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Firdawsi: Book of Kings (Shahnama)
What are the pre-Islamic Iranian features of the story? How do they square with Islam?
The Book of Kings is written in Farsi, unlike the Quran. The Book of Kings celebrates the glory of pre-historical and early historical Persia through its kings. It begins with the legends. Iran is viewed as the fatherland, and the axis of the world. Zoroastrianism is mentioned, especially in the early legends. Firdawsi compares the Zoroastrianism to Islam, which in itself is blasphemous. Unlike the Quran, The Book of Kings is not favorable to the Arabs. First Zahhak was deceived by Iblis, and then the second Rustam foretold that "All our long labors will be in vain, for the stars only befriend the Arabs. & #8230; They shall turn away from honor and truth; lies and baseness shall be honored." This is definitely not flattering, especially when Rustam the second converts to Islam because his future is poor anyway.
2. What is Ferdawsi's attitude?
In The Book of Kings, Firdawsi is not modest. He begins with "… a noble book that achieved fame throughout the world and received universal adulation from all people, high and low." At the end, he says, "henceforth I cannot die; for I live, having broadcast the seeds of my verses. Anyone possessed of sense, good counsel and religion will after my death offer up praise for me." Yet, he's bitter because no one would cooperate with him in sharing the history of the kings. He was also bitter about being a ghostwriter who was not paid, or recognized for his contributions. Ferdowsi's aim in writing the Shahnama is to legitimize the Persian kings, because it legitimizes their dynasties as descended from these others, through farr.
3. What role does fate play?
Fate is seen as the hand of God on Earth. When men act on hubris or vanity, fate "converts good fortune into bad." Later, Firdawsi tells the story of Zahhak, who at first was an innocent Arab youth, but was trapped by Iblis (Satan) into making an oath of loyalty. Firdawsi portrays Zahhak as sympathetic, at least initially, though his innocence leads him to bad decisions, which is a kind of pitiable fate. When Zahhak was evil, he doubted that fate controlled his destiny: "I am ever doubtful of the malice of fate," and then he died a horrible death.
4. What is farr? How does one get it or lose it? What is the Iranian attitude toward dynastic legitimacy?
Farr is divine, and something that only belongs to kings. Good kings use it for creation: the trappings of civilization, armor, a throne. It's similar to the divine right of kings. It creates shelter, peace, and good fortune in the world. Animals can see it. It is used to create each social class (Jamshid created Katuzi, Naysari, Nasudi, and Ahnukhwashi). Farr is strengthened by religious observance and striving for virtue. Kings can win it in battle. It is usually depicted as an aura like a ring around a moon, but brighter. For example, a king with farr is "as resplendent on his throne as the two weeks old moon shining above a slender cypress."
Farr is taken away when a king overreaches his vanity and takes the place of God. It can be tarnished when a king turns to evil. Farr is injured when a king is not just. For example: "And so years went by until the royal Farr was wrested from him. The reason for it was that the king, who had always paid homage to God, now became filled with vanity and turned away from Him in forgetfulness of the gratitude he owed Him."
5. What are the qualities of a hero? How does Rustam embody these qualities?
Heroes are wise. Rustam has good judgment and "sagacity," like his grandfather Sam. He is wise, again like Sam. Later, Rustam tries to persuade Isfandiyar (Alexander the Great), to "abide in equity and serve our God, not taking the hand of evil into ours. Any speech for whose utterance there is no basis is a tree devoid of fruit and scent; and if his spirit treads the path of envy, his labor will be in vain, however long drawn out."
Heroes have courage. When Rustam is born, his nurse says that when angry, he will be as aggressive as a lion. The Simurgh (phoenix) describes him as a lion-child. Throughout the Book of Kings, he heroically defends Iranian kings. Later, like Hercules the Great, he performs "seven heroic labors to overcome a ferocious lion, traverse desolate poison-aired, waterless desert, combat a dragon, slay a sorceress, and kill the Great White Div who had taken Kavus prisoner." Later, he's described on the field of combat as charging like "like an elephant in fury, with a tiger under him and a dragon in his fist." When no one else will fight Juya, he does it, and kills the demon, then breaks the Mazandarani lines, and seizes the Mazandarani king.
Heroes are handsome. He's described as handsome many times, with the slender grace and noble stature of a cypress, which means that he's also virile. His face "is as the moon for loveliness."
Heroes are strong. When he's born, he is prophysied to be as strong as an element, able to flick a brick two leagues. Later, he shows his strength by lassoing a huge colt, Rakhsh, for his own. In battle, he lifts "the heavy stone in which the Mazandarani king lay embedded "and, without any aid in that ordeal, lifted the stone with such ease that the troops were left in amazement." When Bahman first sees Rustam, he tries to kill him with a huge boulder, which Rustam just kicks aside, while eating an entire onager on a spit. Not only is Rustam strong, but he's also big, requiring ten nursemaids' worth of milk, eating enough for five men, and with the "height of eight men." Later, when negotiating with Isfandiyar, Rustam "displayed his prowess as trencherman and wine-bibber [at] a Gargantuan meal."
Heroes are generous. When Bahman sees Rustam, Rustam enquires after his name, embraces him warmly, and invited Bahman to dinner. He also offers Isfandiyar the run of his treasury before seeing the Shah. Even after Isfandiyar tries to persuade Rustam to symbolically chain himself to swear loyalty to the Shah, Rustam doesn't get angry but instead invites Isfandiyar to dinner. He swears to avenge his brother's insult at the hands of the Kabuli king, another act of generosity. Later, he forgave the Kabuli king for that insult, which again, is generous.
Heroes are religious. "I thank Almighty God," says Rustam after escaping from Isfandiyar. Rustam speaks of his immortal soul. He talks about serving God, and avoiding evil. He defeats demons, as part of his heroic labors, and in service to Shah Kavus. He mentions that God will be his associate. Grace is also used to describe Rustam, and grace is traditionally a way of saying that he is favored by God. He prays before shooting Isfandiyar.
6. What was Ferdawsi's aim in writing the Shahnama?
He's quite blunt in that he had written The Book of Kings in hope of monetary remuneration. At the end of his labors, he is nearly 80, and hopeless that he will ever become wealthy from The Book of Kings.
7. What are the main values reflected in the work?
Humility: One of the first warnings that Firdawsi makes is for humility. As part of humility, Firdawsi talks about how Jamshid, when he still had his farr, "assigned to every living creature the right rank or station proper to it and directed it on its path, so that each might be aware of its place and understand the measure of it." Further humility is described when "each man's occupation displays its worth in its own fashion. When, therefore, one group seeks to perform the other's task, the whole world becomes confused." Later, when he talks about how Jamshid lost his farr, Firdawsi says: "The reason for it was that the king, who had always paid homage to God, now became filled with vanity and turned away from Him in forgetfulness of the gratitude he owed Him." The Greeks would say that Jamshid fell into the grip of hubris.
One type of humility is knowing one's place in the world. At one point, Jamasp says to Isfandiyar's father:
"Who can escape from the turning wheel? Out of it the sharp clawed dragon springs. Who can find deliverance, either by courage or wisdom? What is to be will be, without fail, and wise men do not seek to…