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This is a timely book that introduces a largely unknown and misunderstood culture in the West, written by one of the leading academics in this field. Nowadays most Westerners view Iran as the land of hostage takers, a theocracy ruled by belligerent mullahs, supporters and exporters of terrorism. Some in this country may be familiar with Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Umar Khayyam, the latter through the translation of Edward Fitzgerald, in the late 19th century, of his "Rubai'yat (quatrains in Persian). But Persian culture and humanism is much more vast with roots that begin about 1400 years ago. It could be argued that Persian culture had the strongest influence on the flourishing of the Golden Age of Islam, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate. The Muslim Arab conquerors of the Sasanid Empire (in AD 625) were, themselves, eventually invaded by the sophisticated and mature culture of Persia. Arabic language, customs and religion initially overwhelmed the local inhabitants; but Persian identity, instead of disappearing, coopted and transformed the Arabic culture while maintaining its innate uniqueness. Among the many examples, the author describes the work of Sibawayhi (AD 760-796), the foremost Arabic grammarian, or the philosophy of Razi (AD 865-925) or the polymath Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Ibn al-Muqaffa who all wrote their work in flawless Arabic and overcame "Arabic literary imperialism". Professor Dabashi eloquently describes the works of early poets Ferdowsi, Saadi, Rumi, Hafiz and Khayyam and continues through time until the 20th century to the prose and poetry of Shamlou, a contemporary of Mirza and Sepehri.
The eight chapters of the 327 pages book take the reader on a journey that begins about 1400 years ago and progresses chronologically from the early kingdoms of the Saffarids, the Seljuks, Tamerlane's conquest of Persia and ultimately ends at the revolution of 1979. Extra attention is focused on the Safavids who ruled throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and established Shiite Islam firmly in Persia. The book clearly demonstrates the erudition of its author about the subject matter, it is a complicated work made more opaque by the writer's penchant for academic verbosity. It is replete with obfuscating phraseology.. "By transcending transcendence he (Azim-abadi Bidel) turns his poetry into an intuition of transcendence in and of itself " and word gymnastics.. "diverse and diversifying," "deferred and differed defiance." Chapters are peppered with bizarre jargon.. "miasmatic, othered, wordling, autonormative, counterdiscourse ."
The professor then explains the term Adab, from the original Arabic, which means politeness, courtesy and social ethics but has been given further meaning by Persian authors to include literary abilities and humanism; and then goes on to explain that Adab is "a narrative institution unto itself, irreducible to any metaphysical certainty" "a literary decoy, "a counterdiscourse that opposed all other discourses of power," and on and on ad nauseaum.
As a humanist, I really wanted to like this book, hoping to visit some of medieval Muslim writers whom I had previously read in their original Arabic. But the unbalance of the writing, with some parts flowing smoothly while others almost incomprehensibly befuddled and obscured by academic-speak, caused my interest to wax and wane.
The author, a protégé of the late Edward Said, is an admitted Marxist and a strong supporter of Arab/Muslim independence movements. I found his gratuitous snipe at "western orientalism" that has "alienated and othered? Persian literature," ill placed and unnecessary in this compendium.
In summary, The World of Persian Literary Humanism is a great reference book for academics and/or for a reader willing to trudge through a thick fog of verbiage for the pleasure of contemplating the ancient yet vibrant, multifaceted, richly embroidered cultural tapestry of Persian humanism, offered by someone with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.