Iranian Jewish Culure
Mowlana Shahin Shirazi

Mowlana Shahin Shirazi

Prominent 14th Century Persian Jewish Poet

In the 14th century C.E., one of the most outstanding of Jewish poets by the nom de plume Shahin (Shāhin) was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz. This beautiful city, famous as the birthplace of some of the greatest Iranian poets, was also home at the time to a considerably large Jewish community. Shahin was the first Iranian Jew to shine in the art of Persian poetry and literature.

Little or none is known of Shain’s dates, real name, or life story, save the sparse personal information that’s been gathered from his poetry.

Shahin of Shiraz was a contemporary of Sultan Mohammad Khodabandeh Ulijetu, and his son, Abu-Sa’id Bahador Khan, two Mongol kings of the Ilkhanid Dynasty, who ruled Iran during the 13th and 14th century C.E.

In his introduction to Mousa-Nameh, “The Book of Moses”, completed in 1328 C.E., which the poet began by his adaptation of the Exodus, Shahin included a few verses in praise of Abu-Sa’id Bahador. These verses would later be moved to the beginning of his Book of Genesis, which was composed 30 years after the beginning of the project, and several years after the death of Abu-Sa’id. (Born in 1305 C.E., Abu-Sa’id was coronated at the age of 12 following his father’s death; and he continued to rule until 1335, when he died at the young age of 30.)

Unlike the majority of his contemporary poets, Shahin Shirazi had no interest in writing poetry in praise of those in power for favors, rewards or coins. He was a modest man, mystic in lifestyle, content, and generous, who earned a living through a skill or trade unknown to us.

Mowlana Shahin Shirazi had a rich knowledge of the Jewish culture and history, besides that he vastly benefited from Persian literature and works by other Iranian poets. Influenced by the classic poetry of Iran, and passionate about Jewish religious and cultural education, he was particularly inspired in his project by Ferdowsi’s Shah-Nameh and the poetry of Nezami Ganjavi, both of whom had adapted the tale of Joseph and Zoleikha, Potiphar’s wife in the biblical account of Genesis. Shahin decided to adapt the historical texts and stories of the Torah into the historical epic genre of Persian poetry. He believed that Jews of Iran, the majority of whom had little knowledge of Hebrew and could hardly understand and interpret the Torah or other Jewish liturgical texts, would thus be able to learn about their ancestors’ culture and history. He thought it best if they would spend their time on the Torah of Moses and its precious lessons, rather than spending it on reading the common poetry in praise of nightingales and flowers, wine and the beloved’s countenance, or exaggerated accounts of historical tales.

Shahin began his project in his youth with the historical narratives of the Torah, starting with Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, all of which he adapted to Persian rhyme and rhythm. The result was Mousa-Nameh, “The Book of Moses”, which contained about 10,000 Persian verses (couplets), transcribed in the Judeo-Persian format, using the Hebrew alphabet. The collection was completed about 1328 C.E., in the 12th year of Abu-Sa’id Bahador’s reign.

Soon enough, the masterpiece aroused the jealousy of his friends, who intent on disappointing and crushing this outstanding poet, spread the rumor that the poems did not belong to him, that he had plagiarized! Shahin answered by pointing out that he hadn’t yet adapted the book of Genesis, and he dared anyone who claimed the authorship of Mousa-Nameh to go on and prove their claim by also adapting Genesis to verse. The poet went silent for the next 30 years, during which time his rivals’ attempts at the task were none or too inferior to prove such claims.

Shahin writes of this in rhymed verse, and we paraphrase, “Many tried a hand in the task, / Much suffered in this endeavor. / Yet none could get a sip of the cup / Which they all sought but to no avail. / The Almighty had endowed me with this victory, / Thence no other could approach the task.”

At long last, Shahin’s close friends pressured him to complete the unfinished project and adapt Genesis to Persian verse. Thus, the book of Genesis in Persian poetry, which contains about 9,000 couplets, was completed in 1358 C.E. by the great poet himself.

Shahin’s poetry is composed in a Persian prosody known as “hazaj-e mosaddas-e mahzouf”, which is represented by the rhythmic mold of “ma-fā-eelon ma-fā-eelon fa-‘oulon”. His poetry, beautiful and simple, seldom employs complicated words or borrows from the Arabic vocabulary. Undoubtedly, the sweetest and most eloquent part of Shahin’s book is the story of Joseph, which covers the Parashot (weekly Torah portions) of Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash, and Vayechi. In his adaptation, Shahin has relied not only on Genesis and Torah commentaries, but also he has drawn inspiration from the story of Joseph and Zoleikha as told by Ferdowsi and Nezami, as well as related Quranic commentaries and the Hadis. As research has shown, the poet had a deep knowledge of the Quran, Islamic commentaries, and that religion’s anecdotal tradition known as Hadis.

Shahin’s poetic adaptation of the Pentateuch contains about 19,000 verses (couplets), which focus on the historical narratives of the text, and offer moral advice scattered throughout. The poet writes much on condemning alcoholism and drunkenness, cruelty and oppression, or the unreliability of the transient world, or in praise of modesty and humility versus the majestic show of power and position, even as he tries to maintain a neutral stand in regards to halacha, i.e. the Jewish religious code.

Besides his volume of verse based on the Pentateuch, two other collections of poetry by Shahin have survived to our time. One is called Meftāh-e Kherad, “The Key to Wisdom”, which is about the biblical Book of Esther. While the other volume Ezra-Nameh revolves around the reign of Cyrus the Great, the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the person of Ezra ha-Sofer. His poetry on the story of Queen Esther includes verses on certain conflicts, wars, and even family feuds, as well as descriptions of the scenes of hunting, war or festivities. Evidently, the kind of interpretation and descriptions that took form in Ferdowsi’s Shah-nameh have been reflected in Shain’s Meftah-e Kherad. Moreover, in this book, Shahin renames the biblical Xerxes as Ardeshir, the son of Gashtasp; thence Ardeshir-Nameh, i.e. “The Book of Ardeshir”, as the alternate title of the book.

About a century after the death of Mowlana Shahin Shirazi, another Iranian Jew known by the nom de plume Omrani (Omrāni), took up Shahin’s unfinished projects, and following his footsteps, adapted parts of the biblical books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel to Persian verse, in the prosodic form of “hazaj”. He named this collection of his poetry Fat-h Nameh, “The Book of Victories”.

Both Shahin and Omrani were buried in Shiraz. Babayi ben Lotf, another Persian Jewish poet, who put into verse a history of Jews and their suffering during the Safavids, said to have visited the graves of both poets next to those of Saadi and Hafez in Shiraz. However, centuries later, no sign of either Shahin or Omrani can be found in that city.

A limited number of the manuscripts of the books by Shahin “Hawk” of the Torah have been preserved in prominent libraries worldwide, including those at the Ben Zvi Institute, Israel.

In 1902 C.E., Chacham Shimon, a Jewish scholar from Bukhara, had Shahin’s Mousa-Nameh and his adaptation of Genesis published in Jerusalem. In 1910, he further published Shahin’s Ardeshir-Nameh under Sefer Sharh-e Shahin, which pertains to his adaptation of the Book of Esther.


Selected Works of Mowlana Shahin Shirazi

1) Mousa-Nameh: “The Book of Moses” completed in 1329 C.E., was Shahin’s adaptation of the latter four books of the Pentateuch, that is, Exodus through Deuteronomy. The poet also draws on the Talmudic tradition, as well as other Jewish or Islamic sources.

2) Ardeshir-Nameh: “The Book of Ardeshir” was completed in 1332 C.E. In this work, the poet combines the story of the Book of Esther with the story of King Ardeshir.

3) Ezra-Nameh: “The Book of Ezra”, in which Shahin covers in poetry the liberation of Jews at the time of Cyrus, the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the person of Ezra Ha-Sofer.

4) Bereshit-Nameh or “The Book ofGenesis”:  With this volume, Shahin completed his Pentateuch project together with Ezra-Nameh, in 1359 C.E. 

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