Alisher Navoi (1441-1501) was a great poet and thinker, a statesman. His full name was Nizomiddin Mir Alisher. He wrote poetry under the pseudonym Navoi in both Chagatai (ancient Uzbek language) and Farsi (in Persian works). He is the outstanding figure of Uzbek literature, known in the West as Chagatai literature. There is no greater personality than him in the literature of the Turkic peoples.
Childhood and Youth
Nizomiddin Mir Alisher was born in Herat on 9 February 1441. At that time, Herat was the capital of Khorasan (now the territory of modern Uzbekistan and Iran), a province within the state of Maverannahr created by Amir Temur. There is still scholarly debate about the origin of Alisher Nawoi. Two versions are disputed: according to the first, he is a descendant of the Uighur Bakhshi (storytellers); according to the second, he belongs to the Barlas tribe, from which Amir Temur himself came.
Hence the privileged position of his father – Giyasiddin Kichkina, who served as an official at the Temurid court and was a man of the enlightened, educated dynasty. One of Alisher’s uncles was a poet, another was a musician and calligrapher.
From childhood, Navoi was friends with the future ruler of Khorasan (Transoxiana) Husayn Boyqaro (1469-1506). He started writing poetry at the age of 10-12. According to the information of Navoi’s contemporary, the historian Khandamir (1473 (76) – 1534), the famous Uzbek poet Lutfi (1369-1465) met a child named Navoi in his old age and highly appreciated his poetic talent.
In the course of his life, Navoi visited various countries of the Muslim Orient and met notable personalities of his time. He developed his poetic skills. In 1464-65, the admirers of Navoi’s creativity prepared the first collection of his poems (Diwan). This fact shows that Navoi had already become famous as a poet by this time. Until 1469 – during the Temurid internal unrest – Alisher Navoi was forced to live far away from his hometown – Herat.
In 1469, Husayn Boyqaro conquered Herat and became governor of Khorasan. From this point on, a new phase in Navoi’s life begins. He takes an active part in the political life of the country. In the same year, the ruler of Khorasan appoints Navoi as the administrator of the state seal (Muhrdar), and in 1472 he is appointed vasir. In his position he provides great help to the cultural and scientific intellectuals of the country. He becomes the owner of a large estate.
In the 1480s he builds at his own expense in Herat and other regions of the country several medreses, 40 rabats (places of abode for travellers), 17 mosques, 10 Sufi huts (khanakah), 9 baths, 9 bridges…. And many more for public use. But such activities of the Navoi for the benefit of the people do not please the ruler’s entourage and through intrigues they succeed in spoiling the relationship between Alisher Navoi and Husayn Boyqaro.
The latter relieved Navoi of his office and sent him to the city of Astrabad as its head in 1487. He remains there for two years and only after this time does Husayn Boyqaro allow him to return to Herat and offer him a position in the government. But Navoi refuses. Despite his refusal, Husayn Boyqaro gives him the post of the ruler’s closest confidant (“mukarrabi hazrati sultani”). In this position, Alisher Navoi had the right to participate in the decision-making of all state affairs.
As this period marks the beginning of a new era in the poet’s life, he is more preoccupied with creation. Most of his works were written during this period. Navoi lived and created in the last years of the Timurid dynasty (1370-1506). Therefore, the public spirit, urgent problems of the era is strong in his works. In 1490-1501 Navoi created most of the lyrical, public-philosophical and scientific works.
The creative work of Alisher Navoi is magnificent. The volume of his six poems is about 60,000 lines (misra). In 1483-85 Navoi created “Khamsa” (consisting of 5 different stories, 50. 000 verses; mostly Chagataic), which includes poems such as “Hayrat al-abrar” (“Confusion of the Righteous”), “Farkhad va Shirin” (“Farkhad and Shirin”), “Layli va Majnun”, “Sab’ai sayyar” (“The Seven Planets”) and “Saddi Iskandari” (“The Wall of Iskandar”). They were based on the Khamsa tradition (five poems).
Navoi’s “Khamsa” is the first work of this genre to be created in the Turkish language. He proves that such a voluminous work can also be written in the Turkish language. In fact, Navoi wants to prove that it is possible to create a work in Chagatai (Old Uzbek) as well, which can stand on a par with the works of Persian-Tajik literature. And he certainly proves it with his five-voice (Khamza).
Alisher Navoi dabbles in almost all the common genres of literature of the Muslim Orient and shows that he has his own signature and style. More than 120 poems on the theme of “Layli and Majnun” have been written in the literature of the Orient. Navoi also creates a poem on this theme with his own approach. The poem describes the love between Laili and Majnun. Navoi tries to express and interpret human and Sufi love through the descriptions of these. Navoi also expresses his Sufi views in the poems “Farkhad and Shirin” and “Hayrat al-abrar”. Sufi themes in his poems rise to the general philosophical level.
At the same time, these poems put current worldly problems on the agenda through the poet’s humanistic views. In two other poems from Navoi’s “Khamsa” – “Sab’ai Sayyar” and “Saddi Iskandari” – problems related to the ruler come to the fore.
It is known that Alisher Navoi was close to the Timurid court and had the opportunity to somehow influence the ruler and friend Husayn Boyqaro. Therefore, in the above poems, Navoi expressed the ideas addressed to Husayn Boyqaro: the impermanence of the world and the royal throne; the responsibility of a ruler towards his people…. Alisher Navoi’s “Khamsa” stands out in the tradition of Khamsa writing for its social and political character and originality. Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414-1492) held it in high esteem after reading “Khamsa” by Navoi.
In terms of its public and artistic importance, Navoi’s “Khamsa” had a great place in Central Asia. It has been copied very often. At present we have many folios of “Khamsa” or individual poems from it. The collection of Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies alone contains 166 manuscripts transcribed in the 15th to 20th centuries, containing either all five or some poems from the “Khamsa”. Of these, 84 folios have all five poems. The distribution and number of folios of Navoi’s “Khamsa” show that it had a special place in the intellectual life of Central Asia.
During his life, Alisher Navoi composed a large number of lyrical works. He finished compiling a collection of all his poems in 1498 and created four divan collections under the title Khazoin ul-Maoniy (The Treasure House of Thought). All the poems in this collection are more than 50,000 lines long. Nevertheless, he wrote poems in 16 of the 21 existing genres of Muslim Oriental literature.
Alisher Navoi compiled his poems written in Persian under the title “Diwani Fani”. He also wanted to compete with Persian poets. If we count only the number of poems in the ghazal genre from the above collections, their volume is 3,150. It can be argued that Navoi leads at least by the number of poems he created. In addition, Navoi collected his Qasidas in Persian and created two collections: Sittai zaruriya (“The Six Necessities”) and Fusuli arbaa (“The Four Seasons of the Year”).
Alisher Navoi raised Uzbek (Chagatai) literature to a new level through his poetry. His poetry is far superior to Uzbek literature before him in terms of breadth of themes and variety of genres. In his poetry as well as in his poems, he expressed the current secular and spiritual, Sufi themes. Religious works by Navoi were also published: “Arbain” (“Forty Quatrains”), “Munajat” (“A Plea to Allah”).
A more complete text of the Sufi prose work “Nasaim al-muhabbat” (“Blows of Love”) was published, containing the information about 750 Sufi sheikhs. Navoi also created scientific works. Works on the comparison of Persian and Turkic languages include “Mukhamat al-lugatayn” (“The Dispute of the Two Languages”, 1499), literary studies – “Majalis al-nafais” (“The Collection of the Refined”), the theory of aruz (greatness of verse composition) – “Mezan al-avzan” (“The Balance of Sizes”), the theory of the mu’amma genre – “Mufradat” (Charade).
In addition, he created a treatise on historical subjects entitled “Tarikhi muluki Ajam” (“History of the Iranian Kings”), in which he describes the history of the Iranian kings, and “Tarikhi Anbiya va Hukama” (“The History of the Prophets and Sages”). He collected his letters in his collection “Munsha’at”. His memoirs include “Khamsat al-mutahayyirin” (“The Fivefold Controversy”, 1494), “Khalati Sayyid Hasan Ardasher” (“The Life of Sayyid Hasan Ardasher”), “Khalati Pahlavan Muhammad” (“The Life of Pahlavan Muhammad”).
Navoi’s most recent work is “Mahbub al-Qulub” (1500). It expresses his latest views on society and politics.
Alisher Navoi combined literary and political deeds throughout his life. As a man of high repute, he had contributed much to the improvement of the social and economic life of the country; he promoted science, art and literature and always strove to establish peace and harmony.
As we can see, Navoi’s legacy is diverse in theme and genre. His works from XV to the present day serve the development of Uzbek literature. For centuries, his works have been the subject of imitation and inspiration.
Alisher Navoi belonged to the Sufi order of Naqshbandiya, was a pious man and voluntarily took asceticism upon himself – he was not married, knew no pleasure in having children. As the Temurid poet and ruler Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur said of him in his epic poem “Baburname”:
“Without a son, without a daughter, without a wife, he went his way in the world, beautiful, lonely and easy”.
However, there is a legend about the poet’s private life which says that Alisher Navoi and Husayn Boyqaro fell in love with the same girl – Guli – when he was young. The noble Navoi could not hurt his friend and persuaded the beauty to become Husayn’s wife. It is said that the poet carried his love for Guli throughout his life.
In his own poems, the poet condemns loneliness and even wrote wonderful lines:
“He who has chosen loneliness as his fate.
No man: he has stolen his fate.
He is alone with men, his days are bitter:
Has anyone heard the clap of a single hand?”
Alisher Navoi was described by his contemporaries as a man of troubled character, short tempered and even arrogant.
“He was a man of high, fine intelligence and excellent education,” Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur characterises Alisher Navoi, “and demanded that all people behave alike and therefore he found it difficult to get along with them.
Alisher Navoi died in Herat on 3 January 1501, weakened by a long illness. Before his death, he withdrew from worldly affairs and lived as a lonely man in a cell near the mausoleum of his Sufi teacher.
The man left a rich literary legacy: some 30 works – poems, poetry, writings. His works have been translated into dozens of languages, his books and manuscripts are kept in the largest libraries in the world.