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The Safavid Period

This period in the history of Persian literature pertains to the years between 907-1148 AH/1501-1735 AD. Although the Safavid period is important in the history of Iran from the political, civil, economic, and artistic angles, it has made little contribution in the fields of literature and learning. Despite the fact that during this period Persian literature did progress in certain specific areas, from an overall point of view, it however faced degeneration and decline.

Interestingly, the most important patrons of Persian literature were the royal courts of India, and particularly after Zahir al-Din Bāber invaded that country and established the Moghul Empire in the year 932 AH/1526 AD. From then onwards, favorable grounds were paved for the perpetuation of Iranian customs outside the borders of Iran at the hands of Iranian statesmen. On the other hand, owing to the patronage of the Safavid kings and as a result of the Ghezelbāsh influence in the royal courts of Iran, a conducive atmosphere for the growth of the Turkish culture and language emerged within the country. Turkish literature, including the Joghtāy and Āzarbāyjāni Turkish as well as other dialects, became widespread and from among the various Turkish dialects the Āzarbāyjāni Turkish gained roots in the Iran of that period and produced outstanding literary works, The foremost poet of significance in the Āzarbāyjāni Turkish language was none other than the Safavid Shāh Esmāil. With the firm establishment of a Shiite government in Iran and owing to the emigration of a large number of scholarly Shiite families of Arab origin to Iran Arabic expressions and terms entered into the Persian language with greater influence than ever before, as a result of which Persian prose and particularly simple scientific prose saw decline.

In India, too, as a result of the downfall of the Moghuls and particularly owing to the competition that had emerged between the Persian, Urdu, and English languages, the Persian language faced degeneration and a negligence on the part of the Iranians towards the protection of the Persian language resulted in the loss of its earlier influence in India.

Poetry: One of the most significant developments in the field of Persian poetry of the Safavid Era was the emergence of the “Hendi” (lit. Indian) style or what is popularly known as the “Sabk-e Hendi” that originated in the Herat school of literature, particularly during the period of Soltān Hosayn Bāyqarā and Amir ‘Ali Shir Navāyi, and came to be followed later on by a large number of poets, both, within and outside of Iran especially in the Indian subcontinent and in the Roman lands. Interestingly, since these poets belonged to different social groups and had lived in differing environments their styles of expression varied from one another.

The most important form of poetry in the Hendi style is the “ghazal” and the period dominated by this poetry form has come to be known as the “Age of Ghazals” in the history of Persian literature. Besides the composition of romantic ghazals, it was a also a general practice to compose ghazals of a philosophical and Gnostic nature, the emergence of which can be attributed to the acquaintance of the Muslim Iranians living in the Indian subcontinent with the Gnostic thoughts and the religious worldview of the Indians that was a result of, both, interactions with the Indian scholars as well as an access to the translations of some great Indian works. During the Safavid period, the commoners as well as the elite had access to philosophical and Gnostic thoughts through the medium of proverbs and maxims.

During the first half of the 10th Century AH/16th Century AD, a new trend emerged in the composition of Persian ghazals that was distinct from the dry and dismal ghazals of the 9th Century AH/15th Century AD. This trend that continued until the first half of the 11th Century AH/17th Century AD came to be known as the “Voqu’’” school of ghazals which was a prelude to the “Sabk-e Hendi”. The ghazals of the followers of this school were devoid of figurative and metaphorical language and sophistry and instead employed a straightforward and lucid language. According to some scholars, Bābā Faghāni was the pioneering poet of the “Voqu’” school of ghazals in the 10th Century AH/16th Century AD that later on came to be named as the “Sabk-e Hendi”.

The most exquisite ghazals of the Safavid period and the lofty thoughts and talents of the poets of this era can be witnessed in the compositions of Sā’eb Tabrizi (1081 AH/1670 AD). Besides mystical and philosophical messages the poems of Sā’eb contain fresh themes and are the finest examples of what is popularly known as the “Sabk-e Hendi” or the “Sabk-e Esfahāni”. The most important feature of the poems of Sā’eb is the fine balance between the various elements in his ghazals. Sā’eb is the most famous poet of the “Sabk-e Esfahāni” (Hendi) and has composed the largest number of ghazals in this style. This great poet has spoken the most on poetry, style, and the “Sabk-e Hendi” and was well-aware of the significance of the style in poetry and knew well that the most important element that gave a poem its identity was its “style” and that a poet could never be considered as one unless he had evolved a style of his own. The most colorful form of the “Sabk-e Hendi” can be found in the poems of Mirzā Abdul Qāder Bidel Dehlavi (1133 AH/1721 AD). Bidel, who was the last of the great poets of the Moghul period, composed a kind of Gnostic ghazal comprising intricate themes, colorful and ambiguous metaphors, and esoteric imagination and it was for this reason that the poems of Orfi, Kalim, Sā’eb, Tāleb, and Naziri seem simple in comparison to his poems.

Owing to the patronage extended by the Safavid kings, many of the poets of this time turned to the composition of marthiyahs (elegies and eulogies) in the honor of the household of Imām ‘Ali (‘a) and created a trend for this style of poetry.

From among the poets of this period, Mohtasham Kāshāni, who was a contemporary of the Safavid king, Shāh Tahmāseb, was superior to all the other poets in the composition of marthiyahs. He had composed a poem in twelve equal stanzas mourning the martyrs of Karbalā that gained popularity as the “Twelve Stanzas of Mohtasham” (Davāzdah Band-e Mohtasham) which still draws the admiration and imitation of many poets involved in the composition of marthiyahs.

A lack of support from the Safavid kings towards the Iranian poets, on the one hand, and the patronage and encouragement extended to Persian-speaking poets by the kings of the Indian subcontinent, on the other, resulted in the emergence of a large number of Persian poets in areas outside the Iranian mainland. Most of these poets were uneducated and did not belong to literary families but they were rather tradesmen who had turned to poetry in expression of their inner callings. In biographies belonging to the Safavid period, one comes across the names of poets who lacked even the basic skills of reading and writing and whose compositions were based only on their close associations with regular poets and their own inner talents. A close connection between literature and the popular culture during the Safavid period was one of the most important causes for the presence of the language of the common people in the literary works of this period.

The popularity gained by literature among the not-so-educated classes as well as a rise in the number of poets, however, resulted in a repetitiveness in the contents of Persian poetry making them rather dull and dreary. This trend caused some of the poets to turn to fresh styles of composition, which some scholars have referred to as the creation of “novel compositions”, and since the addition of such novel compositions in all the verses of the ghazals was a difficult task one often comes across single-versed novel compositions in the ghazal works that gained popularity through the course of time. The composition of single-versed poems was one of the features of the “Sabk-e Hendi”.

It was not customary to compose heroic and nationalistic epics during the Safavid period. However, like the poets of the Timurid period, the poets of this period, too, composed historical epics describing the lives of the kings and other great men of their times. Another kind of composition popular during this period was the creation of religious epics. This kind of literature emerged because of the importance extended by the Safavid kings to the principles of the Shiite faith. The main themes in this kind of literature were in the area of eulogy and works were composed in praise of the person, the miracles, and the victories of the Prophet of Islam (s) as well as great Shiite personalities. This kind of literature often lacked literary value and its contributions are considered among the mediocre works in the area of epic-writing.

Prose: During the Safavid period, Persian prose was in use in large parts of the Ottoman Empire and even extended up to the farthest parts of India, as a result of which, a large number of works in the various fields of Persian prose have survived from that era, most of which are of not much literary worth and are, in fact, known for their weak language and their relative lack of intellectual heights. The prose works of this period can be divided into the three categories of simple prose, imagery, and a mixture of the first two styles. As examples of the books written during this period in the simple prose style, mention can be made of the “Tazkareh-ye Shāh Tahmāseb” (The Biography of Shāh Tahmāseb), the “Ālam-Ārā-ye Safavi” (The Adorned Safavid World), the “Haft Eqlim” (The Seven Lands), and the “Majāles al-Mo’menin” (The Gatherings of the Believers). From among the imagery style, mention can be made of the “Abbāsnāmeh” of Vahid Ghaznavi, and the “Mahbub al-Qolub” (The Beloved of the Hearts) of Mirzā Barkhordār Torkamān Farāhi while the books, the “Habib al-Sayr” (Friend of the Journey), the “Ālam Ārā-ye Abbāsi” (The Adorned World of Shāh Abbās), and the “Ahsan al-Tavārikh” (The Best of History) are the best examples of works written in the third style. On the whole, the prose works of this period can be classified into the following categories:

i. Literary books like the “Ā’in-e Akbari” (The Faith of Akbar) - which according to Malek al-Sho’arā Bahār is an encyclopedia of the India of those times - and the “Ayār-e Dānesh” (The Standard of Knowledge) which was a later version of the “Kalilah va Dimnah”;

ii. Historical books like the “Habib al-Sayr” of Khwāndmir, the “Ālam Ārā-ye Safavi” that was authored by Eskandar Beig Monshi, and the “Ahsan al-Tavārikh” written by Hasan Beig Rumlo;

iii. Biographical works like the “Majāles al-Mo’menin”, the “Tohfeh-ye Sāmi” (The Gift of Sāmi), the “Haft Eqlim”, the translation of the “Majāles al-Nafāyes” (The Gathering of the Finest), and the “Riyāz al-Sho’arā” (The Gardens of the Poets);

iv. Dictionaries like the “Farhang-e Jahāngiri” (The Jahāngiri Dictionary), the “Farhang-e Rashidi” (The Rashidi Dictionary), the “Ghiyāth al-Loghāt” (The Champion of Words), and the “Borhān-e Qāte’” (The Firm Reasoning). Some of these dictionaries contain certain words that are erroneously referred to as “select Pārsi words” or the “Dasātiri” words;

v. Shiite religious books like the “Jāme’ Abbāsi” of Shaykh Bahā’i, the “Hayāt al-Qolub” (The Life of the Hearts) of Majlesi, the “Kalamāt-e Maknuneh” (Esoteric Words) of Fayz, and the “Gohar-e Morād” (The Jewel of Desire) of Lāhiji;

vi. Storybooks like the later version of the “Eskandarnāmeh” and the “Dārābnāmeh” as well as works like the “Tutināmeh” and the “Razmnāmeh”. The trend of story-writing was an outcome of the profession of story-telling which prevailed in the royal courts as well as the gatherings of the nobles and the elite of those days and which was more widespread in India than it was in Iran;

vii. Translations that were done from, both, the Arabic as well as the Sanskrit languages like the translations of works like the “Mahābhāratha” and the “Nāyārānā”.


* source: Ghamar, Aryan "Iran Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 ,pp.570 – 572

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