ENCYCLOPAEDIA IRANICA, an alphabetically arranged reference work which seeks to provide scholarly articles relating to “all aspects of Iranian life and culture.”
The Encyclopaedia Iranica grew out of an idea proposed in 1969 by Ehsan Yarshater, director of the Bongāh-e tarjoma wa našr-e ketāb (q.v.; Institute for Translation and Publication of Books), for a Persian translation of the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. Since the treatment of various Persian topics in the Encyclopaedia of Islam was regarded as inadequate, the proposed translation was also to contain supplementary new articles to correct these deficiencies, somewhat on the model of the Türk İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Publication of the expanded encyclopaedia, known as the Dāneš-nāma-ye Īrān wa Eslām (q.v.) began in 1354 Š./1975 and ten fascicles were issued before the project was suspended in 1980 as a result of the political upheaval in Persia. Meanwhile, Yarshater, the founder and guiding spirit of the project, proposed in 1972 that an English language counterpart to the Dāneš-nāma be produced and obtained funding for this purpose. The new work, the Encyclopaedia Iranica, would be completely differentiated from the Encyclopaedia of Islam since it would consist entirely of new articles. The 1978-79 Revolution effectively ended the Dāneš-nāma, although in 1992 it resumed publication in a radically different form. Yarshater, however, was able to make other arrangements to keep the parallel Encyclopaedia Iranica project going. The first fascicle appeared in 1982, and the first bound volume in 1985, under the editorship of Yarshater and with the assistance of a distinguished editorial and advisory board. As of this writing (1995), seven bound volumes, totaling more than 5,850 pages, have appeared. The first four volumes were published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd. and subsequent volumes by Mazda Publishers. The published volumes have clearly established the Encyclopaedia Iranica as a reference work of utmost importance on all topics having to do with Persia and Persian culture.
The purpose and principles of the Encyclopaedia Iranica are succinctly stated in the introduction by the editor, Ehsan Yarshater (I, pp. 1-3): “The Encyclopaedia Iranica is designed as a research tool responding to the needs of scholars, specialists, and students in Iranian studies and related fields. It aims at filling an important gap in the range of available reference sources which deal with the history and culture of the Middle East.” To meet that goal, the Encyclopaedia Iranica aims to include scholarly articles related to “Iranian culture in a broad context and the reciprocal influences between Persia and its neighbors” during a time period extending “from pre-history to the present.”
Knowledgeable readers will immediately recognize that the “important gap” which the Encyclopaedia Iranica was intended to fill is the one left open by the venerable Encyclopaedia of Islam, the reference work to which the Encyclopaedia Iranica is most directly comparable. It has long been apparent that the Encyclopaedia of Islam, despite its many merits, does not and perhaps cannot meet the expectations raised by its title: A truly encyclopaedic, comprehensive, scholarly treatment of a subject as vast and complex as “Islam” is inherently as elusive a goal as would be a project of similar high scholarship on all the peoples, lands, and cultures of “Christendom.” The resulting unevenness in its coverage of many areas inspired the production of a number of other reference works to complement, or to compete with, the Encyclopaedia of Islam by recasting it in one way or another, including not only Turkish, Urdu, and Shiʿite counterparts, but also a new edition of the original Encyclopaedia of Islam itself. The Encyclopaedia Iranica is in a sense the most recent and perhaps the most successful effort to compensate for some of the perceived inadequacies of the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
The Encyclopaedia Iranica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam overlap to a degree in the topics they cover, and both are similar in their format. They also have both had to face certain technical difficulties in presentation, such as which system of transliteration to employ, whether to translate or transliterate entry titles, and how to handle cross-referencing. Otherwise, they are markedly different works. The new Encyclopaedia of Islam was apparently begun without much systematic planning, has been published at a snail’s pace for decades, and has changed considerably in its scope and implementation over the years. In contrast, it is clear that a great deal of time was invested in preparing for the Encyclopaedia Iranica, and that a deliberate effort was made to avoid the problems associated with the Encyclopaedia of Islam. This seems to have expedited production of the Encyclopaedia Iranica as actual publication has thus far been remarkably rapid, with completion expected early in the 21st century. It also tends to have a much clearer focus and greater overall consistency than the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
In terms of its contents, the Encyclopaedia Iranica clearly has done much more than simply compensate for the Encyclopaedia of Islam’sneglect of pre-Islamic Persia and inadequacies in its coverage of Islamic Persia and Shiʿism. Whereas the Encyclopaedia of Islam started out with a broad definition of what it should include but implemented it rather narrowly, especially in the early volumes of the new edition, the Encyclopaedia Iranica took what could have been a very narrow perspective and implemented it quite broadly. It includes not only topics related to the Iranian plateau, but also the much larger area affected by both Turko-Persian and Indo-Persian cultures. The types of articles included are remarkably diverse; many will be of interest to a broad general readership, while others will be of great value to specialists. As with the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the majority of the articles deal with the biographies of prominent historical figures, geographical descriptions of important places, and socio-political, religious, or other technical concepts. However, a pleasantly surprising number of articles deal with more generalized topics and provide extensive summaries of information that would be difficult to obtain from any other single source; examples to date include fine articles on “Anthropology,” “Architecture,” “Armor,” “Army,” “Astrology and Astronomy,” “Bathhouses,” “Bāzār,” “Carpets,” “Ceramics,” “Children,” “Cinema in Iran,” “Class System,” “Clothing,” “Coins and Coinage,” and even “Conspiracy Theories.” Some multi-section articles are almost book-length in size and represent veritable state of the art treatments of their subjects; notable in this regard are the articles on “Art,” “Armenia,” “Afghanistan,” “Archaeology,” “Avicenna,” “Azerbaijan,” “Baluchistan,” and “Central Asia.” In addition, one may find numerous shorter articles examining from a Persian perspective topics such as flora and fauna, ethnography, the arts, sciences, technology, or popular culture. Many of these articles are quite unique, having no counterpart in the Encyclopaedia of Islam or other reference works; especially interesting examples include articles on “Anglo-Iranian Relations,” “Byzantine-Iranian Relations,” “Chinese-Iranian Relations,” “Botanical Studies,” “Boundaries,” “Constitutional Revolution,” and “Courts and Courtiers.” Another feature that will be useful for specialists in their research activities is the Encyclopaedia Iranica’sinclusion of articles on individual texts, ranging from ancient writings, such as the Avesta or Acts of the Persian Martyrs, to the modern novel Būf-e kūr; biographies of prominent Iranologists and analysis of their works; and specialized reference articles, such as the ones on “Bibliographies and Catalogues” or “Calendars.” In terms of its coverage, the Encyclopaedia Iranica may thus be described as truly encyclopaedic; in some ways it might more aptly be compared with a work such as the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia than with the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
In addition to the remarkable breadth and balance of its topical and chronological coverage, the Encyclopaedia Iranica has also been extremely successful in maintaining the highest scholarly standards, with many articles being the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of their subjects currently available, while at the same time making the articles accessible, unintimidating, comprehensible, and relevant for non-specialists. Moreover, it has also been commendably international in the authorship of its articles and includes many entries by prominent Iranian scholars, even though this requires translating their contributions into English.
The Encyclopaedia Iranica is not only informative and authoritative; it is generally a pleasure to use. Given the alphabetical arrangement of the articles, even non-specialists should be able to handle it easily. However, there are several points which should be kept in mind when consulting it. First of all, it is necessary to be familiar with the system of transliteration it employs. That system is substantially different from that used by the Encyclopaedia of Islam and many other periodicals and reference works. The transliteration scheme is described in detail at the beginning of the encyclopaedia and is employed quite consistently. As explained in the editorial notes, however, it was slightly modified beginning with the letter B. One also encounters a few surprises along the way such as the use of “ə” in certain Pashto words; no explanation is given of this in the introduction. What appears to be an arbitrary listing of rubrics, sometimes under an English equivalent and sometimes in transliteration, is, in fact, based on the organizing principle that whichever of the two occurs first in the alphabet receives the entry, and, as a rule, reference is made to it from the other.
There are, for example, entries for “Abrīšam” (silk), “ʿAdas” (lentils), “Angūr” (grapes), “Bādām” (almonds), “Bāmīa” (okra), “Bāqelā” (broadbeans), “Beh” (quince), “Berenj” (rice), or “Čāy” (tea), but conversely “Cotton” (panba), “Barley” (jow), “Beans” (lūbīā), “Bread” (nān), “Beet” (čoḡondar), “Cabbage” (kalam), “Coconut” (nārgīl), or “Coffee” (qahwa). “Asb” is used for horse, but “Bats,” “Beaver,” “Boar,” “Camel,” and “Cat” all appear under the English names; other oddities include “Agriculture” but “Ābyārī” (irrigation) and “Dāmdārī” (animal husbandry); “ʿAmāma” (turbans) but “Belts”; or “Administration” but “Barnāma-rīzī” (planning). Ample cross-references help to compensate for this, but it may ultimately be desirable to have a comprehensive index to facilitate locating specific information. Readers should also pay close attention to the usage of the terms Iran/Iranian and Persia/Persian in the encyclopaedia. Beginning more or less with the fourth volume, Persia and Persian tend to be used in a narrow sense for the country and culture of what is often referred to as “Iran,” while Iran and Iranian tend to be used when the broader geographical and cultural context is meant. This somewhat confusing and controversial change in policy is explained in the editorial notes and more fully in a communication from the editor, Ehsan Yarshater, in the journal Iranian Studies (22, 1989, pp. 62-65). Finally, some readers may be disappointed by the editorial decision not to include biographies of living persons in the Encyclopaedia. Although the omission of certain manifestly important living individuals would indeed be regrettable, the editor plans supplementary volumes(s) in which articles on such figures can be included as it becomes appropriate.
Encyclopaedia Iranica was supported in the first four preparatory years by the Plan Organization (Sāzmān-e barnāma wa būdja) through a grant to the Institute for Translations and Publications (Bongāh-e tarjoma wa našr-e ketāb). Since the Revolution of 1357 Š./1978-79 the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent American federal agency, has provided the main financial support. In addition, a portion of the costs of producing the Encyclopaedia has been raised from foundations and private sources through the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation.
Critical reaction to the Encyclopaedia Iranica has been extremely positive (a partial listing of reviews may be found in the bibliography). There has been particular praise for the variety of topics included; the balanced treatment of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods; the quality of the individual articles; and the rigorous editing and extensive documentation reflected in the articles. Criticism has focused primarily on the inevitable omissions and minor errors which occur in such a vast reference work. Virtually all reviewers agree that the Encyclopaedia Iranica has succeeded in defining its own distinct identity and is now the most authoritative and absolutely indispensable reference work in its field.
Important reviews of the Encyclopaedia Iranica combining critical opinion and/or information about errata include: Ī. Afšār, Āyanda 4, 1367 Š./1989, pp. 714-17.
L. ʿĀlīšān, Īrānšenāsī 1/1, 1368 Š./1989, pp. 171-82.
S. A. Arjomand, Middle Eastern Studies 3, 1988, pp. 381-82.
D. Āšūrī, Rahāvard 22, 1367 Š./1988, pp. 232-35.
A. Banuazizi, IJMES 22, 1990, pp. 370-73.
J. Bečka, Archív Orientální 571/1, 1989, p. 910.
Ḥ. Borjīān, Īrān-nāma 12/2, 1373 Š./1994, pp. 369-80.
C. A. Bromberg, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 1993, pp. 221-22.
R. Bulliet, IJMES 24, 1992, pp. 679-80.
J. Calmard, Studia Iranica 17, 1988, pp. 106-10; 19, 1990, pp. 125-28; 20, 1991, pp. 154-60.
F. Daftary, JAOS 111, 1991, pp. 152-53.
S. F. Dale, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 28/2, 1994, pp. 163-64.
E. L. Daniel, JAOS 115/3, 1995, pp. 500-501.
M. Dresden, JAOS 105, 1985, pp. 164-65.
J. Dūstḵᵛāh, Īrānšenāsī 5/2, 1372 Š./1993, pp. 398-414.
W. Ende, ZDMG 138, 1988, pp. 405-7.
Idem, Die Welt des Islams 33, 1993, pp. 329-30. R. Frye, JOAS 108/1, 1988, pp. 169-70.
A. Karīmī-Hakkāk, ʿElm o Jāmaʿa 10/72, 1378 Š./1989, pp. 59-65.
Idem, Īrān-nāma, 7/4, 1368 Š./1989, pp. 637-56.
G. Lazard, JA 271/3-4, 1983, pp. 392-93.
Ḥ. Moʾayyad, Īrān-nāma 2/3, 1363 Š./1984, pp. 511-16.
R. Mottahedeh, The Middle East Journal 41, 1987, pp. 164-65.
Idem, The Middle East Journal 44, 1990, pp. 499-500.
J. M. Rogers, BSO(A)S 54/1, 1991, pp. 171-72.
A. Sh. Shahbazi, JAOS 110/4, 1990, pp. 777-80.
M. Shaki, Archív Orientální 57/1, 1989, pp. 67-91.
B. Spuler, Der Islam 65, 1988, pp. 166-69.
W. Sundermann, Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 84, 1989, 647-57.
(Elton L. Daniel)
Originally Published: December 15, 1998
Last Updated: December 15, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 4, pp. 430-432