Persian Language and Literature

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Persian has historically been, after Arabic, the most prestigious literary language in the Muslim world and a vehicle of cultural expression in Ottoman Turkey, Central Asia, Mogul India and, of course, Persia (greater Iran). The influence of Persian literature and Persicate culture therefore covered a wide region, from the Balkans to Bangladesh, and from the Persian Gulf to north of the Jaxartes River in Central Asia. Today Persian is the official language of Iran and Tajikistan, and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan (along with Pashto). Persian is also spoken by small residual communities in neighboring countries, such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf states, and Iraq, as well as in newly established enclaves abroad: Persian-speaking Jewish immigrants to Israel, and the diaspora to North America, Europe, and Australia that resulted from the political upheavals and wars in Iran and Afghanistan during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Note that in recent decades the term "Farsi" has erroneously gained currency in English in place of Persian. Linguistically speaking, the nomenclatures "Farsi," "Dari," and "Tajiki" denote varieties of Persian spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, respectively, just as one might describe English as consisting of American, Australian, and British varieties. Though distinctive regional accents and some differences in vocabulary or even grammar exist, the spoken varieties of Persian are united by a common literary and cultural heritage and are mutually understood by speakers across the Persian linguistic continuum. Nevertheless, Persian literature has been developing in distinctive and even divergent directions in modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan since each country became a centralized nation-state. This is especially true of Tajikistan, where the written form of Persian was radically altered in the Soviet period by the adoption first of the Roman (1928) and shortly thereafter the Cyrillic (1940) script in place of the traditional Arabic script, used in Afghanistan and Iran. Tajikistan was therefore oriented toward Russian, as well as Turkic Central Asia, in its recent cultural and linguistic development, whereas Afghanistan has been in the cultural orbit of Pakistan and India, as well as the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the twentieth century, and of the Taliban in the first years of the twenty-first, along with technological innovations (such as Persian-language programs broadcast by Internet radio and satellite television across the region) have, however, brought increased opportunities for cultural interchange across the Persian speaking countries, and begun to reverse the isolation of previous decades.

Language History

Persian is classified as a member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Indeed, it was partly from his knowledge of Persian and its similarity to Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit that Sir William Jones (1746–1794) postulated the existence of an Indo-European proto-language from which the modern languages of Europe, India, and Iran devolved. As such, many modern Persian words (for example, madar, baradar) share a common root with their modern German (mutter, brüder) or English (mother, brother) equivalents, and the verbal systems exhibit similar features. However, the neighboring Semitic languages, especially Aramaic and Arabic, which functioned in different eras as lingua francas of the Near and Middle East, have made an enormous impact on Persian, in terms not only of vocabulary and script, but also of literary forms.

The Persian language is divided into three historical stages: Old Persian, Middle Persian, and Persian. Old Persian survives chiefly in cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, written in the sixth to fourth centuries b.c.e., but it has bequeathed few if any direct literary traces to the modern language. On the other hand, a large body of literature survives in Middle Persian, much of it subsequently translated or adapted into Arabic or Persian during the Islamic period. Most of this was written in the Sassanian period (226–652 c.e.), though Zoroastrians continued to use it to write new works or compilations of a religious nature until the ninth century c.e. The larger part of surviving Middle Persian literature consists of translations or glosses on Avestan-language Zoroastrian texts, along with other Zoroastrian literature. It also includes "books of counsel" (pand namak), or wisdom literature providing moral or ethical precepts and advice, as in the "Wise Maxims of Bozorgmehr." Other texts include a few poems, the versification principles of which have been disputed, and "royal songs" (srot-i khusravanik) that were reportedly performed with musical accompaniment by well-known minstrels at the Sassanian court.

The cultural exchange with India was quite strong, as evidenced by a Middle Persian treatise on chess and a number of translations of works of Indian origin, including Kalila wa Dimna (from the tales of Bidpai), Barlaam and Josaphat, and the Sindbad nameh. The frametale structure is thus borrowed from India, but the bulk of the Middle Persian Hazar Afsanak ("Thousand tales"), the main source of stories for the Arabic "Thousand and One Nights" cycle (Alf Layla wa layla), seem to be of Persian origin.

Although spoken Persian continued to evolve grammatically into something like what we now recognize as new Persian, Zoroastrian works continued to be composed in Middle Persian until at least the ninth century, by which time the majority of Iranians had become Muslim. Many religious, literary, and scientific works written in Arabic at the same time were penned by men of Iranian, or half-Iranian parentage, including Ibn al-Muqaffa˓ (d. 760), translator of Kalila wa Dimna from Middle Persian to Arabic; the poet Abu Nuwas (d. 810), who includes a few words of Persian in his poetry; the historian and Qur˒an commentator, Tabari (d. 923); and the physician Rhazes (Zakariyya al-Razi, d. 925). Indeed, many authors of the tenth through twelfth centuries who lived in Persian-speaking milieus and would have had the option to write in Persian nevertheless chose to write their most important works in Arabic. This was the case for, among others, al-Biruni, who was born in Khwarazm in 973 and died in 1051 in Ghazna; Ibn Sina (Avicenna), born near Bukhara in 980, died in Hamadan in 1037; and Mohammad al-Ghazali, of Tus, who lived from 1058 to 1111.

By the tenth century, however, some three hundred years after the Arab conquest of Persia, the spoken Persian language had re-emerged as a language of literary standing in its own right, suitable for use in discussion of science, philosophy, and religion, as well. It was now written in the Arabic alphabet, which was easier to read than the Middle Persian script, and which also derived from a Semitic alphabet, Aramaic.

Persian Poetry

The earliest Persian poetry of the Islamic period is in dialect form (fahlaviyat), probably based on accentual or syllable-count meters. Evidence of some prosodic experimentation and variation is discernible in the earliest recorded specimens of Persian verse, though it seems that the Persian poetry of the ninth century was already following quite different principles of versification from Middle Persian poetry, notably rhyme and quantitative metrics. Some Persian meters are borrowed from Arabic, or at least they are explained according to Arabic models by the Persian manuals of prosody and rhetoric written in the twelfth century. However, Persian poets rarely employed some very common Arabic meters (such as tawil and basit), whereas some of the frequently occurring meters in Persian poetry (such as motaqareb and the roba˓i meter) seem quite uncommon in Arabic poetry of the same period. Persian poetry is furthermore fond of including a refrain (radif, which can be several syllables in length) after the rhyming syllable. We may conclude, therefore, that in addition to the influence of Arabic, native Persian phonology and prosody also played a distinctive role in shaping the new system of versification.

The privileged literary mode in Persian was poetry, or rhymed and metered "speech." It was composed and performed in a variety of milieus for various social functions, acquiring the greatest prestige and widest publicity through the patronage of the royal court, including sultans/shahs but also wazirs or other men of state, army commanders, and regional governors. It might also be commissioned by the landed gentry, or alternatively, circulated through Sufi networks.

Most dynasties of the Persian-speaking world considered it the duty of a civilized ruler to cultivate science and literature, and doing so increased the ruler's prestige. Some rulers even dabbled in composing poetry of their own, as a literate person was expected to be able to compose some amount of formal verse, lines of which were used as proof texts to illustrate points and conclude arguments in letters, homilies, and in conversation. Not only aspiring poets, but also secretaries and men of letters, were expected to have a huge repertoire of poetry at the tip of their tongues, and were sometimes called upon to compose extemporaneously at court. The work of successful professional poets was circulated in albums dedicated to particular patrons or particular themes. These albums would later be collected into divans, though often not by the poet himself. Early poetry divans were organized thematically, but from the sixteenth century onward they were usually divided into sections according to verse form (qasideh, ghazal, qet˓eh, strophic poems, and roba˓i) and then further organized alphabetically according to the final letter of the rhyme or refrain.

Themes were largely conventional, and the poets usually presented a persona rather than a personal biography, though this in no way deterred critics from reading biographical data into the poems. The imagery grew in hyperbole and complexity over the centuries, and technical virtuosity was greatly admired, so that rhetorical ornamentation could become a justification in and of itself. Metaphors, tropes, and symbols (for instance, the rose and nightingale, the bow of the beloved's eyebrow firing the arrows of his or her eyelashes, the ringlets of the beloved's hair as polo sticks sending the lover's heart skittering over the ground, and the like) were repeated from generation to generation, though subtle variation and innovations applied to the conventions have always been greatly admired. The stylistic trends have been described as evolving from heavy rhythms, rhetorical directness, and sparse use of Arabic in the tenth-century poetry, to the more mellifluous and rhetorically ornamented poetry (internal rhyme, play on words, display of Arabic erudition) associated with the flowering of the ghazal, and the era of the great classical poets such as Sa˓di (d. 1292), Rumi (d. 1273), Hafez (d. 1390), and Jami (d. 1492). Poetry of the "Indian style" (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries) continued the focus on the ghazal, which became conceptually more abstract and philosophical, even recherché, with a distinctive taste for the subtle conceit and imagism. The neo-classical "return" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rejected this trend in favor of a simpler more direct prose style, and an imitation of the past masters. This gradually gave way to the influence of European letters in the twentieth century and led to the development of a significantly new, modernist poetic.

Quatrains (Roba˓iyyat)

The quatrain (do-bayti, taraneh, and later roba˓i), rhyming according to the pattern a-a-b-a and conforming to a special meter of its own, emerged from a popular milieu to become a literary genre unto its own, the roba˓iyyat. Roba˓is can treat amorous themes or commemorate a historical occasion (such as the death of a famous person), but most famously deliver a mystical or philosophical apothegm. The eleventh-century "naked" hermit, Baba Taher, sang quatrains of human love and devotion to God in impromptu quatrains, some of which are preserved in their original Hamadani dialect form. Another poet known exclusively for roba˓is is Mahsati of Ganja (fl. 12th century), one of the few classical poets with a uniquely feminine voice, and a far from chaste perspective on love.

The most famous practitioner of this genre is the mathematician and astronomer ˓Omar Khayyam of Nishapur (d. 1121), thanks in no small part to Edward FitzGerald's immensely successful 1859 English translation/adaptation, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam acquired a posthumous reputation as a composer of roba˓iyyat of a materialist or agnostic temperament, some of them quite blasphemous, although the actual evidence for him as author is rather flimsy. What is clear is that over the centuries, the corpus of quatrains attributed to Khayyam grew suspiciously, so that scholars in the twentieth century sought text-critical principles, to separate the forgeries from the real Khayyam. The divans of most subsequent poets include numerous roba˓is; Rumi's, for example, has nearly 2000.

Court Poetry

Panegyrics in Arabic by the great poets had conveyed prestige and authority on the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, so that Persian princes on the eastern edges of Persia naturally gravitated toward the practice as they began realizing their practical independence from the Abbasids. In cities like Nishapur (near modern Mashhad), Balkh (in modern Afghanistan), Samarkand, and Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan), panegyrics in Persian were presented to the ruler or men of state on ceremonial occasions: Iranian seasonal festivals like Nawruz or Mehregan, Islamic holy days, royal investitures, victory celebrations, wine drinking parties, and the like. Poems for such occasions typically took the form of a qasideh, a long mono-rhyme (a-a-b-a-c-a-d-a), usually between 40 and 100 lines, typically beginning with an encomium on the arrival of spring, on the beloved, or on wine. This would then segue into an enumeration of the virtues and glories of the ruler, encouraging him in the process to uphold principles of generosity, forbearance and just governance.

The greatest of the early Persian poets, Rudaki (d. 940), who was also a musician, composed many narrative poems, of which precious little has survived. Many examples of his fine, thoughtful lyric poems (not yet clearly differentiated in form as ghazals or qasidehs), in a clear and unornamented style characteristic of early Persian prose and verse, must have been performed at the court in Bukhara, for the Samanid prince Amir Nasr II (r. 914–943). In these poems, Rudaki praised the ruler and his capital, rhapsodized on the process of making wine, or meditated on the decrepitude brought by age. This latter, rather melancholy, idea afforded early poets the occasion to draw the moral that life is short, so live right. This is then interpreted in either ethical terms, to do good works (since your name, good or ill, is all that will live on), or in epicurean terms, to live happy and well (for the opportunities for pleasure are limited). The lack of appeal to the Qur˒an and outwardly religious sentiment may reflect the survival of Persian religion and philosophy.

The classical form of the Persian qasideh was created at the court of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (in modern Afghanistan), who gathered a number of great poets to his court in the first half of the eleventh century. Among these were the poet laureate ˓Onsori (d. 1040); Farrokhi (d. 1038), who delighted in the description of spring and the celebration of musical wine soirees; and Manuchehri (d. 1041), famous for his adaptation of classical Arabic qasidehs. The rival Seljuk court to the north and west also supported its poets, among them Amir Mo˓ezzi (d. 1127), "prince of poets" to sultans Malik Shah and Sanjar, and Anvari (1126–c.1189), generally acknowledged as the ultimate qasideh poet for his erudite, ornamented yet fluid style. Panegyrical poets were richly rewarded and got to travel with the court, yet the profession could be a hazardous one. Mas˓ud Sa˓d Salman (d. 1121) was imprisoned for long periods on suspicion of treason; Emir Mo˓ezzi was accidentally shot and seriously wounded by prince Sanjar's arrow; and Adib-e Saber was drowned by the Khwarazm shah as a spy of Sanjar.

Courts in the west of Iran also cultivated Persian poetry. In Azerbaijan, Qatran (d. 1072) wrote for numerous patrons, including a poem on the major earthquake in Tabriz in 1042, and many strophic poems. When Naser Khosrow, a poet from eastern Persia, came to Tabriz in 1046, he wrote in his fascinating travelog that Qatran was a good poet, who, however, did not fully understand Persian. This shows that, though dialectical variation must have existed, Persian was widely spoken and written by the mid-eleventh century. Khaqani of Shirvan (d. 1199) wrote ghazals and panegyrics, but is best known for his elegies on the death of his son and on the ruins of a Sassanian palace. Although a declared follower of Sana˒i of Ghazna in the religious/didactic themes of his verse, he incorporated Christian themes in his poetry. His mother was a convert from Nestorian Christianity, and his travels brought him into close contact with Christians in Georgia and Constantinople.

Epic Poetry

Ferdausi of Tus (near modern Mashhad) has often been credited with rescuing the Persian language from virtual extinction with his monumental work, the Shah nameh, or "Book of kings," begun about 975 and, dedicated in its final form to Mahmud of Ghazna, in about 1010. This hyperbolic view ignores the half-century of court poetry that preceded Ferdausi's work, including some earlier treatments of episodes from the national epic. Ferdausi himself incorporated a thousand lines from the story of Zoroaster as versified by Daqiqi (d. 981 or before) in his own work. Nevertheless, Ferdausi's Shah nameh would play a central role not only in Iranian national consciousness, but even in the self-identity of non-Iranian rulers, especially Turks and Mongols, who adopted Persianate culture and traditions of kingship.

Ferdausi alludes to various sources for his account of events, including a learned Zoroastrian priest and a member of the Persian landed gentry. The existence of a tradition of professional reciters orally recounting stories from the Iranian national epic in a popular (sub-literary) context has led to heated scholarly debate about possible oral sources for Ferdausi. However, Ferdausi did have an established written tradition to draw from, and appears to have studied the matter and carefully crafted his tale. Various versions of the Persian "Book of kings" (Khoday nameh) were already written down in Middle Persian in the sixth and seventh centuries, and several of these had been translated into Arabic in the eighth and ninth centuries, as part of the discourse of shu˓ubiyya, or ethnic pride among non-Arabs, especially Iranians. At the initiative of Abu Mansur, a committee had translated the work from Middle Persian to Persian prose in 957.

The poem covers the mythical era of kingship in Iran, during which the rites and ceremonies of kingship were established, the demons were subdued, cooking and clothing were introduced, cultivation of the soil begun, fire was discovered, metal worked, the social castes created, and the celebration of Nawruz (the spring equinox and Iranian new year) initiated. Death enters this idyllic realm due to the hubris of the king, Jamshid, and Zahhak comes to tyrannize the land. Accursed by Satan's kiss, Zahhak has a snake growing from each of his shoulders, each of which must feed daily on the brain of an Iranian youth. Feridun eventually snatches the throne from Zahhak and restores justice, dividing his realm between his three sons before he dies. The two sons who inherit the lands to the east and west of Iran grow jealous of their brother, who has inherited the realm of Iran. They conspire to murder him, and this engenders generations of internecine conflict between Iran and her eastern neighbor, Turan.

This sets the stage for many sagas and adventures, which revolve thematically around the question of fate and free will, and the tragic forces that impel kings to conflict with their enemies, their sons and the champion warriors to whom they owe their throne. The father-son conflict usually ends poorly for the son (Rostam and Sohrab, Kay Kavus and Siyavash, Goshtasp and Esfandiyar), and the king is far less frequently wise and just (as in the tale of Kei Khosrau, in which the king abdicates and disappears) than tragically flawed or impetuous (as in the case of Kay Kavus).

The Shah nameh is not aware of the great Achaemenid kings Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, as it takes notice of the historical era only as Iran is about to be conquered by Alexander. It mostly ignores the successors of Alexander, fast-forwarding to the Sassanian rulers, whom it covers in some detail, both historical and legendary. The 50,000-line epic comes to a close with the Arab conquest of Persia, a sad fate indeed, even though Ferdausi writes as a Muslim with Shi˓i loyalties.

The tremendous success of the Shah nameh led other authors to elaborate on portions of the epic cycle (transmitted in oral renditions by popular professional reciters) which Ferdausi either passed over in silence or did not fully develop. These focused on elaborating and embellishing the story of various champions, as in the "Book of Garshasp," written in 1066 by Asadi of Tus (also the author of an important early dictionary of Persian), about a hero even more outlandishly strong than Rostam; or the legendary history of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, told by the Zoroastrian priest Zartosht Bahram Pazhdu in 1278. The influence of Ferdausi is apparent even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in works like the Shahanshah nameh (The king of king's book) by Saba (1765–1823), describing a victory by the Qajar king, Fath-˓Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) over the Russians in the same archaic terms found in the Shah nameh; or in the verse history Shahnameh ye haqiqat, written by Mojrem (1871–1920) of the leaders of the Ahl-e Haqq sect in Kurdistan. All of these, however, remained quite tangential to the main canon of Persian literature, in contrast to Ferdausi's Shah nameh, for which the creation of large, sumptuously illustrated manuscripts in royal ateliers became common during the Mongol period and later. In fact it was almost de rigueur for each successive Safavid monarch to commission such a royal copy, the most famous of which was the copy made for Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), which was subsequently given as a gift of state to the Ottomans, and eventually found its way to Europe and the art dealer Houghton, but has now been repatriated (at least the surviving illustrated folios) to Iran.

Romance Literature

Also spun-off from the Shah nameh are a number of romances, although the Persian narrative verse tradition is also fed by other sources. To have an authoritative or popular source seems to have been an important prerequisite to undertaking a narrative poem of several thousand lines (invariably in the rhyming couplet form of the mathnavi), which might either be commissioned by a patron, or presented to one with a dedication in the introduction in hopes of a reward. Trying one's hand at an original imaginative story could be somewhat risky under these circumstances; in any case, there were many classical stories reflecting the glorious culture of pre-Islamic Iran from which to draw inspiration. These include a poem of Parthian origins, Vis and Ramin, versified by Fakhr al-Din Gorgani circa 1054 for the governor of Isfahan from a Middle Persian version. It tells the story of Vis, promised in marriage before her birth to King Mobad. The latter's younger brother, Ramin, falls in love at the first sight of her, and eventually wins her over. Through the help of Vis's nurse, the pair escapes from Mobad and are eventually united as king and queen, in a saga not without similarities to that of Tristan.

Other tales of stymied love include "Varqa and Golshah," based upon an Arabic story, and versified in Persian in the motaqareb meter during the first decades of the eleventh century by ˓Ayyuqi. This pair never unites, except through a chaste ideal love that they take with them to the grave. A similar story, both in its outcome and in its Arab origins, is Nezami's version of the star-crossed lovers Layli and Majnun, in a poem of 4,000 lines written in 1188. This tale was told and retold by subsequent Persian poets (most successfully by Maktabi of Shiraz in 1490), as well as by imitators writing in Turkish and Urdu. The retellings usually resolve the powerful psychological ambiguity in Nezami's work and rarely match his masterful ability with language. In addition to a very fine divan of shorter poems, Nezami (d. 1209) also authored four other long narrative mathnavis, including an ethico-didactic poem modeled on Sana˒i, a Persian version of the Alexander romance (Sikandar Nama), and two poems set in the Sassanian period. The first of these is Khosrau and Shirin, a legend about King Khosrau Parviz (r. 590–628) and his Armenian bride, Shirin, who is loved devotedly by Farhad, who moves a mountain to attain her, but is tricked by Khosrau into thinking she is dead. The other is Haft Paykar, about Bahram (r. 421–439) and the seven beautiful princesses from the seven climes with whom he enjoys a variety of adventures. The five narrative poems by Nezami were often bound together in one volume and frequently illustrated. Such was Nezami's achievement that many later poets tried their hand at composing a similar quintet, following his model. This tended to limit the initiative of later poets in creating new material, but Jami (d. 1492) introduced two new stories to the traditional subjects of romance: the mystical reworking of the Joseph and Zoleikha story (very loosely based on Qur˒an, sura 12), and the story of Salaman and Absal, about a Greek king who has a magician genetically engineer him a perfect son, who, however, is seduced by his beautiful nurse.

Religious and Mystical poetry

The extensive literature of imaginative poetry and prose, as well as commentaries that address various aspects of religion and spirituality is immense. All long poems, from the Shah nameh to romances, inevitably begin with a doxology and lines in praise of the prophet Muhammad, as well as frequently a description of his journey to heaven. Though the majority of classical Persian poets were Sunnis of the Hanafi or Shafi˓i school, there are some vociferously Shi˓ite poets in the early period, notably Naser Khosrow (1003–1060), an Isma˓ili poet, and Qavami of Rayy (fl. 12th century).

It was the mystics, however, who created the most successful poetry of religious expression, reaching its pinnacle in the mystico-didactic poetry of the mathnavi form. Sana˒i (d. 1135) initiated the genre with his Hadiqat al-haqiqat, a compendium of tales, some humorous, that were used to illustrate homilies and moral injunctions, and which focus chiefly upon control of the baser passions and correctly understanding the interior meaning of the Qur˒an. Farid al-Din ˓Attar (d. 1221) perfected the story-telling element of the mystical mathnavi genre, juxtaposing within a frame-tale structure various unrelated anecdotes and vignettes of an entertaining or inspiring nature to illustrate an overarching theme (as was also common in the European literature of the period). The best known of these include the Elahi nameh, in which a king and father passes life wisdom to his sons, and the Manteq al-Tayr, a poem of mystical psychology about a band of birds in search of their spiritual king, the mythical Simorgh, which was completed in 1177.

Modeled on these, but less thematically structured, is the "Spiritual Couplets" of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273), composed piecemeal in six books through the 1260s. Its opening plaint of the reed pipe, severed from its spiritual home, remains the single most influential expression of mystical theology in Persian, perhaps in the entire Islamic world, having been studied and taught throughout the Ottoman domains, across Iran, and into the Indian subcontinent.

The love imagery of the ghazal, beginning with Sana˒i, was also turned into a vehicle of mystical expression. Rumi continued the project of the mystical ghazal, conceiving his spiritual mentor Shams (d. after 1247) as the object of love, indeed adopting the voice of his absent master in a huge body of ghazals that almost always point to transcendent significance. Other poets, such as Sa˓di of Shiraz (d. 1292), continued to address ghazals to both amorous and mystical objects of love. This creates room for much ambiguity in the ghazals of Hafez of Shiraz (d. 1390), who intertwined mystical and physical love in a sublime fashion that is difficult to unravel, and is generally regarded as the ultimate achievement in Persian lyrical poetry, though this often fails to come through in English translation, as the translators typically try to reduce him to one thing or the other. Goethe and the German Romantic poets derived much inspiration from Hafez.

Prose Genres

Continuing the Sassanian tradition of advice books, the Qabus nameh, written in 1082 by Kay Kavus b. Voshmgir, a local prince on the Caspian shore of Iran, provides instruction to his son in the arts of government, social graces, and the enjoyment of life. About the same time Nezam al-Molk (Ar. Nizam al-Mulk; d. 1092), after whom the first university in the Muslim world is named, composed his Siyasat nameh to instruct the Seljuk Turks, to whom he served as wazir, in the proper ways of Iranian kingship. Both of these charming books are written in a straightforward prose, whereas Nasr Allah Monshi's version of Kalilah wa Dimna (written between 1143 and 1145), which set the prose standard for later authors to match, used animal characters to convey its lessons. This volume requires more work to grasp because of its erudition and its taste for the rhetorical artifices made possible by Arabic morphology. These tales, derived ultimately (via Arabic, via Middle Persian) from the Panchatantra, were brought to then-contemporary style in 1505 by Hosein Va˓ez-e Kashefi (d. 1505) as Anvar-e Soheili.

Along with many other such collections of tales in prose or verse, a huge body of prose literature, including the serial adventures of picaresque heroes, manuals for writers, lives of the poets, local and world histories, as well as literary anthologies, mystical disquisitions, and philosophical texts, exists in Persian, much of it delightful to read. The prose work with which Persian literature is preeminently associated is, however, the Golestan of Sa˓di, written in 1258 and loosely organized in eight chapters by theme (kingship, dervishes, youth, contentment, and so on). Throughout it one encounters entertaining anecdotes, wittily expressed, that advocate a practical, situational ethics. It weaves together simple, unadorned prose with rhymed prose and verse to create a new, unified literary idiom that set the future standard of emulation. Frequently imitated, the Golestan became a textbook of Persian language and Islamic ethics for Turkish speakers, as the many Turkish commentaries and translations of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries attest. It was also used as a textbook for Persian instruction in India, where Persian, and then Urdu, commentaries were written on it. It was also used for British students of Persian to study the language in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. European translations of the work had been circulating since the mid-seventeenth century and caught the attention of La Fontaine and Voltaire, among others.

Persian in India

It was under the Ghaznavids and their aggressive policy of conquest in South Asia that the first wave of Persian poets moved toward the sub-continent. Mas˓ud Sa˓d Salman (d. 1121) lived in Lahore, and his contemporary, Abu al-Faraj Runi, was born there. Of Indo-Turkic parentage, Emir Khusrow of Delhi (1253–1325) was a competent imitator of the quintet of Nezami and of well-received ghazals. He popularized Persian poetry at the Muslim courts in India, and also among the Sufis. The poetry of Rumi and ˓Eraqi (d. 1289) was also popular among South Asian Sufis. Timur enjoyed Persian books and Babur composed Persian poetry of his own. The Moguls made Persian the language of government in 1582, commissioning their court histories in Persian. Akbar (1556–1605) actively enticed a whole series of the best Persian poets of the era to come to Delhi from Iran and also encouraged translations of Hindu works to Persian. Dara Shokuh (1615–1659), son of Shahjahan, and Zib al-Nesa Makhfi (1639–1703), daughter of Aurangzib, both composed excellent Persian poems of mystical and ecumenical bent. Bidel of Patna (d. 1720) was the last major representative of the Indian style, and he remains more appreciated in Afghanistan and India than in Iran.

Urdu eventually replaced Persian as the primary literary language of South Asian Muslims, but some Urdu poets, such as Ghalib (1796–1869), also wrote in Persian, while Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), the intellectual father of Pakistan, wrote major poems, such as his Javid Nama, in Persian, a more widely understood language in the Muslim world.

Modern Literature

The twentieth century saw a sea-change in Persian language and literature, as modernization, revolution, centralization and Marxist-Leninism greatly altered Tajikistan and Iran, in particular. First of all, with the advent of lithography and printing in the nineteenth century, books became more affordable, and more importantly, the appearance of newspapers created a different and wider audience for literature. For various short periods of time, the press became relatively free, and there were a number of journals published in Persian outside Iran, which made it possible to openly advocate reform or political opposition to the crown.

In Afghanistan, Mahmud Tarzi helped to introduce translations of European literature and radically new modern literary forms in his journal Seraj al-Akhbar (1911–1918). The Iranian poet-singer ˓Aref (1882–1934) turned his back on a court career to compose populist political ballads, ghazals, and song lyrics, which reached a mass audience when he sang them in concert. Reform was urged also from within the aristocratic class, many of whom learned foreign languages or studied abroad, such as Iraj Mirza (1874–1926), who held a post in the Qajar government but was noted for his biting satirical indictment of the custom of veiling of women.

Political agitation did not always turn out well. The poet Mirzadeh ˓Eshqi was assassinated after satirically caricaturing Reza Shah in 1924. Abu 'l-Qasem Lahuti was obliged to flee from Tabriz in 1922, after leading an unsuccessful revolt there. He settled in Dushanbe, in the Soviet Union, where he wrote Persian poetry for a Tajiki audience, modernizing classical themes and celebrating the socialist enterprise. The fiction writer Bozorg ˓Alavi also fled Iran for East Germany, as a result of his Communist Party membership. In Tajikistan, authors managed to champion the Central Asian peasants and collectives, as well as the creation of a new society, in artistically successful ways, especially Mirza Torsonzadeh (1911–1977) in poetry and Sadriddin Aini (1878–1954) in fiction.

Poets continued to compose in the traditional forms, but introduced modern themes and imagery, including descriptions of modern inventions, as in some of the poems of the literary scholar and parliamentarian, Mohammad Taqi Bahar (1880–1951). The monazerat (debate poems) of Parvin E˓tesami (1910–1941), the first of three important women poets of the century, championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden. In Afghanistan, Khalil Allah Khalili (b. Kabul, 1909, d. Pakistan, 1987) carried on the classical tradition in a convincing modern voice.

The ghazal retained its thematics of love, but became slightly more personal and more modern in its sentiments, tinged with European romanticism, but developing toward a contemporary idiom, as in the poems of Simin Behbehani, who headed the Iranian Writer's Congress. Poets, however, also began to separate poetry from traditional verse. First came an effort to break down the classical meters into their constituent feet and combine these feet in new patterns. The first experiment in this direction came in the early 1920s with Afsaneh (Romance) by Nima Yushij (1895–1960), who developed toward free verse in the following decade. Though some poets, such as Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales (1928–1990), continued to compose in both free verse and traditional meters, the most outstanding achievements in the post–World War II era were by poets working in free verse, foremost among whom stands Ahmad Shamlu (1926–2001), whose work demonstrates a commitment and capability to uphold political and artistic values simultaneously in his best poems. Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967) pushed poetry toward inner authenticity by infusing it with personal experience and focusing on everyday topics, such as sexuality, sometimes from an explicitly female point of view. She was rewarded for her sincerity with public condemnation as an "immoral" woman. Her poetry, however, speaks eloquently and profoundly for itself. Meanwhile, painter and nature poet, Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1981) beautifully adapted the mystical perspective of Persian poetry to modern modes of expression.

The modernist literary idiom was entirely secular, and often political, yet allusive enough to elude the censors. Poetry played an important role in creating political symbols of freedom (dawn, day) as opposed to those of oppression (night, winter), and in inspiring revolutionary sentiment against the shah of Iran in the 1970s. Part of this process involved purging Persian poetry from its classical themes and dynamics, and creating believable characters. In prose literature, Mohammad-˓Ali Jamalzadih (1892–1997) forged a new idiom for imaginative prose literature with his short stories, as did Sadeq Hedayat (1903–1951), whose novel The Blind Owl (1969) remains the best known modern Persian work abroad, in part because of the author's connections with expressionist and existentialist writers in Europe, and his suicide in Paris. Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923–1969, husband of Simin Daneshvar) wrote short stories and novels, The School Principal (1974) being the most interesting, but he is best known in the Muslim world for his 1962 attack on the hegemony of Western culture, Gharbzadegi. Several historical novels also deal with the theme of Western, especially British, imperialism in Iran: Sadeq Chubak's Tangsir (1963), based on a true event in southern Iran; Simin Daneshvar's Savushun (1990), a political love story told from the woman's point of view; and the ten-volume novel Kelidar (1978–1983) by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. In the 1970s and the post-Revolution period, female prose writers have achieved popular and critical success (among them, Mahshid Amirshahi, Goli Taraqqi, and Fattaneh Hajj Sayyed Javadi). Others, like Shahrnush Parsipur and Moniru Ravanipur, succeeded in introducing magical realism to Iran.

An image of a 1650 Persian manuscript appears in the volume two color insert.

See alsoArabic Language ; Arabic Literature ; Biography and Hagiography ; Biruni, al- ; Ghazali, al- ; Grammar and Lexicography ; Hadith ; Historical Writing ; Ibn Sina ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Libraries ; Rumi, Jalaluddin ; Tabari, al- ; Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry ; Vernacular Islam .


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Franklin D. Lewis