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Persian Literature as a real mirror of Iranian Culture M. J. Yahaghi( Professor) Ferdowsi University of Mashhad iran

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Persian Literature as a real mirror of Iranian Culture
M.J. Yahaghi( Professor)

Ferdowsi University of Mashhad


The formation and development of Islamic civilization during the seventh to ninth centuries, was really due to Persian component, encompassing religious thought, political theory and practice, administrative models, literature, the sciences, and morals and manners1. I shall attempt to present here in this paper, a real assessment of Persian literature as a bed for Iranian culture. The Islamic Caliphate, particularly in Baghdad, was really established based on Sassanian model of government, where they employed many Iranian administrative models, including Iranian festivals, such as Now Rouz and Mehragan, their court protocols, like bureaucracy etc. These models were provided through the translation and imitation of works of the" mirror of princes" type, manuals of statecraft which had formed an important genre of Sassanian prose literature 2 .

With the development of neo-Persian literature at the courts of local Iranian princes from the late tenth century, onward, Persian literature under took a new task for carrying the main part of Persian Iranian culture 3. As Lazard reminds us, the development of Persian literature, was neither a pure and simple resurgence of the ancient culture nor the expression of entirely fresh culture of Arab-Islamic origin. The links with pre-Islamic culture had been established, partly by such of the Middle Persian works as were steel being read, but surely much more by what still remained, in the living oral tradition4.

In keeping with the ethical dimension of Persian Literature, it is worth to say, that a large part of Persian Literature are ethical works, both in poetry and prose, with two faces: pre- and post-Islamic one. Pre- Islamic Iranian history is considered almost moral and cultural, because the struggle between goodness and evil was a principle issue in Zaraostirian teaching. According to the pre-Islamic belief, the Iranian had to follow and protect always one can find that the principles of ethic have been considered as the main issues in performing the culture. However we can mention a numerous basic inscribes and books which have been composed based on pre-Islamic teachings in deferent moral subjects. For instance there are a number short or long works which called "andarsnam", which are full of pre-Islamic didactical subjects. Some of these books have been translated within the late parts of Shahnameh, for example those who related to Bozorgmeh, the vizir or adviser of Sasanian kings. The main issue of pre-Islamic culture was 'wisdom' and a kind of rationalism, which have been appeared in a numerous independent treatises and books which have been composed in this subject. After adapting Islam as a new religion in Iranian post-Islamic culture the combination of Iranian and Islamic thoughts has been occurred. In this mixed culture a lot of principles of Iranian rationalism have been accepted in our new formation of Iranian society and consequently we can observe this tendency in early Persian poetry. Smanid culture was really appeared with a great pre-Islamic tendencies including preserving its principles of moral like wisdom and rational aspects. The presence of Iranian oral traditions, like Gosan's folk songs (a kind of Iranian minstrels) and festivals (such as Now rouz and Mehragan) in Neo-Persian literature were modified the figure of literature into an Iranian one, rather than Islam. Rudaki, Shahid and Boushakour Balkhi, are really wised men because they have employed a lot of moral subjects in their poetry. Ferdowsi, the great Iranian national poet, himself was a real wised men with a kind of philosophical thought. He has employed the "wisdom" and its synonyms in various parts of his book, particularly in the end of episodes, so far that some scholars called his book, "Kheradnameh"(the book of wisdom) instead Shahnameh.

After Fedowsi, the ethical meanings are presented in the collections of nearly all poets, even in the court one. For instance one can find a numerous moral anecdotes or motives in Unsori's collection. The real movement in didactical poetry goes back to Sana'I who have been called a great part of his divan, "Zohdiyyat", which contains many didactical ghazals, fragments, and odes. Sana'I, as I mentioned, was the founder of mystical poetry and didactical one as well: two very close concepts which became widespread throughout his divan, and were imitated by other poets, after him.

In the early period of Persian prose, as I mentioned, we can refer to particular literary genre, which technically called: "mirror for princes" such as Qaboosnameh, by Unsor al-Ma'ali(d. after 475/1082) and Siyasatnameh,by Nezam al-Molk (assassinated: 485/1092) the great vizir of Seljuq dynasty. In these book a kind of socio-political ethic has been established which have had a great impact on the Persian didactical literature, in general, and on Persian poetry, in particular. For instance in Sa'di's work, particularly in anecdote of Golestan and Boostan there are lot of such didactical subjects. Sa'di was the main poet who dealt with didactical literature not only in Gulestan, and Bustan, but in his odes, fragments, and even in his Ghazals. From this point of view, the Mathnavi , and Divan Hafez, are very rich and considerable . In the other hand, Persian mystical poetry was a suitable field for expressing didactical meanings, because both were originated from Islamic thought.

The Persian mystic-philosophic system -as Gibb called it- 5, was followed by other Persian speaking lands, and other Islamic dominants such as: Turkish of Anatolia, Chaghatai of Turkistan and later in Indian sub-continent. The Persian influence in India began with the Ghaznavid Mahmud's conquests in the subcontinent. It accelerated under the Ghurids( 1000-1215) and more particularly in Delhi sultans ( 1206-1555). In this regard Gavin Hambly notes: "Because of its origins and subsequent history, the sultanate provided for three and a quarter centuries a unique opportunity for the continual transmission to India of a broad range of cultural manifestations emanating from the Persian plateau: language and literature, customs and manners, concepts of kingship and government, religious organization, music and architecture6". For a long time the Persian art was the basis for Mughal painting and calligraphy in India, as we can say that Persian monuments served as models of much of Indian architecture of the Islamic period, particularly of the seventeenth century, the most brilliant period of Mughal architecture, when in the Punjab, Delhi and Agra, Persian architecture flourished anew.

The first centuries of Islam were distinguished by a spirit of inquiry, theological figure and intellectual vitality. The rise of Arabic prose literature with its rich vocabulary, and the development of Arabic poetry into a cosmopolitan literature also belonged to that period. But the arts, architecture, painting, ceramics, or calligraphy, indeed the arts of the book in general, did not reach their zenith until after the thirteen century in Persia, Anatolia, and India, long after the "Golden Age" had passed. Many of these cultural aspects, even the art of architecture, employed Persian literature for their glories. The major developments in the art of the Islamic lands took place from the second half of the eleventh century.

Are not the poetry of Ferdowsi (tenth-eleventh century), Nizami (twelve century), Rumi( thirteenth century), Sa'di( thirteenth century), Hafez (‎fourteenth century) the most brilliant manifestations of Persian literary gifts? Have they not provided inspiring models for generations in India, Anatolian and Central Asian poets writing in Persian or in their native languages?

Thus the most vibrant and productive culture in the Islamic world for about six centuries was the Persian, providing paradigms for thought, artistic models, and a philosophical outlook for a vast region stretching from Anatolia to Bengal, until it was superseded by western notions and values in modern times. In this regard, Toynbee distinguished an "Iranic" and "Arabic" zone. The Iranic zone extended from the Sea of Marmara to the northern plain of India as far as the Bay of Bengal 7. This huge region, which came into its own culturally and politically only after the fall of Baghdad in mid thirteenth century, was eventually articulated into the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, where despite large Turkish and Indian populations, the vehicle of cultural expression was the Persian Language.

As a conclusion I can say the Persian literature, during its more than one thousand years surviving, was a cultural heritage with a valuable consideration of meanings, messages, and moralities which enabled this phenomenon to be considered as main character of the Iranian culture, so far that Iran to be called " The land of culture".


  1. See R. Levy, "Persia and the Arabs", Legacy if Persia, pp.60-88.

  2. See Julie Scott Meisami, Medieval Persain Court Poetry, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1987, p.5.

  3. For the formation of neo-Persian, see Gilbert Lazard, LaFormation de la Langue Persane, Diffusion Peeters, Paris, 1995. and its Persian translation by M. Bahrieni, entitled: SheklGiry ye zaban-e Farsi, Tehran, Hemes, 1384/2005.

And its Persian translation, by: Mahasti Bahreini, Shekl giri-ye zaban-e Farsi, Tehran, Hermes, 1384/2005.

  1. see Rypka, & others, Tarikh Adabeyat-e Iran, tarjome ye Keykhosrow Keshavarz , Tehran, Goutemberg- Jvidan Kherad, 1370, p.146.

  2. Literary History, I, p. 14, from: R. Hovannisian(ed.), The Persian presence in the Islamic world, Cambridge University Press,1998, p.87.

  3. Hambly, EIr, VII, p. 242.

7- A Study of History, I, p. 68; quoted from: Hovannisian, ibid, p.82

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