His full name is Abu 'Abd Allah Ja'far ibn Muhammad. He is not only one of the most important Iranian poets but he is also the recognized founder of Perso-Tajik literature as a whole. Rudaki was born in the village of Rudak in the district of Panjakent in 858. Serving at the court of the Samanids of Bukhara (874-999), he was one of the first poets to use the newly devised Persian alphabet, a transcription of the Pahlavi language using Arabic letters.
Regarding Rudaki's childhood, 'Awfi, a chronicler of the time, provides some information. The poet's early life, therefore, is somewhat better documented than the lives of many of his contemporaries. According to 'Awfi, Rudaki was so intelligent and sharp that he memorized the entire text of the Qur'an by the time he was eight years old. He learned reading (Persian) and, soon after, began to compose poetry. Again, according to 'Awfi, Rudaki had a pleasant voice, a talent that connected him with the world of the musicians and dancers of his time. We even learn that his lute teacher was the famed Bakhtiar and that in due course he excelled the master. Finally, we learn that Nasr ibn Ahmad (913-942) summoned Rudaki to his court and made him his own special ward. Rudaki's fortune was on the rise.
On the basis of 'Awfi's report, M. M. Gerasimov's effort at reconstructing Rudaki's physical features, and Sadriddin Aini's study of Rudaki's life, the following can be deduced. Rudaki lived a happy life as a child, listening to his people's stories and songs, learning about their ways as well as their aspirations and needs. To this knowledge then he gradually put words expressing his peoples' desires as well as his own sentiments. His acquaintance with Bakhtiar opened a new vista, music, in his life. He traveled with Bakhtiar all around the Kuhistan (the present-day Tajik highlands), singing and composing. When Bakhtiar passed away and left him his famous lute, Rudaki continued the tradition until his fame reached the capital city of Bukhara. The ruler invited him and he prospered at the court. In 937, he fell out of favor. His life ended in wretched poverty.
There is an assertion in 'Awfi's report that gives the researcher food for thought. He says that Rudaki was blind from birth. But Awfi's assertion is not supported by other chroniclers of the time such as Sam'ani, Nizami 'Aruzi, and the anonymous author of Tarikhi Sistan (The History of Sistan). Could a poet conjure up delicate images of nature in the way that Rudaki did and be blind from birth? Could Rudaki have lost his vision gradually, or suddenly, due to an unknown circumstance? Gerasimov concludes that towards the end of his life the poet refused to follow tradition and produce empty praises of the ruler for pay. They held red-hot iron rods before his eyes and blinded him. Aini decides that ability to compose poetry is geared to hearing rather than to vision. His verdict is that the poet was blind from birth. His keen appreciation of images described to him formed a reservoir on which he drew for the wonderful similes and metaphors that his readers enjoy.
Additionally, the fact that Nasr ibn Ahmad summoned Rudaki to his court and made him his special ward was not because he knew Rudaki personally but because Rudaki was supported by Abul Fadl Bal'ami, one of the most prominent Wazirs (court minister) of the era. Recognizing Rudaki's abilities, especially in the context of the revival programs that were being implemented at the Samanid court, he commissioned the poet to translate the Kalila wa Dimna into Persian verse using the Arabic translation of Ibn Muqaffa'. (Kalila wa Dimna is a collection of fables that originated in India and were translated into Arabic in 750.) Rudaki was the right poet at the right time in the development of a culture that was being reconstituted on the basis of the relics of its past and the talent of its present subjects.
Rudaki's major themes include passage of time, old age, the inevitableness of natural death, the fickleness of fortune, importance of the matters of the heart, and the need to stay happy. Although he lavishly praises kings, nobles, and champions, his most cherished idols are knowledge and experience. The following bayt that appears on his monument in Dushanbe describes his lasting dedication to knowledge and experience:
Har ki nomukht az guzashti ruzgor,
No ordinary teacher will ever reach,
Why did Rudaki's fortune decline? Perhaps after the death of his patron, due to the nature of the courts of the time, he could no longer sustain the high position that he had enjoyed. Perhaps he became involved in political activities that were frowned upon by the court. The point to remember, however, is that Bal'ami supported Rudaki and that the poet's fortunes turned almost immediately after the death of the powerful Wazir. Only three years separate their deaths. Rudaki died in Rudak, his birthplace, in 941.
Although some 100,000 bayts are attributed to Rudaki only 1,000 bayts are in existence. And even those are scattered among a number of biographies, histories, and books of advice.
Rudaki's poetry is simple in style, as court poetry should be. It reflects the charm of the pre-Islamic poetry of Iran. He avoids Arabism and does not use Qur'anic verses. More than anything, his poetry is accessible to schoolchildren of today. They enjoy his verses with little need for either explanation or interpretation.
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