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The World of Persian Literary Humanism

The World of Persian Literary Humanism

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by Hamid Dabashi

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What does it mean to be human? Humanism has mostly considered this question from a Western perspective. Through a detailed examination of a vast literary tradition, Hamid Dabashi asks that question anew, from a non-European point of view. The answers are fresh, provocative, and deeply transformative. This groundbreaking study of Persian humanism presents the


What does it mean to be human? Humanism has mostly considered this question from a Western perspective. Through a detailed examination of a vast literary tradition, Hamid Dabashi asks that question anew, from a non-European point of view. The answers are fresh, provocative, and deeply transformative. This groundbreaking study of Persian humanism presents the unfolding of a tradition as the creative and subversive subconscious of Islamic civilization.

Exploring how 1,400 years of Persian literature have taken up the question of what it means to be human, Dabashi proposes that the literary subconscious of a civilization may also be the undoing of its repressive measures. This could account for the masculinist hostility of the early Arab conquest that accused Persian culture of effeminate delicacy and sexual misconduct, and later of scientific and philosophical inaccuracy. As the designated feminine subconscious of a decidedly masculinist civilization, Persian literary humanism speaks from a hidden and defiant vantage point-and this is what inclines it toward creative subversion.

Arising neither despite nor because of Islam, Persian literary humanism was the artistic manifestation of a cosmopolitan urbanism that emerged in the aftermath of the seventh-century Muslim conquest. Removed from the language of scripture and scholasticism, Persian literary humanism occupies a distinct universe of moral obligations in which "a judicious lie," as the thirteenth-century poet Sheykh Mosleh al-Din Sa'di writes, "is better than a seditious truth."

Editorial Reviews

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet
Dabashi is one of the world's most well-versed and learned scholars of Persian history and culture, and this book could only be written by someone of his intellectual stature who shows a mastery of Persian literature over a thousand years. His creative and engaging narrative carries the reader through a literary odyssey of great geographic breadth and skillful analysis.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
This is a study of profound erudition, deep historical and literary knowledge, and professional acumen. Dabashi marshals an impressive amount of historical material blended into a wide historical narrative.
Malise Ruthven
In this powerfully challenging book, Hamid Dabashi not only pays tribute to the achievements of such great Persian writers as Ferdowsi and Sa'di, who expressed a subversively humanistic vision in counterpoint to the transcendental Islamic scholasticism of the past, but he also shines his intellectual spotlight on influential occidental thinkers ranging from Kant to Said, whose humanism, whether philosophical or literary, fell short of true universality. In a masterful critique of the Eurocentrism he sees as being present, if masked, in the teaching of Comparative Literature, he rescues Persian literature from the 'overextended narratives of Orientalism and ethnic nationalism' and shows how its vibrant aesthetic and spiritual qualities find expression in the work of contemporary writers, filmmakers, and artists. This important work of cultural history has urgent contemporary relevance.
Pankaj Mishra
In The World of Persian Literary Humanism, Hamid Dabashi revealed, with his usual brilliance, yet more aspects of a sophisticated culture to an Anglophone readership.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi
In this fascinating study of the metaphysical concerns of Persian literature, Dabashi presents Persian adab as a movement heretical to the ideological dispositions of Islamic empires. He traces the morality that informs the adab of the Persian language, and shows how a sustained history of a millennium and a half created an amorphous literary subconscious that remained irreducible to any religious identity. A landmark work that shall nurture all future discourse on the subject.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
Dabashi's effortless, capacious erudition is obvious all throughout. Even his offhand comments about Ferdowsi's Shahnameh or Muhammad Iqbal's Asrar-e Khodi (and dozens of other canonical Persian works) are uniformly brilliant.
Wall Street Journal - Eric Ormsby
Dabashi provides a rich and varied account of classical Persian literature. Such commanding figures as Ferdowsi, the 11th century poet of the 'Shahnameh,' or Book of Kings, one of the world's great epics, stand alongside the mystical lyrical poets Hafiz and Rumi, as well as the earthier Sa'di. It is one of Dabashi's accomplishments to demonstrate the unusual continuity of the Persian literary tradition which, despite political upheavals and stylistic revolutions--free verse is the norm in contemporary Persian poetry--remains strong even in the teeth of brutal governmental repression.
Choice - W. L. Hanaway
Dabashi writes a thoughtful, comprehensive examination on how best to describe Persian literature's 1,400-year history.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 5: The Lure and Lyrics of a Literature

The Center and Periphery of the Timurid Empire (1314–1508)

Nizam al-Din Amir Alishir Nava (1441–1501) was a very learned man, a deeply cultivated man, a man of letters, and a man of unsurpassed caring intellect, a powerful patron for artists, the literati, and the scientist of his time. Amir Alishir had a generous and gracious company. He was a humanist par excellence—poet, painter, prose stylist, vastly learned in his contemporary intellectual traditions, and a statesman of exceptional courage, tenacity, and imagination. Imagine his contemporary Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, (1449–1492), if you must, turning the Florentine Republic into the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance, and you come close to Amir Alishir Nava'i’s significance at the helm of the vast Timurid Empire, as a wise and judicious vizier, patron of scholars, artists, architects, poets. Born and raised in Herat, the city that later under his judicious and generous care would have made Florence of the time look like a small town way-station, Amir Alishir Nava'i was ambidextrous in his own poetic and literary capabilities and wrote both in his native Chagatai Turkish and also in Persian, the lingua franca of learned cultivation in the Timurid (as all other precious) empire, particularly in Mashhad, Herat, and Samarqand—three vast imperial cosmopoles enriched with the wealth and abuzz with the gifts and talents of the expansive empire.

With the rise of the Timurid Empire (1314–1508), reclaiming what was left of the Mongol empire and recasting it for a renewed imperial dispensation, the center of Persian literary humanism moved further eastward to Samarqand and Heart, two of the most magnificent cosmopoles of the time. If we were to give a nationalistic account of Persian literary humanism, modern day Tajikistan and Afghanistan would have uncontested claim over the entirety of this period—linking it directly all the way back to the Ghaznavid dynasty. But transnational empires, not ethnicized nations—Tajiks, Afghans, Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Indians, etc—were the modus operandi of political order and cultural production in this and other periods. From the Ninth to the Sixteenth century, from the Tahirids (821–873) to the Timurid (1370–1526) dynasties, Persian literary humanism witnessed the systematic triumph of its defining logos over any exclusive ethnos, when Iranian, Turkic, and Mongol dynasties all become Persianate in their cosmopolitan worldliness, by virtue of the primacy of the language they celebrated and enriched, and not by the divisive factor of ethnic origins that would have deeply alienated and separated them. All these empires were in dire need of imperial legitimation, which is precisely what Persian language and culture, and by extension and in effect Persian literary humanism, provided. If the ruling elite were to claim ethnic origin they would have never succeeded in projecting an aura of imperial legitimacy. Amir Alishir Nava'i was of Turko-Mongol descent. Turkish language was native and natural to him. He is in fact considered the founding father of Turkic literature—its Chaucer or Dante, as it were. But Persian was the language of high court and high culture Bildung—and he had mastered it, and commanded it, as his own, and it was as much his as anyone else’s.

Persian language and culture had by now, as it did consistently, a vast imperial heritage embedded in its texture and disposition, claim on a heritage and vision of its posterity, anteriority, emotive universe. The Timurid era was not just the concluding moment of the complete transmutation of the ethnos into logos of Persian literary humanism. It was also the inaugural moment of the internal dynamics of this humanism working itself towards a more advanced stage of its historical self-consciousness, predicated on both its domestic developments and its eventual encounter with the European colonial modernity—the dialectical results of which will unfold over the next half millennium. The Timurid Empire was the scene of the very last stage of the classical age of Persian literary imagination.

Meet the Author

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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The World of Persian Literary Humanism 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A magnum opus on persian literature and its humanistic implications. A magnificient proof of what mankind (irrespective of religion and race) is able to achieve despite harsh dictatorships,devastating wars and horrific plunderers. An erudite accomplishment which makes the word "persian" sparkling again.