By Alex Shams. Alex is a writer and PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago whose work focuses on religion and politics in the contemporary Middle East. He is the editor of Ajam Media Collective, an online publication focused on culture and society in Iran and Central Asia. Follow him on Twitter @alexshams_.
Every book has a story. While we often ignore the physical object to focus on what’s written on its pages, a book is itself a fascinating piece of history. It reveals insights not only into its own past but also the world it comes from.
This is the story of a book called Jameh ul-Tamseel, “The Collection of Fables” (جامع التمثیل). The author collected hundreds of tales he found in Persian, Arabic, and Turki over many years. The text was originally written in Persian during the seventeenth century. But it doesn’t come from Iran, the nation we usually associate with Persian today. It comes from South Asia – the city of Hyderabad in the Deccan plateau of southern India, to be exact.
The author Muhammad Ali Hablaroodi (also spelled Halbaroodi), was originally from a small town in Iran called Hablarood, probably located in the leafy forests of the Caspian Sea shore. And while he wrote the book in India, the images before you are from a version that was printed 200 years later in Tehran.
Today, many consider Jameh ul-Tamseel to be “Iranian” because it is in Persian. But the book’s trajectory – the author’s move from the Caspian to India, and the story’s eventual return to Tehran – reveal a lost geography of Persian literature that crossed national boundaries. This lost world united diverse regions of Asia that today we often see as distinct civilizations separated by borders and walls. Jameh ul-Tamseel reminds us of a world that existed for centuries – but whose memory has largely faded from our minds.
Our story begins in South Asia. To understand how this particular book was written, we need to understand where it was written. For centuries, South Asia was a center of literary production in the Persian language. While we today associate Persian with the modern nation-state of Iran because it emerged from the “Fars” region around Shiraz, this language spread and was used around much of South and Southwest Asia.
Persian was an important lingua franca across the Indian Subcontinent from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. First introduced by the Delhi Sultanate as one of its court languages, the language was cultivated and spread by the sultanates of the Deccan and later the Mughal Empire. During the medieval era, the city of Hyderabad became an especially influential center of Persianate culture. Here, it flourished as a language of learning and power alongside the region’s older court languages like Telugu. It was only in the nineteenth century, following the violent disruptions of British colonialism, that Persian lost its cosmopolitan appeal and Indian intellectuals felt compelled to turn to other languages such as English and Urdu.
During those five centuries, books were written, poetry was composed, and arguments and debates carried out in Persian. Persian texts and culture did not only flow outward from Iran but instead had multiple centers across South Asia. The central importance of South Asia to the Persian world becomes clearer when we consider that by the 1800s, more people in India could read and write Persian than in Iran.
South Asian elites, regardless of their ethnic origins, commissioned translation projects of major Sanskrit works like the Ramayana and Mahabharata into Persian. Indo-Persian poets like Amir Khusrao (14th c.) achieved fame not only in Delhi and its surroundings but across the broader Persianate world. In Iran today, South Asian poets like Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), popularly known as Iqbal-e Lahori, are still widely read – even as the decline of Persian in South Asia has limited the Indian public’s access to their original works.
Persian was the lingua franca not only in South Asia also across Central Asia and parts of West Asia like the Caucasus as well. The language connected people of different backgrounds; it wasn’t tied to any particular religious or ethnic community. Persian belonged equally to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews. It contributed to a sense of “cosmopolitan belonging” among diverse peoples who shared a common sense of taste and ethical behavior. It was a vehicle for sharing knowledge across different languages and communities. Books were translated from Sanskrit, Arabic, Chaghatay Turkic, Tamil, and other languages into Persian, making them accessible to millions across Asia.
It was precisely Persian’s cosmopolitan nature that motivated Mughal Emperor Akbar to establish it as the official language of the empire in the 1500s, as it was seen as accommodating and not alien or restricted to one specific group.
Persian’s past role in South Asia echoes the role it has in Iran today, where it is still the official language. Around half of Iranians today speak a language other than Persian as their native tongue, like Azeri, Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen, Assyrian, Balochi, etc. They learn Persian at school as a literary language and one that helps them communicate with other Iranians, regardless of their native language. This is similar to Indians in the past, who learned Persian to supplement – not replace – their mother tongue.
Across the cosmopolitan Persian sphere, multilingualism was the norm. Language was not linked to identity the way it is today, allowing different languages to serve as access points to different kinds of knowledge. One popular proverb in South Asian Persian speaks to this outlook: Arabic is science, Persian is sugar, Hindi is salt, and Turki is art (عربي علم فارسي شکر هندي نمک ترکي هنر).
Because this cultural sphere shared a language, people could travel vast distances and find people they could communicate with and courts they could work in. South Asia attracted poets and scholars from Iran because it was wealthier and had many local princes who could support them. Iran, in turn, attracted South Asian merchants, pilgrims, and visitors of diverse faiths who settled in “Indian neighborhoods” in cities across the country.
This was the context in which Muhammad Ali Hablaroodi left his home in northern Iran in the 1600s to move to India. According to the introduction he wrote in Jameh ul-Tamseel, Hablaroodi was a renowned scholar who was invited to join the Qutb Shahi court of Hyderabad in southern India.
The Qutb Shahi sultans, who traced their lineage to Iran as well, recruited scholars from across the Persian-speaking world to work for them, writing books and poetry that would attest to the greatness of their rule. Hablaroodi was commissioned by them to collect fables and proverbs circulating in Persian, Arabic, and Turki. He documented and translated a wide variety of stories he encountered in Hyderabad into Persian. All of these stories were introduced with reference to the Qutb Shahis and spread their fame across the Persianate world for hundreds of years.
Hablaroodi explains in the book that he composed it for Abdullah Qutb Shah, who ruled from 1626 to 1671. He got the idea after a conversation in which he heard that the Shah of Iran, Shah Abbas, had called for someone to compile Turkic stories. The vazir in Hyderabad suggested Hablaroodi create a compilation of Persian stories. Although living in Hyderabad, Hablaroodi was aware of developments in Isfahan, nearly 2,000 miles away, showing how the Persian-speaking world was connected across imperial and geographic borders.
He compiled the book’s stories, which number more than 2,000, from many sources: Persian poetry, Quran and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), as well as many South Asian popular tales that people around him told at banquets, gatherings, and bouts of wine drinking. The stories contain magical features like talking animals as well as the direct intervention of spirits, fairies, and angels. Some seem to have roots in the Panchatantra, which had been previously translated into middle Persian and then Arabic as Kalila wa Dimna.
The stories are moral fables, each with a lesson summarized in a motto. In one, for example, he describes the story of a group of flies who try to figure out how to overpower an elephant. The flies realize that if they join together, they can defeat the animals, despite his much greater size:
In another story, a Brahmin assigns his favorite pet mongoose to protect his baby child. When he wakes up and sees that the baby has been killed, he immediately kills the mongoose, who until then has always been loyal to him. Soon, he discovers that the mongoose was not responsible for the baby’s death; but by then, it is too late. The lesson here is to never act in haste and always think through your actions, even when you’re angry.
Both of these stories reveal how Deccani and South Asian flavor shaped the text as a regional and a cosmopolitan work. By integrating these references, they made them legible to the Hyderabad court and India’s Deccan as well as the broader Persianate world. Audiences in places as distant as Iran and Central Asia became familiar with figures of Indian society such as Brahmins or animals found in South Asia such as elephants or mongooses. They also developed a shared repertoire of proverbs and norms of good behavior.
Following its composition, manuscripts of Jameh ul-Tamseel quickly spread across the Persian-speaking world. Hablaroodi’s collection of fables was considered to be one of the most widely read Persian books for centuries. During the early nineteenth century, the development of Persian lithograph printing in India led to the publication of thousands of cheap copies of the Jameh ul-Tamseel. Mass publication allowed thousands of copies of the work to be printed cheaply and circulate quicker than ever. In Iran, the first copies of the text began to be printed in the 1860s. The volume examined here is likely an example of an early Iranian printing. Iran publications, unlike the Indian editions, were often accompanied by woodcut illustrations – principally by artist Mirza Ali Qoli Khoi.
But in South Asia itself, things were changing. When the British colonized the country, they slowly ended the use of Persian in politics, culture, and education. Indians continued learning Persian privately, but over the decades, the language began to disappear from public use. Persian books were increasingly abandoned. Vast libraries of Indo-Persian works became “treasure troves” of “homeless texts,” works that could no longer be read in the lands where they were written and reside.
The changing social role of Persian is illustrated by numerous popular expressions.
In Urdu today, one expression says, He studies Persian but sells oil – Parhein Farsi bechein teil. Referring to a time when oil was used to light lamps, the expression refers to someone who is highly educated but who works a job well below his qualifications. The expression has become somewhat ironic since Iran began exporting oil.
Another expression in Punjab that highlights this shift: Am I speaking Persian? – Mein Farsi bolte hoon?, said to someone who acts like they don’t understand what is being said, ostensibly because it is erudite but incomprehensible.
In Iran, meanwhile, Persian has become widely considered a language tied to the nation-state of Iran, even though it is used in numerous other countries (like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan) as well as the fact that historically, Persian was connected to far more people and places than encompassed by modern Iran’s national borders. The memory of a time when Persian did not belong to Iran – but instead connected diverse people across South, Central, and West Asia – has been largely forgotten in the modern quest to create national pasts. But tracing the biography of a single text can reveal how this has changed over time, reminders of worlds that have faded into history.
I encountered Jameh ul-Tamseel at a small antique store in Tehran. The shop was perfumed with the sweet scent of opium and piled high full of rugs, handicrafts, and beautiful engraved metalwork. Beneath a picture of a rabbi, the antique merchant’s grandfather, were a number of leather-bound books. They included religious texts, Muslim and Jewish, alongside books of spells and old manuscripts and lithographs that spoke to a different imagination of the world. Among them was Jameh ul-Tamseel, originally written in Hyderabad.
The cosmopolitan Persianate world that Hablaroodi lived in may no longer exist, rent apart by colonial borders and modern nationalisms. But in this corner of Tehran, its memory is kept alive through the books on the shelves. Each with its own story to tell.
Amanat, Abbas & Ashraf, Assef. The Persianate World: Rethinking a Shared Sphere.
Kia, Mana. Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2020.
Nile Green, ed. The Persianate World: Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca.
Overton, Keelan, ed. Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400–1700. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2020.