AʿLAM, HUŠANG (b. Tehran, 1928; d. Tehran, 2007), eminent scholar of the history of science.

Hušang began his primary education at home, where he was taught by his father, Naṣr-Allāh Aʿlam-al-Saltạna, who disapproved of the way children were taught at schools. He himself had studied medicine at the Dār al-fonun during the reign of Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah (1896-1906) and had a good command of French. By the age of 11, Hušang had already acquired some knowledge of Persian and French literature at home. He was allowed to enter primary school, where he was placed in the fourth grade. He completed his secondary education at Irānšahr and ʿElmiya schools, where he continued to study English, which he had already started on his own. He also took some Arabic lessons (Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 21-35). He gained his degree in French language and literature from Tehran University, and, as he aimed to qualify as a teacher of French, he also studied at the Teachers’ Training College (see Education xix. Teachers’-Training Colleges) for two years, graduating in 1950. He was an outstanding student throughout his university years.

In order to discharge his five years of teaching commitment, in 1951 he went to Sāri, Māzandarān’s capital city. Having secured a government grant in 1956, he traveled to the United States, where he obtained his M.A. in English language and literature from the University of Michigan in 1958.  Upon his return, he resumed his teaching at Sāri (Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 44-49, 53, 73).

In 1961, the Ministry of Education began to publish a journal entitled Farhang, and Aʿlam returned to Tehran to join the staff as a translator. This was the beginning of his work in the field of translation, covering a range of topics translated from French and English. His association with Farhang brought him into contact with a number of established writers and poets, including ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi, the editor of the journal, and Mehdi Akhavan-e Saless. The journal ceased publication after four issues, and Aʿlam was employed by the Iran National Library (Ketābḵāna-ye melli), where he began to learn modern cataloging methods. He also became acquainted with the noted scholar and bibliographer Iraj Afšār, then the head of the library. After some time, the National Library sent him to the United States, where he studied librarianship at Simmons College, Boston, while at the same time cataloging the Persian and Arabic books at Harvard University (Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 56-57; Afšār, 2001, pp. 232-33). In addition to receiving his M.A. in librarianship, he enrolled in the doctoral program in linguistics and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard and embarked on a dissertation on the Māzandarāni language under Richard Nelson Frye's supervision. The dissertation was left unfinished when he was urgently summoned back by the Iranian government (Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 57-61). He also developed a close friendship with Muhsin Mahdi (1926-2007) the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard, and translated into English a chapter of Soyuṭi’s al-Moẓher, and wrote an extensive introduction to it on the origin of language according to Muslims and from the Koranic perspective (for the text of this treatise, see Pažuhešhā-ye Irānšenāsi 16, Tehran, 2005, pp. 1075-1132).

Back in Tehran, in 1972 Aʿlam was employed at Farhangestān, where he was assigned to evaluate the series of books and fascicles published there under the rubric Pišnahād-e šomā čist? (What is your suggestion?).  Aʿlam himself authored the fascicle Vāžahā-ye ketābdāri (The terminology of librarianship, 1973).  However, his scrupulously critical approach in vetting the material submitted to the Farhangestān for publication led to disagreements with the director Ṣādeq Kiā, and Aʿlam was transferred to the Ministry of Culture and Art in 1979.  There, he compiled a volume in English on teaching Persian to non-Persian speakers. For several years before the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, he also cooperated with Bonyād-e Farhang-e Irān, headed by the eminent scholar Parviz N. Ḵānlari (Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 60-64). Concurrently, Aʿlam was engaged in translating articles from the Encyclopedia of Islam for publication in Dāneš-nāma-ye Irān wa Eslām.

Having gone through some hard times after the Islamic Revolution, Aʿlam was finally employed in 1988 at the Bonyād-e Dāʾerat-al-maʿāref-e Eslāmi to participate in the compilation of Dāneš-nāma-ye jahān-e Eslām (Encyclopedia of the Islamic World; a continuation of the aforementioned Dāneš-nāma-ye Irān wa Eslām). After the Dāneš-nāma's change of policy, when it began to solicit original articles rather than relying on direct translations from English-language encyclopedias, ʿAlam began to contribute entries related to history of science. At the same time, he wrote numerous botanical and zoological articles in English for the Encyclopædia Iranica (see below). Aʿlam’s most accomplished output was the well over 100 articles that he wrote for these two encyclopedias in the last two decades of his life (Afšār, 2001, pp. 235-37; Āẕarang, pp. 239-41). During this period, he was at his most prolific while maintaining his highly meticulous approach to scholarship, exhibiting his formidable expertise in both history of science and lexicography (Borjiān, 2004). Before his death, he entrusted some 5,000 notes that he had prepared for his own unfinished project, a dictionary of Persian compound words and derivatives, with special emphasis on both spoken and standard language, to the lexicographer, Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Ṣadri-Afšār (Aʿlam, 2006a; pp. 93-95).

Aʿlam’s encyclopedia articles are impressive in many ways. Written in a clear and succinct style, they exhibit his knowledge of sources in different languages, his familiarity with the etymology of the names of flora and fauna, and his firm grasp of the history of their lore and use in medical literature from the pre-Islamic period to the present-day, in both Persian and Arabic (Afšār, 2001, pp. 235-37; Āẕarang, pp. 239-41; Borjiān, 2004).

Aʿlam’s articles in the first five volumes of Dāneš-nāma-ye jahān-e Eslām were compiled into a single volume and published in 2002 as Jostārhāʾi dar tāriḵ-e ʿelm-e dawra-ye Eslāmi (Essays on the history of science in the Islamic era; see Borjiān, 2011), with Aʿlam’s own introduction on the characteristics of articles written for an encyclopedia. His other publications are: Oṣul-e sāda-ye ketābdāri, with Ḥosayn Bani-Ādam and ʿAli-Akbar Jānā (Tehran, 1965); and Afḡānestān (collection of articles), tr. Saʿid Arbāb-Širāni and Hušang Aʿlam (Tehran, 1997). His last work was an introduction to the facsimile of a manuscript, kept in Golestān Palace at Tehran, of the Arabic al-Ḥašāʾeš (De Materia Medica) by the renowned Greek botanist and pharmacologist Dioscorides.

In reviewing the works of others, Aʿlam was outspoken and sometimes acerbic. Examples of his critical reviews are those on Yahyā Māhyār-Nawwābi’s Ketābšenāsi-e Irān (in Rāhnemā-ye ketāb 14, 1971, pp. 353-62) and Abu’l-Ḥasan Najafi’s Farhang-e fārsi-e ʿāmmiāna (in Nāma-ye Farhangestān 17, 2001, pp. 98-125). Aʿlam sometimes flavored his reviews with satirical remarks, an interesting example being his review of Amin-Allāh Rabbāni’s Parandagān-e Ḵāvar-e miāna va Ḵāvar-e nazdik (in Našr-e dāneš 9, 1988, pp. 48-50). In addition, in the final decade of his life, Aʿlam attended and made presentations at several international scholarly conferences (for a full list of such conferences as well as his publications, see ʿAlam, 2006b, pp. 235-46).

Aʿlam also was greatly interested in photography, and that in his youth he translated and wrote several articles on the subject, which were published in the journals Farhang and Soḵan (see also Aʿlam, 2006a, pp. 65-66).

Aʿlam was characteristically modest, kind, emotional, sensitive and easily hurt, but with a good sense of humor. He was almost blind in the final months of his life, and died at the age of 79 following a heart attack. He was buried in the writers and artists’ allotment at the Behešt-e Zahrā cemetery in south Tehran.

As a Contributor to Encyclopædia Iranica. Hušang Aʿlam was one of the most valued contributors to the Encyclopædia Iranica. He first became acquainted with its General Editor, Ehsan Yarshater, in 1967 at a meeting of The Book Society of Persia (Anjoman-e Ketāb). Yarshater had brought along a copy of the proofs of his book, A Grammar of Southern Tati Dialects (The Hague and Paris, 1969), and he showed it to Aʿlam.  Aʿlam spent a couple of hours on the proofs and made several perceptive comments. His overall judgement, his apparent knowledge of some Iranian dialects, and many of his concrete suggestions for improving the book impressed Yarshater and later suggested to him, as General Editor, the possibility of asking Aʿlam to contribute to the Encyclopædia Iranica.

Until then, the entries on botanical subjects in the Encyclopædia Iranica contained limited information or were exclusively concerned with the taxonomy of plants and flowers. Noting the scholarly curiosity and investigative disposition of Aʿlam, in 1987 Yarshater proposed to him to write a number of entries in letter “B,”  including “Basil” and “Beans.” Aʿlam's contributions on these two topics reflected his meticulousness and his exhaustive search for information in sources in different languages, including Persian, Arabic, Latin and Greek, English, French as well as other relevant Iranian languages. He managed to cover not only the taxonomic features of the plants, but also their occurrence in literature and folklore, if any, their medicinal properties and use, if pertinent, followed by a detailed list of the sources that he had consulted. From then on Aʿlam became the Encyclopædia Iranica’s sole contributor on plants, vegetables, and flowers, and served as a consulting editor for flora from 2003 (vol. XI, Fasc. 6) to the end of his life.

Before the forthcoming entries on plants and flowers were all entrusted to Aʿlam, he was invited to write the entries  “Beaver” and then “Belderčin.” He brought the same exhaustive research to his entries on animals. Encouraged by his agreement to write on some animals and showing the same interest and exhaustive research, the General Editor proposed other entries to him on varieties of fish and birds. 

Writing for the Encyclopædia Iranica became a regular occupation and pre-occupation for Aʿlam. The following list of the articles that he wrote for the Encyclopædia Iranica exhibits the range of his research, as well as the depth of the Encyclopædia 's indebtedness to him. The General Editor was about to invite him to write “Wolf” and “Lion” when the sad news of his passing was announced and the Encyclopaedia was deprived of one of its most conscientious, erudite and meticulous contributors.

Entries in the Encyclopædia Iranica: Plants: Basil, Beans, Beaver, Beech, Beet, Beh, Bid, Birch, Boxtree, Cabbage, Camel Thorn, Camphor, Caracal, Cardamom, Carrot, Cassia, Čenār, Citrus, Fruits, Coconut, Čolāb, Coriander, Cornelian Cherry, Crocus, Cucumber, Cumin, Cypress, Dārčini, Date Palm, Deraḵt, Dill, Ḏorrat, Elm, Felfel, Fennel, Fig, Fruit, Gāvzabān, Gol, Golāb, Golpar, Henna, Rye. Animals: Bāz, Bāzdāri, Belderčin, Bolbol, Buf, Buqalamun, Bustard, Butimār, Čakāvak, Caviar, Coral, Crane, Crow, Davāl-Pāy, Duck, Fāḵta, Fish ii. Salt Water Fishes, Fish iii. Pre-Islamic Persian Lore, Honey, Honeybees. Biographical entries: Ebn al-Baytār, Zayn-al-Din Esmāʿil Jorjāni.


Iraj Afšār, “Aʿlam, dānešmand-e vārasta-ye besyār-dān,” Boḵārā, ser. no. 17, 2001, pp. 232-37.

Idem, “Yādgārhā-ʾi az Hušang Aʿlam,” Boḵārā, ser. no. 62, 2007, pp. 216-44.

Hušang Aʿlam, “Goftogu bā ostād Hušang-e Aʿlam” (interview by Ḥakima Dastranji), in Zendagi-nāma va ḵadamāt-e ʿelmi o farhangi-e ostād Hušang-e Aʿlam, Tehran, 2006a, pp. 21-99.

Idem, “Kār-nāma,” in Zendagi-nāma va ḵadamāt-e ʿelmi o farhangi-e ostād Hušang-e Aʿlam, Tehran, 2006b, pp. 235-46.

ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Āẕarang, “Hušang-e Aʿlam: dānešnāma-nevis-e meʿyār,” Boḵārā, ser. no. 17, 2001, pp. 238-42.

Ḥabib Borjiān, “Kamāl dar taḥqiq,” Nāma-ye Farhangestān 6/4, 2004, ser. no. 24, pp. 125-27.

Idem, “Jostārhā-yi dar tāriḵ-e ʿolum-e eslāmi,” in Sayyed ʿAli Āl-e Dāvud and Aḥmad Samiʿi Gilāni, eds., Farhang-e āṯār-e irāni-eslāmi III, Tehran, 2011, pp. 96-97.

Ṭubā Sāṭeʿi “Gozāreš-i az marāsem-e tajlil-e ostād Hušang-e Aʿlam,” Boḵārā, ser. no. 17, 2001, pp. 220-27.

(Mehran Afshari and EIr)

Originally Published: July 2, 2013

Last Updated: July 2, 2013

Cite this entry:

Mehran Afshari and EIr, “AʿLAM, HUŠANG,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2013, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alam-husang (accessed on 30 December 2013).