1242 GMT August 18, 2022
By the 16th century, it was common for Ottoman scribes in Istanbul and Uzbek litterateurs in Samarqand to produce Persian prose and poetry, while administrators and literati across the Indo-Gangetic plain, from Lahore to Dacca, functioned consistently in Persian.
While Arabic was the domain of religious scholars and pedantic jurists, and Turkish was spoken primarily among sultans and the tribesmen who made up their military, medieval Persian was often the language of aesthetic choice for poets, literati, administrators, and proponents of courtly culture (adab) across the central Islamic world for the medieval and early modern periods.
Literary and cultural articulation in the central Islamic lands had been dominated by the Arabic language since the 7th and 8th centuries, but indigenous Iranian languages such as Soghdian, Bactrian, Khwarazmian, and Pahlavi Persian had managed initially to continue at a vernacular level, and indeed played a crucial role in the preservation of many pre-Islamic oral traditions and epic narratives. With the 9th-century emergence of the Samanid Dynasty (818-919) in Bukhara and their governance of Central Asia on behalf of the `Abbasids, we see a local Persian-speaking polity consciously reviving the legacy of the Sasanians.
As libraries and workshops proliferated in Bukhara, a new and stylized Persian reemerged, now using the Arabic script that fused older vocabulary and pre-Islamic concepts with the energetic and robust stylistic motifs and imagery found in the Holy Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophets, hagiographies of companions, and the popular poetic Bedouin tradition. With this New Persian “renaissance,” seminal Arabic texts such as al-Tabari’s History of the Prophets and Kings were translated, as were numerous other works on exegesis, doctrine, theology, grammar, and poetry. However, the most recognizable manifestation of this enduring renaissance was the gradual emergence of a Perso-Islamic poetic canon comprising the work of Firdausi, Daqiqi, Rudaki, Nizami, Anvari, Khaqani, among others. This literary canon played a role in reenergizing and codifying the Persian language, and in tandem New Persian became the preeminent language of historical chronicles, geographies, ethics manuals, political philosophy, and belles-lettres in the central Islamic lands for the next seven hundred years.
While New Persian was adopted nominally as the official language of administration by newly arrived Turkish dynasties such as the Ghaznavids (997-1186) and the Khwarazmshahs (1077-1231), it is nonetheless more accurate to talk about “Arabo-Persian” when discussing medieval Islamic administrative texts. Indeed, from the perspective of a standard medieval Islamic chancellery, such hybridity has discrete historical roots.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, Persian scribes, secretaries, and literati had been among the first co-opted groups to work closely with Arab tribal commanders and the establishment of provisional municipal and provincial governments. When the Abbasids subsequently established their new imperial capital of Baghdad in the former heart of the Sassanid Empire, the Sawad region of the Tigris-Euphrates complex, the pre-Islamic Persian legacy became clear as Arabized Persians such as `Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa` endeavored to rearticulate older Pahlavi administrative traditions.
By the 11th century, New Persian had become sufficiently popular to spread westwards from Central Asia under the auspices of the Seljuks, who in turn employed and patronized Persian bureaucrats and administrators to run their empire. As a result, medieval administrations and chancelleries in Anatolia, Iran, and Central Asia entered into a new phase of administrative discourse which was effectively a hybridization between the flair and vividness of Persian prose and the exactitude and sanctity enshrined in Arabic grammar and lexicography.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Persian Rhetoric in the Safavid Context’ from a book entitled “Literacy in the Persianate World”, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway, published by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Philadelphia.