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The Late Persianate World: Transregional Connections and the Question of Language

In: Philological Encounters
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Maryam Fatima Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of Massachusetts Amherst Amherst, Massachusetts USA

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Alexander Jabbari Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minnesota USA

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Mehtap Ozdemir Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of Bologna Bologna Italy

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This special issue addresses questions of literary modernity in the Persianate world. The papers explore the near-simultaneous encroachment of modernity across varied territories and polities (among them South Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Ottoman lands) and examine the problematics that emerged as a consequence: language politics (classical, vernacular, demotic, national), national canonization, and the disavowal of Persianate genres and epistemes. Rather than indicating the end of the Persianate framework, however, these processes initiated a new stage of literary realignment, a period we identify as the “late Persianate,” in which connections and exchange continued across borders in spite of shifting political and ideological attachments.

This period of Persianate history has received less attention than the medieval and early modern eras, though recent scholarship has begun to take the late Persianate more seriously.1 As we join them in examining this period, we ask: how can the shared textual traditions of the Persianate offer an alternative model to the framework of comparison rooted in European national literatures? What happened to the interconnected Persianate cosmopolis and its shared intellectual vocabulary in the wake of modern literature? Can we speak of a Persianate modernity? How did the politics of disaffiliation and national distinction shape literary form and language ideology in the Persianate long nineteenth century? How can the pre-national, multilingual nature of Persianate studies help us understand language and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which are often conceived of as “post-Persianate”?

With these questions in mind, this special issue examines the late Persianate, considering it not (only) as a specific time period in which the premodern cosmopolis fragmented, but rather as a mode, a sensibility that captures the refashioning, repurposing, and disavowing by which the Persianate ecumene persisted and transformed under duress. The articles in this issue grapple with these questions and invite future scholarship to address the Persianate’s continued relevance for the twentieth century and beyond. This issue pursues the complex and conflicting histories of literary reform, which took place in various regions, under different auspices and names, and yet drew on shared conceptual and poetic vocabulary across late Persianate culture. In doing so, the issue locates in the late Persianate an alternative genealogy of comparison beyond global comparative studies’ double bind to Europe and the nation.

Defining the Persianate under Duress

When the historian Marshall Hodgson first coined the term “Persianate” in his magisterial study The Venture of Islam (1974) in order to describe the rise of New Persian as “a new dominant literary language” in Islamdom, the term signified a geocultural space that stretched across the farthest reaches of Eurasia, connecting it through a shared cultural vocabulary.2 Since then, Hodgson’s neologism has galvanized a field of scholarly inquiry concerned with the cultural and political economy of societies and polities employing the Persian language, in

different capacities, and its associated socio-cultural norms between the ninth and the nineteenth centuries. Nearly all theorizations of this cultural-linguistic zone have contended with the scale and scope of Persian’s use. Revealing variable use, cultural and administrative appeal, and competence, studies of the Persianate have focused on Persophonie (the cultural hegemony of Persian poetic forms) and Persographia (the language’s use as a written lingua franca in fields ranging from administration to education).3 This special issue focuses on the period from the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, often taken to be the time of the Persianate’s supposed demise.

The field of Persianate studies has contributed significantly to decoupling Persian from Iran, moving beyond models that stress competing cultural centers of Iran and India, and problematizing the framework of cosmopolitanism.4 More recent scholarship has also placed greater emphasis on multilingualism within the Persianate sphere. Nile Green offered a “Persian plus” model that considers Persian’s use in relation with other languages as he contends that “neither the Persianate as process, nor the Persianate world it created, can be understood through Persian sources alone.”5 An even more expansive approach has been championed by Fahad Bishara and Nandini Chatterjee who extend Persographia beyond the writing of Persian itself, treating “Persianate writing” (materials in Arabic and vernaculars such as Rajasthani or Marathi) as “part of the story of the Persianate because they played demonstrably crucial roles in facilitating the working of the overall systems of trade, communication or governance in the Persianate world.”6

As a polyphonic space, the Persianate overlaps with other cultural-linguistic zones with shared repertoires of texts, textual practices, and literary communities that transcend political borders. These include Sheldon Pollock’s “Sanskrit cosmopolis,” which documents the spread of Sanskrit literary culture from present-day Afghanistan to Indonesia over two millennia, and Ronit Ricci’s “Arabic cosmopolis,” which explores the adaptation and translation of Arabic texts into vernacular languages.7 Others have considered the Persianate in Islamic terms; Hodgson himself originally conceived of it as a geographic subset of the “Islamicate.” However, Shahab Ahmed dismissed the term “Persianate,” seeing it as privileging linguistic (and ethnic) elements as the “distinguishing and generative source” of what he considered a shared Islamic paradigm from the Balkans to Bengal.8 On the other hand, Nile Green cautions against reducing the Persianate to “a rebranded version of the ‘eastern Islamic world,’” which would mean circumventing questions of language contact and cultural exchange.9 The papers in this issue emphasize precisely those questions of language as a key issue for understanding transformations in the late Persianate realm.

Such transregional linguistic communities experienced fundamental geographical and political restructuring in light of the emergence of nation-states over the course of the nineteenth century. While the Persianate framework has primarily been used to conceive of premodern and early modern contexts, the papers in this issue demonstrate its continued salience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If we suggest that Persian does not die in these contexts but is refashioned and repurposed, and survives almost against political will, how does it differ from earlier centuries? What endures from this transregional network that does not get folded neatly into nationalized frames? How are language and identity negotiated in places where Persian is taken up as national identity—or rejected as a symbol of the past? Is there a critical apparatus that can be culled from earlier Persianate models that can uncover late Persianate dynamics, one that is both historically sensitive to Persian’s contracted status but also attentive to its traces and lineages?

Histories of Persian’s contraction from the nineteenth century onwards have stressed political economy, considering factors such as the rise of printing presses, imperial transitions, and nationalization.10 While these articles address material and institutional circumstances, they also attend to aspects of literary production that were, at times, less straightforwardly material. Litterateurs used terms like adab, ʿajam, taghazzul, sukhan-parvar and forms like ghazal and taẕkirah, sometimes disparagingly, as synecdoches for the Persian language and its literary tradition. We therefore turn to Persianate forms to address this complicated stage of “the Persianate as a process of literary and broadly cultural bricolage.”11

Persianate Forms: A Poetics of Sublation

The Persianate world cohered around shared the use of form. Adab—“proper form” in both letters and comportment—offered a common language and set of norms across the Persianate’s varied geographies.12 While the significance of adab has been recently acknowledged for exploring the experience of modernity,13 questions of form were always primary concerns of Persianate modernizers. While poetry was central to premodern and early modern Persianate literatures, the novel as a narrative form has tended to dominate scholarly discussions of Islamic literary renaissances.14 Recent studies have sought to address this mismatch by shifting their focus to poetic form.15 For studies that theorize modernity in formal terms, there are two risks involved: heavy contextualization and myopic formalism. One can read literary forms only as responses to social-cultural transformations happening on the ground or treat them as transhistorical and static templates carried over across borders and filled with domestic content. This special issue takes the question of form to the fore in hopes of advancing a comparative methodology attuned to formalism and historicism.

Thinking the late Persianate through form does not merely entail taking an empirical stock of traditional forms that persist into the modern decades. To be sure, the articles in this special issue draw attention to particular Persianate literary and historiographical forms that are subject to disaffiliation (ghazal/ghazaliyāt in Samuel Hodgkin’s article or ʿarūż, prosody, in Levi Thompson’s) or new affiliations (iqtirāḥ or poetic competition in Aria Fani’s; naturalist poetry in Fatima Burney’s). However, we do not approach these forms as fixed structures or as following programmatically from modernizing projects. Here we draw insight from Caroline Levine’s broad definition of form as “an arrangement of elements—an ordering, patterning, or shaping,”16 which has a limited range of affordances or potential uses and actions and, yet, can be reappropriated and combined with other forms. The question is then not what form does, but “what potentialities lie latent—though not always obvious—in literary and social arrangements.”17

Considering the affordances of forms means recognizing that forms can be universal and abstract as well as highly specific and historical. Most importantly, as Levine emphasizes, it means giving as much attention to formal limits, borders, and breaks as to formal dissolutions, indeterminacies, and interstices.18 This speaks directly to our understanding of the relationship between the Persianate and modernity, literary history and modernization, and traditional and modern forms. This special issue aims to offer an analytical framework that questions that which nationalist modernity takes for granted. As such, we treat the Persianate as something dynamic, in need of historicization, rather than static, unchanging “heritage.” While we ask what the Persianate affords in different contexts and moments, each article draws attention both to the longer history of forms and languages, things that persist, as well as to the specific social-cultural conditions of the nineteenth century. In paying attention both to the longue durée of the Persianate tradition and to what is contingent in the modern moment, the articles consider texts in terms of form as well as temporality.

Conclusion

Each article’s use of the Persianate in this special issue derives from the specificities of the respective contexts and engages with conceptual-formal breaks and continuities, suggesting that one way to conceptualize the late Persianate is as a poetics of sublation. Here we understand sublation in all its contradictory meanings: (a) to cancel out, abolish, do away with; (b) to keep or preserve; and (c) to lift or raise up. Significant to Hegelian dialectics, sublation articulates within the framework of this issue our methodological consideration of the Persianate as something that is not merely negated or abolished, but mediated and retained in a form that supersedes both what is negated (the Persianate/tradition) and the antithesis of that negation (i.e., modernity). We hope that this special issue helps theorize Persianate modernity and facilitates an ongoing conversation, encouraging collaboration and future scholarship that will explore in greater detail the language, geographies, and history of the late Persianate world.

Collectively, the articles contest the idea that nationalism and the conditions of modernity put an end to the Persianate framework. As a way of exploring how new national identities and pre-national Persianate selves overlapped and competed for dominance, Samuel Hodgkin focuses on gestures of affiliation and disaffiliation in relation to the Persianate as a “repertory of cultural forms” in the modern period. He argues that these forms, like the poetic mode of taghazzul, came to symbolize a reified Persianate culture against which modernizers could position themselves. Mehtap Ozdemir looks at the Turkish translations of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat as part of Perso-Ottoman connectivity in the early twentieth century. In drawing attention to how Ottoman writers combined literal rendering with interpretative commentary, Ozdemir explores translation both as a hermeneutic and historiographical practice that simultaneously enables national-affective bonds and breaks in Ottoman/Turkish modernity. Maryam Fatima and Andrew Amstutz consider how Indian Muslim intellectuals conceptualized and imagined the Urdu language as the linguistic offspring and heir of the Persian language and Persianate textual cultures. Their analysis reveals an ambivalence at the heart of Urdu modernity, with nationalism pulling Urdu both towards the Persianate (in locating a genealogy for Urdu in Persian) and away from it (as a point of disaffiliation, against which Urdu could define itself). Alexander Jabbari shows how modern Iranians sought to disaffiliate themselves sonically from the Arabic-Islamic elements of the Persianate. As an earlier cosmopolitanism gave way to a Persianate modernity structured by a new nationalist logic, he demonstrates how the sound of Persian, from phonology to music, was transformed in Iran and South Asia.

For many modernizers, national identity was cultivated through proscribing cosmopolitan Persianate forms of belonging, which became a stand-in for “tradition.” In many ways, the Persianate continues to offer tools and terms for modernity even as it is redefined through the national frame. Fatima Burney reads the nineteenth-century Indian reformer Syed Ahmad Khan’s championing of naicar (nature) as part of his program for Indo-Muslim cultural renewal, a melding of British romanticism and Persianate modes of religious and social plurality. In reading Ahmad Khan through a Persianate lens, as opposed to an entirely Islamicate or postcolonial one, Burney underscores the continuities between Persianate Islam and its modernist offspring, despite the history of antagonism between them. Aria Fani examines two cases of iqtirāḥ or poetic competition in modern periodicals from Tehran and Kabul, tracing the link between romantic nationalism and poetic modernity. With specific attention to the role of poetic composition in national historiography, Fani shows the instrumentalization of Persianate modes of sociability in the making of political subjectivities. Levi Thompson examines how the science of Arabic prosody or ʿarūż was interpreted and retooled by modernist poets in Arabic and Persian. In engaging with questions of poetic form, rather than language, ideology, or nation, Thompson argues for taking the shared poetic past of Persianate cultures seriously in order to develop transregional comparative models that defy temporal (premodern-modern) or national (Arabic-Persian) divisions.

Our collective thinking on late Persianate literatures came into fruition during a seminar, “In the Wake of the Persianate,” organized at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting in 2021. After three wonderful days of stimulating presentations, our conversation continued with a symposium in 2022 titled “Is There a Persianate Modernity?,” which was generously hosted by the Persian and Iranian Studies Program in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and the Humanities Division, CAS, at the University of Washington, Seattle. We would like to thank the organizers and contributors of these two symposiums. We also feel privileged to work with Philological Encounters. We extend our gratitude to Islam Dayeh and Colinda Lindermann for their assistance and to the anonymous reviewers for their extensive feedback.

Works cited

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1

Mana Kia and Afshin Marashi, “After the Persianate?,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 36, no. 3 (2016): 379–383; Aria Fani and Kevin L. Schwartz, “Persianate Pasts, National Presents,” Iranian Studies 55, no. 3 (2022): 605–9; Alexander Jabbari, The Making of Persianate Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

2

Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975): 2:293.

3

On Persophonie, see Bert G. Fragner, Die Persophonie: Regionalität, Identität und Sprachkontakt in der Geschichte Asiens (Berlin: Das Arabische Buch, 1999). On Persographia, see Nile Green, The Persianate World (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 4–5.

4

Green, The Persianate World; Schwartz, Remapping Persian Literary History, 1700–1900 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); Amanat and Ashraf, The Persianate World: Rethinking a Shared Space (Leiden: Brill, 2019); Abbas Amanat and Farzin Vejdani, Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

5

Green, The Persianate World, xiv.

6

Bishara, Fahad and Nandini Chatterjee, “The Persianate Bazaar,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64 (2021), 490.

7

Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) and Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

8

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84, emphasis original.

9

Green, The Persianate World, 6.

10

Hodgson, Venture of Islam, 3:176–222; Green, The Persianate World, 42–50; Brian Spooner, “Epilogue: The Persianate Millenium,” in The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, ed. Nile Green (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 311–13; Amanda Lanzillo, “Translating the Scribe: Lithographic Print and Vernacularization in Colonial India, 1857–1915,” Comparative Critical Studies 16, no. 2–3 (2019): 281–300.

11

Green, The Persianate World, 21.

12

Mana Kia, “Adab as Ethics of Literary Form and Social Conduct: Reading the Gulistān in Late Mughal India,” in ‘No Tapping Around Philology’: A Festschrift in celebration and honor of Wheeler McIntosh Thackston Jr.’s 70th Birthday, ed. Alireza Korangy and Daniel J. Sheffield (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), 282, 288; Mana Kia, Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 199–200.

13

Michael Allan, In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Aria Fani, “Becoming Literature: The Formation of Adabiyat as an Academic Discipline in Iran and Afghanistan (1895–1945),” PhD diss. (University of California, Berkeley, 2019); Jeffrey Sacks, “Futures of Literature: Inhitat, Adab, Naqd,” Diacritics 37, no. 4 2007: 32–55; Cathérine Mayeur-Jaouen, ed., Adab and Modernity: A “Civilising Process”? (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

14

In his introduction to a collection of articles on “the novelization of Islamic literatures,” Mohamed-Salah Omri draws attention to the dominance of the novel as a narrative genre in critical discourse. As Omri puts it, while some scholars might argue that “unlike the novel, some genres obstruct the exploration of modernity, […] it may be less the case with other traditions and forms such as adab” (Mohamed-Salah Omri, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Comparative Critical Studies 4, no. 3 (2007): 322). Omri further suggests that “the legacy of poetry, should we look closely, is palpable throughout modern narratives in Persian and Arabic in particular and holds a peculiar place in the Turkish context” (323). Similarly, Kamran Rastegar discusses “the nationalist-novelist paradigm of literary criticism” whereby “studies of nineteenth-century Arabic and Persian literary works have too often valued these texts only in accordance with their assimilation into the trajectories of novelistic writing as well as their legitimacy within frameworks of nationalist discourse” (Kamran Rastegar, Literary Modernity and Comparative Literature between the Middle East and Europe (London—New York: Routledge, 2007), 6).

15

Notable examples include Victoria R. Holbrook, The Unreadable Shores of Love: Turkish Modernity and Mystic Romance (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994); Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995); Hamid Rezaei Yazdi and Arshavez Mozafari, eds., Persian Literature and Modernity: Production and Reception (London-New York: Routledge, 2019); Hussein N. Kadhim, The Poetics of Anti-colonialism in the Arabic Qasīdah (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014); Levi Thompson, Reorienting Modernism in Arabic and Persian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

16

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), 3, emphasis original.

17

Levine, Forms, 6.

18

Levine, Forms, 9.

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