Alternate Versions of Being Human

'The World of Persian Literary Humanism'

by Subashini Navaratnam

8 February 2013

A wide-ranging work on the production of the human subject in Persian literary humanism as an alternative to the European project of modernity.
cover art

The World of Persian Literary Humanism

Hamid Dabashi

(Harvard University Press)
US: Nov 2012

Hamid Dabashi’s The World of Persian Literary Humanism is a sprawling book of history, ideas, and literary analysis that covers the span of some 1,400 years in the life of Persian literary humanism, or adab, “from Bengal to Istanbul and from central Asia to the eastern coasts of Africa, and with the contemporary map of Iran as its epicenter”. The word adab carries with it multiple meanings, and Dabashi tells us it is “one of the richest and aesthetically most provocative words in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish”. While adab relates to the flair and finesse of a graceful, artful life, it is also a term that relates to literature: “Adab is apt for literary disposition of the writing we call ‘literature,’ because it embraces life and letters, body and book, manners and matters, society and solitude, wish and will, code and character.” It is this wide-ranging study of Persian adab that makes this formidable book a challenging, fascinating, and at times, a thoroughly frustrating read.

At a time when the American and Israeli governments want to convince the world that Iran is the biggest threat to the Western world’s wellbeing, Persian Literary Humanism arrives as a sort of remedy for the fears and anxieties manufactured by these weaponised, militarised, imperial forces. Dabashi, whose previous books include Close Up: A Study of Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future, Iran: A People Interrupted, and Brown Skin, White Masks, is a professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. As a cultural critic and political analyst, he has written a number of searing articles that criticises American imperialism and hegemony, while also zeroing in on neoconservative “native informants” like Azar Nafisi, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran he considers “the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro-American global domination”. This tells you just a little bit about Dabashi’s politics and the forces that motivate his work: not merely to decolonise one’s thinking and praxis, but to be attentive to alternate histories and theories that do not take the fabled mighty “West” as its epicentre.

In this sense, Persian Literary Humanism not only maps out the production and formation of Persian adab from within the spaces and regions from which it grew, but is also in conversation with European and American cultural critics like Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson. Even Edward Said comes in for some disapproval from Dabashi, and it’s a testament to Dabashi’s capacity for generous and thoughtful criticism—if he feels one is deserving of it, that is—that even a loyal member of Team Edward such as myself finds his criticism of Said not entirely unfamiliar but provocative and useful, a jumping-off point for further thoughts on decolonising literary studies.

For if Dabashi is right—and he is—that literature is still consumed, produced, and taught in terms of the West versus the Rest, then the average “globalised” reader of literature will quite likely have heard of very few of the authors, philosophers, poets, and works contained within the pages of Persian Literary Humanism. As such, this book is likely to work as an introduction for most readers who are not well-versed in Persian adab, and in that sense the history that comes alive is absolutely astounding. Dabashi takes you through such works like Golestan, Siasatnameh, Shahnameh, Javid-nama, Iqbal’s poetry, Sa’di and Rumi’s ghazals. He introduces you to Jewish-Muslim physician historians, radical prince-poets, and women poets like Shams Kasma’i and Parvin E’tesami, the latter whose work was so popular “her male contemporaries denied her the authorship of her work and believed her poems were by her father”.

Dabashi is clear about “Persian” being a language and nothing more, and is righteously scathing of theories of nationalism that are at its core xenophobic, with a refusal to acknowledge the “worldly cosmopolitanism” of Persian adab: “There are no people, no nation, no race, and no ethnicity called ‘Persian’. Any such assumption is entirely fictitious.” Persian literature, then, is as much Indian, Afghan, or Tajik literature as it is Iranian, and it is this worldly history that Dabashi is keen to bring to light in order to construct a theory of literary humanism that runs through a different path than that of European modernism.

The internal workings of empire forms and reforms the Persian language and the Persian subject, and Dabashi is fascinating when he’s describing how Persian adab emerges as the radical resistance to both Arab imperialism and Islamic scholasticism (where Persian is feminised and made trivial and shallow in relation to the more masculine, authoritative Arabic). But Persian literature was also in service of its own empires, and here Dabashi tends to gloss over the factors of class and elitism that powered much of Persian adab (court poets and philosophers and members of the aristocracy were more likely than not to be its central figures) and fumbles when he talks about the “creative consciousness” that makes up the subject of Persian literary humanism.

The fragility of the Adami (human) that Persian literature first encounters in Sa’di’s moral imagination later develops, in Dabashi’s theory, into someone that sounds suspiciously like a postmodern European: “In the context of Persian literary humanism, the knowing subject is self-destructive, and all the knowledge s/he produces suspect (sic), and thus there is no objectivising the subject.” The key factor here, as Dabashi no doubt wants to illustrate, is that the fragmented, self-conscious and yet unaware subject of Persian adab was fragmented long before European thinkers began to theorise modernity. As such, Dabashi is adamant about that his project be understood as an alternative theory to modernity that is not in opposition to the European project of modernity, but to discard “the ’tradition versus modernity’ binary—itself a manufactured opposition superimposed on Persian literary humanism to further universalize the European project of modernity.” Jameson’s argument in “Third World Literature in the Age of Multinational Capitalism” naturally comes under fire here, but one can’t help but think that better and more cogent critiques have been launched in the past by the likes of Aijaz Ahmad—precisely because Ahmad’s focus is on political economy, while Dabashi by-passes that to only discuss ideology.

Unfortunately, the major element that hobbles Persian Literary Humanism is Dabashi’s atrocious academese, where he shoots off passages such as this one:

Literary humanism as the modus operandi of a dialogical imagination that thrived on its polyglossia to become a self-revelatory reality, and thus flaunting a self-evident historicality minus historicism, is what will drive this sustained reflection on one of the most magnificent manifestation of an aesthetic subtext trying to make sense of a senseless universe.

Whole paragraphs make no sense upon first reading, are awkward and verbose and frequently painful, and have to be reread (and reread) in order for the reader to grasp a particular point or fact. For example, I’m still trying to figure out what was said about Suhrawardi’s “Risalah al-Tayr” (“Treatise of the Bird”), for there are many, many (far too many) words blanketing the no doubt brilliant insights of Dabashi’s reading. That Persian Literary Humanism could have been better edited is an understatement—after one too many typos of “pubic sphere”, for example, the charm starts to wear off—and one recognises the limitations of this book precisely because of its language. When Dabashi is straightforward about his loves and dislikes, his respect and his approbation, this book is a delight, a veritable treasure trove of hitherto unknown information. But when he loses his focus and starts to pontificate from within the confines of an insular, self-absorbed language of high theory, he also loses his reader’s attention and fails to convey the allure and the value of the work(s) under discussion.

Perhaps the book might have been better served had Dabashi left more of it in the hands of the authors of Persian adab. It seems only fitting to let Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadhani (1098-1131) have the last word here, then, for this wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary writer’s Tumblr, and perhaps sums up the condition of literature most acutely:

God knows I have no idea if writing as I do is the cause of my salvation or damnation; and since I don’t know then I wish I had become completely ignorant and be set free … whatever I write disappoints me. If I write on prophethood I seek refuge in God Almighty, and if I write about lovers it is not appropriate, and if I write about philosophers it is not appropriate either, and whatever else I write is not appropriate, and it would not be appropriate if I were not to write anything at all; if I were to talk about it, it would not be appropriate either, nor would it be right if I were to be completely silent; this very thing I said is not appropriate for me to say it, nor would I be right if I were not to say it at all either.

The World of Persian Literary Humanism


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