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Epics and Narratives in Medieval Turco-Persianate Culture

Panel III-10, sponsored byMiddle East Medievalists (MEM), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel seeks to address, under the broad rubric of “epic and narrative”, how medieval Muslim communities in the Turco-Persianate sphere (namely, Anatolia and greater Iran) shaped their respective cosmologies by contributing to and celebrating a number of textual genres and traditions. Specific Persian texts produced in these Turcophone milieus between the 12th and 16th centuries – associated with categories such as mythology, hagiography, prophetography, and political ethics – will be examined by participants in this panel. By using case studies to better understand and frame questions in regard to medieval heterogeneity and plurality, we can pose queries as to whether such heterogeneities and pluralities co-existed with, or perhaps even challenged, normative conceptions of social hierarchy, orthodoxy and gender. Moreover, these panelists are also concerned with how processes of myth-making, historical imagination, and idealized prescriptions shaped the worldviews of those occupying a diverse constellation of spaces, from distant China to the courts (dargahs) of the Eldigüzids and the Safavids and further on to the Mevlevi community in Konya and beyond.
  • Dr. Colin Mitchell -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Kaveh Hemmat -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nasrin Askari -- Presenter
  • Dr. Abolfazl Moshiri -- Presenter
  • Dr. Colin Mitchell
    This paper is dedicated to exploring the extent to which the early Safavids of the 15th and early 16th century – Shaikhs Junaid, Haidar, `Ali, and Isma`il – were inspired and influenced by the Arabo- and Perso-Islamic epic tradition of prophetography (qisas al-anbiya). As the Safavid tariqah morphed and changed from the arguably orthodox roots in the 14th century first laid down by Shaikh Safi al-Din and his successors in the Ardabil region, other epic traditions (e.g. Shah nama, Abu Muslim nama) which celebrated both pre-Islamic and Sufi-Shi`ite cosmologies became increasingly popular among the Safavid Turkmen. In particular, this paper is concerned with addressing the prophet-king exemplar David and his reception history in medieval Perso-Islamic thought with a focus on his appeal (or lack of) during this transitional period of the Safavids as they sought to redefine themselves as a Sufi movement which was openly embracing concepts like militarization and politicization. In the historical imagination of the Safavids, where did certain prophetic figures like David and Solomon, who were both understood as isra’iliyya kings and prophets, sit with regard to the ambitions of Haidar et alia to usher in a millenarian era of redemption and retribution while waging war against Christian communities in nearby regions like Georgia and Circassia? Moreover, as the Safavid tariqah sought out converts and supporters among the antinomian populations in Anatolia and northern Syria to further their chiliastic aims, figures like David were positioned in direct competition with a set of epic personalities (e.g. `Ali, Husain, Abu Muslim) who arguably better served the Safavid agenda during this critical juncture. As Shah Isma`il and his successor Shah Tahmasp began to distance themselves from the unruly Qizilbash, were such exemplars re-evaluated as the Safavid historical imagination itself began to shift?
  • Legendary kings may teach their people to sew garments or to write, but is there a kingly way to stitch a shirt, review a contract, or dig a ditch? This paper explores representations of labor in Persian epics and in texts that engage with the epic tradition. Among the latter category are 'Attar's gnostic ('erfani) didactic masnavis that retell stories of legendary kings, and 'Ali Akbar Khatayi's Khataynameh (Book of China), which contains citations of such verses by 'Attar. The Khataynameh's depiction of China as a powerful empire hinges on investing actions that can be classified as labor, and can thus be considered in some sense servile--for example, the digging of trenches and building of walls, the drafting, reviewing, and delivery of documents, or strict obedience to codified law--with regal or martial power. Thus, universal adherence to law is the foundation of the Chinese bureaucracy's authority, and constant labor and the crafting of firearms is its means of military dominance. This paper takes up the question of whether this reconfiguration of the relationship between labor and power was a novel move by Khatayi, or originated with 'Attar, or was already present in the epic tradition, including especially the work of Nezami-ye Ganjavi. One character in Nezami's tale of Khosrow and Shirin, the doomed lover, Farhad, engages in laborious and servile acts to win Shirin's favor. Retellings of this story by Amir Khosrow and Alisher Nava'i connect Farhad with China and elevate his role. Analyzing such narratives through the lens of labor reveals their political-economic dimensions, allowing us to read them not simply for lessons about kings and love, but about kingship as the apex of a network of interlocking bonds of obligation across all levels of society. Articulations of identity prevalent in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Persianate world, such as the terms Turk and Tajik, as well as the tradition of spiritual chivalry (javanmardi, fotovvat), all in some way concern the relationship between labor and royal or martial power. This paper thus offers a strategy for tracing the circulation of political-economic ideas across distinct textual genres and textual communities, which may in turn yield strategies for interpreting texts more directly connected to the life of laborers, such as certain fotovvatnamehs.
  • Dr. Nasrin Askari
    Compiled by Abū Bakr b. Khusrau al-Ustād and dedicated to the Eldigüzid atabeg of Azerbaijan Nuṣrat al-Dīn Abū Bakr (r. 1191–1210), the recently published Mūnis-nāma contains the earliest known Persian version of a collection of tales, generically known as Jāmiʿ al-ḥikāyāt, hitherto assumed to have been written down in the 17th-19th centuries. Many of the Munis-nāma tales correspond to the Ottoman Turkish tales of Faraj baʿd al-shidda, dating from the 14th-15th centuries, a French adaptation of some of which was produced in the early 18th century as Les Mille et un jours. When discussing the supremacy of poetry over prose in his introduction, the compiler explicitly mentions that the reason he wrote his work in prose is that his targeted audiences were the female members of the royal court and that women understand prose better than poetry. Since women played an important role in the education and upbringing of future rulers and were influential at royal courts, this papers discusses how the Munis-nāma might have functioned as a book of ethico-political advice for the female members of the royal court.
  • Dr. Abolfazl Moshiri
    Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Malikdād Tabrīzī (d. ca. 646/1248), better known as Shams-i Tabrīzī, was an enigmatic and vagabond Sufi and is renowned for being the spiritual guru of the most celebrated Persian Sufi poet, Jalāl al-Din Rūmī (d. 672/1273). In the centuries following the passing of Rūmī, hagiographers of the Mevlevi Sufi Order often described Shams-i Tabrīzī as an unconventional and transgressive qalandar whose demeanors were at odds with the normative Sufi practices of his day. Such depictions even led to the creation of an offshoot Sufi order called Shams-i Tabrīzīs in 16th century who were openly practicing antinomianism. Scholars such as Abdulbaqi Gulpinarli, Ahmet Karamustafa and Franklin Lewis discussed the legacy of Sham-i Tabrīzī in the works of post-Rūmī authors in Anatolia. Yet there have been few studies about the mythical depiction of Shams-i Tabrīzī in the works of hagiographers and its potential relationship and contribution to the development of some of the antinomian ideas and practices within the pre-16th century Mevelvi Sufi Order. This paper aims to evaluate the aftereffect of Sham-i Tabrīzī’s mythical legacy in hagiographies such as Manāqib al-ʿārifīn of Sham al-Dīn Aḥmad Aflākī (d. 761/1360) and its impact on the perpetuation and dissemination of some of the heterodox motifs, metaphors, and narratives in the works of early Mevlevi Sufis. The main argument is that in the hagiographical tradition, Shams-Tabrīzī— as the most prominent spiritual master of Rūmī— was often depicted in particular way to fit the antinomian practices that were becoming rampant, among the Sufis of all stripes including the Mevlevis in the post-13th century Anatolia. In the process, I also hope to offer a new approach in further understanding of the overall mystical milieu of 14th to 16th century Anatolia in which some of the direct descendants of Rūmī adopted openly transgressive behaviors which they presumed were in line with Sham-i Tabrīzī’s style of antinomianism.