MESA Banner
Weaponized Allegories: The Hermeneutics of Classical Persian Literature and Culture

Session III-07, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Roshan Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Persian and Iranian Studies, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel will address the theoretical aspects of allegory and its construction, function, meaning, and interpretation in the works of a few prominent poets, including Ferdowsi, Nezami, a few Sufi authors, Indo Persian literary folk narratives, and other cultural narratives. How are Persian allegories different from other traditions, including the Greek Homerian? Do all Persian allegories have a similar function? To answer these questions, the presentations focus on analyzing and interpreting allegories in Nakhshabi's Book of Parrots, Ferdowsi's Book of Kings, and the pietistic works of Mirza Ghalib Dihlawi, and in Nezami's Seven Beauties, all in the context of the theories of allegory. Presenters offer several arguments. For example, the moralist interpretation of The Book of Kings has served an ideological purpose. They compare Greek and Persian forms of allegory and contrast Dante's allegory with that of Nezami. Moreover, Persian allegories are varied, and it is beneficial to redefine the Persian allegory. They collectively evaluate and problematize the hermeneutic, moralist, or structural interpretations of this literary device and its various roles in literature and culture.
  • In the Greek literary tradition, allegorical readings on Homer’s epic are grouped according to their motives into two major categories, defensive or apologetic vs. exegetical or appropriative (Domaradzki, 2017). As for Homer’s own use of allegory, one finds a few cases of personification which may be considered as “prophecy of the allegory to come” (Whitman, 1987). Yet, there is a consensus that the Greek epic did not present itself as ainos “veiled expressions” (Ford, 2002). Against this background, I look at the Shahnameh to examine if and how the work’s presentation of itself opens the path to any type of allegorical readings. I will then look at some sample mystical allegorical readings of the Shahnameh by Attar and Adham Khalkhāli to identify the types of the allegorical readings, their validity and contributions. I argue that the introduction to the Shahnameh presents the work as a work of history; it is to narrate the life stories of kings and champions with the aim of educating the audience on practical matters and on moralities. As such, similar to the Greek epic, the Shahnameh does not present itself as a multi-layered text in need of interpretation. However, in his prologues to some controversial stories, e.g., that of Rostam and Esfanidar, Ferdowsi implicitly provides parallels with some natural phenomena, in this case, an outrageous vernal cloud which destroys the flower as an act of love and nurturing. These parallels serve to exculpate the hero from charges of immorality, and they resemble Homerian apologetic allegoreses which make parallels between notorious battles between gods and some natural phenomena. Attar and Khalkhāli’s allegorical readings, on the other hand, represent appropriative readings which employ the powerful imagery of the Shahnameh in the service of clarifying their mystical points. I focus on the story of Bizhan and Manizheh which is taken by the Sufi authors to represent the situation of the fallen man imprisoned by his desires, who can be rescued by the Prophet or a spiritual master. I argue that this reading is plausible in that while mapping the characters onto entities in a more abstract realm, it closely follows the line of the original story. Furthermore, it highlights some elements of the original story which may otherwise go unnoticed, e.g., Bizhan’s purification from attachments to this world and from grudge against his ill-wisher as a precondition for his rescue from the well.
  • This paper analyzes form, content, and didactic elements of the 14th century Ṭuṭīnāma (“Tales of a Parrot”) by the renowned Persian mystic and poet, Ḳˇāja Żiāʿ-al-Dīn Naḵšabī. Ṭuṭīnāma belongs to the Tales of a Parrot literary tradition, which is a seminal story cycle with numerous renditions and rewritings; a didactic work concerning morality, gender, and sexuality. The Tales of a Parrot story cycle takes its origins from a Sanskrit text known as Šukā-Saptatī (“Seventy Tales of a Parrot”), of unknown date and authorship. The works of the Tales of a Parrot story cycle comprise a collection of stories, many of them allegorical, narrated by a parrot to a merchant’s wayward wife, in order to prevent her from engaging in fornication while her husband is away for business. The first text of this story cycle was introduced to the Persian literature by the thirteenth century Emād bin Moḥammad Ṯaḡrī through his translation of a Sanskrit work. After Ṯaḡrī many Persian authors attempted to create their own version of the Tales of a Parrot, leading to the formation of the story cycle. Ṯaḡrī’s subsequent version, the Ṭuṭīnāma of Naḵšabī, However, had a principal role in forming the later versions of this story cycle. This paper will expound on the nature and importance of the Ṭuṭīnāma of Naḵšabī. Through the analysis of form, content, and didactic elements, I will offer an alternative view of the Tales of a Parrot story cycle beyond the predominant notion of these mores as literary works of mere entertainment. What are the thematic formulas observed throughout Naḵšabī’s work? What do these themes suggest to us about the overall structure of the Tales of a Parrot story cycle? By engaging in discourse analysis and literary analysis, this paper will show that like its ancient Indian prototype, the Šukā-Saptatī, the Ṭuṭīnāma had a practical value: it was composed to teach man the principles of polity through allegories and indirect language.
  • In pietistic literature of Shi’i and Sufi Muslims, the allegories constructed around the sun and the moon, as imported from the 91st chapter of the Qur’an, are representative of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 11 AH/632 CE) and ‘Ali (d. 40 AH/661 CE). “By the sun and its brightness, and the moon as it follows it,” herein the Prophet is the sun, and the sun’s brightness is the message of Islam which he carried, ‘Ali as the spiritual successor of the Prophet is the moon who in turn reflects the light of the sun, guiding those who seek it. While this understanding of the Qur’anic verse is endorsed by several hadith, specifically from Imami and pro-‘Alid chains, it does not take long for it to also become a motif within the realm of poetics. The Batini missionary, al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1078 CE) in his diwan writes concerning ‘Ali, that as does the moon he too repels darkness. Rumi (d. 672 AH/1273 CE) in his masnavi pleads to ‘Ali, demanding him to reveal the divine mysteries as he is the gate to the city of knowledge; finding contentment instead in that ‘Ali, even without words, guides as does the moon in the night sky. In his Gulshan-i Raz, the gnostic Mahmud Shabistari (d. 740/1339) answers the question of how to identify a mard-i kamil (perfect man), that he is one who has perfected his obedience, as the moon has done of the sun. Examples of such allegory are numerous in the Persianate tradition, however they are mostly limited to panegyrical usage. Mirza Ghalib Dihlawi (d. 1285 AH/1869 CE), the famed court poet of Indo-Persian and Urdu, elevated the function of this allegory to the level of polemics. He masterfully promoted the idea that as only the moon inherited the sun’s position in the night sky, therefore only ‘Ali could be considered the successor of the Prophet, superior to all others. This paper will thus attempt to survey the allegory of the sun and moon, pertaining to the Prophet Muhammad and ‘Ali, as it appears within centuries of Persian literature, culminating in Mirza Ghalib’s employment of it. Doing such reveals how allegories not only assisted in establishing Islamic hagiography, but also how allegories were weaponized to advance certain theological notions, such as ‘Ali’s succession to the Prophet.
  • Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209) and Dante (1265-1321) share unique, creative imaginations and eloquence. Even though they lived in different eras and diverse cultural settings, their literary works have a few thematic similarities, including their interest in religious symbolism and love poetry. They also share the ability to produce captivating images and tales. For example, Dante's enduring literary portrayals of the angelic and demonic characters in his Divine Comedy share some of the fictional and fantastical qualities of Nezami's of five iterations of the story of ascension and his story of Mahan from Seven Treasures. Moreover, in terms of form, they both make use of heavy allegory in the construction of their literary works. Beyond these surface similarities, their works are profoundly different in their literary message and allegorical meanings. This presentation analyzes the concepts of love and religion as they appear in both poets' works. It also discusses the distinct functions of allegory in these poets' poetry. Despite numerous recent studies of the shared qualities of the works of these two poets, I argue that these similarities in their works manifest only on the surface and that their works are profoundly different in their contents and allegorical meanings. For Nezami, those seemingly common subjects and themes serve in the construction of what I term Nezamian allegory, a self-contained literary construct that he uses to unfold his narrative.