by Eric Ormsby, WSJ
Sometimes a servant can teach his masters a thing or two. In AD 652 Arab armies toppled the Sasanian Empire, ending four centuries of Persian rule in the Middle East. A century later, an author named Ibn al-Muqaffa' opened his treatise on practical ethics, written in elegant Arabic, with slyly exaggerated praise of the "ancients." The men of old, he wrote, had bigger bodies than ours. They had sharper intellects. They knew how to balance the affairs of this world and the demands of the next. By "men of old" this author meant the Persians, his forebears, who would have regarded the victorious Arabs as little more than upstarts, crude and swaggering "lizard-eaters" fresh from the desert.
Ibn al-Muqaffa' was one of the first in a long line of Persian-born writers who effectively created Islamic literary culture. Others include the grammarian Sibawayhi (c. 760-c. 796), author of the authoritative grammar of Classical Arabic, as well as the philosophers Razi (c. 865-c. 925) and Avicenna (c. 980-1037), both Persians who wrote almost exclusively in Arabic. In his ambitious overview of Persian culture from the fall of Sasanians to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University, discusses all these men as early exemplars of "literary humanism."
By "literary humanism," Mr. Dabashi seeks to convey a key concept in medieval Islamic culture, especially in its Persian manifestations. In eight detailed and sometimes dense chapters, he aims to explain how Persian identity and culture survived the loss of an empire, the obliteration of a faith (Zoroastrianism) and the pressure exerted on the Persian language by the overwhelming dominance of Arabic, the language of scripture and all-conquering Arab armies. Indeed, Persian didn't merely survive, it flourished to such an extent that it served as the language of courts from Central Asia to India and gave birth to an enduring literary tradition, especially in poetry, equal to any in the world.
That individuals like Ibn al-Muqaffa' retained a recognizable Persian identity both strengthens and complicates the author's thesis about the evils of "Arabic literary imperialism." Far from being a victim, Ibn al-Muqaffa' might be said to have beaten the Arabs at their own game. There was a certain impudence, as well as opportunism, in drawing unsolicited advice from the immemorial wisdom of a conquered people, then dishing it out to caliphs in impeccable Arabic.
And while the Arabic word adab, taken over in Persian, certainly denotes a particular kind of literary endeavor—a style as well as a tradition—it isn't immediately apparent that "humanism," as generally understood, is an adequate translation. Adab encompassed a broad range of skills and disciplines, from etiquette and proper decorum to literary accomplishment in both speech and writing. A possessor of adab, an adib, knew how to compose impromptu verse or a memorable epistle, preferably in rhyming prose, as well as the polite phrase to utter when the caliph had a sneezing fit.
Consider the 13th-century poet Sa'di, who serves as the embodiment of the idealized form of "humanism" Mr. Dabashi describes. He is the author of the celebrated verses, from his "Gulistan," or Rose Garden, which read: "Human beings are limbs, one to another, / For they were created from a single essence. / If one limb is hurt, the others cannot rest. / If you are indifferent to the pain of others / You cannot rightly be called human." These noble lines, which give a fine sense of the tolerant and all-embracing mentality Mr. Dabashi wishes to evoke, are woven into a carpet on display in the United Nations headquarters in New York—a gift, ironically enough, from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Dabashi doesn't mention that the very same Rose Garden also includes crude gibes against Jews, a tendency that, though shared by Christian medieval writers, imparts a disturbing nuance to his "humanism." A more qualified definition might have been in order.
Even so, moving chronologically from the earliest breakaway Persian dynasties, such as the Saffarids and Samanids, through the Seljuqs—Persianized Turks—and Timurids, the dynasty founded by Tamerlane, to the sublime flowering of Persian culture under the Safavids for two centuries from 1501 on—those same Safavids who made Iran the Shiite state it remains today—Mr. Dabashi provides a rich and varied account of classical Persian literature. Such commanding figures as Ferdowsi, the 11th century poet of the "Shahnameh," or Book of Kings, one of the world's great epics, stand alongside the mystical lyrical poets Hafiz and Rumi, as well as the earthier Sa'di. It is one of Mr. Dabashi's accomplishments to demonstrate the unusual continuity of the Persian literary tradition which, despite political upheavals and stylistic revolutions—free verse is the norm in contemporary Persian poetry—remains strong even in the teeth of brutal governmental repression.
Whenever Mr. Dabashi sticks to Sa'di, or when he follows the course of his beloved Karun River from his native Khuzestan, his erudition and passion for his subject bring the reader willingly along. But "The World of Persian Literary Humanism" can be an exasperating book. Mr. Dabashi has a fatal penchant for impenetrable jargon. He is given to gnomic expressions such as "worlding their own world" or "autonormative" and when he sprinkles the word "miasmatic" throughout a paragraph, it isn't clear whether he is speaking of something "miasmal" or of some newfangled kitchen appliance. Worse, following his mentor Edward Said, the author trots out stale diatribes against "Orientalism," the supposed condescension of Western scholars toward Eastern culture that, he claims in his peculiar idiom, has "alienated and othered Persian literature."
And so what might have been—and sometimes is—a luminous account of a little-appreciated culture ends up marred by petulance, trendy theorizing and clotted prose. The overall effect, sad to say, is nothing short of miasmatic.
Mr. Ormsby's most recent book is "Between Reason and Revelation," a translation of the last work of the 11th-century Persian poet Nasir Khosraw (I. B. Tauris).