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Narrative and Iranian Identity in the New Persian Renaissance and the Later Perso-Islamicate World

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

In tenth century Khurasan and Transoxania, at the frontier of the Iranian cultural world, mythical and historical narratives such as the Shahnama helped to shape and maintain a sense of group Iranian identity for the Samanids and other Iranian Islamic dynasties. The Shahnama can be considered what narrative theorist Margaret Somers terms an “ontological narrative.” These narratives helped Islamic dynasties such as the Samanids understand what it meant to be Iranian, and also became sources of identity for their Arab and Turkic neighbors. The term “Iran,” or “Iranshahr” as the empire of the Sasanians was known (224-651 CE), refers to a political unity which did not exist in the domains of the Samanids. How did such a concept, removed from its original geography, inform cultural identities? To what extent was the idea of “Iran” tied to a pre-Islamic geographical, political, and Zoroastrian religious concept, and how was it reinterpreted in a post-Abbasid world?

If the Shahnama tells the stories of a formerly unified Iran, how was this concept reinterpreted in a geographically fractured and religiously changing world? When delving into the history of Khurasan and Transoxania, there are certain unanswered questions about language, history, and literature during the New Persian Renaissance that one must keep in mind as guiding questions:

• Why was the time ripe for a resurgence of Persian language and literature?

• Why were the lands of Khurasan and Transoxania the seeming location of this linguistic and literary movement?

• To what extent was language tied to individual, group, or cultural “identity”?

Shahnama and prose histories such as those of Bal'ami, Gardizi, and Beyhaqi helped lay the foundation for identities that have persisted until present day. This is not to say that there is a static Iranian identity that has existed since some “medieval” creation. Instead, ontological narrativity allows for a fluid and dynamic sense of identity. It is the interplay between narrative and lived experience that creates a sense of who one and one's society are, and it was the Shahnama that was the preeminent such narrative for the Eastern Islamic world after the New Persian Renaissance.

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