Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia have deep historic ties, and connections between them remain more salient in the modern period than is commonly understood. Over the past two decades, a new wave of scholarship has begun to break down the disciplinary divide between Iranian studies and South Asian studies, as scholars have paid increasing attention to modern Indo-Iranian connections in what some have recently termed the “Persianate turn.”Footnote 1 Some have focused on exchange between Iranians and Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis).Footnote 2 Others have located the roots of Iranian nationalism and modernization projects in India.Footnote 3 These scholars laid important ground and successfully challenged nationalist paradigms that had long defined Iranian studies. However, by engaging only with Persian-language sources at the expense of Urdu materials, they have ignored the important role of South Asian Muslims in modern Iranian intellectual and literary trends, failing to recognize bilateral exchange between Persian and Urdu rather than unilateral “influence.”Footnote 4 This topic has been even more neglected in South Asian studies. Though Islamic religious networks connecting Iran and South Asia have been the subject of serious scholarly research, literary and intellectual connections between the two have been comparatively overlooked.Footnote 5 Most recently, innovative monographs have sought to bring together Iranian studies and South Asian studies.Footnote 6 They make valuable contributions, but as these books rely exclusively on Persian-language sources, they have the same blind spot for Urdu as the existing Iranian studies scholarship. Yet Urdu-language scholarship played an important role for the emergence of national literature and literary history in Iran and Afghanistan.
Historically, Persian was hugely influential on Urdu in ways similar to the impact of Arabic on New Persian; Urdu borrowed its script and a large proportion of its vocabulary from Persian, while Persian literature also offered Urdu important literary forms and a repertoire of imagery and references.Footnote 7 In the modern period, there has been a significant amount of translation from Persian into Urdu. As Urdu and other “vernacular” languages took the place that Persian had once held as a language of letters in South Asia, institutions like Fort William College in Calcutta and organizations like the Anjuman-i Taraqqi-yi Urdu (Association for the Progress of Urdu) across India (and, later, Pakistan) attempted to bring the Persian literary corpus into Urdu through translation.Footnote 8 While translations from Urdu into Persian have historically been less common, some have nevertheless had an outsized impact and are worthy of study. Iranians’ engagement with English dominates the field of Persian translation studies, but the impact of Urdu on Persian has received scant attention.Footnote 9 Indian influences on Iranian languages and literatures are mostly acknowledged in studies of late antiquity, such as the translations of the Panchatrantra from Sanskrit into Middle Persian in the Sasanian period,Footnote 10 or a relatively limited number of Middle Persian loans from Sanskrit. Scholarship in South Asian studies has also increasingly addressed the Mughal-era translations from Indic languages like Sanskrit and Braj into Persian,Footnote 11 but twentieth-century translations from Urdu into Persian belong to different circumstances, different epistemological conditions, and reflect a different understanding of translation. Whereas early modern translations were often patronized by the courts, the twentieth-century translations were produced under the aegis of modern educational institutions.
Scholars of Afghanistan have paid closer attention to the influence of Urdu on modern Afghan culture, and there is no question that Urdu has historically played a more salient role for Afghans than for Iranians.Footnote 12 Knowledge of the language is much more widespread in Afghanistan than in Iran. Prominent Afghan political figures like the poet and foreign minister Mahmud Tarzi (1865–1933) were conversant in Urdu, and Afghans often learned Urdu through living in India or economic and educational exchange with the country.Footnote 13 Yet this difference between Iran and Afghanistan may also have to do with the different character of official nationalism in the two countries. The prominent role of Pashtun nationalism in forming the modern Afghan state and the fact that Pashtun nationalists imagined themselves as a single people living on both sides of the Durand Line in Afghanistan and British India (now Pakistan) cannot be ignored. While the Baluch people were similarly divided between Iran and British India (today's Pakistan), they have played no such role in Iranian nationalism; unlike the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, in Iran the Baluch have been marginalized, sidelined by Persian-speakers.
This article closely examines Persian translations of Urdu-language works about Persian literature as a means of considering the less-studied side of the exchange between Urdu and Persian. In particular, it focuses on translations of an influential Urdu-language work on Persian literary history, Shiʿr al-ʿAjam (Poetry of the Persians), by Shibli Nuʿmani. Bridging the gap between the tazkirah tradition and modern methodologies of literary historiography, Shiʿr al-ʿAjam was an important work for literary modernity in India, Afghanistan, and Iran. The text was translated into Persian on two separate occasions: first by a group of Afghans in the 1920s and then again by an Iranian translator between the 1930s and 1950s. What was the significance of this text for twentieth-century Persian readers? What role did it play in burgeoning projects of producing national literary histories in Iran and Afghanistan? Why were two Persian translations of such a voluminous text produced within such a short span of time? This article’s close and comparative reading of the Afghan and Iranian translations of Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam offers an entry point into these questions.
Analysis of the translations reveals how twentieth-century Indians, Afghans, and Iranians were all invested in the same literary heritage: the poetry of the premodern Persianate world. Persian had been an important language of learning (among other functions) across much of Eurasia, linking societies together in a Persianate cosmopolis through a shared idiom and texts and common aesthetic, social, and political forms. The term “cosmopolis” need not suggest an idealized zone free of hierarchies, as scholars like Nile Green rightly warn against romanticizing the Persianate past.Footnote 14 But the Persianate was cosmopolitan in the sense that Persian learning was not the purview of one religious or ethnic community, but rather the common language of varied groups, allowing for connections across a highly diverse Kulturkreis without a single geographic core or center.Footnote 15
As the cultural logics underpinning the Persianate shifted in the nineteenth century, modernity and nationalism did not simply bring an end to Persianate affiliations as is often claimed.Footnote 16 Instead, such historical ties endured—now strengthened by new physical infrastructure like drivable roads linking India, Afghanistan, and Iran—and even played a crucial role in generating national identities and national heritage.Footnote 17 Modernizers reworked the Persianate textual tradition, producing a Persianate modernity which drew on the connections that the earlier cosmopolis had engendered.Footnote 18 Yet, simultaneously, this Persianate modernity sought to cover its tracks, erasing the traces of its cosmopolitan connections so as to present an image of national heritage that appeared to be sui generis, independent, self-contained.Footnote 19 In other words, what I term “Persianate modernity” is the form the Persianate takes after the transformations of the nineteenth century. It is the connected framework left over from the bygone cosmopolis that enables intellectuals from Iran, Afghanistan, and India to learn from each other in their modernizing projects, and to rework the literary texts of the earlier tradition into national heritage.
In the 1920s, Afghan translators produced what can be understood as a “cosmopolitan Persianate” translation: closely in line with the Urdu original, in a context of porous borders between Persian and Urdu, for an audience that defined itself as much in religious terms as national ones. The later Iranian translation is instead a “Persianate modern” translation, severing the text from its Indo-Persianate, Muslim context and more freely remaking it for a national, Iranian audience. The Afghan translation is a text within the expansive, fluid boundaries of the adab tradition, while the Iranian translation belongs to the discipline of discrete, nationally bounded literature. After analyzing these two translations, this article concludes by surveying some of the other noteworthy translations of Urdu texts into Persian.
Shibli's Poetry of the Persians between Adab and “Literature”
By the end of the nineteenth century, Urdu had become a major vehicle for Islamic modernist thought, not only in South Asia but globally, including both Iran and Afghanistan. The Indian Muslim reformer Abu al-Aʿla Maududi, for example, influenced Islamist political thinkers everywhere from Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt to the Taliban movement in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands and Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.Footnote 20 While the global reach of Urdu and Indo-Muslim political and religious thought has been the subject of ample scholarly attention, the literary impact of Urdu has been neglected. Scholarship on these international connections reflects an artificial division, treating literature as a separate sphere from politics and religion. The latter two are recognized as international, ecumenically influencing and receiving influence from as far afield as South Asia, Lebanon, Egypt, and beyond, whereas literature appears as if it were a hermetically sealed domain within national borders. This division may in part stem from the way the sources describe themselves: while Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries made no secret of their internationalism, hoping to spread the revolution beyond the borders of Iran, its literary scholars were by and large nationalists who saw Iran as having a proprietary claim to Persian literature.Footnote 21 Yet as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the project of modernizing and canonizing Persian literature was also an international one, participating in exchanges across (and beyond) the Persianate sphere, despite any pretentions to the contrary from the nationalist litterateurs.Footnote 22
Shibli Nuʿmani (1857–1914) was a key figure in Islamic modernist thought in South Asia, as well as in the project of modernizing the Persianate literary heritage. An Islamic scholar, reformer, and educator from Azamgarh in northern India, his life’s work was to develop Islamic education in India—and ultimately develop an approach to Islam—that could be compatible with colonial modernity, engaging with European historiographic methodologies in order to revitalize the Islamic tradition. Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam (Poetry of the Persians) is a monumental work on Persian poetry, spanning five volumes totaling over 1,500 pages, written in Urdu and published between 1908 and 1918. The first three volumes outline periods of Persian poetry and are structured according to the traditional tazkirah format, organized around biographical entries on the major poets of each period and selections of their poetry. The final two volumes, however, move entirely beyond the biographical anthology format and offer literary history and criticism of a kind that cannot be found in the tazkirah genre. Synthesizing Islamic historiographical methods with the techniques of European Orientalist scholarship, Shibli provides an account of Persian poetry guided by a continuous, progressive sense of time. Rather than merely discussing individual poets, each discretely bound within separate biographical entries as in traditional tazkirahs, in the fourth and fifth volumes of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam Shibli discusses poetic movements which build on literary and historical developments that precede them.
This text, which drew on a wide range of Persian tazkirahs and dīvāns from Iran and South Asia alike, played a vital role in the transition from tazkirah (a premodern genre of biographical anthology) to modern literary history,Footnote 23 and became a central textbook for the teaching of Persian literature in India. It later also found its way into the Persian literature curriculum in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. The Iranian literary scholar Saʿid Nafisi (1895–1966) called it “the first book by a wise and forward-thinking man to analyze [tajziyah va tahlīl] Persian adab,” expressing his surprise that though Shibli wrote his book in “one of the third-rate cities of India” (az shahr-hā-yi darajah-yi sivvum-i hind), it “paved the path of inquiry [taḥqīq] for those who wanted guidance,” to such an extent that Edward Granville Browne (1862–1926), “one of the famous Orientalists of his time,” relied time and again on Shibli's work.Footnote 24
Shibli's Shiʿr al-ʿAjam illustrates the difficulty in imposing clear divisions between Urdu and Persian, tazkirah and literary history, literary heritage and national community, secular culture and religious knowledge, as adab generally elided such neat distinctions. While the term is often translated as “belles lettres,” adab is a more expansive concept not limited to the strictly literary; it also encompasses moral behavior, perhaps better understood as something akin to “habitus.” The Iranian litterateur Muhammad-Husayn Furughi “Zukaʾ al-Mulk” (1839–1907) explained adab as
knowing the limits and extent of everything…adab…means dānish [knowledge]…but in the terminology of the literati [udabā] of the age, the science of adab [ʿilm-i adab] is knowledge of poetry and prose, which they call “oratory” [sukhan-sanjī] in Persian, and whoever possesses this knowledge is an orator, or adīb in Arabic. The meaning of adabiyyāt is those forms of speech [sukhan] that teach knowledge and help a person to recognize divine favor and attain the light of clear-sightedness and the luster of awareness.Footnote 25
Thus knowledge informing proper social behavior (adab) is cultivated through the mastery of the literary forms (also adab) in which it finds its expression; Mana Kia has usefully defined adab as “proper form,” which captures both the aesthetic-literary and social-ethical dimensions of the concept.Footnote 26 From the nineteenth century on, the meaning of adab began to shift from belles lettres and “cultivated knowledge as well as character, conduct, and manners”; the term came to signify “literature” in a modern, narrowly defined sense: secular, finite, one part of a “world republic of letters.”Footnote 27
Yet to understand premodern adab as secular literature, as many now do, is to miss much about its historical function. Adab encompassed pious odes in praise of the Prophet as well as satires lampooning the faithful and flouting religious strictures; it cannot be accurately described as either secular or religious. As Thomas Bauer reminds us, the secular/religious binary is of little use for understanding much of the Islamicate world. In Europe, modern “secular” domains like literature or law took on distinct disciplinary identities only after achieving independence from the control of the church—the sphere of religion. But in the Islamicate world, in the absence of any such centralized church, “religion” constituted itself differently within each domain, according to the norms of that field. This is not to suggest that every aspect of Islamicate societies was primarily concerned with religious matters, but rather that religion did not constitute a separate sphere of its own.Footnote 28 Kia has articulated a definition of the Persianate with Islam and Persian adab at its core, refining Shahab Ahmed's work which also considered Islam as a centrally constitutive element of the Persianate.Footnote 29 Adab was “the public culture of the Persianate ecumene,” as Brian Spooner describes it, and I argue that just as the Persianate endured well into the twentieth century and beyond—much later than conventionally thought—so did adab.Footnote 30 Kia's formulation, understanding the “Persianate” and the “Islamic” as aporetically linked through adab, is most useful for making sense of how an Islamic scholar like Shibli approached Persian poetry, and how he was first received by his Afghan translators.
Shibli understood Persian poetry not as secular literature but as adab. Rather than a secular enterprise, adab was “part of knowledge (ʿilm)” as Astrid Meier aptly put it.Footnote 31 As such, adab was within Shibli's purview as an Islamic scholar (ʿālim).Footnote 32 Moreover, the very notion of world literature—a world system of discretely bounded, mutually interchangeable national literatures—is absent in Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam. For Shibli, Persian(ate) poetry was not one national literature among others but a world unto itself, a cosmopolis not divided by nation-states but united by Islam; it was the poetry of ʿajam, a category inclusive of many peoples.Footnote 33 Nor was Persian a completely discrete literature, but rather one with porous boundaries separating it from Arabic and Urdu.Footnote 34 Shibli's mission was similarly not a secular one. He considered Persian poetry to play a religious role in Muslim education in the subcontinent: literary adab was the basis for moral cultivation. Shiʿr al-ʿAjam was written for use in Muslim educational institutions like the Nadwatul Ulama seminary; for Shibli, the era of Persian poetry begins with Islam, and any (Middle) Persian verse that predates Islam does not constitute poetry but merely rhymed prose.Footnote 35 He gave a particularly Islamic framework to his Shiʿr al-ʿAjam, counting Persian literature among the Islamic sciences and defining its territory according to the lands upon which Islam, a “cloud of munificence,” rained.Footnote 36
While Shibli’s project can hardly be described as secular, it was certainly modern,Footnote 37 and displays cross-pollination between the Islamic mode of reading associated with adab and what Edward Said would later describe as a humanistic practice of “secular criticism,” criticism that is “skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings.”Footnote 38 The fourth and fifth volumes of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam exemplify the humanistic project of historicism as they approach Persian poetry not as timeless but rather as a specifically historical entity. Shibli articulates his understanding of humanistic scholarship clearly in another text, his travelogue to Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. After visiting Cairo’s renowned center of Islamic learning, the al-Azhar seminary, Shibli expresses his disappointment with Azharite scholarship: “several of the shaykhs and disciples of Azhar are thought to be accomplished masters in their subjects…but the entire foundation of their accomplishment rests on the memorization of minutiae, in which there is not even a suspicion of critical research [tahqīq] and innovative thinking [ijtihād].”Footnote 39 What Shibli wants, then, is “secular criticism,” but squarely within a committed Islamic framework, not a secular one—a model that would upset Said’s neat binary between humanistic skepticism and religious dogmatism. Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam is a critical, historicist approach to an object—Persian poetry—conceived of in Islamic terms. It is therefore in many ways a hybrid, liminal text, complicating neat binaries between religious and secular, traditional and modern genres, tazkirah and literary history, adab and literature. Accordingly, the translation history of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam straddles these divisions as well.
A Tale of Two Translations
Shiʿr al-ʿAjam was translated into Persian on two separate occasions: first in Afghanistan, then in Iran. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Afghan state put Persian literature in the service of its modernizing policies and efforts to craft an Afghan national identity.Footnote 40 Under Amanullah Khan (r. 1919–26), new, modern schools were founded with Persian literacy at the heart of the curriculum, and in 1921 the Afghan Ministry of Education was established.Footnote 41 Crucially, the ministry drew on an Urdu-language text, Shiʿr al-ʿAjam, for its Persian curriculum. The first translation of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam was commissioned by the Afghan Ministry of Education and published in Kabul and Lahore between 1925 and 1927 by a series of Afghan translators including Mansur Ansari and Burhan al-Din Khan Kushkaki (clerics trained in Islamic law), Fayz Muhammad Khan (Afghanistan's foreign minister), Shir Muhammad Khan, Sardar Gul, and Sarvar Guya Iʿtimadi (adviser to the Ministry of Education). For the sake of brevity, this team-translation is henceforth referred to as “the Afghan translation.” These translators would all go on to become members of the literary society Anjuman-i Adabi-yi Kabul (Literary Association of Kabul), inaugurated by Muhammad Nadir Shah (r. 1929–33) in 1931.Footnote 42 As part of its nation-building efforts, the state established additional literary and cultural institutions in the 1930s and 1940s like the Literary Association of Herat, the Faculty of Letters at Kabul University, and journals like Kabul and Aryana. The translation of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam later served as both an important source of information and a historiographic model for Afghan scholars developing a modern approach to Persian literature.Footnote 43 Yet the translation, carried out in the 1920s, precedes much of the nation-building to come later in the century, and the translation practices in many ways reflect an older, cosmopolitan Persianate approach to language and literary heritage. In this adabī approach, the relationship between Persian and Urdu is capacious, with relatively fluid boundaries separating them, and the role of the translator(s) is obscured. These practices differ from the nationalist projects that would be undertaken later in the century.Footnote 44
The volumes of the Afghan translation lack any preface or introduction to situate the text, simply presenting Shiʿr al-ʿAjam as it is, without explanation. The translation itself is extremely faithful, cleaving closely to the original, even reproducing its mistakes. For example, Shibli gives the wrong year of death for Yaʿqub-i Lays, and this error is repeated in the Afghan translation. Another example of this noteworthy faithfulness is where Shibli occasionally uses an English word in Urdu, such as karīkṭar “character.” In the original Urdu text, the English word is written according to Urdu orthography, using the letter ٹ (the retroflex [ṭ]) as is common in Urdu for representing the English consonant “t” (Fig. 1).Footnote 45
This suggests fluid boundaries between Urdu and Persian. Elements such as Urdu-specific letters or English loanwords nativized in Urdu can appear in the Persian text. The only place where the Afghan translators’ voice can be heard is in the occasional footnote: sequestered away from the text by a line and usually signed with an individual translator’s name.Footnote 47
The manner in which the Afghan translators dealt with Shibli’s citations of Urdu verse further illustrates the fluid boundaries between the two languages. Shibli frequently quotes from Urdu poets like Mir Anis (1803–74), Mir Taqi Mir (1725–1810), Mir Zamir (1775–1855), and Mirza Dabir (1803–75) in order to demonstrate points about poetics. For example, Shibli quotes from Mir Anis in his discussion of poetic intemperance (bē-iʿtidālī). The Afghan translation maintains the quotation (accurately reproducing the Urdu spelling, including unique Urdu characters such as the undotted nasal nūn and the retroflex ṛā) and following discussion exactly. The translators added Persian interlinear translation in a smaller hand between the lines of Urdu poetry.Footnote 48 In another case, an Urdu couplet by Mirza Dabir is quoted in the original, followed by Persian explanation rather than interlinear translation.Footnote 49 The relationship between Persian and Urdu in Shibli’s text—maintained in the Afghan translation—exemplifies what Nile Green termed “Persian plus,” with Persian as a central but not sole language of the Persianate.Footnote 50 The presumed Afghan reader is still part of a Persianate cosmopolis; they may prefer to read in Persian but nevertheless have some familiarity with Urdu as well.
Slightly more is known about the circumstances of the second translation of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam into Persian, and its translator, the Iranian Sayyid Muhammad-Taqi Daʿi al-Islam “Fakhr-i Daʿi” Gilani (b. 1260 HS/1881–82 CE in Tamijan, Gilan, d. 1343 HS/1964 CE in Tehran). Fakhr-i Daʿi was a political reformist and constitutionalist, as well as a Shiʿi mujtahid (religious jurist), having studied with Akhund Muhammad-Kazim Khurasani (1839–1911) and Ayatollah Shaykh ʿAbdullah Mazandarani (1840–1912) in Najaf. Unusually for religious scholars at the time, Khurasani and Mazandarani supported institutions which taught Persian literature, patronizing not only Islamic seminaries but also Iranian societies like the Anjuman-i Ukhuvvat-i Iraniyan (Society of Iranian Brotherhood) in Najaf.Footnote 51 In 1910, Fakhr-i Daʿi was dispatched by his teachers from Iraq to India for research and missionary work.Footnote 52 He depicted Bombay as one of India’s prettiest and most populous cities, a “garden” (bāgh) of different religions and sects. Among these sects are what he calls the “Aryans” (āriyā, probably referring to the Arya Samaj, a Hindu proselytizing movement), which he compares to Protestant Christians and describes as anti-Muslim fanatics.Footnote 53 Notably, given the city’s diverse sectarian milieu, Fakhr-i Daʿi does not describe his mission as promoting Shiʿism, but merely a defense of an undifferentiated “Islam” against its detractors. He complained that Iranians in Bombay, despite their great numbers and wealth, did nothing to defend Islam against the onslaught of missionaries and Islamophobes—other than his similarly named friend Sayyid Muhammad-ʿAli Daʿi al-Islam Larijani (1878–1951). Larijani promoted Islam along with Persian language and literature, and founded the newspaper and anjuman (association) Daʿvat al-Islam (The Call of Islam). Larijani later went to the Deccan to teach Persian at the Nizam College in Hyderabad, and for this reason Fakhr-i Daʿi had been sent to take Larijani’s place in Bombay.Footnote 54
In India, Fakhr-i Daʿi writes, he “faced a new world…in which [he] felt [he] could not continue living according to the old ways [uslūb-i kuhan].” He therefore threw himself into the study of two languages which served as vehicles for modernity in the subcontinent: English and Urdu. Fakhr-i Daʿi’s arrival in Bombay coincided with Shibli’s visit to the city.Footnote 55 By chance, the two found lodging in adjacent, connecting rooms. Fakhr-i Daʿi was impressed with Shibli's stature, dress, and knowledge, and given their shared mission to modernize and protect Islam and Islamicate heritage it is no surprise that the two men became fast friends. They met often and spent a great deal of time in close conversation together.
Later, Fakhr-i Daʿi tired of Bombay's polluted air and the difficulty of life in the city. He moved to Indore, some 600 kilometers away in central India, where he taught Persian language and literature at Indore College. Ultimately, Fakhr-i Daʿi grew exasperated with his working conditions there as well. He was obliged to teach in English, an onerous task which required preparing his lectures in advance; Fakhr-i Daʿi claims that between research, teaching, and preparing the next day’s lectures, he worked twenty hours a day. Despite his proficiency in reading—he eventually translated several books from English into Persian—his spoken skills in English were evidently poorer. After eight years in India, Fakhr-i Daʿi returned to Iran, and in Tehran he set about translating several of Shibli's works into Persian. He published the first volume of his translation of Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam in 1935.
Why did Fakhr-i Daʿi choose to re-translate this massive work, spanning 1,500 pages, when it had already been translated into Persian just a decade earlier in Afghanistan? Saʿid Nafisi offers three explanations in his 1955 introduction to Fakhr-i Daʿi’s translation. Two are straightforwardly material: he mentions that copies of the book itself were not readily available, and also describes the uneven printing (chāp-i nāhamvār) of the Afghan translation as unappealing.Footnote 56 The scarcity of the Afghan translation in Iran certainly could have been a factor. Ronit Ricci observed in a different context that “the motives for translation and those for composing or for copying an existing text” were often identical: both were methods of keeping a text in circulation.Footnote 57 By “uneven printing” Nafisi may have been referring to the first edition of the Afghan translation, which was lithographed, but the original manuscript from which the lithograph was created had been penned in a clear and well-spaced hand, not at all difficult to read.Footnote 58 By the time Fakhr-i Daʿi published his new translation, the Afghan translation had begun to be serialized in print (with movable type) in the journal Kabul.Footnote 59
Nafisi’s more telling justification for this new translation was his claim that Iranians did not find the Afghan translation suitable (sāzgār) because it was not in the kind of Persian language with which they were familiar. This declaration—that the Persian used in the Afghan translation was too different—is even more difficult to defend. The written standard of Persian has been highly conservative in both Iran and Afghanistan, and in the first half of the twentieth century there was little divergence in the literary language written in the two countries. For the most part, the language used in the two translations was remarkably similar, and where they did differ, the choice of vocabulary in the Afghan translation would have been familiar enough for an Iranian reader.
A rare example of lexical divergence between the two translations can be seen in the way English vocabulary was rendered, like the word “character” discussed above. As we have seen, the Afghans preserved the English loan, even retaining in Persian the Urdu orthography with which the English word had been spelled. The Iranian translation renders this word into Persian as ṣifāt-i mukhtaṣṣah (“particular qualities”). But differences in translating the occasional English word aside, the language used in the two translations was otherwise very close. For example, consider this line from the Urdu original and its two Persian translations:
īrān kī khāk funūn-i laṭīfah kī qābiliyyat meṇ bhī sab se mumtāz thī, aur bi-l-khuṣūṣ shāʿirī uskā khamīr thā (Urdu)
The land of Iran was also the most distinguished in its suitability for the fine arts, and especially [bi-l-khuṣūṣ] poetry was its nature [lit. “leaven,” khamīr].
khāk-i īrān qābiliyyat-i funūn-i laṭīfah az hamah fāyiqtar dāsht, ʿalá-l-khuṣūṣ shāʿirī rawshan būdah (Persian, Afghan translation)
The land of Iran had a suitability for the fine arts superior to all, especially [ʿalá-l-khuṣūṣ] poetry had been clear.
khāk-i īrān hamīshah dar tarbiyyat-i hunar va ṣanāyiʿ-i ẓarīfah mumtāz az hamah khuṣūṣan shāʿirī kih gharīzah-yi vay būd (Persian, Iranian translation)
The land of Iran was always distinguished from all in training [the] art[s], especially [khuṣūṣan] poetry which was its nature [gharīzah].
In closely comparing the translations, the most obvious differences are seemingly arbitrary choices, like the different words used for “especially,” both of which differ from the original.Footnote 60 Although the Afghan and Iranian translations are worded slightly differently, they display the same noteworthy linguistic features, such as using the Arabic feminine adjective (tāʾ marbūṭah) to agree with broken plurals (funūn-i laṭīfah; ṣanāyiʿ-i ẓarīfah) or the use of the word shāʿirī (poetry), as deployed in the original Urdu, rather than the more common shiʿr. Rather than linguistic discrepancies in translation, as we might have expected to find, what can be generally observed instead in the two translations are divergences in framing and in the text’s relationship to the original Urdu, the products of two different contexts: 1920s Afghanistan, still part of a Persianate cosmopolis, and 1940s Iran, at the height of state-led nationalism and Persianate modernity.
The Afghans’ approach to translation was grounded in traditional Persianate sensibilities. The association of language and literature with nation and territory, still only incipient in the 1920s, had to compete with an earlier, cosmopolitan Persianate framework in which the boundaries between languages could occasionally be traversed or even muddled, as in the Afghan translation’s retention of nativized English loans in Urdu, or its treatment of Shibli’s quotations from Urdu poetry. More importantly, in the Persianate framework adab was not considered to be the property of any one people. The author Shibli’s position as an Indian writing about Persian poetry was hardly unusual in such a framework and required no explanation; thus, the Afghan translators could efface themselves almost entirely from their translation, rendering their presence in the text nearly invisible. Islam was a crucial element in the burgeoning Afghan identity of the early twentieth century, and so Shibli’s conceptualization of Persian literature within bounds defined by Islam rather than nation made sense.Footnote 61 He began the book with a traditional Sunni prayer: “prayers and blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad and all his family and Companions,” which is dutifully reproduced in the Afghan translation.
While the Afghans in the 1920s approached Persian poetry in terms of adab, for the Iranian translator Fakhr-i Daʿi in the mid-twentieth century Persian poetry was national literature (adabiyyāt), and he was uniquely positioned to translate it.Footnote 62 As a Shiʿi missionary and mujtahid, a religious jurist with the authority to issue legal opinions, Fakhr-i Daʿi omitted the text’s initial Sunni prayer. Endowed with a mujtahid’s confidence to respond and produce and the authority of an Iranian who believed he was engaging with his own national literature, Fakhr-i Daʿi considered his translation something of a revised edition. He was unsatisfied with problems in his copy of the Urdu original (the lithographed edition had many copyist’s errors), and set out to correct the text, a considerable task which involved consulting dīvāns and tazkirahs in several libraries.Footnote 63 Fakhr-i Daʿi approached the text authoritatively, going beyond recension to confidently excise, add, and even change the original where he saw fit. For example, as mentioned above, Shibli gave the wrong date of death for Yaʿqub-i Lays and the Afghan translators reproduced it; Fakhr-i Daʿi silently changed the date to the correct one, not in a footnote, but in the text itself. He did not limit himself to correcting minor factual details like this one. Consider the following passage and its translations, on the Samanid court and the poet Rudaki (860–940). The original Urdu texts reads:
is vaqt tak jo kuch hu’ā vuh shāʿirī kī abjad thī laikin khāndān-i sāmāniyyah ne dafʿatan is zamīn ko āsmān banā diyā, rudakī jo fārsī shāʿirī kā abu-l-ābāʾ samjhā jātā hai usī darbār kā dast parvar thā
heretofore whatever had happened was only the elementary stage of poetry, but the Samanid court suddenly turned this ground into sky [e.g. elevated it to great heights]. Rudaki, who is considered the Father of all Fathers of Persian poetry, was brought up in their court.Footnote 64
The Afghan translation is highly literal:
az īn pīsh chīzīkih guftah shudah abjad-i shāʿirī būd laikin khāndān-i sāmāniyyah dafʿatan īn zamīn rā āsmān sākht, rūdakī kih ādam-i shāʿirī-yi fārsī ast dast parvardah-[y]i hamīn khāndān ast
heretofore that which had been composed was only the elementary stage of poetry, but the Samanid court suddenly turned this ground into sky. Rudaki, who is the Adam of Persian poetry, was brought up by this very court.Footnote 65
Fakhr-i Daʿi’s translation takes significant liberties with the text:
khāndān-i sāmānī avval khāndānī ast kih dar tarvīj-i zabān-i fārsī qadam-hā-yi vasīʿī bar dāshtah va adabiyyāt-i īrān rā kih tā ānvaqt ghayr az nām chīz-i dīgarī nabūd dar andak zamānī bast va tawsaʿah dādah ba-awj-i kamāl rasānīd. rūdakī kih vayrā pidar-i shiʿr mīdānand dast parvardah-yi darbār-i sāmānī būdah ast.
The Samanid court was the first court to take extensive steps toward the propagation of the Persian language. In a short time they expanded the literature of Iran, which until that time was not more than a name, and brought it to its peak. Rudaki, who is considered the Father of Poetry, was brought up in the Samanid court.Footnote 66
Fakhr-i Daʿi has changed the text to fit his own view of the Samanids and of Rudaki’s greatness. It is noteworthy as well that he elevates Rudaki from the father of Persian poetry, as Shibli described him, to the father of poetry in general.
Furthermore, Fakhr-i Daʿi dispenses with Shibli’s quotations of Urdu verse, which the Afghan translators had carefully reproduced and translated. He excises these passages entirely, without exception; sometimes this requires omitting as much as half a page. Fakhr-i Daʿi does not indicate that anything has been abridged nor otherwise offer an explanation.Footnote 67 The only reference to an Urdu poet that survives in his translation is when Shibli describes the Safavid poet Vali Dasht-i Bayazi as the Persian equivalent to Urdu’s Mir Taqi Mir.Footnote 68 In another instance, Shibli depicts the New Persian language as emerging out of Persian’s encounter with Arabic: “Gradually, as Persian and Arabic mixed, like Urdu a new language was born.” While the Afghan translators rendered this accurately into Persian, Fakhr-i Daʿi omitted the words “like Urdu” in his translation.Footnote 69 Undoubtedly, this choice to remove Shibli’s engagement with Urdu is partly informed by the Iranian audience for this translation, who, unlike the Afghans, cannot be expected to be familiar with the language. More significantly, in Fakhr-i Daʿi’s translation, Urdu does not belong to the same Persianate cosmopolis as Persian does, sharing the same literary heritage of Persian adab; instead, Urdu has been left outside the national boundaries of Iranian literary history.
Fakhr-i Daʿi’s authoritative approach can also be seen in his introductions. Unlike the Afghans, who present the text without introduction, Fakhr-i Daʿi offers one or two introductions for each of the text’s five volumes, helping familiarize Iranian readers with Shibli. In his introduction written after the second printing of his translation, Fakhr-i Daʿi says “the greatest reward for an artist [hunarmand] is the pleasure that they take in their own success…now…your humble servant [in tuhīdast] is most pleased and satisfied.”Footnote 70 Despite referring to himself humbly, Fakhr-i Daʿi has indirectly depicted himself not as a translator, but an artist. Describing how he has carefully studied the text of the original and revised and corrected it, he goes on to imply that the author himself, Shibli, saw the translation as an improvement on the mistakes and shortcomings present in the original. Fakhr-i Daʿi explicitly dedicates “this book” to his compatriots. For Fakhr-i Daʿi to be dedicating the book—and not just his translation—implies a sense of ownership, that it is his to dedicate in the first place. Considering the powerful Iranian state’s investment in claiming Persian adab as national heritage, at a time when nationalism and the nation-state model had achieved hegemony, his confidence is understandable.Footnote 71 Fakhr-i Daʿi’s translation exemplifies Persianate modernity. It draws on cosmopolitan connections, translating from Urdu and relying on an Indian scholar to analyze Persian poetry, but effaces those connections in translation in order to present Persian literature as the national heritage of Iran.
The twentieth century witnessed the translation of numerous other texts from Urdu into Persian in Iran. Some were related to Shibli: Hafiz Mahmud Khan Shirani’s (1880–1946) Urdu-language Tanqid-i Shiʿr al-ʿAjam-i Shibli Nuʿmani (Critique of Shibli Nuʿmani’s “Poetry of the Persians”) was translated into Persian.Footnote 72 Shibli's protégé Sayyid Sulayman Nadvi (1884–1953) wrote an Urdu-language travelogue on his travels in Afghanistan, Sayr-i Afghanistan (1944), which was later translated into Persian by Nazir Ahmad Salami.Footnote 73 Fakhr-i Daʿi in particular was a prolific translator from Urdu (and English). His other translations from Urdu include Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Tafsir al-Qurʾan (Exegesis of the Qurʾan, 1880–1904), and several of Shibli’s works. While in Indore, Fakhr-i Daʿi had read Shibli's Tarikh-i ʿIlm-i Kalam (History of Speculative Theology) and proclaimed it a “masterpiece”; he published his translation of the first volume of the work in Tehran in 1328 HS/1949–50 CE with the publisher Rangin. Ibn Sina Press published the second volume the following year. It was well received in Iran, as evidenced by the numerous times it has been referenced and cited in Iranian works on fiqh.Footnote 74 Fakhr-i Daʿi also translated Shibli’s Kutubkhanah-yi Iskandariyyah (The Library of Alexandria, 1892) as well as Savanih-i Mawlana Rum (Biography of Mawlana Rumi, 1892; published in Persian translation in 1953). His translations from English included the works of Indian Muslims, such as Syed Ameer Ali’s A Short History of the Saracens (1899, translated as Tarikh-i ʿArab va Islam [History of the Arabs and Islam]), and works about India, like Claude Fraser de la Fosse’s History of India (1905).Footnote 75 These translations help demonstrate that Iranian readers had an appetite for learning about South Asia, and in particular reading about Indian Muslims, not only Parsis.
Fakhr-i Daʿi also translated the French scholar Gustave Le Bon’s La Civilisation des Arabes (1884) into Persian by way of Sayyid ʿAli Bilgrami’s Urdu translation (Tamaddun-i ʿArab, 1896). In his preface, Fakhr-i Daʿi remarked on the difficulty of separating the author's own notes (ḥāshiyah) from those of the Urdu translator, leading him to end up translating both. This translation serves as another example of the dynamics of Persianate modernity: this Urdu translation offered Iranians a useful model for making sense of the premodern past according to modern methodologies. Fakhr-i Daʿi related how he became acquainted with European Orientalist scholarship during his time in India, and admired their novel historiographical methods. He saw this book as an important text to translate for its treatment of Islamic and literary (adabī) topics “in accordance with today's scientific principles and foundations,” and described his relay translation as a “service to Iranian society” (khidmatī bah jāmiʿah-yi īrānī).Footnote 76 With translations like this one, Urdu became a conduit for European texts and ideas in Persian. While scholarship has long recognized Arabic, Azerbaijani, and Ottoman Turkish as important intermediaries for European thought in Persian, Urdu’s similar role has never been acknowledged.Footnote 77
Given Afghanistan’s deeper entanglements with South Asia, Afghans were also eager readers of Urdu in translation. Urdu literature, like the poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, was translated by Afghan translators like ʿAbd al-Hadi Davi.Footnote 78 Members of the group that had first translated Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam in Afghanistan also translated al-Faruq (1898), Shibli’s biography of the caliph ʿUmar, and Tuhfat al-Aman fi Sirat al-Nuʿman (The Gift of Peace, on the Biography of al-Nuʿman, Kabul, 1303 HS/1924–25 CE, translated by Burhan al-Din Kushkaki), his biography of Abu Hanifa (originally Sirat al-Nuʿman).Footnote 79 Works similar to Shibli’s Shiʿr al-ʿAjam were also translated from Urdu by Afghan translators like Qari ʿAbdullah Khan.
Qari ʿAbdullah Khan (1871–1944) was the Afghan poet-laureate (malik al-shuʿarā) and tutor to Amir Habibullah Khan and Crown Prince ʿInayatullah Khan Siraj. He also taught at the elite Habibiyyah high school in Kabul, Afghanistan’s first modern educational institution, modeled after India’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (later reincorporated as Aligarh Muslim University, where Shibli had taught for nearly two decades). As such, Habibiyyah followed the Anglo-Indian curriculum and offered Urdu as an option for the second language requirement.Footnote 80 Qari ʿAbdullah worked with many Indian Muslims, who at one point made up half of the faculty of Habibiyyah, including the principal of the school, ʿAbd al-Ghani Khan of Lahore.Footnote 81 In addition to his position as educator, Qari ʿAbdullah led the Literary Association of Kabul, other members of which had produced the “Afghan translation” of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam discussed above. He was also closely familiar with Shibli’s work, having relied on it as one of the sources for the second-grade Persian literature textbook he compiled for the Ministry of Education.Footnote 82
Qari ʿAbdullah translated Muhammad Husayn Azad’s Sukhandan-i Fars ([On the] Poets of Persia, 1907) from Urdu into Persian. Azad was an Indian Muslim scholar of Persian and Urdu, and his work may have influenced Shibli’s prose style. Sukhandan-i Fars comprised Azad’s lectures on Persian literature and philology. The translation first appeared as a series of articles in the journal Kabul, and was later published in book form in 1315 HS/1936–37 CE.Footnote 83 The book is preceded by a brief introduction from “The Association” (anjuman), most likely the Literary Association of Kabul. This introduction describes Sukhandan-i Fars as a book on the linguistics (fiqh al-lughah) and phonology (fiqh al-ṣawt) of Persian literature, the first of its kind in the world of Persian letters.Footnote 84
Later in the twentieth century, as the project of developing a centralized Afghan state progressed, national literature came to replace the cosmopolitan Persianate adab in Afghanistan as well. The 1930s were a radical turning point for Afghan nationalist historiography, as reflected in Qari ʿAbdullah’s translation practices.Footnote 85 His translation of Sukhandan-i Fars is much freer than either the Afghan or Iranian translations of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam. He took great liberties in reworking Azad’s colloquial lectures into more laconic prose and excising details he must have found unnecessary. For example, Azad describes the difficulty of translating English philological works into Urdu, noting that English scholars master English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and other tongues and base their work upon these languages.Footnote 86 Qari ʿAbdullah leaves Hebrew out, perhaps deeming the first three languages sufficient to make the point.Footnote 87 As a result of this concision, his Persian translation runs nearly a hundred pages shorter than the original Urdu. In contrast to the earlier Afghan translators of Shiʿr al-ʿAjam, who retained Shibli’s English words in their translation, Qari ʿAbdullah rendered Azad’s likchar (lectures) as khaṭābah, and similarly translated other English words into Persian. As such, Qari ʿAbdullah’s translation—published during a decade of Afghan state-driven nation-building—demonstrates a move away from the liminal moment when Shiʿr al-ʿAjam was first translated, toward a more confident sense of literary authority backed by the state.
These instances of Urdu-to-Persian translation offer insight into the dynamics associated with literary and cultural exchange in the first half of the twentieth century. Translating works on Persian literature from Urdu into Persian was not only an opportunity for translators to add to the knowledge available about the literary tradition; it could also be an opportunity for the translators to demonstrate their authority over the subject and stake a claim to it. This seems to have been the case for Fakhr-i Daʿi Gilani and Qari ʿAbdullah, translators in a period of nationalist authority and Persianate modernity, whereas in the earlier Afghan group project no individual voice wished to shine through in the translation. Clearly individual personalities and institutional positions played a role in the differences in translation, perhaps much more so than any perceived linguistic differences between Afghan and Iranian Persian.
Important context for these differences is also to be found in the distinct relationships Afghanistan and Iran had with India. The ruler of Afghanistan, Amir ʿAbd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901), had invited Shibli to visit Afghanistan so that the Ministry of Education could learn more about Shibli’s educational reforms in India.Footnote 88 While Shibli was unable to make the trip, his protégé Sayyid Sulayman Nadvi visited. Later Afghan rulers like Muhammad Nadir Shah, born and educated in the northern Indian city of Dehradun, spoke Urdu fluently. At his behest, Amir Habibullah (r. 1901–19) visited Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in India.Footnote 89 There was no such equivalent of the Iranian government systematically learning from India; by contrast, when the poet Rabindranath Tagore was invited to Iran from India in 1932, he was lauded but also seen by Iranians as a relic of the past, a living embodiment of ancient Indo-Iranian shared heritage.Footnote 90
Iranian national chauvinism may have been an additional factor, with its claims to the Persian literary heritage made possible by an increasingly powerful state and institutions such as the University of Tehran. As much as Shibli was praised by Iranian scholars like Fakhr-i Daʿi, Saʿid Nafisi, Muhammad-Taqi Bahar, and Zayn al-ʿAbidin Muʾtaman, they also maintained a sense of being the proper heirs to the Persian literary corpus, such that an Iranian like Fakhr-i Daʿi could confidently correct someone like Shibli; however much the Iranians respected Shibli’s knowledge, they ultimately saw him as outsider to what they considered an Iranian tradition. Indeed, Nafisi remarks with wonder that Shibli never set foot in Iran.Footnote 91 Similarly, Nafisi’s characterization of the Afghan translation as different and unfamiliar, despite the linguistic similarities demonstrated above, says much about certain early twentieth-century Iranian assumptions and attitudes toward Afghanistan. The Literary Association of Kabul, for its part, insisted that there was no such linguistic divergence between written Afghan and Iranian Persian at the time.Footnote 92
These two approaches to translation, Persianate or nationalist, may ultimately reflect where the translators saw themselves, both within their own tradition and in relation to the tradition from which they translated, but they are also reflections of the translators’ communities and epistemic conditions. As the Afghans translated Shiʿr al-ʿAjam in the 1920s, their community was still defined in Persianate terms, which meaningfully included other linguistic traditions like Urdu, producing what I term a “cosmopolitan Persianate” translation. In Iran in later decades, translating for a national community (defined by secular relationships), reified by a powerful central state, endowed Fakhr-i Daʿi with the authority to confidently intervene in the text through his nationalist, “Persianate modern” translation.
The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Shir Alon, Gregory Maxwell Bruce, Cameron Cross, Aria Fani, Shahla Farghadani, Sara Grewal, Kevin L. Schwartz, and the anonymous reviewer for their generous and valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
Alexander Jabbari is Farzaneh Family Assistant Professor of Persian Language and Literature the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Making of Persianate Modernity: Language and Literary History between Iran and India (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).