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What we lost with Persianate modernity

Cultural alternate is commonly assumed to be progressive, however it has neither an inherent politics nor an inevitable consequence. As nationalism rises throughout the globe, many see ‘cultural exchange’ because the antidote to nationalist xenophobia. Such alternate was, in reality, an integral a part of the emergence of nationwide literatures, cultures and identities in Iran and South Asia. Rather than leading to higher cosmopolitanism, Indo-Iranian alternate fostered fashionable nationalism.

Today, Persian is the nationwide language of Iran. Although it has a protracted historical past there, its nationwide standing and shut affiliation with the nation rely on occasions within the Nineteenth century. As the Russian Empire swallowed up swathes of Iranian territory within the 1810s and ’20s, and the sclerotic Qajar dynasty ruling Iran proved incapable of resistance, Iranian nationalism emerged to problem each international imperialism and native despotism.

Photograph of the Shah Mosque, Persia, within the late Nineteenth century. Courtesy the V&A Museum, London

By the tip of the Nineteenth century, Iranian intellectuals have been remodeling Persian from the lingua franca of a centreless Persianate world spanning a lot of Asia into the language of nationwide identification within the nation-state of Iran. Nationalist modernisers made reforming the Persian language a central mission, whether or not they have been democratic revolutionaries of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) or the authoritarian shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79). Drawing on fashionable literary histories of Persian written by each Iranians and Indians, they refashioned Persian right into a nationwide language, and Persian literature into nationwide heritage, positioning Iran because the proprietor of the Persianate custom.

The Persian language we know at this time was born out of interplay with Arabic and Islam. Its precursors parsig and dari – now recognized collectively as ‘Middle Persian’ – had been utilized by Zoroastrian monks and by the Sasanians, the Iranian dynasty that fell to the Seventh-century Arab-Islamic conquest of Iran. Within a few centuries after the rise of Islam, the Persian language took on a brand new identification. It developed a brand new Arabic-derived script; massive quantities of Arabic loanwords; a literature closely indebted to Arabic types, metres and imagery; and a brand new identify, farsi, additionally influenced by Arabic. (The phrase farsi displays, partially, the Arabic pronunciation of the sooner parsig.) Linguists name this Arabised type of the language ‘New Persian’. In the ninth century, Muslim empires started patronising New Persian as a car for Islam, and unfold it to the Indian subcontinent.

Modern literary histories supplied a distinct narrative of Persian. Twentieth-century Iranian nationalists sought to tell apart the Persian language from Arabic. For them, the language was a part of a steady Iranian civilisation stretching again to the Achaemenids (the dynasty that dominated c700-330 BCE), encompassing the ‘Old Persian’ of the Achaemenid inscriptions, the ‘Middle Persian’ of the Sasanian courtroom (c225-650 CE), and the ‘New Persian’ that adopted the rise of Islam and endured to the current day. Iranian nationalists like the good literary historian Muhammad-Taqi Bahar (1886-1951) emphasised the continuity of Persian over time, uninterrupted by Islam – and, by extension, Arabic – which they noticed as belonging to a definite civilisation.

Bahar’s civilisational paradigm, predicated on the notion of linguistic integrity and the affiliation of a individuals with its language, got here from European philology. His efforts to indicate Iranian continuity earlier than and after the rise of Islam have been a nationalist mission, formed by European Orientalism, particularly its new philological data of historical Iranian languages. These Nineteenth-century European philologists, and Bahar and plenty of others who realized from their work, grouped Persian with the Indo-European household of languages distinct from Semitic languages like Arabic. Rather than contemplating New Persian as a blended language with Arabic components, they constructed a story that emphasised the independence and continuity of Persian over the course of centuries. In doing so, they adopted a paradigm established by Nineteenth-century Germanic linguists whose scholarship labeled ‘Old English’ (what had been referred to as the Anglo-Saxon language) and ‘Middle English’ as precursors to fashionable English.

Bahar and different Nineteenth-century Iranian nationalists weren’t the one ones within the historical past of the Persian language and literature. Indian Muslims have been additionally involved with the Persianate literary heritage. Persian had been a language of energy and studying in South Asia for the reason that Eleventh century – they usually had as a lot of a declare to it as did Iranians.

A tree-lined road in Shiraz, Iran, c1895-1900. Photo by Antoin Sevruguin. Courtesy the V&A Museum, London

The relationship between Persian and an area language of South Asia that may later be known as Urdu mirrored the sooner relationship between Arabic and Persian. The components that may represent Urdu’s identification as a language have been largely borrowed from Persian. Chief amongst them is the Perso-Arabic script wherein Urdu is written, versus the Devanagari script that may come to be related with Hindi. Urdu additionally has tens of hundreds of Persian loanwords, like dost (pal) and dil (coronary heart), together with Persian phrases of Arabic origin, like zarūrat (necessity). Moreover, Urdu’s linguistic identification was related to literature in Perso-Arabic types just like the ghazal, an amorous type of lyric poetry.

South Asian Muslim literary historians constructed a really completely different type of historical past of Urdu than the Iranians had of Persian. Contrary to the Iranian story of continuity earlier than and after the approaching of Islam, South Asians emphasised rupture and hybridity as key to Urdu’s origins. According to this telling, Urdu started with the arrival of Muslim empires within the Indian subcontinent within the Eleventh and twelfth centuries. Though the language had been utilized by individuals of varied religions, from the Nineteenth century onwards South Asians more and more noticed Urdu because the language of North Indian Muslims, in distinction to Hindi, related with Hindus. Rather than conceiving of their language when it comes to distinction from others, Indian Muslims embraced hybridity. Many nonetheless regard Urdu as inherently a mélange of languages: an Indic factor (usually described as Hindi) in addition to Persian, Arabic and Turkish. The inclusion of Turkish in Urdu’s linguistic pedigree is very notable.

Iranian nationalists aligned themselves with the brand new Indo-European philology

The identify of the language ‘urdu’ comes from a Turkic phrase for ‘camp’, and the English phrase ‘horde’ shares its Turkic etymology. Aside from this phrase, nevertheless, Turkic components in Urdu are few and much between. One examine discovered about 100 Turkic phrases, most of them obscure, out of 54,000 in a significant Urdu dictionary. For comparability, English has about as many loanwords from Japanese (like ‘tycoon’ and ‘tsunami’).

Claiming that Urdu was a mixture that included Turkish allowed Indian Muslims to say a family tree that related them, in a approach, to the Ottoman Empire at a time when many Muslims longed for a strong caliphate to counter the weak spot they felt residing below British rule.

For fashionable Indian Muslims, treating ‘Arabic’ as a separate contributor to Urdu from ‘Persian’ was one other necessary a part of giving Urdu a correct Muslim pedigree, a connection to ‘Muslim lands’ just like the Arab world. In reality, Urdu’s many Arabic loanwords have been borrowed by way of Persian, they usually nonetheless bore the traces of Persian pronunciation and spelling. Thus, phrases like zarūrat (necessity) – finally from Arabic ḍarūra, however borrowed into Urdu from Persian zarūrat – got here to be conceived of as constituting the ‘Arabic element’ in Urdu. To make one other comparability with English, it is a little like insisting that the English phrase ‘ramen’ (from Japanese rāmen) ought to be thought of a Chinese somewhat than Japanese loanword into English, for the reason that Japanese phrase finally derives from the Mandarin lāmiàn.

Just as Indian Muslims have been claiming Turkish, Arabic and Persian because the Islamic progenitors of Urdu within the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, these identical languages have been being adopted as autos for secular nationalist initiatives within the nations the place they have been spoken. So these two historic narratives – Persian discreteness and Urdu hybridity – passed off on the identical time and are contradictory, reflecting completely different relationships to Orientalist types of data about language.

Iranian nationalists aligned themselves with the brand new Indo-European philology, studying nationwide historical past by way of linguistics. So, just like the European linguists who established an evolutionary method to language, the Iranians emphasised continuity, on this case with the pre-Islamic interval and a linear growth from Old to Middle to New Persian. British colonialism and Hindu nationalism made a story of putting up with linguistic historical past unavailable to Indian Muslims. The British recognized Sanskrit because the classical heritage of the Hindus, whereas they related Muslims with Arabic and Persian textual heritage that got here to the subcontinent from the Middle East and Central Asia. As such, they located Hindi, and the Hindus, because the inheritors of Sanskrit, heirs to an everlasting and indigenous ‘Aryan’ civilisation, and positioned Urdu-speaking Muslims as foreigners, outsiders to India.

As early because the 1850s, students proposed that the ancestors of the primary Sanskrit audio system had come to India from elsewhere. More just lately, genetic proof has helped set up a scholarly consensus across the migration of this neighborhood from Central Asia to India. Nonetheless, the concept of ‘indigenous’ Hindus and ‘foreign’ Muslims proved way more tough to dislodge. The notion of irreconcilable distinction between these Hindus and Muslims contributed to the 1947 partition of British India into the impartial nations of India and Pakistan: the best mass migration in human historical past, leaving 1,000,000 or extra useless and 15 million displaced.

The Iranian nationalists’ narrative of Persian indigeneity was equally ethnocentric. It turned the cornerstone of the Twentieth-century Pahlavi dynasty’s ideology, which marginalised Iran’s minorities such because the Arabs. Identification with ‘Aryanism’ stays widespread to this present day in Iran.

A household group gathered round a kursi desk in Iran, c1895-1900. Photo by Antoin Sevruguin. Courtesy the V&A Museum, London

All of that is to indicate that fashionable nationalist narratives about language departed radically from how Iranians and Indians had for hundreds of years earlier than conceived of language, of themselves, and of their relationship to Persian. From about 900 to 1900, Persian had been a cosmopolitan lingua franca, a typical idiom of studying and statecraft throughout a lot of the jap Islamic world, from the Balkans to China. Rigid hierarchies, amongst them age, gender, social standing and sophistication, stratified Persianate societies. They have been cosmopolitan, nevertheless, within the sense that ethnicity and language didn’t type the premise of hierarchies; there have been no particular privileges reserved for native Persian audio system. Indeed, earlier than the Nineteenth century, no such idea of ‘native speaker’ or ‘mother tongue’ existed, and having a Persian training was way more vital than talking Persian at residence. There had been no geographic core or centre to the Persianate world. If something, it might be argued that its coronary heart lay in India, the place varied dynasties just like the Mughals patronised the language, outpacing even Iran in Persian literary manufacturing.

They shared area in shrines and seminaries, and labored and socialised in the identical circles

Like Russian imperialism in Iran, British colonial rule in India precipitated deep social and political change. Before the Nineteenth century, nobody considered Persian or Urdu as completely related with any specific spiritual group. But British colonial rule introduced with it the affiliation between a individuals and a language and helped set up Urdu because the language of Muslim patrimony in northern India. Initially, the British East India Company had continued the centuries-long observe of patronising Persian, however within the 1830s the logic of contemporary nationalism more and more tied Persian to Iran, disqualifying it as a ‘local’ language for northern India. After the failed anticolonial revolt of 1857, the British feared they’d lost contact with ‘ordinary’ Indians. This bolstered the shift away from British rule by way of the written Persian custom, coming to favour as an alternative languages they deemed ‘vernacular’, grounded in on a regular basis life in India, reminiscent of Urdu.

Such staggering losses of energy and territory to European empires within the Nineteenth century provoked a lot soul-searching amongst Muslim intellectuals in Iran and India. A number of embraced partial or complete Westernisation, seeing the Persianate custom as useless weight stopping them from surviving the onslaught of European energy. The Iranian Sayyid Hasan Taqizadah (1878-1970), for instance, known as for abandoning Persian’s Arabic-based script in favour of the Latin alphabet. Other modernisers, just like the Indian Muslim scholar Shibli Nuʿmani (1857-1914), took a extra nuanced place. They believed that custom needed to be reformed so as to survive the situations of modernity, however that they may additionally draw on that heritage as a useful resource within the means of modernisation. This type of middle-ground method prevailed in Iran and India, the place intellectuals sought to develop fashionable, nationwide cultures.

Importantly, Iranian and Indian reformers shared each a Persianate literary custom and the situation of colonial subjugation. Together, this contemporary expertise of colonialism and a literary heritage in widespread offered the premise for a shared Indo-Iranian mission of modernisation. Muslim intellectuals – and their work and concepts – circulated between Iran and India within the first half of the Twentieth century, constructing on enduring cosmopolitan networks of Persianate alternate. Urdu-speaking intellectuals in northern India have been usually literate in Persian and have been attuned to developments in Iran. Key works have been translated from Urdu to Persian and vice versa. The transmission of data between the 2 languages was not solely literary. Iranians and Indians travelled between the 2 nations, aided by new applied sciences just like the steamship, and bodily infrastructure like drivable roads connecting the nations. They shared area in shrines and seminaries, and labored and socialised in the identical circles. Multilingual travellers acted as vernacular translators, spreading concepts realized throughout these worldwide encounters to different interlocutors.

A river and bridge, Rasht, northern Iran c1895-1900. Photo by Antoin Sevruguin. Courtesy the V&A Museum, London

Composing literary historical past was a key mission for reconciling modernity with custom, a option to handle the contradictions between the outdated works of literature and tradition which they revered as nationwide heritage and the brand new values held by modernisers. Amorous poetry posed one such contradiction. Homoerotic and typically bawdy poetry made up a lot of the classical Persian canon. Beloved poetic masters like Rumi and Saʿdi wrote ghazals and different poems celebrating, in frank, unabashed lyrical type the love of younger males. But Indian Muslim reformers, influenced by a type of ersatz Victorianism exported by the British to India, valued chastity and disparaged homoeroticism.

In his Urdu-language historical past of Persian poetry, Nuʿmani pathologised homoerotic practices, discussing them as a illness to be recognized and handled. This new literary prudery was shared by Iranians as nicely. Bahar, for instance, knew no Urdu, however realized of developments in South Asian Muslim thought (just like the work of Nuʿmani) by way of conversations with mates like Daʿi al-Islam Isfahani (an Iranian who knew Urdu) and ʿAbd al-Hamid ʿIrfani (an Indian-cum-Pakistani who knew Persian). In his literary historical past, Bahar gave a really related, pathologising account of the origins of homoeroticism to Nuʿmani’s. Overall, when dealing with lascivious poetry, Iranian and Indian literary historians shared persistently puritan conventions.

At the tip of the Nineteenth century and the primary a number of many years of the Twentieth, Persian literary historical past emerged out of scholarly alternate between Iranians (Bahar, for instance) and Indian Muslims (Nuʿmani, for instance) writing in Persian and Urdu. Intellectuals in each nations drew on the identical Persian literary custom – and on one another – in looking for native fashions for contemporary writing. For instance, they took up an Eleventh-century Persian epic poem, Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi’s Shahnamah or ‘Book of Kings’, as a supply for a contemporary historic technique. Considering the Shahnamah to be historical past was nothing new, however what they meant by ‘history’ was novel. Indian and Iranian modernisers praised the Shahnamah for its historic accuracy and precision – new historiographic values that differed from premodern historians’ emphasis on rhetoric and elegance. The historians of Firdawsi’s time have been much less involved with the info of historical past themselves than with the ethical that means to be made from that info.

Literary historians noticed their process as narrating the story of a individuals, the historical past of a nation, by way of the historical past of its literature, which they understood because the recorded historical past of the language. As such, writing literary historical past was a nationalist endeavour. Modern literary historians made use of different medieval sources in direction of this finish, remodeling conventional biographical anthologies of poets into linear narratives of the event of Persian poetry.

The anthologies (tazkirah) handled every poet individually by way of independently bounded entries. But modernisers sought to supply a narrative of nationwide progress by way of the historical past of language and literature. While the tazkirahs remained their main sources of knowledge, they structured their fashionable literary histories with a brand new sense of linear, progressive time. This made it doable to deal with all of Persian literature – together with materials in pre-Islamic languages like Middle Persian – as a single, steady complete. This, too, was a collaborative endeavour. Nuʿmani’s Urdu-language Poetry of the Persians was one of many first texts to pioneer a mannequin of literary historical past by introducing Orientalist philology, a linear sense of time, and fashionable historiographic methodology to the standard tazkirah format. It would go on to affect Iranian litterateurs reminiscent of Bahar, in addition to European Orientalists like E G Browne.

Culture is an empty vessel that may be hooked up to all types of political initiatives

There was an ideal irony to this cosmopolitan alternate between Iranians and Indians, nevertheless. The literary histories it produced helped to consolidate a nationalist logic that related Persian language and literature virtually completely with Iran. Iranians, taking up a contemporary nationwide identification, laid declare to Persian as their patrimony. Indian Muslims additionally conceived of Persian as a part of their heritage, but Iran took centre-stage even in Indian accounts of Persian literature. This is ironic, contemplating how India produced extra Persian literature than did Iran at some factors in historical past. Even as Urdu turned a car for the Persianate custom in India, Indian Muslims didn’t problem the nationalist logic linking Persian to Iran. Instead, many embraced it, even tying Indian Muslims’ linguistic identification to Iran and elsewhere within the Middle East. In so doing, they wound up writing themselves out of the historical past of Persian literature – and out of belonging to India.

Iranians’ and Indian Muslims’ completely different relationships to European philology clarify why the 2 conceived of their languages in such opposite methods. This divergence reveals the historic contingency of the 2 narratives. It was not inevitable that Iranian nationalism would undertake the philological mannequin of linguistic continuity, which is made clear by comparability with Indian Muslims’ conception of Urdu as a blended language.

This historical past results in a number of conclusions.

First, what seems at this time as nationwide tradition – distinctive and discretely bounded – is the product of alternate with others from past the borders of the nation-state. This is actually true of contemporary Iran. Nationalism, and what I name ‘Persianate modernity’, is the veneer that hides the very situations of cosmopolitan cooperation and alternate that generated nationwide tradition within the first place. This suggests one thing about tradition: it has no inherent politics, no predetermined trajectory.

Culture is an empty vessel that may be hooked up to all types of political initiatives. Cross-cultural alternate equally can serve reactionary ends simply in addition to progressive ones. At the flip of the Twentieth century, alternate between Iranians and Indians served to alienate Indians from the historical past of Persian literature. More just lately, the concept of Indian Muslims’ cosmopolitan origins has marked them as outsiders to India – a story adopted by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and different Hindu nationalists to assist marginalise and disenfranchise tens of millions of Indian Muslims.

Nor is ‘indigeneity’ inherently progressive, a reality additionally illustrated by India’s Hindu nationalists. They now describe themselves as an indigenous inhabitants besieged by Muslim allochthones, ie international intruders. Indeed, we discover the language of indigeneity taken up by ethno-nationalists elsewhere within the modern world – from the European Right, claiming to defend its indigenous tradition towards international refugees, to Jewish supremacists in Israel, who insist on their very own indigenous roots within the land.

The options to the ills of nationalism, due to this fact, can’t be present in abstractions like tradition or distinctions like ‘indigenous’ vs ‘settler’. Rather than forging connections based mostly on a shared previous, we should think about collectively a shared future.


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