Serial Publication: I received an email from a student in Tehran who wants to write her dissertation on the impact of Mazandarani culture on Nima Yushij's poetry. She has read a chapter of my book "Modernism & Ideology in Persian Literature: A Return to Nature in the Poetry of Nima Yushij" which was published in entitled "Father and Fatherland" a long time ago. Since it is hard to get hold of my book, I would like to publish all of it on the internet so that not only this student but everybody can read it. Every few days a new chapter will be posted on -- MN


Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature


A Return to Nature 

in the Poetry of Nimâ Yushij



Majid Naficy




This book is a revised edition of a text which was presented as my doctoral dissertation to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. I would like to express my gratitude to the members of my doctoral committee, Ismail Poonawala, Hans Peter Schmidt, Samuel Weber, and especially Amin Banani, the chair of my committee, who has encouraged and inspired me pursue my academic goals.


I am also grateful to Leston Buell, Harriet Tannenbaum, Bahram Fazeli, Zhetonيa Mouakad-Piluso, and Linda Stolt, who have helped me in various ways to complete this dissertation. 


Majid Naficy

Los Angeles

April 1996


About the Author


Majid Naficy was born in Iran in 1953. His first collection of poems in Persian, called In the Tiger's Skin, was published in 1967. One year later his book of literary criticism, Poetry as a Structure, appeared. And in 1970 he wrote a children's book, The Secret of Words, which won a national award in Iran.


In the seventies, Majid was politically active against the Shah's regime. After the 1979 revolution, when the new regime began to suppress the opposition, and many people, including his first wife Ezzat Tabâ'eyân and brother Sa'id, were executed, he fled Iran in 1983 to spend one and a half years in Turkey and France, after which time he settled in Los Angeles. Since then, he has published three collections of poems, After the Silence, Sorrow of the Border, and Poems of Venice, as well as a book of essays called In Search of Joy: A Critique of Male-Dominated, Death-Oriented Culture in Iran, all in Persian. He holds his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently a co-editor of Daftarhâ-ye Shanbeh, a Persian literary journal published in Los Angeles, where he lives with his eight-year-old son آzâd. 


He has recently prepared a collection of his poetry translated into English, called Muddy Shoes.


[Table of Contents][1][2][3-A][3-B][3-C][3-D][3-E][3-F][3-G][3-H][3-I][4-A][4-B][4-C][4-D][4-E][4-F][4-G][4-H][4-I][4-J][4-K][4-L][4-Notes][5-A][5-B][5-C][Bibliography]


Chapter 1The Five Catchwords


Pursuing a general survey of Persian literature, one will note that from the ninth century A.D., in which the early literary works in the new Persian language first appear, up to the modern era, when free verse and short stories come onto the scene, there are five catchwords that have consecutively waxed and waned. These catchwords are kherad (wisdom), sokhan (speech), ‘eshq (love), tabi‘at (nature), and khalq (the people). The question that comes to mind is this: why did each of these catchwords come into being and prevail, only to be replaced by its successor? Were they socially situated and historically conditioned or did they appear and disappear by sheer chance? To find an answer, one should appeal to theory. 


According to Mannheim,


   Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him. He finds himself in an inherited situation with patterns of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. 


Therefore, although every individual is predetermined by a ready-made situation, he at the same time is not merely a product of society, but adds something of himself to the social relations. To deal with this “collective thought and conduct,” Mannheim uses two different concepts—ideology and utopia:


   The concept “ideology” reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely, that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. There is implicit in the word “ideology” the insight that in certain situations the collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it.


The concept of “utopia” is the antithesis of “ideology”:


 ...namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction or transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it.


Forty years later, Foucault reiterates the same idea with a new terminology when he speaks of the “author” as a “unified principal” which dictates the norms, rituals, and colors of each “discourse” to each individual writer. Discourse he defines as an activity of writing, reading, and exchange which “never involve anything but signs.”


Whether one refers to these five words in terms of “ideology-utopia”, “discourse”, or simply as “catchwords” is of little consequence. What is important is the concepts behind these terms, namely that social ideas are socially situated and historically conditioned and do not come to prevail or to be discarded by mere chance.


For example, the word kherad (wisdom) or its Arabic equivalent ‘aql prevailed in Persian literature from the ninth century to the end of the twelfth, is evident in the preface to the great epic Shâh-nâmeh (The Book of Kings) composed by A. Ferdowsi (940?-1020?) or in the works of the Isma‘ili poet and philosopher Nâser Khosrow (1003-1060).


If one examines the literature of this era carefully, one finds that the catchword kherad or ‘aql was used by three groups. First were the Mo‘tazeleh, which as a school of thought tried to blend Greek philosophy with Islamic theology. Wanting to rationalize religious norms, they became advocates of “reason” and “wisdom.” Second were the Sho‘ubiyun or Persian nationalists who mixed the pre-Islamic concepts of Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, and Mazdakism with Islamic ideas. It is through them that the Mazdâ (wisdom), which constitutes the second half of the name of the Zoroastrian divinity, Ahurâ Mazdâ, entered the literature. Third were the Isma‘ilis or Sevener Shiites, who, in order to establish a theology of their own, relied heavily upon the Neo-Platonic literature. For them, the “hermeneutics” of the Quran was more important than its “surface” meaning. Therefore, “reason” and “wisdom” became their catchwords, since these two qualities are requisite for arriving at the inner meaning of the Quranic verses.


From what has been said, it is easy to conclude that a whole discourse emerged around “wisdom” or “reason” in the Islamic Empire from the ninth century to the twelfth, because it could reflect the decentralizing and nationalistic tendencies of the non-Arab subjects of the empire, especially for the Persians who played a major role in toppling the ‘Umawi caliphate and the coming to power of the Abbasis. The new regime was closer to the emigrant Arab rulers in the non-Arab conquered lands than it was to the Arab aristocracy, Hejaz and Syria.


The process by which discourses emerge should not be taken as a linear evolutionary development in which one discourse neatly gives way to the next. On the contrary, the process is uneven and any attempt to simplify it leads to schematization. The best example of this fact can be seen in the catchword “speech” (sokhan). In the works of many authors who advocated “reason,” one finds attention devoted to “speech” as well. For example, in Ferdowsi's Shâh-nâmeh, the poet refers to the narrator of the story, whom he calls sokhan guy dehqân, meaning “a member of the landed aristocracy who uses speech or poetry.” Nevertheless, at the end of the “age of reason,” the discourse of “speech” finds its peak in the works of the great romance epic poet, Nezâmi (d. 1209). In his book Makhzan al-asrâr (Treasury of Secrets) he places “speech” at the top of the hierarchy of Creation:


The first move that Pen made

It took the first letter from speech

When the curtain of seclusion was removed

Speech was made as the first phenomenon,

Until speech was uttered from the heart

The free soul was not given the clay body


For Nezâmi, sokhan refers primarily to the recitation of verses. He lived in an era in which poetry was not read from books, but rather was recited by orators in public gatherings. Perhaps this fact can explain the inseparable connection that Nezâmi always found between “speech” and poetry.


Other evidence against a linear interpretation of development of the five catchwords can be found in the works of the philosopher of eshrâq (illumination), Sheikh Shehâb al-Din Sohravardi. By combining some of the ideas of Zoroastrianism with Islamic mysticism, he creates the discourse of “red intellect” (‘aql-e sorkh) which had characteristics of both “reason” and the discourse of “love” (‘eshq).


After the invasion of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which led to the destruction of infrastructure and the slaughtering of the populace, a shift in the social discourse took place and Sufism or Islamic mysticism, which hitherto had been limited to a few provinces and the intelligentsia, became rapidly popular. At this time, the word kherad was replaced by the mystical word ‘eshq or “love,” which individuals would pick up unconsciously and incorporate as a panacea for all social ills in their verbal performances and written texts.


As I have indicated in my book, In Search of Joy: A Critique of Male-Dominated and Death-Oriented Culture in Iran, a comparison between the quatrains of ‘Omar Khayyâm (1050-1123?) and the lyrics of Hâfez (d. 1390) clearly shows that, although the works of both poets are imbued with hedonism and a sarcastic attitude towards religiosity, the main catchword in Khayyâm's quatrains is “wine”, whereas that of Hâfez is “love”. It is true that Hâfez, himself, ridiculed both the clergy and the Sufis, criticizing their hypocrisy. Nevertheless, a long and rich tradition of Islamic mysticism, including the works of ‘Attâr (d. ca. 1220) and Rumi (d. 1273), separated him from Khayyâm. Using Mannheim's terms, Hâfez was imprisoned by the ideology of his time, or as Foucault might have put it, there was a gap between what he thought and what he spoke, because he had to employ the ideological devices available to him.


Adopting the same terminology as used by Mannheim, one can see a shift taking place in the position of the discourse within the power structure from the utopian concept of certain oppressed groups to the ideology of the ruling classes, who have become “intensively interest-bound in this thinking.” For instance, after a sect of Isma‘ili Shiites took power in Egypt and founded the Fâtimi caliphate (909-1171), their theology became the ideology of the ruling class, and therefore the discourse of wisdom lost its utopian charm, which it previously had for Isma‘ili followers. In contrast, the term, “wisdom”, retained its utopian charm for the Fâtimi missionaries (do‘â), who like the great Persian poet, Nâser Khosrow, were residing in Iran, as well as for the followers of Hasan Sabbâh, known as Nezâris (who opposed the Fâtimi Isma‘ili of Egypt). As will be clarified later on, a similar course can be traced in the case of the discourse of nature (tabi‘at), when the Constitutional Movement in Iran curbed the power of the monarchy, and “natural law” was incorporated into the constitution as a basis for individual rights >>> Chapter 2




1.Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1954) 3.


2.Mannheim 36.


3.Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. S. Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972) 222. Elsewhere he says,


.. .It is an attempt to reveal discursive practices in their complexity and density; to show that to speak is to do something—something other than to express what one thinks; to translate what one knows, and something other than to play with the structures of a language (langue), to show that to add a statement to a pre-existing series of statements is to perform a complicated and costly gesture, which involves conditions (and not only a situation, a context, and motives), and rules (not the logical and linguistic rules of construction); to show that a change in the order of discourse does not presuppose “new ideas”, a little invention and creativity, a different mentality, but transformations in a practice, perhaps also in neighboring practices, and in their common articulation. (209)


4.Foucault 228.


5.In his “preface”, before writing about the creation of the universe, people, the sun, and the moon and praising the Prophet and the king, Ferdowsi begins his work with the admiration of “wisdom” saying,


O man of wisdom! It is appropriate at this point

To say words in description of wisdom.

Wisdom is the best thing God gave you.

To be fair, you ought to praise wisdom first.

Wisdom is your guide. It opens your heart.

Wisdom holds your hand in this world and hereafter.


[Shâh-nâmeh, ed. Jules Mohl (Tehran: Enteshârât va âmuzesh-e enqelâvb-e eslâmi, 1980) vol. 1, p. 4.]


6.Nâser Khosrow, Divan-e ash‘âr, ed. Mojtabâ Minavi and ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhodâ (Tehran: n.p., 1974) p. 519. In Roshanâ'i-nâmeh (The Book of Light), Nâser Khosrow also begins his work with a description of “wisdom” and says:


First, Absolute Wisdom was created

One group called it the Primal Cause

One group called it Adam of Hermeneutics

It is called the World of Almightiness

In which resides Gabriel the Noble

For this reason it is called God's Pen

It is named the Messenger of God's Book.


7.Today the meaning of both words has changed. Dehqân means “peasant” and sokhangu means “spokesman.”


8.Kolliât-e khamse-ye Nezâmi, ed. M. Darvish (Tehran: Jâvidân, 1991) 26. All translations from Persian are my own, unless otherwise noted.


One can easily discern the impact of three sources in Nezâmi's discourse of speech. First, the Gospel of John (1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Second, in the first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, where Gabriel appears to him, the angel commands him to recite (Surat al-‘Alaq). And lastly, there is Aristotle's doctrine that man is a talking animal.


9.Majid Naficy, Dar jostoju-ye shadi: naqd-e farhang-e marg parasti va mard sâlâri dar Irân (Sweden: Baran, 1991).