The poetic agenda of Ferdowsi in aetiologizing the Iranian reception of Kalīla wa Dimna

2022.12.05 | By Olga M. Davidson

This essay is a pre-edited and pre-printed version of a paper I delivered on December 3, 2022, for the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, at Session IX-10, “Premodern Fables and their Audience.”

A printed version of the papers presented at this session, edited by Neguin Yavari, is already being planned, to be published by the Ilex Foundation in a series distributed by Harvard University Press. Also planned is a pre-printed version of the papers, to be published online in Classical Continuum, likewise to be edited by Neguin Yavari.

The poetry of the Shāhnāma or Book of Kings composed by Ferdowsi sets up a parallelism between his work and the Kalīla wa Dimna, composed by the poet Rōdaki. The excellence of both these works of poetry, as it is indirectly claimed in the Shāhnāma of Ferdowsi, depends on the turning of an original text in prose into poetry. I analyze such a claim here primarily with reference to the relevant text of Ferdowsi about the Kalīla wa Dimna in volume VIII page 655 lines 3460-3464 of the Moscow edition of the Shāhnāma as edited by Bertels and his team. In those lines, Ferdowsi is making a claim indirectly about the uniqueness of his Shāhnāma, reinforcing a claim he makes directly on many occasions elsewhere in his poetry, as I have argued in earlier work. The claim is simply this: the version of the Book of Kings or Shāhnāma composed by Ferdowsi is said to be superior to previous versions, composed as prose, because Ferdowsi has turned his version into poetry.  And, with this point of comparison in mind, Ferdowsi makes a parallel claim about the superiority of the poetic version of the Kalīla wa Dimna, as translated into New Persian by the poet Rōdaki, over a pre-existing prose version. Ferdowsi’s wording about the Kalīla wa Dimna makes it clear that the supposedly original prose version, as it was recited, he declares, even in his own era, was composed in Arabic, though later prose versions were composed in New Persian, even in his own time. What makes the version composed by Rōdaki so much better than these prose versions, in terms of the poetics advanced by Ferdowsi, is the turning of the original Arabic prose version into the New Persian poetic version of Rōdaki.

What I have just read here as the first paragraph of my paper is based on the original abstract that I had submitted to our panel. I have now rewritten that abstract, but my new abstract, which I am reading here, can still serve as the first paragraph of my paper. I needed to produce a new abstract that is more suitable as an introduction to what I will now argue about the relevance of the poetic agenda of Ferdowsi in aetiologizing the Iranian reception of the Kalīla wa Dimna.

My argument here is a continuation of an earlier argument, presented in a book bearing the relevant title Global Medieval: Mirrors for Princes Reconsidered, published in 2015 and edited by Regula Forster and Neguin Yavari. In that book there is an essay written by me and bearing a related and likewise relevant title. The essay is called “Aetiologies of the Kalīla wa Dimna as a Mirror for Princes,” and there I already explain what I mean by using the terms “aetiologizing.” and “reception.”

Let me summarize briefly my original definitions of “aetiologizing” and “reception.” It is well known that the stories contained in the multiform text known in Arabic as the Kalīla wa Dimna were used for purposes of education in statecraft. The literary form of such education is commonly known by its medieval Latin designation as speculum principum or ‘mirror for princes’. In the case of the Kalīla wa Dimna, the genesis of the stories told in this multiform text is explained in statements that are attached as introductions or prefaces or even appendices to the main body of stories. These statements, which can sometimes include stories in their own right, are what I call aetiologies, or, more precisely, aetiological narratives. As for the actual stories of the Kalīla wa Dimna, they are animal fables. In my 2015 essay, I argued that the aetiological narratives of this multiform text of animal fables, the Kalīla wa Dimna, were designed to explain not only the genesis of these fables but also their use as a mirror for princes. I also argued that these aetiological narratives are multiform in their own right, just as the fables themselves are multiform.

Such multiformity is typical of oral traditions, which require ongoing adjustment to the reception of whatever has been composed. I use the word reception here along the lines defined by Gregory Nagy in a study of oral traditions. I quote from the formulation he gives in that study (Nagy 2009:282–283):

I use the term reception … not in the narrow sense that applies in studies of literature, where this term conventionally refers to whatever happens after a given piece of literature is composed for transmission to the public. A broader sense of the term is needed when we are dealing with literary traditions that stem from oral traditions… . How, then, are we to understand the phenomenon of reception in oral traditions? The answer has to do with the transmission of composition by way of performance. In any oral tradition, … the process of composition is linked to the process of performance, and any given composition can be recomposed each time it is performed. The performer who recomposes the composition in performance may be the same performer who composed it earlier, or it may be a new performer, even a succession of new performers. The point is, such recomposition-in-performance is the essence of transmission in oral traditions.

This kind of transmission is the key to a broader understanding of reception. Unlike what happens in literature, where reception by the public happens only after a piece of literature is transmitted, reception in oral traditions happens during as well as after transmission. That is because the process of composition in oral traditions allows for recomposition on each new occasion of performance for a public that sees and hears the performer. In oral traditions, there is an organic link between reception and performance, since no performance can succeed without a successful reception by the public that sees and hears the performer or performers.

End of quotation.

In my essay of 2015, I went on to argue that the reception of the fables transmitted as Kalīla wa Dimna, in all their various “translations,” is multiform because the telling of the fables depends on transmission by way performance, not only by way of text.

Now I am planning a second edition of that same essay of 2015, where I will apply a related argument, developed in earlier work as published in two books, the most recent editions of which are both dated 2013. In that earlier work, I argued that the transmission of the Shāhnāma, like the transmission of the Kalīla wa Dimna, depended on the contingencies of two interrelated media, that is, both oral performance and written text.

In the second edition of my 2015 essay on the Kalīla wa Dimna, I am planning to analyze more fully what the poetry of Ferdowsi himself says implicitly about the parallelism between the aetiologies of his own poetic Shāhnāma and the poetic Kalīla wa Dimna of Rōdaki. What I will now proceed to read here is a brief preview of my forthcoming analysis in the planned second edition.

As the poetry of Ferdowsi affirms about its own poetic tradition, it is a matter of control over that tradition. For Ferdowsi, moreover, such control is specified as control over both oral and written traditions. The oral traditions, as I have argued in my publications extending over almost four decades, are represented as a stylized performances by some learned man – a kind of man who is called either mōbad or a dehqān or both –  while the written traditions are claimed to originate from an archetypal book, a Book of Kings written in the ancient Middle Persian imperial language of the Sasanian Empire, and this imperial language is called Pahlavi in the New Persian language of Ferdowsi.

The ubiquitous claim of Ferdowsi that the poetic tradition of his Shāhnāma originated in part from a Pahlavi text as an archetype is parallel to what he claims is the origin of the Kalīla wa Dimna as a parallel poetic tradition of poetry in his own time.

My analysis focuses, as I said at the beginning, on the relevant text of Ferdowsi as we find it in volume VIII of the Moscow edition of the Shāhnāma, page 655 lines 3460-3464, where the poet tells a story of a prose version of the Kalīla wa Dimna, composed in Arabic, which was older than the poetic version composed in New Persian by Rōdaki. Experts nowadays agree that such an Arabic prose version of the Kalīla wa Dimna can be attributed to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, and I will have more to say about him in a minute. For now I will say only this much: in the relevant text of Ferdowsi, there is no mention of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ by name, though the wording of Ferdowsi clearly acknowledges the existence of such an Arabic prose text written by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ. Moreover, although Ferdowsi also refers to a superior poetic version composed in New Persian – the author of which, as we will soon see, must be Rōdaki – Ferdowsi makes no mention of Rōdaki himself by name, just as he makes no mention of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ by name.

Before I say anything more about the poetic versions of the Kalīla wa Dimna as pioneered by Rōdaki, I must first concentrate on other transmissions mentioned by Ferdowsi in his narrative, where he refers to a coexistence, in his own era. of Arabic prose versions with Persian prose versions. We have independent testimony, to be discussed in a minute, about one particular Persian prose version: it is a translation of the Kalīla wa Dimna by Abuʾl-Fażl Balʿami, who is called simply Abuʾl-Fażl in the narrative of Ferdowsi. And here I compare the mention, by Ferdowsi, of an earlier version of the Kalīla wa Dimna, written in Arabic prose and dating back to an era that Ferdowsi links with the patronage of a caliph whom he names simply as Maʾmun. It is made explicit here, in the wording of Ferdowsi himself, that this older version of the Kalīla wa Dimna is derived from a text written in the Pahlavi language, as Ferdowsi calls it. Linguists today, as I already noted, call this language Middle Persian as distinct from the New Persian that prevailed in the age of Ferdowsi.

And here is where the idea of “aetiologizing” is most relevant. The claim made here in the narrative of Ferdowsi, that the prose Arabic text of the Kalīla wa Dimna was in turn derived from an earlier prose Pahlavi text, is an exercise in “aetiologizing” that is parallel to a ubiquitous claim, made by Ferdowsi throughout the Shāhnāma, that he has turned into poetry the Pahlavi prose text of an earlier Shāhnāma.

In the narrative of Ferdowsi, it is claimed that the Pahlavi text that gave rise to the later Arabic text known as the Kalīla wa Dimna was commissioned by the ʿAbbasid caliph Maʾmun—as he is named by Ferdowsi. This claim, I argue, is a perfect example of aetiologizing.

In support of my argument, I cite the analysis of Dagmar Riedel in the Encyclopædia Iranica (2010, updated 2012). As she points out, we read in the “Older Preface” of the Shāhnāma, which is a prose text written by Abu Manṣur al-Maʿmari (whose death-date is 961 CE), that the ʿAbbasid caliph Maʾmun commissioned Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ to translate from Pahlavi into Arabic what became known as the Kalīla wa Dimna. In a book about the Kalīla wa Dimna, François de Blois (1990:51) judges the attribution made here by the author of the “Older Preface” to be a “serious historical blunder.” The negative judgment of de Blois here is based on the fact that the years of the rule of the ʿAbbasid caliph Maʾmun extended from 813 to 833 CE, and such a dating does not square with the historical likelihood that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ wrote his Arabic translation for the ʿAbbasid caliph Manṣur, the years of whose rule are far earlier, extending from 754 to 775 CE. The death-date of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ himself can be dated no later than 759 CE.

Such a negative judgment, however, about a “blunder” committed both by the author of the “Older Preface” – and by Ferdowsi himself – is I think a misunderstanding of what I am calling an act of aetiologizing here. I say this even if, and here I follow Riedel, it is historically more plausible to believe, on the basis of alternative testimony that she documents, that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ wrote the Arabic translation for the ʿAbbasid caliph Manṣur, not for the ʿAbbasid caliph Maʾmun.

But here is where we see the process of aetiologizing at work. As Riedel points out, and I agree with her, Moḥammad Qazvini’s edition of the “Older Preface” shows that nowhere in the text’s manuscripts do we find the name of Manṣur as a textual variant in place of the name of Maʾmun. And, as Riedel also points out, nowhere in the manuscripts of Ferdowsi is the name of Maʾmun replaced by the name of Manṣur with reference to the caliph who commissioned the first Arabic translation of the Kalīla wa Dimna. In other words, variants showing Manṣur instead of Maʾmun “are again missing from the collated manuscripts.”

Thus, agreeing with Riedel where she verifies the consistent reading of the name Maʾmun and not the name Manṣur in the textual transmissions of both the Shāhnāma and the “Older Preface,” I would go on to argue that this consistency indicates a historical fact about the reception of the Kalīla wa Dimna. In other words, I argue that the actual history of the Persian reception of the Kalīla wa Dimna indicates that Maʾmun had replaced Manṣur as the original patron of the Arabic text. In making such an argument, I agree with the formulation of Riedel, who says: “Among Persian reading audiences it seemed more sensible to associate the translation of Kalila wa Demna from Middle Persian into Arabic with a caliph who appeared to be on the Persian side within the anti-Arab movement of the šuʿūbiya.” She adds: “Maʾmun’s mother had been the Persian concubine Marājel and his tutor had been the Zoroastrian convert Fażl b. Sahl, [whose death-date is 818], while Maʾmun himself had been the governor of Khurasan from 802 to 813.”

And now I turn to a further aetiology originating from the earlier phases of the Kalīla wa Dimna. I start with a genuinely Pahlavi version, produced in the reign of Khosrow the First, also called Anōshirvān, whose rule dates from 531 to 579 CE. This version originates from an Indic tradition of fables that was eventually textualized as the Pañcatantra. The Arabic version, as translated by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ in the eighth century CE, was apparently based on the Pahlavi version. But then, later on, in the tenth century CE, in the era of the Sāmanid king Naṣr ibn Aḥmad, who ruled from 914 to 943 CE, the Arabic prose version was translated into Persian prose, and the most prominent such version was composed by Abu’l-Fażl Balʿamī, the vizier of the Sāmanid ruler. Moreover, in the same historical context of Naṣr and Balʿamī, the Kalīla wa Dimna was then turned into Persian poetry by the poet Rōdaki. The prose translation by Balʿamī is lost, but the poetic translation by Rōdaki has survived, though only in fragments. And it is this poetic version of Rōdaki, composed under the patronage of Naṣr, that Ferdowsi highlights in his narrative about the Kalīla wa Dimna, referring to the king Naṣr as the patron and to the king’s vizier Abu’l-Fażl, that is, to Balʿamī, as the facilitator.

So, I am arguing that Ferdowsi himself implicitly draws a parallel between his own Shāhnāma and the Kalīla wa Dimna of Rōdaki, stressing that the superiority of both compositions depends on what is described as the turning of prose into poetry. And, in the case of the Kalīla wa Dimna by Rōdaki as in the case of the Shāhnāma by Ferdowsi, I am also arguing that it is unjustified to posit a direct translation from a Pahlavi prose model for the Persian poetry merely on the basis of references to an authoritative book of prose as a source. As Gilbert Lazard has shown (1971.364–369; comments by Davidson 2013a:37–38), the poetics of Ferdowsi in equating Pahlavi texts with “prose” sources of poetry is simply a way of conveying an authority that is comparable to the medium of Ferdowsi’s poetry. In this medium, as I have argued in my earlier work (especially Davidson 2013a:37–38), both the Pahlavi book and oral poetic traditions are visualized as the basis for a poem’s authority.

The narrative of Ferdowsi about the transmission of the Kalīla wa Dimna into an Iranian continuum acknowledges the intermediate phase of an Arabic translation from a Pahlavi text, and he refers to that archetypal Pahlavi text simply as “Kalīla.” But Ferdowsi does not mention by name, as I already noted, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ as the author of the translation into Arabic prose. Instead, he mentions by name here only the king “Naṣr” as the patron of the Arabic text, just as he mentions “Abu’l-Fażl,” that is, Balʿamī, only in that man’s capacity as the vizier of the king. And it is the king, not the vizier, who ultimately gets credit for becoming the patron of not only the prose translations but even of a poetic translation of the Kalīla wa Dimna. Again, even in this case, as I have already noted, Ferdowsi does not mention by name Rōdaki, author of the poetic version.

It is at the beginning of his whole narrative about the Kalīla wa Dimna, however, where Ferdowsi outdoes himself with a masterstroke of aetiologizing by focusing on the origins of the “Kalīla.” According to this aetiological story, the contents of the “Kalīla” were once upon a time acquired by an Iranian wise man named Borzuya (Borzōy), emissary of the Iranian king Khosrow Anōshirvān, who had traveled to India in search of a mythical plant that has the power to bring the dead back to life. In the course of his arduous quest, Borzuya eventually learns that such a medium of resurrection is not really a plant but, instead, a precious book that is stored under lock and key, as it were, in the treasury of the king of India. This book is the “Kalīla,” which contains such boundless wisdom that it gives a new life by enlightening us poor benighted humans who are notionally dead in our lives because of our lack of wisdom. Borzuya prevails on the king of India to grant him access to the book of the “Kalīla”: he is permitted to read the book inside the treasury, chapter by chapter, day by day, but he is not permitted to copy the text. Despite such odds, Borzuya manages to translate, from the Indic language of the “Kalīla” into the Pahlavi language of the Iranian Empire, the whole text by way of remembering, day by day, each chapter of each day of reading the original Indic text. Borzuya then brings back to Iran the whole text, now in Pahlavi, and it becomes officially transcribed by the vizier of king Khosrow Anōshirvān. This vizier, named Būzorjmehr in the narrative of Ferdowsi, transcribes an additional chapter that serves as an introduction to the Pahlavi version of the “Kalīla.” Borzuya himself had requested to dictate, as it were, such an introduction, where the story of his discovering the “Kalīla” could be told in full, and the king had approved such an addition, which amounts to an aetiology of the “Kalīla.” And, as this story is retold in the poetry of Ferdowsi, it becomes an aetiological model in its own right: now the authoritative medium of a book written in prose is destined to be converted into an even more authoritative medium, which is, prose turned into poetry.


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