MOḤTAŠAM KĀŠĀNI, Šams-al-šoʿarā Kamāl-al-Din, Persian poet of the Safavid period (b. Kashan, 1528-29, d. Kashan, 1588). Like many poets of the time, Mohtasham had mercantile origins. His father, Ḵᵛāja Mir Aḥmad (d. 1554), was active in Kashan’s prosperous cloth industry, and the poet seems to have pursued the same occupation before a business setback led him to take up poetry as a full-time occupation. His brother, Ḵᵛāja ʿAbd-al-Ḡani, died in the Deccan as a young man in 1552. The poet himself suffered from a chronic debility of the foot, and though he occasionally expressed the desire to migrate to India, he remained in the city of his birth throughout his life. In one poem (Haft divān, I, p. 435), he refers to a brief marriage that ended in divorce, and he apparently died childless. Shortly before his death in February 1588, he entrusted the collection and arrangement of his literary remains to the poet and literary biographer Taqi-al-Din of Kashan. His tomb today stands at the site of his house in Kashan.
This uneventful biography belies Mohtasham’s significant role in the cultural life of 16th-century Persia. Though Tabriz and Qazvin served as the political capitals of the Safavid dynasty during the poet’s lifetime, Kashan held pride of place as the main center of literary activity. In addition to a profusion of locally grown talent, most aspiring poets from around the country (such as Naẓiri of Nishapur and Ṭāleb of Āmol) passed through the city at some point in their careers. Taqi-al-Din’s description of Mohtasham as the “absolute master” (ostād-e ʿalā-al-eṭlāq) of the poets of the time was more than mere hyperbole: an edict apparently issued by Pariḵān Ḵānom, the daughter of Shah Taḥmāsp I (r. 1524-76), required other poets of Kashan to submit their work to Mohtasham for inspection before sending it on to the royal court (ibid., I, pp. 84-91). Such power and influence inevitably aroused hostility, and both Mohtasham’s own works and the biographies of poets (taḏkeras) of the time give ample testimony to the animosity that the poet could inspire and harbor. In a contemporary memoir, Ḵayr al-bayān, Malek-Šāh Ḥosayn of Sistān describes how the young Vahshi (Waḥši) was promoted by those in Kashan who envied the wealth and pomp that Mohtasham enjoyed. He nursed a grudge long after this potential rival had retreated to his hometown of Yazd and composed an ingenious, but grudging chronogram on Vahshi’s death: kačal Waḥši bovad ṣāheb-ṭabiʿat / vali dun o bi-gowhar o bi-ḥaqiqat (‘Baldy Vahshi possesses genius / but he is base, ignoble, and untruthful’), in which both halves of the verse yield the year 991/1583 (ibid., II, p. 1601). Mohtasham had similar feuds with a number of other poets, yet clearly had many backers as well, and some of his students, such as Ẓohuri of Toršiz and Nowʿi of Ḵabušān, went on to achieve considerable fame in the courts of India.
Though he lived at a distance from the palace, Mohtasham stayed in close touch with the royal family and courted its patronage throughout his life. He dedicated many poems in various genres to the praise of Shah Ṭahmāsp and his successors Esmāʿil II (r. 1576-77) and Moḥammad Ḵodābanda (r. 1578-88). However, in the political chaos that followed Ṭahmāsp’s death in 1576, kingship was only rarely synonymous with power, and allegiances changed rapidly. Mohtasham’s collected works suggest a frantic attempt to stay afloat on these shifting and dangerous political currents. He addressed poems to the main princely contenders for the throne, Ḥaydar Mirzā (see ḤAYDAR MIRZĀ ṢAFAVI) and Ḥamza Mirzā, to administrators such as Mirzā Salmān Jāberi and Mirzā Loṭf-Allāh Šarif, and to a variety of Qezelbāš tribal leaders like Moḥammad Ḵān Torkomān and Moršed-Qoli Ḵān Ostājlu. Perhaps in an effort to find a safe haven in India, as a number of his younger contemporaries did, Mohtasham also dedicated poems to the ʿĀdel- and Neẓām-Šāhs, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), and ʿAbd-al-Raḥim Ḵān-e Ḵānān. Whether or not these poems reached their addressees, Mohtasham remained in Persia; he lived long enough to celebrate the arrival of Prince ʿAbbās in Qazvin, but not to enjoy the stability and prosperity the young king would bring to the country.
Mohtasham’s fame today rests almost entirely on a single poem—his elegy in twelve strophes (davāzdah-band) on the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn at Karbalāʾ, beginning bāz in če šureši-st ke dar ḵalq-e ʿālam ast / bāz in če nowha o če ʿazā o če mātam ast (‘What is this tumult now among the world’s creatures? / What now is this wailing, this mourning, this lamentation?’, ibid., I, pp. 460-68). This poem achieved renown even during the poet’s lifetime; the contemporary literary biographer Awḥadi of Balyān writes that “if his poetry were limited to this one work, it would be enough” (Golčin-e Maʿāni, p. 477). This judgement was prescient; at the beginning of the 20th century, Browne praises the “true pathos and religious feeling” expressed in the “extraordinarily simple and direct” language of the poem (IV, p. 172), and even a Marxist critic like Rypka is taken by its “charm of genuine sincerity and intimacy” (Rypka, p. 298). Recently, Karen Ruffle has pointed out how Mohtasham integrated the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition of women’s elegies (marṯiya) into the context of the Moḥarram ceremonies that had received a new impetus under the Shiʿite dispensation of the Safavid state. The poem reached the peak of its popularity during the Qajar period, generating dozens of responses and imitations. Mohtasham’s elegy remains one of the best-known works of classical poetry up to the present day and is often pressed onto long pieces of cloth that drape entire cities in Iran during Moḥarram ceremonies.
The affective power and critical renown of this poem has colored the perception of Mohtasham’s career, his other works, and even Safavid literary patronage as a whole. In a famous episode from ʿĀlamārā-ye ʿabbāsi, the historian Eskandar Beg Monši tells how Mohtasham submitted a panegyric ode dedicated to Shah Ṭahmāsp through the princess Pariḵān Ḵānom; the king reproached the poet for polluting his tongue with the praises of temporal rulers and directed him to turn his talents to extolling the virtues of the Imams. Mohtasham responded with a seven-strophe poem (haft-band; ibid., I, pp. 288-98) in praise of ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb closely modeled on an earlier work by Mawlānā Ḥasan of Kashan (fl. early 14th cent.). The regal payment that Mohtasham received led to a flood of further imitations by other poets (Eskandar Beg, tr. Savory, I, pp. 274-75). Browne, followed by most modern scholars, mistakenly identified this poem with the elegy on Karbalāʾ, resulting in a misleading exaggeration of the importance of the anecdote itself. It came to be regarded as an expression of the attitude of the Safavid dynasty toward poetry and the literary arts in general, “whereas it probably only points to a personal change of heart of one monarch” (de Bruijn, “Ṣafawids”).
Even a cursory examination of the rest of Mohtasham’s sizeable divān (consisting of some 13,000 verses and two substantial prosimetric works) suggests that characterizing either the poet or the age as fanatically religious is open to question. Taqi-al-Din of Kashan’s “deathbed” edition divides the poet’s works into seven topical sections. The first and longest of these (Šaybiya, ‘On mature themes’) contains poems devoted to panegyric and eulogistic themes in nearly all the forms available to the classical poet—qaṣida, ḡazal, qeṭʿa, tarkib-band, robāʿi, and maṯnawi. According to Ṣafā (V, p. 795), Mohtasham’s qasidas (odes) look back to the style of 11th- and 12th-century masters such as Anwari, and Awḥadi of Balyān deems the amatory preludes of some of these poems “incomparable” (Golčin-e Maʿāni, p. 477). This section also contains the famous poems on the Shiʿite Imams, as well as the strophic elegy on the death of his brother (Haft divān, I, pp. 625-36; French translation, H. Massé). Eulogistic themes are also prominent in the sixth section of his divan (collection of poems), Żoruriyāt (‘For special occasions’), which consists of Mohtasham’s substantial collection of chronograms or mawādd-e tawāriḵ. Utilizing the numeric values of the Arabo-Persian alphabet (abjad) to record dates of significant events in memorably apt phrases was a technique much in fashion during the 16th century, and Mohtasham was an accomplished master; each half-verse of his 32-line poem on the accession of Esmāʿil II, for example, yields the value 984 (1576), the year he was enthroned (ibid., II, pp. 1552-54). Over half the poems in this section record dates of death, the deceased ranging from the famous to the obscure, including both the poet’s friends and foes. Others commemorate happier occasions, such as the birth of a child, the dedication of a building, or appointment to high office.
The first section of the divan contains some one hundred ghazals (ḡazals), placed here because of their eulogistic content. Ghazals on more purely amatory themes are found in the second and third sections of the collected works - Šabābiya (‘On youthful love’) and Ṣabāʾiya (‘On adolescent passion’). The reason for dividing these poems into two groups is unclear. Based on the remarks of the 18th-century literary historian Āḏar Beygdeli, Ṣafā (V, p. 796) proposes that Mohtasham’s predilection for verbal figures and rhetorical ornamentation, while appropriate for ceremonial genres such as the qasida, ran counter to the prevailing trends in the lyric, which prized figures of thought and a more naturalistic language. Like his contemporaries, Mohtasham looked back to earlier poets such as Saʿdi, Ḥāfeẓ, and Jāmi for patterns of rhyme and meter, and his ghazals, in turn, served as models for later poets from Kashan, such as Kalim (d. 1651) and Najib (d. 1711) (see Haft divān, I, pp. 103-24). Mohtasham’s ghazals, however, have received little critical attention, and few definite conclusions can be drawn pending further study.
Sets of ghazals also form the basis of the fourth and fifth sections of the divan, two self-standing works in mixed verse and prose - Naql-e ʿoššāq (‘The Lovers’ Tale’) and Resāla-ye jalāliya (‘The Treatise on Jalāl’). The two share a common narrative premise and structure: the poet-narrator tells in prose the story of one of his love affairs, explaining the circumstances under which he composed and delivered a series of lyric poems. Naql-e ʿoššāq was composed in 1558-59 and builds its narrative around 39 ghazals and a number of other scattered verses. Although not explicitly named, the object of the narrator’s affections is a woman, likely one of the cultured and well-to-do courtesans who moved with ease on the margins of Safavid high society. The poems are primarily epistolary, a means of negotiation and arranging assignations in a refined dance of courtship. The prose is highly crafted and abounds in the metaphorical language of deference, innuendo, and politesse that was typical of the Safavid “figured” style. Though a less polished work, Resāla-ye jalāliya has gained a measure of notoriety due to its homoeroticism, though this can hardly be considered unusual in the context of the time. Mohtasham claims to have written the work in 1572 at the request of a writer friend to explain the genesis of a series of poems that had circulated widely during the course of his affair with a young man named Jalāl a decade earlier. Jalāl first comes to Kashan in his professional role as šāṭer, one of the handsome youths who adorn court ceremonies acting as footmen, couriers, and entertainers. As he begins to make the rounds of elite society, his good looks and skill as a dancer attract many admirers, Mohtasham among them. The melodramatic whirlwind of their relationship pulls in a number of rivals and inept helpers, and the sequence of 64 ghazals range in mood from giddy delight to bitter recrimination, ending with a wistful melancholy over what-might-have-been before Jalāl is transferred to Isfahan by his supervisor.
It is likely that Awḥadi of Balyān had the abovementioned works in mind when he accused Mohtasham of pandering to popular taste and falling gradually from the regard of the elite (Golčin-e Maʿāni, p. 477). To exculpate Mohtasham from charges of moral turpitude, his most recent editors use numerological reasoning to argue that Resāla-ye jalāliya is a very well-disguised Sufi allegory (Haft divān, I, pp. 207-18). However, Sirus Šamisā’s suggestion that the work is a sort of “romantic novel” (romāni ʿāšeqāna, p. 200) seems closer to the tenor and spirit of both the Resāla and Naql-e ʿoššāq. They are almost manifestos of the sensibility and aesthetics of the maktab-e woquʿ, the school of poetry that flourished in Persia for most of the 16th century and emphasized the precise depiction of the delights, tantrums, and banter of all-too-human lovers. Though Mohtasham’s claim of telling us “what really happened” probably cannot be taken at face value, he takes pains to depict the background of contemporary social life and its urban setting, rigorously avoids idealizing either lover or beloved, and offers a convincing picture of how poetry served as a medium of interpersonal communication and manipulation in the everyday discourse of the educated class.
Finally, Mohtasham claims to reveal the name of his beloved in Naql-e ʿoššāq in the form of a moʿammā, a riddling logogriph, and the seventh and shortest section of his divan is devoted to this form of sociable word play that was so popular at the end of the 15th century (Losensky, pp. 154-60). Although these casual, little enigmas are unlikely to interest modern readers, they are another sign of the versatility of this powerful and preeminent poet of the dynamic, flourishing world of Persian art and culture under the reign of Ṭahmāsp.
For listings of the manuscripts of Mohtasham’s works, see Monzawi, Nosḵahā, III, pp. 1892-93 (Kolliyāt) and 2514-15 (Dīvān). The divan was first published as a lithograph in Bombay, 1887, under the title Jāmeʿ al-laṭāʾef, edited by Ḥaydar-ʿAli Ṣāheb Širāzi. Print editions: Tehran, 1958; Tehran, 1965 (ed. Mehr-ʿAli Gorgāni); Tehran, 2000 (ed. Akbar Behdārvand); and Tehran, 2000 (ed. Moṣṭafā Fayżi Kāšāni, vol. I, ḡazaliyāt). The most recent edition of Mohtasham’s works - Haft divān-e Moḥtašam-e Kāšāni, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi and Mehdi Sadri, 2 vols. Tehran, 2001 - is the one edition to preserve Taqi-al-Din Kāši’s original arrangement of the divan intact .The oldest taḏkera sources are published in Golčin-e Maʿāni, Maktab-e woquʿ, pp. 476-8, and Haft divān, pp. 52-63; others are listed in Ṣafā V/2, p. 792.
Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia, IV, pp. 172-77, 241.
Ḥosayn Dargāhi, et al., Šureš dar ḵalq-e ʿālam: seyri dar tarkib-band-e Moḥtašam-e Kāšāni wa esteqbālhā-ye ān dar reṯā-ye Sayyed-al-Šohadāʾ, ʿalayhi al-salām, Tehran, 1999.
J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Muḥtasham-i Kāshānī” and “Ṣafawids, III: Literature” in EI2. Eskandar Beg, tr. Savory.
Aḥmad Golčin-e Maʿāni, Maktab-e woquʿ dar šeʿr-e Fārsi, 2nd ed., Mašhad, 1995, pp. 476-87 and passim.
Paul Losensky, Welcoming Fighānī: Imitation and Poetic Individuality in the Safavid-Mughal Ghazal, Costa Mesa, Calif., 1998.
Henri Massé, “Le chant funèbre de Mohtacham-e Kachani en mémoire de son frère Khadjè Abd-al-Ghani,” in Yādnāma-ye irāni-ye Minorsky, ed. Mojtabā Minovi and Iraj Afšār, Tehran, 1969, pp. 131-38.
Karen G. Ruffle, “Verses Dripping Blood: a Study of the Religious Elements in Muhtasham Kashani’s Karbala-nameh,” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N. C., 2001.
Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., p. 298. Ṣafā, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt, V/2, pp. 792-99.
Sirus Šamisā, Šāhed-bāzi dar adabiyāt-e fārsi, Tehran, 2002, pp. 199-214.
Originally Published: July 20, 2004
Last Updated: July 20, 2004