Nile Green, The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca (University of California Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nile Green (NG): Over the past twenty years or so, the term “Persianate” has gained enormous traction, featuring in an ever-increasing number of articles and books, and mostly focusing on Iran and South Asia. But while the resulting scholarship has undoubtedly been rich, the concept of the Persianate has somehow been lost along the way. Even such basic questions as to where and who is included in the ambit of the Persianate have remained remarkably elusive and under-defined.

Moreover, the ways in which the term “Persianate” has been deployed suggest it has become a synonym, even euphemism, for “Persian” or “Persian-using”, when the term was actually coined by Marshall Hodgson to refer to languages, literatures, and cultural traditions other than Persian but which were subject to Persian’s influence. Which is to say that while Chaghatai, Urdu, Ottoman, even Georgian, and arguably Malay, might be considered to be Persianate in differing degrees, Persian itself is not a Persianate language.

So, what I have tried to do with The Persianate World is to return to first principles by asking foundational questions as to the who, where, and when of the Persianate world and to develop a methodology that highlights these crucial linguistic interactions between Persian and other languages. It is, after all, these interactions—between different languages, their users, and thereby wider communities and culture areas in turn—that distinguish the Persianate from the simply Persian or Persophone.

In short, my aim was to move us towards a more analytical approach to the Persianate as a process, as a shifting pattern of social, cultural, intellectual, and material exchanges carried out in multilingual Eurasian settings—which were connected by Persian but where its status and indeed function varied considerably. While my introductory survey covers the entire history of Persian’s expansion and contraction across Eurasia, the twelve regional case study chapters focus on the period between 1400 and 1900 when the Persianate world reached its maximum expanse, before rapidly retracting in the age of new empires and nationalisms.

Since the sheer linguistic range required for so broad a survey requires multiple collaborators, I decided to map the frontiers of the Persianate world through an edited volume. After all, the book draws on texts in Chaghatai, Ottoman, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Bengali, and Punjabi, with forays into Caucasian languages, Urdu, Malay, among others. So, in methodological terms, tracing Persian’s interactions with these other languages and literatures meant adopting a “Persian plus” approach. This, in turn, shaped my selection criteria, by which contributors were expected insofar as possible to work with Persian, plus another language with which it was in contact, a method required to examine the Persianate as an inter-linguistic process—as Hodgson intended.

That said, while I think it is productive to turn back to Marshall Hodgson’s original definition of the term he coined, this is not the same as proposing some kind of Hodgsonian fundamentalism. After all, Hodgson invented a great many neologisms, only a couple of which have stood the test of time. Moreover, writing in the mid-1960s, he could have had only a limited idea of what subsequent research would reveal about the degree and nature of Persian’s impact on other literatures and cultures. So, while taking Hodgson as a starting point, in my introduction I also look at other attempts to grapple with his concept over the past half-century. These include, for example, Bert Fragner’s model of Persephonia that emphasizes Persian’s role as a “transregional spoken contact language;” Brian Spooner and William Hanaway’s contrasting emphasis on Persian as a technology of writing based around a stable written koine; and Shahab Ahmed’s notion of a “Balkans to Bengal complex.”

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NG: What may perhaps surprise some readers is that The Persianate World is not a book about Iran, nor for the most part is it a book about Persian literature. Partly this is because we already know a tremendous amount about the history of Persian in the regions that now comprise Iran, as well as about classical and modern Persian literature. For the same reason, the book pays less attention to India than even seasoned scholars of the Persianate world might expect. Instead, I have tried to use the opportunity of a collaborative project to pursue lesser known genres like lexicography and magic, lesser known regions where Persian interacted with other (sometimes better established) written languages, and lesser known linguistic entanglements.

China forms a particularly interesting case, where the presence of a long-established literary tradition supported by an entrenched cadre of scholar-bureaucrats meant that, while Persian certainly found a place in Ming and Qing officialdom, it was never hegemonic in the sense implied by Hodgson’s conception of Persianate qua “Persianizing.” Several other chapters focus on different parts of Central Eurasia, ranging from more familiar Persianate spaces such as Bukhara, to rather less obvious regions such as the Volga-Urals, Siberia, and Xinjiang, as well as the Caucasus.

This attempt to map the geography of the Persianate world—and to move beyond its usual Indo-Iranian domains—informed my decision to invoke the notion of “frontiers” in the subtitle. In doing so, I was also drawing on the world historical conception of frontiers as spaces of encounter and exchange, of creolization and métissage, of linguistic and orthographic pluralism. Because if “Persianate” is meant to refer to a process by which Persian literary and cultural traditions come into transformative contact with other languages and cultures, then the places to best observe this process are the various frontiers where Persian was not the sole spoken or written language, but merely one of several communicational options. World history, after all, has to deal with not only multilingualism but also the forms of multiscriptism that preceded the rise of national languages.

As the different case study chapters show, by looking carefully at the various regions where Persian was used alongside other written languages, both “vernacular” and “classical,” its status as the “influencer”—as the more dominant linguistic or cultural partner—is much more complicated than we might expect, especially when we are used to only seeing those regions through the Persian sources written there. This points again to the importance of positioning Persian texts in relation to their various regional interlocutors, some of which—Chaghatai, or Turki, not least—stretched across comparably broad geographies. Even in India, the contrasting ways in which Persian interacted with Punjabi and Bengali show that quite different processes are often subsumed under the term “Persianate.”

This brings us to another of the book’s key topics, which is its focus on Persian as a written language that achieved its impact on other languages and literatures precisely through the distinctive capacities of written vis-à-vis spoken languages. To explore this means looking closely at scribal practices, methods of learning, and techniques of knowledge transmission. It also requires us to conceive of Persian as a skill set connected to specific, albeit not necessarily identical, social groups in the different regions where it was used. Thus, for Chinese bureaucrats, Persian was a language of frontier diplomacy; for Hindu secretaries, a means of entering the Mughal bureaucracy; for Siberian Tatars, a repository of mystical teachings; and for Turkophone Uyghurs, a lingua magica for copying powerful but illegible talismans.

Because the Persianate world was ultimately built and sustained by writing, I develop the concept of “Persographia” to emphasize how it was the shared use of written Persian that connected so many regions of Eurasia.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NG: Thinking about the borderlands of Persian has been central to my research since my doctoral student days, when I wrote my dissertation and first book about émigré Persian-users in the southern Mughal frontier city of Aurangabad. That interest continued through my subsequent research trips to many other places, whether post-Soviet Central Asia and Xinjiang, or Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Even in Iran itself, I took an interest in places where Persian was not necessarily hegemonic, such as along its northeastern and southeastern borderlands.

In later projects, I worked on Persian accounts of China and Japan, whose authors struggled to define a world beyond their older Persianate horizons. I have also long been interested in the emergence of Urdu from the shadow cast by Persian, while the functions of literacy have fascinated me since I worked as research assistant to Jack Goody, who worked extensively on the topic.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

NG: The book came out of the years I spent directing UCLA’s Program on Central Asia. As someone coming out of Middle Eastern and then South Asian studies, my encounters with specialists who worked on the many crossroads of Eurasia broadened my horizons enormously. So, it is my hope that, in turn, the book will broaden discussions of the “Persianate” by reckoning more with those neglected Eurasian geographies. The point is neither to replace nor displace Iran or India from the Persianate World. Rather, it is to offer a larger world historical context in which the “language of Fars” can be understood differently and appreciated in new ways.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NG: I have just finished writing a book on Global Islam for Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. I am also working on a monograph which is, in some ways, a world historical counterpart to the Persianate world by examining vernacular “heterologies”—accounts of ethnoreligious others—from interlinked regions of the Indian Ocean. And in the autumn, I will be launching a podcast called Akbar’s Chamber that explores the wide world of Islam.


Excerpt from the book

From Introduction: The Frontiers of the Persianate World

Defining the “Persianate”

Having gained written form as a fashionable patois for the court poets of tenth century Bukhara, by the fifteenth century Persian had become a language of governance or learning in a region that stretched from Burma to the Balkans, from Siberia to southern India. As a lingua francapromoted by multi-ethnic and multi-religious states, and aided further by education and diplomacy, between the sixteenth and eighteenth century Persian reached the zenith of its geographical and social reach. Then, from the early nineteenth century, it was undermined by the rise of new imperial and vernacular languages. By around 1900, a language that had once served to connect much of Eurasia had retreated to Iran and neighboring pockets of Afghanistan and Central Asia, where it was re-fashioned into the national languages of Farsi, Dari, and Tajiki. The period between 1400 and 1900, then, mark an era defined by the maximal expansion then rapid contraction of one of history’s most important languages of global exchange.

By focusing its case study chapters on these five centuries, The Persianate World aims to understand the reasons behind both this expansion andcontraction of Persian by identifying what functions the language was able and unable to serve in the transformative early modern and modern eras of intensifying interactions across Eurasia. By looking at the various “frontiers” of Persian – in the linguistic, geographical, and social senses of the term – the following pages chart the limits of exchange and understanding between the diverse communities brought into contact by this language. In geographical terms, this book moves beyond a staticmodel of Persian’s linguistic geography to trace the mobility of texts and text-producers as far as the British Isles and China, as well as the localization of Persian in Central Asia and India. By focusing on “horizontal” geographical frontiers and “vertical” social frontiers, on routes and roots, this book seeks to identify the limits – indeed, the breaking points – of Persian’s usefulness as a medium of information, understanding, and affinity. If scholars now take for granted the notion that Persian was a shared lingua franca, it is important to identify more precisely who shared it, and for what (and indeed whose) purposes they did so. In focusing on the five centuries that most densely marked both the making and unmaking of one of Eurasia’s greatest lingua francas, The Persianate World is an exercise in tracing the contours and constraints of the cosmopolitan.

As an exercise in world history, the aim is to decouple the study of Persian from both explicit and implicit methodological nationalisms. In recent years the promotion of the “Persianate world” based implicitly around cultural centers has at times carried the ideological baggage of formerly dominant secular nationalisms, whether Iranian emphases on a “cosmopolitan worldliness” distinct from the Islamic Republic or Indian emphases on a “composite culture” distinct from Hindutva. Yet however politically appealing or morally commendable such approaches may be, they are a methodological stumbling block for world historians. For this reason, the approach developed here is neither one of teleology nor unity, but rather one that emphasises contingency and faultlines. The purpose is neither to promote Persian nor champion its Persianate offspring, but rather to analyze them as a field of sociolinguistic contact, and in doing so recognize the roles of hegemony and competition that are easily downplayed in celebrations of ‘Persianate cosmopolitanism.’ By decoupling the language from the exclusive heritage of any particular people or place, the aim of this book is therefore to denationalize the study of Persian in order to recognize more fully the shifting social profiles of its users and the changing spatial contours of its locales. Towards this end, this volume’s selection of case studies aims to accentuate the non-Iranian spaces of Persian while in no way denigrating Iran’s already well-mapped contributions to Persian. In order to lay a historical framework for this world historical approach to Persian, Iran’s contributions are contextualized in the historical survey provided later in this introduction.

In recent years, Persian has been rightly celebrated for its inclusiveness, bringing together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and even Confucians into a collective if disjointed conversation. Against this apparently cosmopolitan backdrop, this book identifies the spatial edges, social limits, and linguistic breaking points of Persian’s usage and usefulness. By asking whether in its connecting of different communities, Persian served more as a language of coercive governance, educational opportunity, or literary humanism, we can assess the limits of the “cosmopolitanism” that has been much celebrated in recent scholarship. Over the past few decades, the expansion in Persian studies has seen scholars focus on previously neglected regions of its usage (particularly India and Central Asia) and previously overlooked genres (particularly lexicography and travel writing). While collectively such scholarship has made a strong case for the humanistic and administrative achievements of Persian, we have far less sense of its functional limitations and social fractures.

It is a rule of thumb for learned lingua francas that their reach is geographically broad but socially shallow: one might speak Persian (or Latin) with a fellow scholar from afar, but not with the cobbler next door. Many core questions arise from this basic problematic. Was the wide expansion of Persian enabled but ultimately disabled by its close but constraining ties to the political geographies of ruling states? How did the Islamic affiliations of Persian shape the frontiers of its republic (or empire) of letters? What forms of social interaction or organization could Persian not cope with? At the same time as pointing to the bridge-building achievements of Persian, this book therefore traces the political, social, and semantic fault lines that the language was unable to bridge and which explain why so successful a lingua francacould dissolve so rapidly in the nineteenth century.

In conceptual terms, the discussion of Persian’s scope and impact has been framed by the terminology of the “Persianate.” Before proceeding further, it is therefore necessary to scrutinize this concept and its various derivatives. The term “Persianate” was first coined in the 1960s by the world historian Marshall Hodgson in his Venture of Islam. Hodgson explained and defined the term as follows:

“The rise of Persian had more than purely literary consequences: it served to carry a new overall cultural orientation within Islamdom … Most of the more local languages of high culture that later emerged among Muslims likewise depended upon Persian wholly or in part for their prime literary inspiration. We may call all these cultural traditions, carried in Persian or reflecting Persian inspiration, ‘Persianate’ by extension.”

This foundational definition has two core implications. Firstly, the “rise of Persian” was a direct cultural consequence of the rise of Islamic “civilization” (another key Hodgsonian term that he also called “Islamdom”). Secondly, this had subsequent consequences for the development of other “more local languages of high culture.” As a historian, Hodgson’s notion of the “Persianate” was therefore as a linguistic and literary process based on cultural imitation and thereby, if only implicitly, on power. Other scholars might have spoken more plainly in terms of hegemony: as Bruce B. Lawrence has noted of the concept, “two elements are paramount: hierarchy … [and] deference.” After a considerable lull of a decade or two, Hodgson’s neologism (along with its counterpart, “Islamicate”) began to have impact as other scholars adopted the term, particularly since the late 1990s. Yet despite its widespread adoption, “Persianate” has rarely been more fully defined, let alone problematized as a concept or demonstrated as a process. Since other current work is turning to the conceptual foundations of the term, the chapters in this volume take on the empirical task of investigating the Persianate as process.

Because Hodgson’s foundational definition conceives Persianate culture as a product of contact between Persian and “more local languages,” it is clear that the concept cannot be tested empirically by looking at Persian, or Persianate texts in other languages, in isolation. For this reason, the case studies brought together in this book share the basic methodology of looking at languages in contact. In different chapters, this linguistic contact is between Persian and a spoken vernacular, such as Punjabi; between Persian and an emergent written vernacular, such as Turki; between Persian and an established literary language, such as Chinese; and between Persian and an ascendant imperial language, such as English. These inter-Eurasian as distinct from inter-Islamic contacts were not what Hodgson had in mind. For his Persianate model assumed two things: an Islamic (or at least culturally “Islamicate”) context in which Persian (and Islam) were in a position of cultural and political dominance; and, by extension, a geography confined to what used to be called the eastern Islamic world (or as Hodgson himself preferred, the “Persian zone”). By contrast, this volume not only reflects the wider historical geography of Persian’s usage that reached ultimately from China to Britain. The studies of language contact presented here also show how Persian interacted with literary and linguistic cultures that both were and were not under the cultural or political dominance of Persian or Islam. It is only by questioning the two core assumptions of Hodgson’s model that we are able to examine the actual workings of scribal literary and sociolinguistic exchange, and in so doing trace the Persianate as process.

There is a free download of the e-book available here.