Dialogue among civilisations

THE BASIS of a meaningful Indo-Iran dialogue, symbolised by the presence of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran on Republic Day, rests on some degree of shared values and traditions, if not ideological affinity, a sensitive understanding of colonialism and its legacy, and the adoption of refined methods to explore and interpret our past. The dialogue between the two countries must rest not so much on Samuel Huntington's introduction of the concept of culture — albeit a dated and deeply flawed one — to the study of foreign policy and international relations, but on a nuanced understanding of the two societies.

What we need to be aware of is that politics in Iran is sufficiently complex. As a result, attempts to reduce it to a single formula leads to mystification; rather than being monolithic, Muslim politics, while aspiring to umma-wide universals, derives its force and significance from the specific contexts, times, and localities in which it takes place. "Islam" cannot thus be a threat, any more than the "West" can be for Muslims. Muslim politics have a transnational dimension, as is illustrated by the responses to Israel's unjust occupation of Palestine, but this does not imply that one Muslim cultural unit has coalesced or that a transnational Islamic space has acquired dominance.

Whether it is Shia emotionalism and the nationalistic sentiments it generates, we have to come to terms with an Iranian personality and an Iranian ethos that is different from Arab or Turkish nationalism. Both historically and contemporaneously, Iran has plotted its own trajectory even when it was vulnerable to the assault of the great Islamic empires or the Western countries. This must serve as a reference point for a cultural dialogue between India and Iran.

Of course, long-standing contacts between India and Iran provide the obvious reference point. In his `Glimpses of World History', Jawaharlal Nehru talked of Persia as "the country whose soul is said to have come to India and found a worthy body in the Taj". The zenith of Indo-Iranian cultural contact was reached in the Gupta period. In the third century A.D., the Sassanians had controlled even Malwa in central India, later one of the centres of Gupta power. Their motifs and techniques contributed much to the making of classic Indian art. Such influences were much more directly felt after soldiers, statesman and merchants started arriving by sea in Gujarat and in the Deccan: a famous example being Mahmud Gawan (d. 1481), who served the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan, founded the famous madarsa in Bidar, modelled after Mirza Ulugh Beg's madarsa in Samarqand, and thus facilitated the dissemination of Indo-Persian learning. In other words, an influx of administrative and intellectual talent from Ajam and Central Asia kept the medieval state in the mainstream of Islamic culture.

The Deccani rulers, mostly Shias, were emotionally attached to Safavid Persia (1502-1722). During the reign of Babur, a Timurid Turk, and his successor Humayun (1530-40), who was given refuge by Shah Tahmasp I, Turkish vied with Persian to become the literary language of India, but Persian emerged supreme. For generations past, schoolboys in Indian schools and colleges learnt by heart the Gulistan and Bustan of Shaikh Sadi of Shiraz. Persian remained the official language in India until 1835. It was in Persian that Ghalib's progress was most marked, and by the age of eleven, he was already writing Persian poetry. He held the view that Persian was par excellence the language of literature, and that Urdu, by contrast, was an inferior medium for poetry and no medium at all for prose. He asserted his own excellence in Persian. The twentieth century Urdu poet, Mohammad Iqbal, composed some of his outstanding works in Persian.

A school of Indo-Persian poetry, the sabk-i Hind, assumed its specific features under the Mughals. It is said that more Persian literature was produced in India than in Central Asia and even in Iran during this period. It is this Persian culture, adapted to the Indian environment, which came to be known as Indo-Persian culture. Persian influences are, moreover, evident in history writing, in the spread of numerous Sufi orders, in architecture, and in the field of `minor' arts — the weaving of carpets and textiles, the making of pottery and metal work, and the writing, binding, illuminating, and illustrating of books.

The Delhi Sultans were largely influenced by the political and cultural ideals of Persia. They turned to the ancient kings like Jamshed, Khusrau and Bahram for guidance in political affairs rather than the Muslim law. Autocracy, the keynote of Persia's political system, thus found its devotees in Delhi; the elective imam was forgotten and, in his place, the sultan ruled by a right that could not be questioned. Thus Balban's monarchical ideals were those of the ancient kings of Iran whose precepts and examples gave form and content to his autocracy; he could think of no illustrious names for his grandsons but Kaikhusrau, Kaikaus, Kaiqabad and Kaiumars. For him, Persian was the only channel through which he could reach the intellectual world of Islam and thus buttress his claim to the championship of civilisation against Mongol barbarism.

Contacts between different civilisations have often in the past proved to be landmarks in human progress. Persia, or Iran, after being no more than a mere name in the West, became in the eighteenth century progressively better known as contact became closer and more frequent. Soon, the Europeans discovered that Persia had a real culture and literature of her own, and that her people had fine taste for poetry and a keen zest for mysticism and for philosophical speculation. The Persians themselves retained great pride in their glorious past long after they were conquered, and guarded them, so that they would not, and could not, give up such traditions by deliberately wiping out their glorious memories.

India was colonised but Persia was not; yet the expanding and aggressive imperialism of Europe equally affected the two countries. Whether it is for the purpose of exploring our heritage or for the purpose of forging closer economic and cultural ties, we need to incorporate rather than discard the colonial factor in our discourses. The critique of Orientalism irritates some people, but it sensitises us, both as an idea and as an explanation, to the unpleasant and unlovely aspects of cultural hegemony and political domination of the West. This is what Ranade, Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt talked about in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This is what `economic nationalism' was all about. In Iran, too, freedom and independence from Western economic dominance were at the heart of the Tobacco Protest of 1891-92 and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11. Much the same issues have provided energy to the unfinished Iranian Revolution.

Indeed, we need to question, whether it is the context of the nation or its fragments, the colonial assumptions about our societies and develop our own theories (indigenous, if you like) of state and society. One can draw comfort from Tagore's comment in 1932 that, "my visit to Persia has given me faith in the power of the Eastern peoples to assert themselves and quickly find their way to a united manifestation of their undying heritage in spite of conflict and difficult economic circumstance".

Creative encounters between two civilisations are a fascinating story. Indeed, we can and should build on our knowledge to provide a solid foundation for greater Indo-Iran cultural exchanges. Yet, we must be alerted to a painful reality and initiate immediate corrective measures. What I refer to is the dwindling number of scholars who are currently equipped to interpret the Indo-Persian culture and its rich and vibrant legacy. Our universities are, for one, depleted of medieval Indian historians. In short, we have reached a stage in our intellectual journey when one may well be tempted to write the obituary of medieval Indian history in South Asia. But let us not do that as yet, and echo, in the words of Tagore, the sentiment:

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