Little is known of Sanāʾī’s early life. He was a resident of Ghazna and served for a time as poet at the court of the Ghaznavid sultans, composing lyrics in praise of his patrons. At some point he underwent a spiritual conversion and, abandoning the court, went to Merv (Turkmenistan), where he pursued a life of spiritual perfection. He returned to Ghazna years later but lived in retirement, resisting the blandishments of his Ghaznavid patron Bahrām Shāh.
Sanāʾī’s best-known work is the Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah wa sharīʿat aṭ-ṭariqah (The Garden of Truth and the Law of the Path). Dedicated to Bahrām Shāh, this great work, expressing the poet’s ideas on God, love, philosophy, and reason, is composed of 10,000 couplets in 10 separate sections. The first section was translated in English as The Enclosed Garden of Truth (1910).
Sanāʾī’s work is of major importance in Persian-Islāmic literature, for he was the first to use such verse forms as the qaṣīdah (ode), the ghazal (lyric), and the mas̄navī (rhymed couplet) to express the philosophical, mystical, and ethical ideas of Ṣūfism (Islāmic mysticism). His divan, or collected poetry, contains some 30,000 verses. Sanāʾī’ is considered to be the first great mystical poet in the Persian language.
from The Walled Garden of the Truth
On the Blind Men and the Affair of the Elephant
There was a great city in the country of Ghûr, in which all the people were blind. A certain king passed by that place, bringing his army and pitching his camp on the plain. He had a large and magnificent elephant to minister to his pomp and excite awe, and to attack in battle. A desire arose among the people to see this monstrous elephant, and a number of the blind, like fools, visited it, every one running in his haste to find out its shape and form. They came, and being without the sight of their eyes groped about it with their hands; each of them by touching one member obtained a notion of some one part; each one got a conception of an impossible object, and fully believed his fancy true. When they returned to the people of the city, the others gathered round them, all expectant, so misguided and deluded were they. They asked about the appearance and shape of the elephant, and what they told all listened to. One asked him whose hand had come upon its ear about the elephant; he said, It is a huge and formidable object, broad and rough and spreading, like a carpet. And he whose hand had come upon its trunk said, I have found out about it; it is straight and hollow in the middle like a pipe, a terrible thing and an instrument of destruction. And he who had felt the thick hard legs of the elephant said, As I have it in mind, its form is straight like a planed pillar. Everyone had seen some one of its parts, and all had seen it wrongly. No mind knew the whole,--knowledge is never the companion of the blind all, like fools deceived, fancied absurdities.
Men know not the Divine essence; into this subject the philosophers may not enter.
The Parable of Those Who Give Alms
A certain wise and liberal man gave away so many bags of gold before his son's eyes that when he saw his father's munificence he broke forth into censure and remonstrance, saying, Father, where is my share of this? He said, O son, in the treasury of God; I have given to God thy portion, leaving no executor and none to divide it with thee, and He will give it thee again.
He is Himself our Provider and our Master; shall He not suffice us, both for faith and worldly goods? He is no other than the disposer of our lives; He will not oppress thee,--He is not of those. To everyone He gives back seventy-fold; and if He closes one door against thee, He opens ten.
On Being Silent
The path of religion is neither in works nor words; there are no buildings thereon, but only desolation. Whoso becomes silent to pursue the path, his speech is life and sweetness; if he speaks, it will not be out of ignorance, and if he is silent, it will not be from sloth; when silent, he is not devising frivolity; when speaking, he scatters abroad no trifling talk.
Those fools, the thieves and pickpockets, keep their knowledge to use in highway robbery. Thou seest, O Master, thou of many words, that thou hadst better have light in thy heart than words; when thou becomest silent, thou art most eloquent, but if thou speakest, thou art like a captain of war. 'Kun,' consists of two letters, both voiceless; 'Hû' consists of two letters, both silent. Doubt not concerning these words of mine; open thine eyes, pay heed for a little.
There exists the dog, and the stone; the stove of the bath, and the slave; but thou art excellent, like a jewel inside a casket. The king uses his silver for his daily needs, but his ruby be keeps for his treasure-house; silver is evil in its own ill-starred nature, the ruby is joyous because it is full of blood within.
The family of Barmak became great through their liberality; they were, so to say, close companions of generosity. Though fate pronounced their destruction, their name endures, indestructible as the spirit. The people of this generation, though amiable, are impudent as flies and wanton; in word they are all sweet as sugar, but when it comes to generosity, they tear men's hearts and burn their souls.
When He had adorned thy soul within thee, He held up before thee the mirror of the light; till pride made thee quick to anger, and thou lookedst upon thyself with the evil eye.
He has balanced day and night by the ruler of his justice, not by chance or at random.
While Reason digs for the secret, thou hast reached thy goal on the plain of Love.
The heart and soul of the seeker after God are concealed, but his tongue proclaims in truth, 'I am God.'