Is there an ultimate use for historians? Reflections on Safavid history and historiography
By: Roger M. Savory, Professor Emeritus University of Toronto, 16 March 1995
The Annual Noruz Lecture Series: 16 March 1995, Foundation for Iranian Studies Washington, D.C.
Of Malcolm's history, John Emerson says that, "given that it was written at the beginning of the 19th century, it is in some respects surprisingly good", and he points out that Malcolm uses Persian sources as well as European ones. Hodgson distinguishes three main streams in 19th-century Western scholarship: (1) studies on the Ottoman empire from the point of view of European diplomatic history; (2) the British Indian Civil Service tradition; and (3) the works of Semitic scholars, many of whom came to the study of Arabic via Hebrew, and who were mainly philologists. He also mentions two sub-streams: writings by the French who were interested in Spain and North Africa, and the Russians, who were interested in the history of Central Asia. But all these streams, he says, neglected the central areas of the Fertile Crescent and Iran. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Lord Curzon awards the prize for the "best and most accurate account of Persia, within the limit of 100 pages, that I have seen" to the Frenchman Elisée Reclus, author of the monumental Géographie Universelle, published in 19 vols. in Paris in 1876.
Farman-Farmaian's criticism of Persian historians is mild compared to the diatribes of Faridun Adamiyat, who divides Iranian history into two periods: the history of ancient Iran; and the history of Islamic Iran. Adamiyat's opening broadside will illustrate what I mean: "Despite the fact that we have had a long history ... and have a long-standing tradition of historical writing, and despite the fact that we have been acquainted (more or less) with Western knowledge and civilization for 150 years, the science of history has not made any orderly progress, and the average record of our historians is insignificant (mu'addil-i mu'arrikhan-i ma bi-miqdar ast). Not only do their works have serious flaws as regards the method of scientific research, but they have no accurate knowledge of the problems of modern historiography, or the various views of historical thought".
This sweeping generalization seems to be qualified somewhat by his singling out for approval some eminent historians (mu'arrikhan-i namdar) of the period of Islamic Iran: Tabari; Biruni; Ibn Khaldun; Ibn al-Athir; Bayhaqi and Rashid al-Din (four of whom were Persians); but this is only a momentary weakness, for he then goes on to say that, from the 14th to the 19th centuries, the science of history, along with other branches of knowledge and culture, declined" (fann-i tarikh chun rishtaha-yi digar-i danish va hunar bi-pasti gira'id). This whole period, he says, "may be called the period of the decline and weakness of historical writing" (anra dawra-yi inhitat va fitrat-i tarikh-nivisi mitavan nam nihad). Why? Because "On the whole, during that period, there was no weighing of history, no criticism or evaluation of sources, no drawing of historical conclusions. Events are presented without cause and effect. [Historians] close their eyes to many facts, either from expediency, or from fear and social insecurity, or from failure to perceive the inner meaning of events".
The two and a quarter centuries of Safavid rule are of course included in this general condemnation, but Adamiyat then trains his guns on Safavid historians in particular: "Especially during the Safavid period, the wars between Shi'i and Sunni, and the predominance of superstition (khurafat-parasti), were major factors in the decline of historical writing in that period, and the policies of those two states (i.e., the Ottoman empire and the Safavid state) were responsible for that. The declension of the intellectual horizon (tanazzul-i ufuq-i fikri) during that period [i.e., the Safavid period] and after that, reached such a point that, despite the expansion of relations between Iran and Europe, not a trace of the Western scientific and cultural movement (the Renaissance) was evident in Iran. No one tackled the immensity of the scientific and social currents which were in the process of evolving. All of the chronicles which were written in that period, and until the Qajar period, reflect the intellectual feeble-mindedness (sakhavat-i fikri) of our literati and historians. These voluminous compositions are like bags full of rotten straw (in ta'lifat-i qatur bi-mathaba-yi anbanaha-yi pur az kah-i pusida'i) in which a few grains of wheat are scattered. The least of the faults of this type of historiography are exaggeration (ighraq-gu'i), obscurity (mughlaq-nivisi), verbosity (pur-harfi), and the unintelligent parading of the author's learning".
Those of us who have spent a considerable portion of our lives reading Safavid chronicles may feel that Adamiyat's metaphor comparing nuggets of usable historical material to grains of wheat buried in chaff has some validity. On the whole, however, I suggest that he is guilty of the same exaggeration (ighraq-gu'i) of which he accuses Safavid historians.Adamiyat is equally scathing about the work of Western historians: "Nothing has been achieved by the majority of foreign authors, who are acquainted only with the preliminary stages of the history and literature of Iran" (az akthar-i mu'allifan-i khariji ham kih faqat ba muqaddimat-i tarikh va adabiyyat-i iran ashna'i darand kari sakhta nist)". In the English version of his Sukhan article, the following sentence has been added: "The writings of the (sic) modern Iranologists, in our opinion, have little historiographical value, as very few of these individuals have specialized in history".
Perhaps this is a reflection of the Persian world-view expressed so succinctly by the 19th-century French scholar Elisée Reclus: "Conscients et fiers de leur antiquité comme race policée, les Persans regardent avec mépris les populations des alentours, moins cultivées ou plus jeunes dans l'histoire de la civilisation. Quels que soient les progrès des Occidentaux dans la science, les arts et l'industrie, ils se considèrent néanmoins comme étant fort supérieurs en noblesse héréditaire à ces tard-venus dans la monde". "Conscious and proud of their long history as a civilized race, Persians regard with contempt the populations of neighbouring regions, [as being] less cultured or more recent in the history of civilizations. Whatever the progress made by Westerners in sciences, the arts and in industrial development, they nevertheless consider themselves greatly superior in hereditary nobility to these latecomers to the world".
I turn now to an analysis of these criticisms of Safavid historical writing. Let me summarize them. First, Safavid chronicles are said to be "vitiated by overwhelming masses of trivial details and the absence of any breadth of view or clearness of outline". Second, "many matters on which we should most desire information are completely ignored, and it is only here and there incidentally that we find passages throwing light on the religious and social conditions of the time". Third, the style of the chronicles is characterized by turbidity, affectation and verbosity; also by exaggeration, abstruseness, and loquacity. Fourth, historiography is still primarily regarded as a branch of literature. Fifth, it lacks Western methodology. Sixth, Safavid historiography was harmed by the Shi'i-Sunni conflict.
First, the charge that Safavid chronicles are "vitiated by overwhelming masses of trivial details and the absence of any breadth of view or clearness of outline". It is ironical that Browne, in choosing the Tarikh-e 'Alam-ara-ye 'Abbasi as being typical of what he calls the "dull" genre of Safavid historiography, could not have been wider of the mark. Not only is it not dull, but Eskandar Beg sets forth a clear outline of his work and adheres to it meticulously. Many Western scholars have regarded the Tarikh-e 'Alam-ara-ye 'Abbasi not only as the greatest work of Safavid historiography, but one which is in a number of respects unique. J.R. Walsh says: "The production of these two centuries (i.e., the 16th and 17th centuries) is so dominated by the 'Alam-ara of Iskandar Beg that comparisons among them seem grotesquely disproportionate, the one being one of the greatest of all Islamic works, indeed, perfect within the limitations of its traditions". Hodgson comments on the "judicious accuracy" of the Tarikh-i 'Alam-ara-yi 'Abbasi, "its psychological perceptiveness, and the broad interest it manifests in the ramifications of the events it traces". N.D. Mikhluho-Maklai regards the work as "a basic source for the history of Iran during the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first third of the seventeenth, and also an invaluable source for the same period for some of the countries and provinces adjacent to Iran".
Finally, A.K.S. Lambton has drawn attention to some of the unique features of the Tarikh-i 'Alam-ara-yi 'Abbasi, particularly its biographical material which, she says, "is of a somewhat different order and perhaps shows that the author is concerned with the state as it existed in fact (a most unusual phenomenon) and not with the Islamic community. In the biographical material included there is no overwhelming bias towards the religious classes; on the contrary, a balance is preserved between the military classes, the religious classes, and the bureaucracy, which would seem to correspond, in some measure, to the actual distribution of power in the state ............... The principles of selection underlying the work of Iskandar Beg, whether conscious or unconscious, are clearly different from those followed by earlier writers; in general only those whose work was important in the light of the state appear to have been included and the information given concerns rather appointments and dismissals than births and deaths".
A careful reading of this biographical material will tell the historian much about the Safavid administrative system, the relative importance of the various offices of state, and the shifting balance of power between Turk and Tajik, and, from the reign of Shah Tahmasp onwards, between them and the "third force" consisting of office-holders, both civil and military, who were neither Turks nor Tajiks but ghulams of Circassian, Armenian or Georgian extraction.
These tributes to the paramount position of the Tarikh-i 'Alam-ara-yi 'Abbasi in Safavid historiography, well-deserved though I believe them to be, have always made me slightly uneasy precisely because they have all been paid by Western scholars. Is there no Iranian historian, I wondered, who has an equally high opinion of it? Just recently I discovered one, and it is an enormous relief to me to have my opinion supported by no less an authority than the late Ahmad Kasravi, whom I regard as one of the greatest Iranian historians of recent times. In an article entitled Tarikh va tarikh-nigar ("History and the Historian", Kasravi praises the lst century A.D. historian and biographer Plutarch because he makes no distinction between Persian, Greek and Roman (for example, Plutarch speaks well of the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II (Ardashir), though the latter was the enemy of Greece); because he does not ignore the crimes and base acts of his fellow-countrymen; and because he treats high and low equally. In the whole of Iranian historiography, says Kasravi, only two historians have displayed similar qualities: Bayhaqi, the historian of the Ghaznavids, and Eskandar Beg. Though Eskandar Beg's purpose, says Kasravi, was to praise the achievements of the Safavids, and although he probably had hopes of obtaining financial reward from Shah 'Abbas, nevertheless he "never relinquishes his hold on the truth; he does not exaggerate; he does not conceal matters; and he does not indulge in unseemly remarks about the enemies of the Safavid family. Whenever he considers an action deserving of blame, but cannot openly criticize it, he indicates his displeasure." "By contrast," says Kasravi, "there are other historians who have no object but hypocrisy and eulogizing, and have no concern for truth and falsehood" (here he names two well-known historians of the Timurid period, and one 19th-century historian). "Such works," he says, "cannot be called history. Historians should either emulate Bayhaqi and Eskandar Beg, or they should keep quiet (bi-khamushi girayand).
It may be of interest that, more than twenty years ago, I made comments on Abo'-Fazl-e Beyhaqi as an historiographer which were very similar to those I am now making about Eskandar Beg. I pointed out that Bayhaqi, although one of the great historians of Iran, and in some ways unique as an historiographer, had, until the Bayhaqi Conference at Mashhad in 1971, been curiously neglected. Bayhaqi himself emphasized the importance of writing truthful and accurate history, so that it "should be believed by the person who hears it, and scholars should not only listen to it but make use of it". Unfortunately, he says, the number of such people is extremely small; most people prefer stories about demons and fairies, and evil spirits which inhabit the deserts, mountains and oceans. This does not mean that Bayhaqi eschews that traditional Persian practice of including anecdotes (hekayat) in his narrative. Indeed, as Barthold has pointed out, he "quite consciously contrasts his book with those chronicles, where all that may be read is that a certain sultan sent such and such a general to some war or other; on a certain day they fought or made peace; this one beat that one or that one this; they proceeded there'". Opinions have differed on Bayhaqi's style: Sa'id Nafisi called his style "archaic and complicated", but I agree with Mojtaba Minovi, who called it "a model for composition in an accurate and sparing language", and characterized his style as "lively".
Emerson, p. 28.
Hodgson, I, pp. 39-40.
Inhitat, pp. 17-19.
Inhitat, p. 29.
There is an abridged translation by Thomas Ricks of Adamiyat's article in Sukhan: see "Problems in Iranian Historiography", in Iranian Studies, Autumn 1971, Vol. IV, No. 4, pp. 132-156. According to Ricks, in this English version "several sections have been amended or revised in collaboration with the author for presentation to the Western reader" (pp. 132-3).
Does this mean, "in the opinion of Adamiyat and Ricks"? Or is this a case of the royal "we"?
Elisée Reclus, Nouvelle Géographie universelle: la terre et les hommes, 19 vols, Paris 1876, Vol. 9, L'Asie anterieure, Chapter IV: La Perse, p. 139.
Browne, IV, p. 107.
Nukati chand, p. 167.
Inhitat, p. 19.
"The Historiography of Ottoman-Safavid Relations in the 16th and 17th Centuries:, in HME, p. 200, note 8.
Hodgson, III, p. 42.
Opisanie persidskikh i tadzhikskikh rukopsei instituta vostokovedeniia, vypusk 3, Moscow 1975, quoted by R.D. McChesney, "A Note on Iskandar Beg's Chronology," in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 39, 1980, p. 1.
"Persian Biographical Literature", in HME, pp. 147-8.
In Chahar Maqala-yi Kasravi (ed. Yahya Zoka), Tehran, Ordibehesht 1335 A.H.S./April 1956, pp. 314-24.
Plutarch, Lives, XI, p. 135.
The Timurid historians in question are Sharaf al-Din Yazdi and `Abd al-Razzaq Samarqandi; the 19th-century work is the Nasikh al-Tavarikh of Mirza Muhammad Taqi Sepehr (Lisan al-Mulk); Kasravi, pp. 321-3.
"Abo'l-Fazl Beyhaqi as an Historiographer", in Yadname-ye Abu'l-Fadl-e Beyhaqui, Meshed 1971, pp. 84-128.
W. Barthold, Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion, London 1928, p. 22. The text quoted is on p. 438 of the Tarikh-i Baihaki (ed. W.H. Morley), in Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta 1862.