May 15th, named after Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi, the great Iranian Poet, is also the day for honouring Persian language. On this occasion Ijtihadnet has interviewed Mr. Reza Asghari, the Cultural Counsellor of the Embassy of the I.R. of Iran in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Mr. Reza Asgari is the Cultural Counsellor of the Embassy of the I.R. of Iran in Harare, Zimbabwe. He was born in 1969 in Tehran and graduated in English Language Translation (BA) and English Teaching (MA). He joined the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation in 1997 and worked in different departments as a Public Relations Officer as well as the Cultural Expert for different countries such as the Philippines, Greece and France. He was appointed as the Cultural Officer in the Cultural Counsellorship of the Embassy of I.R of Iran in the Philippines from 2008 to 2010 and also in Greece from 2015 to 2016. He is now assigned as the Cultural Counsellor of the Embassy of I.R of Iran in Harare-Zimbabwe since 2018. As a fan of arts and being a calligrapher, he has had many solo and group exhibitions in and out of Iran.
Ijtihadnet has interviewed him as a cultural expert on the occasion of the Day for honouring the Persian language and Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi.
- May 15th, named after Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi, the great Iranian Poet, is also the day for honouring Persian language. What is your take on this?
I believe by naming a day which puts and recognises the names of Hakim Abu Al-Qasem Ferdowsi and the Persian Language together on Iran’s official calendar, is surely the most outstanding way to magnify the relationship between his magnificent influence on the protection of the treasure of Persian literature, not only for the Persians, but also for the world’s literature and history.
Ferdowsi’s masterpiece Shahnameh which has been interpreted as “the Book of Kings” is actually considered “the King of Books” or ” the Noble Letter” according to some, although there might be few controversies among the readership about characterisation of the personages in his “one of the world’s longest epic poems”. Some people might not find the message of heroism and epic so interesting but away from the detail of stories in the book, what is of the most importance is the language and context he has chosen to narrate and express his elevated ideas, which actually leave legacies for the generations to come.The book has also been called “definitive of the ethno-national cultural identity of Iran” due to its dominant role to preserve the Persian Language as the nation’s identity essence.
- Would you please shed some light on the role played by Ferdowsi in promoting Persian language?
No one can deny Ferdowsi’s role as the main pillar of Persian language and literature. The matter is about Ferdowsi’s main cause of creating Shahnameh, which I do not know as a literary one. Ferdowsi did this in order to keep the nationalism alive at a time when there was no country by the name of Iran. He is not the founder of Iranian nationalism either. The Iranians were nationalists from the beginning. Avesta, Achaemenid’s inscriptions and the Iranian national myths contain very clear ideas about this. The Sassanians also created a more sophisticated model of their past and even their future. And by gathering all the greats, Ferdowsi left a full-scale document of Iranian nationalism.
It is read in Dr Mohammad Ja’afar Mahjub’s book “Afrain-E- Ferdowsi“: “It should be noted that Ferdowsi was adamant in arranging the Shahnameh that this book is the history of Iran, from the earliest times, from beyond history to the conquest of Iran by Muslims, and none of the stories and subjects has roots in imagination and legends”. This idea actually is endorsed by other Ferdowsiologists who assume this as a major difference between Shahnameh and the most famous epic poems of the world’s literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Dr Mahjub notes that: “The main contents of the Shahnameh are not out of the three essential parts:
1- Mythology section, which is in the beginning of the book and is about one tenth of the total Shahnameh.
2- The epic section, located in the middle of Shahnameh and its most important part with eternal national narratives and stories such as that of Rostam and Sohrab, Rostam and Esfandiar, the stories of Haft Khan, the story of Siavash, Bijan and Manijeh, the protagonist and leading figure of this part is Rustam son of Zaal, and the main battleground of the endless wars and disputes between Iranians and Turanians, which ends with Rustam being killed by his brother Shaghad.
3- The historical part begins with the story of Dara and the scandalous invasion of Iran byAlexander and ends with the Muslims conquest. In this part, the story of Alexander is mixed with legend, the Parthian days are forgotten and the Sassanid period is detailed, though the story ofthe first Sasanian kings are also mixed with legend.”
However, the reader of the Shahnameh should not wait while studying the distance line to separate the mythical from the epic section and the epic section from the historical season of the book.In the mythical part – which is hard-pressed and concise to the point where the poet sometimes speaks in a mysterious manner – all talking about the beginning of human life, the story of a creature that gradually passes the cruelty of living like an animal to the bright realm of humanity. Such a creature needs home, shelter, clothing, food, production tools, fire control, weapons supply, water control and consolidation of the foundations of the society that is being formed.Important things are done during the reign of Jamshid’s seven hundred years: spinning and weaving, blacksmi thing, tooling, the emergence of various stews, shipbuilding, community divisions into quadrants, learning to build palaces and verandahs, writing the thirty handwritings. All these are the gains of Jamshid’s time.
Everyone has heard that Shahnameh is the epic masterpiece of the “Master of Toos”, a solid document of Iranian nationality and a great symbol of our national identity. But what if Iranians, who have been listening to various stories in the coffee shops for many years and have heard it from storytellers and are not literate themselves, or those who have completed their secondary education or have finished high school in Iran or abroad simply are asked: “Why do you consider this book a document of Iranian nationality? Or to ask the question: What if a poet by the name of Ferdowsi had not been born in Iran, or would not have arranged this book?” We do not hear a clear and convincing answer from them. As if all Iranians persuaded by subconscious tips, or instinctive recognition of profits and losses, think that Shahnameh of Ferdowsi’s”tall, immortal palace” is truly an orderly and immutable castle for the survival of the Iranian national identity, and so on. Thus, they unquestionably regard it as one of the self-evident principles of their national life. But in fact, it is worthy to think a little about it. To think that if the Shahnameh had not been in the hands of the Iranians, what would happen if Ferdowsi would not have founded this “lofty Palace of Poem”? Now that he has accomplished this great work and over a thousand years ago forwarded this noble letter to the Iranians, what impact has it had on the durability and foundation of our nationality?
Had Ferdowsi have not disciplined Shahnameh, would anyone else be a poet among the more than 12000 poets whose names are recorded in the books of history and literature and the poems of the poets, many of them as professors without a doubt? These are things that deserve a little more consideration.
- There are different views on Ferdowsi’s religion and sect. what is your take on this?
What one can realise from the history is that there are disagreements between scholars and historians regarding his religious sect as a Muslim whose first name is after the Islamic prominent figures like Imam Hassan (AS). There are pieces of poems attributed to Ferdowsi in which he praises or disapproves some figures but obviously the very first lines of his poems manifest the religious ideas of the poet. After praising God and His Prophet (PBUH), he pays homage to the Muslim religious leaders although we might find instances in which he describes the history of Persia, as well as giving a detailed explanation on Zoroastrianism and the other ancient beliefs of the Persians.
Apart from the discrepancies about his school of thought, Ferdowsi is referred to as ” Hakim“(Wise). In Islamic terminology “Hikmah” or “Wisdom” means “attaining the truth by science and reason” or as AllamaTabataba’i defines:”Wisdom is a kind of structure, that is, a type of hard work in which there is no weakness or breakthrough, and it is often used in real rational knowledge that is never invalid or false”. We can witness that Allah (SWT) in the Holy Qur’an calls Himself and His prophet Luqman “Hakim” which proves this characteristic is of a very high value to be given. Scholars take this for granted about Ferdowsi.
- How do you evaluate the role of Persian language in developing knowledge and science in the history of human civilizations?
Throughout history, Persian has been a prestigious cultural language used by various empires in Western, Central, and South Asia. Old Persian written works are attested in Old Persian cuneiform on several inscriptions from between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC, and Middle Persian literature is attested in Aramaic-derived scripts (Pahlavi and Manichaean) on inscriptions from the time of the Parthian Empire and in books centred in Zoroastrian and Manichaean scriptures from between the 3rd to the 10th century AD. The New Persian literature began to flourish after the Muslim conquest of Iran,and with the earliest records dating back from the 9th century, it has since adopted the Arabic script.Persian was the first language to break through the monopoly of Arabic on writings in the Muslim world, with the writings of Persian poetry developed as a tradition in many eastern courts. Some of the famous works of medieval Persian literature are the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the works of Rumi, the Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, the Panj Ganj of NizamiGanjavi, the Divān of Hafez, The Conference of the Birds by Attar of Nishapur, and the miscellanea of Gulistan and Bustan by Sa’di Shirazi.
The Persian language is the international language of mysticism, much like the mystics who have written their Persian mystical books in Turkish, Arabic and Hindi. The Hindu-Iranian Sufi school, which spread through Iran to West Asia and even North Africa, has written most of its books and texts in Persian prose or poetry, and the Sufi language has always been Persian in the Indian subcontinent and even among Turks.
The richness of Persian literature, full of enthusiasm, interpretation and subtlety, compatible with human nature, continues to affect the lives and souls of its audiences and enthusiasts in today’s world, and is undoubtedly one of the most beloved languages.
Undoubtedly, the Persian literature is one of the most important circles in the works of world literature and a privileged gem in the East of the earth and in the Islamic world, which is actually the product of a vast process of interactions and influences that has taken place over the centuries and has become one of them. It has become the greatest cultural heritage of mankind.In many European and American countries, Persian is now taught, which is a testament of the richness of Persian literature and its prominence among other languages of the nations, due to its importance to the knowledge, insights and culture of the literate people of Iranian Plateau, from the past to the present.
There are words in Persian scriptures such as Pardis (Ferdows) in the Bible – the Torah and the Holy Qur’an. Many of the geographical and place names in the Middle East and North Africa are in the Persian language, such as Baghdad, Al-Anbar, Oman (Houman), Rastaq, Ceyhan, Basra (Road), Rafedin, Hindu Kush, Haidar Abad, Shabroghan (Shapurgan), Tangeh (strait)etc.
The process of influencing Persian language and the number of Persian speakers during the Seljuk era and the Ottoman pledge in Turkey is extensive. In as far as the influence of Persian language is concerned, one can mention Shah TahmasbSafavi, who wrote and compiled a collection of poems in Persian. Ottoman Sultan Salim and Sultan Suleiman also wrote Persian poetry.
We find more than two hundred Persian words in each of the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uighur and Turkmen languages that have penetrated across the Amu Sea over the centuries.
In Malaya, near the village of Samudra, there is a tomb of Hussam al-Din who died in 823 AH. His tombstone in Malaya is unique because Sa’di’s versesare written and engraved on it. Over 350 Persian words have been recognized in Indonesian language. Famous Persian poets and writers in ancient Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, like Nerodovich and Baba Sorkhian, have produced works that exemplify the influence of the Persian language on those parts of the world. For seven hundred years Persian was the official language of India until 1836 when Charles TerryWillian recognized English as the official language.
- when it comes to Islam, Arabic language is known as the most related language to Islam. What is the status of Persian language in this regard?
We actually need to define that the language we nowadays call “Persian” is “Dari” (officially named Dari since 1958), roots of which date back to Middle Persian in Sassanian Empire, and is a kind of many languages attributed to Persia.Just as centuries before Islam, and nine hundred years after Islam, the people of Western Iran spoke Pahlavi, thousands of years before the advent of Islam, the people of Eastern Iran spoke Dari. Today, in addition to it, they refer to it as “Persian” (or Farsi) as it was one of the Western languages of Iran. The language of the people of Khorasan in the East of the desert had long been lost due to the influx of savage tribes and the influence of the official Sasanian language. However,by the time Pahlavi became the official language used in reading, writing and dialogue with the rulers and clergy, it did not have a written alphabet, just as there are no Semnani, Gilaki and some other languages inscriptions. The language was now spoken by all the people in the Eastern parts of Iran, in all of Khorasan in Iran, in the whole of Afghanistan, in some parts of the Soviet Republics spreading to Bukhara, Samarqand and in the coasts of Sihon, Jeyhun and in some parts of India.
This was the case at the beginning of the era of Islam. The official language had changed, now they had to speak to God and to the rulers of the country in Arabic and write letters and books in Arabic, but the people of this vast area (all of which are also Khorasan and Great Khorasan in the Eastern sense), spoke as always in their usual language, Persian or Dari.
It was natural for the first independent Iranian dynasties to be established in the eastern half of Iran, and the main reason was that the people of those areas were living geographically at the furthest point of the Islamic Caliphate’s power, and in order to reach them, the Caliph had to go through the desolate deserts of Central Iran.Thus, the Dari language became the language of the rulers who came to power after Islam in Khorasan. It was also used in writing poetry, literature and in court and office communication. Prior to that, the language had no independent inscription for itself: the earliest Persian-language inscription is on a piece of skin on which a private scroll was written in several rows and belongs to the year 100 AH. The author of this letter was a Persian-language Jew, and apparently in that time, Farsi did not have an inscription of its own and the author wrote his letter in Persian, but using the Hebrew writing system.Changes were later made to the Arabic alphabet to allow for its use in the writing of Persian (Dari) language.The oldest historical Persian poetry that has survived and reached us belongs to the year 256 AH and the oldest piece of prose belongs to the year 346 AH. But in no way can we be convinced that they are the earliest written works in this language, and that other works may not have come before them.
- Is there any statistics about the universities and students that teach and learn Persian language across the world?What are the measures of the Iran’s embassies and cultural centres in different countries to make people more acquainted with Persian language and literature?
There are currently about six countries teaching Farsi as a second language in their schools, which includes Georgia, Armenia, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. For the rest of the world, we try to incorporate Farsi as a second language in their schools.There are 200 universities in the world teaching Oriental Studies, with students studying for five years in general courses. From Year Three, they must choose one of the Four Major Eastern languages which includes Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew. Our second job is to teach Farsi to free volunteers. In the Six countries, we do have classes run bySa’di Foundation members who are actually Cultural Advisers to the Iranian embassies where they are assigned by the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO). The classes run during the course of the week for those who are generally interested in learning Farsi. At present, there are about 5,000 Farsi learners in these countries.
Secondly, through the use of publications and the public, we are advertising the program in order to bring awareness thereby increasing the number of these classes. We are also able to attract large audiences through informing them that by learning the Persian language, they would be able to watch and view the globally famous Iranian movies without the hustle of going through the movie subtitles meant for Persian language non speakers.
The third thing that we do is that through our promotional activities, we always try to make those interestedappreciate that if they learn the Farsi language, they will also become familiar with the language of the civilization of the Greater Iran, which also includes about nine countries.
Our next job is in foreign universities where we teach the Persian language and literature to undergraduate, postgraduate and sometimes PhD students. We also do extensive marketing thereby creating general awareness of the program for more students to study the Persian language and literature.
Our next task would be to take on board and teach the children of Iranians living abroad. There are about 3 million Iranians living abroad, most of them living in the US and Europe. Children born in these areas have little to do with their mother tongue. To maintain their connection with their own culture, language and getting connectedto their civilization roots, we teach them,with the help of their parents,the Persian language mostly on Saturdays (their holidays). This is done in a number of schools.
At the moment our textbooks for this group of learners of Persian language has become scientific. On the other hand, among Iranians living abroad as well as foreigners, we have about two to four non-governmental organizations active in the field of Persian language and literature. We have identified and interacted with these communities, and we sometimes send them books, while we also train their teachers in summer and sometimes online.
This interview was conducted by Sayyid Mostafa Daryabari and Dr. Morteza Karimi.