Iran’s Literary Becoming: Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi and the Literary History That Wasn’t


Aria Fani is an assistant professor of Persian and Iranian studies at the University of Washington. He earned a BA in comparative literature from San Diego State University and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley. In addition to research and teaching, he engages in social advocacy for asylum seekers in the United States.

     The most salient marker of character, the instrument of national distinction, the basis upon which a nation becomes distinct and distinguishable from other nations is language, and the soul of language is literature[2]

Depending on context, there could be two radically different readings of the above passage. If one were to find it in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, it would read as a critique of a national imaginary rooted in linguistic and cultural difference. If one were to encounter it in a late-twentieth-century literary textbook, it would read as a bold declaration of romantic nationalism and its obsession with cultural singularity. The first reading relies on a critical knowledge of the role that language has played within the discourse of romantic nationalism in order to strip it down to its most basic impulse: the production of distinction. The second reading frames the passage as an effort to raise language and literature as identitarian      fixtures tied to a national imaginary, one that operates through the production of distinction. I will revisit this intriguing ambivalence in my conclusion.

Although this passage may be relevant to both contexts, it did not appear in either one. It was extracted from Mohamad Hosayn Forughi’s Literary History, written with astonishing clarity between the 1890s and 1910s, lithographed posthumously in 1916–17, but never distributed widely or published using later print technologies. This source may be familiar to scholars of late Qajar Iran, but its significance remains largely unexplored outside of that subfield. Precisely because it has not been extensively analyzed or even critically introduced, it can generate a host of unaddressed questions about the social processes by which literary nationalism took shape in the late nineteenth century, particularly for scholars who research different iterations of nationalism in the Middle East.[3]

My purpose here is to introduce this important literary and historical source and meditate on what its “rediscovery” in the twenty-first century means for the field of Persian and Iranian studies. This article is the result of my ongoing dialogue with Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak about the emergence of literature as a social institution in the Persian-speaking world. The path to becoming a scholar is more than just a matter of earning academic credentials. Along the way, what shapes a young scholar’s intellectual and human development is the presence of a community who fulfills different but complementary roles: teacher, friend, peer, champion, and mentor. In the past five years, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak has mentored me, championed my work, and treated me as a peer. It is only appropriate in writing an article in his honor that the focus should be on an astounding literary figure who shaped debates and trends in the field of Persian literature and literary history.

This article comprises three methodical vignettes centered on Mohamad Hosayn Forughi’s life, his little-known Literary History, and the broader cultural context to which it belonged. The brief biographical section places the author in the emerging ecosystem of literary institutions and journals in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, illustrating his liminal position in the Qajar court and his role in creating a national pedagogy based on which generations of Iranian students were educated. The second section focuses on introducing his Literary History by outlining its different sections, explaining what they mean and why they were important to the formation of literary history as a modern genre. The last vignette addresses the common historiographical impulse of overestimating works of prominent intellectuals by demonstrating how Forughi’s Literary History belonged to a much broader social context in which similar ideas were in circulation. Ultimately, this article hopes to raise relevant and unaddressed questions that speak to the gestation of Persian literature as an academic discipline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[4]


The Figure: Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi 

This section introduces Forughi’s biography and demonstrates his centrality to the political, cultural, and literary life of nineteenth-century Qajar Iran. The details of his life highlight a period of social change that witnessed an itinerant merchant enter the Qajar court and shape how modern-day Iranians understand and celebrate a certain past as their own. Mohamad Hosayn Forughi (d. 1907) was born in 1839 in Isfahan, the son of Mohamad Mahdi Arbab Isfahani.[5] Forughi was a prominent Qajar-era litterateur, translator, educator, and advocate for  constitutionalism.[6] In 1894, he was given the royal epithet Zokaʾ ol-Molk, in praise of his intelligence (Zokaʾ), which he put in the service of the Qajar political domain (molk).[7] He received a madrassa education in Persian and Arabic in Isfahan. Encouraged by his father, the young Forughi paused his education and became a merchant in the Persian Gulf and India.

After fourteen years, he returned to his life of learning by working as a poet in the court of Kerman’s ruler Esmaʿil Khan Vakil ol-Dowle Nuri. In 1872, Mohamad Hasan Khan Eʿtemad ol-Saltane (d. 1896), who directed the Publication and Translation Bureaus (Dar ol-tebaʿa, Dar ol-tarjome-ye homayuni), hired Forughi as a translator in the court of Naser ol-Din Shah (r. 1848–96).[8] Forughi entered the court as a merchant and man of learning, not on the basis of aristocratic pedigree or background in bureaucratic or administrative work. As an outsider, he maintained a liminal position vis-à-vis the Qajar dynasty. Farzin Vejdani writes, “This liminal position may explain why, despite being a Qajar bureaucrat, Muhammad Husayn Furughi supported constitutional change and moved in circles critical of the ruling dynasty.”[9] Thanks to his knowledge of Arabic, French, and English, combined with his mastery of Persian prose and rhetoric, Forughi produced important literary textbooks and translations and edited canonical works of Persian literature. In doing so, he played a major role in the proliferation of print culture and the promotion of a nationalist historiography that valorized the study of the past.[10]

In the mid-1890s, Mohamad ʿAli Tarbiyat founded Iran’s first independent newspaper, called Tarbiyat or Education (1896–1907), thanks in no small part to newfound political freedoms that followed the assassination of Naser ol-Din Shah in 1896. Tarbiyat was published by an eponymous library in Tehran, which was among the new sites for the reading and the distribution of literary production that had proliferated in late-nineteenth-century Tehran. Forughi served as Tarbiyat’s editor.[11] In its first issue, released on December 16, 1896, Forughi boldly declared that the difference among people and societies boiled down to only their education.[12] As Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet has noted, “Most newspapers published in the late Qajar period heralded the virtues of education in shaping a civilized and progressive society—ideals to which a beleaguered Iran aspired.”[13] Tarbiyat represents only one example of Persian-language newspapers, many of which remain unexamined, that aimed to cultivate a normative national subject in the early twentieth century.

For Forughi, the idea of literature—which he understood as a nationally enshrined corpus of prose and poetry—was a major pillar of education. Since print capitalism was understood as an instrument for the production and dissemination of literature, he wrote a series in Tarbiyat about the history of printing in Europe. Another important series in that newspaper was called adabiyat, a novel concept that needed extensive contextualization for uninitiated readers in the late 1890s, since in its premodern iteration, adabiyat referred to adab-derived sciences such as balagha (rhetoric).[14] Mid- and late-nineteenth-century thinkers like Forughi invested a great deal of intellectual labor toward bringing adabiyat into close alignment with the nineteenth-century French notion of littérature, a national culture in possession of a singular and distinct literary tradition.[15]

In Tarbiyat, Forughi featured biographies of poets like Hafez and ʿOmar Khayyam to highlight the literary achievements of New Persian.[16] The inclusion of Persian poets’ biographies in Tarbiyat was novel not only in its radical rewriting of the tazkere genre or biographical dictionary (more commonly transliterated as tadhkira or tazkira, and also translated as commemorative biographical compendia by Mana Kia), but also for mass producing it for a nationally imagined readership in the format of periodicals.[17] Kevin Schwartz has conceptualized the tazkeres of Persian poets as a “transregional library” in that the genre forged imagined literary communities with competing poetics and geographical centers of gravity.[18] Forughi’s literary history and his columns in Tarbiyat can then be understood as an “autobiography” for Qajar Iran at a time when romantic nationalism—the idea of one nation, one language—had become the cultural and cognitive center of gravity for most late-nineteenth-century intellectuals.[19]

Forughi  taught at premier schools of higher education in Qajar Iran, notably Tehran’s School of Political Science (est. 1899), which he directed until his death in 1907.[20] I insist on the political qualifier “Qajar” to describe Forughi’s Iran to reduce the risk of collapsing the multitude of political, cultural, and social experiences that existed in different regions of mid-nineteenth-century Iran. Forughi also directed the Education Committee or Anjoman-e maʿaref, wherein he helped to develop a literary curriculum based on different components of Perso-Arabic rhetoric (balagha), including textbooks on maʿna, bayan, and badiʿ, as well as manuals on rhyme and prosody.[21] His lithograph on Persian literary history includes materials that he used for teaching at the School of Political Science. ʿAbbas Eqbal Ashtiyani (d. 1956), a literary historian at the University of Tehran, claimed that “Zokaʾ ol-Molk was the first in Iran to systemize the history of Persian poets in the style of European writers and [also] add literary criticism to [this European-inspired system].”[22]

This important assertion lends itself to the observation that balagha was an integral component of a rising literary culture centered on literature and its ties to a national imaginary. Eqbal Ashtiyani’s note about arranging the biography of poets in the style of Europeans is what is identified today as a new mode of historiographical production, in other words a new discourse of literature. His mention of tanqid-e adabi or literary criticism denotes new approaches to writing about Persian literary works, therefore a new discourse on literature. Maintaining such distinction opens new avenues of inquiry for a deeper understanding of these two literary discourses: one creates literature (adabiyat) as a conceptual category, while the other provides a system of approaching its object of critique (naqd).

Like many in his generation, Forughi also composed poetry, and his takhallos or pen name was adib. His divan or collected poems was lithographed in 1900, when Forughi was in his early sixties; it has received passing mentions and very little scholarly attention. His divan opens with a note about the importance of adabiyat for the nation and the education of its body politic, once again demonstrating how the topic remained at the forefront of Forughi’s mind:

I have said this a number of times, but I will repeat it once more: literature (adabiyat) is a page or a text that must bear the imprint of all sciences (tamam-e ʿolum). We must understand that a container will die away without its content. Let me be more clear: the education of a nation lies in literature (tarbiyat-e mellat dar adabiyat ast). That is the reason why I have undertaken this task for fifty years. I will not yield to the enemies’ disapproving taunts, I will not deviate from the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim), and I will not abandon my way.[23]   

This passage indicates that the notion of literature, even as early as the nineteenth century, was not limited to works of literary history. Followed by Forughi’s preface to his divan, there appears a biographical note written by Shams ol-ʿOlama in the flowery style of Qajar-era courtly writings, which reads like a manaqeb-style hagiography, short on factual information and full of laudatory epithets and rhyming phrases.[24] A part of Forughi’s translation of E. Abkarius’s Rayhanat ol-Afkar is appended to his divan. This is a curious addition given that the work is framed as the “divan of Zokaʾ ol-Molk” and not an anthology of his writings. Forughi’s poetry mainly consists of qasides that eulogize the prophet of Islam, his daughter, the imams (which he composed during his time in Najaf and Karbala), and his patron Naser ol-Din Shah. Also included are robaʿis with spiritual themes and a versified narrative on love interspersed with prose. His divan is a little over six hundred pages and contains more than five thousand lines of poetry.    

In the course of his extraordinarily productive career, Forughi helped to set in motion a new discourse of (and on) literature and nationalist historiography. His legacy has shaped the careers of many intellectuals who came after him. The memoirs of scholars who were taught and mentored by Forughi are a testament to this claim.[25] Mojtaba Minovi (d. 1977), the distinguished scholar of Persian literature, recalls that when he was receiving his secondary education in Tehran, he studied textbooks that had been produced primarily by Mohamad Hosayn Forughi and his son Mohamad ʿAli.[26] During his lifetime, Forughi’s work was known in elite circles familiar with or invested in Persian literature.[27] For instance, in 1926, Ömer Halis Bıyıktay (d. 1939) translated into Turkish a primary-school textbook on Iran’s history that Forughi had coauthored with his Mohamad ʿAli.[28] Forughi’s success is not only a recognition of his intellectual force but also a clear indication that the discursive tools with which he was engaged in late Qajar Iran were in global circulation.


The Text: Forughi’s Literary History  

Forughi’s intellectual capital helped to create literature as a social enterprise in late Qajar Iran. He did not operate within ready-made conceptual categories that had been imported wholesale from Europe; instead, he cultivated a set of discursive toolkits with which to rewrite and realign literary concepts in Persian literature. Forughi was part of a network of global intellectuals who were politically, socially, and cognitively preoccupied by the idea of the nation and its cultural properties. In order to fully substantiate some of these assertions, this section examines Forughi’s Literary History in a detailed and focused fashion. 

I first learned about this work in a footnote in the journal Daneshkade (1918–19).[29] I could not locate Forughi’s Literary History in any university library in the United States or Europe. This is because the work was catalogued under the title ʿElm-e badiʿ, denoting a branch of Perso-Arabic rhetoric that deals with innovations and beautification of literary style. This is because the Forughi sons gathered their father’s disparate writings (or his mosavvades or rough drafts, as they called it), slapped them together under the title ʿElm-e badiʿ, and printed it.[30] Its posthumous production gives the text an uncertain status and provenance. Was it intended to be a literary history? More importantly, what did it mean for a work to be read as such in the 1910s when literary history was not yet a bounded and institutionally recognized category?

Similar to Forughi’s position in the Qajar court, his Literary History—or one that wasn’t—also occupies a liminal position in the field of Persian studies. It is the work of a scholar who gave the idea of literature arguably its clearest expression in the nineteenth century, yet it is a largely forgotten text. Despite its unique and original ideas—ones that would preempt a generation of scholars—by a twist of fate, it never came into being as a clearly expressed literary product in the author’s lifetime. It has subsequently slipped through the cracks of publishing houses and later generations of scholars and editors. Now, my task is to make sense of the work, its rhetorical novelty, and its discursive logic at a time when Persian literary history has been automatized as a mythologized narrative mapped onto an ethno-geographical entity called Iran. For those reasons, the most sensible approach to understanding it will be through intentional ambivalence.

Because I was searching for Forughi’s work under the title Tarikh-e adabiyat, I did not realize that a copy was held by the library of my own home institution at the University of California, Berkeley until I had graduated and left California.[31] Curiously, the lithograph copy held at Berkeley is different from the copies my colleagues Alvand Bahari and Shahla Farghadani sent me from the National Library and Archives of Iran and the Library of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature respectively. The Berkeley version has 124 pages of notes on ʿElm-e badiʿ along with samples of Persian and Arabic poetry that elucidate different aspects of Perso-Arabic rhetoric; the copies held in Tehran do not include those pages. The Berkeley version has two systems of pagination: the notes on badiʿ run from pages 1 to 124 followed by the section analyzed in this article, which runs from pages 1 to 353. This is yet another indication that the work was put together with haste and lacks clear organization.  

The task of introducing Forughi’s work begins with clarifying its unusual publication status. It was lithographed, but its number of print runs is unknown. Besides the three copies currently held in Tehran and Berkeley, I do not know of another copy.[32] Also unknown is whether it was intended to be sold or handed out informally amongst scholars of Persian literature. The only mention of a publisher is on the last page of the copy, bearing the stamp of Mirza ʿAli Asghar’s Press (matbaʿe-ye Mirza ʿAli Asghar), who was a grand vizier to three Qajar monarchs.[33] The last page also bears information about the scribe, simply identified as Malek ol-Khattatin or “the Chief Scribe,” and one of the book’s patrons, ʿAbdol Vahab Nezam ol-Molk (d. 1917), a Qajar administrator who occupied different positions inside and outside the court. Finding clear answers to these questions would provide a better understanding of the context in which Forughi’s work was disseminated.

The second challenge is how to precisely name this work. His sons, Mohamad ʿAli (d. 1942) and Abol Hasan (d. 1959), classified it as ʿElm-e badiʿ, writing in their introductory note that they had compiled class notes that their father had designed for his literature classes at Tehran’s School of Political  Science.[34] Those notes primarily consisted of biographies of Persian poets and samples of their verse. Forughi never had the chance to produce a final version for dissemination or publication beyond the classroom, as he may have intended.[35] Two of his biographies were featured in the newspaper Tarbiyat, demonstrating an overlap in audience. The Forughi sons stated that it was their father’s unfulfilled goal to compose a “Persian literary history in the style of European literary texts” which would “mitigate our shame among educated nations who have studied the history of our literature and knowledge.”[36]

Could we then call it a literary history? This article refers to Forughi’s work as a literary history with the following caveats: In the 1890s, the first literary histories of Persian had not yet been published, no less translated into Persian. For instance, the first volume of Edward G. Browne’s A Literary History of Persia appeared in 1902, and Shibli’s multivolume Shiʿr ul-ʿAjam was published in Urdu between 1908 and 1918. The University of Tehran’s Faculty of Letters, which became a major site of scholarly production, was not founded until 1935. Therefore, literary history did not yet exist in the late nineteenth century as an institutional fixture. But Forughi exhibited the language, if not the entire structure, that marked the beginning of literary history’s gestation, as this section will show.

Alexander Jabbari has illustrated how the genre of Persian literary history was the result of a long and uneven process of repurposing and refashioning the tazkere genre.[37] Jabbari has analyzed the rhetorical devices and discursive innovations used by Persian- and Urdu-language scholars like Shibli Nuʿmani (d. 1914) and Mohamad Taqi Bahar (d. 1951) that set in motion a new mode of historiographical production across national and linguistic boundaries. His analysis of how Persian translations of Urdu-language texts helped to define the domain of literary history in Iran and Afghanistan helps disrupt anxieties of originality and influence that surround the study of Persian-Urdu literary dynamics in the twenty-first century. As the earliest instance of literary history (yet) in the Persian language, Forughi’s work bears a formative connection to the tazkere genre in that it is chiefly organized by biographies of Persian poets. Unlike tazkeres, it lucidly articulates adabiyat as the cultural possession of a national historical subject called Iran.[38] 

Forughi’s literary history, lithographed in the nastaʿliq script,[39] contains 353 pages and is made up of the following five sections:

  1. Note by the Forughi sons, 4 pages
  2. Preface, 12 pages
  3. Introduction: On the Essence of Literature, Its Influence and Quality, 9 pages
  4. The Definition, Subject and Benefit of Literature, 51 pages
  5. Biographies of Persian Poets, 282 pages

The dibache or preface is on the nature and importance of literature for the nation. The preface mainly delves into the nature of linguistic interplay, particularly regarding Persian and Arabic. Forughi reminds readers that “no language is pure,” an astonishingly progressive declaration for a nineteenth-century nationalist intellectual.[40] For Forughi, Arabic elements in Persian do not constitute a linguistic or cultural “flaw or shortcoming” (asbab naqs va ʿeyb).[41] Forughi’s view shows that not all forms of Iranian linguistic nationalism were accompanied by ideological hostility toward the Arabic language and literature.[42] Not showing racial or ideological hostility toward Arabic does not prevent Forughi from asserting that in all the works of Arabic poetry, he does not find a single poet who equaled Ferdowsi’s  Shahname.[43] Writing more than a century before Forughi, Sir William Jones (d. 1794) praised Ferdowsi’s Shahname, but decided that it was ultimately no match for the works of Homer.[44] Although they belong to different time periods, both assertions are rooted in an evaluative notion of literature with the nation  as its uncontested unit of analysis.[45]

For Forughi, Arabic elements in Persian stand as historical remnants of a time when Arabic was the dominant language of scientific and literary production in Persian-speaking lands.[46] Yet Forughi implies that while it may have made sense for “our forefathers” (niyakan-e ma) to borrow their lexicon and aesthetic norms from Arabic, it is no longer appropriate for modern-day Iranians to do so.[47] He may not flag Arabic elements in Persian as inherently problematic, but Forughi does consider them fundamentally foreign. In fact, his preface reads as a clear declaration of Iranian cultural singularity, with Persian as its most enduring symbol, an idea largely upheld by many in the field of Iranian studies today.[48]

Language does not only serve as an identitarian symbol for Forughi. He is equally preoccupied with the idea of transforming Persian into a linguistic vehicle capable of producing different types of knowledge, both humanistic and scientific. This transformation primarily requires a simplified, exact, and clear prose style that Forughi thematizes in his own diction. His preface lauds the work of the Académie française (est. 1634) (or Anjoman-e adabiyat-e Faranse, as he called it), for systematically coining new words based on industrial and scientific needs (hajat-e ʿelm va sanʿat) while not giving in to the idea of purging “foreign words” (loghat-e ajnabi) from its lexicon.[49] According to Forughi, the French language was historically in need of borrowing words from Latin and Greek because the latter were languages of knowledge production, similar to the interplay of Persian and Arabic during the advent of Islam. However, the nineteenth century is the time for Persian to step into the age of knowledge production by strengthening its literature, the “true distinction of being Iranian” (emtiyaz-e haqiqi-ye Irani budan yaʿni adabiyat).[50] He bemoans the absence of literary associations and individuals who would light up such assemblies (na anjomani na anjoman-araʾi).[51] Here, Forughi anticipates and calls for the establishment of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature (est. 1935), which now houses a copy of his literary history.[52]  

The following section of Forughi’s text is titled “On the Essence of Literature, Its Influence and Quality” (Dar haqiqat-e adabiyat va asar va khasiyyat-e an). He writes that speech was assigned to human nature (nahad-e bani Adam) by the “Creator” (afarinande) and its      quality transcends ethnic difference, whether “Iranian, Roman, Indian, or Chinese.”[53] For Forughi, balagha is the “soul of literature” (ruh-e adabiyat); the key term is often translated as rhetoric, here with the caveat that it defies self-evident and easy translation.[54] Throughout his literary history, Forughi employs a constellation of terms centered on Perso-Arabic rhetoric whose semantic domain in this period remains underexplored: balagha or belaghat, fesahat, sokhan-vari, sokhan-saraʾi, and terms that pertain to its evaluative or critical domain like sokhan-sanji and sokhan-dani (some of these terms are defined by Forughi below). In fact, Forughi was insistent on classifying literature—and by extension rhetoric—as a science (ʿelm) whose study is indispensable for national education. He writes, “Some have assumed that poetry and prose composition (enshaʾ) are a matter of national amusement (omur-e tafannoni-ye mellal) and pastime while that is decidedly not the case; eloquent poetry and prose (nazm-e fasih va nasr-e baligh) constitute an essential part of rational sciences (ʿolum-e maʿqul), beneficial wisdom (hekmatʾha-ye nafeʿ), honorable ethics (akhlaq-e hamide), and desirable attributes      (owsaf-e pasandide).”[55]

In the same section, Forughi expresses his idea with precision, writing “Let me be more clear: literature (adabiyat) transmits the true nature of knowledge (ʿelm) through the language of people (be zabaan-e ʿavam).”[56] This passage should be read in the context of an era whose central ethos was the cultivation of a national readership, designated by Forughi as an undifferentiated entity called ʿavam or the commoners.[57] The task of literature was to transform the language of commoners and edify their conduct. He writes: “It is important to discern which linguistic register will prevail and prove durable as an instrument of safeguarding language; there are no doubts that the vulgar and reprehensible register of commoners (zaban-e zesht va rakik-e ʿavam) and the grossly weak language of the merchant class (ʿebarat-e sost va sakhif-e mardom-e bazari) lack the stature to prevail and [in turn] deliver durability to the masses.”[58] If literature embodied the highest character of the nation, then the formation of an Iranian national subject for Forughi necessarily meant being versed in canonical works of Persian literature like Saʿdi’s Golestan, the only work he mentions under its own subheading.[59]   

Forughi goes one step further and asserts that a nation’s own durability lies chiefly in the rhetorical force of its literature: “What lands have been conquered by a pithy expression (yek ʿebarat-e abdar) and what armies have been broken by an eloquent word (yek kalame-ye baligh).”[60] He then lauds the works of Nezami and Ferdowsi for capturing the imagination of people living in “climes of knowledge” (aqalim-e maʿrefat).[61] A survey of the most salient ideas of this section raises two questions. Generally, in order to better understand the processes of adabiyat’s formation as a new discourse of literature, its discursive ties to forms of knowledge related to adab and the role played by balagha therein must be critically examined. More specifically, it is equally important to analyze the way Forughi fashions a crisp and clear prose style to set in motion a new model of literariness.[62] Consider the following example:

طول نمیدهم و پاک و پوست کنده میگویم انسان بعد از خوب فهمیدن محتاج بخوب گفتن و خوب نوشتن میباشد تا بتواند مدرکات صحیح و سالم خود را مدلّل و ثابت کند و الاّ خوب فهمیدن او غالباً لاطایل و بیحاصل میشود پس سخندانی بیش از هر چیز طرف احتیاج است و این دولت احدیرا چنانکه باید و شاید دست ندهد مگر بمدد ادبیات یعنی احاطه در نظم و نثر استادان سخن و بزرگان اهل فن و بصیرت و وقوف کامل در طرق کلام و خبرت و اطلاع از آغاز تا انجام.

I will cut to the chase: in addition to good comprehension, people need good speaking and writing [skills] so that they can realize and demonstrate their sound and robust intellectual faculties, otherwise their good comprehension will prove futile. Therefore, more than anything, one needs [the ability] to discern eloquence (sokhan-dani). This government can extend a hand to [its] people only through literature—[literature] meaning a command of the prose and poetry of literary masters and [the work of] notables of science and wisdom, and a comprehensive knowledge of and dexterity with the paths of speech [or syntactic constructions], from its inception to conclusion.[63]

Forughi’s prose style varies throughout the work. In certain passages, it reads as flowery and creative, as exemplified in his entry on Saʿdi’s Golestan.[64] In other instances, it adopts a more informative rather than creative register, as exemplified in the above passage. The pioneers of literature as a social enterprise in the early twentieth century possessed distinctly different prose styles. Understanding their stylistic and rhetorical variation will help us better distinguish their approaches to meditating on and writing about works of literature. This refers to the generation of scholars who overlapped with and succeeded Forughi, scholars like ʿAbdol ʿAzim Qarib Garakani (d. 1965), Mohamad Qazvini (d. 1949), Mohamad Taqi Bahar, Eqbal, and many others. Broadly put, the question of style has not been fully examined in the formation of various modes of literary production in early-twentieth-century Persian literature.

Other points in this passage demand critical attention. Perhaps the most salient one is the way Forughi defines the notion of literature. He does not see it as a corpus of writing consisting of prose and poetry regarded to possess a certain aesthetic and imaginative quality, as rendered by most dictionaries in the latter part of the twentieth century. Instead, Forughi refers to literature as a type of literacy tied to a particular literary canon. He understands adabiyat as an evaluative, skill-based outcome, not merely an expression of national and literary achievement. Writing in the early twentieth century, ʿAli Akbar Dehkhoda similarly defined adabiyat as “knowledge pertaining to adab” and “literary works,” containing both valences present in Forughi’s literary history.[65] Adabiyat’s discursive ties to adab, as understood in the nineteenth century, are the main reason we cannot accept the term literature as its clear-cut and self-evident English translation and the anxiety of influence with which it comes. Analyzing these ties will clarify the processes of adabiyat’s conceptual realignment from a plural designation for knowledge linked to adab into a singular term primarily denoting the concept of literature in modern European literary cultures.[66]

The next section of Forughi’s work is titled “The Definition, Subject and Benefit of Literature” (Taʿrif va mozuʿ va fayede-ye adabiyat). In the first paragraph, he lays out his critical vocabulary. It demands critical attention because it illustrates the ways in which Forughi aims to realign these terms linguistically and conceptually:

Adab has been translated in Persian as culture (farhang); the composite term farhang consists of farr meaning honor and glory, and hang meaning understanding and intelligence. Adab and farhang are both essentially related to knowing the limits and extent of any subject. Therefore, one can refer to adab or farhang as knowledge (danesh) which is not that different from science (ʿelm). According to the terminology of the learned of the age of science (odabaʾ-ye ʿasr-e ʿelm) adab denotes the knowledge of poetry (nazm) and prose (nasr) which in Persian is called sokhan-sanji. Whomever is in possession of this knowledge may be called a discerner of literary discourse (sokhan-sanj); its Arabic equivalent is adib. Literature (adabiyāt) refers to expressions that will render students and any human prosperous through a profitable acquaintance with knowing (shenasaʾi) and a shining light of awareness (agahi). Everyone knows that literary discourse (sokhan) is of two types: metered and unmetered (mowzun va ghayr-e mowzun). metered speech is called poetry and unmetered is called prose; poetry has [different] types which are known in Arabic as qasida, ghazal, taghazul, musammat, qitʿa, rubaʿi, and mathnawi; these types [of poetry] in Persian are called chame, chakame, setayesh-name. Arabs call poets shaʿir or nazim while Persians (ʿajam) call them chame-sara and chakame-sara, a prose writer is called munshi in Arabic and dabir in Persian . . . [67]   

To many twenty-first-century readers, this passage may read like a vocabulary lesson given the extent to which the notion of literature has become automatized in Persian literary culture, treated as a given. In the late nineteenth century, however, this passage played a vital role, rhetorically and discursively, in bolstering Forughi’s twofold agenda: turning Persian literature into an object of scholastic inquiry and mythologizing it as a fixture of Iran’s national patrimony. For instance, outlining the discourses of farhang and danesh in parallel to the Arabic adab and ʿelm indicates the interplay of Persian with Arabic, but it also shows Forughi’s insistence on the idea of Iranian cultural singularity expressed through a facile bifurcation of Arabic and Persian concepts and terminologies.

According to Forughi, the subject of literature is prose and poetry, and the science of literature (ʿelm-e adabiyat) is tasked with forming a knowledge of and doing an evaluative assessment of literary discourse (az hays-e dorosti va na-dorosti va khubi va badi).[68] Adab has two types: adab-e nafs and adab-e dars.[69] The former includes forms of knowledge like philosophy that bring about moral conduct and self-refinement, while the latter includes academic subjects like geometry, medicine, and geography “whose knowledge has little bearing on perfecting the self (kamalat-e nafsani).”[70] Both forms of knowledge, rational and authoritative (ʿaqli va naqli), fall under those two types of adab.[71] Changing his tone, Forughi then laments the poor state of education in Qajar Iran, writing that “in our age, visions are so impaired that the sun’s appearance would not be sufficient proof of its existence.”[72] In other words, the importance of literature is far from self-evident and needs enforcement in the form of national education.

The remainder of this section draws extensively on the works of Persian poets to establish various points. Lesser-known figures include Maktabi Shirazi, ʿAmʿaq Bokhari, Mokhtari Qazvini, Azraqi Heravi, Seyyed Hasan Ghaznavi, Adib Saber Termezi, Saba-ye Kashani, and Fadaʾi Ardestani. Forughi’s poetic selection speaks to different themes, but he frames them to articulate a single message: One cannot cultivate a national subject through geometry and medicine alone; literature is what instills in people a sense of cultural singularity and moral conduct, while language secures their political autonomy from other nations. The poems do not merely illustrate the points that Forughi made in prose. They embody the rhetorical force with which he wishes to reconfigure the Persian language for its newly imagined role: mass education. Following that point, Forughi writes, “The heart of the speech lies in rhetoric (sokhan-dani) and if what I am saying is not right, then burn it after reading, or wash it off, and say whatever you wish.”[73] There remains a substantial amount of analysis left to be done on the discursive entanglements of literature, rhetoric, and philosophy in nineteenth-century Iran, which also holds the key to a deeper understanding of Forughi’s conceptual vocabulary and the ways in which he maps them onto newly emerged semantic domains.

The bulk of Forughi’s literary history delves into the biography of Persian poets, opening with a brief note on the rise of New Persian literature—or zaban-e Farsi-ye haliye, as Forughi called it—in the western edges of the ʿAbbasid political realm.[74] He writes: “Persian literature, particularly poetry, began in the ninth century during Iran’s Islamic era, which is also the period that we are in.”[75] He notes that Umayyad rulers in Iran did not pay attention to Persian, leading to the lack of literary production in that language. Here, Forughi invokes Persian as an undifferentiated language, not specifying to which variation of Middle or New Persian he is referring. Perhaps this context does not necessitate any linguistic or historical differentiation as Forughi mainly aims to locate the origins of a literary tradition that best captured the essence of Iranians—another undifferentiated entity—as a people. As New Persian emerged as a medium for literary production, Forughi writes, “our lands (mamalek-e ma) became a fertile field for the sprouting of knowledge and excellence.”[76]

The main section of the book is the biographies of Persian poets, which includes a brief overview of lesser-known Samanid poets such as Abu Salik Bokhari, Abu Shaʿib Heravi, and Esteghnaʾi Nayshaburi and samples of their poetry. Following this section, he provides an extensive biography for several Persian poets, starting with Rudaki of Samarqand (d. 941) and ending with Hafez of Shiraz (d. 1390).[77] Forughi’s work is uniquely different from most literary histories of Persian writing that were developed later in the twentieth century in that it does not place the biography of Persian poets within a political and dynastic history.[78] Instead, the biographies are organized chronologically. Forughi alludes to his sources mostly in the body of the text and does not cite, with the exception of Jules Mohl’s introduction to the Shahname, his European sources. This is in stark contrast to some of his counterparts writing in other languages—for instance, Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (d. 1966), whose essay “Methods in Turkish Literary History,” published in 1913, is replete with references to European scholars and literary historians.[79]

Persian literary history is a highly composite genre, and Forughi’s Tarikh-e adabiyat is no exception. By composite, I am referring to the ways in which literary history draws on and radically rewrites different types of historical and literary production composed across linguistic and geographical boundaries.[80] In Forughi’s case, these modes include tarikh (history), tazkere (biographical dictionary), hagiography, various kinds of anthologies, periodicals, rhetorical treatises, dictionaries, literary studies, and the received literary taste and judgment of his period.[81] Forughi synthesizes these elements into a work that poses as singular, functioning as greater than the sum of its parts.

Let us return to the notion of adabiyat, which lies at the center of Forughi’s cultural undertaking. I argued that adabiyat prior to the nineteenth-century served as a designation for a body of knowledge related to adab. In the mid-nineteenth century, Persian-language intellectuals such as Fathʿali Akhundzade (d. 1878), Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (d. 1897), and Forughi set in motion an epistemological break from an adab-oriented definition of literature by bringing adabiyat into close alignment with a nineteenth-century colonial concept of literature as a canon of literary works that encapsulates the essence of a racialized people.[82] In light of this conceptual realignment, there was a shift in emphasis from balaghat to history as the social status and meaning of literature changed from a subject to be learned through cultivating adab—using tools like balaghat—to a historical artifact to be studied and enshrined. Adabiyat, a plural concept, was made singular during a time when romantic nationalism set out to collapse concepts such as origin, ethnicity, homeland, and language with multitudes of meaning and relationships into a singular entity that poses as homogeneous.

Forughi’s Literary History is an important source that needs to be extensively analyzed alongside other late-nineteenth-century works. If literature, then a new and unfamiliar concept, had found such a cogent expression in the 1890s, then it means that decades prior to the compilation of Forughi’s Literary History, these ideas must have been discussed and debated in elite circles in Qajar Iran. But the field of Persian studies is largely left to imagine how such ideas entered literary circles and poetry salons in early-nineteenth-century Iran, a period before the proliferation of print culture and the establishment of literary journals. In that light, there is a need for more analysis or even brief critical introductions of Qajar-era literary sources, both well-known works such as Name-ye daneshvaran and Majmaʿ ol-fosaha and lesser-known anthologies and treatises that have yet to receive careful study. Forughi’s lithograph helps place the gestation of a new discourse of literature earlier than previously thought,[83] but its rise cannot be attributed to a single work of literary history. Therefore, it is important to place Literary History within a macroscopic framework.

Framing Forughi’s Literary History as the only earliest instance of an emerging mode of new literary knowledge can be problematic if not also teleological.[84] It is important to understand and appreciate Literary History through its own discursive logic. I am referring to its biographical structure (as opposed to periodization based on national political history); its varied conceptualizations of literature, which include adabiyat as a science encompassing all forms of knowledge expressed through human speech; and its definition of adabiyat as a form of literacy. These features constituted alternative scenarios of literary modernism that did not become a normative part of the genre of literary history. In fact, today these features of Forughi’s work would be labeled by many in Iran as “traditional,” an assessment informed by a presentist vision of literary history. More inquiries into the distinct ways in which Forughi and nineteenth-century European scholars like Browne viewed the concept of literature will deepen our understanding of local forms of knowledge that existed prior to the proliferation and co-options of orientalist interventions that were linked to the “colonial matrix of power.”[85] In short, there are more questions than answers, and there is more ambiguity than certainty in our understanding of Persian literary historiography.


The Context: Literature as a Social Enterprise

In his lifetime, Forughi put a great deal of intellectual labor into creating an Iranian national imaginary closely tied to the rise of New Persian literature. He spent his career writing, translating, teaching, and building institutional sites of national education and literary production. The ideas he produced and promoted were both aligned with and subversive to Qajar state politics. He did not achieve his goal of producing what could have been—and may still be dubbed as—the first literary history of Persian. His lithographed Literary History, compiled by his sons, may remain largely unknown, but the ideas he expressed in it reached a transregional readership through the newspaper Tarbiyat from the 1890s to the 1910s. For instance, his definition of adabiyat and his biographies of Hafez and Khayyam were first printed in the pages of Tarbiyat. In fact, the main vehicle for the creation of a new discourse of literature in Persian was periodicals that sprang up in the early twentieth century.[86] In other words, the format through which the novel idea of adabiyat—and by extension literary history—took form was decidedly the small magazine.[87]  

Early-twentieth-century newspapers and journals created a new literary ecosystem. The ecosystem metaphor refers to a specific literary context wherein certain ideas and behaviors germinate. It operated, in this case, through an interconnected network of ideas with symbolic and binding values: nation, ethnicity, land, origin, race, culture, history, language, literature, and many other notions with which the nation-state rendered itself distinct and complete.[88] The literary ecosystem nourished a constellation of agents who were in one way or another connected to it: publishers, readers (students, educators, semi-literate readers, listeners), distributors, writers, translators, patrons (the state, merchants, etc.), and many other actors. It gave an institutional form and authority to the multiple sites of power and literary production operative within it: administrative bureaus, national schools, literary associations, language academies, reading rooms or qeraʾat khane, universities, national libraries, and many others. This literary ecosystem was in no way bounded by language or political territory; in fact, it survived through cross-pollination with other literary cultures, regardless of the fact that each national context had its own center of gravity. The most lasting outcome of this literary ecosystem was the constitution of literature as a culturally authoritative and socially prevalent enterprise—in other words, literature as an institution.

Unless Forughi’s Literary History is placed squarely within this expansive literary ecosystem, we run the risk of rendering it a standalone work, thus necessarily overvaluing it. The same conclusion can be applied to other towering figures such as Edward Browne and Mohamad Taqi Bahar, the authors of A Literary History of Persia and Sabk-shenasi respectively. Both scholars have rightly been credited for setting in motion a new model of literary historiography. In Browne’s case, this model was a literary history of a people called Iranians based on a system of political periodization. Bahar’s model forged four different historiographical categories—Khorasani, ʿEraqi, Hendi, and Bazgasht—based on a study of stylistic differences.[89] Both figures have undoubtedly left their mark on the formation of Persian literature as an academic discipline. However, the literary ecosystem within which their works were produced and read is rarely included in critical assessments of their work.[90] This omission has led to an overestimation of their work.       

One study that critically contextualizes the rise of national historiography is Farzin Vejdani’s Making History in Iran. Among other topics, Vejdani analyzes the ways in which two generations of Iranian intellectuals became involved in researching and writing Iran’s national history from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. In other words, it tells the story of how history writing became a social enterprise, a profession culturally enshrined and socially institutionalized. Vejdani convincingly demonstrates that there is no single pole from which a new historical and literary knowledge is transmitted, disrupting the tired narrative of an undifferentiated entity called the East passively receiving knowledge from a transhistorical entity called the West. Vejdani does that partially by highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the writings of Iran’s prominent historians. Whether considering history or literature as a discourse, the social processes that led to the formation of new ecosystems—or as Vejdani puts it, a “Republic of Letters”—must be analyzed.[91] The alternative is to treat literature as a derivative discourse.[92]

It is worth clarifying my critique of influence as a category of analysis. I do not deny that nineteenth-century Europe was a major source of inspiration for the transmission of a new mode of literary knowledge. In fact, most late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Middle Eastern intellectuals who nationalized their literary curriculum also professionally translated works of European literature and history into Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.[93] But the rise of literary nationalism was not the inevitable outcome of translation. Instead, it was the result of a non-linear process of network and institution building that allowed certain ideas to take anchor in different Middle Eastern cultural contexts, setting in motion new conceptualizations of language and literature in the age of romantic nationalism. Influence as a rubric is rarely ever defined, woefully overused, and closely linked to colonial forms of knowledge; thus, it is incapable of elucidating the nuances involved in the emergence of literary nationalism in the Middle East.[94]

By way of conclusion, I will address the ambivalence formulated in this article. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Forughi aimed not only to create a new mode of literary knowledge, but also to cultivate a normative literacy required to understand and respond to it. This literacy was defined by the positivist impulse of modern historiography and was inseparable from the ethos of romantic nationalism, the idea that each nation is in possession of a singular literary tradition that renders it unique and complete.[95] The intellectual force and clarity of his ideas notwithstanding, Forughi’s work is also marked by its inbetweenness: not a tazkere, but not quite a literary history; printed, but not distributed widely; linked to the courtly discourse of power, but also independent from and vulnerable to it. Therefore, it is important not to erase the text’s ambivalent status in the historical journey that marked the gestation of literary nationalism in Iran. Effortful ambivalence can produce the type of analysis that dispels the false assumption that Iran’s literary becoming was the predestined and inevitable outcome of a pure contact with Europe.

By writing that the most salient marker of a people is their language and literature, Forughi set out to bring Qajar Iran into closer alignment with elite global networks that were constructing and adopting a new set of symbols and myths that resulted into a new imagined community. For Forughi, the production of distinction was an outcome that he was seeking to achieve. For twenty-first-century readers, particularly in the institutional setting of the university, the production of distinction is only a means to better understand how elite Iranians created a national imaginary in the early twentieth century. The growing body of scholarship on different aspects of nationalism has enabled us to read Forughi’s passage with intentional ambivalence, opening a vital space in which the myths that bind us are subject to the process of humanistic inquiry, as opposed to unquestioned devotion. What may emerge as a result of valorizing ambivalence as a conscious part of humanistic inquiry is a new literary map of our worlds, one no longer beholden to the idea of cultural singularity.


[1]I am grateful to Kevin Schwartz, Alexander Jabbari, and Amir Vafa for their critical comments. My thanks also go to Farzin Vejdani for answering my inquiries about Forughi.

[2]In Persian: Avval ʿalamat-e tashakhkhos yaʿni asbab-e shakhsiyat-e mellat ke mayeh-ye emtiyaz va joda kardan-e an melal az sayer melal mishavad zaban ast va ruh-e zaban adabiyat mibashad. Mohamad Hosayn Forughi, ʿElm-e badiʿ, compiled and prefaced by Abol Hasan Forughi and Mohamad ʿAli Forughi (n.p: Matbaʿ-e Mirza ʿAli Asghar, 1916–17). Copy available at the National Library and Archives of Iran (Cat. No. 13157). I will later explain why I refer to this work as “literary history.” My analysis here is based on the lithograph available at the National Library and Archives of Iran. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

[3]For a cogent analysis of Mohamad Hosayn Forughi’s role in the creation of history as a social enterprise, see Farzin Vejdani, Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 35–54. Vejdani shows that Forughi had an ambivalent relationship with the Qajar court and was a more independent actor than many other courtiers. Vejdani’s dissertation offers a lengthier biography of Forughi and his father, Mohamad Mahdi Arbab Isfahani. See “Purveyors of the Past: Iranian Historians and Nationalist Historiography, 1900-1941,” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2009). For an examination of the rise of Persian literary history as a genre, including a brief analysis of Forughi’s work, see Manzar Soltani, “Tahlil-e sayr-e tazkere’ha va tarikh-e adabiyat’ha-ye Farsi dar Iran az 1258/1880 (mashrute) ta 1332/1953,” (PhD diss., Tarbiyat Modares University, 1999). Forughi’s Literary History has received passing references in Persian-language periodicals, but it has not been analyzed in a standalone article in English or Persian. I am not able to verify this claim when it comes to scholarship on Persian literature in other European languages.

[4]See Mahmud Futuhi Rudmaʿnji, Daramadi bar adabiyat-shenasi: Rahnema-ye osul-e amuzesh va parvaresh dar adabiyat-e Farsi (Tehran: Pazhuheshgah-e ʿolum-e ensani va motaleʿat-e farhangi, 2017).

[5]For a biographical essay on Mohamad Mahdi Arbab Isfahani, see Jalal ol-Din Homaʾi, “Khandan-e Forughi,” Yaghma 66 (AH 1332/AD 1953): 361–65. Most notably, Arbab was the first Iranian to produce a lithographed edition of the Shahname.  

[6]For biographical information on Forughi, please see Manouchehr Kasheff, “FORUGI, MOHAMMAD-HOSAYN Khan Dokaʾ-al-Molk,” Encyclopedia Iranica, 2012,; Baqer ʿAqeli, Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi va Shahrivar-e 1320 (Tehran: AH 1367/AD 1988); Edward Granville Browne, The Persian Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 404–5.

[7]That is in addition to “Forughi,” an epithet that was bestowed on him by Naser ol-Din Shah after he composed a qaside on the occasion of tree plantation. Kasheff, “Forugi” Encyclopedia Iranica. He shared this epithet with the distinguished Qajar-era poet ʿAbbas Forughi Bastami (d. 1857). The two Forughis are unrelated.

[8]For a description of his exact duties at the court, see Kasheff, “Forugi,” Encyclopedia Iranica.

[9]Vejdani, Making History in Iran, 41; Kasheff, “Forugi,” Encyclopedia Iranica.

[10]ʿAbbas Eqbal Ashtiyani, “Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi,” Adabiyat va zaban’ha 163 (AH 1340/AD 1962): 517–22.

[11]H. Maʿsumi Hamadani, “Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi va ruzname-ye Tarbiyat,” Nashr-e Danesh 4 (AH 1363/AD 1984): 5–19.

[12]Zokaʾ al-Molk Forughi, “Aqaz-i sukhan,” Tarbiyat, no. 1 (11 Rajab 1314/17 December 1896), 1–3; quote on p. 2; digitized archive of Universität Bonn, Abteilung für Islamwissenschaft und Nahostsprachen (accessed September 29, 2017).

[13]Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 18041946 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 291.

[14]Adab is a discourse of humanistic inquiry centered on civility and self-conduct. For more on the term and idea of adabiyat and Tarbiyat’s role in reframing it, see Aria Fani, “Becoming Literature: The Formation of Adabiyat as an Academic Discipline in Iran and Afghanistan (1895–1945)” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2019), chap. 1.

[15]Another example is Fathʿali Akhundzadeh, who wrote that “literātur consists of any composition whether in prose or poetry,” leaving the French term untranslated in Persian. Maktubat (n.p.: Mard-e Emruz Publications, 1985), 10.

[16]For instance, the newspaper featured a biographical series of Johannes Gutenberg (d. 1468), the inventor of the movable-type printing press; on Hafez, see Tarbiyat, no. 255 (1902): 14.

[17]Mana Kia, Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[18]Kevin L. Schwartz, “A Transregional Persianate Library: The Production and Circulation of Tadhkiras of Persian Poets in the 18th and 19th Centuries,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, no. 1 (2020): 1–27.

[19]I have borrowed this phrase from Charles Kingsley, one of the pioneers of English literature, who in 1848 declared that “literature of every nation is its autobiography.” Charles Kingsley, “On English Literature: Introductory Lecture Given at Queen’s College,” in The Works of Charles Kingsley, vol. XX, Literary and General Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan and Co., 1880), 257.

[20]Majid Tafrishi, “Madares-e ʿali-ye hoquq va ʿolum-e siyasi dar Iran az ebteda ta taʾsis-e daneshgah-e Tehran,” Ganjineh-ye asnad, no. 1 (1991): 53–81.

[21]Depending on the discipline in which it is encountered, maʿna can mean different things. To highlight the absence of an English equivalent or close approximation, Alexander Key has proposed the deliberately unfamiliar phrase “mental content.” See Key, Language between God and the Poets: Ma‘na in the Eleventh Century (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018). ʿElm-e bayan broadly refers to a branch of Perso-Arabic rhetoric concerned with eloquence. The term bayan denotes manifestation, lucidity, and clearness. ʿElm-e badiʿ as a branch of rhetoric is concerned with figures of speech and innovation in language.

[22]Ashtiyani, “Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi,” 520. It is important to note that premier schools of higher education in Iran, such as Dar ol-Fonun and the School of Political Science, were not only sites of teaching and learning forʿolum-e jadid, or the new sciences, but also sites for groundbreaking innovation in humanistic inquiry that paved the way for the formation of the humanities decades later.

[23]Mohamad Hosayn Forughi, Divan (n.p., 1900).  

[24]According to the divan, the biography had been originally intended for inclusion in Name-ye daneshvaran. Manaqeb is a genre focused on the praiseworthy deeds and memorable sayings of saints.    

[25]ʿAbbas Eqbal-Ashtiyani, “Mohamad Hosayn Zokaʾ ol-Molk,” Yaghma 14/11 (AH 1340/AD 1962): 517–22; Qasem Ghani, Yaddashtha -ye doktor Qasem Ghani, ed. S. Ghani, 12 vols. (London: n.p., 1980–84); Habib Yaghmaʾi, “Asar va taʾlifat-e marhum Mohamad Hosayn Forughi,” Yaghma 19/3 (AH 1345/AD 1966): appendix.

[26]Mojtaba Minovi, “Rejal: Jaryan-shenasi-ye rejal dar tarikh-e moʿaser-e Iran (Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi),” Ravesh-shenasi-ye tarikh-e shafahi 41/42 (AH 1375/AD 1996): 81–100.

[27]Forughi’s Divan includes laudatory prose and poetry—poems mostly in Arabic, prose in Persian—about different Arab leaders of the late Ottoman Empire, including Muhamad ʿAli of Egypt (d. 1848) and Muhamad III as-Sadiq (d. 1882). Forughi noted having met Muhamad III as-Sadiq and given him his biographical dictionary of poets, Tabaqat ol-Shoʿara. See Divan, 121–39. There is a need for a critical biography of Forughi, one that would take into consideration his cultural exchanges and travels.

[28]Mohamad Hosayn Forughi and Mohammad ʿAli Forughi, Büyük İran Tarihi: Safavi, Afşar, Zend, Kaçar şahları ve kayi-i tarihiyyesi, trans. Ömer Halis Bıyıktay (Istanbul: Matbaʿ-i Askeri, 1926). The Persian original was titled Tarikh-e mokhtasar-e Iran (Tehran: Sherkat-e Matbuʿat, AH 1309/AD 1930–31) or The Abridged History of Iran, originally published in 1905. I am grateful to Farzin Vejdani for bringing this translation to my attention.

[29]It was in ʿAbbas Eqbal Ashtiyani’s column “Tarikh-e adabi” (“Literary history”), Daneshkade 1 (April 1918): 8. His footnote stated: Tarikh-e adabiyat-e marhum Zokaʾ ol-Molk Forughi. Eqbal Ashtiyani (d. 1956) was among the first in early-twentieth-century Iran to introduce “literature” and “literary history” as conceptual categories to Persian-language readers.

[30]In a parenthetical note, the Forughi sons wrote, “In full disclosure these biographies, as stated in the preface by the publishers, consisted of disorganized and incomplete rough drafts for teaching at the School of Political Science” (Mohamad Hosayn Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, compiled and prefaced by Abol Hasan Forughi and Mohamad ʿAli Forughi [n.p: Matbaʿ-e Mirza ʿAli Asghar, 1916–17], 242, 310). The contemporary Persian term to describe class notes, used as study guide for exams by students, would be jozve.

[31]Mohamad Hosayn Forughi, ʿElm-e badiʿ (Tehran: Matba‘ah-i Mirza ‘Ali Asghar, AH 1335/AD 1916).

[32]The Berkeley copy has been digitized by HathiTrust Digital Library, accessible here: Encyclopedia Iranica lists the two works separately as ʿElm-e badiʿ (AH 1333/AD 1915) and Tarikh-e adabiyat (AH 1335/AD 1917). Kasheff, “Forugi,” Encyclopedia Iranica.

[33]This must be a reference to Mirza ʿAli Asghar Amin ol-Soltan, in whose stable Forughi took refuge to escape from the wrath of the shah, who had been led to believe that Forughi had written for the dissident newspaper Qanun (Vejdani, “Purveyors of the Past: Iranian Historians and Nationalist Historiography, 1900–1941,” 149). On Mirza ʿAli Asghar’s biography, see J. Calmard, “Atabak-e Aʿzam, Amin-al-Soltan,” Encyclopedia Iranica, 2011,

[34]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 1, 3.

[35]In his entry on Hafez, Forughi mentioned that he was writing a Persian literary history. Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 349.

[36]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 1.

[37]Alexander Jabbari, “The Making of Modernity in Persianate Literary History,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, no. 3 (2016): 418–34; Alexander Jabbari, “Late Persianate Literary Culture: Modernizing Conventions between Persian and Urdu” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2017); Alexander Jabbari, papers presented at “The World of the Tazkirah: Sources for Study of the Premodern Persianate Lands” conference, University of California, Irvine, 5 February 2016,

[38]Fani, “Becoming Literature,” chap. 1.  

[39]Alexander Jabbari has analyzed the importance of formal conventions such as script in making Persian literature appear modern in the early twentieth century. He writes: “Lithography, which allowed for the inexpensive reproduction of handwritten nastaʿliq script, helped popularize printed books among Iranians, who preferred nastaʿliq over naskh.” See “Late Persianate Literary Culture,” 72.

[40]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 3.

[41]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 5.

[42]The Qajar Prince Jalal ol-Din Mirza (d. 1872) was an example of an Iranian nationalist who was ideologically hostile toward Arabic. See Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran Culture, Power, and the State, 1870–1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011).

[43]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 9.

[44]Sir William Jones, “An Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations,” in The Collected Works of Sir William Jones, vol. 4 (London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly, and John Walker, Paternoster-Row, 1807), 544.

[45]Jones’ claim can be understood within a civilizational—as opposed to national—discourse in which Greek literature was being framed as “Western,” though the term Western civilization did not yet exist in the time of Sir William Jones.

[46]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 8.

[47]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 8–13. He writes, “zur-e tāzi bar Pārsi becharbid va kalamāt-e loghat-e ʿArab na yek yek balke dah dad va sad sad dākhel mohāverāt va resāʾel mā gasht zirā ke tamām-e estelāhāt-e ʿelmi rā bāyad az ʿArabi farā-girim.”

[48]Aria Fani, “The Allure of Untranslatability: Shafiʿi-Kadkani and (Not) Translating Persian Poetry,” Iranian Studies (forthcoming).

[49]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 3.

[50]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 12.

[51]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 11.

[52]Forughi’s entry on Hafez includes a note on Hafeziye, the poet’s resting place, and all the changes that different dynasties made to it throughout history. This note is in the context of enshrining Hafez as part of a pantheon of Iran’s seven most distinguished luminaries. In doing so, Forughi also anticipates the foundation of Anjoman-e asar-e melli or the National Heritage Society, which set out to build mausoleums for Persian poets, transforming their resting place into a site of national memory and pilgrimage. Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 349–50.

[53]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 14.

[54]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 15. The field of literary studies has begun to pay more critical attention to the importance of balagha in the conceptualization of literariness in non-European and American cultural contexts. The project “Global Literary Theory: Caucasus Literatures Compared” at the University of Birmingham is focused on the role of balagha in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Georgian literature. The project, which includes extensive bibliographies in those languages, may be accessed here:

[55]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 15.

[56]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 15.

[57]Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, “Language Reform Movement and Its Language: The Case of Persian,” in The Politics of Language Purism, ed. Björn H. Jernudd and Michael J. Shapiro (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), 81–104.

[58]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 16.

[59]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 334–35. For the ways in which Golestan was read in the Mughal milieu, see Mana Kia, “Adab as Ethics of Literary Form and Social Conduct: Reading the Gulistan in Late Mughal India,” in No Tapping around Philology: A Festschrift in Celebration and Honor of Wheeler McIntosh Thackston Jr.’s 70th Birthday, ed. Alireza Korangy and Daniel J. Sheffield (Wiesbaden, DE: Harrassowitz, 2014), 281–308.

[60]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 19.

[61]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 19.

[62]For the use of colloquialisms in nineteenth-century Persian prose, see Afshin Marashi, “Print Culture and Its Publics: A Social History of Bookstores in Tehran, 1900–1950,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47 (2015): 89–108. See pages 94–95.

[63]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 22.

[64]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 334–35.

[65]ʿAli Akbar Dehkhoda, Mohamad Moʿin, and Jaʿfar Shahidi, Loghatnameh (Tehran: Daneshgah-e Tehran, 1949), 6:1545.

[66]One instance of adabiyat denoting sciences related to adab is Mohamad Amoli’s fourteenth-century Nafaʾes ol-fonun fi ʿAraʾes al-ʿoyun, ed. Abol Hasan Shaʿrani (Tehran: Islamiya, 1957), 16.

[67]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 23.

[68]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 24.

[69]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 24.

[70]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 25.

[71]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 26.

[72]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 26.

[73]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 69.

[74]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 301.

[75]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 70.

[76]Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 71.

[77]The full list is Rudaki, Ferdowsi, ʿOnsori, Farrokhi, ʿAsjadi, Manuchehri, Abu Hanife, Eskafi, Masʿud Saʿd Salman, ʿOmar Khayyam, ʿAttar, Saʿdi, and Hafez. The last four poets were not included in Forughi’s class notes, but are included in the lithograph copy compiled by his sons (Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 310). Also, the entry on Rudaki is primarily about Ferdowsi and his Shahname and does not include much information about him (Forughi, Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 83–127).

[78]For instance, Badiʿozzaman Foruzanfar wrote Sokhan va Sokhanvaran (Tehran: Sherkat-e sahami-ye entesharat-e kharazmi, 1971), which reads more like a tazkere in the way it has a brief preface followed by biographical sketches of poets and selections of their work. The same scholar also wrote Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Iran: Baʿd az Eslam ta payan-e Taymuriyan (Tehran: Sazman-e chap va entesharat, Vezarat-e farhang va ershad-e eslami, 2004), which is organized not by poets’ biographies but by a dynastic and political history of Iran. Yet both are often classified as works of literary history because they were produced in the same time period.

[79]Mehmet Fuat Köprülü, “Method in Turkish Literary History,” trans. Gary Leiser, Middle Eastern Literature, no. 1 (2008): 53–84. I am thankful to Selim Kuru for introducing me to Köprülü’s work.

[80]Sunil Sharma was among the first to place Persian literary history within a multilingual and transnational framework of historiographical production. See “Redrawing the Boundaries of ʿAjam in Early Modern Persian Literary History,” in Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective, ed. Abbas Amanant and Farvin Vejdani (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 51–64.

[81]The following offer one example of each mode of writing used in Forughi’s Literary History: Tarikh-e bayhaqi (tarikh), Tazkera tol-shoʿara (tazkere), Chahar maqale (hagiography), Majmaʿ al-fosaha (tazkere/anthology), al-Hilal (periodical), Tarjoma tol-balaghe (rhetorical treatise), Borhan-e qateʿ (dictionary), Jules Mohl’s introduction to his edition of the Shahname (literary studies), and Azad Bilgrami’s Subhat al-marjan (literary judgment).  

[82]Fani, “Becoming Literature,” chap. 1.

[83]William L. Hanaway, “Is There a Canon of Persian Poetry?” Edebiyat, no. 1 (1993): 3–12.

[84]One example is Naser Qoli Sarli’s recent book Dowre-bandi-ye adabi (Tehran: Nashr-e khamush, AH 1397/AD 2018). On page 19, Sarli writes: “the tradition of literary historiography in Iran has still not released itself from the model of tazkere writing which is based on the biography of poets and writers in sections that are self-contained and unrelated to one another. [This model] does not pay much attention to the history of literary change and the trajectory of literature on its terms. In this vein, accounts of literary history by Orientalists are closer to the concept of literary history [than the tradition of literary historiography in Iran].” Sarli’s purity test ignores the fact that the ideas of literary history and literature are both modern inventions. The discursive ties of Persian literary history with the tazkere genre need to be further analyzed, but certainly not in light of anachronistic criteria uncritically set by modern-day understandings of literary history.

[85]Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, ed. Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses (Baltimore, ML: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[86]Fani, “Becoming Literature.” For a list of these periodicals, see Edward G. Browne and Mohamad ʿAli Tarbiyat, The Press and Poetry of Modern Persia: Partly Based on the Manuscript Work of Mírzá Muḥammad ʻAlí Khán “Tarbiyat” of Tabríz (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1983); Mohamad Mohit Tabatabaʾi, Tarikh-e tahlili-ye matbuʿat-e Iran (n.p.: Moʾassese-ye entesharat-e besʿat, 1987); Mohamad Sadr-Hashemi, Tarikh-e jaraʾed va majallat-e Iran (Isfahan: Entesharat-e kamal, 1948). Sadr-Hashemi’s four-volume dictionary of Persian-language periodicals, printed in Iran and its diaspora, is a work of encyclopedic scope. It even includes periodicals printed in Afghanistan although the title suggests otherwise.

[87]I speculate that one of the main reasons Forughi’s Literary History remains unpublished is the fact that the ideas he tried to promote in the nineteenth century have become normative and prevalent in the twenty-first century.

[88]Mana Kia has convincingly attempted to restore our pre-nation-state imagination by analyzing such concepts as origin, place, and land in eighteenth-century Persian-language sources from West and South Asia. See Persianate Selves.

[89]Forughi mentioned the idea of Sabk-e Hendi or the Indian Style of Persian poetry, curiously in the context of Hafez’s poetry, a poet whose oeuvre is thought to have predated the rise of the Indian Style. Forughi’s mention of Sabk-e Hendi is also one of the earliest instances, to the best of my knowledge, of this idea. This questions the tendency to single-handedly attribute the idea of sabk to Bahar. Tarikh-e adabiyat-e Farsi, 348. For a critical examination of Bazgasht as a historiographical category, see Kevin L. Schwartz, Remapping Persian Literary History, 1700–1900 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

[90]The following studies exemplify this paradigm: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, “Stranger in the City: The Poetics of Sabk-i Hindi,” Annual of Urdu Studies 19 (2004): 1–94; Rajeev Kinra, “Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary,” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2008); Mostafa Vaziri, Iran as Imagined Nation: The Construction of National Identity (New York: Paragon House, 1993). His polemical and dismissive assessment of Bahar notwithstanding, Faruqi inaccurately claims that the term “Sabk-e hendi” was coined by Bahar (although he was right in adding the qualifier “perhaps” to his claim). As Forughi’s Literary History proves, the term “Sabk-e hendi” was in use well before Bahar’s career started. Kinra largely attributes the nationalist ideas produced in early twentieth-century Iran to Bahar and a select group of orientalists. More importantly, both Faruqi and Kinra treat Sabk-e hendi as a bounded and stable category of description when in reality that was not the case in early twentieth-century discussions of stylistic variations in Persian literature. Mostafa Vaziri attributes the rise of literary nationalism in Iran entirely to Edward Browne. The ways in which we have understood the role of literary institutions in ushering in a new conceptualization of Persian language and literature also exhibits the same impulse to overestimate. These institutions were the outcome of decades-long social processes— that included debating and networking—that gave rise to their establishment. One article that critically examines the role of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature is Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak’s “Language Reform Movement and Its Language: The Case of Persian.” For Karimi-Hakkak, the establishment of the Academy was only the culmination—and not the originator—of language reform in its cultural and conceptual sense.

[91]Vejdani, Making History in Iran, 147.

[92]The edited volume History of Iranian Literature represents this trend. In it, Kubíčková (a collaborator on Rypka’s book) writes, “The knowledge of European languages and literatures, western education, with its opening of new possibilities in technology, natural sciences, and the social sciences, and the reflection of all this in everyday life, is for Iranian literature a discovery in the light of which truths accepted as immutable for thousands of years collapse and the existing social order appears as what it is – a mediaeval survival.” Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature, ed. Karl Jahn (Dordrecht, NL: D. Reidel, 1968), 362.

[93]Vejdani, “Purveyors of the Past: Iranian Historians and Nationalist Historiography, 1900-1941,” 148.

[94]See the “Introduction” to Hamid Rezaei Yazdi and Arshavez Mozafari, ed., Persian Literature and Modernity: Production and Reception. Iranian Studies (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019).

[95]Forughi’s critical attitude toward tazkere writers, seen in many parts of his Literary History, is a function of this positivist impulse.