Theses Doctoral

Masters of the Distant Meanings: Unity and Multiplicity in the Persian Poesis of Freshness

Ambler, Catherine Henderson

Modern scholarship associates the period in which the Safavid dynasty ruled in Iran (1501-1722) with two major developments in the Persianate. One is sectarian rupture between Iran under the Shi‘i Safavids, and other Persianate regions - including Turan (Central Asia) - under Sunni dynasties. The other is a roughly contemporaneous (late sixteenth-eighteenth century) movement in Persian poetry, which has long been designated in modern scholarship as sabk-i Hindī (the Indian style); I refer to this movement as the poesis of freshness. Through the assumption that India is outside the proper or natural home of Persian poetry, modern scholarship has tended to characterize the Indian style in terms of decline.

The accounts of both sectarian rupture and the Indian style rely on assumptions about difference on the basis of anachronistic categories including sect, nation, and ethnicity. This dissertation shifts focus from modern assumptions about difference, to ways in which participants in the poesis of freshness made sense of kas̱rat (multiplicity), understood to indicate creation as that in which difference and determinacy inhere. What were ways of gleaning the presence of vaḥdat (unity) – including, but beyond, divine unity – in multiplicity, and of engaging with multiplicity so as to bring about unity? Given the association of verbal expression (lafẓ) with multiplicity, I understand poesis as one means of effecting the imaginative transformation of multiplicity and the cultivation of unity. A major emphasis in modern critiques of the so-called Indian style is that it was unnecessarily difficult to the point of meaninglessness. However, I argue that emphases in the poesis of freshness that may be related to difficulty – subtlety, intricacy, ambiguous polysemy, and the generation of new metaphorical equations – are meaningful, including as ways of honing verbal form to write multiplicity against itself and bring about unity.

This dissertation has two parts: the first is centered on Persian poetry, and the second, on taẕkiras (biographical dictionaries of poets). While setting their works in conversation with others, I focus on Shawkat Bukhari (d. 1695 or 1696)’s poetic collection, and Maliha Samarqandi (d. after 1692)’s taẕkira, which includes a laudatory entry on Shawkat. Shawkat and Maliha both came from Turan (Bukhara and Samarqand respectively) and spent a significant amount of time in Iran, where they met; their transregional lives lend support to recent critiques of the narrative of sectarian rupture between Turan and Iran.

Moreover, they do both describe and enact ways of encompassing and bringing together religiously-marked forms of differences (including the polarity between Sunnism and Shi‘ism). However, I demonstrate the need to interpret discussions of religiously marked differences through the matrix of the relationship between multiplicity and unity. Attention to unity and multiplicity in Shawkat and Maliha’s works makes it possible to intervene in modern assumptions about sectarian rupture and Indian poetic decadence without reifying their principal analytical terms. In doing so, it points to a more pressing concern: how to engage with creation – including language itself – without taking its forms of difference or determinacy as fixed or final, instead bringing out unity’s subtle and destabilizing presence in multiplicity.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Dabashi, Hamid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 10, 2022