History: the Sho‘ubiyeh movement

What makes the concept of Bahar’s Sabk-shenasi so productive and, at the same time, so vague in methodological terms is the indissoluble connection of literature and history or, rather, of historical events and stylistic evolution. As we saw in the discussion of literary history, an all-encompassing milieu, mohit, is responsible for the evolutionary changes in language and literature. Such a close link in the formation of the historico-cultural narrative is prone to ideological exploitation, and the project of Iranian nationalism rests for a large part on this connection. This is why the last section will deal with a chapter in Iranian history that has become closely linked to the idea of cultural superiority and national identity: the Sho‘ubiyeh movement. The emancipatory Sho‘ubiyeh movement in early Islamic history (2nd-3rd c./8th-9th c.) is emblematic for modern nationalists, who argue in favor of an early national consciousness. As most of its proponents were Iranians, the Sho‘ubiyeh has often been considered proof of the persistence of Iranian culture in the face of Arab hegemony. As such, it serves to foster the belief in a permanent, vital core of Iranian identity.64

Bahar had already dealt with the issue of the Sho‘ubiyeh in an article published in 1306/1928,65 and he resumed the subject in Sabk-shenasi; but the texts differ slightly. The earlier text describes the Sho‘ubiyeh as a “racial movement” (nehzat-e nezhadi), its initiators and supporters as people who “considered themselves superior to the Arabs in terms of noble ancestry and racial greatness.”66 According to Bahar, the main incentive for the movement (which he describes mainly as a political one) rests in the false politics of the Umayyad caliphs, who promoted the arrogant behavior and ignorant rule of the Arab governors in the region. If they had adopted more intelligent ways of dealing with their mavali subjects, the movement would have remained harmless and confined to the literary spheres where it started, instead of crossing the line to politics.67 He seems to consider the phenomenon to be rooted in social psychology rather than in the longing for national identity. In Sabk-shenasi, Bahar puts forward a similar characterization of the Sho‘ubiyeh:

It was because of [ ... ] the self-importance and arrogance that some individuals within the Arab tribes displayed towards others and sometimes [also] towards Arabs of lesser origin [ . ] that a group rose up among the Arabs and the non-Arab muslims. They [the supporters of the Sho‘ubiyeh] contended that prestige and honour rest on morality and piety rather than on race and pedigree [ . ].68

Moreover, in the later text, he tones down the racial component by contending that labelling the Sho‘ubiyeh as “Ajam” and their opponents as “Arab” does not reflect the historical realities.

During the Abbasid period, a confrontation arose between the Sho‘ubiyeh, the so called “Ajam” (Persians) and their opponents, the so called “Arab” tribes. [ ... ] Both sides, in order to affirm their objectives, wrote articles, treatises and books, and resulting from this great tumult two sciences arose, the disciplines of Arabic on the one hand [ . ] while the Sho‘ubiyeh, on the other hand, engaged in the translation of Pahlavi, Indian and Greek books [ ... ].

In these two parties, which fought each other for long years, both Arabs and Persians were intermingled, and in this mixture, they followed the rationale of scientific opinions rather than that of racial ideologies (yek ‘aqideh-ye ‘elmi na yek maram-e nezhadi).69

Bahar certainly does not downplay the cultural and political achievements of the Iranians in the centuries after the Islamic conquest, but he discusses the question of the Iranian emancipation under Arab domination as an answer to political suppression, not as a reaction to cultural difference and not as the necessary result of cultural superiority. The question of “Iranian-ness” in Bahar’s teachings, be it the emergence of independent governments on Iranian soil or the endurance of the Persian language, is never linked to a “natural” superiority, let alone to purity. As a true evolutionary theorist, he deals prominently with the factor of mixtures which will yield cultural wealth.

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