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Becoming Literature: The Formation of Adabiyat as an Academic Discipline in Iran and Afghanistan (1895-1945)


This dissertation examines the historical process by which a new discourse of literature, called adabiyāt in Persian, was made institutionally thinkable, culturally authoritative, and socially prevalent in twentieth-century Iran and Afghanistan. It identifies early twentieth-century anjomans, or literary associations, as the main site for the production and proliferation of this new mode of literary knowledge. By focusing on literary associations, I challenge the misconception that charting a national domain for Persian literature —a distinctly transregional literary tradition— was limited to Iran or that it exclusively involved contact with European literary cultures. The programmatic nature and intellectual context in which literary associations operated illustrate that Iran and Afghanistan were fully conversant with each other as much as they were with global interlocutors.

Often used as a shorthand for strictly local, I argue that the term “national” in this period means intensely and programmatically global. In analyzing the work of two generations of Iranian and Afghan intellectuals, this dissertation demonstrates the ways in which they brought their countries into closer alignment with an emerging world in which literature functioned as an essential identitarian discourse. They did so not by working within ready-made models borrowed wholesale from Europe, but by critically working at the intersection of their classical literary heritage and the discursive demands of nationalism.

Chapter one examines the inauguration of adabiyāt, as a bounded conceptual category operative within institutions of literature. It unpacks the process of its formation as a new discourse of literature in three distinct episodes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: 1) the polemical writings of reform-minded Iranian intellectuals living in the Caucasus 2) newspapers printed in Tehran and Kabul 3) literary textbooks developed for modern educational institutions in Iran and Afghanistan. These cases demonstrate that before adabiyāt accrued its modern sense as literature, the term designated an adab-derived discipline, associated with a literary form of self-conduct and etiquette in the premodern context.

The conceptual realignment taking place in the late nineteenth century constituted the paradigm within which literary associations proliferated in the twentieth century. Chapter one also shows how a careful reassessment of the blurred semantic relationship between adab and adabiyāt is equally vital for understanding the ways in which Persian-language intellectuals understood and implemented the European conception of literature within their national contexts.

Chapter two focuses on the life and afterlife of the Dāneshkadeh Literary Association (1916-1919) in Mashhad and Tehran. It demonstrates the consequential nature of the organizations, despite the fact that they did not last into later periods. Dāneshkadeh consisted of a highly influential group of Iranian intellectuals that, under the leadership of Iran’s poet laureate Mohammad Taqi Bahār (d. 1951), pioneered new ways of writing about Persian literary history, translation, and literary criticism through articles in the association’s eponymous journal. Following the dissolution of the group in 1919, many of these members played an integral role in the establishment of new institutions of literature that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s such as the Academy of Persian Language and Literature, the Society for National Monuments, and the University of Tehran’s Faculty of Letters. As Iran’s first significant literary association, Dāneshkadeh’s organizational structure and its ideas about literature and nation were instrumental in creating the need and context for the rise of Iran’s first faculty of letters, founded in 1935.

Chapter three examines the history and intellectual output of the Kabul Literary Association (1930-1940). As Afghanistan’s first formal literary association, it brought together a diverse group of poets, translators, historiographers, diplomats and artists who collectively worked to create a new discourse of literature. Through its ties with the Afghan state, the association intensified literary connections with other countries, particularly Iran and India. It also published a high-quality journal called Kabul and an eponymous yearbook. In such venues, contributing writers and members delineated a new cultural and literary historiography of Afghanistan, making their country visible in an emerging configuration of nation-states each in possession of their unique (often singular) literary tradition. The Kabul Literary Association may have been formally dissolved in 1940, but it made thinkable a social paradigm within which other institutions of literature were created in the 1940s: the Afghanistan Historical Society, the Faculty of Letters at the University of Kabul, and the Encyclopedia Association. By emphasizing discursive continuity, this chapter shifts our attention away from the life of particular associations and toward associational culture more broadly.

Chapter four investigates Iran-Afghanistan literary relations in the 1930s and 40s. It analyzes a series of correspondence between the Kabul Literary Association and the Iranian journal Āyandeh and examines poems exchanged between Iranian and Afghan literati in the 1930s and 40s. It challenges the problematic idea that Persian literature in the twentieth century developed in national milieus that were sealed off from one another, with each country scrambling to emulate the European model for literary institutionalization. While fully cognizant of the European sphere of influence, the intercultural exchanges that occurred between Iran and Afghanistan represent a crucial and productive site for understanding how a new mode of literary knowledge was inaugurated in the twentieth century. Comparing how Iran and Afghanistan sought to nationalize their literary heritage allows us to see that the twentieth century intensified cultural contact and literary exchange between Persian-speaking societies, as opposed to severing their pre-existing connections.

In conclusion, this dissertation argues that to better understand the discursive continuity and rupture associated with the formation of adabiyāt as a new mode of literary knowledge, we must critically investigate the making of institutions of literature —literary and historical associations, language academies, faculties of letters, and other entities that preside over our understanding of what constitutes literature and ascribe to them a certain cultural authority and social import. As a case study, I argue that early twentieth-century Iran and Afghanistan is a particularly productive site for rethinking the nature, formation and operation of literary institutions and remapping their connection to discourses of literature and nation.

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