Skip to main content

Literature: Persian


Since the Iranian Revolution, Persian literature has become more and more relevant to contemporary politics, society, and day-to-day living.

The first nine centuries of imaginative literature in the Persian language constituted an aesthetically rich tradition. Modern Persian literature emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and arguably has constituted an equally exciting chapter in the development of the Persian literary tradition. Modern imaginative literature emerged from a history of court patronage, Sufi brotherhoods, and Twelver Shiʿite environs to address a general Iranian audience. Iranian writers began to comprise a new class of intellectuals, independent of crown or turban.


Prose developed more quickly than verse during the twentieth century, starting with journalistic writing by leaders of the Constitutional Revolution, such as that by Ali Akbar Dehkhoda (18791956). In a preface to Once upon a Time (1922), the first collection of Persian short stories ever, Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh argued that literature in straightforward, living prose was a key to education and enlightenment for Iranians. His six stories in that volume introduced realism, local color, and popular language into one genre of Persian writing.

During the 1920s, Nima Yushij (18951960) began experimenting with traditional forms and content in Persian poetry. He experimented with individuating the lyric speaker and eschewed didactic intent; his quatrain-sequence poem "Legend" (1922) and other poems in the 1920s heralded the new sensibility.

The 1930s marked the first age of the preeminence of prose in Persian literature, a situation that held true to the end of the century. Sadegh Hedayat (19031951) played the chief role in this development. His four collections of short stories from 1930 to 1942 and his enigmatic, surrealistic novella, The Blind Owl (1937, 1941), demonstrated how a new Persian literary language could create atmosphere and voice surrealism.

The Short Story and the Novel

The Iranian short story grew to maturity in the 1940s and thereafter. During the period beginning with the 1941 Allied occupation of Iran and the abdication and exile of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 19251941) and ending with the American-orchestrated coup d'état that brought down the short-lived government of Mohammad Mossadegh (18821967) in August 1953, no government censorship interfered with or controlled literary expression. However, beginning in 1885, when Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 18481896) established an office of censorship, and throughout most of the twentieth century, Persian literary artists labored under the constraints of censorship. There were exceptions: the first two years of the constitution (19061908); the so-called "Twelve Years of Freedom" (19411953); and the revolution years (19771979). This has meant that, except during the period from 1941 to 1953 period, Iranian prose fiction, lyric verse, and drama have had to resort to indirection and symbolism when dealing critically with the Iranian present.

During the 1940s, Sadeq Chubak (19161995), Ebrahim Golestan (1922), Jalal Al-e Ahmad (19231969), and others joined Hedayat and Bozorg Alavi (1904), who had published his first collection of short stories in 1934, providing Iranian audiences with fiction written in various styles, including realist, naturalist, and social realist, paving the way for later generations of short-story writers who contributed to magazines and collections of stories to the end of the century. Chief among them was the prolific Gholamhossein Saʿedi (19351985).

During the 1950s the Iranian novel likewise gained a foothold and led to mature works in the 1960s and after. Alavi's Her Eyes (1952), Beh'azin's The Serf's Daughter (1952), and Al-e Ahmad's The School Principal (1958) dealt critically with the Reza Shah Pahlavi and early Mohammad Reza Pahlavi eras.

From the 1960s on, Iranian novels became central to Iranian literary life. Chubak published Tangsir (1963) and The Patient Stone (1966). Houshang Golshiri (19372000) published Prince Ehtejab (1969), with a stream-of-consciousness narration and a condemnation of monarchy and aristocracy, which some critics think is Iran's best novel. In 1969, Simin Daneshvar (1921), who in 1948 became the first Iranian woman to publish a collection of short stories with the The Extinguished Fire, published Savushun (The mourners of Siyavosh), which became Iran's best-selling novel of all time, reportedly selling more than 150,000 copies by the 1990s.


The 1940s and 1950s also witnessed the blossoming of new or modernist Persian verse. Nima began publishing verse again in 1938, and his experiments and achievements with untraditional verse forms attracted the attention of Ahmad Shamlu (1925), Mehdi Akhavan-Saless (19281990), and other major figures in the next generation of modernist poets. In response, traditionalists maintained their devotion to classical forms, diction, and didacticism, but used them to write about contemporary issues. Conservative readers still outnumbered those receptive to modernist verse; they pointed to the achievements of traditional poets Mohammad Taqi Bahar (18861955) and Parvin E'tesami (19071941), or accepted the moderate modernism of Faridun Tavallali (19191985) and others who maintained quatrain sequence forms and traditional imagery and figures of speech while hinting at modern issues. By the 1970s, however, the traditionalists were in retreat or in the minority, although the debate over traditionalism and change in Persian poetry remains alive in Iranian literary circles.

In the 1950s and 1960s, modernist Persian poetry achieved great things. Shamlu approached free verse in forceful works supporting his causes. Akhavan-Saless breathed fresh air into traditional meters, using Iranian myths and history as texture for his poetry. From the mid-1950s to the end of 1966, Forugh Farrokhzad (c. 19341967) added a dimension and voice to modern Persian poetry that Persian literature previously had lacked: a female speaker and female concerns. Her verse, dealing with a lyric speaker's growth and concerns as an individual, as a poet, and as a woman, represents a culmination of Nima's modernism. Another trend appears in the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri (19281980), that of the nature poet with, in his case, neo-Sufic or pantheistic implications.

By the mid-1970s, modernist Persian poetry had come to a standstill. Although a new generation of poets had begun to publish and modernist poetry was produced in abundance into the 2000s, no new poets joined the highest ranks or fully replaced the earlier poets. Nader Naderpur (1929), a popular poet from the mid-1950s and the most prominent moderate modernist, crossed the moderate line in the 1980s after opting for self-exile in Paris and then Los Angeles. Voicing the alienation and anger of Iranians abroad who opposed the Islamic Republic, Naderpur's characterizations of life in Iran of the 1980s and 1990s, and of the Iranian exile's lack of integration in the life of the West, strike familiar chords for many Iranians. Another poet in exile, Esmaʿil Khoʾi (1938), who had been an almost first-rank modernist before the revolution, seemed to gain poetic timbre through his suffering in exile in London.

Censorship and Writers Abroad

Circumstances and censorship during the Pahlavi era muted or silenced literary voices. During the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, establishment pressure and censorship seemed designed merely to coerce writers to avoid sexual imagery and direct questioning of Islam but not to silence them. In consequence, and also because of a decrease in other entertainment after the revolution and an increase in the reading public due to a mass literacy campaign in the early 1980s, Persian literary activity, especially in prose fiction, became a profession for self-employed writers for the first time in Iranian history. Novelists, short-story writers, and some essayists became able to support themselves through writing as of the 1980s. Moreover, Iranian novels began to compete for readership for the first time with Western novels in translation.

Among landmark works in Iranian prose fiction after the revolution are: Esmaʿil Fasih's Sorayya in a Coma (1984), Shahnush Parsipur's Tuba and the Meaning of Night (1989) and Women without Men (1990), and Reza Baraheni's Song of the Slain (1983) and Secrets of My Land (1987). With their negative depictions of Iranian SAVAK (secret police) and American intelligence and military figures, Baraheni's fictions signal a post-Pahlavi literary trend denouncing life under the U.S.-supported Pahlavi regime. Fiction that presented similarly negative depictions of life under the Islamic Republic, such as Golshiri's King of the Benighted (1990), were banned in Iran, although in the case of Golshiri, manuscripts of his explicitly critical novels and short stories were smuggled out of the country and published in Europe and the United States.

One novel stands by itself: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's Klidar (1983), a tragic saga of mid-twentieth century tribal and village life in 3,700 pages, which brought its author recognition as the leading writer of fiction in the Islamic Republic period. Just as Ali Mohammad Afghani's Ahu Khanom's Husband (1961) earlier had encouraged Iranians to think that the Persian language had the resources to serve as the vehicle for any sort or length of prose fiction, Dowlatabadi's Klidar the title refers to a Kurdish village area in Khorasanconvinced readers of the richness of the everyday rural Iranian experience and of descriptive Persian prose, even though Dowlatabadi attempts nothing experimental in his story.

Of all pre-revolution genres, Iranian drama suffered most in the 1980s. Although it was still a new medium in the late Pahlavi period, or a medium to which few Iranians had direct exposure, it had grown by leaps and bounds, with the prolific Saʿedi the best-known playwright. Stage dramas been had turned into television dramas and became screenplays for the New Wave cinema of the 1970s, as had several important short stories and novels. By the mid-1980s Iranian cinema was thriving again, but without the plots, themes, and texture that romantic love stories and women in anything other than traditional Islamic garb would provide. Iranian stage drama began to regain status in the 1990s, with the government supporting theaters in provincial cities. Persian drama also flourished in the West, where local Iranian communities in major cities enthusiastically supported touring companies. Prominent among them was that of Parviz Sayyad in Los Angeles. Through the 1980s, Sayyad staged plays featuring his earlier folk character Samad, who first went to the IranIraq war and then came back from the front. Another play presented an imaginary trial stemming from the 1978 torching of Abadan's Rex Cinema, which killed hundreds of patrons who were locked inside. Sayyad's one-man show in the early 1990s, presenting himself and Samad in witty conversation, one on video and the other live, provided sophisticated, culture-specific entertainment and introspection into the nature of modern Iranian artistic expression.

The Persian literary essay survived the revolution, both at home and abroad. Originally Western in inspiration, it is socially and politically involved. It came of age in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Writers exhibited signature styles and concerns that were a far cry from those at the beginning of the century, when a florid, Arabic-laden style and a rhetorical eye to the past prevailed. Shahrokh Meskoob's conversational style in Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language (1981) and Al-e Ahmad's brusque and sometimes angry voice in West-struckness (1962, 1964), Lost in the Crowd (1966), and A Stone on a Grave (1964, not published until 1981) are more recent examples.

see also akhavan-saless, mehdi; alavi, bozorg; bahar, mohammad taqi; baraheni, reza; chubak, sadeq; constitutional revolution; daneshvar, simin; dehkhoda, ali akbar; dowlatabadi, mahmoud; farrokhzad, forugh; golestan, ebrahim; golshiri, houshang; hedayat, sadegh; jamalzadeh, mohammad ali; mossadegh, mohammad; naser al-din shah; pahlavi, mohammad reza; pahlavi, reza; parsipur, shahrnush; sepehri, sohrab; shamlu, ahmad.


Ghanoonparvar, M. R., and Green, John, eds. Iranian Drama: An Anthology. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazdâ, 1989.

Javadi, Hasan. Satire in Persian Literature. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad, ed. An Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1978.

Moayyad, Heshmat, ed. Stories from Iran: A Chicago Anthology 19211991. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 1991.

Southgate, Minoo S., ed. and trans. Modern Persian Short Stories. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1980.

Sullivan, Soraya Paknazar, ed. and trans. Stories by Iranian Women since the Revolution. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 1991.

Yavari, Houra, et al. "Fiction." In Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. IX, edited by Ehsan Yarshater. New York: Bibliotheca Persica.

michael c. hillmann
updated by eric hooglund

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Literature: Persian." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 22 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Literature: Persian." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (February 22, 2019).

"Literature: Persian." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.