Reception and response in Timurid and Safavid Poetry

This panel showcases processes of continuity and influence among Persian poets and literary historians in the Timurid and Safavid periods, and demonstrates how a sense of historicity informed the creative process. The first paper argues that the Safavid prince Sām Mīrzā compiled his biographical dictionary Tuḥfa-yi Sāmī as an exercise in post-canonical Persian literary historiography. He was concerned neither with a narrow range of great poets nor with an historical framework, but rather he wanted to tell the story of poets of his time, high and low, good and bad. He was demonstrably influenced by the examples of 'Alī Shīr Navā’ī, ‘Abd al-Raḥman Jāmī, and Dawlatshāh Samarqandī, but was also innovative in his expansion the parameters of the canon. A second paper looks at examples of response (javāb) poetry in the Safavid age, chiefly those written by Mohtasham Kāshāni to the ghazals of Jāmī. Commissioned by Shāh Tahmāsp’s daughter, Pari Khān Khānom, these responses demonstrate that Safavid enmity towards Jāmī was not all-encompassing, and also serve notice of the emergence of maktab-e voqu‘, the “realist school” that dominated Persian lyric poetry in the sixteenth century. In one example, the distant relationship between the speaker and the beloved in Jāmī’s ghazal is transformed into a dramatic dialogue in the javāb by Kāshāni. The relationship between Pari Khān Khānom and Kāshāni is the subject of a third paper, in particular the qaṣīdas he wrote for her. These qaṣīdas not only situated Pari Khān Khānom in a long line of paragons of female virtue and power e.g. Bīlqis and Fātima, but also projected her authority to the audiences of the day. These panegyrics sought to persuade the audience that Pari Khān Khānom was more than the equal of her male peers. The final paper looks at an exercise in translation in the late Timurid period, in which a poet known only by the pen-name Sā'il rendered 250 of Navā’ī’s Turkic ghazals into Persian. The work is an example of a rare phenomenon, as translations tended to go in the other direction, and Sā'il was having to work under the pressure of producing not just simply workable but acceptable translations for an informed Persian audience.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Nicholas Walmsley
Indiana University Bloomington


Paul Losensky


Paul Losensky
Indiana University Bloomington


by Theodore Beers / University of Chicago

The Tuhfa-yi Sami, a biographical dictionary of Persian poets (i.e. tazkira) written around 1550 CE, is an unusual document on a number of levels. It was compiled and written not by a professional poet, nor by a learned court official, but rather by a Safavid prince named Sam Mirza, one of the brothers of Shah Tahmasp. My research into the career of Sam Mirza reveals that he wrote the Tuhfa-yi Sami while living in Ardabil in the late 1540s and early 1550s. (The implication is that he was there under house arrest, due to his history of disloyalty to Tahmasp, as well as the rebellion of their other brother Alqas Mirza.) This is a tazkira written by a member of the ruling house, apparently as a self-financed project and with no commissioned requirements as to its content or form. What we find is that Sam Mirza was concerned not with writing a new comprehensive history of the practitioners of Persian poetry, but rather with collecting information about people who were composing verse during (or shortly before) his lifetime. A further unusual aspect of the Tuhfa-yi Sami is that it contains notices on many individuals who wrote poetry, but not for a living – and in fact a number of them are mentioned as practicing humble trades. What I intend to argue, above all, is that the Tuhfa-yi Sami hints at a post-canonical moment in Persian poetry. Sam Mirza, free to write whatever kind of tazkira he likes, goes back no further than the mid-15th century CE. He appears especially under the influence of such figures as ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami, Dawlatshah Samarqandi, and Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i, and his tazkira gives the impression that the Persian poetic tradition had been crystallized in late Timurid Herat. There are also points in the Tuhfa-yi Sami at which the author makes almost open reference to the conventional nature of verse. With all of this in mind, we can look at this tazkira as an important source on the process of canon formation in Persian poetry. It may also provide us with new insight on the literary innovations that were already taking place during Sam Mirza’s life, and which would go much further throughout the Safavid-Mughal era.

by Paul Losensky / Indiana University Bloomington

In Naqāvat al-āthār (composed 1598), Ashufta’i Natanzi fulsomely lauds the literary discernment and patronage of Shāh Tahmāsp’s daughter, Pari Khān Khānom. To substantiate his praises, Natanzi recounts that she selected eighty ghazals by the master late-Timurid poet ‘Abd al-Rahmān Jāmi (d. 1492). She then commissioned “the most fluent of the wordsmiths and the most eloquent of poets ancient and modern,” Mohtasham Kāshāni (d. 1588), to write responses (javāb) to these poems, which he duly delivered along with several qasidas in her praise. This anecdote is intriguing from several perspectives. The project as a whole and the choice of Jāmi in particular seem to contradict the ideological program of the new Safavid dynasty. Stories from Esmā’il’s reign describe the destruction of Jāmi’s tomb and literary works as exemplifying the Sunni hegemony that the new Safavid ideology was determined to overthrow. Pari Khān Khānom’s patronage also runs counter the widespread image of Safavid indifference and even hostility to secular poetry on the grounds of religious piety. But this paper will focus on the implications of this anecdote for understanding the history of Persian poetics. Although the results of Pari Khān Khānom’s commission are no longer preserved as a self-standing collection, the many javābs to Jāmi scattered throughout Mohtasham’s collected works lend credence to Natanzi’s story. While Mohtasham’s poems clearly pay homage to Jāmi, they also work to revise and displace the poetic program of the late Timurid era. A close comparative reading of one of Jāmi’s poems with Mohtasham’s response will serve to illustrate this complex dynamic.

by Myriam Sabbaghi / University of Chicago Divinity School

Royal women have been male court poets’ object of praise in the Persian tradition for many centuries. Sadi’s poems in praise of the Salghurid royals who ruled in thirteenth-century Shiraz, Abish Khatun and Tirkan Khatun, are well known. There is also evidence from the pre-Timurid, Timurid and Safavid periods that some women of political importance such as Shah Tahmasp’s unmarried daughter Pari Khan Khanum composed fine poetry and commissioned historical chronicles (tazkira) to project their power. Pari Khan Khanum, who virtually ruled Iran during the last years of her father’s reign and played a key role in the rise to power of her brother Isma’il Mirza, left a strong impression on the minds of chroniclers. Safavid writers’ high regard for the celibate daughter—who gained social legitimacy through her distinguished birth and lineage—was due to the strong blood ties that united the social and political culture of the time.

This study will examine in particular how Pari Khan Khanum in literary projects collaborated with the court poet Muhtasham Kashani, whom she deemed as the most eloquent poet of the age. With her patronage, Muhtasham Kashani became more associated with Shah Tahmasp’s court than any other poet. This study will analyze Muhtasham Kashani’s qasidas which liken her to ideal daughters such as Fatima b. Muhammad and Maryam b. Imrān, underscoring the relation of poetry to political authority and the rhetoric of rulership; with dramatic imagery and emotive expression, he also describes his lady patron in somewhat sensual language. This study will also compare his panegyrics that refer to her to his poems dedicated to other dignitaries. In light of what is recorded in chronicles about Pari Khan Khanum’s extensive involvement in the affairs of state, Muhtasham Kashani's depiction of her as an august figure representing eros and sanctity is not empty hyperbole but an optimal abstraction of royalty on par with male counterparts. As Beatrice Gruendler states, panegyrics should not be read for their textual properties in isolation, but for their potential to persuade and affect audiences. This study hopes to survey how praise poetry—responding to the power of female literary patronage—affected the Safavid cultural and political contexts that shaped it and which in turn it shaped.

by Nicholas Walmsley / Indiana University Bloomington

There can be found among the many manuscript copies of the dīvān of 'Alī Shīr Navā’ī an early attempt to translate his Turkic poetry into Persian. The manuscript in question contains some 250 of Navā’ī’s ghazals, each followed by a rendering in Persian by a translator known only from his pen-name (takhalluṣ), Sā'il, which he substitutes for Navā’ī’s in the final couplet of each ghazal. The subject of a brief study by Tourkhan Gandjeï, MS. British Library Or. 3492 is an example of the many ways in which Persian litterateurs sought to engage with the work of Navā’ī through the mediums of interpretation and translation. Other modes of engagement included the compilation of dictionaries based on his work, the incorporation of his poetry into chains of ‘response’ poems, and his inclusion in massive biographical dictionaries (taẕkira) of poets. But what accentuates the uniqueness of this particular manuscript is that it is the reverse of a phenomenon that was much in evidence throughout Iran and Central Asia in the medieval and early-modern periods, namely the translation of Persian works into Chaghatay Turkic. Works of translation in the opposite direction are far and few between, and although Gandjeï is dismissive of this particular effort, even going so far as to question the identification of the translator with the individual known from biographical dictionaries as Sā'il Hamadānī, on the grounds that the latter was too good a poet to have produced these translations, the work is an important relic of a little-studied and poorly-understood phenomenon. Translation is a difficult process and inexact science, and the choices Sā'il made while attempting to render these ghazals in Persian produced an entirely new work, one that had to appeal to a Persian audience that may not have had knowledge of the Turkic originals, and therefore would have judged the translator’s efforts by Persian literary norms. In effect, the translator was working under the pressure of having to meet audience expectations.