history as literature
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International Society for Iranian Studies
History as Literature Author(s): Julie Scott Meisami Source: Iranian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1/2 (Winter - Spring, 2000), pp. 15-30 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of International Society for Iranian Studies Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4311332 Accessed: 20/04/2010 10:47Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=isis. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com.
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IranianStudies,Volume 33, number1-2, Winter/Spring 2000
Julie Scott Meisami
History as LiteratureCONFRONTED WITH THE TASK OF WRITING A CHAPTER ON "HISTORY AS Litera-
ture" for the volume on Persian historiographyin the new History of Persian Literature, I found myself asking, "Whatdoes this title mean? And what might it imply?"' In medieval Islamicate societies, "history"(Arabic ta3rikh,Persian tiirtkh)referred both to a specific discipline and to works dealing with the objects of that discipline.2If, as written works, histories may be broadly classed as "literature" (for which neither Arabic or Persian had a correspondingterm until the modem period), this might suggest that historians placed style over substance,or/andthat history is "imaginativewriting"and may, as such, contain an element of "fiction."Indeed, as I shall note below, recent researchon Arabic historiography (which poses somewhat different problems, in the main, than does Persian) has argued that many of the "historical"accounts which appear thereinare, in fact, "fiction"passed off as history. If Persian writers had no word for "literature,"they had a consummate interestin mattersof eloquence and style; and since history was, for them, less a dry recordof events than an elucidation of the meaning of those events, historians employed such "literary"devices-narrative structure, direct discourse, rhetorical embellishment, and so on-as would effectively convey that meaning.3 Studies on pre-modernWestern historiographyhave shown that attention to its literary and rhetorical aspects provides valuable insights into the histo-
Julie Scott Meisami is Lecturerin Persianat OxfordUniversity. 1. The paperon which this article is based was originally presentedin a panel on premodem Persian historiographyat the 2nd International Conference on Medieval Chronicles, Utrecht/Driebergen, Holland, in July 1999. The panel's four speakers(CharlesMelville, Sholeh Quinn,ErnestTucker,and myself) are among the contributors to the volume on Persianhistoriography in the new History of Persian Literature(generaleditor: Ehsan Yarshater), which is being edited by CharlesMelville. 2. Ta'rrkh originally referredto the study of chronology (see F. Rosenthal,A History of MuslimHistoriography,2nd rev. ed. [Leiden:E. J. Brill, 1968], 11-15) but soon came to be applied to any type of historical writing. Otherterms for "history"include akhbar(sg. khabar),"accounts,"and sira (pl. siyar), "life/lives," applied in the first instance to the life and deeds of the ProphetMuhammadbut also, in particular,to the history of the preIslamic Persiankings (siyar muliuk al-Furs). See R. S. Humphreys,"Ta'rikh.II. Historical Writing,"EI2 10: 271-76; Rosenthal,Muslim Historiography, 67-98. 3. See J. S. Meisami, Persian Historiographyto the End of the TwelfthCentury(Edinburgh:Edinburgh UniversityPress, 1999), especially 289-98.
16 Meisami nan's method and ultimate intent;4but only recently have "literary-critical" often by scholmethods been applied to the study of Islamicatehistoriography, ars whose primary concern is to separate "fact" from "fiction." Most such studies have focused on the problematicfield of early Islamic history, as written from earby historianswho lived much later, who utilized accounts transmitted lier authoritiesbut had their own political and/orpolemic agendas. The seminal work in this respect is Albrecht Noth's QuellenkritischeStudien zu Themen, (first published fruhislamischerGeschichtsuberlieferung Formen und Tendenzen in 1973), a revised version of which, in collaboration with Lawrence Conrad, appearedin English translationin 1994.5 The authors come to the conclusion that (for example) the presence of identifiable "topics" and "schemes" in an 6 account is an indicatorof its historical unreliability. A slightly more "literary" approachhas been taken by Stefan Leder, who has argued, in one study, that while the use of isnad (chain of transmission)would seem to exclude "narrative creativity . . . inasmuch as the factual value of the informationis maintained," when we find that "essential parts of [the] plot" of an account originate from "narrativeinvention"we are faced with "falsification"on the part of the historian/compiler utilizing that account.7 Such arguments hark back to the old view-voiced notablyby Gibb and von Grunebaum-that the virtualtakeoverof the writing of history in the 4th/lOth century by court secretariesand officials, of style which resulted,led to a decline in that and the increasing"literarization" "oncenoble"discipline.8 In a recent seminar talk I discussed the possible implications of such focusing on Stefan Leder's research for the study of Persian historiography,9 lead article in a volume of conference proceedings,'0titled "Conventionsof Fic4. The relevant literature,which encompasses historical writing from the classical to relevantessays the early modernperiod, is far too abundantto cite here. For particularly in the EuropeanMiddle Ages and the Renaissancesee Emest Breisach on historiography ed., Classical Rhetoricand Medieval History (Kalamazoo:WesternMichigan University Press, 1985). 5. AlbrechtNoth, The Early Arabic Historical Traditions:A Source-CriticalStudy, in collaborationwith Lawrence I. Conrad,trans. Michael Bonner (Princeton:Darwin Press, 1994). 283-84. 6. Noth, Studien,109-10; see also Meisami,Persian Historiography, The Downfall of Xalid al7. S. Leder, "Features of the Novel in Early Historiography: Qasri,"Oriens 32 (1990): 74. 8. See Meisami, Persian Historiography, 1-2, and the references cited. Gibb also influence of the Persianhistorical traditionon Arabiccommented on the "unfavorable" Islamic historiography; see H.A.R. Gibb, "Tarikh,"in Studies on the Civilization of Islam, ed. StanfordJ. Shaw and William R. Polk (Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press, 1982), 116-17 (originallypublishedin the Supplementto the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam in 1938). c.400-c.1300, St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 9. Seminaron the Medieval Mediterranean, 25 November 1999. 10. Stefan Leder ed., Story-Tellingin the Frameworkof Non-Fictional Arabic Literature (Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz,1998).
Historyas Literature17 tional Narration in Learned Literature."This title is somewhat surprising, as Leder begins by citing various scholarlyopinions to the effect that "Arabicliterary theory does not provide for fiction" and that "there was a reluctance to accept fiction in medieval learned literature." Nevertheless, he insists, "the existence of fictive contents in many narratives,"including historical accounts, "cannotbe seriously contested;""and he sets out to prove this in his article, in which, after noting that "fictional narration"is always "imbedded in a mainstreamof factual, or allegedly factual, narration," producingan ambiguitywhich "often obstructsany attemptto decide which text, or which partof a text, should be regardedas fiction," he attemptsto "clarify the criteriawhich allow to idenArabicliterature."'12 tify fiction in pre-modern After many convoluted arguments-which involve, in particular,identifying those elements which "betrayliterarycomposition, authorialintentions and fictitious contents")13 (note how the three are equated;and note that telling word, "betray")-and after asserting that the use of various types of embellishment (direct discourse, insertion of appropriateverses, and so on), which serves to present the charactersin a certain moral light, "is intentionaland thus indicates [the historian's]perceptionof decreasingfactuality,"'14at the end of this lengthy article (which I have, perhaps unjustly, only barely summarized here) Leder seems to waffle, when he states that Our conclusion that a narrativeis created according to the invention and narrativeskills of a story-telling mind does not offer ample prooffor [its] fictional status . . . i.e., that it is conventionally reckoned as fiction. The status of our examples . . . cannot be established on the
ground of an analytical reading of the plot, as long as the intended receptionof the text is not considered... which, to all intents and purposes, it is not.'5 Without going into details, I think that Leder has, basically, missed the boat: he has failed, first, to perceive the11. Leder, "Conventions