“The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature” by Hamid Dabashi

“Yazdegird I Kicked to Death by the Water Horse”, c.1330-30, (Metropolitan Museum, via Wikimedia Commons) “Yazdegird I Kicked to Death by the Water Horse”, c.1330-30, (Metropolitan Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Persia was long a fault-line in an Islam that liked to think of itself, and was often presented as being, monolithic. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Umayyad Caliphate—which defeated the Persian Sassanids in the 7th century—at both Arabization and Islamization, linguistic, cultural and even religious divisions remained. Persian identity began to reassert itself soon thereafter and the turn the of 10th century, the rise of  the Ghaznavids constitute a very intriguing period from the point of view of flourishing of Persian literature, art, music, philosophy, and contribution in science and mathematics.

It is in this period of reassertion of the Persian identity that Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh, the longest epic ever written by a single poet. The title “Shahnameh” means the “Book of Kings”, but “Shah” also means “the best”. In this sense, it is the book. The epic is written in more than fifty thousand couplets, detailing the chronology of Persian kings—mythical, heroic, and historical—right from the creation of the world to the arrival of Islam in Iran in the 7th century. The stories of these kings describe the reigns of the kings, their conquests, their vanity, the clashes with their knights (who tend to be morally upright and warn the kings); these stories draw moral lessons for the rulers by dwelling upon the defeat in the moments of triumph and vice versa:


In one a crown and in the other a rope
When a man sits happy with his crown
With a tie of rope someone brings him down from his throne
Why would one fall in love with this world
Since we all have to pass by those who went before us?


These stories are not just about battles and conspiracies, prophecies and miracles, but also about the birds who raise human babies, the supernatural, the Devil Ahriman, and the legendary treatment of historical figures like Alexander the Great. Non-Iranians would be surprised to see Alexander, not just as a conqueror, but as a seeker of truth and enlightenment. The beauty of the Shahnameh lies in the way it has continued to fascinate the Iranians (rulers and populations alike), the European colonizers (it was first translated by the British in India), and readers all over the world. Almost all Iranian dynasties commissioned newer and sometimes illustrated editions of the text and people all over the world have translated and adapted it for different media.

For some readers, The Shahnameh brings to mind Matthew Arnold’s poem on Sohrab and Rustom—a story about the battle between the two men, father and son. It is a classic Oedipal tale, but with a twist, for it is the son who gets killed in the end. Like Sohrab and Rustom, there are a couple of more Oedipal stories: that of Seyavash and Sudabeh, and Esfandiar and Rustom. One cannot miss the sexual tension with the mother figures in these stories. Seyavash is accused by Sudabeh, his stepmother, of attempting to seduce her and is forced to go through a trial by fire. He is saved, well, because he is innocent, but he is eventually banished by his father anyway. The subsequent events end in Seyavash’s death. Similarly, Esfandiar is sent by his father, the king, on an impossible mission to kill Rustom, and is killed. One verse goes:


From a nightingale I once heard a storyteller
Recited from the most ancient times:
One night drunkard Esfandiar returned
From the royal court of his father in anger
To his mother the Roman princess Katayoun
In the pitch-dark of nightingale
He held her tightly and asked for more wine.

Ferdowsi’s craft lies in its visuality.

The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature, Hamid Dabashi (Princeton University Press, January 2019)
The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature, Hamid Dabashi (Princeton University Press, January 2019)

In The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature, Hamid Dabashi writes about the epic with a two-fold objective: to introduce the text to students and educated readers, and to use it to challenge the conventional ways of defining World Literature in academia. The first involves bringing out the key stories and themes from the text, offering insights into the context it was written, and historicizing its reception.

Dabashi has been teaching the Shahnameh for several years now and in his previous books, he has written in detail about Persian culture and literary tradition. This expertise, combined with his lucid writing, brings the epic alive and makes the reader curious about the world in which it was written, and in which it continues to be read, owing, not least to the fact that the language has not changed dramatically since the time the epic came was written:


Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is no ordinary book. It breathes with a living history. It makes past present, the present palpitate with past. It shrinks time, it collapses distant spaces upon one another, it mixes facts and fantasies, it matches otherwise dissonant cognitive stages of our historical consciousness. It is written in beautiful calligraphy, it is recited eloquently, it is performed dramatically, it is painted elegantly, it is staged theatrically and cinematically. It is cited when children are born, or when revolutionaries succeed, or dynasties fall, and it is cited when national heroes die. It is the talismanic evidence of dignity and pride of place of a people, a nation, a national consciousness, scattered beyond many fictive frontiers, evident through any and all boundaries.


Rather than discussing the text in the abstract, Dabashi talks about instances in which his students have been quite moved by the experience of reading the epic:


I never taught only a segment of the Shahnameh. I insisted on the totality of the experience. The result was an initially formidable fear of the total at the beginning eventually yielding to the pleasure of discovery. The world of the authorial voice of the poet yields to the world of the mythic universe he crafts, before reaching its zenith in the heroic world of its chief protagonists and then descending upon our own time with gentility and grace. The movements from one world to another were organic, imperceptive, transpositional – the effect transformative. “To tell you the truth, Professor Dabashi,” one well-read sophomore student once told me, “I shiver with excitement and bewilderment – how is it that I did not know this book even existed?”


The student’s wonder comes not out of a misplaced sense of awe but rather from exposure to Dabashi’s interpretation of the text. Ferdowsi is playful, and his legendary treatment of even the historical makes it extremely difficult to separate fact and fiction. Contrasting it with Siyasatnameh, an 11th Persian century text, a “peaceful” one in the sense that it is plain and straightforward about its purpose of imparting political advice, Dabashi points out that the Shahnameh cannot be pinned down:


In the Shahnameh, on the contrary, that peace is perpetually disturbed, melodiously meandered, and the poetically emancipated stories – pagan kids let loose form a long day’s incarceration in a Catholic school – roam the streets and alleys of the narrative in their rambunctious roaring toward freedom and emancipation of the whole universe they create, washing their innocent memories clean of every and all sad sagas they were just taught.


Ferdowsi’s craft lies in its visuality. Dabashi laments some contemporary interpretations of the poet’s craft that liken it to over-familiar categories of the oral and verbal. For him, Ferdowsi is cinematic; his writing is experienced in cuts and sequences, to borrow metaphors from cinematography.

In addition to matters of style, readers unfamiliar with the epic will find fascinating questions introduced by Dabashi with his reflections on their contexts. For instance, in the beginning pages of the epic, Tahmoures is attacked by the demons but he defeats them in a battle. They plead for mercy and promise to teach him the art of writing in return. Regarding the source of writing in evil, Dabashi points out:


Why should Ferdowsi acknowledge and attribute the most enduring feature of human civilization to forces of evil? What did the demons do to humans by teaching them how to write? What demonic device is the act of writing, jealously guarded by the forces of evil, until they taught it to humans in a dubious compensation for their freedom. Or might we not  reverse the question: did humanity not learn its most sacrosanct definition of civilization, the very alphabet of our cultured life, from our demonized enemies? Should we therefore not dare to overcome the fear of those thus othered for a gift hidden in their alterity?

It is hard to overestimate the later importance of the Shahnameh.

It is hard to overestimate the later importance of the Shahnameh. Persian culture dominated not just in those areas explicitly part of any given Persian empire but also in those areas that used related languages. Furthermore, Turkic tribes tended to adopt Persian culture when then encountered it, spreading its influence from Ottoman Istanbul to Mughal Delhi. Although Arabic remained the language of religion, Persian was a transnational language, and one of literature and history, Dabashi also discusses the work’s place in “World Literature”—a rather modern concept—as well its place in the politics of subsequent, and particularly recent, centuries (after all, the nature of Persian/Iranian identity within the greater Muslim world and political Middle East is still a topic of great import), but these rather more prosaic concerns seem, ironically, to diminish rather than exalt the epic.

The Shahnameh can be cherished for its invaluable, delightful stories about the king who grows serpents on his shoulders, the king who disowns his son because he has white skin and white hair, the woman who goes through a “Rostamarean” section because her baby is too huge to be born naturally, or the woman who fetches food for her beloved imprisoned in a deep pit by her father. The Shahnameh should be celebrated for illustrating  how faith and culture are not above geography and rootedness or regional and cultural identity, and for its immediate context about the rise and fall of empires, for helping understand how stories withstand invasions.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.