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Iran And India: Two Countries Separated By A Common Language

Nina Aldin Thune
A Persian astronomical and astrological manuscript from the 17th century

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, nationalism and colonialism created fixed borders between societies that otherwise shared common ethnic backgrounds, language, and culture.

If you separate the world by regions, India and Iran don’t initially appear to have much in common. But in the 1960s, University of Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson introduced the concept of Persianate society – arguing that in the pre-modern world, Iranians, the Ottoman Empire, the South Asian Indian Mogul empire, and even Central Asians all spoke Persian.

“Even today, when I’m listening to the news in Ukraine, I hear Persian words, and I say, ‘Where did that come from?’,” says Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of history and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. “These are traces of the earlier lingua franca function that Persian had that we have lost.”

Tavakoli describes the Persianate as a pre-modern multi-cultural cosmopolitan world.

“There are a lot of Persian manuscripts left in libraries in India, in Central Asia, in the Ottoman Empire, the old Turkish empire,” Tavakoli says. “One can put these together and reconstruct that world.”

So how did English replace Persian as the lingua franca of South Asia? Tavakoli argues it’s due to the development of modern society in his book Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Nationalist Historiography. But he dispels the notion that modern society originated in Europe. He calls Asia and Africa the “laboratory of modernity.”

“Europeans became modern when they went to Asia, and they discovered alternative ways of living,” Tavakoli says. “Asians, through familiarization with Europe, refashioned themselves, Europeans through familiarization with Asians began to refashion themselves, reshape themselves.”

KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma to further our mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.


REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Afshin Marashi, we're joined today with Mohamad Tavakoli. Welcome to the show.

MOHAMAD TAVAKOLI: Thank you very much.

CRUISE: Dr. Tavakoli, you study a very interesting topic, what's called the Persianate. The Persian speakers. And in particular this deals with India and Iran, two countries that we tend to put into different categories. If we separate the world by regions, they don't tend to come together. So what has interested you about this grouping of similar speakers, and why is it important that we focus on them and think about them as being a unified group?

TAVAKOLI: Well, the concept of a Persianate civilization was introduced by a historian at the University of Chicago in the 1960s as a way of trying to capture, to go beyond the divide of area studies where South Asians are Indians, and they're Hindus, and speak Hindi and their [unintelligible] language is Sanskrit, and the Middle Easterners are either Iranians or Arabs. And he came to argue that Persian was the lingua franca of the pre-modern world, where Iranians, the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Empire, the South Asian Indian Mogul empire, and even in Central Asia they all spoke Persian. Even today when I'm listening to the news Ukraine, I hear Persian words, and I say, "Where did that come from? These are traces of the earlier lingua franca function that Persian had that we have lost, we have forgotten, because of our nationalist shaping of our mind.

AFSHIN MARASHI: That's actually a very interesting point I wanted to ask you about. In some ways, when we think about nationalism in the more recent past, we associate that with division and conflict and all of the strife of the recent period. Do you think that when we think about this concept of the Persianate, is it an alternative cultural model? Is the Persianate a more inclusive and egalitarian cultural system than the world of nation-states that defines the more recent past?

TAVAKOLI: I think of the Persianate world as a pre-modern cosmopolitan world, and a multi-cultural society where people in various parts of India, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia, they belong to different tribes, different ethnic groups, different religious formations. And the language was intercommunal, interconfessional, and the interethnic language of interethnic communication. So when they communicated with one another outside of their own ethnic groups, they spoke in Persian. And what is interesting is that there are a lot of Persian manuscripts left in libraries in India, in Central Asia, in the Ottoman Empire, the old Turkish Empire. One can put these together and reconstruct that world. That is lost to us now, because we think of nations as bordered, and eternally bordered. God created these national borders at the inception of humanity.

CRUISE: So we can learn from these historic manuscripts. What have we learned about this grouping of people, or this larger nation of the Persianate? And how does that inform us today about these different countries that have developed?

TAVAKOLI: Well first of all, it comes to the questions of we call modernity, and the formation of nation-states. How did it emerge? How did Persian as the lingua franca for South Asia, for India, was replaced with English? Itself is a really fantastic history of how this process happens - that one language is replaced and displaced with another. Or in the Ottoman Empire, where the language was the official language of discourse, how it was displaced. It links all to the question of modernity, and the beginning of modernity. Often we think of the modern as European. And often we think of modernizing societies as societies that import European ideas. Once you put the question of the Persianate world and this sort-of lingua franca where people from different ethnic groups, the different confessions interact with one another, and then you add Europeans to that, you have at the very conception of the modern world a dialogue that actually initially happened, most of it, in Persian. And many of the people that we now know as European scholars of the Orient, as Orientalists, their fundamental works were done in the Persian language. It was through familiarization with the Persian language that they created a body of knowledge that now we know as Orientalism. European knowledge of the East.

CRUISE: Well this is an interesting point, because in your recent book Refashioning Iran, looking at Iran specifically, you comment on this notion of modernity, and where modernity came from. And we so often, as you mentioned, think of it coming from Europe. But you claim that's not necessarily the case. There were internal things going on within the Persian-speaking countries at that time, or eventually within Iran. Can you explain that a little bit?

TAVAKOLI: Yeah. One of the key arguments that I have, and many other historians are arguing along this line, is that the Orient, or Asia, and for that matter Africa, was the laboratory of modernity. A lot of ideas that we now associate with Europe were first developed by Europeans and through interaction with the other communities. Peoples of the non-European...

CRUISE: The colonial argument.

TAVAKOLI: Part of it is colonial, but it's also pre-colonial in a sense that Europeans became modern when they went to Asia, and they discovered alternative ways of living. And in a sense, Asia and Africa constituted "heterotopia." An ideal, but different, place that became a way of refashioning themselves. So as Asians, through familiarization with Europe, refashioned themselves, Europeans through familiarization with Asians began to refashion themselves, reshape themselves. And much of the things that we identify as modern, as origins of modernity, have to do with this interaction.

MARASHI: One of the areas that you've also written about is travelers. We might call Persianate travelers to Europe. Could you talk about that, and some of the things that you've found in the travel writings of the early Iranian and Indian travelers to Europe?

TAVAKOLI: Well the whole travel literature itself is a really fantastic source of understanding intercultural communication. Usually within this older model of modernity, we see travelers from the East going to Europe to learn how to become modern. And importing modern ideas into their own country. Now, I've begun to shift the vision on this, and view the travelers as producing archival field research on Europe. What they have written are fantastic anthropological documents on Europe. How Europeans interact with one another, what accounts for interplay between various classes of society, gender relations, and how they change.

CRUISE: What were some of their observations? I'm curious as to how the Persians viewed Europeans. We so often hear how Europeans view the other world.

MARASHI: We're talking about the 18th century...

TAVAKOLI: Yeah. One of the 18th century speakers, the travelers that I view as one of the founding figures of this anthropologizing of Europe, is a person by the name of Mirza Abu Talib who traveled to Europe and spent a lot of time in England from 1798 to 1802. He had a number of really interesting observations. First of all, it was immediately after the French Revolution. And when he was looking at the British society, he came up with this argument that very soon, there is going to be a revolution like the French Revolution in England. And he had really good arguments for it. His argument was, at the core of the transformations that are happening in England is the notion of fashion and fashionability. People cheapen their houses, they rearrange the furniture in their house, they change things because if they cheap the old stuff, it looks bad. So to be fashionable, they have to change. This is really good for the upper class, and creates a lot of opportunities for development, for production, but then for the middle class and the lower classes, and the peasants who only eat potatoes, for them they cannot afford it. So this leads to a lot of class animosity, and then explains that if this continues, it will lead to something like the French Revolution.

MARASHI: So it's a kind of Persianate sociology?

TAVAKOLI: It was an interesting sociology, but what is interesting about it is it has four distinct classes. They benefit differently from this urge to be fashionable.

CRUISE: One of the other groups you mentioned was women, or gender, and that you've learned some interesting takes on gender in Persian society from these documents, which maybe counter some of our perceptions of Islam and gender today.

TAVAKOLI: Well, actually, Mirza Abu Talib, one of the few who I was just talking about, he wrote an essay comparing European women with Muslim women. And he indicated areas where European women have more freedom than Muslim women of South Asia and the Middle East. But the final conclusion that he made was the Asiatic woman has more freedom than European women. Another observation that was really unique that he made was that education has the same function as the veil. That is, he argued that true education - women learn how to self-control. And said that in Muslim societies, this self-control is through this object that people put on their heads.

CRUISE: Very interesting.

TAVAKOLI: And it led to a lot of really fantastic discussions in the early 19th century. A lot of travelers would go back and forth to debate with him, argue with him, and come up with supporting arguments on this and that.

CRUISE: So are some of these travelers' journals and this literature, are we now beginning to see more of an examination of this in Persian society? Are they reexamining this history and this identity?

TAVAKOLI: Well, at the core of some of the contemporary crises that we have is the relationship with Europe, the west. And what is the nature of the relationship? Those who argue that modernity is the product of imitation of Europe - there is an Iranian intellectual of the 1960s who views modernization as a product of what he refers to as intoxication. That you become intoxicated with the west, and you import everything from the west and you use the very essence of your own identity and culture, and he totally rejects this kind of modernization. What I do, I argue that modernity, first of all, is not European, it's global. And is a product of intense exchanges between Europeans and Asians and Africans. So from that point of view, then you don't have a purely European modernity against a purely Asiatic or Asian/Iranian/Turkish modernity. Modernity is a product of intense dialogue, and you have the pros of cultural renewal. The Iranians, Turks, in the end transform themselves, and through this transformation made various alliances. So then you don't have this notion of...I tried to overcome this notion of viewing modernity as a product of selling out a colonial cultural tradition.

CRUISE: And these are still, it seems, very relevant today. We can see the result of that, and the reexamination of that. Well, thank you, Dr. Tavakoli, so much for your time. We've really learned quite a bit here, and of course, thank you Afshin for joining us.

TAVAKOLI: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.  

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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