Enduring and Contested Cultural Symbols

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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This paper examines the transformation of the imperial Iranian standard, the Derafsh-e kāveyān, from a physical banner during the Sāsānian period into a broader symbol of Iran. First, it surveys the mythical origins of the Derafsh as an Iranian blacksmith’s apron raised as a symbol of revolt against a legendary tyrant. The myth undoubtedly reflects Sāsānian efforts to legitimate their rôle in the mythical Keyānid past; however, the identification of the evil ruler as an Arab suggests later efforts to reshape the legend to reflect Arab-Islamic rule and millenarian sentiments. Second, the paper attempts to uncover some evidence regarding the actual Sāsānian flag, reviewing the reports that appear in Islamic historical annals. While these accounts engage frequently in hyperbole, it is possible to come to some broad conclusions regarding the importance of the standard and its appearance.

The exaggerated descriptions demonstrate the next stage in the Derafsh’s metamorphosis. These stories served multiple purposes in early Islamic society. Beyond their entertainment purpose for early oral story-tellers, they underscored the ‘embarrassment of riches’ in Sāsānian society and the profound corruption of non-Muslim rule. Accompanying tales about the Muslim leaders’ insistence upon the equitable distribution of the flag following its capture at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah—even at a cost of destroying the priceless object—established the purity of Muslim aims, thus justifying the conquest of Iran to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Later historians may have also sought to use these accounts as a subtle critique of their own worldly patrons.

Ultimately, the hyperbolic nature of the accounts of the Derafsh tore it loose from its historical moorings, transforming it into a symbol of pre-Islamic Iranian empire. On the one hand, its description as an item of incomparable worth seized during the vanquishing of the Sāsānian Empire reinforced the message of the legitimacy of Islam and dissoluteness of pre-Islamic Iran. Yet, paradoxically, as Persian-speaking provinces of the Islamic world began to assert autonomy beginning in the Ninth Century, new Muslim Iranians reclaimed the now-symbolic object, adding it to their cultural arsenal in their efforts to forge an Islamic Iranian identity. In modern times, Iranian nationalists have resurrected the Derafsh-e kāveyān as an emblem of pre-Islamic Iran , in a conscious rejection of Iran’s Islamic identity.

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In the medieval times, the Islamic philosophy and narrative of creation gained frequency in Persian literary and historical works . The nature of this new philosophy, however, remained in engagement with as well as under the influence of pre-Islamic Iranian narratives of creation. What distinguished this new narrative was its interaction with the ancient translated Greek philosophies.

This paper will examine how pre-Islamic narratives of creation, philosophical perspectives and world views impacted the Islamic narratives of creation in medieval Persian literature, by giving examples from Persian literary figures such as ‘Attar, Nezami, Sana’i, among others. Consequently, the presentation will give examples of how this worldview continued into the modern times, transforming itself under various names such as mysticism, illuminationist philosophy, Sufism, or other terms.

This presentation will thus trace the development of Iranian pre-Islamic ideas into the Islamic era and question how they impacted the Islamic narratives of creation and philosophy.