Some notes on Iranian identity – reading Abbas Amanat

In thinking about the relations of Iran and the West questions arise immediately about the definitions of the two terms. While “the West” signifies some ambiguous geographical/cultural/racial/political entity that is understood to be non-homogenous by virtue of the fact that it includes many countries spanning two continents (excluding Australia for simplicity), cultures and languages, the assumption is that Iran, on the other hand, refers to a monolithic entity that is unified ethno-racially, linguistically, historically and politically. I’m looking into writings that problematize and historicize the signifier “Iran.” Some of the issues raised are new to me, even though as an “Iranian” I know that the present-day country Iran has a vastly diverse ethno-linguistic composition and its territorial borders are very recent in comparison to the history of the land and its inhabitants.

From “Iranian Identity Boundaries: A Historical Overview” by Abbas Amanat in Amanat, Iran Facing Others, pp 1-33. Bold emphasis is mine:

[The legend of Rostam and Sohrab] reflects an inherent tension in the reality of Iranian history whereby the ethnic, tribal, and denominational differences were to be subordinated, often sacrifices, through the force of the state for a larger communal identity as a whole. p. 3

[A]s Eric Hobsbawn notes, the process of the state imposing a national identity is a “dual phenomenon,” which through “constructed essentially from above, [it] cannot be understood unless also analysed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings, and interests or ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist.” p. 3

It is important to note that for at least two and half millennia Iranians called their land Iran, even though the Avestan notion of Iran may have originally fallen outside the territorial boundaries of Iran proper. People of the Iranian plateau also shared a certain ethnic and even religious affinity with their land even though it was only from 1935 that Iran replaced Persia in Western languages as the country’s nomenclature. At least since the third century CE there was a well-defined political concept, an imperial entity with a cenralized authority, called Iranshahr (Kingdom of Iran) and located it in Iranzamin (the land of Iran). Etymologically shahr from the Middle Persian Xshay literary means “where the authority of the shah (i.e. the state) is current.” This is a concept different from the Greek polis for shahr gives primacy to the authority of an imperial state rather than defining the city-state. Moreover wehreas shah (from ancient Persian Xshayatiya) can be rendered as “one who is self-merited” in his royal authority, the notion of people of the kingdom (shahrband) in Persian was not entirely absent. The term may imply that people of Iranshahr were primarily bound (band) to the authority of the state. p. 4

[T]he act of “Othering” toward conquerors of non-Persian origins–whether of Arab, Turkish, or Mongolian ethnicities– was often complemented with a desire to convert the new political masters to the “civilized” ways of the ancient Iranians. This was a tendency to include rather than exclude. p. 5

The problem I find in Amanat’s and some other writings on Iranian identity is that Iranian identity is often equated with Persian ethnicity and hinges upon Persian language, so it automatically becomes exclusionary. Haven’t seen a good explanation for that yet. But I’m just beginning.

In discussions of Iranian identity, a lot of space is dedicated to Persian language and its role in creating a cohesion and unity, particularly after Arab/Islamic invasion of Iran and collapse of the Sasanian Empire.

As a medium of communication and commerce [Persian] acquired the ability to absorb and enrich its vocabulary and its conceptual range. With its easily accessible grammatical rudiment, Persian as a language of the ordinary people was more open to linguistic democratization. Its pragmatic side served it well especially in contrast to the grammatical formidability of Arabic as an acquired language for the conquered peoples of the Islamic empire. p 7

Many in the Iranian lands–the people of the Persianate world (as Marshall Hudgson would define the domain of Persian culture)–came to make notable contributions to what is often defined as the “Islamic civilization” and most remarkably in Arabic language and literature. Elements of philosophical skepticism, Zurvanite fatalism, and Sufi stoicism can best be seen in Persian poetry from Khayyam to Hafez. Subtle reminders of a Persian identity moreover are evident in expressions of hedonistic love, homosexuality, and wine. What may be called a virtual poetic space offered a suitable environment for the survival and thriving of an alternative identity [to that of universalized Islamic identity]. p 7

Persian never seriously attempted to compete with Arabic as a language of Islamic law and theology. To a lesser extnet it delved into other areas of Islamic sciences and philosophy. Distance from formal sciences instead allowed Persian to preserve and articulate unique features, notably in epic and lyrical poetry, Sufi aphorisms, and popular storytelling. p 8

Tavakoli-Targhi would argue against this latter assertion by Amanat on the basis of the prose literature which he calls homeless text. Read his take here.

With time the Iranian cultural sphere, some call it Persophonia, which was predominately Persian in its longua franca and worldview, stretched from Anatolia through the Iranian plateau to the greater Khurasan and Transoxania (southern ridges of Central Asia) and through the Indian subcontinent. For more than seven centuries from the Ilkhanid era up to the turn of the nineteenth century, Persian thrived in South Asia as a language of the state, and in Iran proper and Central Asia as the language of the street. pp 9-10

I haven’t figured out yet what he means by “Iran proper.” This to me is an ambiguous term referring to an undefined territory.

Even in the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Revolt when the British colonial authorities finally opted for total abolishing of Persian in favor of English as the lingua franca of colonial India, Persian as a favored medium preserved its place among the Indian literati despite deliberate measures to undermine the indigenous Indo-Persian culture of India. p 10

I’ll continue with this tomorrow.

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