A Book of Wisdom for Persian Kings & Courtly Elites

A review of The Medieval Reception of Firdausī’s Shāhnāma: The Ardashīr Cycle as a Mirror for Princes, by Nasrin Askari.

Nasrin Askari begins her dissertation by reminding her readers of a famous parable: the tale of three blind men who, in their attempt to study a pachyderm by touch alone, arrive at wildly different conclusions about its form and nature. The story is an instructive metaphor, she continues, for the challenges we face as scholars of Firdausī’s Shāhnāma, a text whose elephantine size and scope confounds all attempts at holistic treatment: “We all approach the work from our own discipline, each of us being limited in our own way. Indeed, we would seem to be a long way from being able to grasp the work in its entirety” (p. 1). The Shāhnāma is thus, as Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh puts it, both the most famous and least understood work of Persian literature (Shāhnāma mashhūrtarīn as̱ar-i adabī-i fārsī va dar ‘ain-i ḥāl nāshinākhtatarīn-i ānhā-st, p. 12)—we enter the text as though it were an enormous cave, losing ourselves in its depths and layers, finally to emerge each with our own unique tale to tell. Perhaps the only other Persian text that enjoys a similar reputation for overwhelming and bewildering its readers is the Masnavī-i ma‘navī, and as such, Askari’s invocation of Rūmī’s parable is quite apropos: with so much text to get through and so many disciplines to draw from, what aspects should we privilege, and which method should we employ? In short, how do we read the Shāhnāma?

I sense from this opening that the search for a holistic treatment of the Shāhnāma is the driving force behind Askari’s project, although she does not say so explicitly. Her professed intention is far more modest, namely, to follow Khaleghi-Motlagh’s lead and examine the text’s treatment of ancient Persian practices regarding kingship and statecraft (p. 2); but the argument that emerges is very ambitious, proposing a way of reading the Shāhnāma that will conform with the historical reception of the work, and subsequently, one assumes, provide a more constructive way for modern scholars to engage with the text. Askari’s thesis is simple and direct: “Firdausī’s oeuvre was primarily perceived as a book of wisdom and advice for kings and courtly élites” (p. ii). This is substantiated, she argues, by both internal and external evidence; the internal evidence is largely culled from a close reading of the Ardashīr cycle (Chapters 2 and 3), a section of the Shāhnāma that, by incorporating both “historical” and “mythical” material into its narrative, bridges the usual partition of the work into those respective categories (p. 9). The author bookends her study of Ardashīr with a presentation of the external evidence, where she first examines how later poets, historians, and anthologists responded to and cited Firdausī’s work (Chapter 1), and then how the themes and ideals of the Ardashīr cycle correspond with those found in subsequent “mirrors for princes” (andarz-nāma) from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE (Chapter 4).

Askari’s interest in hermeneutical approaches is closely bound up with the formal nomenclature of genre; indeed, the bulk of her Introduction and literature review is framed as an effort to “decide more accurately what genre the Shāhnāma belongs to,” as she later puts it (p. 16). Her inquiry is limited to three candidates: epic (Mahmoud Omidsalar, Ẕabīḥullāh Ṣafā, William Hanaway, François de Blois), history (Ehsan Yarshater, Julie Scott Meisami, Jan Rypka, Charles Melville, Parvaneh Pourshariati), or—her own claim, adding to the voices of Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, Hurmuz Mīlāniyān, Bāqir Parhām, Shāhrukh Miskūb, and Abbas Amanat—andarz or the “mirrors for princes” genre, that is, “any form of writing that provides ethico-political advice to kings and courtiers on how to comport themselves and organize the state in order to maintain their power” (pp. 2, 257). Askari is careful to note that such an account is not a matter of exclusion but of emphasis: “Without discounting its historical and literary value, the present study seeks to demonstrate that the Shāhnāma can be viewed as a mirror for princes and that a great deal can be revealed about the meaning of its tales if it is examined as a book of wisdom and advice for kings and courtiers” (p. 7). Nonetheless, her numerous arguments against the reading of the Shāhnāma as history in the subsequent chapters (the candidacy of epic largely disappears from the conversation after the introduction) suggest that this is not a neutral question for her; it seems to go back to a historically-minded view of literary criticism that sees the greatest benefit in experiencing the text as Firdausī’s audience did, an approach that may even shed light on “the purport of its author” (p. 10). Such is the purpose of Chapter One, an exhaustive survey of the Shāhnāma’s reception and appropriation by later authors. It is a long and probably the most heterogeneous chapter, due to its massive scope and multiple goals, and to guide the reader I divide the chapter into three sections marked in boldface.

[1.a] The story of the Shāhnāma’s reception naturally begins with the famous episode of Sultan Maḥmūd’s indifference to the work. In her discussion of this anecdote, Askari, following Omidsalar, dismisses the account provided in the Tārīkh-i Sīstān as a later interpolation, and instead focuses her attention on Niẓāmī ‘Arūżī’s Chahār maqāla and the prose introductions to the Shāhnāma found in some twelfth-century MSS that probably date to the same period. Her analysis firmly situates Firdausī within the Ghaznavid orbit, contending that even if Firdausī was disappointed in the end, he had always intended his work for the court and had singled out Maḥmūd as the most worthy recipient of his labors; some of the prose introductions even intimate that Maḥmūd enthusiastically supported Firdausī’s project and housed the poet at his own court. It remains a mystery, then, why he refused to reward the poet in the end, a point that all the accounts agree on (with further support from the Shāhnāma itself), but fail to explain. The search for a convincing reason for Firdausī’s humiliation, Askari argues, was of secondary importance to later writers; she rather finds that the story took on a life of its own to serve various didactic purposes, often to do with the nature of kingship. Firdausī’s bitter satire against Maḥmūd became an admonitory tale that could be invoked to caution the ruler against stinginess and ingratitude (Niẓāmī ‘Arūżī, p. 22), to remind patrons to reward their poets (Niẓāmī Ganjavi and Mukhtāri, p. 24), to distance oneself from the secular world of the court (‘Aṭṭār, p. 24–25), and to serve as a parable about unrewarded efforts (Sa‘d al-Dīn Varāvīnī, p. 25). These texts shed very little light on the circumstances of the Shāhnāma’s reception at the Ghaznavid court, but their appropriation of the famous anecdotes surrounding the affair already suggest a tendency to read metaphorically or symbolically.

[1.b] Turning to another line of inquiry, Askari recounts the fortunes of the ‘Abd al-Razzāqiyān family that commissioned the Shāhnāma, first in prose in the 950s and then in verse in the 960s, suggesting that the move was intimately linked with the family’s drive to maintain or reclaim its hereditary right to rule in Khurāsān. The proof, she claims, lies in the introduction to the prose Shāhnāma, which presents the work as an account that will instruct its readers in the education of kings, the work of kingship, comportment, justice, administration, and military matters (pp. 30–31). So too, then, the Shāhnāma: the author concludes this section saying that “education and entertainment seem to have also been Firdausī’s intent in the composition of his work” (p. 30).

[1.c] The chapter then jumps ahead to a survey of later writers’ reception of the Shāhnāma, which appears in biographies (taẕkiras), comments by Shāhnāma copyists, works on rhetoric (balāgha), epics composed on the model of the Shāhnāma, anthologies or selections (ikhtiyārāt) of the Shāhnāma, mirrors for princes, and historical writing. Askari’s main point can be summarized as follows: “contrary to the common assumption” (p. 8), Firdausī and his Shāhnāma had received nearly universal acclaim by the late eleventh century CE (p. 45), and the reason for this esteem was not his skill as an epic storyteller, nor as a transmitter of historical fact, but as a sage whose work provided “a reservoir of aphorisms, wisdom, and advice” (p. 40). The most common epithet attributed to Firdausī is ḥakīm, a title reserved for “Persian poets whose works contained wisdom and moral advice” (including Asadī Ṭūsī, ‘Umar Khayyām, and Sanā’ī, p. 36), and examples of his eloquence—drawing from the same didactic passages—are found in various Ghaznavid rhetorical manuals. We know of at least sixteen epics featuring kings, heroes, and saints that were subsequently composed in imitation of the Shāhnāma, often under the auspices of local élites and chiefly concerned with courtly affairs such as legitimacy, succession, and administration (pp. 41–42); many of them include scenes of kings passing on advice to their progeny or the discovery of ancient tomes of wisdom, which Askari interprets as a metaphor of how these works are to be read. Her discussion covers a huge range of texts across an enormous time span, from the Seljuq to the late Timurid periods; mention is made of the Garshāsp-nāma, the Kūsh-nāma, the Bahman-nāma, the Farāmarz-nāma, the ʿAli-nāma, the Khāvarān-nāma, the Iskandar-nāma, Khusrau va Shīrīn, the Haft Paykar, the Ẓafar-nāma, the Shāhnāma-i Chingīzī, and the Ghāzān-nāma. Turning to anthologies (ikhtiyārāt) of the Shāhnāma, Askari observes that homiletic themes tend to top the list: proverbs and sayings, praise of good kings and the censure of wicked ones, renouncing worldly attachment, descriptions of old age and death, the praise of God and the Prophet, and so on (pp. 50–54). Similar themes are also at the fore in her survey of prose histories and “mirrors for princes” that cite from the Shāhnāma, usually for the purpose of illustrating or decorating some ethical point they sought to make—rather than as a source for historical facts, another point she uses to argue against the Shāhnāma as history (p. 85).

While many of these discussions, covering so wide a range, are necessarily of a descriptive and cursory nature, Askari does devote some pages of close reading to this final category: this includes Rāvandī’s Rāḥat al-ṣudūr (w. 1207), the Khirad-nāma by Yūsuf b. ʿAlī Mustaufī (w. twelfth c.), an Eldigüzid work called Farā’id al-sulūk fī fażā’il al-mulūk (w. 1213), Sa‘d al-Dīn Varāvīnī’s Marzbān-nāma (w. 1226), and Najm al-Dīn Rāzī’s Mirṣād al-ʿibād (w. 1223), among others. This discussion pays close attention to the original context of the verses cited and examines how they were deployed in new contexts, sometimes in conscious reference to the original scene, sometimes abstracted to create new points of reference; this section in its own right is a valuable contribution for scholars interested in the way the Shāhnāma was reworked and recast by historians of later epochs (pp. 54–85). However, as the author says (pp. 86, 334), the star in her argument is undoubtedly ‘Alī b. Aḥmad’s Ikhtiyārāt-i Shāhnāma, composed for the Seljuq ruler Malikshāh in 1081, some seventy years after the Shāhnāma was completed. The work is solid evidence that by the late eleventh century CE, the Shāhnāma had been at least once recognized within a court environment as a wellspring of sage advice, to be read “with the eye of wisdom” (p. 52). This leaves us with the main thrust of the chapter: since its inception in the Sasanid period, the Shāhnāma has been closely tied to the court and its driving concerns of legitimacy and statecraft; the preponderance of all the evidence amassed here points to Askari’s conviction that “the ancient Persian tales were as important as the wisdom and advice they contained, and that rulers and courtly élites were expected to learn lessons from them” (p. 89).

The author puts this theory to the test in Chapter Two, where she endeavors to show that the historical figure of Ardashīr in the Shāhnāma is little more than a “framework” through which the poet (or his sources) will present “a series of symbolic tales the aim of which is to promote ideas and ideals of kingship” (p. 128, also 137). To provide some background, Askari demonstrates that Persian kings had long kept records of their deeds and accomplishments generally remembered as khudāy-nāmas (also shāh-nāmas and siyar al-mulūk). These were variously translated and adapted into Arabic, and later Persian, by a number of prominent authors, beginning with Ibn al-Muqaffa‘. This background is followed by a structural and thematic presentation of the Ardashīr cycle, which breaks down into two parts: the story of his birth and revolt against the Parthians (establishing his royal legitimacy), and then his advice to future kings (sharing the rewards of his experience). Reading against the Pahlavi Kārnāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pābagān and the accounts of Ṭabarī, Bal‘amī, and Ibn al-Athīr, Askari observes that Firdausī takes pains to stress the idea that Ardashīr must possess a number of qualities, knowledge, and skills in order to prove himself as a worthy monarch and receive divine investiture (farr)—he does not rise to the throne without effort. Her analysis of his exploits is very interested in potential symbols that would resonate with Sasanian-Mazdean concepts and deities: for example, Ardashīr’s arrows are compared to the “swift wind” (ravān bād), which might be an allusion to the deities Vād or Wahrām; Ardashīr’s consort Gulnār might be an avatar of the deity Ashi, as both figures guard the royal treasury; Ardashīr himself could be an understudy for Pešōtan, the world-savior in Zoroastrian eschatology. The Shāhnāma’s account of Ardashīr’s wars against his enemies also seems structurally inclined towards a symbolic presentation: Firdausī reduces the many battles recounted in the other sources to four major conflicts that each “represent a different stage in the process of Ardashīr’s process of founding a new dynasty” (p. 153). For all aspiring universal sovereigns out there, this can be achieved in four easy steps: 1) establish a local base of power; 2) neutralize your principal rivals; 3) establish your sovereignty throughout the realm; 4) overthrow evil and and establish the true faith. The richest analysis comes with the fourth and final episode, the story of Ardashīr’s battle against the Worm of Haftvād; engaging with a wide variety of Pahlavi apocalyptic literature and a number of modern critics, including Walter Bruno Henning, Frantz Grenet, Jules Mohl, James Darmesteter, R.C. Zaehner, Mary Boyce, Abbas Daneshvari, and Mahnaz Moazami, Askari argues that the episode is a symbolic account of the coming of a savior (variously linked to Pešōtan, Ūshīdarmāh, and Saošyant) who vanquishes Ahriman and restores the Good Religion (pp. 159–160).

This analysis leaves little room for doubt that the Middle Persian account of Ardashīr was a deeply allegorical text whose imprint is clearly visible in the Kārnāmag ī Ardašīr and the Shāhnāma. The next step, of course, is to determine if Firdausī and/or his audience were fully aware of these symbolic connections, but on this point the author is more cautious: “To determine how much of this idealized figure of Ardashīr was recognized by Firdausī’s contemporary readers would require a study of the religious and social culture of the time but we know that the poet repeatedly asks his readers not to treat his tales as legends and even advises them to find their meaning through symbols (ramz). If Firdausī expected his readers to perceive the symbolic meaning of his fabulous accounts, then we may assume that they were able to grasp the ideas presented in them” (p. 164). Later, in her conclusion, Askari suggests that the job of interpreting these tales was left to the king’s “learned companions,” and perhaps they would have had sufficient knowledge to tease out these connections (p. 333). Regardless of how much or how little of the Zoroastrian element was perceptible to Firdausī and his later readers, the chapter ends with a discussion of the characteristics of Ardashīr’s rule, which is far less invested in cosmological substrata and can be easily presented as a series of anecdotes that demonstrate how a successful king should act. It must be said that some of these exempla are not necessarily enacted by Ardashīr himself; in fact, he comes off at times as a bit of a hothead who is saved from his own folly by the wisdom of his minsters and his own good fortune. For example, when an Indian sage advises Ardashīr to reconcile with his old foe Mihrak to ensure peace in the kingdom, he adopts the opposite policy and exterminates Mihrak and all his family, save one daughter who escapes and is raised as a shepherd (p. 170). The sage’s prophecy is eventually fulfilled when Ardashīr’s son Shāpūr, ignorant of her lineage, marries the girl; but it is clear that some of these lessons are to be learned through Ardashīr’s mistakes, rather than his triumphs.

Chapter Three is a close discussion of the final section of the Ardashīr cycle, namely, the account of his political reforms and advice for posterity. This stems from a particular genre of literature that was well-established in Pahlavi writing, the ēwēn-nāmag (NP āyīn-nāma), which details the manners, customs, and protocols for various social classes, including “courts, state administration, the rules of war, royal sports, as well as religious customs and ceremonies” (p. 203). Askari argues that one of these Middle Persian ēwēn-nāmags, attributed to Ardashīr, was translated into Arabic and thence found its way into a number of works, including the Nihāyat al-arab, the Tajārib al-umam, and the Āyīn li-Ardashīr. The chapter continues with a brief overview of the contents and arrangement of Ardashīr’s āyīn in the Shāhnāma, followed by his four “throne speeches” (andarz or khuṭbas) in the Shāhnāma against against their counterparts in other Arabic and Pahlavi accounts, again contending that they all derive from the same Sasanian original. Throughout this presentation, Askari draws attention to Firdausī’s repeated exhortations to the reader to heed the king’s example, and his culling of material that is “no longer valid” to “teach lessons on kingship by drawing upon experiences of past rulers that were still relevant” (p. 222). The final third of the chapter concentrates on Ardashīr’s testament (‘ahd), an independent political treatise (p. 136) that, according to various scholars, either originated in the early Sasanid era or was recorded during the reign of Yazdgird III. The analysis is mostly a summary of the testament’s contents in the Shāhnāma, pointing out moments when Firdausī deviates from other extant versions to either make the testament more interesting, more relevant, and more educational—in other words, instances when he is not playing the role of the historian, but of the ethicist (pp. 213, 217, 222, 227, 236, 239–40). Other topics explored here are the ideal of sacerdotal kingship, the arrangement of social classes, and justice.

Having spent two chapters reviewing the Ardashīr cycle in the Shāhnāma in detail, Chapter Four zooms out again and examines nine other “mirrors for princes” written in Persian and dating up to the seventh/thirteenth centuries. Because of this broad view, the chapter is largely descriptive, concerned with identifying themes and elements discussed in the Ardashīr cycle and noting their recurrence in these subsequent works. The purpose of this endeavor is to show that the Shāhnāma, or at least the Ardashīr cycle, belongs best in this genre, which, to recap, must be a literary piece of writing, designed to instruct and entertain, that “employ[s] verses, maxims, proverbs, aphorisms, and anecdotes in their works in order to make an impact on their readers and encourage them to adhere to the ideas and values that they promoted” (p. 258). The texts discussed are as follows:

1.    The Pand-nāma of Sebüktegin (early 11th c. CE)
2.    Ādāb-i salṭanat va vizārat (early 11th c. CE)
3.    The Qābūs-nāma by ʿUnṣur al-Ma‘ālī Kaykā’ūs (ca. 475/1082–83)
4.    The Siyar al-mulūk by Niẓām al-Mulk (ca. 484/1091)
5.    Ghazālī’s Naṣīḥat al-mulūk (early 12th c. CE)
6.    Aghrāż al-siyāsa fī a‘rāż al-riyāsa by Ẓahīrī Samarqandī (after 552/1157)
7.    Jāmi‘ al-‘ulūm by Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī (ca. 580/1185)
8.    The Marzbān-nāma of Varāvīnī (ca. 622/1225–26)
9.    Ādāb al-ḥarb va al-shujā‘a by Mubārakshāh (ca. 633/1236)

As one would expect, a detailed analysis of any one of these works is far beyond the scope of a dissertation, and so the author limits herself to extracting those themes that resonate best with her account of the Ardashīr cycle in the Shāhnāma. Some of the major theses I noted include the personal traits of a king (nobility, religious sanction, good education, bravery, piety, economy, patience, self-control, benevolence, and moderation), the methods of statecraft (building roads and cities, tax-collection, the use of spies, maintaining scribes and advisors, holding court, keeping secrets, bringing wise men of good character into service), the affairs of war (boosting morale, rewarding troops, handling revolts, battle tactics, night raids, the effective use of envoys), upholding legitimacy (persecuting injustice, avoiding arrogance, controlling cruel ministers and rapacious soldiers, ensuring the well-being of all subjects), religious service (avoiding worldliness, knowing religion, belonging to the right religion, truth-telling) and a number of variations on the famous “circle of justice”; Askari provides her own summary of these themes on page 310. The benefit to such a wide survey is that it demonstrates the stability of these core principles, which recur with a great deal of consistency across texts, genres, time, and space. Conversely, it also reveals the malleability of these ideals within any specific context, depending on the outlook and intentions of a particular author; the Marzbān-nāma, for example, presents Ardashīr as an ascetic king rather than the occasionally uncontrolled and uncontrollable figure we see in the Shāhnāma (p. 297). Although the discussion is generally focused on thematic points, the author does allow a few interesting digressions, including a point about the connection between Zoroastrian views on anger and the importance of prudence and clemency (ḥilm) that is a recurring theme in this genre (p. 275), and an important distinction of two kingly ideals taking shape within the tradition, one in which the king himself is a sage, the other in which the king is guided by his wise advisor (p. 282).

Defending the potentially contentious thesis that the Shāhnāma belongs to the genre of advice-literature means grappling with some significant differences in form, style, and presentation within this body of literature. The works studied above are in prose, organize their principles thematically, and use short anecdotes to illustrate their import and application; the Shāhnāma does none of these things, suggesting that it may be as much an “anomalous” text within the “mirrors” tradition as Meisami viewed it within historiography (p. 172). Askari does not provide a concrete answer to this possibility; for example, regarding Firdausī’s reticence to explain the meaning of his exempla to his audience, she can only speculate: “Did [he] expect a higher degree of intelligence on the part of his reader? Did he simply follow his sources? Or, did he personally prefer to leave it to his readers to contemplate the meanings of his tales?” (p. 303). She also admits that the Shāhnāma does have a lot in common with other historical works, for “the authors of medieval Persian historical writings too created coherent narratives about the exemplary and flawed rulers of the past to impart lessons on good governance” (p. 311). Ultimately, the basis for Askari’s argument does not rely on purely formal considerations (something that would be impossible anyway unless the criteria for how we distinguish andarz from tārīkh from dāstān—if such a distinction is possible—were far more carefully spelled out); she rather rests her case on the thematic similitude between the Ardashīr cycle and other “mirrors for princes” that corroborates the reception history of the Shāhnāma explored in Chapter One. In her view, despite the structural and didactic parallels between the Shāhnāma and medieval historiography, and the formal and stylistic differences between it and other “mirrors for princes,” a number of key facts, including Firdausī’s symbolic restructuring and arrangement of his material, his extensive use of myth and legend (including fantastic episodes minimized by writers like Ṭabarī, Bal‘amī, and Ibn al-Athīr), and his own request that his audience search for the deeper meanings of his tales, tip the scales in favor of her argument; referring back to her first chapter, Askari concludes, “When viewed from the perspective of medieval authors who used the Shāhnāma as their source, and when seen through the eyes of artisans who created artwork based on its narratives, Firdausī’s oeuvre appears as a book of wisdom and advice for kings and courtiers. If this is how the opus was viewed in medieval times, we ought to study it in that light” (p. 312)—a mildly-stated conclusion with, as we shall see, big implications for the field.

The Conclusion is short and sweet: Askari reiterates her claim that “the Shāhnāma was understood primarily as a book of wisdom and advice for kings and courtly élites” (p. 333), highlighting her study of the ikhtiyārāt-i Shāhnāma and later citations of the Shāhnāma as one of the strongest bodies of evidence that support this claim. She follows with a brief recap of the carefully arranged and symbolically charged presentation of Ardashīr in the Shāhnāma that forms the core of Chapters Two and Three, enumerating some of the principal themes and ideals about kingship that emerge from this presentation. The long-standing use of the Shāhnāma to promote the legitimacy of its patron, from the family of Abū Manṣūr b. ‘Abd al-Razzāq to the Turko-Mongolian dynasties that later dominated Iranian political history, is a corollary feature of a book renowned for its political acumen. This leads to her closing statement: “Framed in a symbolic representation of ancient Persian history, the Shāhnāma not only entertained rulers and taught them the proper ways of governance, but also provided the symbols of identity and legitimacy for those who sought to assert themselves as true heirs to the ancient Persian kings” (p. 338). The dissertation offers an additional 67 pages of Appendix material that provide a concordance between the Khaleghi-Motlagh edition of the Shāhnāma, Rāvandī’s Rāḥat al-ṣudūr, ‘Alī b. Aḥmad’s Ikhtiyārāt-i Shāhnāma, Farā’id al-sulūk, the Marzbān-nāma, Ẓahīrī Samarqandī’s Sindbād-nāma and Aghrāż al-siyāsa, Mirṣād al-‘ibād, Tārīkh-i jahāngushāy, Jāmi‘ al-Tavārīkh, Mujmal al-tavārīkh va al-qiṣaṣ, and Tārīkh-i Ṭabaristān, noting changes and divergences along the way—a painstaking task for which the author’s diligence and attention to detail is to be commended.

To conclude, I would reiterate the ambitious scope of this project. The extent of the material consulted is truly vast, running the gamut from epic-romantic mas̱navis to world histories to anthologies to political tracts, whose ties to the Shāhnāma are meticulously documented in her extensive array of footnotes and appendices. Yet through and through, this seemingly unmanageable mass of material is brought together to support a single thesis, that the Shāhnāma was read—and, by implication, should be read—as a work of advice for courtly élites. This simple claim may seem a little anti-climatic, given the amount of labor that went into the project, but it suggests a subtle response to an ongoing debate that is never far from the surface in Shāhnāma studies, or in Persian literature generally speaking, around the importance of establishing good hermeneutic principles that will generate good scholarship. In this dissertation, reading is framed though the analytics of genre; in other words, if we consider the text a didactic work of ethical and political advice—a member of the “mirror for princes” tradition—rather than history or epic, we can approach it in a way that most closely corresponds with Firdausī’s intentions in composing the work, and the way it was in fact received by his subsequent audience. If this context is not taken into account, we run the risk of misreading our text; more specifically, if the Shāhnāma was not intended as history, nor read as history, it would be a mistake to treat it as history. Here we see the stakes begin to emerge, for such a claim runs counter to many an established voice in the field, including those of Meisami, Omidsalar, Yarshater, Melville, Pourshariati, and Rypka; only last year, Saghi Gazerani published an article that pushes the “pro-history” side with a citation from Maqdasī: “The Persians hold these verses [of the Shāhnāma] in high regard; they illustrate it, and they regard it as history” (Saghi Gazerani, “Old Garment from a New Tailor: The Reception and Reshaping of Epic Material in Early Medieval Iran,” Journal of Persianate Studies 6 (2013), 185–86). The question of genre is therefore a matter of no small importance for students of the Shāhnāma, especially those committed to a historically grounded reading of the text, as it has the power to determine the acceptable parameters for our analysis. As such, I expect Askari’s dissertation will provoke much discussion and debate. The undeniable contribution she has made, regardless of whether one accepts her thesis, is her carefully mapped record of the intertextual networks in which the Shāhnāma occupies a central position, bringing together texts from the Sasanid to the Timurid era: a feat of research that will serve many scholars down the road.

Cameron Cross
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago

Primary Sources
Please see the review above for some of the primary sources used in this dissertation.

Dissertation Information
University of Toronto. 2013. 458pp. Primary Advisor: Maria Eva Subtelny.

Image: “Ardashir pours molten lead down the worm’s throat.” Firdausi, Shahnama. 4 July 1486. London, British Library, Additional 18188, detail of fol. 336r. Cambridge Shahnama Project Website

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