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  • Amir Khusraw and the Genre of Historical Narratives in Verse
  • Sunil Sharma (bio)

One of the literary innovations credited to the Indo-Persian poet, Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325), is his use of recent historical events and his own contemporaries, instead of stories and legendary characters from the past, as the subjects of epic and romantic masnavis.2 Furthermore, it seems culturally anachronistic for a poet who was renowned for his devotion to his sufi pir, Nizam al-Din Awliya (d. 1325), to produce a prodigious amount of dynastic history in verse that mainly deals with the power struggles and conquests of the various Khalji and Tughlaq sultans of medieval Delhi. Both the sultan and sufi master are dedicatees in many of Amir Khusraw's works, pointing to the overlapping spheres of their influence on the society of the time.3 Written in the masnavi form, chiefly used for mythological and romantic tales, the subject matter of his courtly narrative verse was ostensibly current or fairly recent historical episodes that were connected with the patron of the work and that the poet had witnessed himself. Even though Amir Khusraw's works provide a wealth of information for historians of the Sultanate period, they tend to be neglected by literary critics because they defy all the established typologies of form and genre in classical Persian literature;4 in addition, "attention to synchronous historical relationships can cause the text's participation in a diachronic literary history to be overlooked."5 Rather than taking up the questions of Amir Khusraw's value as an historian and/or poet,6 however, this paper will place his works in the larger context of (pseudo)-historical writing in verse that ultimately derives its inspiration from two major poets of the masnavi form, Firdawsi (d. 1019-20) and Nizami (d. 1209), and raise issues such as the poet's choice of literary genre and form and the nature of hybrid texts.

In post-Mongol Persian literature, the ghazal and masnavi forms were increasingly valorized over the qasidah, which until then had been the primary form for panegyric poetry, often containing much historical information.7 With the shift in the patterns of literary culture, there was an interest on the one hand in mystical writing, and on the other hand in the production of historical texts, both in prose and verse. The practice of writing versified history partly derives from "[t]he love of historical narrative and desire for annals of their own times evinced by the Mongol Ilkhanid rulers [that] continued down to the days of Timur and his successors."8 This trend continued through the Safavid and Mughal period right down to this day.9 Instead of being occasional like the qasidah, the historical masnavi encompassed the larger arena of the military conquests and kingly virtues of a poet's patron and/or other personages of his dynasty. The popularity of long historical narratives, impossible in any other form, and the prestige of Firdawsi's and Nizami's works promoted the adoption of the masnavi form by poets at the expense of the qasidah.10 The masnavi as epic was perfected in the hands of Firdawsi with the Shahnamah and as a romance in court circles, beginning with 'Unsuri at the Ghaznavid court and then at the Seljuq court with Fakhr al-Din Gurgani, culminating in the works of Nizami.11 But these monolithic categories of epic and romance are not rigid and should be used cautiously, especially in dealing with texts that are consciously trying to challenge the generic expectations of their readers.

Firdawsi's Shahnamah enjoyed a special status in Iranian courtly culture as not just a mythical but a historical narrative as well. The powerful effect that this text came to have on the poets of this period is partly due to the value that was attached to it as a legitimizing force, especially for new rulers in the Eastern Islamic world:

In the Persianate tradition the Shahnama was viewed as more than literature. It was also a political treatise, as it addressed deeply rooted conceptions of honor, morality, and legitimacy. Illustrated versions of it were considered desirable as expressions of the...


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