Persian Prose Literature

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Persian Prose Literature


Courtly and Popular Literature . While the classical Arabic literature was largely produced by a class of religious scholars for themselves and only secondarily for the class of political rulers and their employees, classical Persian literature seems to have been directed mainly at a secular elite. This difference can be explained by the fact that religious scholars were conversant with the Arabic language because—except for mystical Sufi works—Muslim religious writings were exclusively in Arabic regardless of an author’s mother tongue. (Indeed, until the twentieth century nearly all Muslim religious writing continued to be written in Arabic.) Princes, although they were often tutored in Arabic and religious subjects, frequently did not feel as comfortable with the Arabic language and preferred literature in Persian, which was either their mother tongue—as in the case of dynasties such as the Saffarids (861–1003), Samanids (873–1005), and Buyids (945–1055)—or was a preferred lingua franca for them—as with the later Turkish dynasties such as the Ghaznawids (977–1187) and Saljuks (1037–1194).

Persian Histories . The earliest surviving long prose work in Persian is Samanid minister Barami’s translation, abridgment, and revision of al-Tabari’s Arabic history. Barami, who died in 974, began his work in 963. Prose history written originally in Persian began with the work of Gardizi (flourished circa 1050). His Zayn al-akhbar (The Book of Reports) briefly covers the history of the eastern Muslims until 1041. The slightly later and more important history by Abu al-Fazl Bayhaqi (995–1077) was originally in thirty volumes, but only the volume covering the years 1030–1040 has survived. Somewhat like a memoir, this substantial book is written in chatty, colloquial language. Bayhaqi’s work marks the beginning of year-by-year annals in Persian, a methodology already long established in Arabic. This arrangement is the preferred organizing principle of most later Persian chronicles. ‘Ali Kufi (flourished circa 1216) translated and possibly amplified an Arabic work on the eighth-century Muslim entry into Sind (now a province of Pakistan) into Fathnamah-i Sind (Book of the Opening of Sind), a foundational historical record for Muslims in South Asia. An early local history is Ibn Isfandiyar’s Tarikh-i Tabaristan (The History of Tabaristan, written circa 1210 — 1217), covering the area south of the Caspian Sea. This book started as a translation of an earlier Arabic history but became an independent work.

State-Sponsored Histories . The unbroken chain of major Persian state-sponsored chronicles begins with Tabaqat-i Nasiri (The Nasiri Book of Generations) by Minhaj-i Siraj Juzjani (1193 – after 1265), a long work detailing and exaggerating the depredations of the Mongols until the year 1259. Having migrated to India about 1226, Juzjani wrote his great history by about 1259–1260. It is not only the first of a regular series of Persian chronicles but also the first Persian history of India. The anonymous Tarikh-i Sistan (The History of Sistan), written between 1277 and 1281, is a local history of the remote province of Sistan, which draws on early sources and includes much information about the Saffarid dynasty (861–1003) and the early development of Persian poetry. ‘Ata-Malik Juwayni (1226–1283), who served as a governor for the Mongols during the years 1259–1281, recorded the history of the Mongols and their early rule in Iran down to 1258 in his massive Tarikh-i jahangushay (The History of the Siezer of the World). Rashid al-Din (circa 1247–1318), minister for the Mongol Ilkhan dynasty during the years 1298–1318, wrote an enormous encyclopedia of history and ethnography called Jami’ al-tawarikh, which in some respects represents the high point of medieval Persian historiography. The Ilkhans were served by two other authors of compendious Persian histories: Wassaf (1264–1334) and Hamd Allah Mustawfi Qazwini (circa 1281 –after 1339), the author of Tarikh-i guzidah (Selected History), Ziya’ al-Din Barani (before 1285 – after 1357) was the first Muslim historian born in India. His Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi (The History of Firus Shah) is a valuable chronicle of the early period of the Delhi sultanate in 1266–1357. Like the other classical Persian historians, Barani was connected with the government. Hafiz-i Abru (died 1430) and Mirkhwand (1433–1498) covered the Timurid dynasty in particular. Like Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-tawarikh (Collected Histories), Abru’s Majma’ al-tawarikh (Collected History), and Mirkhwand’s Rawzaf al-safa (Garden of the Pure) are universal accounts starting from the creation of the world and ending with the authors’ own lifetimes. Most of these histories are reliable and indispensable for events close to the time when they were written, but to corroborate earlier events one must go back to earlier sources.

Mirrors for Princes . Another important genre, first developed in Arabic but greatly elaborated in Persian, is the advice book for rulers. Sometimes called “mirrors for princes,” these works usually comprise a great deal of miscellaneous information, including stories and anecdotes, that is deemed suitable to inculcate cultural refinement in the children of rulers, who probably were not usually proficient in Arabic. Such books were also available and of use to other readers as well. Kayka’us ibn Iskandar (1021 – at least 1083), the ruler of a small Persian principality in northern Iran, wrote the oldest of these works in Persian, the lively Qabusnamah. Nizam al-Mulk (died 1092), who served as prime minister to a Saljuk sultan for more than twenty years, wrote a more practical manual, Siyasatnamah (Book of Politics) in 1091–1092. Nizami ‘Arudi Samar-qandi (flourished 1110–1156) wrote Chahar maqalah (Four Discourses), which offers advice about secretaries, poets, astrologers, and physicians—all people with whom a prince would have dealings. Other “mirrors for princes” followed these early examples.

Geography and Travel Literature . An extremely early Persian geography book is the anonymous Hudud al-’alam (Limits of the World), written in 982 in Guzgan, northern Afghanistan. This work, which is not a translation of an Arabic geography book, may have been written for a Persian-reading prince who did not know Arabic. Much later, geography became an established genre of Persian literature. A related genre, the traveler’s narrative, is exemplified by the Safarnamah (Travel Book), of Nasir-i Khusraw (1004 – at least 1072), describing the Iranian writer’s pilgrimages to Makkah and his long sojourn in Egypt.

Other Prose Genres . Al-Mujam fi ma’ayir shir al-’ajam (Compendium of Standard Persian History) by Shams-i Qays (flourished 1204–1230s) is the oldest Persian work on poetics, and only the first of a considerable body of Persian literature on language and rhetoric. Much theoretical literature about music was also written in Persian, starting with works by Qutb al-Din Shirazi (1236–1311) and Abd al-Qadir Maraghi (died 1435). In the genre of biography, Hujwiri of Ghazna (died 1071) wrote Kashf al-mahjub (Revelations of the Hidden), the oldest Persian prose work on Sufism, which includes Sufi biographies and anecdotes. Such biographical works also became a major genre of Persian literature.


A. J. Arberry, Classical Persian Literature (New York: Macmillan, 1958).

Reuben Levy, An Introduction to Persian Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

George Morrison, ed., History of Persian Literature: From the Beginning of the Islamic Period to the Present Day (Leiden: Brill, 1981).