Franklin D. Lewis (1961–2022)

In: Journal of Persianate Studies
Jane Mikkelson Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Department of Comparative Literature, Yale University

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Franklin D. Lewis, 1961–2022

Citation: Journal of Persianate Studies 15, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/18747167-bja10029

When Franklin Lewis (24 July 1961–19 September 2022) left us in September, an immense swell of grief rippled through the global community of Persian studies. The first feeling was of unbounded loss: “Bereft of you … mind and soul in tears / because none in the world can take your place” (Rumi, 96). These lines from Frank’s incomparable translation of Rumi’s elegy for his friend Salāh al-Din affectingly capture one side of grief. But there is more. In Rumi’s poem, mourning gives way to a dawning sense of gratitude and wonder, making room to celebrate a life lived humanely, richly, and with purpose. “You proved not one man but a hundred worlds,” Rumi writes (96) of his friend—a description that rings deeply and resoundingly true of Frank, too.

Franklin Dean Lewis was an extraordinary scholar of Persian literature, Sufism and Islamic thought, Bahaʾi studies, Iranian cinema, and translation studies, with far-reaching interests beyond these fields as well. He was a brilliant and unfailingly generous colleague, an inspiring translator, and the kindest, gentlest, and best of mentors.

Frank studied Persian at the University of California at Berkeley and then at the University of Chicago under Heshmat Moayyad in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he would later become associate professor (2005–22). In 1995, he completed his magisterial dissertation on the poet Sanāʾi (c. 1087–1130) and the origins of the Persian ghazal. His innovative approach combines a transmission history of Sanāʾi’s corpus with careful attention to the social and cultural contexts in which his poems were performed, and his analysis of the entwinements of religion and literature builds from nuanced close readings accompanied by beautiful translations of Sanāʾi’s poems. This was a constellation of methods and sensibilities that Frank would continue to pursue throughout his career.

Already as a student in the late 1980s and 1990s, Frank became part of the “Chicago School” of Persian and Arabic studies. This group of scholars share the belief that Islamicate literary cultures cannot be studied using “critical standards and analytical methods derived exclusively from Western methods” (Stetkevych, vii). Arabic and Persian traditions deserve to be examined on their own terms and English-language scholarship must expand to accommodate new categories and theories. The Chicago School also strives to make traditions like Persian available to a wide readership by producing translations that are accurate, but also bold, appealing, and literary. Frank’s work embodies and carries forward these Chicago School ideals. His many essays, translations, and books are animated by the conviction that the study of Persian literature must be grounded in the texts themselves and that these works must be made vividly present for new readers.

Frank remained at the University of Chicago as a Mellon Lecturer in Persian (1995–97), and in his moving tribute to Professor Moayyad (1927–2018), whom he considered “a spiritual as well as an academic mentor” (Lewis 1995, vii), Frank writes that some of his fondest memories from this period were of “sitting at Heshmat’s long desk in his office in Pick Hall” while they discussed and translated the teachings of the Sufi Ahmad-e Jām (1049–1141); he remembers (2018a, 146) countless afternoons “filled with humour and delight, as we reflected on the language and lifestyle of the ordinary folk of twelfth-century Khorasan.”1 Years later, Professor Lewis generously recreated that atmosphere of warmth and good humor for his own students. As we gathered around his long desk in Pick Hall, he would guide us patiently and calmly through the words, lives, and thoughts of Persian writers from centuries past. I and so many others feel fortunate to have experienced that rare combination of rigorous learning leavened by kindness and encouragement.

One common thread that runs throughout Frank’s numerous publications is his steadfast dedication to making the past speak to the present. Indeed, the subtitle of his field-changing book on Rumi (2000)—“Past and Present, East and West”—is an apt motto for his body of work. While maintaining the principled stance that figures like Rumi can only be understood through meticulous reconstructions of their ideas, Frank also acknowledges the forward velocity of texts and traditions. The considerable space he gives to the centuries-long tangled reception of Rumi up to the present day speaks to Frank’s remarkable breadth of interests and underscores his vision of how the past can remain vitally present to each new generation. His own translations of Rumi participate directly in that process. Embracing blank verse and experimental forms, Frank’s unforgettable English versions allow Rumi’s poems to reach across time and grip the modern English reader by the heart, by the throat, by the soul.

Variously shaped arcs of time structure many of his other works, such as his study of “rise and fall” of the Persian refrain “ātash ō āb (fire and water)” across premodern Persian poetry (1994); the luminous “semiotic horizons of dawn” on the alba topos in the Persian tradition and beyond (2010); his essay tracing the transformation of the ghazal from amatory mood to fixed form (2006). One of his last publications, on the spirituality of Persian Islamic poetry (2022), ambitiously traverses a millennium of Persian verse, yet manages to linger meaningfully on individual passages at each step of the way. Professor Lewis leaves us an incredible scholarly corpus. His books and essays on topics too numerous to list, his many reviews and important contributions to the Encyclopædia Iranica and other reference works, and his inspiring translations remind us that research can be both exacting and eloquent and that a scholar’s words can reverberate urgently and powerfully beyond the topic at hand.

I am certain that Frank would have wanted our grief to give way to celebration. In his own eloquent memorials to friends and teachers, Frank conjures (2018a, cl) a communal feeling of solace and comfort by turning to the words of Bahāʾ-Ollāh: “I have made death a messenger of joy.” He also turns (2018b, 4) to Rumi, who reassures his friends and followers on the eve of his own passing that “what seems to you like setting is a dawning.”

Another poem that Rumi wrote for his friend Salāh al-Din captures the sense of joy in knowing someone truly great. “When you see his face … the sun rises,” Rumi writes (95, in Frank’s translation) “the whole world shines / fore and aft.” It was a life-changing privilege to study with Professor Lewis. A paragon of kindness and collegiality, brilliance and creativity, decorum and generosity, he showed us how one can be a great scholar and a thoroughly good and decent person—and why it is so important to strive to be both. Long may his memory, and all his many worlds, continue to shine.


A full bibliography of Franklin Lewis’s publications appears in his CV (last updated in 2020), which he uploaded to his profile:

  • F. D. Lewis, “The Rise and Fall of a Persian Refrain: The Radīf ‘Ātash u āb’,” in S. P. Stetkevych, ed., Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry, Bloomington/Indianapolis, 1994, pp. 199226.

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  • F. D. Lewis, Reading, Writing, and Recitation: Sanāʾi and the Origins of the Persian Ghazal, PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1995.

  • F. D. Lewis, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings, and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi, Oxford, 2000.

  • F. D. Lewis, “The Transformation of the Persian Ghazal: From Amatory Mood to Fixed Form,” in A. Neuwirth, M. Hess, J. Pfeiffer, and B. Sagaster, Ghazal as World Literature II: From a Literary Genre to a Great Tradition: The Ottoman Gazel in Context, Istanbuler Texte und Studien 4, Würzburg, 2006, pp. 121139, DOI 10.5771/9783956506932-121.

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  • F. D. Lewis, “The Semiotic Horizons of Dawn in the Poetry of Ḥāfiẓ,” in L. Lewisohn, Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry, London/New York City, 2010, pp. 251278, DOI 10.5040/97807556090

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  • F. D. Lewis, “In Memoriam: Heshmat Moayyad, 1927–2018,” Iran Namag 3.2 (Summer 2018a), pp. cvliicvcli.

  • F. D. Lewis, “In Memoriam: Leonard Lewisohn (1953–2018),” Mawlana Rumi Review 9.1–2 (2018b), 317, DOI 10.1163/25898566-00901002.

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  • F. D. Lewis, The Spirituality of Persian Islamic Poetry,” in V. J. Cornell and B. B. Lawrence, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Islamic Spirituality, Hoboken, 2022, pp. 372394, DOI 10.1002/9781118533789.ch20.

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  • H. Moayyad and F. D. Lewis, eds. and trs., The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jām: The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th Century Iran, Costa Mesa, 2004.

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  • Jalāl al-Din Rumi, Swallowing the Sun: Poems translated from the Persian, tr. F. D. Lewis, Oxford, 2008.

  • S. P. Stetkevych, “Preface,” in S. P. Stetkevych, Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry, Bloomington/Indianapolis, 1994, pp. viivix.

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The result of this collaboration was Moayyad and Lewis.

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