On one level, this study of the lives of the prophets, as narrated by one of the most productive and influential mediaeval Persian historians, contains much that is familiar and easily accessible to readers belonging to the main monotheistic religions. Stories of Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea, of Jonah and the whale, Abraham’s sacrifice of Ishmael, or Joseph and Zulaykha (Potiphar’s wife), are sufficiently well known that the chief interest in reading their miracles and deeds again is to see how the Biblical narratives are retold in the Islamic tradition, with the accumulated twists of detail and interpretation that make for their complete appropriation into Muslim scholarship.
It is instructive, also, to see that these ‘stories’ are woven into a chronicle of ancient history that has prophets and kings sharing the same space; a space and a narrative that later, once the age of the prophets was over (for Muslims, Muhammad was the ‘seal of the prophets’), we see being shared by shahs and saints, or latterly, in Iran, the Shiʿi imams. The competitive but more or less comfortable accommodation between these two sources of authority – secular and spiritual – is a persistent feature of mediaeval writing and with different degrees of emphasis and intensity continues today. The fact that Hafiz-i Abru’s Majmaʿ al-tawarikh is an historical compilation, not a hagiography nor a scriptural exegesis, serves to underline the inextricable place of religion in the history of human society and thought. For a fifteenth-century chronicler such as Hafiz-i Abru, indeed, the main point of writing history was to reveal and underline the Divine plan for human life on earth. As it was, equally, for Hafiz-i Abru’s contemporaries in Christian Europe, and the sources on which he relied.
On another level, Mohamad Reza Ghiasian plunges fearlessly into the complex manuscript transmission and codicology of Hafiz-i Abru’s oeuvre. It is not enough that Hafiz-i Abru absorbed the work of his predecessors, such as Balʿami’s Persian version of Tabari’s History of the Prophets and Kings, Rashid al-Din’s Jamiʿ al-tawarikh, Nizam al-Din Shami’s Zafarnama and other texts into his own chronicle. He did so partly by inserting his own text into the incomplete manuscripts of the works of his predecessors, most specifically, in this case, the ‘universal history’ of Rashid al-Din (d. 1318). While Hafiz-i Abru’s imprint on manuscripts of the Jamiʿ al-tawarikh is well known, the precise relationship between the two chronicles still causes confusion, as evidenced by the recent printed edition of the history of the prophets discussed in the book before us now, under the authorship of Rashid al-Din, whereas in fact, it is the work of Hafiz-i Abru.
The confusion arises largely because few scholars have looked in detail at the manuscripts themselves. Dr Ghiasian’s painstaking and highly precise codicological analysis of the manuscripts not only allows a better understanding of Hafiz-i Abru’s own contributions to rewriting earlier history, but has served to identify the existence of a previously unrecognised contemporary copy of Rashid al-Din’s chronicle. Fragments of this were absorbed into Hafiz-i Abru’s editorial work on the Jamiʿ al-tawarikh in the Istanbul manuscript (H. 1653) and also into his own complete copy of the Majmaʿ al-tawarikh, which has now been dispersed throughout numerous public and private collections.
The main reason for this dispersal is that the manuscript is heavily illustrated in what has been named Shahrukh’s ‘historical style’ – with rather prosaic and simplistic characteristics, in plain primary colours and lacking the refinement of the artistic production of other fifteenth-century ateliers. This is itself is another reason for the relative neglect of the Hafiz-i Abru manuscripts – not, on the whole, seen as interesting to textual scholars (not the subject of any printed editions) or to art historians. Mistakenly, in both cases. And here again, Dr Ghiasian’s close and rigorous approach to both text and image has paid off, in identifying numerous paintings of the dispersed manuscript that were painted over the text before it was dismembered by greedy European dealers in the early twentieth century.
In short, his forensic detective work has resulted in a splendid adornment to this series. It will be an essential resource for historiographers and art historians alike in any effort to understand the meaning of history, the context of its production and way it was visualised in early fifteenth-century Iran.