Persian nationalism and the campaign for language purification

Kia  Mehrdad

In the battle they waged against Islam and the Shiite religious hierarchy for domination over the spiritual domain, these Persian nationalists transformed history, culture and language into ideological tools for building a modern homogenized national identity which was Persian rather than Islamic, secular rather than religious.


Decades before it began its political struggle against European domination, modern nationalism in Iran had created its own `domain of sovereignty'. In its first stage of confrontation with Europe, Persian nationalism divided the world of ideas and institutions into two domains, `the material and the spiritual'.(1) The domain of the material was the domain of the `outside', of modern sciences, technology, and political institutions. In this area, Europe had demonstrated its superiority over Iran and the rest of the Islamic world. Thus, in this domain, European superiority had to be accepted and its achievements `studied and replicated'.(2) The spiritual, on the other hand, was an `inner domain', the domain of cultural identity where Europe could not be allowed to intervene and dominate.(3) In fact, the greater a country's success in emulating European ideas and institutions in the material domain, `the greater the need to preserve the distinctiveness of one's spiritual culture' and national identity.(4)

But Persian nationalism could not declare the spiritual domain its sovereign territory unless it challenged the hegemony of Islam. And in Iran the spiritual realm was the domain of the Shiite clergy who acted as the sole interpreter and principal guardian of the Islamic heritage, and had made this synonymous with the Iranian heritage and identity. The dominance of the Shiite clergy led some nationalist intellectuals to believe that the cultural hegemony of Shiite Islam must be challenged and replaced only by a new form of identity which emphasized Iran's pre-Islamic history and culture as well as the Persian language and its rich literary heritage.(5) In the battle they waged against Islam and the Shiite religious hierarchy for domination over the spiritual domain, these Persian nationalists transformed history, culture and language into ideological tools for building a modern homogenized national identity which was Persian rather than Islamic, secular rather than religious. In the process, they ignored the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious reality of the Iranian state. They overlooked the fundamental fact that Iran was not Persia or Persian but rather a mosaic of diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. Each group possessed its own history, culture, language, religious values and traditions. Only by denying the existence of non-Persian identities could this nationalist discourse present Iran as an ancient and unified nation with one history, one culture and one literary language.

In particular, Persian nationalism attempted to transform two areas within the spiritual domain: history and language. In the field of history, Persian nationalism divided the history of Iran into two separate and distinct periods. The first was the pre-Islamic era, a time when Iran was not only a world superpower but also a unified nation with one government, one culture and one language. To these nationalists, the pre-Islamic era was the source of the true Iranian spiritual domain because it was untainted by foreign influence. The second era was the Islamic period, Which began with the Arab invasion of Iran and the fall of the Sassanid empire in the seventh century AD. With the occupation of the country by Muslim Arabs, asserted the new nationalists, Iranians began to lose their national identity. This process continued under successive dominations first of Arabs, then of Turks and Mongols, then again of Turks, and finally of Russians and the British.

As some nationalists saw it, the pre-Islamic golden age of the Iranian civilization presented a marked contrast with the Islamic period, an era of foreign domination, loss of political independence, and the Arabization and later the Turkification of Iranian culture and the Persian language. In order to recover Iran's authentic national identity, therefore, the people of Iran had first to discard the Arab and the Islamic domination in the spiritual domain. Thus, the battle for independence in the spiritual domain could be led only by nationalist intellectuals who acted as the voice of the pre-Islamic era and not the Shiite clergy, which represented an alien religion imposed on Iranians by Arab invaders.

The spiritual domain contained not only Iranian history but also the Persian language. According to the nationalist discourse, the Persian language had preserved the cultural independence and the authentic national identity of the Iranian people. Throughout the `dark centuries' of foreign domination, despite a religion forced on them by Arabs and prolonged political rule in foreign languages such as Arabic and Turkish, Iranians had preserved `their' culture and national consciousness by keeping `their' literary language alive. However, Persian was losing its independence because of the large number of borrowed Arabic words. Compounding that, new scientific and technological words were being imported from European languages. In order to preserve their national identity, the people of Iran had to purge Persian of foreign words and terminologies.

Some Persian nationalists further argued that, as the process of modernization intensified in the material domain, there was a greater need to preserve the purity and the distinctness of Persian. This meant not only keeping out foreign words but manufacturing new Persian words as equivalents for Arabic words and Western scientific and technological terms. This would guarantee the integrity and the independence of an essential component of the spiritual domain. Persian belonged to the inner or the spiritual domain of cultural identity from which foreign influence had to be purged; `language therefore became a zone over which the nation first had to declare its sovereignty and then had to transform in order to make it adequate for the modern world'.(6)

The crucial moment in the rise of the language purification movement came in the nineteenth century, when a small group of educated Iranians tried to wrest control of the spiritual sphere from the Shiite ulama. Their strategy was not to wage a direct attack on Islam and its fundamental teachings or to criticize the `backwardness, and `corruption' of the Shiite clergy. Given the weakness and the isolation of the nationalist intellectuals and the power and popularity of the Shiite clergy among the masses, such open attacks could backfire. Instead, the nationalist discourse intended to create a new sovereign spiritual domain for itself by emphasizing the purely non-Islamic and Iranian elements of history, culture and language which were, for the most part, inherited from pre-Islamic times. Thus, the battle for a true Iranian, that is Persian historical perspective became above all a battle for a purified and vigorous Persian language.

One early Iranian writer who glorified Iran's pre-Islamic history and called for a complete purification of Persian from all Arabic words and terminologies was the Qajar prince, Jalal od-Din Mirza (1832-71).(7) The prince denounced the influence of the Arabic language and called on Iranians to read and study their history as an independent and ancient people. In order to demonstrate the ability of the Persian language to purge itself from Arabic words, Jalal od-Din Mirza wrote in a simple Persian free from Arabic words (i.e. Farsi-ye Sare).

The prince held anti-Qajar sentiments and despised both Arabs and Islam. Influenced by these beliefs and greatly impressed by the writings of a small group of poets and writers who had already tried to write in a purified Persian during the reign of Mohammad Shah (1834-48), he embarked on an ambitious project to write Name-ye Khosrawan (The Book of Kings), a history of Iran from the pre-Islamic era to the nineteenth century in pure Persian untainted by Arabic words.(8) Jalal od-Din Mirza wrote Name-ye Khosrawan, in a simplified Persian that could be understood by all those who knew how to read and comprehend the language. Equally important was his determination to demonstrate the ability of the Persian language to free itself from imported Arabic words and still maintain its beauty and vitality.

In creating his purified Persian, Jalal od-Din Mirza replaced many Arabic words with old Persian words which had been forgotten and fallen out of use. At times, however, he substituted some Arabic words with words borrowed from Dasatir, a book written in India by Azar Keyvan during the reign of the Moghul ruler, Akbar.(9) Dasatir presented a historical account of Iran's pre-Islamic prophets and kings which was fabricated by Azar Keyvan. The book also contained words that according to its author existed in Iran's pre-Islamic languages. In reality, however, Azar Keyvan had made up these so-called ancient words.(10) By replacing some Arabic words with words borrowed from Dasatir, Jalal od-Din Mirza provided his critics with a convenient tool to ridicule his purified Persian as an `imaginary' and `artificial' language.

Name-ye Khosrawan was divided into three sections. The first dealt with the pre-Islamic history of Iran beginning with the mythical Mahabadian and Pishdadian dynasties and ending with the Arab invasion of Iran and the fall of the Sassanid state in seventh century AD. The second section focused on the period extending from the rise of the first independent Iranian dynasties of the Islamic era such as the Taherids in the ninth century AD to the fall of Khwarazmshahis and the Mongol invasion of Iran in the thirteenth century. Finally, the third section dealt with the Iranian history from the Mongol invasion to the fall of the Zand dynasty in the eighteenth century. Jalal od-Din Mirza was planning to add a fourth section to his book which focused exclusively on his own family, the Qajar dynasty (1797-1925), but because of his extreme anti-Qajar sentiments, he planned to leave Iran before completing and publishing this last section.

In a letter to the playwright and social critic, Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade (1812-78) in Tiflis, Jalal od-Din Mirza explained that he had written Nameye Khosrawan because the Persian language was facing virtual extinction in the hands of Arabs: `I have used the language of our ancestors which like everything else has been violated and plundered by the Arabs.'(11) He also stated that he had found no worthier topic than the story of the Persian kings which had been falsified and destroyed by the Arabs. Finally, he claimed that the book was modelled after the works of Europeans, who were the most `learned people on earth'.(12)

Name-ye Khosrawan provoked different reactions from the expatriate Iranian intellectuals in the second half of the nineteenth century who shared Jalal od-Din Mirza's hatred for monarchical despotism and the Shiite religious hierarchy. In Tiflis, Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade praised Jalal od-Din Mirza's harsh attack on Arabic and his call for purging Arabic words from Persian. However, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1851-96) in Istanbul and Talebof-e Tabrizi (1838-1909) in Temir Khan Shura in Daghestan condemned it.


Akhundzade, who had advocated first a reform of Arabic script and then a total substitution of Arabic alphabet with Latin script, congratulated Jalal od-Din Mirza.(13) He wrote to the Qajar prince that: `Your highness is fleeing our language from the domination of the Arabic tongue. I am also trying to free our nation from the Arabic script. What if a third person appeared and freed our nation from the yoke of the base customs of these Arabs who brought to an end our thousand-year-old monarchy of justice and renown, and destroyed our motherland which is the paradise of the earth.'(14)

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