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Classical Persian Poetry and Poets

*Scholars participating in the workshop included, from left to right: Dr Eve Feuillibois‐Pierunek, Prof Alireza Korangy, Dr Hossein Elahi Ghomshei, Dr Leonard Lewisohn, Dr Michael Axworthy, Dr Majdoddin Keyvani, Dr Ali Asghar Seyed-­Ghorab.

The Timurid and Türkmen periods

A one day workshop at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies

Saturday 30th March 2013

Download the Workshop brochure

The workshop was part of a larger project organized by Dr. Leonard Lewisohn at the University of Exeter that aims to provide a comprehensive survey of the life, works and thought of all major and some of the minor poets who flourished during the late Mongol, Timurid and Türkmen periods. At present, there exists no in-depth study, and certainly no comprehensive up-to-date historical survey of Persian poetry during these two centuries (roughly the 14th and 15th centuries) when most models of classical Persian poetry were perfected and during which many Persian poets flourished. The main focus of the workshop was on the following issues and themes:

  • Who were the major and minor poets writing in Persian, in Ottoman Turkey and Muslim India during this period?
  • What was the intertextual relationship of these poets to their contemporaries and predecessors?
  • How important was the Sufi terminology, bachannlian and wine symbolism and other types of synbolism in their works?
  • How did poetic genres (mathnawi, ghazal, tarji'band, ruba'i, etc) develop and progress during this period?
  • How did the poets of this period influence the development of the 'Indian Style' (Sabk-i Hindi) and the 'Realist School' (Maktab-i Voqu') movements?
  • What role did the eroticism and doctrines of love, both profane and sacred, play in the poetry of the period?
  • How significant was the issue of patronage, and what impact did the political-historical background and socio-cultural milieu in which poets flourished have in their verse?

This workshop revisited the quite different conclusions regarding the 'decadence' or 'deviance' of the poets of this period that scholars have reach. Scholars participating in the workshop reassessed the legacy of Persian poetry during the Timurid and Türkmen periods. We aimed to investigate and perhaps verify the thesis that the multiplicity of styles, individuality of the poetic expressions and the internationalism and vigour of the Persianate poetic cosmos during the 14th - 15th centuries provides evidence that the poetry was far from being as static, artificial, imitative and conservative as its critics profess.‌

Videos from the workshop

The workshop focused on the life, works and thought of all major and some of the minor poets who flourished during in the late Mongol, Timurid and Trkmen periods (roughly the 14th-15th centuries) when most the models of classical Persian poetry were perfected, and during which many major Persian poets flourished. Participants discussed and revisited the quite different conclusions regarding the decadence or deviance of the poets of this period that scholars have reached. Some of issues raised by the speakers included: intertextuality in Persian poetry; bachannalian and wine symbolism; eroticism and doctrines of love; Ibn Arabis theomonism; development of poetic genres; and the politics of patronage on Persian poetry.

Welcoming and opening remarks from Dr Lewisohn. Followed by chairing from Dr Lewisohn and presentation by Dr Ghomshei


Presentation by Dr Ghomshei followed by presentation by Dr Keyvani


Continued presentation from Dr Keyvani


Chairing by Dr Seyed Gohrab followed by presentation by Dr Lewisohn


Questions and answers followed by presentation by Dr Korangy


Dr Korangy followed by questions and answers


Chairing by Dr Keyvani followed by presentation by Dr Feuillbois-Pierunek


Continues presentation by Dr Feuillibois-Pierunek followed by presentation by Dr Seyed-Ghorab


Continued presentation by Dr Seyed-Ghorab followed by Dr Lewisohn


Concluding remarks to the Persian Poetry Workshop

Speakers included:

Dr Hossein Ilahi Ghomshei (Independent Scholar, Former Director of the National Library of Iran)

"Denizens of the Realm of Gold: A Sojourn among Some Immortal Mediaeval Persian Poets (Sa'di, Hafiz, Jami....)."

In this lecture I will concentrate on the following four themes in Persiam poetry of the period: (1) the Unity of Being; (2) the Ethics of Sufism; (3) anti-clericalism; and (4) beauty worship (jamal-parasti) and the religion of love (madhhab-e ishq) in Persian poetry. I will open the workshop with a general introduction on how these themes are applicable to each of the major poets of the period and show how the wines of their inspiration have been served up in different goblets, relished as savoury nibbles and exhibited in a lovely variety of seasons. I will largely focus on the best and most loved poems of Sa'di, Hafiz and Jami so as to illustrate the progression of ideas in general, and the above four themes in particular, and thus prepare the way for the other contributors to the workshop to enter into more detailed discussions on individual poets or themes.

Dr. Majd al-Din Keyvani (Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia, Tehran, Iran)

"New Research & Publications on Classical Persian Literature and Poetry in Iran: the Last 35 Years"

Dr. Majdoddin Keyvani's Lecture Transcript

Despite certain political as well as religious restrictions during recent decades in Iran, scholarly studies on classical Persian literature and poetry, regardless of the quality and depth of scholarship, has definitely been on the rise. Thanks to a lively and flourishing publishing industry and the marked increase in the number of publishers, scholars of Persian literature have found it far easier than before to get the results of their research printed. The enormous increase in the number of new universities along with the creation of new MA and Ph.D. courses devoted to Persian literature has constituted an effective factor in the composition of these by graduate students, quite a few of which deal with aspects of classical Persian literature will find their way into print. In addition to this, the establishment of such institutes as the Written Heritage Research Centre, 'Book City', the Institute of Humanities, etc., and the foundation of various large encyclopeadia projects dedicated to the study of Persian literature, culture and language within the past thirty odd years as well as the expansion and further thriving of the previously set-up scientific centres in Tehran and some provinces have all to a greater or lesser extent contributed to the flourishing of studies of classical Persian literature in contemporary Iran.

In this presentation I give an overview of these trends as well as an analysis of resent research in the scholarly study and publications on Persian literature over the past 35 years in Iran.

Dr Ali-Asghar Seyed-Gohrab (University of Leiden)

"Persian Poetry in the Safina-ye Tabriz (1321): the Works of Jalal al-Din Atiqi and Homam al-Din Tabrizi"

The literary works in the fourteenth-century miscellaneous manuscript Safina-ye Tabriz represent a literary canon of Persian literature. The collection contains a wide range of literary genres, several Divans, selections from famous romances by Nezami Ganjavi, collections of quatrains, mystical treaties and several debate poems. A special volume entitled The Treasury of Trabiz: The Great Il-Khanid Compendium (Amsterdam 2007) edited by myself and S.McGlinn, was resently published, dedicated to exploring the huge significance of this unique manuscript. Its copyist, Abu'l-Majd Tabrizi, also included in his miscellany works of his teachers such as Jalal al-Din 'Atiqi and Amin al-Din Hajj Bulah. Thanks to the recent publication of a facsimile edition (2002) of the Safina, Jalal al-Din 'Atiqi and his work have received more attention. His Divan of poetry has been recently discovered and published in Tehran (2009). We now also know that Amin al-Din Hajj Bulah was in all probability the spiritual teacher of both two major Persian poets: Mahmud Shabistari and Nizari Quhistani. During this workshop I will focus my attention on the literary works in this miscellany in general, and in particular on 'Atiqi's and Homam al-Din Tabrizi's works, examining how the compiler made a personal canon of Persian poetry, discussing the scribe's choice of material, the order in which literary works are arranged, and the compiler's predilection for a specific genre or literary form. I will also try to show how and why this treasury is helpful in expanding the horizons of our understanding fo Persian poetry in the late Mongol and early Timurid period.

Dr. Saeid Shafieoun (University of Isfahan, Iran)

"Towards a Re-evaluation of the Persian Poetry of the Timurid Period"

The history of Persian literature reveals the existence of various literary movements which came into being in accord with the needs of time and place throughout different epochs of its development. Unfortunately, in research works published in recent decades, the significance of most of these literary movements has not been properly assessed. One finds scholars uncritically relying on their own personal tastes to assess literature, and following on that, wrongly and blindly adhering to clichéd theories and conventional wisdom. It is evident from this that in our works of literary criticism we need to revisit these epochs again and strive to reassess their character more objectively. Some of the most misunderstood literary movements in Persian literature came into being during the Timurid period, which was one of the most glorious ages of Persian poetry. The Timurid period is incidentely precisely one of those epochs which modern literary historians and researchers often treat contemptuously and dismissively. This attitude is really quite strange, especially considering that this era at least from the standpoint of works of poetry, both in regard to its close affiliation to the high classical literary tradition that preceded it and because it created bases for progress in some literary conventions - particularly in respect to the domains of imagination (khiyal), language, creativity, and audience - was extremely important for the development of later Persian literature (particularly in respect to the Indian Style, sabk-e hindi). In this respect, if we disregard the conventional, deceptively prejudicial judgements fashionable in contemporary research on Persian literature over the past few decades, we will encounter some very great Timurid-period poets. Not only do we find poets who played a very important role and added to the dignity and gravity of the golden treasury of Persian literature, but poets who also wrote in most of the recognised literary genres and left behind some well-known (or not too well-known) works. These poets took very seriously the literary positions to which they adhered, and in the realms of the poetry of parody, human love, divine love and other subject matters created many significant and beautiful works of verse. In this presentation I will discuss and attempt to reassess some of the important poets of the Timurid period and their important works in light of the above remarks.

Dr Eve Feuillibois (CRNS, INALCO, University of Paris III)

"Jami's Ghazals and Quatrains: Matching Persian Mystical Poetry and Akbarian Doctrine"

Lecture transcript for Dr Eve Feuillibois

Sufi, scholar, poet, often presented as the last great classical Persian writer, Nur al-Din 'Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414-1492) wrote a prolific amount of poetry and prose in both Persian and Arabic. He turned his hand to every genre of Persian poetry and authored numerous treaties on a wide range of topics, mainly in religious sciences and literature.

In my presentation, I will focus on the two following matters:

  • Jami's mystical love poetry, especially in his ghazals and quatrains.
  • The role he played in the matching of wahdat al-wojud with Persian Sufism.

Jami's Diwan, collected in 1491, is divided into three sections: Fatihat al-shabab ("Opening of Youth"), Wasitat al-'iqd ("Middle of the Necklace"), and Khatimat al-hayat ("The End of Life"). The bulk of the volume consists of about a thousand ghazals, but it also includes poems in all the shorter forms (qasida, tarji'- and tarkib-band, qet'a, and roba'i, shortmathnawi). I will focus on mystical and religious themes, and especially Jami's use of classical Persian erotic and bacchanalian imagery. One of the most characteristic features of Jami's work is his constant reference to the literary past. In his ghazals, for example, Jami responded to poems by Sa'di, Amir Khosrow, Kamal Khojandi, and Hafez in the same rhyme and meter, sticking close to the themes and images of the models. He cared about the formal qualities of poetry, fluency and elegance of diction, and immediate comprehensibility, but he rarely went beyond the standard images and metaphors of the tradition.

On the other hand, Jami's work represents the fullest summation of the long history of the integration of the Sufi theosophy of Ibn al-'Arabi with the Perisan literary tradition. Jami joined to his Naqshbandi affiliation a devotion to the teachings and legacy of Ibn al-'Arabi, in whom he saw the supreme exponent of gnostic wisdom for the Arabs, just as Jalal-al-Din Rumi had been for the Persians. He wrote commentaries on his major works, and also more attractive treaties, like the Lawa'ih ("Illuminations"), the Lawami' ("Gleams", on the celebrated wine poem of Ibn al-Farid), or the Ashi 'at al-lama 'at ("Rays from the flashes", commenting on Fakhr al-din 'Iraqi's lama 'at). However I will here focus on a less known and studied work: Jami's Sharh-e ruba 'iyat, a commentary on his own quatrains, imitating Ibn 'Arabi's Tarjuman al-ashwaq. Forty-eight mystical quatrains are here followed up be an average of one page of prose commentary. Both thematic and vocabulary (including imagery) greatly vary from the ones used in the Diwan, being illustrations of the most important thoughts of Ibn 'Arabi. It is within this poetry commentary that Jami tries his best to conciliate wahdat al-wujud with Persian poetical mysticism.

I will thus try to present comprehensively the different topoi developed in the Diwan and their link with the choice of a particular form, with particular insistence on the ghazal and the quatrain. Then I will examine the Sharh-e ruba 'iyat, putting emphasis on the specific thematic developed in those quatrains and the way the prose commentary goes on explaining and discussing the ideas briefly touched upon in the poems. Finally I will compare these different uses of poetry for conveying mystical doctrines and experiences.

Dr Alireza Korangy (University of Virginia)

Yayan: The Fifteenth Century, the Proto-thematic and the Proto-rhetorical 'Split Second' Before Maktab-i Vuqu'

Maktab-i Vuqu', the Realists' School, can be pondered as one of the most opaque moments in the history of Persian literature, ironically, and precisely because its poets shunned the thematic enigma encountered in the poetry of Sufi masters such as 'Attar, Rumi, Iraqi and others in their treatment of love and lover-beloved relationship - those who are considered the canons of poetical adage. This correspondence aims to highlight the thematic morphology that takes place at the brink of this 'post-rationalized' poetic school by putting under the microscope the poetry of some of the better-known poets of late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and tracing their influences to the poets of 'Maktab-i Vuqu'.' The poetics and the regurgitations therein, in this literary movement, can be traced to several different epochs, as they are an amalgamation of different mannerisms, although schizophrenically so. However, the epitome of the bawdy, erotic, and very physical world the poets of this literary circle subscribed to was predominantly an offspring of fifteenth-century romantic epicureanism and an emulation of a lover-beloved relationship of the eleventh century panegyric poet who might have spoke of lover' gregarious moods. This was an antithesis to the nomenclature of Persian ghazal or any poem defining the parameters of love up to that point. It is quite an astounding phenomenon that Maktab-i Vuqu' was followed by Sabk-i Hindi(Indian Style), with its ressurection of enigma, ambiguity, and a return to twelfth-century Persian verse - an odd succession indeed. Maktab-i Vuqu' was a renegade schism in the realm of Persian poetics and Persian mannersism, however, as will be put forth, and as had been the case for centuries prior, and many styles that proceeded it, it was simply a reassessment of all that was proto-'Maktab-i Vuqu'.'

Dr Leonard Lewisohn (Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies, University of Exeter)

The Major Significance of Minor Persian Poets of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

The Study of Persian Literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been largely dominated by the two major poets of the period: Hafiz (d.791/1389) and Jami (d.898/1492). The monumental stature and miraculous achievement of the verse of these two figures has largely eclipsed other important poets whose work is phenomenal in their own right. There were seven extremely important Persian poets, aside from Hafiz, who flourished during the fourteenth century, namely: Baha al-Din Sultan Walad (d.712/1312), Nizari Quhistani (645/1247-721/1321), Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 725/1325), Mahmud Shabistari (687/1288-d. after 737/1337), Khwaju Kirmani (d.742/1342), Ubayd Zakani (d.773/1371) and Kamal Khujandi (d.803/1400). Likewise, in the fifteenth century, aside from Jami, there were seven highly significant poets who graced that age, namely: Muhammad Shirin Maghribi (d. 810/1408), Shah Ni‘matullah Wali (d. 835/1431), Adhari Tusi (d. 1461), Shah Da'i Shirazi (d. 1464-5), Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava'i (d.906/1501) and Muhammad Lahiji (d. 913/1507). The other major poet of the period namely Baba Fighani, died at the end of the second decade of the sixteeth century in 925/1519, so his work can be accounted as largely belonging to the previous century. In addition to these important fifteen poets, there are some twenty other poets of lesser fame and importance, practically none of whom have been subjected to any sustained study by any Western scholars. This presentation aims to re-evaluate the significance of the so-called minor poets of the Timurid and Türkmen period and reassess their contribution to the canon of Persian Literature.