Asian and African studies blog

03 October 2022

Five Centuries of Copying, Illustrating and Reading Amir Khusraw’s Poetry

Today's post is by guest contributor and regular visitor to Asian and African Collections, Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

The British Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts of the Persian works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325). There are around fifty manuscripts, listed in the Ethé, Rieu, and Ross and Brown catalogues, as well as a few in the Delhi Persian Collection, dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, including some early compilations of his collected poetry (kulliyat), selections of ghazals, and long narrative poems (masnavis). An eclectic range of codices from sumptuous royal copies to pedestrian books can be found here, many with seals and inscriptions by owners, and colophons by various calligraphers, and illustrations from different schools of painting. This rich collection highlights, on the one hand, the enormous corpus of the poet’s works in many different forms and literary genres, and on the other hand, the daunting problem of compiling standard and complete editions of his poems.

Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun
Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun. From the masnavi Layla Majnun, 16th century but heavily overpainted in the 18th or 19th century (BL Add. 7751, f. 71v)

Amir Khusraw, a medieval Persian poet who was much admired and read in Persianate societies, is sometimes written out of the classical canon in our times. A master of every existing poetic form, the poet particularly distinguished himself in his mastery of courtly and devotional panegyric and love lyrics. His output was prolific in these forms, and according to Dawlatshah writing in the late fifteenth-century in his biographical dictionary, Tazkirat al-shu‘ara, bibliophiles at the Timurid court gave up attempting to collect all his verses. This continues to be the fate of modern-day scholars who work on the Amir Khusraw’s poetry.

There are a number of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s works dating from the second half of the fifteenth century to the very beginning of the seventeenth in the form of Kulliyat, i.e. his entire corpus of poems that was available at specific places and moments of time. Some of the manuscripts in this group, along with others described below, share several codicological features and many of the copies were produced in Herat. The writing in them is small, metres of individual poems are identified in some cases, and the margins contain poems in order to maximize every bit of space. One of these (IO Islamic 338), which was copied in Delhi ca. 1603, was once part of the library of Tipu Sultan — who incidentally had at least six other copies of works by Amir Khusraw in his collection.

The opening to Baqiya-i naqiya  Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan
The opening to Baqiyah-i naqiyah, Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan in this copy of his collected works (BL IO Islamic 338, f. 337v)

The earliest Kulliyat manuscripts also included his narrative poems, since Amir Khusraw was also celebrated for his quintet (Khamsah) modelled on Nizami’s own set of verse romances of the same title. No slavish imitator of his predecessor, Amir Khusraw modified the plots of well-known romances such as Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirin, and Hasht Bihisht. The aforementioned Dawlatshah also mentions that the Timurd prince Baysunghur (1397 – 1433) used to prefer the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw to Nizami’s. In comparing Khusraw’s Khamsah comprising 18,000 verses to Nizami’s comprising 28,000, Dawlatshah writes, “It is amazing how in some expressions [Khusraw] is long-winded and in some concise; the conciseness, rhetoric, and eloquence are charming.” While Baysunghur's brother, the amir Ulugh Beg, preferred Nizami's Khamsah, the two would argue and compare individual verses in the two works. Dawlatshah adds, “The special meanings and subtleties of Amir Khusraw’s exciting poetry kindles a fire in people’s minds and shakes the foundation of the fortitude of lovers.” In this Timurid milieu, an unillustrated Khamsah (Add. 24983) was copied in Herat by the master calligrapher Muhammad ‘Ali Samarqandi for the library of Sultan Husayn Bahadur Khan Bayqara (d. 1506), which subsequently belonged to the Mughal Imperial Library.

Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge.
Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge. By the time the manuscript was completed in 1511, the Sultan had been dead for six years (BL Add. 24983, f. 2r)

One of the Kulliyat manuscripts, dated 923/1517 (Add. 21104) is furnished with seventeen illustrations, some of which were added or touched up later. B.W. Robinson tentatively suggested that due to the not so “easily recognizable style” of the paintings, it was one of a group of illustrated quintets probably originating in Transoxiana or Khurasan.[1]

Lovers in a garden  from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal copy
Lovers in a garden, from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal (BL Add.21104, f.251r)

The earliest manuscript of Amir Khusraw’s Khamsah dated 1421 (Or.13802)[2] was actually copied in the margins of Nizami’s quintet, indicating that the texts were often read together. It bears the Gujarati inscription of a later Parsi owner and is only partially preserved.

Khusraw and Shirin enthroned copy
Khusraw and Shirin enthroned. (BL Or. 13802, f. 119v)

Another such illustrated manuscript (IO Islamic 387) where both quintets appear together is thought to date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and is in much better condition. In Amir Khusraw’s version of the Alexander romance, A’inah-ʼi Iskandari, Nizami’s philosopher-king is transformed into an intrepid explorer and scientist.

6. Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type  from Aʼina-yi Iskandari copy
Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type, from Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari (BL IO Islamic 387, f.466r)

This work also exists in a stand-alone copy (Add. 24,054) apparently dated 885/1479. Other poems from the quintet were also copied on their own without any paintings, such as two copies of Matla‘ al-anvar and four copies of Hasht Bihisht. Three of Amir Khusraw’s versified romances on contemporary themes, which are not part of his quintet, also had a readership. Along with an eighteenth-century copy of the Nuh Sipihr there are seven copies of the Qiran al-Sa‘dayn, one of which, dated 921/1515 at Herat (Add. 7753), was copied by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan, while several others are eighteenth or nineteenth-century humbler manuscripts that were clearly read by non-elite readers.

The opening of Qiran al-saʻdayn copied by Muhammad Khandan at Herat in 1515
The opening of Amir Khusraw's Qiran al-saʻdayn, copied at Herat in 1515 by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan (BL Add. 7753, f. 1v)

Qiran al-saʻdayn. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century
Qiran al-saʻdayn
. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century (BL Egerton 1033)

There are also three copies of the popular Indo-Persian romance, Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, also known as  ‘Ashiqah, one of which (Or.335) has some unusual illustrations, such as the rare depiction of the beheading of the prince at the end of the story.

Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak
Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak. From Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, dated 982/1574  (BL Or.335, f.142v)

Attempts to collect and produce large copies of Amir Khusraw’s poetry ceased for the most part in the Safavid and Mughal periods when more copies of selections of his non-narrative poems were made, specifically of the five Divans that marked the different stages of his development as a poet. At this time the ghazal had become the privileged poetic form which only increased the popularity of Amir Khusraw’s love lyrics. Among the most popular of a dozen or so copies of poems from his Divans is the Ghurrat al-Kamal that includes a long partly autobiographical preface followed by copies of his Vasat-i Hayat. A particularly fine Timurid copy of his Divan (IO Islamic 512) also includes the poems of Hasan Sijzi and Jami in the margins.

10. The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre  and poems of Jami in the margins
The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre, and poems of Jami in the margins (BL IO Islamic 512, ff. 618v-619r)

The wide range in this group of manuscripts is due to the fact that some were prepared for Mughal patrons such as Bayram Khan, others circulated among Ottoman Turkish readers. Another belonged to the library of a Qadiriya Sufi order in Bijapur, and at least one (IO Islamic 2470) was prepared for Robert Watherston, a British officer in India.

The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790
The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790 (BL IO Islamic 2470, f.91r)

In addition to his poetry, an example of Amir Khusraw’s prose exists in a single voluminous collection of epistolographic writings, I’jaz-i Khusravi. The manuscript dated 1697-8 (IO Islamic 4714) was calligraphed by Anup Rai and has the seal of one Qutbuddin Bahadur Jang.

In lieu of a complete bibliography or database of the manuscripts of Amir Khusraw, the British Library collection is an excellent sampling that provides a rich history of the copying and readership of the poet’s collected and individual works across five centuries. The manuscripts were produced and circulated in the Persianate world, the inscriptions and seals showing their sojourn in important centres of artistic production such as Herat, Shiraz, Istanbul, and Delhi, as well as provincial Indian towns such as Ramnagar in UP and Rohinkhed in Maharashtra. At times, the archives also reveal an exciting history of use of some of these manuscripts in the early twentieth century by renowned scholars such as M. Wahid Mirza, whose pioneering scholarship on Amir Khusraw which was originally his PhD thesis at the University of London is still the authoritative book on the subject. Based on the borrowing slip pasted into the back of IO Islamic 51, which dates from 866-7/1462, the manuscript was even checked out and sent to Aligarh in 1935!

Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw
Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw recording a distinguished list of external loans (BL IO Islamic 51)

Several other libraries in the UK have smaller collections of Amir Khusraw manuscripts that are listed in FIHRIST.[3] Some of the poet’s verses are also found in numerous anthologies of poetry by multiple poets that were compiled during the same centuries. It is also noteworthy that there is no evidence of his Hindavi poems in this collection, which belies the situation in contemporary South Asia where he is celebrated for those verses that were probably transmitted in an oral tradition or are apocryphal. With respect to his Persian body of work, the philological problem is not of lines or entire poems being added by later poets, as in the case with Firdawsi’s Shahnamah or Hafiz’s Divan, but it is that Amir Khusraw just composed a great deal of poetry.


With thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams and Shiva Mihan for their insights and help with making sense of the treasure trove described in this blog

Sunil Sharma, Boston University

Further reading

Mohammad Wahid Mirza, The Life and Times of Amir Khusrau (Calcutta, 1935). The thesis was submitted in 1929 (SOAS Library, Thesis 47; online at Proquest).
Barbara Brend,  Perspectives of Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau’s Khamsah. London, 2003.


[1] B.W. Robinson, “An Amir Khusraw Khamsa of 1581”, Iran 35 (1997), 36.
[2] Norah Titley, “A Khamsah of Nizami Dated Herat 1421”, British Library Journal 4/2 (1978): 161-86.
[3] Other lists of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s poetic works are described in: Amir Hasan ‘Abidi, “Amir Khusraw ki nadir tasnifat Turki men”, Ajkal 33/4 (1974): 39-44; Chander Shekhar, “Maghribi mamalik ke kitabkhanon men Amir Khusraw ke nadir qalami nuskhe.” In 1947 ke ba‘d Farsi zaban o adab o Professor Nazir Ahmad, ed. Sayyid Raza Haidar (New Delhi, 2016), pp, 53-78; John Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi (Baltimore, 2001), pp. 143-58.