Persianate Selves: Fostering conviviality from tradition

Persianate Selves: Fostering a convivial identity from regional traditions
5 min read
27 October, 2021
Veering away from traditional conceptualisations of what constitutes Persian culture, Mana Kia's latest book looks at how ambiguous, often fluid and varied networks combined to shape 'Persian-ness' and how this shifts our understanding of identity.
Recent studies of pre-modern Persia have largely failed to account for the ambiguity of relations and networks within the region [Stanford University Press]

Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism by Mana Kia, asks a very simple question, when pre-moderns thought about the idea of being part of Persian civilization, what did they mean by it?

Trying to understand what Persian-ness might be before the 18th century is complicated by the fact we live in an era of territorial nationalism, thus when we look back at the past, we look for things that resemble the realities of our world and this can distort our abilities to comprehend past societies.

Mana Kia confronts this problem head-on and aims to tell a history of Persian-ness, which encompasses present-day Iran, Iraq, India and other places, “To remove Persianate culture from the shadow of nationalism, we need to disaggregate the Persianate from Iran.” The book that follows is a tale of complexity, contradiction, multiplicity and constantly shifting ideas about the self, belonging and civilisational heritage. Persianate does not refer to a specific time, land or origin, but to ever-changing times, places and origins.

"An inescapable conclusion of the Persianate Selves is not the utopia of the past but the messiness of it, it moves the discussion beyond certain reductive categories and expands our possibilities for being and becoming for no historical work is purely a study of the past, but also very much part of the present"

The idea of Persian culture in the premodern period encompassed a shared language, shared morality, social etiquette and aesthetic concerns known as adab, literature and education, which was transregional from the Middle East to South and Central Asia all part and parcel of Islam.

Indeed Islam and Persian culture are intertwined with one another and the expansion of one often meant the expansion of the other. This is a very different way of thinking about the Persianate from some modern scholars and nationalists, who tend to see Persia as this timeless thing centred in present-day Iran, which is held together by a group of people who share the same ethnicity, culture, heritage, blood and language, who are also very distinct from Arabs and reluctantly converted to Islam.

Kia argues most of this is a recent myth, some contemporary scholarship has explored the invention of Iranian nationalism, however, as Persianate Selves shows, these works still suffer from similar problems to the myths they are deconstructing, which is a tendency to privilege the history of Persia as squarely within or centred on modern Iran itself. “Before nationalism, Persianate selves could hail from many places, and their origins comprised a variety of lineages. The interrelations among these lineages render coherent their multiple modes of imagination, practice, and experience.”

The Persianate was contradictory but as with other Islamic civilisations, there was a coherence to the contradiction, which was reconciled through its hierarchy of meaning, for example, while Islam’s different sects and schools of thought may contradict one another, they are often unified by a shared higher truth of the oneness of God or Tawhid, Kia argues the Persianate follows a similar logic.

To truly comprehend the Persianate, we have to look beyond positivist and empiricist frameworks, the Persianate was as much a metaphysical notion as it was a lived reality. More importantly, the Persianate was not bound to one political dynasty and identification with it crossed political boundaries. “Persianate selfhood thus encompassed a broader range of possibilities than nationalist claims to place and origin allow. This range of Persianate selves not only challenges nationalist narratives but also reveals a larger Persianate world, where proximities and similarities constituted a logic that distinguished between people while simultaneously accommodating plurality.”

"Before nationalism, Persianate selves could hail from many places, and their origins comprised a variety of lineages. The interrelations among these lineages render coherent their multiple modes of imagination, practice, and experience"

Dissecting notions of home, landscape, kinship and memory, Kia provides us with a radically new framework for understanding Persianate culture. In her chapter on kinship, Kia demonstrates why viewing lineage through the prism of biology and notions such as ethnicity, obscures the ways in which pre-moderns thought about origins.

Lineage was not solely dependent upon your paternal birth line, lineage could be socially constructed based on beliefs, actions and affiliations throughout a person's lifetime. Similar to Buddhist monastic orders in India, Sufi lodges in Persianate culture would enable an individual who joined to add to their own lineage after the completion of certain rituals, study and practises, to include their teachers as well as important religious figures such as the Prophet Muhammad to their lineage.

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Lineage also includes people adopted into your family, tribe or community, if a child was breastfed by a woman who was not their birth mother, the woman becomes an extension of their family. The ability to hold multiple lineages, most of which is not biological, is difficult to comprehend through a traditional empirical framework especially through the prism of ethnicity and biology. Lineage was esoteric as well as physical and this enabled the possibility for multiple selves and multiplicity inside individuals.

The modern world has seen the shrinking of the self and the homogenisation of origins and belonging. An inescapable conclusion of the Persianate Selves is not the utopia of the past but the messiness of it, it moves the discussion beyond certain reductive categories and expands our possibilities for being and becoming for no historical work is purely a study of the past, but also very much part of the present. We might be forced to question then why do we so readily accept certain boundaries in the name of tradition when the tradition pushed our boundaries? An excellent scholarly study worthy of close study for anyone looking to make sense of our past and present.

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt