Indian Scholars in the Pahlavi Shah’s Court: The Impact of Urdu Scholarship on Iranian Literary Historiography

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Iranian literary scholars sought to bridge the gap between traditional forms of knowledge and literary history-writing (viz. the tazkira tradition) and ‘modern,’ European approaches to science and historiography. Across the border in British India, Indian scholars belonging to the same Persianate tradition, but now writing in Urdu, were engaged in the same.

When interaction between Persian and Urdu is considered, it has most typically been seen as unidirectional, with the former influencing the latter by providing loanwords, literary models, and so on. However, reality has been somewhat more complicated. Indian scholars writing in Urdu such as Shibli Nu‘mani and Muhammad Husayn Azad are rarely acknowledged in narratives about Iranian literary modernity, yet they were cited prominently by such Iranian scholars as Muhammad-Taqi Bahar and Zayn al-Abidin Mu’taman. Iranian literary scholars saw some of their Indian counterparts as having successfully combined the best aspects of the traditional Islamic sciences with the best of what European methodologies had to offer; this was attractive to Iranian nationalists and modernizers in the Pahlavi era, who hoped to do the same.

The aim of this paper is to examine the connections between the development of new, ‘modern’ literary scholarship in Iran and India, highlighting the little-known impact of Indian scholars on the Iranian literati, and arguing for a more complicated relationship between Persian and Urdu than what has most often been suggested.


Alexander Jabbari
University of California, Irvine