Ethics, Politics, and the Court Literature: The Role of Ethical and Cultural Values in Linking Different Literary Genres, Political Domains, and Social Strata in Medieval Iran and Anatolia

The purpose of this panel is to explore the ways in which the intersection of medieval Persian political ethics and cultural values paved the way for the synthesis of different concepts, contexts, topics, and cultures in medieval Iran and Anatolia. Examining a variety of genres ranging from Sufi poetry, historiographical writings, works of princely instructions, and folk romances, the panel demonstrates that the ethical themes and cultural values reflected in such texts serve as defining factors in bringing them into the political domain. The first three papers will draw attention to the ways in which the ethics reflected in Sufi texts, works of historiography, and mirrors for princes, and the patronage of such works in various Persian and Anatolian courts helped generate connections between seemingly disparate literary genres and political domains. Similarly, The fourth paper will focus on the interest of the court—which is often associated with high culture—in folk literature, which is meant for a different audience (i.e. the common folks).
Parisa Zahiremami’s paper contends that Sanā’ī’s mystical poetry was used as a way to communicate political advice. In other words, contrary to the idea that Sufi literature—specifically, the pre-Ilkhanid Sufi literature—was designed exclusively for spiritual pursuits, it is argued that particular literary productions encouraged the bridging of the mystical and spiritual to the political domain. Focusing on Ḥamd Allāh Mustawfī Qazvīnī’s treatment of the renowned pre-Islamic vizier and legendary sage Buzurgmir in his historiographical work, Tārīkh-i guzīdeh, Louise Marlow demonstrates how the aphorisms reflected in the book not only connect the advice literature of the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods, but also link the genre of advice literature to historiography. Lale Javanshir’s paper explores the significance of Qābūsnāmeh, a Persian advice manual for princes, and the emergence of various translations of the book in different Anatolian polities. The Turkish translations modified some of the main themes addressed in the book according to local socio-political circumstances. Here, Javanshir brings focus to the connection between Turkish and Persian advice literature and socio-political priorities. Finally, Nasrin Askari’s paper examines the text of a high quality, sixteenth-century illustrated collection of folktales, preserved at the Bodleian Library, in order to reveal its significance for its royal sponsor.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Parisa Zahiremami
University of Toronto


Room 24
Thu, 2016-08-04 10:30 - 12:00


by Parisa Zahiremami / University of Toronto

The role of Sufi poetry as a means of communicating political advice in medieval Iran—more specifically, during the Ilkhanid (1256-1335) and post-Ilkhanid period—has already been discussed by scholars. Little attention, however, has been paid to the political function of Sufi poetry in the pre-Ilkhanid period. The main objective of this paper is to demonstrate that Sanā’ī’s Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah wa sharī‘at al-ṭarīqah, as the first significant mystical didactic mathnavī written in Persian in the court of the Ghaznavid ruler Bahrām Shāh (r.1117-1157), had the capacity to simultaneously convey esoteric knowledge as well as politico-ethical advice. Therefore, contrary to most treatments of Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah, which consider the book to be a didactic mystical text, I will argue that the book should also be recognized as a manual of political advice. Giving a brief account of the narrative structure of the book, I will explain how Sanā’ī correlates the pre-Islamic idea of perfect kingship with the Sufi concept of Perfect Man. In my analysis, I will mainly focus on the way particular qualities and concepts that are essential to the Sufi doctrine are introduced in the first few chapters of Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah and how they reappear amidst the anecdotal narratives cited in the later chapters—more specifically, the eighth chapter—of the work in which Sanā’ī praises Bahrām Shāh and other government officials. I will then demonstrate how the didactic anecdotes cited in the aforementioned chapter depict the perfect king and courtiers as figures who simultaneously encapsulate political resolve along with Sufi qualities. In my analysis of Bahrām Shāh’s depiction as a Sufi-king in Sanā’ī’s work, I will explain the similarities and differences between the idea of an archetypal Sufi-king—which appear in Sufi political texts, including Sanā’ī’s works—and the concept of the philosopher-king—which is reflected in a number of Persian historiographical sources and advice manuals for princes.

by Nasrin Askari / University of British Columbia

What is in a folktale that makes commissioning a high quality illustrated manuscript of it worthwhile? The themes and linguistic styles of folktales were generally pleasing to the common folks, and not to the members of the elite, who often presented themselves as advocates of high culture. What could have been the purpose of those who sponsored magnificent copies of folktales? If these works were used for pure entertainment, why do we not find more copies of them in the court collections, given that entertainment was an important activity for the elite? Aside from the enormous investment of the Mughal emperor Akbar in making a fine copy of the Hamzanāma (The Adventures of Hamza), the production of which lasted more than a decade (ca. 1562–77), very few works of popular nature made it to the elite libraries. One of these few works is the Kitāb-i Dāstān (MS. Ouseley Add. 1), dated 28 March 1565, preserved at the Bodleian Libraries. The manuscript has been described as a collection of “anonymous romances, or tales of love and adventure,” a work of excellent quality, which, despite water damage, “still conveys an impression of sumptuousness.” However, aside from brief descriptions of its ten illustrations, no detailed account of its text and the possible intention of those who commissioned it seem to have been provided anywhere. This paper aims to present the result of a close textual and/or contextual study of this important manuscript, which seems to occupy the borderland of the elite and the folk zones, in order to reveal its significance for its anonymous sponsor.

by Louise Marlow / Wellesley College

The historiography and the advice literature of the Ilkhanid period exhibit strikingly close inter-connections. Like their predecessors in earlier periods, Ilkhanid mirrors for princes urged their royal recipients to heed the lessons of history, and works of historiography emphasised ethical themes. But in addition, mirrors for princes of the period often include discreet historical sections, and works of historiography quite frequently incorporate free-standing advisory texts. Strikingly, the advisory texts incorporated into, quoted from or referred to in Ilkhanid historiographical sources often evoke the pre-Islamic Iranian past. As an example of this trend, which finds a parallel in the display of poetic inscriptions from the Shāhnāmeh in the tile-work of Ilkhanid palaces, this paper will explore the treatment of Buzurgmihr, legendary sage, subject of many narrative accounts and pronouncer of numerous wise aphorisms, in the Tārīkh-i guzīdeh (1330) of Ḥamd Allāh Mustawfī Qazvīnī. Qazvīnī’s history, composed towards the end of the Ilkhanid period and dedicated to the ruler Abū Saʿīd, contains (among other relevant materials) the Pīrūzī-nāmeh associated with Buzurgmihr. The paper explores the meanings and functions of Qazvīnī’s Buzurgmihr, in the context of larger developments in Ilkhanid historiography.

by Lale Javanshir / University of Toronto

Qābūsnāmeh is an advice manual for princes written in 1082 in Persian. The book has forty-four chapters that include fundamental information, instructions, and advice on princes’ personal daily life and administrative tasks. Some of the main topics addressed in the book include hunting, playing chess, hosting guests, etiquettes of eating, the understanding of horse breeds, rules of becoming a blameless vazir, being a respectful king, and a good commander of the army. Starting from the 14th century, Qābūsnāmeh was translated into Turkish six times by six different translators. It seems that not only has Qābūsnāmeh had a great importance in Anatolia, but it has also had a great deal of support for it to be translated into Turkish several times. The aforementioned topics addressed in Qābūsnāmeh were modified in the Turkish translations of the book in accordance with the socio-political status-quo in Anatolia. Amirs of the different principalities of Anatolia, who were competing with each other in the political field, had great passion to patronize art and literature in their courts. Their passion resulted in the development of the Turkish literary prose in Anatolia. The translation of Qābūsnāmeh in specific created a ground for this development and functioned as a means to create a link between Persian and Turkish advice literature. The main objective of this paper is to shed light on the significant role that Qābūsnāmeh played in linking the Persian and Turkish advice texts. In order to analyze the significance of Qābūsnāmeh in Turkish literature and discuss the reason behind patronizing several translations of it, this paper will focus on the following matters: Persian language and literature and their status in Anatolian principalities, the political and cultural environment of Anatolia in which Qābūsnāmeh was translated and the historical reasons behind the modification of the topics addressed in the book, and the role of the book in the development of Turkish literary prose—specifically, Turkish advice manuals for princes. For this purpose, I will also introduce all of the six translations in outline and briefly talk about the dates of each translation, the rulers to whom each work was dedicated, and the way the topics addressed in the original Persian text was modified.