Literary Reflections

'Persian Literature' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses Persian literature as background for al-Attar's Conference of the Birds and the poetry of Rúmí. The article by Hamid Dabashi and Dominic Parviz Brookshaw is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Persian Literature until 1990

Persian literature is a body of poetic and other literary works created principally in Iran. Afghanistan, the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia, and Turkey also have been home to a rich literature written in Persian.

Persian literature constitutes a rich, diversified, and autonomous aesthetic tradition within Islamic civilization, to which the Iranian, or more accurately Persian-speaking, literati and their audiences have actively contributed throughout history. Persian literature is not reducible to the fundamental tenets of Islam. Although most Persian literati have been born to families and raised in environments in one way or another identifiable as “Islamic,” their imagination and literary production are sui generis, irreducible to any religious worldview. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Manichaeism, Mazdakism (Mazdaism), and all the sectarian divisions within Islam have contributed to the Persian literary imagination.

Pre-Islamic Period

Perhaps the single most significant aspect of the Persian literary imagination is the noncanonical nature of its language. As it gradually developed after the Arab invasion of the early seventh century, modern Persian (as distinct from Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, and Avestan, or Old Persian) was a language in which no sacred text was believed to have been revealed. As opposed to Hebrew and Arabic, in which the Bible and the Qurʿān were revealed, Persian remained a constitutionally secular language. The memories of the sacred language of the Avesta and the exegetical language of Pahlavi having been surpassed and superseded by the hegemony of the Arabic Qurʿān, the Persian language occupied a noncanonical space in which secular events could occur beyond the doctrinal inhibitions of the sacred Arabic of the Qurʿān. It is crucial to remember that there were syncretic religious movements immediately after the Arab invasion, such as the Khurramīyah and Bih-Afrīdīyah, that made occasional rhetorical claims to the revelation of a “Persian Qurʿān” (see Sadighi, passim; Amoretti, pp. 489–490; Shahrastānī, vol. 1, p. 397). But with the demise of such movements, the idea of a “Persian Qurʿān” never materialized. The Arabic Qurʿān remained the canonical text for Muslim Iranians. The phrase “Persian Qurʿān” is later used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492), who called Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī's Maѕ-navī “the Qurʿān in Persian,” meaning that Rūmī's text has the sanctity of the Qurʿān expressed in Persian. Such hyperbolic expressions notwithstanding, Persian remained a noncanonical language in which the literary imagination could be let loose.

The Persian literary imagination has been acted out in a conjunction of multiple sacred imaginings both domestic and foreign to Iranian communities. Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Mithraic, Mazdakian, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, Islamic, and a host of other politically less successful religions have left indelible marks on Persian literary culture. But the very fact of their multiplicity, and the fact that they have come in succession and, in hostility or mutual tolerance, have coexisted, has prevented any one of them from exercising hegemony over the Persian literary imagination. Scholars (Muʿīn, and Melikian-Chirvani, in particular) have established that Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Buddhist imageries entered the aesthetic parlance of the Persian literary imagination and endured, even flourished, well into the Islamic period. Even in the Islamic context, sectarian differences continued to divide the active and passive loyalties of Persian literati throughout the ages. Whereas up until the fifteenth century most Persian poets and literati could be identified as Sunnīs, after the establishment of the Ṣafavids (1501–1732), Shiism became at least the nominal faith of many poets and writers. Having theological/antitheological, philosophical/antiphilosophical, or so-called Ṣūfī/anti-Ṣūfī predilections further added to the divisive orientations that loosened the active absolutism of any one ideological force over the Persian literary imagination. As for the oral and literary sources of this imagination, Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and Turkish material converged to create a multicultural literature that went beyond the confines of any particular politics. The world was home to the Persian poet as he or she sat to wonder at the nature and purpose of being.

The first textual evidence of a literary tradition in Iran is the Old Persian royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, Darius I (r. 522–486 B.C.E.) and especially Xerxes I (r. 486–465 B.C.E.), his son. These royal texts indicate a proud, self-confident, assertive, and theocentric view: “A Great God is Ahura Mazda,” reads one, “who created the earth, who created the sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius the King” (quoted in Yarshater, pp. 5–6). Although theocentric, this royal self-conception is clearly conscious of an individual existence: “Says Darius the King, by the favor of Ahura Mazda I am such a man who is friend to right. I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my wish that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my wish that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak” (Yarshater, p. 6). In these inscriptions, the king as narrator receives his authority from the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, and then acts as an individual full of moral and ethical convictions. Having received his authority from God, Darius the king is the man, the law-giver, the monarch, the chronicler, and the historian of the glorious deeds of the Achaemenids. In an inscription, Darius gives a boastful account of how he overthrew Gaumata, a magian who had pretended to be Smerdis (or Bardiya), the slain brother of Cambyses II. Darius's narrative is swift, concise, and elegant.

From the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenids to Zoroaster's own hymns, the Gathas, there lies a vast arena of oral traditions that are distilled and barely visible through the Avestan prism. This oral tradition was perpetuated by Iranian gosāns, minstrels who carried on a rich tradition of narrative songs and tales, legends and myths, stories, and anecdotes. As storytellers and magicians, gosāns had a central social function in ancient (particularly Parthian and Arsacid) communities, 247 B.C.E.–226 C.E. (see Boyce). They sang songs, told stories, recited poems, delivered satires, mourned and celebrated on important occasions. (For a discussion of the Avestan literature, see Dale Bishop's article in Yarshater, chap. 2.)

In the Avesta, the Gathas, and the Yashts—the pre-Zoroastrian hymns Zoroaster remembered later—are the first, most comprehensive poetic narratives we have that remain principally subservient to the Zoroastrian sacred imagination. Gods, deities, and heroes, and their metahistorical relations to worldly existence, are the subjects of these sacred narratives in which poetry plays a vital role. But the same poetic urge that partially subserved the sacred imagination of the Avesta was forcefully at work in the epic narrative of the ancient Iranians. As evident in the Avestan Yashts, a flourishing oral tradition had given epic proportions to legendary rivalries between the Iranian house of Kayānīyān and its enemies, the Turanians. Not until the time of Firdawsī (d. about 1025) do we have textual evidence of this oral tradition, which must have been active and widespread during the composition of the Yashts. Iranian minstrels must have transmitted various versions of these epics from generation to generation. Under the patronage of the Parthians and the Arsacids, this minstrel tradition earned cultural legitimacy. It has been suggested (Yarshater, pp. 10–11) that the overwhelming and politically successful Eastern (Zoroastrian) tradition overshadowed the receding memory of the legends and histories of the Persians and the Medes, and that by the time of the Sassanians (224–651 C.E.) only the Kayānīyān legends had been constituted as the legitimizing force at the disposal of courtly scribes.

The Sassanian emperors were the direct beneficiaries of both the sacred and the secular imagination that had shaped much of the earlier Iranian communities. Certainly by the time of the composition of Khwadāy-nāmag (Book of Lords) during the reign of Khusraw II (590–628 C.E.), the renarration of already ancient legends and stories had become an instrument of legitimation. Khwadāy-nāmag represents the earliest extant renarration of a legendary history where the poetic is used as a legitimation of the state apparatus. As the first man and first king, Gayōmarth, in this narrative, presides over the creation and succession of the rendition of much older stories. As “the most important literary heritage of ancient Iran” (Yarshater, p. 10), Khwadāy-nāmag is a compendium of moral and philosophical injunctions through the Persian poetic imagination. As such, however, it is as much a distant memory of pre-Sassanian legends and stories as it is a mirror of the moral and political imperatives of the Sassanian monarchy. As a supreme example of storytelling, Khwadāy-nāmag preserves some of the rhetorical features that have endured through subsequent variations in the epic genre.

The absence of textual evidence has permitted suggestions that pre-Islamic Persian literature lacked any significant secular literature. “This judgment,” Yarshater has suggested, “ignores two basic facts: that the secular literature of Iran prior to Islam was essentially oral, and that much of the early New Persian literature was in fact only a new recension or direct rendering of Middle Persian and Parthian creations” (p. 10). As an example, Fakhr al-Dīn Asʿad al-Gurgānī's eleventh-century modern Persian rendition of the love story Vīs and Rāmīn is our textual link to the Parthian version of the story available to al-Gurgānī in Middle Persian and Georgian. As an adventurous love story, Vīs and Rāmīn contrasts with Dracht-i asūrīg (The Assyrian [or Babylonian] Tree), which, extant in Middle Persian, provides one of the earliest examples of didactic dialogues in Persian poetry, in this case between a tree and a goat. Among a huge body of religious verses that Manichaean and Zoroastrian priests produced in Parthian and Pahlavi, Ayādgār-i zarīrān (or Yādgār-i zarīrān, Memoirs of Zarīr) and Drakht-i asūrig are among the few textual examples of a secular literary imagination. Indirectly, however, we know of a more elaborate secular literature. What in later sources is called fahlavīyat is an elaborate body of beautiful poetic traditions—surūd, chakāmah, and tarānah among them—with which even the later Persian poets, whose prosody was considerably Arabicized, were familiar.

Early Islamic Period

The Persian literature produced after the Arab invasion of the seventh century was thus heir both textually and orally to a substantial body of literature that, whether in direct (written or oral) tradition or in literary imagination, persisted well into the later periods. As it gradually emerged as a noncanonical language, Persian evolved into a literary language of monumental imagination. Always under the shadow of Arabic, Modern Persian carried within its relation to Arabic the debilitating memory of the decisive Battle of Qādisīyah (636/637) in which the Persians were defeated by the newly Muslim Arabs. In a remarkable division of creative imagination, the Persian scientific and philosophical writings were produced primarily in Arabic, while literature continued to flourish in Persian. Arabic then became the paternal language of the hegemonic theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, and science, while the maternal Persian, the language of mothers’ lullabies and wandering singers, songwriters, and storytellers, constituted the subversive literary imagination of a secular and poetic conception of being.

As Iraq (Baghdad in particular) emerged as the cultural capital of the Arabic west, Khorāsān (and Nishapur in particular) emerged as the cultural capital of the Persian east. From there, Persian literature spread as far east as the Indian subcontinent, as far west as the Balkans, as far north as China, and as far south as the Persian Gulf. Contemporary Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, and Arabs have a claim on the literary history of Persian as almost equal to that which they have on those of Arabic and Turkish. Relations of power, the changing features of royal patronage, revolutions, wars, invasions, and conquests have had much more to do with literature than with anything ethnic, racial, or linguistic. For Turkish warlords, in particular, Persian literature became the chief ideological legitimizer of their rule. Persian literature was one of the principal ideological instruments at the disposal of the Ghaznavids (977–1186), the Seljuks (1038–1194), and even the Ottomans (1281–1924) for political legitimation. As a courtly artifact, Persian poetry was equally instrumental in India, particularly during the reign of the Mughals (1526–1858). Harried by the coming to power of the Shīʿī Ṣafavids (1501–1722)—who, having substituted Shiism as the state ideology, had no particular need, penchant, time, or taste for Persian poetry—Persian and Indian poets found India a more congenial place than Iran. As a result of this historical displacement, the history of Persian literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should be traced to India rather than to Iran. Whether self-consciously or not, dynasties that considered themselves Turkish, Persian, or Indian throughout the medieval period adopted the political apparatus of Persian poetry to legitimize the state in a space adjacent to other, principally Islamic modes and modalities of legitimacy.

The roots of Persian poetic imagination in the ideological apparatus of the Persian court is evident in the first, most successful form of its historical record, that is, the panegyrics (see Meisami, Medieval). As it emerged in Khorāsān between the tenth and twelfth centuries, Persian court poetry put itself at the disposal of the Sāmānids (819–1005) and the Ghaznavids, who consciously fashioned themselves after their memories of the Sassanians. As Rūdakī (d. 940), Farrukhī (d. 1037), and Manūchihrī (d. 1040), among many others, marked the particular characteristics of Persian panegyric poetry, symbols of chivalry and warfare, of banquets and feasts, found their way into the repertoire of Persian aesthetics. (For a full discussion of the prominent features of court poetry, see Jerome E. Clinton's article in Yarshater, chap. 4.) But perhaps the most striking aspect of this poetry, best exemplified by Rūdakī's pictorial representations of nature, Farrukhī's penchant for exquisite physical details, and Manuchihrī's festive celebration of nature and his joyous description of wine and wine drinking, is its worldly imagination, which has an unmitigated, direct, and spontaneous contact with the physicality of being. Thus, although Persian panegyrics developed into a highly stylized courtly form, its imageries and historical consciousness represent a wide spectrum of aesthetic and material sensibilities.

Epic Poetry

Rooted in the same political necessity, as well as in Persian folkloric traditions, is the epic poetry that comes to its fullest and aesthetically most sustained manifestation in Firdawsī's Shāhnāmah. Composed in some fifty thousand couplets over a period of thirty years, the Shāhnāmah is a heroic narrative of a people's mythical, legendary, and historical memories. In the Shāhnāmah, Firdawsī brings the diverse and scattered memories of a people he deliberately identifies as “Iranians” into the sustained imaginative force of a single poetic event. The Shāhnāmah is self-consciously heroic, from its metrics to its diction. Firdawsī's epic narrative describes the heroic deeds of Rustam, the treacheries of Zaḥḥāk, the innocence of Siyāvush, the diabolical attraction of Sudābah, the tragedies of Suhrāb and Isfandyār, and the love stories of Bīzhan and Manīzhah, Zāl and Rūdābah. What holds these stories together is Firdawsī's self-conscious presence, his periodic interruptions of the epic narrative to dwell on the nature of human beings and their destiny, his unfailing moral gaze at the glories and atrocities of human existence. Firdawsī tells old stories with an unmistakably moral verve that operates in the towering imagination of a self-confident poet, fully conscious of his epic narrative. (For two excellent essays on the Shāhnāmah, see the articles by William L. Hanaway and Amin Banani in Yarshater, chaps. 5 and 6, respectively; for a good translation of a story from Shāhnāmah, see Firdawsī.)


If epic poetry appealed to the heroic aspirations of both the changing monarchies and folkloric traditions at large, a particular aspect of it, the romantic, catered to finer sensibilities of love and adventure. By the time Niẓāmī (d. 1209) composed his famous Khamsah, the Persian romantic tradition was already rich and diversified. Written about 1050, Gurgānī'sVīs and Rāmīn borrowed from pre-Islamic Iranian themes and constructed the first and most successful example of this genre. It is one of the most brilliant examples of Persian narrative poetry, one in which pre-Islamic stories are resuscitated with powerful poetic imagination. The origin of Vīs and Rāmīn has been traced back to the Sassanian (226–652 C.E.) or even the Arsacid (250 B.C.E.–224 C.E.) period. Gurgānī reports that he found the Pahlavi version of this story in Isfahan and, following the orders of Abū al-Fatḥ Muẓaffar al-Nīshāpūrī, rewrote it in poetic Persian with particular attention to the dramatic rhetoric of storytelling. (For a comprehensive essay on Vīs and Rāmīn, see M. J. Mahjoub's introduction to his critical edition of the text in Gurgānī, Vīs va Rāmīn; for an excellent prose translation, see Gurgānī, Vīs va Rāmīn) In producing his version, Gurgānī took advantage of both written and oral accounts of the story, but he embellished and delivered it with particular attention to the details of dramatic delivery, a trademark of Persian narrative poetry. Adopting a number of Pahlavi words in his poetic rendition, Gurgānī produces a clear narrative with a stunning simplicity. Despite the brilliance of its poetic composition, Vīs and Rāmīn was eclipsed when its uncompromising celebration of physical love offended Islamic sensibilities. Nevertheless, Vīs and Rāmīn had a profound impact on subsequent Persian romances, not least on Niẓāmī, the master of Persian romantic narrative.

Niẓāmī's brilliant achievement in Khamsah (Quintet), however, brought the Persian romantic tradition to a height comparable to Firdawsī's achievement in epic poetry. In a masterful construction of a dramatic narrative, Niẓāmī, always personally present in his tales, constructs a literary humanism resting entirely on the dramatic power of his storytelling. Khamsah consists of five narratives, each evolving from a thematic treatment of love and adventure. As evident in such stories as “Khusraw and Shīrīn” and “Laylī and Majnūn,” Niẓāmī took full advantage of dramatic techniques to develop a haunting narrative of love and adventure. (For an excellent introduction to Niẓāmī's poetry, see Peter Chelkowski's article in Yarshater, chap. 10; J. C. Bürgel's article in the same volume, chap. 9, is a comprehensive introduction to the genre.)

The romantic genre thus brought to full fruition by Niẓāmī soon unfolded into a rich tradition to which such gifted poets as Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī (d. 1325), Khvājū Kirmānī (d. 1352), and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492) added dimension and brilliance, qualities which, however, never reached the height of the master of the genre, Niẓāmī himself.

Lyric Poetry

In contrast with the lengths of epics and romances, the brevity of lyrical poetry tested the power of the Persian poets for the economy of their wording. From its origins in amorous occasions in the panegyric, epic, and romantic poetries, lyrical poetry found its most successful and enduring form in Persian ghazal. Ghazal became the functional equivalent of sonatas in Persian poetry. With sustained and implacable economy of wording, masters of Persian lyrics, principally Saʿdī (d. 1292) and Ḥāfiẓ (d. 1390), shed all extrapoetic functions and created perhaps the most artistically successful experience in Persian literature. The Ghazal is the aesthetic challenge of brevity, the formal occasion of poetic mastery, a short work where the mosaics of words, sensibilities, and imageries demand the best in aesthetic creativity that a poet can command.

Although the origins of the ghazal go back to such masterful practitioners as Sanāʿī (d. 1130) and Niẓāmī (d. 1209), it is with Saʿdī (d. 1292) that the miniaturesque composition of lyrics comes to its most brilliant fruition. Saʿdī's ghazals are the very picture of beauty and subtlety. Rarely has a Persian poet had such a perfect, almost magical, command over words, with flawless harmony in their sounds. The musicality of Saʿdī's ghazals defies description. They sound like a Chopin nocturne: crisp, clear, concise, brevity the very soul of their amorous movements. Saʿdī's works portray a human, physical, tangible love that makes an unfailing impact. The whole of the Persian poetic repertoire, having reached perfection by the thirteenth century, is at the disposal of Saʿdī. Never after Saʿdī did classical Persian ghazal benefit from the ingenious powers of such a word magician. Saʿdī's lyrical humanism is arguably the zenith of Persian poetry and all its worldly possibilities. (For a discussion of Persian lyric poetry, see Heshmat Moayyads' article in Yarshater, chap. 7.)


Neither the romantic nor the lyrical possibilities of Persian poetry escaped the attention of Persian mystics. Devoted to a particular doctrinal reading of the Qurʿān and of the message of Muḥammad, the Persian Ṣūfīs joined their Arab, Turkish, and Indian brethren in a thorough mystification of the physical world. Following the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd (the unity of being), the Ṣūfīs collectively engaged in a radical mystification of both literature and love, and Persian lyrical poetry proved most appropriate for such a task. Three poets, Sanāʿī (d. 1130), ʿAṭṭār (d. about 1220), and Rūmī (d. 1273), are recognized as the master-builders of Persian mystical poetry.

With Sanāʿī we witness the decline of the court as the great patron of Persian poetry and the rise of religious sentiments to substitute the physical beauties that principally shaped Persian poetry's imaginative repertoire. The substantial mystification of Sanāʿī by later Ṣūfīs is not borne out by the actual presence of religious sensibilities in his poetry. Sanāʿī professed that his worldly poetics did not significantly promote his station in life, and that consequently he decided to devote his talent to religious poetry. He blamed his contemporaries—a vague reference to his liaisons with the Ghaznavid court—for not having appreciated his poetry. He seems to have felt particularly humiliated by submitting his poetic gift to the brute taste of his patrons. He was the master of the world of words, he thought, and yet a servile slave to his brute masters. As a result, he informs us, he abandons worldly poetry and turns his attention to religious matters. But the conversion is not so dramatic as to abandon poetry altogether. He simply decides to attend to religious matters poetically. “My poetry shall be a commentary on Religion and Law / The only reasonable path for a poet is this.” Despite his Shīʿī sentiment, Sanāʿī equally praised the first three caliphs, indicating a less than zealous religiosity (see Ṣafā, Tārikh-i adabīyāt, vol. 2, p. 560 for a discussion). Nevertheless, later Ṣūfīs took full advantage of this “conversion” and fabricated fantastic stories about it, turning Sanāʿī into a full-fledged Ṣūfī. As a poet, however, Sanāʿī remained singularly attached to religious matters, a fact represented not only in his poetry but also in his pilgrimage to Mecca from Khorāsān (for further details, see De Bruijn).

After that pilgrimage, a friend of Sanāʿī, a man named Khvājah ʿAmīd Aḥmad ibn Masʿūd, provided him with room and board and asked Sanāʿī to collect his own poems and prepare a dīvān (collection of poetry). Sanāʿī spent the rest of his life in this house in Ghaznīn (modern Ghaznī, Afghanistan) and compiled his collected works, including his masterpiece Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah (The Garden of Truth). Sanāʿī's dīvān, masterfully edited in more than thirteen thousand verses by Mudarris-i Raḍawī, is a compendium of his secular and religious sensibilities. His madāʿiḥ (panegyrics) demonstrate Sanāʿī's mastery of the genre and are clear indications of a boastful awareness of his poetic gifts.

Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah va sharīʿat al-ṭarīqah (The Garden of Truth and the Law of the Way, also known as Ilāhī-nāmah, The Divine Book) is Sanāʿī's most significant work, which he composed between 1129 and 1130 in ten thousand verses. Sanāʿī dedicated this maѕ-navī couplet to the Ghaznavid warlord Bahrāmshāh (r. about 1118–1152). The Ḥadīqat begins with conventional salutations to God, the Prophet, and his companions, and then proceeds to poetic discourses on reason, knowledge, wisdom, and love. There must have been something in the original version of Ḥadīqat that angered contemporary religious authorities. Sanāʿī sent a copy of it to a prominent religious authority, Burhān al-Dīn Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Nāṣir al-Ghaznavī, in Baghdad and asked him to issue an edict in its support. In his letter, composed in the form of a poem, Sanāʿī went so far as to identify Ḥadīqat as “the Qurʿān in Persian,” a phrase that has been used for other texts as well, particularly by Jāmī in reference to Rūmī's Maѕ-navī. On the death of Sanāʿī, there was no complete version of Ḥadīqah extant. Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Raffāʿ, a Ṣūfī as judged by his introduction, prepared an edition of the text.

Kārnāmah-yi Balkh, another maѕ-navī of Sanāʿī, thought to be the earliest poetic composition, is entirely worldly and humorous. Composed for the Ghaznavid ruler Masʿūd ibn Ibrāhīm, Kārnāmah-yi Balkh is full of praises for the nobility and poetic dialogues with his contemporary poets. Sayr al-ʿibād ilā al-Maʿād, Ṭarīq al-tahqīq, and ʿIshq-nāmah are three other of Sanāʿī's maѕ-navīs.

Among his numerous maѕ-navīs, ʿAṭṭār's Manṭiq al-ṭayr (Colloquy of the Birds) has been persistently read as a mystical allegory, foretelling Rūmī's maѕ-navī to be composed later in the same century. ʿAṭṭār's story of a group of birds persuaded by the hoopoe (Hudhud) to look for a king is a simple didactic narrative. Thirty of the many birds thus persuaded to look for their king finally make it to their destination, where they meet Sīmurgh (by folk-etymology, the “thirty-bird,” but actually the modern Persian descendant of an Avestan name referring to a raptor of some sort). (For a brilliant translation of this poem, see ʿAṭṭār.)

Sanāʿī and ʿAṭṭār's experimentation with didactic maѕ-navī narrative ultimately reached Rūmī, in whose hands Persian mystical poetry achieved its pinnacle. Rūmī's Maѕ-navī, dubbed “the Qurʿān in Persian” by Jāmī, is the highest achievement of Persian mystical poetry. Rūmī took equal advantage of Persian ghazal lyricism and supplanted his mystical love where the physical love of Saʿdī was. With slight poetic modifications in conceptual and aesthetic sensibilities, Rūmī gave full expression to a mystical narrative that postulated an all-loving God presiding over the worldly manifestation of his omnipresence. Man in Rūmī's narrative became a Man-God endowed with the potential for the realization of all divine attributes. Rūmī's became a passionate quest toward the realization of God within.

After Rūmī, the colossal mystification of Persian lyrical and romantic poetry was so pervasive and powerful that not until the advent of modernity after the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 did poetic imagination have a literary space in which to emerge. The only exception to that massive mystification in premodern Persian poetry is in the lyrical poetry of Ḥāfiẓ and the whole new universe of aesthetic sensibilities that he created.

Ḥāf iẓ

With Ḥāfiẓ (d. 1390), Persian lyrical poetry reached a new height, a new and refreshing mode of poetic thought. Ḥāfiẓ's poetic narrative—the physical beauty of his verses—is beyond anything achieved before or after in Persian lyrics. (For a sample of his poems, see Ḥāfiẓ). In Ḥāfiẓ's poetry dwells an unrelenting engagement with the physical presence of life, with the stunning irreducibility of being. He comes after both Saʿdī and Rūmī, and in a remarkable way weds the worldliness of the one to the passionate intensity of the other. Ḥāfiẓ's ghazals defy the temptations of Rūmī's mysticism, confront the world directly, and shift Saʿdī's worldliness to a new, aesthetically more compelling, engagement with being. The overriding sentiments of Ḥāfiẓ's lyricism are the pivotal primacy of physical love necessitated by an existentially ironic and paradoxical conception of being. The crosscutting senses of paradox and irony give Ḥāfiẓ's conception of love a critical sense of urgency:

Seize the moment, you and I here together, OnceThe short trip over, and we shall never meet again.

And as for the promises of knowledge and wisdom to mediate any conception of being:

Thank God, just like us, no faith, no fidelityWas in he who was called the wise, the trustworthy!

Testing the power of brevity in Persian poets even more vigorously than ghazal was the quatrain form, rubāʿī or dūbaytī. Bābā Ṭāhir-i ʿUryān (d. about 1063) was the master of a stunningly beautiful, yet irreducibly simple, genre of quatrains probably first composed in the Lurī dialect of western Iran and then modified by later scribes to literary Persian (Ṣafā, Tārīkh vol. 2, p. 386):

A farmer was once waiting in a pasture, Crying sadly while to his tulips he attended.“Alas,” he said, as he planted his flowers,“That we should plant and leave them unattended.”

Bābā Ṭāhir's imageries are drawn from daily observations to which he gives a twist of unexpected poetic significance. Reading and understanding Bābā Ṭāhir requires no great leap of faith. He addresses simple, compelling realities that can immediately register with his readers. A feeling for the simultaneous beauty and brutality of life abounds in his poetry. (For a translation of Bābā Ṭāhir's poetry, see Bābā Tāhir.)

ʿUmar Khayyām

In ʿUmar Khayyām's (d. about 1129) quatrains, however, Persian literature finally recognized one of its greatest potentials: an autonomous poetic voice radically subversive of all metaphysics, of all unexamined sacred assumptions. (The deservedly most famous translation of Khayyām is that of Edward FitzGerald; see Khayyām.) The prevalence of historical references to Khayyām in Persian primary sources makes highly doubtful the Orientalist assumption that before FitzGerald's translation, Khayyām was not significantly recognized or appreciated. Also challenging that assumption is the still widespread presence of oral traditions of quatrains in the style of Khayyām. In the Persian and Arabic primary sources (e.g., Niẓāmī ʿArūz¨ī's Chahār maqālah [Four Essays] or Ibn al-Qifṭī's Akhbār al-ḥukamāʿ [The Accounts of Learned Men]), Khayyām is widely reported in actual or fictional association with several of his prominent contemporaries, among them Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1036), Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ (d. 1124), and Niẓām al-Mulk (d. 1092). Whether identified as a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, or poet, Khayyām was widely known, loved, and respected by his contemporaries. This contemporary recognition is crucial to an understanding of the centrality of ʿUmar Khayyām in the Persian literary imagination.

ʿUmar Khayyām's poems, marked principally by a frightful recognition of the fragile beauty of life, reject all intermediaries of human existential understanding. In these quatrains Khayyām confronts and celebrates reality—always with a fearful embrace that trembles with life and anxiety—without hesitation. Khayyām's quatrains are as compelling, simple, and unadumbrated, as they are matter-of-factly subversive of all the metaphysics of the sacred.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness—And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

You are a compound of the elements four,The seven planets rule your fevered life.Drink wine, for I have said a thousand times That you will not return: once gone, you’re gone.

In marked contrast to Khayyām's constitutional doubt is Nāṣir-i Khusraw's (1003–1088 C.E.) poetry, which he put at the disposal of his Ismāʿīlī faith for its propagation. Nāṣir-i Khusraw, as one of the most significant figures in Iranian intellectual history, had a profound effect on Persian poetic imagination. In such philosophical treatises as Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn (Union of the Two Wisdoms), Zād al-musāfirīn (Travelers’ Provisions), and Khvān al-ikhvān (The Feast of the Brethren), Nāṣir-i Khusraw expounded proto-Neoplatonic ideas in the Persian philosophical tradition. In his Safar nāmah (Book of Travels) he demonstrated an uncanny capability for critical social observations, but it is chiefly in his poetry that he is observed as a staunch ethicist fully aware—even proud—of his poetic powers. Much of Nāṣir-i Khusraw's poetry is also autobiographical, in the sense that he gives a full and detailed account of his moral and intellectual dilemmas at various stages of his life. Although he ultimately put his poetic gift in the service of the Ismāʿīlī cause, Nāṣir-i Khusraw leaves a detailed trace of his doubts and uncertainties before his conversion to Ismāʿīlism. His poetry in fact gives a full account of all sectarian, juridical, theological, philosophical, and even interreligious divisions that divided his contemporaries (for a sample of his poetry, see Schimmel).

Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries

By the end of the thirteenth century, classical Persian poetry reached its zenith. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī is universally recognized as the last master practitioner of the classical style of practically all genres, with the exception of the epic (for a sample of his poetry, see Jāmī). During the Ṣafavid period, Shiism functioned as the state ideology, and as a result the royal patronage of poetry declined considerably. Persian poetic imagination flourished in India and at the Mughal (1568–1858) court. Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did the Persian literary imagination take partial advantage of the Ṣafavid demise and begin to reassert itself. With the decline of the Ṣafavids in the mid-eighteenth century and the rise of the intervening dynasties of the Afshārs (1736–1795) and the Zands (1750–1794), the Shīʿī ideological grip began to loosen. Nādir Shāh Afshār (r. 1736–1747), in particular, weakened Shiism considerably when he contemplated its effective doctrinal elimination by reducing it to the fifth school of Islamic law (see Arjomand). The so-called Literary Revival (Bāzgasht-i Adabī) in the eighteenth century, and the relative prominence that such poets as Hātif Iṣfahānī (d. 1783) found in that movement, was a response to the decline of Persian literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This revival, however, did not do much to put the Persian literary imagination on a new plane. Age old imageries and sensibilities began to be resuscitated in the service of new dynasties. The Qājārs (1796–1925) succeeded the Zands as the penultimate Persian dynasty. With very few exceptions, Qājār monarchs were corrupt despots, overpowering their defenseless subjects, but weak and servile in front of their powerful external adversaries. The so-called Literary Revival could only serve outdated imageries full of empty praises for corrupt kings. Even the spontaneous zeal of the Bābī movement, led by Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (d. 1849), which produced a brilliant poet in one of its radical exponents, Ṭāhirah Qurrat al-ʿAyn (d. 1851), could not for long save Persian poetic imagination from redundancy. Persian literature needed, and received, two major political and poetic revolutions.


The Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 was the festive birth of Iran as a nation of self-conscious citizens mobilized to define their inalienable rights. The Constitutional poetry in particular gave birth to the dominant ideas of nation and nationalization (see Aryānpūr). The occasion of the Constitutional Revolution, in which the absolutist Qājār monarchy was forced to accept the central political authority of a national assembly (majlis), gave full, colorful, and enduring expressions to hopes, fears, and aspirations of a nation in the making. In the hands of these revolutionary poets, Persian poetic narratives were recast into the mold of a new aesthetic self-conception. Persian language in effect was liberated from the old, tired repetition of outdated sensibilities. Īraj Mīrzā's (d. 1925) brutal satire, ʿĀrif's (d. 1933) beautiful lyricism, Parvīn Iʿtiṣāmī's (1907–1941) quiet anger, and Farrukhī Yazdī's (d. 1939) radical socialism reinvigorated Persian poetry.

The revolutionary spirit created by the poetry of the Constitutional period continued well into the 1920s and 1930s. But the political momentum that the revolution had given to the Persian poetic imagination was not internal enough and strong enough to shed forever the shackles of tired, old formalities. Toward that end a revolution was needed from within the poetic imagination itself, a radical rethinking of poetry that would match the outward revolution.

If the poetry of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 gave birth to the Iranian “nation,” the Nimaic revolution in Persian poetics was coincident with the birth of the Persian “individual.” Nīmā Yūshīj (1897–1960), the founding father of the “New” Persian poetry (shiʿr-i naw), gave full theoretical and poetic expression to a whole new universe of creative imagination in Persian poetry. There is no precedent to Nīmā's accomplishment in Persian poetics in its millennium-long history. Through a sustained theoretical and practical rethinking of the very act of poetic imagination, Nīmā thoroughly revolutionized Persian poetry. Against tremendous odds, antagonized by generations of hostile and mediocre contemporaries, Nīmā singlehandedly made a case for a radical rethinking of what makes a particular narrative “poetic.”

Nīmā radically questioned the validity of all hegemonic prosodies and persuasively argued for what he considered the innate, “natural” musicality of the poetic narrative itself as it emerges from the creative imagination of the poet. Nīmā argued that the hegemonic dictation of no extrapoetic prosody should hamper that innate force and presence of the poetic narrative. Futile attempts have been made to trace the aesthetic origins of the Nimaic revolution to vague and conventional references to “the West.” The fact, however, is that in his major theoretical manifesto, Arzish-i iḥsāsāt dar zindagīyi hunarmand (The Value of Sensibilities in the Life of an Artist), Nīmā makes as many references to Russian, French, and German poets and theorists as he does to classical Persian and Arab prosodists. His argument, as theoretical as the very reading of his poetic narrative, is sui generis. Undoubtedly Nīmā's knowledge of his contemporary Russian and French poetics was as much a part of his radical rethinking of the Persian poetics as was his knowledge of his own classical heritage. But no amount of historical or geographical genealogy or archaeology can account for the unprecedented individuality of his poetic revolution. Nīmā changed the landscape of Persian poetic imagination.

Nīmā suffered the consequences of his poetic genius. With a few crucial exceptions, his contemporaries had no taste or patience for his radical reconfiguration of Persian poetics. Powerful and influential neoclassicists vehemently opposed him, but a group of young, talented poets picked up where he had left off. Chief among these is Aḥmad Shāmlū (b. 1925), who pushed the Nimaic poetics to fresher, more tangible, edges. The radical physicality of Shāmlū's poetry, and ultimately his daring experimentations with the potentialities of Persian language, his poetico-politics, gave an elegant twist to every possibility of poetic materialism available in Persian. In his hand, and through the force of his creative imagination, Persian poetic drive was pushed to the edges of radical narrativity. In his poetry, all extrapoetic realities dissolve and rise to meet the poetic.

Another major figure in the Nimaic movement was the most eloquent feminine voice in the entire history of Persian poetry, Furūgh Farrukhzād (1935–1967). No woman had hitherto dared to subvert so much so publicly in such a short span of time. Furūgh's feminine voice settled a millennium-long account of suffocating silence imposed on Iranian women in their relentlessly patriarchal society. Furūgh's naked, exquisite, and daring subversion of Persian cultural taboos was so radical that it would take generations of her readers to map out the range of physical sensibilities with which she dared to experiment (see Hillmann).

Mahdī Akhavān S-āliѕ- (1928–1990) was yet another forceful poetic voice that convincingly combined the most eloquent potentialities of the Khorāsāni poetic tradition with an unflinching political commitment to radical reutilization of Persian poetry. The result was a nuanced, barely noticeable balance between a poetic narrative that had nothing but its own story to tell and a relentless engagement with the political. Akhavān's poetry is a nostalgic reading of a glorious past that may or may not have existed and yet was put there narratively to make the present read a powerful song. His poetry then became the conscience of a whole generation of poetic politics: a poetry that took zest and momentum from life, a politics that was embedded in the humanizing force of poetry.

In the same category of the master lyricists of the “New” Persian poetic imagination is Suhrāb Sipihrī (1928–1980), who gave momentous, elegant, and beautiful expression to a radical physicality in his poetry. A painter-poet, Sipihrī used almost identical strokes of simple, articulate, and deceptively naive staccatos to create astonishment at the awesome physicality of the mere act of living.

In many respects a follower of Akhavān in poetic diction and sentiment is Ismāʿīl Khūʿī (b. 1938) who, from an early romantic beginning, matured in the post-Islamic Revolution period as a poet of great rhetorical skills in the service of a severe, almost debilitating, anticlerical sentiment. Khūʿī's poetry in the 1980s emerged as the most articulate voice of an Iranian diaspora totally disillusioned with the consequences of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978–1980).

Two unusually gifted poets—Aḥmad Riz¨ ā Aḥmadī (b. 1940) and Manūchihr Yaktāʿī (b. 1922)—took the Nimaic revolution in poetic narrative in yet another direction. Fuller experimentations with the aesthetic possibilities of the poetic narrative became paramount in Aḥmadī's poetry. Having lived most of his adult life in New York, Manūchihr Yaktāʿī, yet another painter-poet in the Nimaic tradition, has been almost obsessed with narrative experimentation. Because the poetic narrative of Nīmā came to Yaktāʿī from a distance, it became for him something of a linguistic fable.

Closer to popular taste but without a significant connection to these phenomenal revolutions in Persian poetics were several poets, such as Farīdūn Mushītī (b. 1926), Farīdūn Tavallulī (b. 1919), Hushang Ibtihāj (H. I. Sāyah, b. 1927), Sīmīn Bihbahānī (b. 1927), Nādir Nādirpūr (b. 1929), and Manūchihr Shaybānī (b. 1923). At times virtuoso performers of pictorial and mental imageries, these poets had no particularly powerful connection to their time and space and spoke mostly of outdated and even irrelevant sentimentalities. The Islamic Revolution had a considerable impact on some of these poets—for example, Hushang Ibtihāj and Sīmīn Bihbahānī—but not so great as to cause a drastic, qualitative change in their poetic diction or the narrative force of their creative imagination.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran subjected Persian poetry to a great political shock. The leading poets of the early 1970s, whose level and mode of discourse was established by the political-poetic power of Aḥmad Shāmlū, fully participated in the course of the revolution so far as they thought it a monumental, secular event. In the wake of the revolution, Shāmlū moved to London and published Īrānshahr, a journal that took full political and intellectual account of the event. After the success of the revolution and the commencement of its Islamization, Shāmlū moved back to Iran and started a new journal, Jumʿah, to which the leading secular intellectuals contributed.

With the successful Islamization of the revolution, Persian poetic imagination went into a major period of hiatus characterized by effective neoclassical Islamization (typified by Ṭāhirah Ṣaffārzādah), silent secular commitment (represented by Aḥmad Shāmlu), and radical defiance in exile (best voiced in the most recent poems of Ismāʿīl Khūʿī).

Post-Revolutionary Period

In the meantime, a new generation of Iranian poets is reaching maturity—some inside Iran, others in exile. This generation is too young to remember vividly the sensibility carried by the no longer “New” poetry. The rising spirit that shapes and animates this generation is bilingual to the soul of its apparition.

Modern Persian fiction received its greatest narrative and aesthetic impetus from Muḥammad ʿAlī Jamālzādah (b. 1892) and Sādiq Hidāyat (1903–1951). With such works as Sarūtah-i yak karbās (translated by W. L. Heston as Isfahan Is Half the World: Memories of a Persian Boyhood), and Yakī būd va Yakī nabūd (Once upon a Time), Jamālzādah successfully brought earlier attempts at a simplified prose to a promising conclusion. He built on decades of revolutionary, simplified prose from the Constitutional period and rescued the suffocating Persian prose from the shallow formalism of the Qājār period. While Jamālzādah's simple, effective, colorful colloquialism allowed Persian prose to cultivate expressions of diverse social types and groupings, Hidāyat took that prose into the darkest and most unexplored corners of Iranian communal and individual sensibilities. Hidāyat's The Blind Owl (Būf-i Kūr) is the first and most successful attempt at a literary narrative in tune with irreducible anxieties. Publication of The Blind Owl in the early 1940s was followed by other novellas and short stories, chief among them Ḥājjī āqā (1945). Although many prominent writers—e.g., Buzurg ʿAlavī (b. 1904), Ṣādiq Chūbak (b. 1916), Maḥmūd Iʿtimādzādah (known also by his pseudonym M. A. Bihāẕīn, b. 1915), and Jalāl Āl Aḥmad (1923–1969)—followed Hidāyat's socially conscious fiction, no other author matched, let alone surpassed, him in the existential insights of The Blind Owl. Perhaps the only exception is the brilliant achievements of Ibrāhīm Gulistān (b. 1922), who developed a compelling aspect of Hidāyat's legacy, an unswerving penchant for the primacy of the aesthetic narrative. In such brilliant staccatos as Azrūzgār-i raftah-i ḥikāyat and Jūy va dīvār va tishnah, Gulistān created sketches of a descriptive self-signification that always surpassed the traces of its own acts of significations. What exactly these descriptions “meant” or “signified” almost fades under the brilliance of the narrative itself.

Standing opposite Gulistān is Āl Aḥmad, who transferred Hidāyat's social realism into thinly fictionalized political mainfestos. Infinitely more effective as an essayist and an intellectual, Āl Aḥmad's most successful fiction was perhaps Nūn va al-qalam (translated as By the Pen), in which he borrowed from traditional narratives to depict a revolutionary society in the wake of a popular uprising.

In the same generation, and somewhere between Gulistān's aesthetic narrativity and Āl Aḥmad's excessive realism, is Ṣādiq Chūbak, one of the most prolific writers. In such works as Tangsīr and Antarī kih lūṭiyash murdah būd, Chūbak paid critical attention to the narrative realism of his art. Having been born and bred in southern Iran, Chūbak was chiefly responsible for introducing a new repertoire of southern sensibilities to modernist Persian fiction, a trend that was then successfully pursued by Aḥmad Maḥmūd in such works as Hamsāyah hā (The Neighbors) and Zāʿirī dar zīr-i bārān (A Pilgrim in the Rain).

The more aesthetically serious work that commenced with Hidāyat and continued with Gulistān was subsequently taken up by perhaps the most brilliant contemporary writer, Hūshang Gulshīrī (b. 1938). Gulshīrī's Shāzdah Iḥtijāb (Prince Iḥtijāb, translated by James Buchan as The Prince) is in the same vein as Ḥidāyat's The Blind Owl and Gulistān's Az rūzgār-i raftah ḥikāyat. Manipulating the tormented consciousness of a Qājār prince, Gulshīrī masterfully re-creates in Shāzdah Iḥtijāb the social and psychological malaise of corruption and decay. Love and loyalty, power and seduction, corruption and decay, are the undercurrents of a narrative that weaves its own story around itself.

Sīmīn Dānishvar (b. 1921), Shahrnūsh Pārsīpūr (b. 1946), Munīrū Ravānīpūr, and Mahshīd Amīrshāhī (b. 1940) are the four leading women writers who have contributed to a strong and articulate feminine consciousness in modern Persian fiction (for a detailed study, see Milani). Dānishvar's Sāvushūn (translated by M. R. Ghanoonparvar as Savushun) became the most widely read fiction in the entire history of the genre. Shahrnūsh Pārsīpūr'sṬūbā va maʿna-yi shab (translated by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof as Touba and the Meaning of Night) and Zanān bidūn-i mardān (translated by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet as Women without Men) probed deeply into the labyrinth of a feminine consciousness in history and politics. Ravānīpūr's Ahl-i gharq opened a new vista of southern mythical sensibilities in Persian fiction. In this respect, Ravānīpūr's fiction aligned itself with a tradition that claimed Ṣādiq Chūbak and Aḥmad Maḥmūd among its founding members. Amīrshāhī's Dar Ḥazar (At Home) symbolized a deep frustration with the religious and antisecular turns that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 took.

Publication of Mahmūd Dawlatābādī's ten-volume epic Klidar in the late 1970s was a major event in the history of Persian fiction. Centered on a fictionalized version of a local hero in Khorāsān, Klidar is a narrative of legendary proportions, in which love and adventure, atrocity and nobility, are woven together and lead toward an ennobling tragedy.

From such local traditions as romance literature, shāhnāmah-khvānī (Shāhnāmah recitation), taʿzīyah (passion play), two types of improvisatory comedy, rū-ḥawz¨ī (a play on the cistern [of a house's courtyard]) and siyāh-bāzī (black theater), khayāl-bāzī (shadow-play), ʿarūsak-bāzī (doll-play), and khaymah shab bāzī (puppet show), in conjunction with widespread exposure to other theatrical traditions in the Arab world, India, Central Asia, China, Turkey, and eastern and western Europe, a thriving Persian drama emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. Following the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911, drama took center stage in the Persian creative imagination. Mīrzā Fatḥ ʿAlī Akhūndzādah (1812–1878) and Mīrzā Malkom Khān (d. 1908) were the forerunners of social realism and political satire in Persian drama. Translations of Russian, French, and English plays proliferated after World War II, and such talented actors as ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Nūshīn lent institutional recognition to the genre.

A major culmination of Persian drama is to be seen in the 1960s and 1970s, when leading playwrights such as Ghulām Ḥusayn Sāʿidī (1935–1985) (nom de plume Gawhar-i Murād), Akbar Rādī, Bahrām Bayz¨ āʿī (b. 1938), and ʿAbbās Naʿlbandiyān, among many others, took full advantage of drama to address prevailing social and political issues. Sāʿidī, in particular, explored the deepest anxieties—he was a trained psychologist—in local characters and cultures beyond the reach of Tehran-based café intellectuals. Bahrām Bayz¨āʿī very soon linked his interest in theater to a brilliant directorial career in cinema and created a whole spectrum of dramatic and visual sensibilities entirely his own. Another playwright-director of considerable talent is Parvīz Ṣayyād (b. 1937), who successfully bridged a widening gap between premodern and modern, as well as between popular and avant-garde art (see Dabashi).

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its immediate Islamization by the victorious faction introduced the combined forces of a triple imperative in the Persian literary imagination: the first formed by those who opted for a life of exile over the militant censorship of a theocracy; the second shaped by those who ideologically chose not to oppose the political formation of a theocracy; and the third, those secular intellectuals who preferred to stay in Iran. Ismāʿīl Khūʿī and Ghulām Ḥusayn Sāʿidī are prime examples of Iranian literati who left their country and assumed the bitter language of expatriate intellectuals. Ṭāhirah Ṣaffārzādah and Shams Āl Aḥmad (the brother of Jalāl Āl Aḥmad) are among those literati who wholeheartedly celebrated the Islamic Revolution, remained in Iran, and continued to be productive in the new political environment. But not all who have remained in Iran advocate or even accept the radical Islamization of literature. Aḥmad Shāmlu, Aḥmad Riz¨ ā Aḥmadī, Hushang Gulshīrī, Mahmūd Dawlatābādī, Sīmīn Dānishvar, Shāhrnūsh Pārsīpūr, Bahrām Bayz¨ āʿī, and scores of other poets, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers, continue to exercise an autonomous creative imagination. In the meantime, the younger generation of poets, novelists, dramatists, and critics are charting their own courses into the future. Inside Iran, the radical implications of an Islamic revolution have stirred the deepest emotions and anxieties. A flood of literary and visual art marks the younger generation's creative response to a groundbreaking revolution, to unfathomable sacrifices during the eight-year war with Iraq (1980–1988), and to the continued anxieties of a collective imagination still not at peace with itself. Iranians live in exile in all parts of the world. Whatever the language of their host culture, they try to teach their children Persian, and these children are growing up to express their history and identity in Persian and in the language of their adopted culture. Young poets, such as Ruʿyā Ḥakkākiyān, ʿAlī Zarrīn, and Ramīn Aḥmadī (outside Iran) and Qāsim Ahanīn-Jān Aḥmad ʿAlī-pūr, Mihrī Murādī, Bīzhan Jalālī, Zahrah Khāliqī, and ʿAlī Mūʿminī, among scores of others (inside Iran), are the emerging poets, whose full proportion and colorful disposition are not yet in full view.


  • Āryanpūr, Yaḥyā. Az Ṣabā tā Nīmā (From Ṣabā to Nīmā). 2 vols. Tehran, 1978.
  • Browne, Edward G.A Literary History of Persia. 4 vols. Cambridge, 1928.
  • Rypka, Jan. History of Iranian Literature. Dordrecht, 1968. Originally published 1956.
  • Ṣafā, Zabīḥ Allāh. Tārīkh-i adabīyāt dar Īrān (The History of Literature in Iran). 5 vols. Tehran, 1959–1985.

Major Monographs, Edited Volumes, and Journal Articles

  • Amoretti, B. S. “Sects and Heresies.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 4, The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs, edited by Richard N. Frye, pp. 481–519. Cambridge, 1975.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shiʿite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago, 1984.
  • Boyce, Mary. “The Parthian Gosan and the Iranian Minstrel Tradition.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 18 (1957): 10–45.
  • Dabashi, Hamid, ed. Parviz Sayyad's Theater of Diaspora: Two Plays, The Ass and The Rex Cinema Trial. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1992.
  • Davidson, Olga M. Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1994.
  • Davis, Dick. Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi's Shāhnāmeh. Washington, D.C., 1992.
  • De Bruijn, J. T. P. Of Piety and Poetry: The Interaction of Religion and Literature in the Life and Works of Hakīm Sanāʿī of Ghazna. Leiden, Netherlands, 1983.
  • Ghanoonparvar, M. R. Prophets of Doom: Literature as a Socio-Political Phenomenon in Modern Iran. Lanham, Md., 1984.
  • Hillmann, Michael C. A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry. Washington, D.C., 1987.
  • Hunsberger, Alice C. Nasir Khusraw: The Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller, and Philosopher. London and New York, 2000.
  • Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1995.
  • Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad, and Kamran Talattof, eds.Essays on Nima Yushij: Animating Modernism in Persian Poetry. Leiden, Netherlands, 2004.
  • Katouzian, Homa. Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer. London and New York, 1991.
  • Katouzian, Homa. Saʿdi: The Poet of Life, Love, and Compassion. Oxford, 2006.
  • Katouzian, Homa, ed. Sadeq Hedayat: His Work and His Wondrous World. London, 2007.
  • Keshavarz, Fatemeh. Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi. Columbia, S.C., 1998.
  • Lewis, Franklin D.Rumi: Past and Present, East and West. Oxford, 2000.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard, and Christopher Shackle, eds.ʿAttar and the Persian Sūfī Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight. London and New York, 2006.
  • Loloi, Parvin. Hafiz, Master of Persian Poetry: A Critical Bibliography. London, 2003.
  • Losensky, Paul E. Welcoming Fighānī: Imitation and Poetic Individuality in the Safavid-Mughal Ghazal. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1998.
  • Meisami, Julie Scott. Medieval Persian Court Poetry. Princeton, N.J., 1987.
  • Meisami, Julie Scott. Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry. London, 2003.
  • Melikian-Chirvani, A. S.“The Buddhist Ritual in the Literature of Early Islamic Iran.” In South Asian Archaeology, 1981, edited by Bridget Allchin, pp. 272–279. Cambridge and New York, 1984.
  • Melikian-Chirvani, A. S. “Le legs littéraire du Bouddhisme iranien.” In Le monde iranien et l’Islam, edited by J. Aubin, vol. 2, pp. 1–71. Paris, 1974.
  • Milani, Farzaneh. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. Syracuse, N.Y., 1992.
  • Muʿīn, Muḥammad. Mazdayasnā va adab-i Pārsī (The Worshippers of Mazda and Parsi Literature). 2 vols.Tehran, 1959.
  • Rastegar, Kamran. Literary Modernity between the Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions in Nineteenth-Century Arabic, English, and Persian Literatures. London, 2007.
  • Sadighi, G. H. Les mouvements religieux iraniens au IIe et au IIIe siècle de l’hégire. Paris, 1938.
  • Ṣafā, Zabīḥ Allāh. Ḥamāsah sarāyī dar Īrān (The Courtly Epic in Iran). Tehran, 1942.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie, trans. Make a Shield from Wisdom: Selected Verses from Nāṣir-i Khusraw's Dīvān. London and New York, 1993.
  • Seyed-Gohrab, A.A. Laylī and Majnūn: Love, Madness, and Mystic Longing in Niẓāmī's Epic Romance. Leiden and Boston, 2003.
  • Shahrastānī, ʿAbd al-Karīm al-. Kitāb al-milal wa-al-niḥal (Book of the Sects and Creeds). Tehran, 1979.
  • Sharma, Sunil. Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier: Masʿūd Saʿd Salmān of Lahore. Delhi, 2000.
  • Talattof, Kamran. The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000.
  • Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Persian Literature. Albany, N.Y., 1988.

Text Editions and Translations

  • ʿAttār, Farīd al-Dīn. The Conference of the Birds. Translated from the Persian by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1984.
  • Bābā Ṭāhir. The Lament of Baba Tahir: Being the Rubāʿiyāt of Bābā Ṭāhir, Hamadānī (ʿUryān). The Persian text edited and translated by Edward Heron-Allen and rendered into verse by Elizabeth A. Curtis Brenton. London, 1902.
  • Ferdowsi (Firdawsī). The Legend of Seyavash. Translated from the Persian by Dick Davis. New York, 1993.
  • Gurgānī, F. A. Vīs va Rāmīn. Edited by M. J. Mahjoub. Tehran, 1959.
  • Gurgānī, Fakhr al-Dīn. Vis and Ramin. Translated from the Persian by George Morrison. New York, 1972.
  • Ḥāfiẓ. The Collected Lyrics of Háfiz of Shíráz. Translated from the Persian by Peter Avery. Cambridge, 2007.
  • Jāmī. Salaman and Absal. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. Cambridge, 1956.
  • Khayyam, Omar (ʿUmar Khayyām). Rubaiyat. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. London, 1859.
  • Lewis, Franklin D., and Farzin Yazdanfar, eds. In a Voice of Their Own: A Collection of Stories by Iranian Women Written since the Revolution of 1979. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1996.
  • Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn. The Mathnawí of Jaláluʿddín Rúmí. 8 vols. Edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. London, 1925–1940.

Hamid Dabashi

Persian Literature since 1990

Arguably the two most significant developments in prose writing by Iranians since the 1978–1979 revolution have been the rise to prominence of a large number of women writers inside Iran writing in Persian and the emergence of a substantial and varied body of literature written by Iranians living outside of Iran in the language of their adopted culture.

Women Writers in Iran

Following the example set by figures such as Iran's most successful woman novelist, Sīmīn Dānishvar, many of these younger women writers have taken center stage on the Iranian literary scene. Some have produced short stories and novels with a strident, often feminist tone (the best examples being the works of Munīrū Ravānīpūr and Shahrnūsh Pārsīpūr), while others have produced works of a less overtly politicized tone. Among this second group can be counted Gulī Taraqqī, a writer who now straddles Paris and Tehran and who is as much part of the exilic literary scene as she is of the domestic one. Taraqqī has grown in popularity since the revolution, and her short stories (in particular Khātirah-hā-yi parākandah [Scattered Memories, 1992]), which draw primarily on her middle-class 1950s Tehrani childhood, have proved extremely popular. Although not overtly political, the poignancy of Taraqqī's longing for a lost Tehran cannot go unnoticed and could be understood as a critique of the contemporary status quo.

A younger writer, who in terms of her prose style could be regarded as following in the footsteps of Taraqqī, is Zūyā Pīrzād, who has enjoyed remarkable success, in particular with her novel Chirāgh-hā-rā man khāmūsh mī-kunam (I Will Turn Off the Lights, 2001), which is centered on the lives of an Armenian extended family in 1960s Abadan. This is the first mainstream Iranian novel in which almost all the main characters come from one of Iran's religious minority communities. Like Taraqqī, Pīrzād's prose is tinged with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Iran, and it is similarly lacking in overtly political or social comment. This is of course in part because of Iran's strict censorship laws.

Another best-selling novel of recent years is Bāmdād-i khumār (Morning of Intoxication, 1996) by Fattānah Hājj Sayyid Javādī. Although inferior to Chirāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mī-kunam in literary terms, Bāmdād-i khumār has proved no less popular. This novel is similarly nostalgic, but is set in early-twentieth-century Iran and focuses on the lives of the members of a wealthy, aristocratic (Muslim) extended family. Both Bāmdād-i khumār and Chirāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mī-kunam have appeared in German translation (Der Morgen der Trunkenheit [2002] and Die Lichter lösche ich [2006], respectively).

Writing of the Iranian Diaspora

Just as women writers have been increasing in both number and popularity within Iran, so simultaneously expatriate women writing primarily in English and French have come to dominate the Iranian literary scene abroad. Although some novels written by Iranian women writers of the diaspora have enjoyed some success (such as Gina Nahai'sCry of the Peacock [1991] or Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's The Saddlebag [2000]), it is in the genre of autobiography or memoir that they have excelled. Early examples in English are Shusha Guppy'sThe Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood (1988) and Sattareh Farman-Farmaian's Daughter of Persia: a Woman's Journey from her Father's Harem through the Islamic Revolution (1992) which, although focused on personal life experiences (in particular childhood), do touch on broader aspects of twentieth-century Iranian history. More recent examples which deal more specifically with the 1978–1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the early years of the Islamic Republic are Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (2004) and Marjane Satrapi's immensely successful Persepolis (2000–2003), a memoir in graphic novel form written in French and translated into numerous languages. It was turned into an animated film (2007) of the same name, directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud, which won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Some memoirs written by women writers of the Iranian diaspora have provoked more controversy than others, most notably Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2004). This autobiographical novel spawned heated debate among expatriate Iranian intellectuals and inspired the writing of at least one other memoir in response, Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (2007).

A number of women writers who are either of mixed heritage or consider themselves to belong to both their Iranian and their adopted cultures have tackled directly issues of identity and belonging in their autobiographies. The best examples of this sort of memoir are found in the American context. Tara Bahrampour's To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America (1999) and Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran (2005) are two important examples.

Literature of the Iranian diaspora produced in English is of course not confined to the genres of the novel and memoir, but also encompasses short stories and poetry. Many of these authors, who have grown up largely (or exclusively) outside of Iran, and who often do not posses a fluent command of Persian, nevertheless proudly identify themselves as Iranian and draw upon classical and contemporary Persian literature through translation as sources of inspiration for their own brand of Iranian literary expression.


  • Bahrampour, Tara. To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America. New York, 1999.
  • Farman-Farmaian, Sattareh. Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem through the Islamic Revolution. With Dona Munker. London, 1992.
  • Guppy, Shusha. The Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood. London, 1988.
  • Hāgˇgˇ Saiyid Gˇawādī, Fattāna. Der Morgen der Trunkenheit. Translated by Susanne Baghestani. Frankfurt, 2002.
  • Hakakian, Roya. Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. New York, 2004.
  • Karim, Persis M., ed. Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora. Fayetteville, Ark., 2006.
  • Karim, Persis M., and Mohammed Mehdi Khorrami, eds. A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans. New York, 1999.
  • Keshavarz, Fatemeh. Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2007.
  • Moaveni, Azadeh. Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. New York, 2005.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid, and Ahmad Karimi Hakkak, eds. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. New York, 2005.
  • Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. London, 2004.
  • Pirzad, Zoya. Die Lichter lösche ich. Translated by Susanne Baghestani. Frankfurt, 2006.
  • Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. London, 2003.
  • Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. London, 2004.
  • Taraghi, Goli. A Mansion in the Sky and Other Short Stories. Translated by Faridoun Farrokh. Austin, Tex., 2003.

Dominic Parviz Brookshaw


Dabashi, Hamid and Dominic Parviz Brookshaw. "Persian Literature." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #191: 'Persian Literature' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 18, 2024