Intellectual Networks and Issues of Provenance and Attribution in Pre-Modern Iran

The proliferation of intellectual and socio-religious networks in the post-Mongol Persianate world from the 14th century onwards has created a unique set of challenges and problems for scholars interested in exploring issues of epistemology and textual production. First, the intense peripateticism which emerged across the central and eastern Islamic world in the 14th and 15th centuries allowed for a scale of knowledge mobilization of profound proportions. Scholars, teachers, students, litterateurs, and poets crisscrossed from Anatolia to South Asia; these human migrations facilitated unprecedented textual movement. Manuscript copies of seminal works in Arabic and Persian not only proliferated but also traveled great distances in this era of exchange. Second, these networks were concomitant with an explosion of mystical brotherhoods and confraternities, and thus we encounter a constellation of religio-cultural identities which were actively contributing to not only theosophy, but also philosophy, history, politics, ethics, exegesis, poetry, prosody, grammar, syntax, mathematics, and the occult sciences.

Third, and arguably most important for this current panel, it was during this period of the 15th century that we see the codifying and commodification of the New Persian literary renaissance of the 11th and 12th centuries; the literary footprints of earlier seminal texts in Persian prose and poetry were such that later scholars of the post-Mongol period developed a distinct culture which privileged and systemized the borrowing, adoption, paraphrasing, and copying of the textual past. In some cases, attribution for ideas and arguments were clearly noted, but in many other cases, this did not occur. For scholars interested exploring the epistemological shifts and changes of the premodern Perso-Islamic world, this panel hopes to shed light on how specific individuals like Husain Va`iz Kashifi and Mir Husain Maybudi negotiated and rationalized ideas like authorial privilege and textual precedence. Another paper, on Arabic translations of the Bible in premodern Iran, reminds us that the Perso-Islamic intellectual sphere operated also on a polemical front, and thus there are important inter-linguistic and inter-confessional dynamics to consider. Put simply: did Persianate premoderns have a system to negotiate with the textual past?

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Colin Mitchell
Dalhousie University


Christoph Werner


Room 30
Wed, 2016-08-03 10:30 - 12:00


by Colin Mitchell / Dalhousie University

One of the relatively understudied scholars of the 15th century is the qazi-cum-litterateur Mir Husain Maybudi who served as chief judge of Yazd on behalf of the Aq Qoyunlus as they spiraled towards collapse and extermination at the hands of the Safavids. Like other contemporary polymaths, such as Husain Va`iz Kashifi of Herat, Qazi Mir Husain produced substantial works on a wide array of subjects, including philosophy, scriptural exegesis, ethics, poetry, and prosody, and as such his writings can provide valuable insights into an intellectual and cultural landscape which was undergoing intense warp and shifting during the post-Mongol era. One collection of writings – his epistles (munsha’at) – are particularly insightful as they consist of official (diwani) as well as ‘friendly’ (ikhvani) letters to confidants, superiors, colleagues, rivals, and adversaries. These correspondences, and indeed his larger texts such as his commentary on Ali’s poetry (Sharh-i Divan-i `Ali), underscore Mir Husain as a Sufi-inspired scholar who defied crude confessional categories.
While there are dozens of epistles in his Munsha’at, a select cohort of ‘model’ letters are of particular interest for this study. The bulk of the letters are discrete epistolary texts with named addressees (e.g. Mir Ali Shir Nava’i, Siraj al-Din Abd al-Vahhab, Shah Ni`mat Allah), but this appended section in question (some 30 letters) contains mostly formulaic letters to unnamed rulers (sultans), chief functionaries (viziers, mustaufis), and constituencies of notables who held high rank in a typical post-Mongol, Perso-Islamic state (qazis, sadrs). Operating on the assumption that this cohort represents – in effect – a ‘portfolio’ of his best epistolary work, this paper will examine the extent to which such texts were not indeed composites from previous works reflecting a variety of traditions (epistolographic, poetic, exegetical). Given the importance of the genre of insha in the 15th and 16th centuries, understanding more about how intellectuals and scholars incorporated (and possibly attributed) texts by previous scholars can help us reinterpret ‘networks’ beyond physical space and contemporary connections. By emphasizing a temporal component, whereby a nuanced hierarchy of precedence and attribution is prioritized in the pre-modern Perso-Islamic world, this paper will hopefully contribute to current historiography and its ongoing reinterpretation of the 15th century and its denizens like Mir Husain Maybudi.

by Reza Pourjavady / Goethe University Frankfurt

Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī (d. 909/1504) was one of the most distinguished philosophers of Iran at the cusp of the Safavid period. In his writings, Maybudī constantly refers to the views of the ‘Sufis’ to which he has clear inclination. In a passage in his commentary on the Dīvān attributed to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, Maybudī credits the philosophers (ḥukamāʾ) for developing practical philosophy, mathematics and a major part of physics, yet he suggests that it was the ‘Sufis’ who came up with better ideas in metaphysics and even some aspects of physics. Therefore, those who are interested in metaphysics in particular should study the works of the ‘Sufis’. They were simply the masters of metaphysics and their theory is more expanded and advanced. This paper is going to explain whom Maybudī refers to by the ‘Sufis’ and who among his teachers could possibly have acquainted him with their teachings. Finally it examines those aspects of metaphysics and physics that Maybudī actually adopted from those ‘Sufis’.

by Dennis Halft / Freie Universität Berlin / Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo

In recent years, the Muslim reception of the Bible has attracted increasing scholarly attention. However, research on the biblical sources used by Imāmī authors in pre-modern Iran has been largely neglected. This paper will show that medieval Arabic translations of the Scriptures made by Eastern Christians from Greek, Syriac, and Coptic Vorlagen became available to Imāmī scholars in Safavid Persia through the influence of Catholic missionaries. The following dissemination of manuscript as well as printed copies of the Gospels and other individual biblical books gave rise to the composition of fresh anti-Christian polemics, authored by well-known Imāmī savants such as Sayyid Aḥmad ʿAlavī (d. between 1644 and 1650 CE) and Ẓahīr al-Dīn Tafrishī (d. before 1702 CE). The polemical works are extant in different New/Modern Persian and Arabic manuscripts and recensions. A comparison between the scriptural passages adduced in the Shīʿī polemical works and the Arabic translations of the Bible brought along by the missionaries shows that Arabic versions of the Scriptures were important sources for interreligious encounters and cross-cultural intellectual exchanges. There is evidence that the availability and accessibility of Arabic Bible translations led to a new phase of Muslim-Christian history in Safavid Persia. This paper will examine the ways in which scriptural reasoning was increasingly used as a polemical argument against Christianity.