Obviously there are a lot of important works of literature that have been created over the years and across the many cultures of the world, so if I were to describe Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as simply a great work of literature I would be doing it something of an injustice. It is a great work of literature, don’t get me wrong, but its importance goes far beyond the aesthetic. It could be argued–has been argued in fact–that this epic poem is responsible for saving Iranian civilization and the Persian language from extinction–or, at least, from being completely marginalized.
Which is not to say that Ferdowsi did those things all by himself. There’s no question that traditional Iranian culture was overwhelmed in the wake of the seventh century Arab conquests and the imposition of Islam throughout the lands that had previously either belonged to, or existed within the orbit of, ancient Persia. The successive empires that ruled the region from Iraq in the west to modern Afghanistan in the east built a cultural powerhouse over the ~15 or so centuries they were around (8th century BCE to 7th century CE), but the Arab conquests didn’t just usher in a new ruling dynasty or a new military power–they brought an entirely new religion from an entirely foreign religious tradition.
Zoroastrianism, the dominant faith in the pre-Islamic Persian empires, had influenced Second Temple Judaism, and therefore had influenced the development of Islam, but it was not a part of the Abrahamic tradition. The new rulers worshiped God (Allah in Arabic, of course), not Ahura Mazda–though the two were conflated in the use of the Persian word khuda (“Lord”)–and they traced their ancestry back to Adam and Abraham, not Keyumars and Jamshid. They had an entirely different way of looking at the world and its history, one that couldn’t easily co-exist alongside the Zoroastrian version of events. There’s no evidence that early Muslims sought to forcibly convert Zoroastrians to their developing new faith. In fact, Zoroastrians were usually considered one of the legally–if not always actually–protected Peoples of the Book, like Christians and Jews, a classification that raised some eyebrows among Muslim scholars but was, if nothing else, a concession to the fact that (initially) there were a hell of a lot more Zoroastrians out there than there were early Muslims. Still, conversion happened nonetheless, either out of a genuine religious awakening or a practical awareness that, in order for one to thrive in an Islamic empire, it became necessary to embrace Islam.
So Iranian culture was subordinated, then ignored. While some form of spoken Persian undoubtedly survived, Arabic became the language of literature, religious observation, and polite speech. Written Persian was largely forgotten, and spoken Persian vernaculars took on a considerable amount of Arabic vocabulary. Zoroastrian religious texts were gradually lost, even though Zoroastrianism continued to be–continues to be–practiced by a few true believers. And the legends and histories (the line between the two was blurry, as was the case for most ancient cultures) that had shaped the Iranian sense of self were mostly put aside in favor of the stories of the Qurʾan and the Abrahamic tradition. Things stayed this way for a couple of centuries, give or take. Around the end of the 8th century, though, a movement called the Shuʿubiyah developed that sought to protect local linguistic traditions (especially Persian) that were in danger of being totally snuffed out by Arabic.
The Shuʿubiyah required political change in order to get any traction, and that happened in the 9th century, when the Abbasid caliphate was looking less like a unified empire than a collection of independent kingdoms all paying fealty to the caliph in Baghdad. Inevitably, a few of these kingdoms developed in the Iranian east. One, the Samanid Empire (819-999) gets credit for bringing the Persian language and Iranian culture out from the limbo they’d been in since the Arab conquests. They used Persian at court and, more importantly, they patronized writers who worked in “New Persian,” which was the old Persian language augmented with some Arabic vocabulary and adapted so that it could be written using the Arabic alphabet. Anybody who’s studied modern Persian will tell you that the Arabic alphabet is not a great phonetic fit for the Persian language–Arabic has a bunch of subtly different-sounding consonants that Persian lacks, and Persian uses more vowel sounds than the Arabic alphabet is really able to represent–but in that place at that time it was pretty much the only game in town, alphabet-wise.
The first great literary figure to benefit from Samanid patronage, or at least the first one whose works have survived to the present day, was a man named Abu Abdullah Jafar b. Muhammad Rudaki (d. ~940s), who wrote vast amounts of poetry in every style of the time and is known to have translated the great Indian collection of animal fables, the Panchatantra, into Persian from Arabic, to which it had been translated by the writer known as Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. ~750s) under the title Kalila wa Dimna. Unfortunately only about 50 of Rudaki’s poems have survived, and his translation of Kalila wa Dimna is known today only in fragments.
So Ferdowsi didn’t save the Persian language all by himself. But he may have saved Iranian culture, because his Shahnameh wasn’t just written in Persian, it was written about Persia. He began work on the epic in 977, picking up where a previous poet, Abu Mansur Daqiqi, had left off before he was murdered (supposedly by one of his servants; it all sounds very scandalous). Daqiqi had set out to translate a Sasanian Persian chronicle called “The Book of Kings” (hence the title, Shahnameh, which means exactly that) into verse in the new Persian, again on behalf of (and hopefully in return for payment from) the Samanid court. Daqiqi may have been working from a prose version of the Sasanian text that had already been updated into New Persian–Ferdowsi alludes to something like this in the introduction to his epic–but if so, that text has been lost to history.
Ferdowsi worked (according to his introduction) under the patronage of a Samanid prince named Mansur, but when the Samanids were defeated and conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 999, Ferdowsi then began to work on behalf of Mahmud I of Ghazna (d. 1030). He finally completing his epic on March 8, 1010 (give or take; it was over a thousand years ago). It’s said that Mahmud promised to pay him a gold coin for every couplet, but the official he sent to deliver the money, who hated Ferdowsi and regarded him an apostate after reading his generous depiction of Zoroastrianism in the Shahnameh, swapped these for silver coins, worth substantially less. Insulted, Ferdowsi basically gave the coins away to the first three people he saw, but when Mahmud (who still thought he’d paid Ferdowsi in gold) heard of this he was enraged. Ferdowsi had to flee, especially after he wrote a poem mocking Mahmud, and seems to have spent some time in exile, although he must have returned home at some point because that’s where he died. Supposedly Mahmud learned of the official’s treachery in 1020, had him executed, and sent the correct payment to Ferdowsi’s home in the city of Tus–where it arrived just in time to meet the poet’s funeral procession.
The Shahnameh itself is spectacular, deeply entertaining and thorough in its (again, legendary) depiction of Iranian history. It delivers powerful messages on the nature of man, the nature of justice, the proper use of royal authority, charity to the poor, devotion to family, and, crucially, what it means to be Iranian. It revives the idea of a geographic Iran, Iran-zamin, an idea that had almost been lost but carried through to modern Iran (although Iran-zamin is substantially bigger than the modern state). And, yes, it does treat Zoroastrianism sympathetically, but I don’t think you could conclude from reading it that Ferdowsi was a crypto-Zoroastrian or anything like that (he writes a lovely passage in the introduction in praise of Muhammad and Ali, for example).
Ferdowsi wasn’t the first to write in modern Persian, but the Shahnameh helped to fix modern Persian in the form we know today, in part because the text has been copied over and over again by successive Iranian ruling houses. Many manuscripts have survived, at least in partial form, and they are among the most highly-prized examples of Persian book arts and miniature painting that still exist–later Iranian rulers commissioned copies of the text as personal treasures, as dynastic heirlooms, and as propaganda pieces about the majestic history of the Iranian people (these would be given as “gifts” to rulers of neighboring kingdoms). If it’s possible for a literary text to define a nation, the Shahnameh defines Iran. So, like I said earlier, its importance goes far beyond the literary. I wouldn’t put it on the level of a defining religious text like the Torah, the Gospels, or the Qurʾan, but it’s not far off from that. It can definitely be placed next to works like the Aeneid, Beowulf, or Homer’s epics in terms of its civilizational–by which I mean more than just cultural–importance.
The Shahnameh‘s importance stretched beyond Iranian civilization, and there are artifacts of it that can be found in many other traditions–particularly in Georgia (see above), where the epic’s stories embedded themselves in Georgian literature. The “Turanians,” which the poem depicts as Iran’s traditional enemies (and agents of Ahriman, the Zoroastrian equivalent of Lucifer) are often identified as ancient Turks (Turkic tribes at the time actually self-identified as descendants of the Turanians), although they were more likely nomadic, and probably non-Zoroastrian, Central Asian Iranian peoples. Luckily for us English speakers, there’s a great English translation of the work by Dick Davis that you can pick up pretty much anywhere, and if you enjoy mythology at all, even if you have no interest in the Middle East or Iran, I’d highly recommend checking it out.
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