Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What happened to the Persianate in the age of nationalism?

Alexander Jabbari

In my recent book The Making of Persianate Modernity: Language and Literary History between Iran and India (Cambridge University Press, 2023), I set out to accomplish several things. I wanted to write a connected history of Iran and India during the period of modernization, from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, using both Persian and Urdu sources. And I wanted to do so with a unique archive—literary histories, which emerged as a new genre of writing in this period—together with more traditional archival sources like unpublished letters and diaries, as well as tazkirahs, the premodern biographical anthologies that were important sources for the new literary histories.

I was inspired by a generation of pioneering scholarship on Indo-Iranian connections, especially in the modern period. Innovative, groundbreaking studies had challenged Iranian nationalism by showing how much modern Iranian thought had developed in India, outside the borders of the Iranian nation-state. In studying Iranian intellectuals in India and their connections with Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians), scholars demonstrated how Iranian nationalism was not a native, organic development rooted in Iranian soil—as the nationalists themselves would have it—but rather the product of Indo-Iranian exchange. Yet even as this scholarship successfully contested the myths of Iranian nationalism, it nevertheless reproduced a nationalist paradigm by using Persian-language sources and by focusing on Iranian exiles and the Parsi community that traces its genealogy back to Iran. What about Indian Muslims? Did they also play a role in modern Iranian thought and literature? This was one of the questions I set out to answer in my book.

The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. What I found seemed to challenge not only this Iranian nationalist paradigm, but also the assumptions of Persianate Studies.

Persianate Studies is the field concerned with the broader Persianate world, the cosmopolis of societies (from the Balkans to China) historically linked together by their use of Persian as a language of learning and power. Until recently, the field had devoted most of its attention to medieval and early modern history, guided by the prevailing belief that the Persianate framework was undone by the conditions of modernity and nationalism and had lost its relevance by the turn of the twentieth century, if not sooner.

But Indian Muslims continued to engage with the Persianate literary tradition long after the supposed death of Persian in the subcontinent. And Iranians, as I discovered, were learning from intellectual and literary developments taking place in Urdu. I found that the genre of literary history was produced in large part through exchange between Iranians and Indians writing in both languages. In producing these histories, which were key texts for narrating new national and communal identities, Indians and Iranians shared dense networks of citation and engagement, reading and responding to one another. Intellectuals in both countries sought to rework the earlier tazkirah tradition—biographical anthologies of poetry—to produce the modern genre of literary history. In recognizing this mutual exchange, I pushed back against a simplistic model of “influence”: the often taken for granted idea of a kind of hierarchy wherein Persian influences Urdu, but Urdu doesn’t influence Persian. What I found was a much more dialogic form of scholarship that unfolded across Persian and Urdu (as well as English and other European languages).

As Iranians and Indians modernized their shared Persianate heritage and produced the genre of literary history, they developed a shared set of modern conventions. Premodern Persian ghazal poetry often celebrated the love of male youths in frank, unabashed language, and tazkirahs were similarly open in their discussions of poets’ homoerotic exploits. But modern literary historians maintained a bashful silence about sexuality, and broached the subject only reluctantly and with reproach. Scholars of Persian literature now recognize the conventionality of depictions of homoerotic love in the Persian ghazal; I show how the sexual puritanism of modern prose is similarly conventional. The influential Indian Muslim thinker Shibli Nuʿmani (1857-1914), for example, led a personal life more colorful than reflected in his prudish account of Persian poetry. The same was true of the famed British scholar E.G. Browne (1862-1926), whose Literary History of Persia was utterly silent on (homo)erotic matters. I drew on Browne’s unpublished diaries to reveal how the prim conventions of literary history did not necessarily stem from personal conviction or experience.

Not every aspect of this modernizing project was uniform between Iran and India. Despite their shared sources and conventions, Iranians and Indians developed radically different national narratives, especially in their conceptions of the Persian and Urdu languages and their respective genealogies. Iranians’ national narrative was inflected by a new philological model of language, emphasizing continuity over various stages (‘Old,’ ‘Middle,’ and ‘New’ Persian), uninterrupted by the advent of Islam. They claimed the Persian language and literature as their national heritage. While the Persianate heritage was an important component of South Asian Muslims’ identity as well, they accepted the Iranian nationalist claim to Persian. In contrast to the Iranians’ narrative of continuity before and after Islam, many South Asian Muslims emphasized rupture with pre-Islamic India, taking the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent as the starting point of their identity. For them, the admixture of Persian and Arabic script and vocabulary were crucial components of Urdu’s character as a language. I discussed these narratives in greater detail in a recent essay for Aeon magazine.

As a consequence of their different linguistic narratives, reformers and modernizers in Iran experimented with language in significantly different ways than their counterparts in India (and, later, Pakistan) did from the end of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. In Iran, there was an explosion of proposals for reforming the Perso-Arabic script, with more than 50 new scripts designed from the end of the nineteenth century to 1950. There were very few such proposals for Urdu—mostly romanization schemes which failed to gain traction. Because the Perso-Arabic script (in the nastaʿliq calligraphic hand) was so central to Urdu’s identity as a language, Urdu-speakers had little interest in changing the script. On the other hand, Iranians’ embrace of a linguistic identity that spanned multiple scripts (viewing Old, Middle, and New Persian, in their multiple respective scripts, as part of the same trajectory) made it possible to conceive of the Persian language separately from its current Arabic-based script, resulting in a plethora of new script proposals.

This was also a factor that helped Iranians to adopt print in movable type, possible only with the naskh typeface, whereas Urdu-speakers were attached to nastaʿliq and thus never really embraced movable type technology. Instead, Urdu texts continued to be printed with lithography—which allowed the reproduction of handwritten nastaʿliq—all the way up until the 1980s when digital nastaʿliq fonts were developed for computers. As print (whether in naskh-based movable type in Persian, or lithographed nastaʿliq for Urdu) replaced manuscripts, orthography was standardized and European-style punctuation replaced ad hoc systems of punctuating text that had prevailed in the manuscript tradition.

Comparing modern Persian and Urdu helps us understand how the form each language took was not natural and inevitable, but historically contingent. Divergences, whether in narratives of national and linguistic history or approaches to script and typography, reveal alternative, unrealized possibilities. But even these divergences are part of a connected history, a story of interaction and cooperation between Iranians and South Asians, writing in Persian as well as in Urdu. Together, they reworked the Persianate textual tradition, producing a Persianate modernity which drew on Indo-Iranian connections even as it sought to make those connections invisible, hiding them behind the veneer of national culture. Persianate modernity, then, is the form the Persianate takes after the rise of nationalism. It is the connected framework left over from the bygone cosmopolis that enabled intellectuals from Iran and India to learn from each other in their modernizing projects, and to rework the literary texts of the earlier tradition into national heritage.

I hope this book will open up new avenues for future scholarship by extending the Persianate framework into the modern era, and by introducing new sources, archives, and arguments to the fields of Iranian Studies, South Asian Studies, and Persianate Studies.

About The Author

Alexander Jabbari

Alexander Jabbari is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is a literary historian working on the literature,...

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