Example poetry

An overview of five centuries of Amir Khusraw’s poetry


The British Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts of the Persian works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325). There are about fifty manuscripts, listed in the Ethé, Rieu and Ross and Brown catalogsas well as some from the Delhi Persian Collection, dating from the 15th to the 19th century, including some early compilations of his collected poetry (kulliyat), selections from ghazals and long narrative poems (masnavis).

An eclectic range of codices from lavish royal copies to pedestrian books can be found here, many with seals and inscriptions by owners, and colophons by various calligraphers and illustrations from various schools of painting. This rich collection highlights, on the one hand, the poet’s enormous body of work in many different literary forms and genres, and on the other hand, the daunting problem of compiling standard and complete editions of his poems.

Amir Khusraw, a medieval Persian poet who was much admired and read in Persian societies, is sometimes written outside the classical canon in our time. A master of all existing poetic forms, the poet particularly distinguished himself in his mastery of courteous and devotional panegyrics and words of love. His output was prolific in these forms, and according to Dawlatshah writing in the late 15th century in his Biographical Dictionary, Tazkirat al-shu’ara, the bibliophiles of the Timurid court have given up collecting all his verses. This continues to be the fate of modern scholars working on the poetry of the Amir Khusraw.

There are a number of manuscripts of the works of Amir Khusraw dating from the second half of the 15th century to the very beginning of the 17th century in the form of kulliyat, i.e. his entire corpus of poems which was available at places and at specific times. Some of the manuscripts in this group, as well as others described below, share several codicological characteristics and many copies were produced in Herat.

The writing is small, yards of individual poems are identified in some cases, and the margins contain poems to maximize each space. One of these (Islamic OI 338), which was copied in Delhi ca. 1603, was once part of the Library of Tipu Sultan – who also had at least six other copies of works by Amir Khusraw in his collection.

The overture to Baqiyah-i naqiyah, Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan in this copy of his complete works. Credit: British Library IO Islamic 338, f. 337v

Early kulliyat manuscripts also included his narrative poems, as Amir Khusraw was also famous for his quintet (Khamsah) based on Nizami’s own set of verse novels of the same title. Not a slavish imitator of his predecessor, Amir Khusraw altered the plots of well-known novels such as Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirinand Hasht Bihisht. Dawlatshah also mentions that the Timurdish prince Baysunghur (1397-1433) used to prefer the Khamsah from Amir Khusraw to that of Nizami.

Comparing that of Khusraw Khamsah including 18,000 verses to Nizami’s including 28,000, Dawlatshah writes: “It is amazing to see how in certain expressions [Khusraw] is long and in some cases concise; the conciseness, rhetoric and eloquence are charming. While Baysunghur’s brother Emir Ulugh Beg preferred Nizami’s Khamsahthe two would argue and compare individual verses in the two works.

Dawlatshah adds, “The special meanings and intricacies of Amir Khusraw’s thrilling poetry kindles a fire in people’s minds and shakes the foundations of lovers’ strength.” In this Timurid milieu, an unillustrated Khamsah (To add. 24983) was copied in Herat by the master calligrapher Muhammad ‘Ali Samarqandi for the library of Sultan Husayn Bahadur Khan Bayqara (d. 1506), which subsequently belonged to the Imperial Mughal Library.

Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the center with a list of contents around the edge. By the time the manuscript was completed in 1511, the sultan had been dead for six years. Credit: British Library Add. 24983, f. 2r

One of the kulliyat manuscripts, dated 923/1517 (To add. 21104) is provided with 17 illustrations, some of which were added or retouched later. B.W. Robinson has tentatively suggested that due to the “not so easily recognizable style” of the paintings, he was part of a group of picture quintets probably originating from Transoxiana or Khurasan.

Lovers in a Garden, from Divan Ghurrat al-kamal by Amir Khusraw. Credit: British Library Add.21104, f.251r)

The oldest manuscript of Amir Khusraw Khamsah dated 1421 (Or.13802) was actually copied in the margin of Nizami’s quintet, indicating that the texts were often read together. It bears the Gujarati inscription of a later Parsi owner and is only partially preserved.

Khusraw and Shirin enthroned. Credit: British Library Or. 13802, f. 119v

Another of these illustrated manuscripts (Islamic OI 387) where the two quintets appear together would date to the late 15th or early 16th century and is in much better condition. In Amir Khusraw’s version of the Alexander romance, A’inah-ʼi IskandariNizami’s philosopher-king transforms into an intrepid explorer and scientist.

Iskandar crossing the sea in a European type ship, from Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari. Credit: Islamic BL IO 387, f.466r

This work also exists as a stand-alone copy (To add. 24,054) apparently dated to 885/1479. Other poems from the quintet were also copied on their own without any painting, such as two copies of Matla’ al-anvar and four copies of Hasht Bihisht. Three of Amir Khusraw’s verse novels on contemporary themes, which are not part of his quintet, have also had a readership.

With an 18th century copy of the Nuh Sipihr there are seven copies of the Qiran al-Sa’daynincluding one dated 921/1515 in Herat (To add. 7753), was copied by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan, while several others are more modest 18th or 19th century manuscripts that were clearly read by untrained readers.

The opening of Amir Khusraw’s Qiran al-saʻdayn, copied in Herat in 1515 by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan. Credit: British Library Add. 7753, f. 1v)

There are also three copies of the popular Indo-Persian romance, Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, also known as ‘Achiqahone of which (Or.335) has some unusual illustrations, such as the rare depiction of the beheading of the prince at the end of the story.

Prince Khizr Khan assassinated on the orders of the Sultan of Delhi Qutb al-Din Mubarak. From Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, dated 982/1574. Credit: British Library Or.335, f.142v)

Attempts to collect and produce large copies of Amir Khusraw’s poetry mostly ceased during the Safavid and Mughal periods when more copies of selections from his non-narrative poems were made, especially of the five Couchs which marked the different stages of his development as a poet.

By this time, the ghazal had become the favored poetic form, which only increased the popularity of Amir Khusraw’s words of love. Among the most popular of a dozen copies of his poems Couches is the Ghurrat al-Kamal which includes a long partly autobiographical preface followed by copies of his Vasat-i Hayat. A particularly fine Timurid copy of his Couch (Islamic OI 512) also includes poems by Hasan Sijzi and Jami in the margins.

Amir Khusraw’s Divan colophon in the center, and Jami’s poems in the margins. Credit: British Library IO Islamic 512, ff. 618v-619r)

The wide range of this group of manuscripts is due to the fact that some were prepared for Mughal patrons such as Bayram Khan, others circulated among Ottoman Turkish readers. Another belonged to the library of a Qadiriya Sufi order in Bijapur, and at least one (Islamic IO 2470) was prepared for Robert Waterston, a British officer in India.

The last page and colophon of a selection from the divans of Amir Khusraw commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790. Credit: British Library IO Islamic 2470, f.91r)

In addition to his poetry, an example of Amir Khusraw’s prose exists in a single voluminous collection of epistolographic writings, I’jaz-i Khusravi. The manuscript dated 1697-8 (Islamic OI 4714) was calligraphed by Anup Rai and bears the seal of a certain Qutbuddin Bahadur Jang.

Instead of a comprehensive bibliography or database of Amir Khusraw’s manuscripts, the British Library’s collection is an excellent sample that provides a rich history of copying and readership of the poet’s collective and individual works at through five centuries. The manuscripts were produced and disseminated throughout the Persian world, with inscriptions and seals showing their stay in important centers of artistic production such as Herat, Shiraz, Istanbul and Delhi, as well as in provincial Indian cities such as Ramnagar in the ‘Uttar Pradesh and Rohinkhed in Maharashtra.

Sometimes the archives also reveal a fascinating history of the use of some of these manuscripts in the early 20th century by renowned scholars such as M Wahid Mirza, whose pioneering scholarship on Amir Khusraw, which was originally his thesis of doctorate at the University of London, is still the authoritative book on the subject. According to the loan slip pasted on the back of Islamic OI 51which dates from 866-7/1462, the manuscript was even verified and sent to Aligarh in 1935.

Several other libraries in the UK have smaller collections of manuscripts by Amir Khusraw which are listed in the FIHRIST catalog. Some of the poet’s verses are also found in numerous anthologies of poetry by several poets that were compiled during the same centuries.

It should also be noted that there is no evidence of his Hindavi poems in this collection, which contradicts the situation in contemporary South Asia where he is famous for these verses which were probably passed down in an oral tradition. or which are apocryphal. With regard to his Persian work, the philological problem is not that lines or whole poems are added by later poets, as in the case of Firdawsi’s work. Shahnamah or at Hafiz Couch, but it is that Amir Khusraw has just composed a lot of poetry.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.

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