World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Religious Symbolism and Imagery in Medieval Persian Literature (382) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU 22, 5.00-7.00 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Julia Rubanovich

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The panel explores the working of symbolic language and imagery in pre-modern Persian literature, with a special emphasis on poetry. Two case-studies - of the fifteenth-century Khāvarān-nāma and the late sixteenth century Kitāb-i Farigh (known also as Farigh-nāma) - will focus on religious epic poems featuring 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib as one of the protagonists. They will elucidate the ways in which conventional motifs, metaphors and images, characteristic of the Iranian national epic tradition, are reshuffled and reworked to create a distinctively religious discourse on the basis of traditional epic imagery. The discussion of heterodox ideas in the Kitāb-i Farigh will be followed by an in-depth and innovative examination of the possible influence of Persian messianic language on the Turkish lyric poetry of Shāh Ismā‛īl (Khatāyī). The last paper brings a broader, synthesizing dimension to the panel. Focusing on conversion narratives in a wide array of sources, both in prose and verse, ranging from the 10th through the 15th century, it examines the symbolic discourse of faith versus infidelity from a comparative perspective, seeking to establish a typology of Persian conversion narratives and its evolution. Each paper thus contributes in its own particular way to defining the symbolic and tropological uses of language within the religious discourse in medieval Persian literature.

Chair: Dr. Julia Rubanovich (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Paper discussant: Dr. Charles Melville (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

Paper presenter: Dr. Julia Rubanovich (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel), “Epic Imagery in a Fifteenth-century Persian Religious Epic Poem”
Khāvarān-nāma (“The Book of the East) compiled in 830/1427 by Ibn Husām, a native of Qūhistān, appears to be a watershed in the Iranian epic tradition, ushering in a profound shift in popular interest from the national constituent of this tradition to the religious one. Following Firdausī's Shāh-nāma (“The Book of Kings”) in its poetic form and epic motifs, Khāvarān-nāma describes the exploits of 'Alī ibn Abi Tālib, thus offering a Shi'i alternative to the Iranian national saga. In addition to the Shāh-nāma, Ibn Husām draws on highly heterogeneous materials, including post-Firdausian epic poems and folk literature of the dāstān genre.
This paper seeks to explore Ibn Husām's use and reshuffling of conventional epic imagery and motifs, characteristic of the Iranian national saga, in a poem with patently religious, Shi'i contents. Through a close reading of the text and a comparative examination, I shall attempt at demonstrating that besides the entertaining and didactic purports of the narrative, the recurrent episodes of overcoming dragons and dīvs by 'Alī and his companions; their breaking talismans and conquering fortresses of Gold, Silver, Steel, Magnet etc may possess a deeper symbolic significance, at the same time revealing popular religious beliefs held by a Shi'i Muslim in the fifteenth-century Eastern Iran.

Paper presenter: Dr. Gabrielle R. van den Berg (Leiden University, The Netherlands), “Heterodox Ideas in a Popular Epic on ‘Ali b. Abi Talib Composed for Shah ‘Abbas”
On the occasion of the conquest of Gilan by Shah Abbas in the magical year 1000/1591-2 the poet Farigh of Gilan composed an epic known as Kitab-i Farigh or Farigh-nama. Whilst this work was composed during the reign of Shah Abbas, who sought to bring a definitive end to the heterodox sentiments that had initially led the Safavids to victory, this epic stands out for its presentation of Ali as a divine figure. The stories seem to be of mixed origin and seek to emphasize the multifaceted qualities of Ali. More than 50 years ago the Italian iranologist Alessandro Bausani gave a cursory description of the Kitab-i Farigh in his “Persia religiosa”, in which he deplored the fact that this work was ignored in Persian literary histories. Indeed, this poem has still remained in the shadow of other compositions with the similar contents. It exists in a number of manuscripts and has been lithographed in the nineteenth century; however, it is not available in a critical edition. In this paper I would like to shed some more light on this largely ignored epic. I shall deal in particular with its historical and literary background, focusing on its position in the epic-religious tradition in Persian. Besides fantastic elements common to other popular epics, Kitab-i Farigh incorporates themes which seem to be directly taken from mystical works. Through the examination of these themes i will make an attempt at tracing the heterodox ideas presented in the epic, as well as assessing their significance in the religious-cultural milieu of the late sixteenth century.

Paper presenter: Ferenc Csirkés (University of Chicago, USA), “The Persian Literary Background of Messianic Discourse in Shah Ismail Khatayi’s Turkish Poetry”
The paper seeks to better understand the import of the Turkish poetry of the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Iran, Shah Isma‛il (d. 1524), who composed under the takhallus Khatayi, by situating it in its literary context. Scholars have often noted the importance of Shah Isma‛il's poetry in Safavid millennial propaganda, pointing to extremist Shiite motifs in his oeuvre; and the relationship of this propaganda with other post-mongol messianic, millennial groups in the Islamic world has also been noted. However, the literary background, especially in Persian poetry, has not been previously studied, and scholars have hitherto paid no attention to possible literary models informing the poems of Shah Isma‛il (Khatayi). Concentrating on a few ghazals, this paper will suggest an interesting comparison for Shah Isma‛il's messianic language and poetic style in the Persian poems of Asiri-yi Lahiji (d. 1506), head of another important messianic Shiite religious order, the Nurbakhshiyya. Through a comparative analysis of the poems of Lahiji and Khatayi centered on the similarity of messianic language and musical style, this paper explores the possibility that the language used by Shah Isma‛il is connected to an already established messianic poetic discourse, which was in vogue in the 14th through the early 17th century in the Turko-Iranian world.

Paper presenter: Prof. Franklin Lewis (University of Chicago, USA), “The Poetics of Conversion and Religious Affiliation in Medieval Persian Literature”
A discourse of faith versus infidelity permeates the Persian poetic tradition, especially in the ghazal and in the mystical-didactic masnavi tradition, but also in panegyric. As one might expect, it figures prominently in homiletic and didactic prose as well as in biographical literature. This discourse constitutes one of the central symbolic repertoires of Persian poetics, giving rise to a wealth of metaphors, tropes, and narrative typologies. A major element of this symbolic discourse of faith versus infidelity involves religious conversion narratives. A growing body of studies of such narratives exists for medieval European literatures, especially for the romance tradition, and for renaissance drama. Comparatively little attention has as yet been devoted to the literariness of conversion narratives in the medieval literatures of the Islamicate, and specifically the Persian tradition, though work by Robert Burns and Sahar Amer has begun to do so for Arabic.
This paper seeks to establish a taxonomy for prevalent tales and tropes of religious conversion, including both change of confessional allegiance and internal conversion as the result of dream narratives and visions; encounters with charismatic saints; disorientation in the liminal realm of the dayr-e moghân; in amorous encounters and affairs with a beautiful religious other; in social encounters across confessional boundaries; and by exposure to thaumaturgic events, or exposure of thaumaturgic events as fraud, etc. To assess the possibility of chronological evolution (perhaps responding to historical forces) in the typology of Persian conversion narratives, the accounts considered are drawn from sources ranging from the 10th through the 15th century. These include in prose, the autobiographical account of Nâser Khosrow's Safar-nâma (mid-11th century); the hagiographies of Mohammad al-Ghaznavi's Maqâmât-e Zhande Pil (mid-12th century), ‛Attâr's Tazkerat al-owliyâ (late 12th century), Aflâki's Manâqeb al-‛ârefin (w. 1318-1353), and the literary vitae of Dawlatshâh Samarqandi's Tazkerat al-sho‛arâ (w. 1487). Literary hekâyât (both prose and verse) contained in ‛Attâr's Elâhi-nâma (late 12th century), in Sa‛di's Bustân and Golestân, and in Rumi's Masnavi (all from the mid-13th century), will be considered along with conversion narratives from Ferdowsi's Shâhnâmeh (10th-11th century). The role of markers of gender, class, age, ethnicity and particular communal/creedal affiliations in the construction of a Persian poetics of conversion will receive special attention.