Persian Language & Literature

Islam and poetry in Iran
By: Asad Seif
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Religion or verse
When one studies the era in the Farsi poem, we must not ignore the effects the negative views of Islam on poetry. Those Iranian thinkers who were close to Islam constantly shunned poetry, holding it in disdain. For years these thinkers preferred prose to verse. For example "As Molana [31] came from a family of piety, virtue, feqh and fatwa [32], in the beginning he did not write poetry and did not communicate in verse until his tumultuous fascination with the beauty Shams Tabrizi." [33]. Molana himself wrote: "Among our province and people there was nothing more degrading than being a poet. If we had remained in that province, we would have lived according to their likes and do what they desired like giving lessons, preaching and composing books …." [34].

From the beginning of the 10th century the Mongols invaded Iran. Baghdad lost its centrality as a nucleus of art, knowledge, religion, and politics. As Arab influence diminished, Iranian prose had revived. Many scientific books were translated into Farsi. And Farsi writing found a new market and numerous books, especially on history, were written.

With the coming of the Moguls, however, the situation changed drastically. Iranians had infiltrated the Arab bureaucracy, became proficient in the literature of that country and created many masterpieces in Arabic. The Mongols, on the other hand, did not value science and literature. They destroyed libraries as they did rural communities. Those writers who had survived with their lives turned to history writing. Ataalmolk Jovini wrote the three volumes Tarikh-e Jahangosha, a description of the conquests of Chengiz Khan, Shahabeddin Abdollah wrote the Tarikh Vasaf [History of Descriptions], Rashideddin Fazlollah finished Jame-al Tavarikh in seven volumes. Handollah Mostofi published Nezhat al-Qlub and …

Special attention was given to recording past and present histories in an effort to discover and record the Iranian identity. It is in these years (1449) that Mohammad Oufi attempted a great innovation and recorded the story of Farsi-writing poets in two volumes "labbab al bab". He survived the Mongol invasion and his book is his answer to the Mongol attack and the destruction of Farsi.

Shi'ism as government
During the preceding centuries the Farsi verse had slowly distanced itself from the narrow constraints of Islamic poetry. But with the coming to power of the Safavid kings (1501-1732), who had turned to Shi'ism, this peculiarity was once again diluted. The Safavid kings used poetry as an arm in their propaganda battle, encouraged eulogies and tributes to the holy saints (aemeh athar).Such Islamic "sciences" as Feqh, hadith and kalam flourished once more.

In a contemporary account Mohtashem Kashi wrote an ode in praise of Shah Tahmaseb and his wife Princess Parikhan Khanum and was rebuked for not composing an ode in on the Prophet and the immaculate Imams [35]. The same source laments that the Safavid kings exaggerated the issue of Amre be ma'ruf and nah az monker [36] that they "paid scant attention to poets and did not encourage pieces and odes".

The fact that the court was not courting poetry allowed the development of independent poets who turned increasingly from the court to the people. On the one hand this introduced modernisation and variety into poetry and on the other hand, the laws and rigours of language was ignored. Poetry acquired new content but with a weakened form. Experts consider the Farsi prose of these times to be at its weakest and worthless.

Iranian poetry in the Safavid period, although weak and worthless, was not elitist. Its subjects had become the life of the ordinary people. Since the Safavid were the most religious rulers of Iran, it is natural for religious eulogies to also thrive. Story telling also flourished in these times. And in this way literature entered the life of the people. Moreover, since the Safavid era was the time of Shi'ite ascendancy, religious authorities turned to Farsi, and wrote their treatise in that language. This was a major break with tradition.

Thus the Safavid period, and even more in the succeeding Qajar and in particular during the Constitutional periods [36] Farsi poetry's ties to religion was loosened. Yet "Islamic poetry" in praise of prophets, religious leaders, alongside eulogies and eulogic poetry managed to survive, and gain patronage, alongside independent and ascendant Farsi poetry. This is precisely the process we are witnessing in the era of the Islamic Republic, which tries to rekindle the dependence of poetry and literature on the state.

It is interesting that in Islamic texts, even praise of religious personages have at times been considered unseemly. Jame' Abbasi [37] says that reading poetry, even in praise of the holy is "disapprove of [makruh] to a fasting person". Khomeini also called reciting a poem which was not educational, as makruh [in a mosque]. [38] This has been echoed by Ayatollah Montazeri and other religious authorities [39]. In the hands of the Islamic rulers of Iran, poetry is no more than a weapon for propaganda of the ruling ideology [42].

With Khomeini's death and the publication of poems attributed to him Islamic poetry took on a new life. But as it was unable to rescue itself from the current clichés Nothing of any great worth had been created. And this process continues.

Even though after years of struggle and ups and downs, two centuries of silence - the era of the Qajar dynasty - was broken, but the traditions that were laid in these two dark and silent centuries are still, willingly or otherwise, operational in our poetry, story writing and general cultures.

  1. Transoxania, now in Uzbekistan (trans)
  2. Two religious movements which has gained broad support before being suppressed. Manichaeism, taught by Mani tried to bring together all prophets and teachers under one system. Mazda's religion was based on a strongly egalitarian philosophy. (trans)
  3. Now Mazendaran. Provinces on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. (trans)
  4. Zabiollah Safa. A Brief History of the Development of Farsi Verse and Prose, (in Farsi) Teheran 1989.
  5. Jezieh - a religious tax imposed on non-Muslims belonging to religions "with a book" - Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
  6. Abdol Hossein Zarrinkoub, Iranian History After Islam (Farsi) Teheran p 30.
  7. See for example see Styles of Writing by Mohammad Taghi Bahar volume 1, p162; or Zarrinkoub ibid p20.
  8. Zarrinkoub ibid p220.
  9. Ali Ibn Abutaleb, Nhjolbalagheh, Farsi translation by Javad Fazel, Teheran 1345 page 750
  10. Qur'an Al-Haqqa, 69:39-46. All translations are taken from The Koran. Translated by NJ Dawood. Penguin Books. London 1956.
  11. Qur'an Al- Shua'ra' 26:223-226
  12. Qur'an Ya Sin 36:68
  13. The Commentary of Abolfotuh Razi (Farsi), volume 4, p 417.
  14. Ibn Hesham, Sayerat al-Nabi (the story of the Prophet) quoted in History of Iran from the Seleucids to the fall of the Sasanid state. J A Boyl. The story of Rustam and Esafandyar, figures in ancient Iranian mythology, was later recounted in Ferdowsi's great epic, Shahnameh (Book of Kings)
  15. Zarrinkub ibid p216. Badr was a decisive victory for Mohammad over the Qureysh notables ruling Mecca.
  16. Bahaeddin Khorramshahi. Knowledge of the Qur'an (Farsi) Teheran, p30
  17. Qur'an 21:4
  18. Translators note: in Farsi (and Arabic) the same word - elm - is used for both scientific and religious knowledge, emphasising the points made by the author.
  19. Zarrinkoub, ibid p 216
  20. "When Amro Ibn Al-Ass conquered Egypt and laid hands on the knowledge sources of Alexandria, he put them to the torch on the orders of the Caliph Omar and in Iran too the Arab conquerors did not desist from similar acts. Sa'd Ibn Abi Vaqass on orders of the caliph destroyed the treasury of Iranian books" Zabiollah Safa Ibid p115.
  21. Aziz Al-Azmeh. Ibn Khaldun. London Frank Cass 1982, p 102-3
  22. Direct descendent of Mohammad through his only daughter Fatemeh.
  23. Koleini - Principles of Kafi page 37 Farsi translation Javad Mostafavi.
  24. See Maksoub, S "Source and meaning of AGHL in the thoughts of Naser Khosrow. In Some Words on Iranian Culture (in Farsi). Zendehrood Publications, Teheran 1992.
  25. Islamic scholar (c 699 - 767) who stressed the importance of individual reasoning. See Albert Hourani The History of the Arab peoples. Faber and Faber London, 1991 p67. (trans)
  26. See JA Boyl ibid volume 3. Avesta is the book of the Zoroastrians.
  27. History of Sistan
  28. Bahar, Mohammad-Taqi ibid volume I, p 165
  29. Zarrinkoub Abdol-Hossein, On Iranian Literature in the Past (Farsi), p 525.
  30. Ibid p 521.
  31. Maulana Jalaledin Rumi - Sufi poet and philosopher (trans)
  32. Islamic jurisprudence and judgement. (trans)
  33. Foruzanfar, B-Z, the life of Molana Jalaleddin Mohammad quoting Movahhed, MA. same anti-poetry and anti-independence process can be followed. Page 173 Tarhe No, Teheran (Farsi)
  34. Movahhed MA. Shams Tabrizi page 173.
  35. Aemmeh ma'soomin. According to Shi'ite belief the prophet, his daughter, Ali his son in law and the other eleven imams - direct descendants of the couple are innocent of any sin (trans). Quoted from Alam Araye Abbasi
  36. As part of the inviolate duties of Muslims is to encourage piety and warn off against sin.
  37. Constitutional Revolution of 1905.
  38. Jame Abbasi, same anti-poetry and anti-independence process can be followed Chapter 4, the laws of compulsory fasting,
  39. Khomeini. Tozih al Masael. Question 914.
  40. See for example Tozil al Masael by Montazeri, question 924
  41. See Seif A, Arash no 16 1991
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