“Beholding Beauty: Sa‘di of Shiraz and the Aesthetics of Desire in Medieval Persian Poetry” by Domenico Ingenito

Detail of Mughal manuscript c 1645 showing Saadi (right) in a rose garden (Wikimedia Commons) Detail of Mughal manuscript c 1645 showing Saadi (right) in a rose garden (Wikimedia Commons)

The European Enlightenment relished Sheikh Sa‘di of Shiraz, 13th-century Persian poet and moral philosopher for his work, The Rose Garden, a witty mixture of prose and poetry, morality and ribaldry, lyric and proverbial wisdom. Iranians can cite its verses by heart, including this favorite:


In the bathhouse once came to my hands
A rose, sweet-smelling, from a lovely boy.
I asked it, “are you ambergris or musk?,
So heart beguiling, intoxicant.”
Said the rose, “I was a worthless clod
Of mud, but for a moment sat beside a rose.
Proximity of beauty had its effect.
If not, I’d be the mud still that I was.”


گلی‌ خوش‌بوی‌ در حمام‌ روزی
رسید از دست‌ محبوبی‌ به‌ دستم‌
بدو گفتم‌ که‌ مشکی‌ یا عبیری
‌كه‌ از بوی‌ دل‌آویز تو مستم‌
بگفتا من‌ گِلی‌ ناچیز بودم
‌ولیكن‌ مدتی‌ با گُل‌ نشستم‌
کمال‌ هم‌نشین‌ در من‌ اثر کرد
وگرنه‌ من‌ همان‌ خاکم‌ که‌ هستم …


Readers will see three themes in this poem. First, that Sa‘di’s love poetry is imbued with homoeroticism, as evoked by the beloved boy in the bathhouse. Second, that Sa’di believes that beauty can transform us from a lower to a higher state, from mud to a rose. Finally, that this parable of transformation points us to the presence of God.

Sa‘di believes that beauty is transformative.

Beholding Beauty: Saʿdi of Shiraz and the Aesthetics of Desire in Medieval Persian Poetry, Domenico Ingenito (Brill, December 2021)
Beholding Beauty: Saʿdi of Shiraz and the Aesthetics of Desire in Medieval Persian Poetry, Domenico Ingenito (Brill, December 2021)

Domenico Ingenito’s Beholding Beauty is a dense, comprehensive study of how Sa‘di explores these three themes, their intellectual origins and their legacy. In each case, Ingenito provides not only a close reading of Sa‘di’s corpus, but adds significant original research.

Take Sa‘di’s homoeroticism. Ingenito rightly pushes back both on contemporary western and Iranian critics who either try to ignore the inter-generational homoeroticism or to characterize it as purely metaphorical. He warns us not to read Sa’di through the lenses of the West that criminalizes pedophilia or the Islamic Republic of Iran that criminalizes same sex relations. Ingenito makes it inescapably clear that Sa’di refers to flesh and blood young boys. He underscores his point by providing the first scholarly study of Sa’di’s pornographic poetry, which are as rude as rugby songs, leaving nothing to the imagination. But why does the Sheykh celebrate the love of young boys?

Sa‘di believes that beauty is transformative. Ingenito demonstrates that Sa‘di’s admiration of young boys was real, but that he believed that contemplation of their beauty helps humans move to a higher, more spiritual plane. Extensive citations of Sa‘di’s celebrations of beauty, both natural and incarnated in human bodies, deftly translated and accompanied by the original Persian text (provided in a large and rather beautiful font), go far to clarify Sa‘di’s convictions. By providing a survey of Sa‘di’s predecessors and contemporaries, he shows us how this idea of transformative beauty may have emerged among Persian poets, but how Sa‘di really carried it out more fully than anyone else.

Sa‘di did not celebrate beauty for beauty’s sake, like some late 19th century decadent. Deeply rooted in the intellectual controversies of his times, Sa‘di mobilized the arguments and the concepts of philosophers like Avicenna and theologians like Ghazali to argue that the contemplation of beauty leads us to a more direct experience of God. That is why Sa‘di was called a “sheikh” in his lifetime, and why his Seljuk and Mongol patrons financed the creation of a Sufi lodge for him, in a period that saw Mawlana Rumi creating his own Sufi school. But Sa‘di’s legacy was not an enduring Sufi organization like the Rumi’s dancing Dervishes. Rather it was the Persian ghazal lyric, which he perfected and bequeathed, among others, to Hafez.

Beholding Beauty prompts us to reevaluate Sa‘di.

Ingenito, a professor of Persian language and literature at UCLA, has spent half of his life delving into the message of Sa‘di. This study certainly reads as though it has been 20 years in the making. Ingenito has consulted 20 extent 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts. Rather than assuming that some manuscript variants reflect scribal errors or interpolations, he explores the possibility that Sa‘di used different versions of the same poem for different audiences. The variations can therefore tell us more about the poet’s intention. Extensive footnotes address a multitude of related topics, like parallels with Troubadour poetry, the development of early Sufism and the interplay between Philosophy and Theology in the Middle Ages. The bibliography extensively cites the work of Iranian literary critics and historians, whose views are not always consulted in western works on their classics.

The well-known culture critic Judith Butler, chided for using overly baroque vocabulary and syntax, once explained that the point of difficult prose is to make you think harder about what you thought you understood, to force you to discover something new. Ingenito uses this approach. His dense prose can be exhausting, but it is usually worth the effort of decryption (something I do not always feel when I read books grounded in new critical theory). In particular the critical theory language seems to be a good way to look at Avicena’s and Gazali’s aesthetics. On the other hand, I found it revealing to see that in an article he published about Hafez in Italian, he uses much simpler language. Perhaps the language of Dante does not lend itself to the verbal somersaults that post-Lacanian English does.

Beholding Beauty prompts us to reevaluate Sa‘di. We see that his erotic and pornographic works have a serious purpose, in establishing the importance of the senses. Sa‘di is not a Sufi poet in the sense of Rumi or Athar, because he does not call for us to turn our backs on the world. Living in this world and appreciating its beauty is our best chance to approach God. The beloved of Sa’di is not a metaphor and certainly not a metaphor for God, neither it is an autobiographical confession about a love affair. Sa‘di celebrates beautiful boys who allow the wise man to appreciate God’s majesty. Contemporary heteronormative and LGBTQ readers can still enjoy these beautiful translations and sense some of that divine presence.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.