Modern Persian encompasses the national language of Iran today, Dari (derived from Fārsī-yi Darbārah or ‘Courtly Persian’) in neighbouring Afghanistan, and Tajiki employed predominantly in Tajikistan, as well as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. However, the entire Iranian language family includes a large group of languages that prevail across a vast geographic region.
While Proto-Indo-Iranian languages may have first emerged in circa the 2nd millennium BCE, the most ancient attested Iranian script, a form of cuneiform known as ‘Old Persian’ appears in an inscription preserved in Bisotoun, Iran, dated 522-521 BCE, during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550–330 BCE). The subsequent Parthian (247 BCE–224 CE) then Sassanian (224–651 CE) empires would ultimately reach across Western, Central, and Southern Asia at the latter’s height. During these periods, written Parthian, then Middle Persian languages emerged that adapted Aramaic scripts to write what became known as Pahlavi. Zoroastrian priests at that time also devised another variant script to accurately document the ancient Avestan language, in order to preserve their sacred scriptures and rituals in writing, which had only been transmitted orally.
The John Rylands Research Institute and Library holds several Pahlavi script volumes, including Rylands Parsi MS 4.
Variant Iranian languages still endure within those same regions today, with their full geographic extent depicted in this highly detailed map. They include Balochi, Kurdish, and Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, as well as Neo-Sogdian Yagnobi in Tajikistan. Also, Judaeo-Persian employed by Persophone Jews written with Hebrew characters still endures in many regions today, including Tati in North Iran and Azerbaijan. Rylands Gaster Hebrew MS 86, completed in Kashan in 1495 CE, contains many Judeo-Persian glosses throughout the margins. In fact, the people of Iran—and their global diaspora today—not only employ many different Iranian languages, but also a number of non-Iranian ones throughout the various provinces, as depicted in this map below.
Iranian Influences on Medieval Islamic Culture
In the medieval period, Iran and Iranians made significant contributions to Arabic language as it spread with the Islamic faith. Over time, early, ambiguous, angular alphabets evolved into comparatively legible cursive scripts. In the early medieval period, ‘Abbasid-era Vizier Ibn Muqlah (d. ca. 939 CE)—who commenced his career as a land tax collector in his native Fars Province in southern Iran—developed six distinct rounded cursive forms naskh, thuluth, muḥaqqaq, rayḥānī, tawqī‘, and riqā‘. Later Ibn al-Bawwāb (d. ca. 1022 CE), a calligrapher from Iran, and converted Christian slave named Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī (d. 1298) further refined and perfected Ibn Muqlah’s styles. Not only calligraphers, but other Iranians such as the grammarian Sībūyah (or Sībawayh, d. ca. 936) helped to standardise Arabic, while others like chancery official and philosopher Muskūyah (or Miskawayh, d. ca. 1030) translated Middle Persian texts into the language, which significantly contributed to medieval Islamic intellectual culture.
New Persian and Perso-Arabic Scripts
Arab and non-Arab communities alike all simultaneously adopted these same script modifications. They not only impacted Arabic language, but also coincided with a revival of Persian language written with those same letterforms, termed ‘New Persian’, and also Turkish during that same period as well, which ultimately fostered a dramatic increase in intellectual and literary exchanges. The Rylands holds portions of a very significant, early multi-volume trilingual Qur’ān manuscript (Arabic MS 760–773) that features prominent Arabic verses interspersed with interlinear Persian and Eastern Turkish translations. Together with its impressive illumination, these folios exemplify the simultaneous impact that these script reforms had upon writing languages employed by an highly diverse, polyglot, medieval Islamicate populace. Muslims and non-Muslims alike all adopted these scripts for writing religious and secular literature.
The Rylands preserves Persian MS 68, an early manuscript of Kalīlah and Dimnah, a collection of fables that ultimately originated in India, and Persian MS 843, the earliest expanded redaction of the Sufi treatise Ḥadīqat al-Ḥaqīqat (Enclosed Garden of Truth) by Ḥakīm Sanā’ī (d. ca. 1131–41). The 13th-century scribes who copied both of these Persian texts employed clear, cursive naskh modelled on the standards of Ibn al-Bawwāb, hence they illustrate the extent of these trends.
In time, New Persian calligraphers developed increasingly divergent scripts to distinguish their language apart from Arabic. One form emerged from late-medieval curvilinear chancery hands employed for writing official documents and obliquely written marginal commentaries. A munshī (secretary, amanuensis) wrote documents in ta‘līq (suspended) that interspersed ornate prose with lines of poetry, especially for formal epistolography. They would also surmount royal correspondence with a tughrā, a calligraphic emblem of a prevailing ruler’s name that weaves vertical and horizontal strokes together. Late medieval and early modern-era Turco-Persian polities, especially the Ottoman sultans, applied such insignias on documents written in ta‘līq or the derivative dīvānī (chancery) script. Ultimately, the Ottomans adopted this ubiquitous emblem as an official insignia adorning everything from coins to architecture.
Another script emerged in the 14th century, when savvy scribes combined Arabic naskh with ta‘līq to create a new style called naskh-ta‘līq, shortened to nasta‘līq. This clear, curvilinear form found widespread appeal for writing New Persian. From this the early modern period, an elaborate, cursive style emerged from these forms which not only munshīs, but also literati generally, found they could rapidly copying documents and notes. Known as shikastah-nastalīq, (broken nasta‘līq), it connects all letters and often omits dots, and thus breaks many standard script rules, hence the name. Widely used across Greater Iran and the Indian subcontinent, its loose forms manifested in many regional variations, which can prove challenging to decipher.
Rylands Persian MS 855, a Dīvān of early Indo-Persian poet Ḥasan Sijzī Dihlavī (ca. 1253–1338), copied by Munʻim al-Dīn al-Awḥadī of Shiraz in nasta‘līq and completed in Jumādà I 913 AH (Sept.–Oct. 1507 CE), bears several notations written by subsequent owners and readers in various scripts and languages, together with their emblems and seal impressions.
New Persian literature and scripts not only impacted Persian literati, but also non-Persian cultures outside of Greater Iran that emulated them in their own vernaculars. This resulted in the emergence of a broader Persianate culture which tremendously enriched Ottoman and Chagatai Turkish, Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu), Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Kashmiri literature and poetry, and other languages as well. Future blog posts will examine specific Persian manuscripts held in the John Rylands Research Institute and Library in relation to these trends.
This blog post is dedicated to the late renowned Professor Franklin Lewis, University of Chicago, scholar of the lives and works of the poets Sanā’ī and Rūmī, who lost his battled with cancer on 20 September 2022, and who kindly commented on this blog post.
به روز مرگ چو تابوت من روان باشد
گمان مبر که مرا درد این جهان باشد
On the day of [my] death when my coffin shall go by,
don’t imagine that I would be pained [from leaving] this world.
-Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī