CL History Persian Literature between Comparative Literature and Area Studies in North America

Sunil Sharma


Persian literature and area studies departments in the North American academic world have an intertwined relationship, one that continues to unfold in new, sometimes unexpected, ways. Rebecca Gould, a young scholar who works on comparative aspects of an astounding range of literatures, notes that while “area studies seems the surest path to deep knowledge of non-European literary cultures,” this “has also arguably drawn students away from comparative literature” (173). In recent years, Persian literary studies have no longer been confined to area studies and have found a place, albeit at times somewhat uneasy, in Comparative Literature and even English departments. In large institutions with a history of area studies, departments of Middle Eastern or South Asian studies draw government-funded students who may take the occasional course in literature. For literary scholars, such departments provide a community of interlocutors who teach subjects such as history, art history, and religion, pertaining to their own geographic areas of specialization. Since non-Western comparatists necessarily feel the need to interact with people outside their department or discipline, having joint appointments has, in many cases, been the most expedient way to deal with this situation, which often means that such people belong to comparative literature in name only, for every scholar must have a discipline.


It was only about twenty years ago that Persian literary scholars, in addition to making the study of language and literature an integral part of Iranian studies, were credited with “introducing this literature, even though on a limited scale, to the broader arena of world literature studies in this country” (Ghanoonparvar 213). In the last quarter of the twentieth century, when Persian literary studies in North America came into its own, the research focus was largely on classical Persian, with the translation of modern novels and short stories functioning as an ancillary activity that served as an introduction to contemporary Iran. Monographs on single authors and collections of essays, published during this period, were pioneering works that have retained their usefulness into present times. The work of American scholars such as Jerome Clinton and Julie Meisami has been chiefly on classical literature but with serious attention to basic questions of literary criticism. Ehsan Yarshater’s edited volume, Persian Literature, was focused on literary questions, using both thematic and biographical approaches; the more recent and much more ambitious project, History of Persian Literature, is encyclopedic rather than critical. In the field of modern Persian literature, Ahmed Karimi-Hakkak’s writings on poetic modernity directly engage with issues of comparative literature.


To this day, even when scholars of Persian literature specialize in particular periods and genres, they usually cover both the pre-modern and modern periods in their teaching and research. What is often missing is a broader coverage of Persian literature beyond Iran, one that would include Dari, Tajik, and Indo-Persian texts, in order to faithfully represent the transnational reach of the tradition, as is so finely done in the case of Arabic literature. Thus, an expert on modern Persian literature may teach the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Simin Behbahani in a survey course but not include anything by Amir Khusrau or Khalilullah Khalili. In recent times, it is also somewhat surprising to note the paucity of newly translated texts from any period, to say nothing of the virtual absence of any attempt to address issues such as theories of translation or post-colonialism. Conferences and seminars are frequently convened on a single literary figure with a motley group of presentations that do not actually provide much discursive space for any serious inquiry into literary topics. One recent exception to this trend was a one-day symposium, Finders/Seekers: Travel Encounters in and out of Persianate Lands, convened by Daniel Rafinejad and Guilan Siassi at UCLA in May 2011. Such an event points to the future possibilities for intellectual growth in the field.


There also seems to be a wider gap now between those who work on pre-modern and those who study modern Persian literatures, although, from a linguistic and cultural point of view, the ruptures between the two are far less prominent and problematic than in the European and South Asian contexts. Comparable in some ways to Hellenistic civilization or the Sanskrit cosmopolis, the overlapping Iranian and Persophone cultural domains encompassed a vast region from the Balkans to Bengal for over a millennium. The more fashionable and useful term “Persianate” is meant to transcend the conceptual messiness of national boundaries and canons and to include various kinds of inter-regional connections and displays of cosmopolitanism. “Persianate” is actually a convenient term for literary studies because several types of comparisons are possible within such a framework: between literatures that share a Perso-Islamicate cultural tradition and those that can be compared through more theoretical modes of inquiry such as aesthetics, modernism, and post-colonialism.


There is fruitful room for comparison, and actual work being done, between the languages of Islamic societies, such as Arabic and Turkish, and Kurdish, Pashto, Urdu and Uzbek, among others. In a different direction, a small group of scholars of Hindi literature are working with Persian literary texts as well, exploring the crossover of Persianate modes of literary production into non-Islamic societies. The field is wide open for other avenues of comparative work, with Latin American or East Asian literatures for the modern period, and with Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, classical Chinese and Japanese for the pre-modern period. Persian literature has also found a sister discipline in religious studies, with several Sufism experts producing work that is squarely in the realm of comparative literature.


Nasrin Rahimieh has suggested that literary studies can make a timely and beneficial intervention in the study of Iran: “A reconceptualization of Persian literary history from the vantage point of Comparative Literature can offer a different history of the apparent political, religious, and cultural impasse defining contemporary Iran’s relations to other nations” (296). We are able to see this reconceptualization happening in the North American academy right now. But despite Gould’s prescriptive statement that “[b]y combining area studies with history while remaining faithful to the discursive autonomy of the literary artifact, comparative literature can induce conceptual and empirical change” (183), it appears that Persian literary studies have a more promising future in Comparative Literature departments than in area studies. At the same time, it is clear that what Comparative Literature programs have to offer in terms of the cultural and historical aspects of their discipline is an important part of area studies.

Works Cited


Ghanoonparvar, M. R. “Beyond the Textbook: On Teaching Persian and the Utilization of Cultural Resources.” Persian Studies in North America: Studies in Honor of Mohammad Ali Jazayery. Ed. Mehdi Marashi. Bethesda, MD: Iranbooks, 1994. 209-220. Print.

Gould, Rebecca. “The Geography of Comparative Literature.” Journal of Literary Theory 5.2 (2011): 167-86. Print.

Rahimieh, Nasrin. “Persian Incursions: The Transnational Dynamics of Persian Literature.” A Companion to Comparative Literature. Ed. Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.



Sunil Sharma is Chair and Associate Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University’s Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, where he teaches courses on Persian and South Asian literatures. His research interests are in the areas of literary and visual cultures, translation and travel writing. He has authored two monographs: Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier: Mas‘ūd Sa‘d Salmān of Lahore (2000), and Amir Khusraw: The Poet of Sultans and Sufis (2005); two collaborative works: Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain (2010), and In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau (2011); and co-editor of two volumes of essays, Necklace of the Pleiades: Studies in Persian Literature (2011); On the Wonders of Land and Sea: Persianate Travel Writing (2013).


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