These abstracts provide an overview of the topics that were discussed at the Love and devotion Persian Cultural Crossroads conference on 12–14 April 2012.
The paper abstracts are listed here in the order outlined in the conference program.
For information about the presenters of these papers, see Keynote speakers.
Papers presented at the Persian Cultural Crossroads conference will appear in a special edition of the La Trobe Journal in May 2013.
Thursday 12 April: Opening keynote address
The 'arts of the book' & the diffusion of Persian culture
'Love' and 'devotion' can have many objects and be expressed in many forms. Most obvious are physical and spiritual love, of which the expression may be ambiguous but the depiction usually is not. While the poetic vocabulary of earthly and divine love became progressively intertwined, miniature painters naturally tended to focus on the human dimensions of passion, reserving the illustration of holy ecstasy to a limited number of texts. In addition to the celebration of 'love' of this sort, whether allegorical or realistic, Persian authors also wrote of a love of duty, of honour and of country, perhaps best expressed in the accounts of heroes in the service of their kings – who might themselves be lovers and the objects of devotion. It is no accident that the word Shah (king) is applied not only to the sovereign but also to a spiritual master. We might also read of the love of knowledge, or the love of life. In short, love and devotion are universal and bind together not only individuals, but societies and even countries.
These emotions have all been conveyed in the rich output of Persian poets and writers and the often exquisitely produced manuscripts created to reach their audiences, especially between the 15th and 18th centuries. Some of the epics, histories and romances achieved enormous popularity, both within Iran and in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Ottoman Turkey. In these regions, as well as illustrating their own indigenous literature and legends, artists were commissioned to illustrate the Persian texts and works written in emulation of them. This lecture concentrates on some of the themes of love found in Persian literature and how they travelled to neighbouring lands – the afterlife of the texts themselves and the arts of the physical books in which they lived.
Friday 13 April: Session 1 – Keynote address
Illustrated talismans in the Bodleian Kitab al-bulhan
The Kitab al-bulhan (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. Or. 133), which can be translated loosely as 'The book of surprises', is a compilation of treatises mostly copied and illustrated in the 14th century and likely bound in Baghdad during the rule of Sultan Ahmad Jalaʾiyr (r. 1382–1410). Its present textual sequence does not correspond to the original bound manuscript, and some sections have been lost, but two later copies produced in the Ottoman area provide appropriate terms of reference for the original work. In addition to astrological and astronomical treatises and texts on divination, an extensive section (fols. 28–49) contains full-page illustrations with only a title in a cartouche at the top of the page. These are mostly popular stories, relatively easy for the average reader to identify in iconographic form, but there is also an intriguing sequence of 11 paintings that illustrate demons and jinns in a talismanic format. Starting from Iblis, the King of Demons, the illustrations show an array of demonic characters who are responsible for all kinds of human ailments, together with their talismans. Such talismans were commonly drawn on paper and folded several times in order to fit into a small container hung from the neck for protection. In this case their depiction is not functional but provides a sort of illustrated manual that may have been used as a reference for talisman makers. Talismanic sciences were very common in the medieval Arab and Persian world and one of the most appreciated signs of devotion in the Islamic areas. The paper will address this as well as other aspects of the Kitab al-bulhan.
Friday 13 April: Session 2 – Love & devotion in Persian literature & art
Love or devotion in Persian literature & beyond
This paper will illustrate the double (literary and visual) emulation, through the centuries and in different cultural milieux, of the established literary and iconographical clichés used in the ancient tale of the evil stepmother and her transformation into an ideal mystical lover. In the Iranian tradition Sudaba falls in love with her stepson Siyavush, like Hellenistic Phaedra in Euripides' Hippolytus (428 BC), which has many later interpretations including those by Racine (1677), Tsvetaeva (1927), Rexroth (1951) and Kane (1996). The similar etymologies of the names of Siyavush and Hippolytus may witness a common Perso-Greek origin. Numerous parallels are found in most known literatures, from ancient Egyptian myth to the Biblico-Qurʾanic story of Potiphar's wife, where the ancient femme fatale acquires her name, Zulaykha, and a different personality, mostly due to the later Sufi interpretation by Jami (1414–92), based on Qurʾanic exegesis. By the 9th and 10th centuries, as seen in contemporary poetry, the imagery related to the Soghdian cult of Siyavush (similar to that of Osiris), widespread in the pre-Islamic Oxus region, was already replaced by its Semitic variant. The fact that the 11th-century poem Yusuf and Zulaykha was ascribed to Firdausi, who had already included the story of Sudaba and Siyavush in his Shahnama, is a curious proof of such contamination not only inside one cultural tradition but within a complex of legends about one literary figure.
From Qays to Majnun: the evolution of a legend from ʿUdhri roots to Sufi allegory
Although celebrated in several world literatures, the story of Majnun/Layla began in the Arabian desert of the 7th century with the tragic ʿUdhri love story of Qays ibn al-Mulawwah and his beloved Layla. After an introduction to the development and meaning of the ʿUdhri love phenomenon, this paper will trace the roots, historical and other, of the Majnun/Layla story as narrated by later writers such as Ibn Qutaybah (d. 885) and Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (d. 967), and show how it evolved into a legend and was taken up by Persian littérateurs such as Nizami Ganjavi (d. 1209) and ʿAbd al-Rahman Jami (d. 1492), who developed it as an allegory for the sacred love of the Sufi tradition. The paper will give a brief overview of Majnun's life and poetry as presented in both the early Arabic sources and the later Persian versions. It will examine behaviours exhibited by Majnun which can be recognised as typically Sufic or similar to that of many Islamic mystics, and ideas found in his poetry which can be interpreted as evincing a mystical type of philosophy. The paper will also investigate the idea that Majnun and Layla – a poet herself – can be seen as representing the 'drunken' and 'sober' schools of Sufism, with the ecstatic utterances of the former, and the outward silence but intense inner burning of the latter.
Paradigms of Sufi love: the examples of Rabiʿa, al-Ghazali & Rumi
There is a widespread perception that Islam is a strict religion full of rules, that it has tough laws, and hence there is no space for love. Such a perception does not reflect an accurate picture of Islam, especially if one explores the works of Sufis. This paper aims to investigate the significance of divine love in the Islamic tradition with reference to Sufis. It is commonly accepted that the Sufis were the forerunners in writing about divine love. This paper discusses three Sufis who wrote in Arabic – Rabiʿa, al-Ghazali and Rumi – and their conceptions of divine love.
Rabiʿa's love is considered as disinterested love for God, disdaining all kinds of earthly love. Her love for God ousted all other loves. Al-Ghazali, on the other hand, proposed a logical understanding of love, in which he analysed the feeling of love in a psychological way and applied it to both divine and earthly love. Rumi, however, united divine with earthly love. For him, earthly love was a bridge to divine love. These are only a few examples of paradigms of love that show the rich culture of love theories in Islamic Sufism. Other important theories await the interest of scholars in the field of Islamic studies.
Friday 13 April: Session 3 – Keynote address
Women in Rumi's spiritual circle
Women have not been very visible throughout the history of Islamic Sufism, and Sufi masters generally have shared the traditional approach of confining the presence of women in their writings and sermons to a brief mention of Rabiʿa's life and words. Rumi's teachings, however, open a broader space for the feminine, as this paper will demonstrate. Feminine images and metaphors have great significance in his spiritual teachings, and women are also held in high regard in his spiritual circle as disciples, companions and spiritual guides.
Friday 13 April: Session 4 – Dialogue with the West
Plato's loves & Shakespeare's women
Plato's notion of two loves, heavenly and earthly, holds the key to deep ambivalence surrounding considerations of love in the philosophy and art of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The belief that love was a force at once sublime – able to ennoble the soul and reach transcendence – and profane – a threat to humanity's sanity and salvation – arose from the thought of neoplatonist philosophers, Christian church fathers, Petrarchan poets and medical writers, and was well entrenched in England by William Shakespeare's time.
It comes as no particular surprise that a writer as socially aware as Shakespeare would draw on this duality in building his characters and depicting their love relationships. What is more exciting, however, is that Shakespeare reinterprets this duality in a highly creative way, building his most memorable female characters not only to challenge the majority views on sublime and profane love and their 'expected' ethical values – but also to beg the question of what 'good' and 'bad' loves truly are, when lived.
Safavid Persia through European eyes
The 17th century was a time of great interaction between Persia and Europe. Persian, English, French and other European seats of power were occupied by outward-looking rulers who were keen to secure economic benefits through trade agreements and diplomatic alliances. Europeans travelled to Persia as diplomats, merchants and missionaries, and many produced detailed accounts upon their return. This paper presents a range of European perspectives on Persia, both textual and visual, drawn from the State Library of Victoria's rich holdings of 17th-century travel accounts.
Politics & Persian mythology in Thomas Moore's 'Paradise and the peri'
The State Library of Victoria holds an edition of one of the bestselling works in Britain in the 19th century, the Irish poet Thomas Moore's oriental romance Lalla Rookh (1817). The minstrel in the romance recounts four tales to the Mughal princess of India. The second of these tales, 'Paradise and the peri', gives a portrait of Islam which emphasises the common ground between Islam and Christianity. Was Moore sugar-coating his portrait of Islamic faith to appeal to his mainly Christian and primarily English readers? Was he simply ignorant of Islam, as various early 20th-century critics assume? Or was he drawing on a tradition of Western–Christian and Muslim debate which examined the beliefs and doctrine shared by the two religions?
This paper examines the role of Persian mythology and Islamic history and doctrine in 'Paradise and the peri', revealing that despite its sentimentality and populism the tale makes detailed and accurate use of Persian mythology for a decidedly political agenda. The view of Persian mythology and Islamic history Moore puts forward were unconventional in their day. Examining Moore's research and the way he deploys it in the tale, the paper reveals that, contrary to the implications of theories of orientalism that follow Edward Said's lead, Moore's knowledge of both subjects was highly sophisticated. Drawing on his knowledge of Persian mythology and Islamic history to propound his case for tolerance, Moore developed a subtle critique of British imperialism in Ireland and India, a critique whose legacy can be traced through the writings of the later Irish poets JC Mangan and WB Yeats.
'Twofold and yet One am I': constellating creativity between Goethe & Hafiz
Goethe's West-Eastern Divan (1819) has triggered a complex and controversial debate about Islamic influences on Western literary and philosophical discourses, and about the paradigmatic nature of Goethe's selective uptake of Persianate culture in particular. This paper offers a revisionist constellational interpretation of cross-cultural contact, its potentials and failures. It discusses Goethe's construct of Hafiz as his 'alter ego' in order to transform the threat the Persian poet posed to his creativity, and argues that a dialectic of love and devotion can be seen at work at different levels in this process of self-transformation. The paper explores the creative appropriation of the 'other', the breaking down and necessary reconstruction of boundaries and identities called 'love' which Goethe underwent. It will scrutinize Goethe's poetic capacity to 'constellate' with Hafiz, but importantly, also with Marianne von Willemer, his second Frankfurt love.
The paper sits upon the cross-section of creativity research on one side and the topology of transformation and metamorphosis on the other and will deploy constellation research in order to critique popular but misleading notions in cross-cultural discourse and contact-theory, such as 'tolerance', 'identity' and 'difference'. Finally, the paper will shed light on the fate of an existential letter Goethe received from Franz Schubert, the young genius of the German 'Lied', sent from Vienna to Weimar together with a fair copy of 'Suleika I, II', written over two poems central to the Divan, the first of which remains, according to Brahms, the most beautiful love song ever composed.
Saturday 14 April: Session 1 – Keynote address
The Khamsa of Nizami & the Khamsa of Amir Khusrau: some similarities & differences reflected in their illustrations
In the late 12th century the celebrated Persian poet Nizami composed his Khamsa, a verse quintet. It comprised a set of didactic essays reinforced with brief parables, and four romances. At the turn of the 13th to 14th century Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, born in India though of Central Asian extraction and Persian culture, composed a Khamsa of his own which in some respects followed Nizami's closely and in others departed from it.
The works of both poets have been illustrated in both Iran and India. In consequence we have a great wealth of illustrations – a treasury later to be enriched by the works of ʿAli Shir Navaʾi. A thorough study of the similarities and differences between these illustrations would be an immense undertaking, but some points can be made in brief. Some of the iconography of Nizami illustrations is, mutatis mutandis with regard to period and style, interchangeable with that used for Amir Khusrau. The subjects concerned are often crucial to the framework of the story. In such cases, if no text is present, we cannot tell for which work a picture was intended. For other subjects, even where the main line of the narrative deals with the same personages, a twist in the author's telling makes it clear which Khamsa is at the origin, and in these cases the difference lends emphasis to the literary choices made by the authors. In still other cases, painters of more independent mind transfer iconography or effects from one subject to another.
Saturday 14 April: Session 2 – From Persia & beyond
Behind the scenes: the Bodleian Library's Mughal paintings of love & devotion
The collecting of Mughal paintings by the Bodleian Library in Oxford began auspiciously, but unexpectedly, in 1640, with an album of early 17th-century Indian paintings given by the University of Oxford’s then Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573–1645). This was one of the earliest such albums to reach Europe. Subsequent donations, bequests and purchases greatly expanded the collection in the 19th century, with Francis Douce, Gore and William Ouseley and JB Elliott being the main protagonists. A targeted purchase made in the mid-20th century added to the Bodleian's strengths in early Mughal painting.
This paper will briefly sketch the development of the Bodleian Library's historic Mughal paintings collection. It has grown gradually, in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, containing masterpieces from the first century of Mughal painting (1560–1660) as well as fine works from the later 17th to the early 19th century. Three of the Mughal paintings on show in the Love and devotion exhibition are within bound volumes or from a very fragile manuscript; for this reason, the images actually displayed necessarily present only part of their story. The history of each of these three manuscripts and their previous owners will be outlined as far as is known, and a selection of images of paintings from these manuscripts, which are not seen in the exhibition, will be shown.
The Oxford Dilsuznama, MS. Ouseley 133: an Ottoman manuscript, written in Persian, copied in Europe
By the middle of the 15th century, Persian poetry played a key role in courtly life across a wide cultural sphere stretching from Chinese Turkestan in the east to as far west as Thrace in the southeast corner of Europe. This paper will examine an Ottoman manuscript in the collection of the Bodleian Library and the political and cultural context in which it was produced. The Oxford Dilsuznama, MS. Ouseley 133, was copied in Persian in Europe at Edirne/Adrianople in AH 860 (1455–56 AD) and is one of few dated and illustrated works from the formative period of Ottoman manuscript production. Turning the pages of this little-studied manuscript may shed new light on a key period in the expansion of the imperial realm of the Ottomans and the artistic encounters that occurred in the vibrant region where the Persianate cultural world met that of Christian Europe.
The conceits of poetry: Firdausi's Shahnama and the discovery of Persian in early modern Europe
In erudite European milieus across the 15th and 16th centuries, a small number of pioneering intellectuals started to acknowledge the existence of Persian as a second prestigious language of the Islamic East, distinct from Arabic. The first Persian language study and acquisition of manuscripts seem to have taken place mainly in Italy, and to have been based in part on the circulation of poetic narrative works. In this context, the first fragmentary awareness of the poet Firdausi and his Shahnama began to take shape. With its approximately 55,000 rhyming couplets, this 'Book of the kings' is unanimously considered a milestone in the Persian epic; it is also a masterpiece of human literature. Drawing on a vast web of ancient stories, some of which reach back – although indirectly – to Near-Eastern or even Greek traditions, the Shahnama and its author's aura reach well into the modern age, gradually entering the consciousness of cultivated Europeans, up to the first substantial translations of the 19th century. Through a series of textual and visual references, this paper follows some key strands of this book's route into early modern Europe, exploring its place at the crossroads of Eurasian literary history.
Saturday 14 April: Session 3 – The contemporary legacy
Heart of fire
In this paper, Hossein Valamanesh will discuss personal experiences and cultural influences that form the basis of his art practice, and will show images of his work.
'Since the age of 15 when I decided, to my parents' horror, to go to art school, I have stepped into the path of love. Not thinking too much about the consequences, I have followed my passion. Love is one of the most used and misused words. Buddha talks about how we confuse love with desire or attachment. We mortals can only (maybe) learn from experience. In my mind, devotion is another matter: I feel that this concept can carry with it aspects of religiosity and blind faith that can go against love and freedom. When I was young, in Iran in the 1960s, I was concerned with social and political change, and Marxism seemed to show the way. In the late 1970s I became interested in studying Buddhism. In both instances I was devoted to these ideas and as my devotion became stronger I became more dogmatic. I felt that I was losing the freedom mentioned above, but as I let go of these ideas I learned more from them.
'For 45 years I have carried with me a book of poems by Rumi. No matter what my state of mind or beliefs, these poems, which talk of love, have guided and inspired me. Rumi encourages us to follow the path of love and to go into the heart of the fire like the moth. Being an artist is a little like that as we follow our passion and practise what we love.'
Sufis of the Antipodes: the ghazal in modern Australian poetry
The ghazal is one of the major forms of classical Persian verse, associated most famously with the medieval Sufi poets Hafiz and Rumi. Perhaps in part due to the global recognition and popularity of these poets, the ghazal has also been used by a number of modern and contemporary Australian poets. This trend may be seen as a consequence of a Western author's orientalist fascination with an exotic Middle Eastern culture; it may also be viewed as an ironic, postmodernist replication of a bygone literary tradition. But could we instead see the Australian ghazal as a radical artistic repetition with the ability to bring to life – to 'resurrect', in philosopher Alain Badiou's sense of the word – an original form? If so, could we go as far as suggesting that, rather than exploiting or merely reflecting an early non-Western poetic genre, the Australian poets under discussion have tried to actualise the unrealised possibilities of the ghazal? This paper considers three ghazaliat by three Australian authors from three different generations – Judith Wright, Philip Salom and Andy Jackson – with the aim of investigating how their poems have renewed the traditional Persian form in a modern Australian context.
Persian or Islamic? Depictions of love in contemporary Iranian cinema
Love, expressed in its many manifestations, but often as a romantic love that ultimately transcends into love of God, is arguably the essence of classical Persian literature. According to Hamid Dabashi, cinema has supplanted the role of poetry in contemporary Iranian culture. But the concept of love as portrayed by Rumi or Hafiz is less readily expressed cinematically, and cinema is also constrained by both the Iranian cinematographic regulations and the tensions between Islamic and pre-Islamic (or Persian) culture and their portrayal. Furthermore, officially cinema is considered to be at the service of education in its broadest sense, rather than entertainment. How then does the Iranian cinema portray love?
This paper will address these various contradictions by comparing the depiction of love in two recent Iranian films. Shirin, Abbas Kiarostami's highly allegorical feature, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. Formally the film is experimental, but it is constructed around the tragic love story of Khusrau and Shirin drawn from old Persian literature, most famously Firdausi's Shahnama. Gold and Copper (2010), directed by Homayoun Asadian, explores both love of God and mundane marital love in a formally conservative but highly affecting melodrama about the spiritual growth of a Muslim theology student coming to terms with the illness of his beloved wife. It is the third in a trilogy of films portraying the Iranian clergy which has been well received in Iran.
'The language of love': the legacy of Persian poetry & music in contemporary Iran
For centuries, poetry has held a dominant position among the arts in Persianate cultures. It has inspired and shaped other art forms, especially music. This paper presents an overview of this legacy in postrevolutionary Iran, focusing on three examples of music that have gained popularity across generations. In the immediate postrevolutionary period, during the long years of war with Iraq (1980–88), art music vocalist Shahram Nazeri sustained his audience with the texts of Maulana (Rumi) set to traditional Kurdish and Persian musical structures. Nazeri selected lyrics linking truth with virtue and the suffering of the devoted. After Iran's postwar reconstruction, a period of reform in the late 1990s saw the resumption of locally produced popular music, with government authorisation. Classical poetry now expanded its popular realm from art music to pop, rock and fusion. Rock and pop groups often combined Western instruments, rhythms and melodies with Persian texts, including the poetry of Hafiz, Maulana and Saʿdi. One of the most popular of these groups was O-Hum, whose first album, Nahal-e Heyrat ('Sapling of wonder'), drew directly from Hafiz. Finally, in recent years, singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo has emerged as one of Iran's most popular and innovative musicians. Namjoo has set classical Persian poetry to music in unconventional ways, and today he uses his own wry wordplay and metaphor in his lyrics. Namjoo's work combines elements of Persian art music, traditional recitation and Western folk and rock.
Saturday 14 April: Session 4 – Keynote address
Authenticity & the act of devotion & friendship in the poetry of Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi
In this paper Dr Aidani will analyse the word that is translated in the title of this exhibition and conference as 'devotion', as a subtle way of interpreting the term’s literary relevance but also as a window onto contemporary ways of understanding Maulana (Rumi). Dr Aidani will explore what it means to be Persian and to participate in 'dialogue' in friendship, love, politics, community and the divine.