Persian Texts as a Field of Study: Qazvini’s “Four Discourses”

A review of Medieval Persian Texts and Modern Contexts: Mohammad Qazvini and the Modern Reception of Chahār Maqāle (The Four Discourses), by Sima Daad.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Iran saw a great deal of activity in political and social reform, concern with collective identity, engagement with Europe, and interest in Iran’s past as well as its future. Sima Daad draws these strands together through her careful examination of Mohammad Qazvini’s (1877-1949) production of a critical edition of a twelfth century Persian treatise, Chahār Maqāle (“The Four Discourses”) by Nezāmi ‘Aruzi Samarqandi. In doing so, she opens up Persian textual scholarship as a field of study of its own, reading Persian textual criticism as a culturally-specific artifact. She argues that even a critical edition such as Qazvini’s recension of Chahār Maqāle is shaped by material constraints and the discursive confines of its environment.

Daad’s introduction, “Chahār Maqāle in the Twentieth Century,” begins by laying out the methods and models she uses, her arguments, and the texts upon which her dissertation relies. Her methodology employs critical discourse analysis, drawing theoretically upon Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse and Mikhail Bakthin’s dialogism. Following Bakhtin, she views text and utterance as separate, though in dialogue with one another; this allows her to make her first argument, which is that ‘Aruzi’s text of Chahār Maqāle and Qazvini’s critical edition of the same should be read as two separate utterances, or versions, which “can be set along two vertical and parallel axes within an encompassing space which we may designate as the discursive sphere of Iranian identity” (p. 5). Each axis represents not only the specific text, but also the socio-political and historical circumstances particular to its production. Her second argument connects these parallel vertical axes via horizontal axes of shared concerns and cultural sensibilities; the intersection of these vertical and horizontal axes constitutes dialogic interaction between the original text and its critical edition. This interaction is best made clear through “Figure 2: Discursive Space and Collective Identity” (p. 6), a visual Daad provides of the discursive matrix of her arguments.

Her third argument, regarding the conditions of a text’s reception, places importance on examination of the circumstances which lead an editor (like Qazvini) to take passionate interest in a particular text (like Chahār Maqāle), while her fourth argument proposes moving beyond a singular authorial intention to instead discuss a chain of authorial as well as textual intentions. Fifthly, she argues that possibilities lie dormant within the texts, which are awakened at the right historical moment of convergence. Finally, her sixth argument is that the text is at the center of culture and not bound to its own discipline, thus textual criticism is relevant to other areas, including politics. These six arguments structure the following five chapters of her dissertation.

The second section of the introduction provides an overview of the history of the text of Chahār Maqāle, from its original writing in the twelfth century to the reception of the earliest print editions in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

Chapter 1, “Chahār Maqāle in Perspective: A Medieval Book of Counsel,” offers a description of the text itself as well as the historical context of the text, its author, and the Ghurid prince to whom Chahār Maqāle was addressed. Chahār Maqāle was written to thank ‘Aruzi’s patron and to advise him in good governance. The book of counsel, comparable to European “mirrors for princes,” was a well-established genre in the Persian literary tradition of the time. Writing in this genre, ‘Aruzi sets out to “unpack the true meaning of kinghood and the true purpose of governance” through use of the Perso-Islamic philosophical canon (p. 28, emphasis in original). He also establishes standards of good poetry, important because court poetry determines a king’s legacy, as well as criteria for selecting other important court officials such as astrologers and physicians. Daad judges ‘Aruzi to be a liberal-minded critic, sincerely pious and upright rather than superficial or dogmatic, evidenced by his selection of characters from a variety of sectarian backgrounds. She also finds him to be a deliberate and skilled rhetorician, noting his use of rhetoric, purposeful selection of familiar characters and anecdotes, and deployment of Qur’anic verse for practical ends. In the second section of the chapter, Daad traces the history of the little-studied Ghurid dynasty and ‘Aruzi’s political and patronage alignments to this and other states; she argues that “for a comprehensive understanding of the context which has inspired the composition of the text we need to take a look at a larger scope of time than the author’s life span” (p. 68), increasing her scope to the approximately 300 years covered by ‘Aruzi’s anecdotes. She also explores the political and cultural history of ‘Aruzi’s hometown (Samarqand under the Qārākhānids) and other areas of residence and work (Khorāsān under the Saljuqs and the Ghurids), concluding that ‘Aruzi, having lived in different regions and been subject to different empires, drew together a myriad of influences that “operate on Chahār Maqāle beyond the control of the author’s intention” (p. 72).

Chapter 2, “Mohammad Qazvini and the Restoration of Chahār Maqāle,” applies the same approach to Mohammad Qazvini and the production of his critical edition of Chahār Maqāle, showing textual criticism to be a discipline that absorbs influence from not only the literary domain but also the broader social and political environment. The chapter begins with description of the conditions of Chahār Maqāle’s editing by Qazvini and printing by the Gibb Memorial Trust in England. It then moves on to examining Qazvini’s reading of Chahār Maqāle, who saw the text as a source of historical information, valuable for its inclusion of historical information about poets and its stylistic value as a model for modern Persian prose. Because of this method, Qazvini also faulted the text for its chronological and historical errors, and set out as critic-editor to correct them in his extensive scholarly notes, which also attempt to situate names and events in the book in their historical context. “Qazvini,” argues Daad, “is so occupied by historization of the anecdotes that he misses historicity of the text” (p. 85). In other words, Qazvini reads historical anecdotes as statements of fact and judges them as accurate or inaccurate, thus overlooking intentionality (why ‘Aruzi chose to include certain anecdotes, and how he represented them) and the historicity that can be recovered by reading the text discursively, in conversation with the cultural environment in which it was produced. In addition to Qazvini’s reading of the text, Daad also subjects his method of critical editing to scrutiny, showing it to be the conflation of two streams of “Western” scholarship (German and British textual criticism and philology) and Perso-Islamic scholarship (i.e. studies of the Qur’an, hadith, etc.), while noting the overlap between the two systems and the difficulty in teasing out where the influence of one tradition begins and the other ends. She breaks down Qazvini’s method in his recension of Chahār Maqāle and identifies methodological tools such as systematic gradation of sources that Qazvini introduced to the Perso-Islamic scholarly tradition. Finally, Daad uses Thomas Tanselle’s distinction between restoring a “work” (“an intended idea whose fulfillment may or may not be achieved by the author”) and “document” (“the physical carrier of the work”) to explore ambivalences and inconsistencies in Qazvini’s editing work (p. 102), noting how Qazvini wavers between attempting to restore the text of the document (what the text was) as a conservative critic-editor, and attempting to restore the text of the work (what the text ideally could have been) as an active repairer of the document. This is also where his ambivalent position between European and Perso-Islamic textual traditions produces inconsistencies.

Chapter 3, “Tradition, Transition, and Ambivalent Transactions,” looks at interactions between Iran and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries broadly, and in the biography of Qazvini specifically as a microcosm of the same. Daad takes us through Qazvini’s life, from his early years of Islamic seminary education to his later study of French language and literature at the Alliance Francaise in Tehran, his introduction to Edward Browne and other Orientalists in Europe, his Iranian nationalist activism, his Persian scholarship and editing work in Europe, and finally his return to Iran and death in 1949. She demonstrates how “the biography of the man is closely interwoven with the cultural transformations of his milieu,” as he lived in and contributed to a transitional moment during Iran’s encounter with Europe, when older and newer cultural sensibilities and forms of writing coexisted (p. 127). As reformist views swept through all classes of Iranian society at the end of the nineteenth century, including segments of the religious scholars and clerics (‘ulamā), Qazvini came to reconcile his religious convictions and clerical upbringing with sympathy for sociopolitical reformism and thirst for new ideas, including European learning. He became involved with the Constitutionalist cause before leaving Iran for Europe, where in addition to editing Persian manuscripts he also spent years publishing in Iranian nationalist and reformist newsletters like Irānshahr and Kāve, the latter of which “took a leading role in offering a definition of the modern Iranian identity” which contained (pre-Islamic) Persian, Islamic, and European elements (p. 145).

Chapter 4, “Reading Chahār Maqāle Anew: Two Critical Arguments,” offers a close reading of Chahār Maqāle, using postmodernist theoretical tools to propose new readings of the text. In the chapter’s first section, Daad notes how the stated purposes of the text (a book of counsel, an artifact of exemplary style, and other conventional readings of the text) have prevented readers from looking beyond these purposes; a “deconstructionist reading,” she proposes, can help the reader “unearth some of the textual dynamics that emerge out of intentions beyond the author’s stated ones” (p. 162). Daad moves beyond conventional theorizations of authorial intention (e.g. that of Michael Hancher) to argue that the text’s effect emerges from within the text and is not limited to authorial intention, and moreover that authorial intention itself need not be solitary and monolithic. While Chahār Maqāle’s eponymous four discourses were conventionally read separately, independent of one another, Daad provides an intriguing reading wherein they are formally and structurally connected in a way she analogizes to the architecture of a traditional Iranian home. Each anecdote, like the courtyards and halls of a house, functions as an independent unit, but also serves to regulate the princely reader’s view and guide him through the text, as the architectural spaces regulate a visitor’s access to interior space.

The second section of the chapter uses Bakhtin’s approach to dialogic thinking to explore Chahār Maqāle’s intertextual features and discursive atmosphere. Chahār Maqāle’s sources for intertextuality include Greek philosophy (mediated through Perso-Islamic philosophers), Islamic religious works, and Persian literature. For example, the philosopher-king ideal which is central to Chahār Maqāle draws from the political philosophy of al-Farabi, who in turn draws from Plato; she also identifies Aristotelian logic and principles of rhetoric reflected in several aspects of the text. Chahār Maqāle “is presented as a philosophical colloquium … wherein paragons of four major fields of practical sciences and logos from different times and spaces are invited by the author … to share their experiences” (p. 190). Daad suggests that ‘Aruzi’s emphasis on Islamic peripatetic philosophy, integrating Aristotelian metaphysics and Neoplatonism into Islamic philosophy, was a rejoinder to the suppression of such philosophy by contemporary theologians like al-Ghazāli – thus pointing to another instance of dialogic interaction.

Chapter 5, “Qazvini, Chahār Maqāle and Nationalist Discourse in the 19th-20th Century: Rethinking Cultural Identity” draws chapters 2 and 3 together to situate Qazvini’s editing “within the intellectual discursive sphere of national identity of the 19th – 20th century in Iran and Western Europe” (p. 214). Daad argues that Qazvini’s critical editing of twelfth and thirteenth century Persian prose literature responded to the desire of Iranian nationalists for more sources of cultural heritage, but also reacted against the obsession with linguistic purism held by some of the same nationalists. She notes how Qazvini’s role in shaping the cultural politics of modern Iran has not received due attention, because not enough scholars have taken the interdisciplinary approach needed to view Qazvini’s textual criticism outside the confines of its own discipline. Daad looks at the ramifications of Qazvini’s editing, exploring why he viewed it as a nationalist service and why he conceived of the twelfth century Chahār Maqāle as a stylistic model for twentieth century Persian prose. Returning to the diagram from the introduction, she sees Qazvini (together with his contemporary critics, for whom Daad also provides short biographies) and ‘Aruzi as belonging to two parallel vertical (temporal) axes connected by the (intersecting, horizontal) axis of their shared concern with (re)shaping Iranian collective identity. Daad argues that concern with the Persian language and pre-Islamic Iranian traditions played a critical role in maintaining Iranian identity at various points in history, and thus the Iranian nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not merely derivative of European nationalism but is the latest manifestation of a tradition she traces back to as early as the ninth century shu‘ūbiyya movement. What follows is a discussion of the continuity of Iranian identity from the ninth to nineteenth and twentieth centuries, concluding that the particular shape Iranian identity took from the nineteenth century on was deeply shaped by European Orientalism. Daad offers a review of the origins of European nationalism, eventually connecting the role of language in nationalism to Orientalist philology, the biological discourse of race, and Aryanism, showing how “[a]rrays of all these currents are discernible in the discursive mode of … 19th century Iranian nationalism” (p. 229). Drawing on the works of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi and Afshin Marashi, she explains how the growth of Persian print culture in India enabled dasātiri texts, with their emphasis on Persian linguistic purism and national identity, to travel from India to Iran.

Qazvini, in Daad’s view, is the culmination of the intellectual trends circulating in Iran during his time: combining Islamic and European scholarship, somewhere between the poles of Iranian nationalism and “Westernization” (farangi ma‘ābi). He distinguishes himself from his contemporaries in that his critique of overly Arabicized Persian is not rooted in anti-Arabism and racial discourses; it is less ideological and more practical. He is averse to what he sees as inauthenticity, seeing authentic Iranian identity as a hybrid of Persian, Islamic, and European elements and rejecting those intellectuals who valorized one element at the expense of the others.  In this light, the relationship between Qazvini’s critical edition of Chahār Maqāle and his nationalist activism becomes clearer; if Chahār Maqāle is to serve as a model for “modern” Persian prose writing, charting a middle road between Persian purism and excessive use of Arabic, it must be authenticated and made accessible. Thus “Qazvini’s conception of his work in terms of ‘a service to the language of the homeland’, and a model for any modern Iranian needs to be read within [its] discursive context, and in dialogue with [its] 19th century conversants” (p. 258, emphasis in original).

Daad’s dissertation is a welcome addition to the field of Persian literary studies and scholarship on Iranian nationalism and modernity. It contributes to the growing interdisciplinary conversation on the relationship between texts and cultures, and its innovative engagement with textual criticism may serve as a model of interest to literary scholars beyond the confines of Iranian studies.

Alexander Jabbari
Department of Comparative Literature
University of California, Irvine

Primary Sources
Nezāmi ‘Aruzi Samarqandi, Ahmad b. ‘Omar b. ‘Ali. Ketāb-e Chahār Maqāle. Various editions.
Qazvini, Mohammad. Yāddāsht-hā-ye Qazvini and various other writings.
Central Library of the University of Tehran special collections
Majles Library, Tehran, Iran
British Library, London, UK

Dissertation Information
University of Washington. 2012. 318pp. Primary advisor: Leroy Searle.

Image: The Secretary of the Caliph Distracted by His Maidenservant.” From Nezāmi ‘Aruzi Samarqandi, Chahār Maqāle. 1431. MS T-1954. Fl-R12. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul

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  1. Sima Meerstetter

    A valuable analysis, solid documentation, and brilliant arguments on a very important, vibrant and needed subject to be studied, researched and emphasized, by the young IRANIAN SCHOLARS, SPECIALLY IN THE PRESENT SOCIAL, POLITICAL AND CULTURAL ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT THE IRANIAN NATION IS FACING…….

    Sure Dr. Daad work would be a cherished treasure as a GUIDELINE for the ones who are eager and passionate to find out the truth about the Persian Cultural Identity.

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