Occult Sciences in The Iskandarnameh of Nizami

  • J. Christoph Bürgel


In his last and largest epos, the Iskandarnameh,2 Nizami develops the image of an ideal statesman following the concept of Farabi in his political philosophy.3 His hero is Alexander the Great, whom he portrays with this idealized vision in mind, freely deviating from what he found in the sources whenever his vision told him to do so. Besides his military and political faculties, an ideal statesman should incorporate, so the Farabian concept requires, the qualities of a philosopher and ultimately those of a prophet. Nizami’s Sikandar develops according to this concept.4 In the first part, the so-called Sharafnameh or “Book of Honor,” we are told all about Sikandar’s conquests; in the second part, the Iqbalnameh or “Book of Blessings,” the poet tackles Sikandar’s experiences as a philosopher and then those of his final stage, that of a prophet.5 As a philosopher, Sikandar visits Socrates and has a talk with the Greek sages, but he is also confronted with a number of sciences, including astrology, alchemy and magic, and music and medicine—in other words, the three major branches of the so-called occult sciences, which stand above philosophy according to the Brethren of Purity, and two other sciences, whose effects gave them an aura of magic power as well.6 These sciences are not dealt with in an abstract theoretical essay however, but in the form of entertaining stories that throw light on their sometimes wholesome, sometimes dangerous power. The total of these stories is seven, seven being an important number not only in the fourth epos of our poet, the Haft Paikar or “Seven Beauties,” but also in his last poem, where it appears a number of times with an important function: seven battles are fought against the Rus, the number of philosophers gathered around Sikandar is seven et cetera.7 Let us now have a somewhat closer look at these seven tales.8


Arabic Version Idealize Vision Magic Power Strange Story Diacritical Mark 
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  1. 21.
    For himmat cf. F. Meier, Die fawa’ih al-gamal wa-fawatih al-galal des Nagm ad-Din al-Kubra, Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur. Veröffentlichungen der Orientalischen Kommission 9 (Wiesbaden 1957), pp. 226–40.Google Scholar
  2. 23.
    H. Corbin, L’homme de lumière dans le soufisme iranien (Paris 1971), p. 35ff.Google Scholar
  3. 26.
    Cf. P. Soucek, “Nizami on Painters and Painting,” Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum (New York 1972).Google Scholar
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    Cf. H. G. Farmer, “The Influence of Music from Arabic Sources,” a lecture delivered before the Musical Association, London 1916; cf. also The Feather of Simurgh, p. 92ff.Google Scholar
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    Cf. M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (London 1983), pp. 270–92; I. A. Bello, The Medieval Islamic Controversy Between Philosophy and Orthodoxy: Ijma’ and ta’wil in the conflict between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (Leyden 1989)Google Scholar
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    Cf. M. Fakhry, l.c. 293–304; H. Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique I: Des origines jusq’a la mort d’Averroes (1198) (Paris 1964), pp. 284–304.Google Scholar
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    Julie S. Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, especially chapter V, “Romance as Mirror: Allegories of Kingship and Justice” (Princeton 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 39.
    E. E. Bertels, Nizami i Fuzuli (Moscow 1962), p. 355ff; A. Bausani, “Tendenza a spiegare in modo razionale antichi miti” (cf. note 8 above), p. 157.Google Scholar

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© Kamran Talattof and Jerome W. Clinton 2000

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  • J. Christoph Bürgel

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