The Introduction to Mohammad-Taqi Bahār’s Sabkshenāsi: A Translation

In: Journal of Persianate Studies
Alexander Jabbari Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

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Mohammad-Taqi Bahār’s 1942 textbook Sabkshenāsi (“Stylistics”) was a landmark text in modern Persian literary studies. It coined terms (like sabk-e Hendi or the “Indian style” of Persian poetry) and laid out a tripartite, geographical-temporal model for the history of Persian poetry which largely remain dominant today. Bahār’s articulation of a national canon of Iranian literature (comprising writings in various stages of the Persian language as well as Arabic) made Sabkshenāsi an important text not only for the nascent department of Persian literature at the University of Tehran for which it was written, but for twentieth-century Iranian nationalism in general. By combining traditional forms of knowledge with the methodologies pioneered by European Orientalists, it played an important role in modernizing Persian literary studies. The influential introduction to Sabkshenāsi is translated here into English in full for the first time, along with a preface explaining the work’s importance for Persian literary studies.


Mohammad-Taqi Bahār’s 1942 textbook Sabkshenāsi (“Stylistics”) was a landmark text in modern Persian literary studies. It coined terms (like sabk-e Hendi or the “Indian style” of Persian poetry) and laid out a tripartite, geographical-temporal model for the history of Persian poetry which largely remain dominant today. Bahār’s articulation of a national canon of Iranian literature (comprising writings in various stages of the Persian language as well as Arabic) made Sabkshenāsi an important text not only for the nascent department of Persian literature at the University of Tehran for which it was written, but for twentieth-century Iranian nationalism in general. By combining traditional forms of knowledge with the methodologies pioneered by European Orientalists, it played an important role in modernizing Persian literary studies. The influential introduction to Sabkshenāsi is translated here into English in full for the first time, along with a preface explaining the work’s importance for Persian literary studies.

Translator’s Preface

Mohammad-Taqi Bahār (1886–1951) was a prominent Iranian politician, poet-laureate (malek al-shoʿarā), journalist, educator, and literary scholar. His three-volume Sabkshenāsi, yā Tārikh-e tatavvor-e nasr-e Fārsi (Stylistics, or The History of the Development of Persian Prose, 1942) was a landmark in modern Persian philology. As an excellent overview of Sabkshenāsi is available in the Encyclopædia Iranica (Smith 2010), the aim of this preface is to communicate briefly the importance of Sabkshenāsi for Persian literary studies, focusing on the introduction itself.

First published in 1942 as a textbook for the nascent doctoral program in Persian literature at the University of Tehran, Sabkshenāsi traces developments in the prose literature of Iran, from pre-Islamic Iranian languages to New Persian, up to and including the Persian prose of the nineteenth century under the Qajars. Its pedagogical aim is to train students to identify Persian manuscripts from various periods, as well as to edit and correct scribal mistakes. Sabkshenāsi is a foundational text for modern Persian literary studies. The book’s introduction is particularly important because it lays out Bahār’s understanding of style and stylistics, placing the latter within a genealogy of the “new sciences (ʿolum-e jadid)” that combined the strengths of traditional learning with the innovative methodologies of European Orientalism. Sabkshenāsi draws from the premodern Persian literary tradition, but also breaks with that tradition by offering a history of Iranian literature which brings Old Persian, Middle Persian, and New Persian literatures (along with some Arabic writings by Iranians) together into a single national canon.1 For this reason, Ahmadi argues (149) that it is “a seminal text in what may be called the disciplinary emergence of Persian literature as a national institution” (original emphasis). As such, it is also an important document for the study of twentieth-century Iranian nationalism.

Modern Persian literary studies owes much of its terminology to Sabkshenāsi, and in particular to the text’s introduction. The book popularized the term sabk (style), largely replacing older terms like tarz. Bahār’s understanding of style is modern: writers in the premodern tazkera (biographical anthology) tradition had occasionally remarked on the style of individual poets, but Bahār observes diachronic literary developments over a larger scale (Haag-Higuchi, 25). He links his usage of sabk to the word “style” in French and other European languages, defining it as “a special manner of conceiving and expressing thoughts through the composition of words and the choice and manner of expression” (Bahār, dāl). Bahār coined the neologism sabkshenāsi (stylistics) in an analogy with the Persian names of other emerging modern disciplines, such as mardomshenāsi (anthropology) and bāstānshenāsi (archeology). This term has endured in the Persian academic lexicon, and today it can be seen not only in the titles of numerous studies of the stylistics of prose and poetry, but in other domains as well, such as studies of art, architecture, calligraphy, music, and other subjects.

While Sabkshenāsi concerns itself with Persian prose, the introduction also deals with Persian poetry. It takes the traditional tripartite division of Persian poetry into temporal periods—qodamāʾ or motaqaddemin (ancient poets), motavassetin (intermediates), and motaʾakhkherin (recent ones)—and adds a geographic dimension, reconceptualizing them as the sabk-e Khorāsāni (Khorasani style), sabk-e ʿErāqi (Iraqi style), and sabk-e Hendi (Indian style), while also identifying a fourth period, the bāzgasht-e adabi (Literary Return). His model remains dominant today, and his coinages like sabk-e Hendi and bāzgasht-e adabi have spawned a veritable cottage industry of academic debate around the merits or demerits of these terms and, more broadly, of Bahār’s framework.2 These terms have even made their way into popular Persian monolingual dictionaries, such as that of Moʿin (828). The influence of Sabkshenāsi in the field of Persian literary studies can hardly be overstated. Yusofi remarked (84) in 1984 that no book had yet been written that could take its place. Bahār’s influence, in Yusofi’s view, could even be seen in the introductions to most critical editions of Persian prose. As a reference, it is nearly universally cited in works on Persian literary history, historiography, and criticism. Karimi-Hakkak describes (457) Sabkshenāsi as having instantly become a model for literary studies and changing the very methodology of literary research.

This work has never been translated into another language,3 and because the introduction to Sabkshenāsi is so frequently referenced in Persian literary studies, it deserves a translation accessible to scholars of Persian literature working in English, for ease of quoting and citation. Furthermore, this translation might be useful to scholars of adjacent fields such as Arabic, Turkish, or Urdu literatures. Modernizing intellectuals throughout the Islamicate world (and elsewhere) sought, as Bahār did, to reconcile traditional approaches to the study of literature with the methodologies and forms of knowledge produced by European Orientalism. Therefore, Bahār’s Sabkshenāsi may be fruitful for comparative study, and I hope that this introduction can serve to foster such comparison.

Notes on the Translation

As perhaps benefitting a work on stylistics, with its careful attention to language, in my translation I have cleaved close to the original, taking few liberties in hopes of retaining something of the author’s style in English. Bahār’s prose was erudite and concise, though he occasionally employed flowery turns of phrase. He also made ample use of parallelism, the repetition of synonyms (like “writers and authors” or “grew and expanded”) which is a common feature of Persian prose. Because this adds little for the English reader, I have departed from my methodology of close translation by reducing these parallelisms when appropriate, so as to avoid redundancy. In his discussion of the history of stylistics, Bahār has cited a few lines of poetry and alembicated prose which are full of rhetorical devices. I have simply attempted to render the literal meaning of this poetry, as the allusions and double-entendres cannot be translated.

I have strived, to the degree possible, to translate key Persian terms consistently with the same English words each time, so that sabk (a term Bahār used with some degree of precision) always appears as “style,” and sabkshenāsi as “stylistics.” Accordingly, I have also rendered the following Persian words, all ultimately deriving from the same Arabic root aduba, as follows: adab “letters,” adabiyāt “literature,” ādāb “rituals,” adib “litterateur,” odabāʾ “literati,” adabi “literary.” Bahār used the words surat and shekl interchangeably, so I have generally translated both as “form.” I have also endeavored to avoid leaving words untranslated, except where the range of meaning is too great to be captured accurately and succinctly with a single English word, as in the case of hekmat.4

Footnotes in the translation are from the original text. Wherever possible, I have added full names and years of life for poets and historical figures referenced in the text. Short headings for sections have also been added throughout.


I wish to thank Shahla Farghadani and Aria Fani for their valuable input, as well as the anonymous reviewers and D Gershon Lewental, whose extensive and edifying feedback much improved this translation.


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Stylistics (Sabkshenāsi), or The History of the Development of Persian Prose: The Author’s Introduction

1. [Introduction]

The more that development flourishes, the number of books and readers increases, and the more readers there are, the more writers there are. All these advancements cause the domain of science to progress and expand, and every science grows according to its own capacity. Through the innovations and inspirations of scholars, the scope of the sciences and the arts expands. Day by day, human knowledge increases, to such an extent that science books are updated once every few years.

It is well known that with regard to the progress of civilization, humanity is in that stage of youth when every day it grows taller and its current clothes are too short and ill-fitted for future years and every year it needs a new tunic suitable for its body.

This advancement is also enforced in our country for today the world is interconnected in such a way that the movement of one side necessarily causes the other side to move, as well—therefore we see that in Iran, too, scientific and literary advancement and progress are now visible.

One of the main movements that has appeared in the world of Persian letters is the establishment of the faculty and doctoral studies of Persian literature, and indeed the establishment of the university, which was one of the triumphs of the last quarter-century in Iran. It shook up all of the sciences and the arts, especially literature, which was particularly affected.

2. [The Pillars of the Persian Language]

Until thirty or forty years ago, Persian literature had no more than two pillars: one, the principles of the Arabic language; the other, studies of Persian-language texts and learning the imperfect grammar of the language and the history of its words. When these two pillars of knowledge were combined with fresh talent, taste, and natural intelligence, an extraordinary poet or a worthy clerk would emerge after years of practice, especially when some garnish from the rational and the transmitted sciences, or a taste of Sufism and mysticism, was also added.

3. [The Development of Iranian Studies]

Beginning a century ago, the history of the East was transformed through reading inscriptions; the spread of Greco-Roman histories; the printing and publication of ancient Arab histories such as the histories of Abu Jaʿfar Mohammad b. Jarir Tabari (839–923), Abu’l-Hasan ʿAli b. Hoseyn Masʿudi (c. 890–956), Ahmad b. Abi Yaʿqub Yaʿqubi (d. 897), and Abu Hanifa Ahmad b. Davud Dināvari (d. 895), among others; and facilitated by the excavations and science of archaeology.

The Europeans became interested in the study of the sciences and literatures of the East and the Easterners came into contact with the Orientalists, especially since the time when the French scholar Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731–1805) published his edition of the Avesta. The study of the Avesta and Zand in the Western world became its own subject, and [European scholars] ultimately cracked the code of the Pahlavi language and also translated the Avesta.

These studies also added to the extensive historical studies that we have described above, and within a period of fifty to sixty years all of these studies and efforts became a science of its own, which they called “Iranian studies.”

Iranian studies also developed two pillars: (1) familiarity with the literature, history, and arts of Iran itself according to the old tradition; and (2) familiarity with the Persian literature and arts and accurate pre-Islamic history of the Medes, Achæmenids, Ashkanids, and Sasanians, according to Arabic and Western sources. The latter entailed becoming conversant with the Avesta, Zand, and Pazand and learning the ancient Iranian languages and scripts; becoming acquainted with the Mazdæan rituals, Zoroaster, and the Manichaeans; acquiring knowledge of the roots of the New Persian (Dari) language and Middle Persian, the language of Saʿdi Shirāzi (1210–91/2), and the rest of the branches of the Iranian languages; understanding of the customs and traditions of the art of the ancient Iranians and the three or four religious estates; comprehension of archaic words and comparing them with the words of the Dari language; and the rest of the necessities of Iranian studies, the principles of which we have described in the first volume of this book.

Until fifty years ago, the Iranian literati (odabāʾ) were only familiar with the first pillar of Iranian studies and the historians (other than a few of the learned5) were only aware of the traditional approach and uninformed of the second one. By contrast, the Orientalists were aware of the new approach and uninformed of the old one. In fact, our literati, writers, and men of science and letters, as well as the Orientalists, each did not know Iran in one respect, and this deficiency still remains on both sides despite the countless efforts that the Iranian and European scholars and literati have made over the last century.

4. [The New Study of Iranian Literature]

In sum, Iranian literature has grown significantly. Today, nobody using the old literary tools can any longer be called a “litterateur (adib)” in its true sense— unless they are aware of all the new and old research and know Iran with respect to its history, language, customs, arts, verse, prose, distinguished men, and books; and, to be fair, learning all this knowledge—some of which has not been translated into New Persian or compiled into books—is a difficult task.

In the last twenty years, this aspect has been examined for the first time. Some books were translated from European languages into Persian and a school for the teaching of ancient Iranian languages, rituals, and history was founded in Tehran under the supervision of the German Professor Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948). In the end, these issues were taught in the Faculty of Literature by way of pamphlets and lectures and, as a result of these efforts, a number of young students of letters recognized that there is even more necessary knowledge to be obtained in the Persian language.

5. [Stylistics and the Term sabk]

Stylistics (sabkshenāsi): one of the Persian literary arts, of which the Orientalists and Iranians were unfortunately unaware until recently, was also considered by the literati in the past century. The technique of “stylistics” had not emerged as a scientific subject until lately and was only discussed verbally by individuals, or sometimes in the introductions of some tazkeras or else in literary circles.

Sabk in the Arabic language refers to the melting and molding of gold and silver and sabika (ingot) means “a melted piece of silver” (Bostāni; Safipur; Qarshi), but the literati of the past century have used sabk figuratively to mean “a particular mode of composing poetry or prose” and have made it approximately equivalent to the way Europeans use “style.”

Style in the European languages is derived from the Greek stylos, meaning “pillar,” and in literary usage and terminology it is applied to a manner of expression which should be studied according to the distinguishing characteristics which relate to the analogous fine arts—as well as to a manner of writing which should be recognized by its own distinguishing properties.

Stylos in Greek referred to a metallic, wooden, or ivory instrument with which people in ancient times carved letters and words on wax tablets (Encyclopædia Britannica)—and which today Iranians call “qalam (pen or brush)” with which one paints on paper, walls, cloth, or tablets. Like “style,” they mean something similar to “sabk” and they say: “So-and-so has a good qalam” meaning their style of writing is good. However, this meaning is only used regarding “prose,” not verse, as “qalam” cannot be applied to verse, for which one must say: “They have a good sabk” or “They have a good technique (shiva).”

Sabk in literary terminology is a special manner of conceiving and expressing thoughts through the composition of words and the choice and manner of expression. Sabk infuses a literary work with its own special mode in terms of form and meaning. And that too, in turn, is connected to the speaker or writer’s manner of thinking about “reality.”

Thus, in its general meaning, sabk is the literary realization of a kind of conception (conception) in the world which delineates the main characteristics of its own product (a work of poetry or prose).

6. [The Distinction between Style (sabk) and Genre (nowʿ)]

In literary usage, genre and style must not be confused with one another, for genre is the literary form the speaker or writer gives their own work. For example, in European literature they distinguish between dramatic genres (les genres dramatiques) and comedic genres (les genres comiques)—thus the external form of a literary work is considered part of genre—but with style, it is the general disposition (caractère) of the poet or writer’s work, with respect to the subject and the impact of the environment upon it, that is discussed; therefore style considers thought as well as its distinctive aspect, and also the manner of expression, whereas genre merely describes the manner of composition.

With this introduction, it should be understood that style and genre cannot do without one another; instead, the two are inseparable, for each literary work is considered a part of a literary genre and at the same time also has a style. For example, in Persian literature, Saʿdi’s Golestān (Rose-Garden, 1258) is held commonly to fall in the genre of “treatise-writing” together with Hamid al-Din Abu Bakr Balkhi (d. 1164)’s Maqāmāt-e Hamidi (Hamidi’s Assemblies, 1156), but it differs in style, just as the qasidas of ʿOrfi Shirāzi (1555–91) share the genre of “poetry” with the qasidas of Abu’l-Qāsem Hasan ʿOnsori (c. 961–1039), but both are distinct in terms of style.

7. Meaning and Form

Having said that style is the manner of understanding truths and expressing them, now let us say that the expression and description of any affair depend upon the manner of thinking of the individual who observes it. For example, imagine that a painter, a villager, an engineer, and an automobile driver are passing through a road that has been built in the middle of a farm. The painter is only captivated by the beauty of nature and its remarkable landscape; the villager only pays attention to the corn and the type of soil in which they grow wheat; the engineer concentrates on sketching a map of the land, roadways, bridges, and nearby buildings; and the automobile driver looks from side to side and does not focus on anything but the nature of the ground and its hills and slopes.

Now, if each of these four people wanted to set their observations down in writing it is evident that they would only write based on their own perceptions, thus making the relationship between the manner of observation and the manner of description quite obvious.

Now, let us say that style contains two subjects: thought/meaning and form. By observing the outside world, a thought is produced inside us, and that is an example of the influence of the environment on the individual. We make that thought conform with our own previous convictions and express that very aspect of our thought to our audience, and this is an example of the influence of the individual on the environment.

Every subject and thought needs a form and mold for expression. The readers of a literary work obtain the meaning of the speaker through study and familiarity with the form of the work. Thought is hidden within sentences and cannot be expressed separately—thus in literature the subject itself is considered part of form and cannot ever be separate from it. On the other hand, the subject or main idea of a literary work designates its form, and it is this very unity of thought or meaning and form which makes up the foundation of style.

8. The Extent and Coverage of Stylistics

The knowledge that discusses the course of all the different styles of a language is called “stylistics.”

Stylistics cannot be conceived of as an independent, distinct knowledge; on the contrary, it should be considered a discipline composed of different arts and sciences. Knowing them all, together with a series of careful research, comprises the aforementioned discipline, and the most important of that knowledge is as follows:

I. Hekmat (Knowledge) and the Sciences

From the above it has become evident that the style of each writer or speaker indicates their manner of perceiving the outside world (la conception du monde) and, as “everyone sees the world through the window of their own eyes,” in studying their style we, too, should recreate for ourselves that same intellectual environment—to that end, we should obtain information from the following sciences:

A. Religious Studies (ʿelm al-adyān)

Undoubtedly, the writer and speaker come, intentionally or unintentionally, under the influence of their own religious ideas. For example, to study the poetry of Nāser-e Khosrow (d. c. 1061) and Nezāri Qohestāni (1247–1321), we certainly must obtain information about the principles of the Ismaʿili sect.

B. Philosophy and Mysticism (falsafa va ʿerfān)

The philosophical environment of the poet or writer influences their spirit. For example, in studying Saʿdi’s Golestān or the Divān of Shams al-Din Mohammad Hāfez Shirāzi (c. 1315–90), we must become inevitably familiar with the philosophical and mystical environment of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (seventh and eighth centuries AH).

C. The Sciences

In writing, every author comes under the influence of their own knowledge—it is evident that in order to uncover the allusions of a literary work of poetry or prose, one must first seek out information about the sciences with which the poet was familiar. For example, for information about the style of Owhad al-Din Anvari (d. 1189 or 1191), one must become acquainted with the sciences of medicine, astronomy, and arithmetic that were prevalent in the twelfth century (sixth century AH).

D. General History

To understand the intellectual environment of a poet or prose-writer, one should become familiar with the political, social, and scientific history of their time.

II. Literary Arts

The ancients and the moderns disagree on the number of literary arts, and in studying the styles the following is incumbent upon us:

A. Persian Grammar

It is evident that part of the distinction between styles becomes apparent with the use of particular grammatical rules.

B. Rhetoric (maʿāni va bayān)

Part of the stylistic specifics of poets and writers can be seen in the use of rhetorical or literary devices (sanāyeʿ-e lafzi yā maʿnavi).

C. Poetry Criticism and Prose Criticism

In order to distinguish between correct and incorrect trends in prose and poetry styles across the centuries, one should be acquainted with the rules of criticism.

D. The Science of Rhyme (Particular to Verse)

This is necessary for understanding the correct and incorrect manner of using rhymes and their changes throughout literary history.

E. Prosody (Particular to Verse)

This is necessary for understanding the meter of poems—distinguishing between correct and incorrect—and the correction of poems.

F. The History of Literature

This is necessary because there is a close relationship between the history of literature and stylistics and each one complements the other.

9. The History of Stylistics

Stylistics in its true sense has had no precedent in Iran. The first traces of this science can be seen extremely faintly in tazkeras. In the biography of a poet, and occasionally a [prose] writer, the biographers indulge in rhetorical language full of figures of speech about the distinguishing aspect of the poet’s style, ending with exaggerated praise of the poet. For example: Mohammad ʿOwfi (1171–1242) writes in Lobāb al-albāb (The Piths of Intellects)6 about Abu ʿAbdollāh Mohammad b. Hoseyn Maʿrufi Balkhi (fl. tenth century):

Maʿrufi is famous for his bewitching poetry, and for his eloquence. His poetry is like seeing friends in the courtyard of a garden, or the revelation of angelic beloveds to their plighted lovers.7

ʿOWFI, II, 16

and regarding Shahriyāri Khorāsāni (fl. second half of the twelfth century), he writes:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

In the event that the author also wants to comment on the style of a poet or writer, they would content themselves with mentioning generalities like “many people believe that Afzal al-Din Khāqāni (d. 1186–99)’s style of writing was the apogee and after him no one has crafted such tightly-woven verses” or “their quatrains, which have a taste of the subtleties of nature, have spread across the world.” Dowlatshāh Samarqandi (1438–94) imitated ʿOwfi in his Tazkerat al-shoʿarā (Memorial of Poets, 1486) and the writers of later tazkeras imitated both of them and essentially added nothing. At most what they did was to introduce the type of poetry of a limited group and rarely can the authors of the tazkeras be seen to discuss the particular style of a poet, as ʿOwfi has occasionally done, such as what he says about ʿOnsori:

And the poetry of ʿOnsori has the standard of eloquence and prowess, precision of meaning is combined with tender insight.

ʿOWFI, II, 320

Regarding Abu’l-Hasan ʿAli Farrokhi Sistāni (d. 1030s), he says:

His poetry is pleasant and meaningful; firstly he endeavored in the art of speech and the precision of meaning and therein surpassed his peers, and ultimately he delivered speech that appeared simple but was impossible to imitate.

ʿOWFI, I, 45

Rashid al-Din Vatvāt (d. 1182) also occasionally started to mention the style of various poets but to such a brief extent that no more benefit can be derived from it.

Neither have the ancient poets themselves discussed poetic style much in the sense that we want. Sometimes they spoke of the “art” of some poet or the “manner” of some poem—as Abu Hanifa Eskāfi (fl. second half of the eleventh century) says about ʿOnsori:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

By “this one art,” he certainly means the art of qasida-writing which perhaps also considers the poet’s style and manner of expression. Regarding ʿOnsori, Khāqāni also says:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

From this poem, as well, it is apparent that by “mode (shiva),” Khāqāni did not mean “style (sabk)” in our terminology, but the poem’s “genre (nowʿ),” for we saw that he has counted “ascetism,” “philosophy,” and “preaching” as “modes.” Nevertheless, he points to a new style.

And this poem by Khāqāni is of the last sort:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

In this fragmentary poem (qetʿa), Khāqāni undoubtedly refers to those poets who wrote poetry in his style and manner, not those who have written ascetic qasidas, autobiographical poems, or other kinds of poetry. We can also see style in the last sense in one of the couplets of Nezāmi Ganjavi (1141–1209):


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

This poem by Nezāmi also undoubtedly points to style and manner.

Likewise, we know from Mohammad b. ʿAli Rāvandi (fl. 1202) that, in the twelfth century (sixth century AH), Seyyed Ashraf al-Din b. Nāser ʿAlavi (d. 1169–70) entered Hamadan, toured the schools, and prohibited the young poets from following the style of the ancient poets (Rāvandi, 57–58).

The main reason that we seldom encounter “style” in ancient poetry in the meaning and sense of today’s taste is that the styles of the Samanid, Ghaznavid, and Saljuq eras developed gradually and, in the meantime, an innovator, whose modifications are completely obvious, has not been found. Therefore no one has been aware of “style” and its importance, but from the time of Khāqāni and Nezāmi onward, many of their innovations and, afterwards, of others have been witnessed in poetry, so it is not surprising if the new manner and style of poetry has become an object of interest since the time of Khāqāni and Nezāmi.

From the age of the Safavids on, we encounter the substance of the meaning of “style” in tazkera works. In the tazkera by Mohammad Tāher Nasrābādi (fl. 1618–80), we repeatedly encounter it in the sense of: “some poet follows the poetry of the ancients,” or: “so-and-so is more inclined towards the style of Sāʾeb Tabrizi (c. 1592–1676),” and other expressions like these, and we become cognizant of the fact that in that era, those familiar with poetry understood the meaning of “style.”

In particular, “style” is even more clearly stated in the tazkera, Ātashkada-ye Āzar (The Fire-Temple of Āzar, 1760) by Āzar Bigdeli (fl. 1721–81), who frequently mentions the “manner of the ancients (tariqa-ye motaqaddemin),” as he says about Seyyed Mohammad Tabib Shoʿla Esfahāni (d. 1810–11): “none of the later poets has been more familiar with the manner of the greatest of the eloquent ancients than the aforementioned Seyyed [Shoʿla].” In his biography of Mirzā Ebrāhim Safā he writes thus: “If he were familiar with the manner of the ancients, he would have been counted among the poets.” Sometimes they also expressed “style” with the words tarz (form) or adā (eloquence), and these two words have been used more among the poets of India.

In the eighteenth century (twelfth century AH), Moshtāq Esfahāni (c. 1689–1757), one of the poets of Esfahan, dedicated himself to countering the manner of the poets of India. According to Āzar8 and ʿAbd al-Razzāq Beyg Donboli (1762/3–1827/8),9 known as Maftun (“Infatuated”), he was the first person who wrote poetry in the manner of the ancient poets, giving it currency, in protest of the insipid style of Mirzā Mohammad-Tāher Vahid Qazvini (d. c. 1700) and Sāʾeb Tabrizi.

In the introduction to his Majmaʿ al-fosahā (Assembly of the Eloquent, 1871), the late Rezā-Qoli Khān Hedāyat (1800–71), too, repeated the terms: tarz, tariqa (manner), siyāq (order), sabk, and shiva with the same meaning as in the subject at hand [i.e., style] (idem, I, 6–7). It is in his book that we first encounter the word “sabk.”

As a result of this research, it becomes apparent that, after the shift from the Iraqi poetic style (sabk-e ʿErāqi) to the Indian style (sabk-e Hendi), which took place in the Safavid period, the scholars and critics realized that the manner of poetry had become distinct from ancient times. From the context of Nasrābādi’s discourse, as well as that of others, the sense arises that, during this time—generally, the Safavid era and, specifically, the reigns of Shāh ʿAbbās II (r. 1642–66) and Shāh Soleymān (r. 1666–94)—there had been poets who did not take to the Indian style and were more inclined towards the style of the old masters. This method gained strength in the time of Shāh Soltān-Hoseyn (r. 1694–1722), Nāder Shāh Afshār (r. 1736–47), and the Zand dynasty of the second half of the eighteenth century; the Indian style came to be criticized and abandoned and the style and manner of the ancients desired and esteemed. In the Qajar era, this “Literary Return (bāzgasht-e adabi)” gained strength and the old style and manner of past poets from the time of the Khvārazm-shāhs, Saljuqs, and Ghaznavids became popular, as Hedāyat made clear in the introduction to his Majmaʿ al-fosahā. The works of the poets of that period themselves are also undeniable evidence.

Despite all this precedent, the study of “style (sabk)” or in our terminology “stylistics (sabkshenāsi)” in that period had not yet become the subject of general attention, and this science, whose seed was planted [over] a century ago in the womb of the Safavid epoch, passed through the beginning of its infancy and nursing stage. Indeed, it was in active use and practice but, like all the sciences and arts that were merely practical at the outset and later became regulated, codified, and subject to rules, this science also prepared its preliminary steps of self-creation in the arena of the nature and taste of the masters.

Research on ancient poetry done by Sorush Esfahāni (1813–68), Abu Nasr Fathollāh Khān Sheybāni (d. 1890–1), Mahmud Khān Sabā (1813–93), and the Sabā family [grandfather Fath-ʿAli Khān Sabā (d. 1822–23), son Mohammad-Hoseyn Khān ʿAndalib] reached perfection. [The latter’s grandson,] Mirzā Mohammad Nadim Bāshi (fl. 1893–1908), the brother of Mahmud Khān, who used the pseudonym “Khojasta (Auspicious),” settled in Khorasan. In the middle of the reign of Nāser al-Din Shāh (r. 1848–96), in the 1880s (turn of the fourteenth century AH), a literary circle of the adherents of the “Torkestāni style” was formed there in the city of Mashhad.10

Before that, in practice, a middle style [between the Iraqi and Khorasani styles] had also come into being with the publication by Qāʾāni (the pen-name of Mirzā Habibollāh Shirāzi, 1808–54) of his Divān in Iraq (western Iran) and Khorasan, and all the poets of Khorasan wrote poetry in the manner of Qāʾāni. However, the later masters criticized that style and popularized the true Khorasani style with its delicacy and elegance—and this debate and criticism was taught in Mashhad by Nadim Bāshi.

As a result of this, some poets renounced Qāʾāni’s style, which was a half-Torkestāni and half-Iraqi style, and moved toward a new style. Among those poets were the late Mohammad-Kāzem Saburi (1853/4–1904/5), Mohammad Hoseyn Safā Esfahāni (1852–1904), Adib Nishāburi (1860s–1926), Seyyed Ahmad Adib Pishāvari (c. 1844–1930), and others. Saburi, in addition to his connection with the Sabā family [as a nephew of Fath-ʿAli Khān Sabā], also enjoyed the privilege of being Nadim Bāshi’s pupil. In this way, education in “stylistics,” of which school the Sabā family in Tehran were masters, also became prevalent in the Saburi family—and the present author [Bahār], who is Saburi’s son, learned this subject at his father’s side and afterwards studied for a long time under Adib Nishāburi and Seyd ʿAli-Khān Dargazi (c. 1855–1917). After coming to the capital (Tehran), he [Bahār] published this discussion in the local press, especially in Majalla-ye dāneshkada (The Faculty Review) and in the literary society of the same name.

10. [The Circumstances Leading to This Book]

The above history only concerns poetry, but with regard to prose, discussion and criticism on this subject has never been heard or read because a chapter on prose in the history of the literature of Iran has never been composed until now, and all that has been written and said is in connection to poetry and a fortiori discussion and criticism of the style of Persian prose has never been put into practice.

This was the state of the practical course and debates which passed from person to person without any proper order or system among the literati of Iran. The literary society and those enamored by the sweet language of Persian were still deprived of the quality of that science (viz., stylistics). Nothing to do with it was taught in schools, whether old or new, and, when the issue was occasionally mentioned by a teacher or professor, it was just a slight, unsystematic notion about the style of poetry and nothing more—until 1930–1 (1309–10 Sh.), when the present author unveiled this historic discovery for the first time over the course of a lecture that extended for several months in the Anjoman-e adabi (Literary Society).11

Since then, a discussion of “stylistics” has arisen. Debate on the Khorasani, Iraqi, and Indian styles and the Literary Return has emerged among enthusiasts and the youth who had not grasped the contributions of the old masters, but still this debate and criticism did not exceed the sphere of poetry.

In 1933–34/1312, during the time when the present author had been sentenced to exile and detention in Esfahan, a compendium concerning the transformation of the Persian language, the circumstances of changes in the language from ancient times until today, the state of Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Dari (New Persian) prose, and the long development of this language was given to the magazine Bākhtar (The East). A year later (1934–35/1313), the present author settled in Tehran when the aforementioned predicament came to an end. The next year, the Ministry of Culture invited the author to lecture for a few hours at the Teachers’ Training College. During one of those hours, the science of “stylistics” was suggested for the first time by means of a pamphlet titled “The History of the Development and Transformation of Persian Poetry and Prose (Tārikh-e tatavvor va tahavvol-e nazm va nasr-e Fārsi),” and these lectures continued for several successive years.

In 1937–38/1316, the Ministry of Culture considered establishing a doctoral program in Persian literature. In the end, it was decided that a two-year period of doctoral courses would be taught. It was deemed appropriate that the history of the development and transformation of Persian poetry and prose, which had yielded good results and was briefly taught in the Faculty of Literature, would be taught in greater detail. The present author was also granted the honor of teaching two periods of courses by means of pamphlets and lectures.

In 1939–40/1318, the Ministry of Culture concluded that it would be beneficial to have Sabkshenāsi (Stylistics) composed and compiled into a special book, taking into consideration a newer arrangement and a simpler system for these lessons, which could be useful both for the learned community in general and, especially, for college and doctoral students. This humble servant, who did not have the means for this grand service, was nominated, and they asked that prose and poetry each be researched and discussed separately and that prose be given priority over poetry.

This humble servant, who always wished for the opportunity to accomplish such a grand service, dedicated himself wholeheartedly to this service. By the grace of the almighty Creator, within two years he accomplished this order with much enthusiasm and great effort and presented to the Persian-speaking community the three volumes of the book Sabkshenāsi, which are a selection of the finest aspects of thirty years of pupilage, research, investigation, study, and teaching.

11. The Rules of Stylistics

Stylistics is a science that came into existence in these last few years as a result of the progress of the Persian language and the care of the state and the people for the propagation of this language, and some small samples of that can occasionally be seen in the margins and introductions of printed books which have been revised in a new manner with scientific research by the erudite literati.

This science—aside from familiarizing literature students with old and new books, and introducing the writers and masters of Persian prose, the history of books, and the biographies of the authors of each book, which is itself a separate science—also has other uses. These include becoming acquainted with ancient Iranian history, civilization, and customs, and the list of old languages, scripts, and dialects; understanding the connections between today and yesterday; and the series of events and development of the way of life of the people of this region, which is itself a service to the history of this country. Most importantly, its advantage is familiarizing the students with the morphology and syntax of Persian languages such as Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Dari (New Persian), enabling people to understand the ancient words and expressions and learn the manner of writing of each period. It also establishes the difference between the writings of each period and the periods before and after it and introduces the ability to read different texts and various kinds of prose from ancient times and the middle ages, as well as identifying beauty and ugliness in prose and understanding the causes of prose’s progress and decline in each period. The total result of these studies is the perfection of Persian literacy and the ability of students to adopt pleasant styles and avoid the abundant errors and awkwardness that have deprived Persian prose of its beautiful appearance and natural elegance.

Considering that this science (i.e., stylistics) studies the development of words, learning it enriches students by familiarizing them with the origin and root of many words, so that, if they are endowed with intelligence and verve, a new door to Persian philology is opened to them. If one day they should happen to enter that science (i.e., philology), their entrance would be easy, for its path is quite close.

As the lexicographic terminology, usage, phraseology, and proverbs of each period and century are discussed in this science, students who learn stylistics will be able to avoid making mistakes when rectifying an old book, develop the ability to make sound comparisons, and thereby avoid incorrect changes which have been the cause of much deterioration and corruption of old books. For this purpose, we cite just two examples, one from Abu’l-Fazl Beyhaqi (995–1077)’s history and the other from Saʿdi’s Golestān.

In the Tehran edition of Tārikh-e Beyhaqi (Beyhaqi’s History), there is a passage that reads as follows:

Amir Mahmud [Ghaznavi, r. 998–1030] attempted to conquer Rey and between the amirs Masʿud [I, r. 1030–40] and Mohammad [r. 1030–30, 1040–41] a suitable agreement was reached—that day, [Mahmud] named Amir Mohammad the “Amir of Khorasan” and they requested a horse for the Amir of Khorasan and he [Mahmud] went back to Khorasan and Nishapur.

BEYHAQI 1889/1307, 126

In the Kolkata edition, the same passage has been recorded thusly:

Amir Mahmud attempted to conquer Rey and between his amirs and children Masʿud and Mahmud a suitable agreement was reached—that day, Amir Mohammad did not have a horse in the court, they requested a horse for the Amir of Khorasan and he went back to Nishapur.

BEYHAQI 1862, 148

If someone reads the two different editions and reaches the phrase “that day, …,” which is one way in one edition and, in the other, the phrase “named … the ‘Amir of Khorasan’” is missing and “did not have a horse in the court” has been added, what should they do? How should they resolve this problem?

If they are familiar with the science of stylistics, they will know that the edition printed in Tehran is correct and the Kolkata edition is corrupted, and that the removal and addition are due to an untrained copyist or proofreader. For they would know that, at that time, “requesting a horse in court” had been a mark of distinction, rank, honor, and status when it was granted by a king to someone, and there was great honor and status in giving the order, and that Amir Mohammad was appointed by his father to rule over Khorasan and his post was formalized and announced in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi through requesting a horse for the Amir of Khorasan. In this case, the Kolkata edition is erroneous and the addition of “did not have a horse in the court”! and the omission of “named … the ‘Amir of Khorasan’” are proof of the inexperience of the book’s copyist, printer, and proofreader.12

Another example is the following poem, found in some printed editions of Saʿdi’s Golestān:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

A researcher who is familiar with the science of prosody will be certain after reading this couplet that it is incorrectly written—for the first hemistich is in the hazaj mosamman akhrab makfuf mahzuf meter and the other hemistich is in the hazaj mosamman akhrab makfuf abtar meter, which is particular to the “quatrain” and these two meters do not go together—but they will remain uncertain as to which hemistich is authentic and which is false.

But, if they are familiar with stylistics, they will know without hesitation that the first hemistich is, without a doubt, a mistake, because the word sāz with the meaning that we use today, that is, “a musical instrument,” was not usual in Saʿdi’s time and the phrase “naghma-ye sāzash (his instrument’s melody)” is not correct for this reason. In the older idiom, sāz means “orderly” and here cannot be an attribute of naghma (melody), because Saʿdi wants to criticize the minstrel’s melody, not praise it. Thus, by reasoning, it is understood that it should originally be “naghma-ye nāsāzash (his discordant melody)”—and, after the first hemistich is found to be in error, there will be no doubt that the other hemistich is incorrect in terms of prosody. And again, if one has studied appropriately, they will find that “āvāza-ye marg (rumored death)” is also a new expression. They will see that there is no such expression in Persian and that death itself does not have a rumor. Thus, with a good sense of taste one can determine the origin of the expression, which is “āvāza-ye marg-e pedar (the rumor of the death of one’s father)” and solve the prosodic problem—and, in case one is cautious, one should say that this poem is corrupted, and, with careful examination and reference to the numerous manuscripts of the Golestān, they should seek out the original version of the poem and correct the book, and record the poem thusly:


Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10031

12. [About] this Volume

The first volume of this book offers an introduction to the other two volumes and has been compiled specifically for doctoral studies in the Persian language. Third-year college students have no need for it, since it is only in doctoral studies that the language of the Zand and Avesta is taught. The purpose is achieved when the aforementioned script and language is learned, combined with the research in this volume and compared with the old Dari (New Persian) language according to the last chapters. By becoming acquainted with the second and third volumes, which are taught in the Faculty of Literature, the student acquires perfection in knowledge of the development of the language.

Although the second and third volumes are related entirely to this first volume and, in fact, both complement it, a brief introduction has been given [here] on the history of the language that is befitting of the students’ knowledge and presence of mind. In the first chapter, the oldest works of prose in the Dari (New Persian) language are discussed and critiqued, guiding the student from the Sasanian era until our time. During the three years of the program in the Faculty of Literature, the students will have the opportunity to go over ancient, mediæval, and modern texts and to resolve issues with a professor and they will not need to read the first volume of this book except for the last chapter. That, too, can be reviewed with a professor’s instruction, or an outside professor can discuss the second volume while reading it with students.

This service was accomplished in the worst of circumstances—that is, after twenty years of successive reckonings, exiles, costly losses, undue troubles, and incessant fears—purely out of love of service to the nation’s language, without expectation of any profit or fortune. For a period of several years the present author has been patiently waiting and is still doing so without hope of material reward. It is hoped that his service will be appreciated by the great people who will read this book, and that they will give the present author their blessing, and that Persian-speakers and the students of this extensive language, which is the sweetest of the languages of the East, will be able to benefit fully from this initiative and the codification of a “new science” heretofore unknown in the literature of the East, which is an incomparable service and a newfound gift. If they find in it a mistake or error, which without a doubt is natural for humans and inevitable for everyone, due to the necessity of criticism which is the source of all improvements, they should alert the writer through newspapers and magazines so that those errors may be corrected; and gradually in this way this imperfect thing can become perfected.

Mohammad-Taqi Bahār, Tehran, August–September 1942/Shahrivar 1331

Works Cited by Mohammad-Taqi Bahār

  • Mohammad-Taqi Bahār, “Bāzgasht-e adabi,Armaghān 13.7 (1933/1311), pp. 441448.

  • Mohammad-Taqi Bahār, Sabkshenāsi, yā Tārikh-e tatavvor-e nasr-e Fārsi, 3 vols., Tehran, 1942/1321.

  • Abu’l-Fazl Beyhaqi, Tārikh-e Beyhaqi, ed. W. H. Morley, Kolkata, 1862.

  • Abu’l-Fazl Beyhaqi, Tārikh-e Beyhaqi, ed. Seyyed Ahmad Adib Pishāvari, Tehran, 1889/1307.

  • Botros Bostāni, Dāʾerat al-maʿāref [edition not cited].

  • Rezā-Qoli Khān Hedāyat, Majmaʿ al-fosahā, 2 vols., Tehran, 1878.

  • Mohammad ʿOwfi, Ketāb-e lobāb al-albāb, ed. E. G. Browne, Persian historical texts 2, 4, 2 vols., London/Leiden, 1903.

  • Mohammad b. ʿOmar Jamāl Qarshi, Sorāh al-logha [edition not cited].

  • Mohammad b. ʿAli Rāvandi, Rāhat al-sodur, ed. M. Eqbāl as The Ráḥat-uṣ ṣudúr wa áyat-us-surúr: Being a History of the Saljúqs, E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series n.s. 2, London/Leiden, 1921.

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  • ʿAbd al-Karim Safipur, Montahā al-ʿarab [edition not cited].

  • Majdud b. Ādam Sanāʾi Ghaznavi, Divān-e tabʿ-e qadim [edition not cited].

  • Rezāzāda Shafaq, Tārikh-e adabiyāt-e Irān, Tehran, 1934.


On the emergence of modern Persian literary historiography and the place of Sabkshenāsi therein, see Jabbari. For more on Bahār’s role in institutionalizing Persian literature as an academic discipline in Iran, see Fani, 45–77.


See, for example, Dudney; Faruqi; Kinra; Losensky; Sharma; Schwartz; Smith 2009. A 2007 article documenting studies of sabk-e Hendi lists hundreds of books and articles on the subject in English, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and other languages (Bilkan), and scholarly discussion on the subject has continued to proliferate since then.


In 2012, an abridged Tajik edition of Sabkshenāsi was published in Dushanbe (Bahor). However, less a translation into the Tajik literary standard, this edition is a transliteration (bargardon) strictly faithful to the original text. The only changes are the occasional explanations of Arabic broken plurals and other uncommon words used by Bahār, provided in brackets by the Tajik editors.


On hekmat, see Goichon, who defines it as “wisdom, but also science and philosophy.”


Such as Mohammad-Hasan Khān Moqaddam Marāghaʾi (Eʿtemād al-Saltana, 1843–96) and a few of the learned like Mirzā Āqā Khān Kermāni (1854/5–96) and the like who had a little information about modern history.


Which is the first tazkera that we have.


He then cites some of his [Maʿrufi’s] couplets.


See his Ātashkada-ye Āzar, on Moshtāq’s contemporaries.


See his Hadāyeq al-jenān (Gardens of Paradise).


At the time, this is how they called the Khorasani style. This term endured until our time and then was abandoned in favor of the real term (estelāh-e haqiqi), the Khorasani style.


A portion of this lecture was published in Bahār 1933/1311, and Shafaq quoted a small part of it in his own literary history under the title “Bāzgasht-e adabi.”


For further explanation, see Bahār 1942/1321, I, 434; II, 82–83.

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