Persian literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Persian literature

Persian literature, literary writings in the Persian language, nearly all of it written in the area traditionally known as Persia, now Iran.

Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Literature

Pre-Islamic Persian literature consists of religious texts, the most notable of which is the Avesta, a collection of liturgic fragments, and the later Pahlavi writing of the Sassanid period. The Islamic conquest of Iran in the 7th cent. was accompanied by a linguistic infusion: one century later, approximately 50% of the Persian literary lexicon consisted of Arabic terms. As Islam became the dominant theme, Arabic became the literary language, until the emergence of local dynasties in the 10th cent. (see Arabic literature). The first extant Islamic Persian poetry dates to the Samanid state (874–999); the first famous representative of this literature was the poet Rudaki (d. 940 or 944). To Rudaki are attributed a lost mathnawi (epic poem with rhyming couplets) version of the fables of the kalila wa dimna as well as a few qasidahs (panegyrics). Other major figures of this period are Abu Shukur of Balkh, who is credited with the introduction of rubaiyyat, Persian poetic quatrains; Daqiqi, a Samanid court poet and a precursor of Firdawsi; and Baba Tahir Uryan, author of rubaiyyat expressive of pain.

Literary Flowering and the Golden Age

The first group of major Persian poets gathered in the court of Mahmud of Ghazna and included Unsuri (d. 1040 or 1049), Farrukhi (d. 1038), Minuchihri (d. 1041), Asadi (d. c.1030/1041), and Firdausi. The first four wrote Diwans (collections of poetry that included qasidas, long poems dealing with pre-established themes, such as spring, or long-lost loves). Asadi was a pioneer of the munazara genre—staged disputations between opposing characters or concepts. The major Persian national epic, the Shah-nama, the Book of Kings, was written by Firdawsi to celebrate the mythic pre-Islamic history of Iran, in a style that attempted to exclude usages and expressions of Arabic origin.

This formative period of Persian literature also witnessed the modest beginnings of Persian prose and the establishment of rubaiyyat and mathnawi as classical literary genres. The travelogue of Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088), Safar-nama, in which he relates his pilgrimage to Mecca and his travels in Syria, Egypt, and Arabia, represents the maturation of Persian prose. One of the masters of rubaiyyat was Omar Khayyam, whose reputation in the West is largely due to Edward FitzGerald's nonliteral adaptation of his quatrains. Khayyam's poetry belongs to the mystical and didactic genres that were developed by Sanai in his Hadiqat al-Haqiqa, Garden of the Truth, and that found their culmination in the work of Farid ad-Din Attar. The 11th cent. also witnessed the blossoming of the great romantic epics in Persian under masters such as Nizami (d. c.1209), who is famous for his Khamseh or quintet.

Panegyric poetry developed in the Ghaznavid court with Masud bin Sad (d. 1131), and in the Seljuq court with Azraqi (d. c.1130) and Amir Muizzi (d. 1147). The most prominent of panegyric poets were, however, Anwari (d. c.1190), court poet of prince Sanjar of Balkh, and Khaqani (d. 1199), whose poetry is reputed for its complexity. Both the political treatise Siyasat-nama of Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), and the ethical didactic work Qabus-nama of the Ziyarid prince Kay Kaus are representative of the more colorful style of rejuvenated Persian prose. A most important work in prose was the Chahar Maqala, Four Treatises, by Nizami Arudi (d. 1174) of Samarkand, which discusses the crafts of scribes, poets, astrologers, and astronomers.

At the heart of the Golden Age of Persian literature were the mystic and didactic works of Sadi and Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Also worth noting are Iraqi (d. c.1288), author of the Lamaat, a mystic compendium of prose and poetry with pantheistic inclinations, and Amir Khusraw (1253–1324), a Persian-speaking Indian poet. The culmination of the Golden Age comes with the work of the poet Hafiz. While mysticism was the dominant strain of Persian poetry, Persian learning was emerging in philosophical, historical, and scientific writings. Persian also began to be used as a scholarly and court language in India, which subsequently attracted many immigrant Persian poets. The prominent scholars of the era include Nasir ad-Din Tusi (d. 1274), Juwayni (d. 1283), Rashid ad-Din fadl Allah (d. 1318), and Mustawfi (d. 1349).

The Silver Age and Later Works

The 15th cent. period of the second Turko-Tartar invasion and the establishment of the Timurid dynasty is considered the Silver Age, or the last episode, of classical Persian literature. This period is characterized by imitations of and commentaries on the works of the Golden Age. Among the notable literary figures were Jami, Saib of Tabriz (d. 1677), Mirza Bedil (d. 1720), an Indian writer who achieved great renown in Afghanistan and central Asia, and Ali Hazin (d. 1766), who was exiled to India. The religious and political turmoil of the 19th cent., together with the model set by European literature, led to substantial changes in form and content. Nationalist and social themes were introduced, while classical genres were reformed and challenged. Modern poets include Iradj, Abid e-Pishawari, Parwin, and Nima. Recent Persian experimentation in fiction includes that of S. Hedayet and M. M. Hejazi.

Bibliography

See A. J. Arberry, Classical Persian Literature (1958); E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (4 vol., 1928–30; repr. 1956–59); J. Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (1968); R. Levy, An Introduction to Persian Literature (1969); A. Schimmel, A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (1992).

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