reportedly criticized the poet for writing "in praise of unworthy persons … for worldly gains. What will he say to God on the day of the Reckoning when He asks him, 'What have you brought for me?'" Upon hearing this, Sana'i is said to have immediately left the court's service, foreswore writing panegyrics, and embarked upon a spiritual journey.

Sana'i's first stop on his trek was Balkh. From there he reportedly traveled to other cities in Khorasan Province, which is now part of Iran. He eventually found his way to Merv, in modern Turkmenistan, where he dedicated himself to seeking perfection of spirit. He also turned his attention to securing the patronage of the religious class. An influential Hanafi scholar, who was also a wa'iz (preacher), took Sana'i under his wing and became the poet's spiritual and professional mentor.

Influential Poem for Sultan

While living in Khorasan, Sana'i became a highly praised writer of religious poetry. Despite his success and popularity in his adopted home, however, Sana'i decided, for reasons that remain unclear, to return to his native city of Ghazna in about 1126. At the time, religious writing was popular among the ruling classes, and the poet soon attracted the attention of the sultan Bharam Shah. The shah quickly became Sana'i's sole patron, encouraging the aging poet to reside with him at the court. Sana'i resisted, determined to maintain his longtime aloofness from worldly matters, but he wrote and dedicated his most important poem to the sultan, indicating that Bharam Shah had a major influence on Sana'i. But the poet did remain in seclusion for the remainder of his life.

For the shah, the now aged Sana'i wrote the first major mathnawi (rhymed couplet) in the Dari language. Titled "Hadiqat al-Haqiqah wa shari'at attariqah" ("The Walled Garden of Truth and the Law of the Path"), the poem contained mystical teachings intermingled with proverbs, fables, and anecdotes. The uncommon manner in which Sana'i introduced and explained the esoteric teachings of Sufism—through the medium of poetry—was key to its popularity and lasting value. It is still widely considered by scholars to be the first great mystical poem in Dari, and the work had wide-reaching influence on both Muslim and Persian literature. It became a mainstay of study in the Sufi centers of Multan, Delhi, and Gulbarga.

First to Use Poetic Devices

"The Walled Garden of Truth," which was not translated into English until 1910, is a vast panorama in which Sana'i expresses his thoughts and feelings about God, reason, philosophy, love, and other ideas. Composed of 10,000 couplets, the poem spans ten different sections.

Sana'i was the first poet to use the mathnawi, the qasidah (ode), and the ghazal (lyric) to convey and express the mystical, ethical, and philosophical concepts of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. Altogether, his collected poetry (divan) comprises about 30,000 verses. One of his other better-known works is The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart's Desire. However, despite Sana'i's vow never to write panegyrics again, the presence of mild praise even in some of the poet's religious works indicates that he depended upon his patrons for material, if not spiritual, support.

Died in City of Birth

Sana'i died in Ghazna in about 1131 at a very old age. Scholars believe that he was unable to finish "The Walled Garden of Truth," as we now know it, before his death. Although all of the verses are attributed to Sana'i, historians believe that substantial editorial work by other poets (perhaps commissioned by Bharam Shah) was done to coax the work into its final form.

Because of his great influence on the mystical poetry of Persia, Sana'i was commonly thought to be a prominent Sufi himself. However, because his key patrons were Islamic scholars, that is most likely not the case. In addition, Sana'i's religious poetry praised the Prophet and other great figures of Islam, indicating that his audience was the Muslim community as a whole, rather than merely the elite circle of Sufi adepts.


Bosworth, C. E. et al, The Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden (Brill), 1997.


"Abu al-Majd Majdud ibn Adam," The Biography Resource Center, (December 14, 2003).

"Dari Literature during the Ghaznavid Era," Afghan Magazine, (December 14, 2003).

"Hakim Sana'i," The Storytelling Monk, (December 14, 2003).

"Hakim Sana'i of Ghazni,", (December 14, 2003).

"The Mathnavi," Significant Names in Sufism, (December 14, 2003).

"Sana'i," Encyclopedia Britannica, (December 14, 2003).