Paths Crossing in Damascus: Familiarity with Persian among Eleventh/Seventeenth-Century Arabic Literati

In: Philological Encounters
Theodore S. Beers Seminar für Semitistik und Arabistik, Freie Universität Berlin Berlin Germany

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This article explores the phenomenon of familiarity with Persian among Arabic literati of the early modern period, with a focus on the eleventh/seventeenth century. It has long been recognized, in a general sense, that some scholars from the Ottoman Arab world had knowledge of Persian literature. Only recently have we seen the beginnings of detailed research on this topic. In the current article, the works of four authors are examined with an eye toward their discussion of things Persian or Iranian: Muḥammad Amīn al-Muḥibbī (d. 1111/1699), Shihāb al-Dīn al-Khafājī (d. 1069/1659), Ḥasan al-Būrīnī (d. 1024/1615), and ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/1731). We find that, although familiarity with Persian was far from unheard-of in Arabic literary circles, the degree of interest varied widely. At one extreme is al-Muḥibbī, who goes out of his way to share samples of the work of prominent Persian poets that he has translated into Arabic. Closer to the opposite end of the spectrum is al-Khafājī, of whom it is not obvious whether he could read Persian. The remaining authors fall somewhere in between. One insight that becomes clearer through this study is that Ottoman Damascus was a place in which Persian could be learned. There were enough migrants and visitors from the Persianate realm, and sufficient circulation of texts, that a scholar like al-Būrīnī could attain fluency without traveling.

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