Iranian History/Age of Literary Accomplishments

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The rise of the Abbasids in the 8th century AD and the policy of ethnic and cultural tolerance they pursued led to a Persian literary revival. The period lasting from the beginning of the 9th century AD when Harun Al Rashid was on the throne to to the end of the end of the 13th century AD when the Ilkhanids grabbed power in Iran could well be termed as the Iranian Renaissance. Culture and arts flourished and the Iranian civilization was highly recognized and regarded by the Arabs, Europeans and Moors who borrowed heavily from it.

Zoroastrian Writings of the 9th century AD[edit]

The oldest extant books of the Zoroastrian religion (including the oldest version of the Avesta in existence) date only from the 9th century AD. Whatever we know of early Zoroastrianism and the life of Zoroaster are through the books written during the period between the last days of Abbasid rule and the decline of the Ghaznavid dynasty in the 11th century AD. This period is generally recognized as a period of Persian as well as Zoroastrian literary revival.

The Zoroastrian literary revival began during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al Mamun who encouraged Zoroastrian as well as Islamic literary scholars. The oldest extant version of the Avesta was written during this period and attested in the Dinkard, a work belonging to the 9th century AD. Masud (who probably lived during the same time) makes references to Zoroaster and the heretic Mani.

One Zoroastrian writer of note who lived during this period was a high-priest of Pars and Kirman called Minushchir who produced a revised version of the Bundashisn, the Zoroastrian myth of Creation. Minushchir also wrote the Dadestan-i-Denik in the year 881. His brother Zadsparam is regarded as the author of Vichitakiha-i-Zadsparam or The Selections of Zadsparam. The Epistles of Minushchir is a compilation based on a letter sent by Minushchir to his younger brother Zadsparam on March 15, 881 in condemnation of a decree issued by the latter who had recently been appointed as the High-priest of Sirkan near Kirman.

The Dinkard is one of the most important works written in the early part of the 9th century AD. Its writer is mentioned as one Atur-frobag, a Zoroastrian high-priest who had an argument with a Zoroastrian heretic called Abalis in the presence of the caliph Al Mamun. The book was eventually completed during the time of his grandson Aturpad. Contemporary with Aturpad was Mardan Farrukh who wrote Sikand Gumanik Vigar or doubt-dispelling explanation in which he seeks to establish the superiority of the Zoroastrian religion over others. Mardan Farrukh makes references to a manuscript by Roshan, a son of Atur-frobag mentioned in the Pahlavi commentaries on the Avesta and Atur-frobag's grandson Aturpad who is also considered to be a contemporary of Zadsparam. A colophon appended to an existing manuscript of the Dinkard says that the book was thoroughly revised by one Mahvindad in the year 1020. However, the colophon refers to only the third and fourth books of the Dinkard and alludes it to Aturpad implying that the first two books had already been lost. These might probably have been the oldest books of the Dinkard written by Atur-frobag in the early part of the 9th century AD. The Din Vigirgard contains a list of all the extant Nasks of the Avesta.

Zoroastrian works of note continued to produced in Iran until the 1100s and the 1200s. One of the last notable Zoroastrian compilations was the Zartosht-Namah written in 1278. This was heavily derived from the fifth and the eighth books of the Dinkard which speaks of the life of Zoroaster. By the start of the 14th century AD, the renaissance period had come to an end. The end of the Zoroastrian literary renaissance corresponded to the end of the transition of the character of the Iranian nation from Zoroastrian to Muslim. However, strangely, this transition was not brought due to the intolerance of the Muslim rulers of the country but by the destructive effects of the Mongol invasions which nearly wiped out Zoroastrianism from the country. However, Zoroastrian precepts did survive and were incorporated into Sufist Islam.

Almost all holy books of the Zoroastrian religion written after the fall of the Sassanian Empire were in Pahlavi. The Avesta was no longer understood without a Pahlavi commentary known as the Zand thereby lending it the name the Zend Avesta.

Early Muslim Writers[edit]

The first Muslim Persian scholar was Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa. A native of Fars who spent most of his life in Baghdad, he translated the Kalileh-o-Demneh(the Indian Panchatantra) from Middle Persian into Arabic. He was however murdered around 756 by the Caliph Al Mansur on charges of heresy. Sahih al-Bukhari, a native of Bukhara is credited with the compilation of the Hadith. However, these writers wrote almost exclusively in Arabic as also other Persian writers of the Umayyad era like Sibawayh, Dinawari, Baladuri and Naubakht.

Post-Sassanian Persian literature has its origin from the time of Rudaki whose full name was Abdullah Jafar Ibn Mohammad Rudaki who is the first notable Persian writer to make use of the new Perso-Arabic script. He was born in 858 in Rudak (Panjrud), a village in Khorasan, Persia which now forms a part of Tajikistan. For a time, he served as the court-poet of the Samanid ruler Nasr II in Bukhara. He is regarded as the father of Persian literature and the Sultan of Persian poets. Over 1,300,000 verses have been attributed to him out of which around 52 qasidas, ghazals and rubais have survived. He is also credited with having prepared a retranslation of the Arabic Kalileh-o-Demneh to Persian, a work has been lost to time. Rudaki has been the subject of a number of modern European biographies. Translations of his works are extensively available.

Mansur Al Hajjaj was another prominent Persian writer and one of the earliest exponents of the Sufism. He was born in 858 in Shushatar in the Khuzestan province of Western Iran. His grandfather is believed to have been a Zoroastrian who converted to Islam. However, despite his Persian ancestry, Mansur wrote almost entirely in Arabic. His Sufi writings, however, provoked the ire of the Abbasid Caliphs and he was executed for heresy in 922. Ibn Khafif or Mohammad Ibn Khafifwas another prominent Persian Sufi writer and poet from the period.

Firdausi[edit]

Firdausi or Ferdowsi as Western scholars called him, was arguably the greatest poet Iran has ever produced. He was born Hakim Abul Kasim Firdausi Tusi at a minor place called Tus in Khorasan in the year 935. His father was a wealthy landowner and Firdausi himself was a pious Muslim.

When he was just 23 years old, he came across a copy of the Shahnameh written in prose form by Abu-Mansour Almoammari. With the help of Almoammari's prose version and other earlier versions of the story, Firdausi started the composition of the epic in 977. The epic took 35 years to complete and Firdausi's inital intention was to present the epic before the Samanid ruler of Northern Iran. However, by the time Firdausi had completed the work (in 1012), the Samanid Empire had fallen and Mahmud Ghaznavi the first of the Ghaznavid kings sat on the throne.

Firdausi approached Mahmud nGhaznavi with the manuscript of the Shahnameh but Mahmud Ghaznavi failed to reward him suitably. Firdausi stormed out of the palace in rage and returned to his hometown of Tus where he continued to pen poems. In one of his poems, he condemns Mahmud Ghaznavi in unequivocal terms, its last line containing the following curse:

Heaven's vengeance will not forget. Shrink tyrant from my words of fire, and tremble at a poet's ire

Ferdowsi is said to have died around 1020 in poverty at the age of 85. One tradition claims Mahmud repented of his actions and sent the amount promised to Firdausi in the year 1020 but when the messengers reached his house, they found that he had died a few hours earlier. The promised reward was then offered to his daughter, who according to one version, refused to accept the sum.

The Shahnameh[edit]

The Shah Namah or Shahnameh, the Epic of the Kings, is regarded as one of the gems of classical Persian literature along with Umar Khayyam's Rubaiyyat and Rumi's Masnavi. It is a semi-mythical epic poem of a non-Islamic character, the different personages derived from the earlier legends and folklore of pre-Islamic Iran.

It is composed of over 990 chapters and 60,000 couplets and describes the history of Iran from times of the first man Gayomard to the Islamic conquest of Iran. It is more than seven times the size of Homer's Iliad. The work is replete with Iranian nationalistic feeling.

Despite being a Muslim, Ferdowsi was grieved by the fall of the Iranian empire and its subsequent rule by Arabs and Turks. The Shahnameh is largely his effort to preserve the memory of Iran's golden days and transmit it to a new generation so that they could learn and try to build a better world.

The epic starts with the birth of Gayomard, the Adam of the Iranians and the establishment of the Iranian monarchy. The epic then describes the reigns of the legendary Persian monarchs Gayomard, Husheng and Jamshed ans their descendants. The epic also describes in vivid detail the fall of Jamshed and the brief interval when Iran was ruled by Zohak, the Yemeni whom Firdausi regards as the agent of Ahriman. The revolution and the origins of the Durufsh-i-Kaviyani, the leather-apron of the blacksmith and Kayanian loyalist Kawah which later became the national standard of Iran and the restoration of the line of Kayanid princes under Feridun is also described in detail.

A parallel story concerning the lineages of the Persian feudatories of Sistan (referred to as the Pahlavas of Zabulistan) runs alongside the main one. Right from the incident of the partitioning of the Empire between Feridun's sons, Salm (who became the king of Rome), Tur (who became king of Turan) and Irikh (who became the king of Iran), the tale of the kings of Iran is replete with the disputes and animosities between Iran and Turan. Rustam, the Pahlava of Zabulistan is the focal point of the narrative and most of the second half of the story starting with Feridun's restoration revolves around him. Historians and archaeologists tend to identify Rustam with Surena, the Parthian commander at the Battle of Carrhae and Rustam Farrokhzad who died fighting in the Battle of Al Qadesiyyah. However, the semi-divine attributes assigned to Rustam by Firdausi make it highly impossible. Rather, Rustam could have been a pure mythical character inspired by historical peronages as Surena and Rustam Farrokhzad.

Al Beruni[edit]

Abu Rayhan Al Biruni also known as Al Beruni was a Persian writer, scientist, anthropologist and alchemist who lived during the time of Mahmud Ghaznavi. He was born at Kath in Khwarezn on September 15, 973. He belonged to the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi and was a part of Ghaznavi's entourage which made way to India. He is especially known for his books on Indians and their daily life.

Biruni's works number 146 in total. These include 35 books on astronomy, 4 on astrolabes, 23 on astrology, 5 on chronology, 2 on time measurement, 9 on geography, 10 on geodesy and mapping theory, 15 on mathematics (8 on arithmetic, 5 on geometry, 2 on trigonometry), 2 on mechanics, 2 on medicine and pharmacology, 1 on meteorology, 2 on mineralogy and gems, 4 on history, 2 on India, 3 on religion and philosophy, 16 literary works, 2 books on magic, and 9 unclassified books.

Indology[edit]

Al Beruni is regarded as one of the early Muslim Indologists. He had written a few books on the Indian people and their customs and practices which provide a vivid picture of the state of affairs at that time. He is considered as a pioneer of anthropology and comparitive theology and his works on India constitute one of the first Muslim studies of the Hindu religion.Besides, he was also the first Muslim scholar to understand the Hindu concept of Advaita. In one of his works, he writes:

The Hindus believe with regard to God that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free-will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, preserving; one who in his sovereignty is unique, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and that he does not resemble anything nor does anything resemble him

Science[edit]

Al Beruni correctly measured the size of the earth, its radius and circumference. He also wrote books on the Geology of India. He has catalogued precious minerals and stones in his Kitab Al-Jawahir or "Book of Precious Stones" which is considered to be an authority of gemology.

The Al-Biruni crater, on the Moon, is named after Biruni. Tashkent Technical University (formerly Tashkent Polytechnic Institute) is also named after Abu Rayhan al-Biruni.

Avicenna[edit]

Abu Ali Al Hussain ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina also known as Ibn Sina or Avicenna was a Persian Muslim astronomer, chemist, Hafiz, logician, mathematician, poet, psychologist, physicist, scientist, Sheikh, soldier, statesman and theologian.