or better or for worse, Special Collections Librarians have adopted the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) scheme to classify the subject matter of the Islamicate Manuscripts described in the Union Catalogue ‘Fihrist‘. By and large this works well for this material which was created in the medieval period. There are, however, some anomalies such as modern country names (e.g. Yemen (Republic) — History) having to be used rather than their more ancient equivalents, or Medicine, Arab, which does not do justice to an Avicenna or a Rhazes who, although they wrote predominately in Arabic, were Persians by birth. Fihrist lists more than 2000 subjects in current use in the catalogue which also includes personal names as subject matter of works.
When it comes to Persian Poetry, the LCSH provides 2 main headings: Persian Poetry — 747-1500, and Persian Poetry 1500-1796. The dates of 1500-1796 may be explained by the fact that the Safavid Dynasty ruled Iran with their brand of state-sponsored Shiism and Sufism beginning around 1500, after which from about 1722, the Afsharid Dynasty briefly rose to power until the Qajars established their rule fully over Iran in 1796, ushering in a period of modernization including that of literary forms. The beginning date of 747 is slightly more puzzling, coming as it does less than a century after the fall of the Sassanid Empire to the Arab Muslims and the death of the last King Yazdigird III in 651.
This Arabo-Islamic conquest by many accounts left Iran reeling, and in the (perhaps now outdated) words of Iranian cultural historian Abdol Hossein Zarrinkoub (d. 1999) caused Two Centuries of Silence during which no Persian literary production of note took place. Others, such as E. G. Browne (author of A Literary History of Persia), point out that on the contrary, ‘take from what is commonly called Arabian Science – from exegesis, tradition, theology, philosophy, medicine, lexicography, history, biography, even Arabic grammar- the work contributed by Persians, and the best part is gone.’ [Browne, Literary History, i:204].
Browne is referring to monumental works written by Persians in Arabic such as Tabari’s two famous books on Universal History, and Qur’anic Exegesis which take up to 30 volumes each in some printings; or volumes of Prophetic Traditions by Bukhari (of Bukhara, Transoxiana); or Sibawayh’s book on Arabic Grammar, and many more besides.
When it comes to poetry in the ‘New Persian’, it seems to be the 9th and 10th Centuries in the great central-Asian metropolis of Bukhara at the courts of the Samanids where the art flourished once more in the Persian tongue with minstrels such as Rudaki (860-940) singing and playing the lute. Dowlatshah of Samarqand, who wrote his Memorandum of the Poets in 1487, includes over 140 biographical entries beginning with Rudaki, before whom he says no other Persian poet’s work was recorded or written down, perhaps because of a ban on books written in Persian. With the advent of the Samanids and Saffarids, poetry in Persian re-emerged and became popular.
As for the date 747, that was the year of the beginning of the Abbasid revolt in Eastern Iran against the Umayyads who ruled the empire from Damascus. By 750 the Umayyads had been overthrown, and plans were made for a new capital at Baghdad, with a noble, learned, and influential Persian family – the Barmakids – acting as viziers. Think Barmecide feast! Many Persian administrative practices were introduced to the state bureaucracy by the Barmakids, but again, the State Registers were apparently still being written in Arabic until the time of the Samanids, or possibly even the Ghaznavids.
If we take our ‘Millennium’ of Persian Poetry to be 747-1796, the major poet who was flourishing in the middle of this period would be Amir Khusraw of Dehli (1253-1325). If we take the date to be from 880, when Rudaki was in his flush of youth, then a much more well-known figure would be flourishing – none other than Hafiz of Shiraz (1315-1390) – which is why this cataloguer felt he had passed a milestone in his lockdown cataloguing work when he completed entries for the copies of the works of Hafez held by the Bodleian Libraries’ Oriental Special Collections.The Libraries hold a total of 47 manuscript copies of the works of Hafiz plus a number of commentaries, making him the third most-represented poet in the Persian collections after Jami with 98, which is not surprising as he died 100 years after Hafiz, and many copies of his works were made in Safavid times, and Sa’di (who died 100 years before Hafiz) with 83, and whose Bustan and Gulistan have been ever-popular.
Two copies of the Divan (collected poetical works) of Hafiz are available to browse on Digital.Bodleian; MS. Ouseley Add. 175 – an exquisite copy made in 1571 by the acclaimed calligrapher Mir Ali the Scribe to the Sultan. This includes an introduction in the hand of Sir Gore Ouseley; and MS. Ouseley Add. 26, a less lavish version copied in 1538.
Catalogue records of the Bodleian’s holdings of the works of Hafiz may be browsed here.
The Divan or collected poetical works of Hafiz finds widespread use in Persianate lands for Bibliomancy or fortune-telling by books. Most families would have a copy of the Divan which, opened at random after an intention to seek omens, the reader would interpret the poem that appears to them in a way that lends meaning to their life. This is because Hafiz is seen to be an interpreter of the unseen realms and was known as lisān al-ghayb or speaker of the unknown.
In Iran, one can have one’s fortune told by Hafiz in street-stalls, but there are also many online faʾl-i Hafiz such as this one at the link below conveniently using an English translation!
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