Persian literature spans two and a half millennia, though much of the pre-Islamic material has been lost. Its sources have been within historical Persia including present-day Iran as well as regions of Central Asia where the Persian language has been the national language through history.
As one of the great literatures of mankind the Persian literature has its roots in surviving works in Old Persian or Middle Persian dating back as far as 522 BCE, the date of the earliest surviving Achaemenid inscription, the Bisotun Inscription. The bulk of the surviving Persian literature, however, comes from the times following the Islamic conquest of Persia circa 650 CE. After the Abbasids came to power (750 CE), the Persians became the scribes and bureaucrats of the Islamic empire and, increasingly, also its writers and poets.
Persians wrote both in Persian and Arabic; Persian predominated in later literary circles. Persian poets such as Sa'di, Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam are well known in the world and have influenced the literature of many countries.
Pre-Islamic Persian literature
Very few literary works survived from ancient Persia. This is partly due to the destruction of the library at Persepolis. Most of what remains consists of the royal inscriptions of Achaemenid kings, particularly Darius I (522–486 BC) and his son Xerxes. Zoroastrian writings mainly were destroyed in the Islamic conquest of Persia. The Parsis who fled to India, however, took with them some of the books of the Zoroastrian canon, including some of the Avesta and ancient commentaries (Zend) thereof. Some works of Sassanid geography and travel also survived albeit in Arabic translations.
No single text devoted to literary criticism has survived from pre-Islamic Persia. However, some essays in Pahlavi such as "Ayin-e name nebeshtan" (Principles of Writing Book) and "Bab-e edteda’I-ye" (Kalileh o Demneh) have been considered as literary criticism (Zarrinkoub, 1959).
Some researchers have quoted the Sho'ubiyye as asserting that the pre-Islamic Persians had books on eloquence, such as 'Karvand'. No trace remains of such books. There are some indications that some among the Persian elite were familiar with Greek rhetoric and literary criticism (Zarrinkoub, 1947).
Persian literature of the medieval and pre-modern periods
While initially overshadowed by Arabic during the Umayyad and early Abbasid caliphates, New Persian soon became a literary language again of the Central Asian lands. The rebirth of the language in its new form is often accredited to Ferdowsi, Unsuri, Daqiqi, Rudaki, and their generation, as they used pre-Islamic nationalism as a conduit to revive the language and customs of ancient Persia.
In particular, says Ferdowsi himself in his Shahnama:
"For thirty years, I endured much pain and strife,
with Persian I gave the Ajam verve and life".
So strong is the Persian aptitude for versifying everyday expressions that one can encounter poetry in almost every classical work, whether from Persian literature, science, or metaphysics. In short, the ability to write in verse form was a pre-requisite for any scholar. For example, almost half of Avicenna's medical writings are in verse.
Works of the early era of Persian poetry are characterized by strong court patronage, an extravagance of panegyrics, and what is known as "exalted in style". The tradition of royal patronage began perhaps under the Sassanid era and carried over through the Abbasid and Samanid courts into every major Persian dynasty. The Qasida was perhaps the most famous form of panegyric used, though quatrains such as those in Omar Khayyam's Ruba'iyyat are also widely popular.
Khorasani style, whose followers mostly were associated with Greater Khorasan, is characterized by its supercilious diction, dignified tone, and relatively literate language. The chief representatives of this lyricism are Asjadi, Farrukhi Sistani, Unsuri, and Manuchehri. Panegyric masters such as Rudaki were known for their love of nature, their verse abounding with evocative descriptions.
Through these courts and system of patronage emerged the epic style of poetry, with Ferdowsi's Shahnama at the apex. By glorifying the Iranian historical past in heroic and elevated verses, he and other notables such as Daqiqi and Asadi Tusi presented the "Ajam" with a source of pride and inspiration that has helped preserve a sense of identity for the Iranian peoples over the ages. Ferdowsi set a model to be followed by a host of other poets later on.
The thirteenth century marks the ascendancy of lyric poetry with the consequent development of the ghazal into a major verse form, as well as the rise of mystical and Sufi poetry. This style is often called "Araqi style", (western provinces of Iran were known as Araq-e-Ajam or Persian Iraq) and is known by its emotional lyric qualities, rich meters, and the relative simplicity of its language. Emotional romantic poetry was not something new however, as works such as Vis o Ramin by Asad Gorgani, and Yusof o Zoleikha by Am'aq Bokharai exemplify. Poets such as Sana'i and Attar (who ostensibly have inspired Rumi), Khaqani Shirvani, Anvari, and Nezami, were highly respected ghazal writers. However, the elite of this school are Rumi, Sadi, and Hafez.
In the didactic genre one can mention Sanai's Hadiqat-ul-Haqiqah (Garden of Truth) as well as Nezami's Makhzan-ul-Asrār (Treasury of Secrets). Some of Attar's works also belong to this genre as do the major works of Rumi, although some tend to classify these in the lyrical type due to their mystical and emotional qualities. In addition, some tend to group Naser Khosrow's works in this style as well; however the true gem of this genre is Sadi's Bustan, a heavyweight of Persian literature.
After the fifteenth century, the Indian style of Persian poetry (sometimes also called Isfahani or Safavi styles) took over. This style has its roots in the Timurid era and produced the likes of Amir Khosrow Dehlavi, and Bhai Nand Lal Goya
The most significant essays of this era are Nizami Arudhi Samarqandi's "Chahār Maqāleh" as well as Zahiriddin Nasr Muhammad Aufi's anecdote compendium Jawami ul-Hikayat. Shams al-Mo'ali Abol-hasan Ghaboos ibn Wushmgir's famous work, the Qabus nama (A Mirror for Princes), is a highly esteemed Belles-lettres work of Persian literature. Also highly regarded is Siyasatnama, by Nizam al-Mulk, a famous Persian vizier. Kelileh va Demneh, translated from Indian folk tales, can also be mentioned in this category. It is seen as a collection of adages in Persian literary studies and thus does not convey folkloric notions.
Among the major historical and biographical works in classical Persian, one can mention Abolfazl Beyhaghi's famous Tarikh-i Beyhaqi, Lubab ul-Albab of Zahiriddin Nasr Muhammad Aufi (which has been regarded as a reliable chronological source by many experts), as well as Ata al-Mulk Juvayni's famous Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i Juvaini (which spans the Mongolid and Ilkhanid era of Iran). Attar's Tadkhirat al-Awliya ("Biographies of the Saints") is also a detailed account of Sufi mystics, which is referenced by many subsequent authors and considered a significant work in mystical hagiography.
The oldest surviving work of Persian literary criticism after the Islamic conquest of Persia is Muqaddame-ye Shahname-ye Abu Mansuri, which was written in the Samanid period. The work deals with the myths and legends of Shahname and is considered the oldest surviving example of Persian prose. It also shows an attempt by the authors to evaluate literary works critically.
One Thousand and One Nights is a medieval folk tale collection which tells the story of Scheherazade, a Sassanid queen who must relate a series of stories to her malevolent husband, King Shahryar (Šahryār), to delay her execution. The stories are told over a period of one thousand and one nights, and every night she ends the story with a suspenseful situation, forcing the King to keep her alive for another day. The individual stories were created over several centuries, by many people from a number of different lands.
The nucleus of the collection is formed by a Pahlavi Sassanid Persian book called Hazār Afsānah (Thousand Myths), a collection of ancient Indian and Persian folk tales.
During the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the eighth century, Baghdad had become an important cosmopolitan city. Merchants from Persia, China, India, Africa, and Europe were all found in Baghdad. During this time, many of the stories that were originally folk stories are thought to have been collected orally over many years and later compiled into a single book. The compiler and ninth-century translator into Arabic is reputedly the storyteller Abu Abd-Allah Muhammad el-Gahshigar. The frame story of Shahrzad seems to have been added in the fourteenth century.
The influence of Persian literature on World literature
William Shakespeare referred to Iran as the "land of the Sophy". Some of Persia's best-beloved medieval poets were Sufis, and their poetry was, and is, widely read by Sufis from Morocco to Indonesia. Rumi (Maulānā) in particular is renowned both as a poet and as the founder of a widespread Sufi order. The themes and styles of this devotional poetry have been widely imitated by many Sufi poets.
Many notable texts in Persian mystic literature are not poems, yet highly read and regarded. Among those are Kimiya-yi sa'ādat and Asrar al-Tawhid.
Afghanistan and the Transoxiana can claim to be the birthplace of Modern Persian. Most of the great patrons of Persian literature such as Sultan Sanjar and the courts of the Samanids and Ghaznavids were situated in this region, as were writers such as Rudaki, Unsuri, and Ferdowsi. As such, this rich literary heritage continues to survive well into the present in countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
With the emergence of the Ghaznavids and their successors such as the Ghurids, Timurids and Mughal Empire, Persian culture and its literature gradually moved into the vast Indian subcontinent. Persian was the language of the nobility, literary circles, and the royal Mughal courts for hundreds of years. (In modern times, Persian has been generally supplanted by Urdu, a heavily Persian-influenced dialect of Hindustani.)
Under the Moghul Empire of India during the sixteenth century, the official language of India became Persian. Only in 1832 did the British army force the Indian subcontinent to begin conducting business in English. (Clawson, p.6) Persian poetry in fact flourished in these regions while post-Safavid Iranian literature stagnated. Dehkhoda and other scholars of the 20th century, for example, largely based their works on the detailed lexicography produced in India, using compilations such as Ghazi khan Badr Muhammad Dehlavi's Adat al-Fudhala Ibrahim Ghavamuddin Farughi's Farhang-i Ibrahimi, and particularly Muhammad Padshah's Farhang-i Anandraj. Famous South Asian poets and scholars such as Amir Khosrow Dehlavi, Mirza Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal of Lahore found many admirers in Iran itself.
Persian literature was little known in the West before the nineteenth century. It became much better known following the publication of several translations from the works of late medieval Persian poets, and it inspired works by various Western poets and writers.
• In 1819, Goethe published his West-östlicher Divan, a collection of lyric poems inspired by a German translation of Hafiz (1326–1390).
• The German essayist and philosopher Nietzsche was the author of the book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), referring to the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster (circa 1700 BCE).
• A selection from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (935–1020) was published in 1832 by James Atkinson, a physician employed by the British East India Company.
• A portion of this abridgment was later versified by the British poet Matthew Arnold in his 1853 Rustam and Sohrab.
• The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was another admirer of Persian poetry. He published several essays in 1876 that discuss Persian poetry: Letters and Social Aims, From the Persian of Hafiz, and Ghaselle.
Perhaps the most popular Persian poet of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Omar Khayyam (1048–1123), whose Rubaiyat was freely translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. Khayyam is esteemed more as a scientist than a poet in his native Persia, but in Fitzgerald's rendering, he became one of the most quoted poets in English. Khayyam's line, "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou", is known to many who could not say who wrote it, or where.
The Persian poet and mystic Rumi (1207–1273) (known as Molana in Iran) has attracted a large following in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Popularizing translations by Coleman Barks have presented Rumi as a New Age sage. There are also a number of more literary translations by scholars such as A.J. Arberry.
The classical poets (Hafiz, Sa'di, Khayyam, Rumi, Nezami and Ferdowsi) are now widely known in English and can be read in various translations. Other works of Persian literature are untranslated and little known.
During the last century, numerous works of classical Persian literature have been translated into Swedish by Baron Eric Hermelin. He translated works by, among others, Farid al-Din Attar, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, Sa'adi and Sana'i. Influenced by the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, he was especially attracted to the religious or Sufi aspects of classical Persian poetry.
More recently Rumi, Hafiz, Fakhruddin 'Iraqi and Nizami Aruzi are available in translation by Ashk Dahlén, scholar in Iranian Studies, who has made Persian literature known to a wider audience in Sweden.
During the last century, numerous works of classical Persian literature have been translated into Italian by Alessandro Bausani (Nizami, Rumi, Iqbal, Khayyam), Carlo Saccone ('Attar, Sana'i, Hafiz, Nasir-i Khusraw, Nizami, Ahmad Ghazali), Angelo Piemontese (Amir Khusraw Dihlavi), Pio Filippani-Ronconi (Nasir-i Khusraw, Sa'di), Riccardo Zipoli (Kay Ka'us, Bidil), Maurizio Pistoso (Nizam al-Mulk), Giorgio Vercellin (Nizami 'Aruzi), Giovanni Maria D'Erme ('Ubayd Zakani, Hafiz), Sergio Foti (Suhrawardi, Rumi, Jami), Rita Bargigli (Sa'di, Farrukhi, Manuchehri, 'Unsuri). A complete translation of Firdawsi's Shah-nama was made by Italo Pizzi in XIX century.
Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi