CHRISTIANITY vi. In Persian Literature



vi. In Persian Literature

References to Christianity can be found in Persian literature from the earliest period. Christian beliefs and institutions are frequently mentioned in various genres (lyric, epic, didactic, mystic), and many works contain allusions to legends of Christian saints, martyrs, and ascetics.

Some of the references and vocabulary, particularly those taken from the Koran and related literature (e.g., commentaries on the Koran) and from pre-Islamic Arabic poetry by Christian Arabs, reflect the Arab view of Christianity prevalent in Arabia, Yemen, Abyssinia, and Syria in the 6th and 7th centuries. Often they appear to have been connected with the apocryphal gospels, and sometimes they have a polemical tone, most notably when the Trinity and monotheism are involved. This material is among the legacies of Islam to the fund of Persian literature.

The Islamic heritage is not, however, the only source for the knowledge of Christian beliefs, institutions, behavior, and vocabulary mirrored in the Islamic literature of Per­sia. Christianity had a long history in pre-Islamic Persia, apparently beginning in the Parthian period (171 b.c.e.-­224 c.e.; see arsacids). In the Sesanian period (224-650 c.e.), despite some intervals of harsh persecution, Christian (mainly Nestorian) communities maintained church organizations with generally independent leadership in several regions of the empire (see i-iv, above). Memories of Christian activity in pre-Islamic Persia were an important factor shaping the understanding of Christian customs and institutions expressed in the Persian literature of the Islamic period. In addition, contacts with contemporary Christians living in Persia, Muslim propaganda and dis­putation with Christian theologians, and even indirect influ­ences from gnostic and Manichean sources during the last two centuries of the Sasanian empire and the early centuries of Islam all had an impact. For example, in works like the Dēnkard and the Škand-gumānīg wizār reflections of the conflict between Christianity and the official Mazdean religion in Sasanian times throw light on how some terms were transmitted from pre-Islamic Persia.

Persian attitudes toward Christians and Christianity. Anti-Christian polemics can also be recognized in certain works written in the Islamic period, for example, Abu’l-Maʿālī’s Bayān al-adyān (comp. 475/1082-83) and Rāzī’s Tabṣerat al-ʿawāmm (first half of the 7th/13th century), but it seems that there was little hostility or fanatical opposition to the ahl-e ḏemma (non-Muslims under Muslim protection) in Persia between the rise of the Samanids (204-395/819-1005) in Khorasan and Transoxania and the conquest of Persia by the Saljuqs in 429-47/1038-55. (On Christians in Persia in the first four centuries of the Islamic period, see Spuler, Iran, pp. 209-15).

Although Persia never faced any direct danger from the Crusades (488-690/1095-1291), the conquest of the holy land by European Christians in 492/1099 was deeply resented. This resentment was voiced in an Arabic qaṣīda by the contemporary poet Abu’l-Moẓaffar Abīvardī (quoted in Ebn al-Aṯīr, X, pp. 284-86), and the loss of Jerusalem was mentioned with sorrow in Toḥfat al-molūk, which has been attributed to Ḡazālī (450-505/1058-1111; Forūzānfar, pp. 330-31). Neẓāmī (535-605/1140-1209) wrote scornfully of the “Franks in Palestine” (1316 Š./1937, p. 525), and Saʿdī (ca. 606-690/1208-91) expressed similar contempt and disgust in the story of his supposed capture by the Franks in the desert of Jerusalem (Golestān, chap. 2, anecdote 31). These expressions attest the impact of the Crusades in changing the relatively tolerant attitude of Muslims toward Christians that had prevailed in the early Islamic centuries.

The Il-khanid rulers of Persia (654-736/1256-1336) before Ḡāzān Khan (694-703/1295-1304) were not Muslims; they and their officials established links with both oriental and occidental Christians, and Christian rulers in Asia Minor and western Europe cherished hopes of an alliance with them against Islam (see Spuler, Mongolen3, pp. 198-235). Few traces of animosity against Christians can be found in the Persian literature of the period. In fact, it was in the reign of the Il-khanid Gayḵātū (690-94/1291-95) that the Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels, was translated into Persian from Syriac by Īwannīs ʿEzz-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. Moẓaffar of Tabrīz (see bible vii. persian translations of the bible; on the dissemination of the Diatessaron and the Persian manu­script, see Messina). The fact that such a work could be undertaken at all suggests that the traditional tolerance of Christians still persisted in Persia in the Il-khanid period. The published text contains indications that there were large numbers of “baptized people” (ʿemādadārān, i.e., Nestorians, Armenians, etc.), and Christian monasteries were to be found in several regions of Persia, from Māzandarān to Nīšāpūr, Ṭūs, and Herat. It is possible that the Il-khanid policy of general toleration and the efforts of Christians (and Jews) to collaborate with Mongol rulers and governors against Islam inhibited expression of anti-­Christian feelings in Persia under the early Il-khanids.

In the later Safavid period, after ʿAbbās I (r. 996-1038/1588-1629), and in post-Safavid times there appears to have been a relative decline in tolerance. One symptom was the appearance of polemical books refuting Christian teachings. ʿAbbās I favored his Armenian and Georgian subjects, granted licenses to foreign missionaries, and even discussed religion with them; he allowed almost continuous traffic of European merchants and travelers to and from Persia and exchanged diplomatic missions with royal courts of Europe, in the hope of forming alliances with them against the Ottoman empire. The Englishman Sir Anthony Sherley was included in one of the shah’s European missions in 1007/1598; another member of the same mission, Orūj Bīg Bayāt, defected to Spain in 1011/1602 and converted to Christianity, taking the name Don Juan. His memoirs were published in Spanish in 1013/1604 (tr. G. Le Strange, Don Juan of Persia, London, 1926; tr. M. Rajabnīā, Don Žovān-e Īrānī, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959; for ʿAbbās I’s dealings with his Christian subjects, Roman Catholic monks, and European states, see Falsafī, pp. 7­-97). The freedom of activity granted by ʿAbbās I to such missionary orders as the Carmelites, the Capuchins, and the Augustinians aroused the sensitivities of the Islamic ʿolamāʾ (religious scholars), who became appre­hensive about the activities of Christians in general and European missionaries in particular (see viii, below).

Some of them wrote refutations of works in Persian by foreign missionaries, for example, Āʾīna-ye ḥaqqnomā (ca. 1018/1609) by Jerome Xavier (d. 1617). One of the most prominent polemicists was Sayyed Aḥmad ʿAlawī (d. 1069/1658-59), a pupil of the Eṣfahānī philosopher Mīr(-e) Dāmād who wrote Meṣqal-e ṣafā. Works of this kind were both numerous and influential under the Safavids and remained so until late in the Qajar period. In the 13th/19th century several Protestant missionaries wrote works in Persian (see conversions iii. to christianity (protestant)): The Englishman Henry Martyn wrote Mīzān al-­ḥaqq, (Shiraz, 1226/1811), the Swiss C. G. Pfander wrote a work also entitled Mīzān al-ḥaqq (2nd ed., London, 1862), and W. St. Clair-Tisdall, also an Englishman, wrote Yanābīʿ al-Eslām (Punjab, 1317/1899). Mollā Aḥmad Narāqī (d. 1244/1828-29), a prominent mojtahed (reli­gious leader) of the early Qajar period wrote Resāla-ye sayf al-omma (lith. ed., Tehran, 1267/1850-51) in response to Martyn; Shaikh Ḥosayn b. ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī Tūtūṇčī Tabrīzī wrote Ezālat al-wasāwes (Tabrīz, 1351/1932-33) in reply to Pfander; and Shaikh Aḥmad Šāhrūdī wrote Ezālat al­-awhām fī jawāb Yanābīʿ al-Eslām (1344/1925-26) in refutation of St. Clair-Tisdall (see Āryān, 1335 Š./1956).

Christian elements in classical Persian literature. Contentious matter seldom entered into Persian poetry and belles lettres in the era of relative tolerance before the late Safavid period. Many verse and prose works provide evidence of a long familiarity with Christianity in its oriental, mainly Nestorian, forms. They contain stories and references to Jesus (ʿĪsā) that appear to have been derived from the Gospels; the authors must have learned of them from written or oral sources connected with Christian circles. Noteworthy examples are Jesus’s words to a murdered man lying on the road in a qeṭʿa ascribed to Rūdakī of Samarkand (d. 329/941; p. 20, qeṭʿa 10), which recall his sayings in Matthew 26:52 and Luke 6:31; Saʿdī’s story of Jesus’s coming to a hermit’s cell and God’s pardoning a sinner and punishing the self-righteous hermit (Būstān, chapter 4, anecdote 4), which recalls the parable of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer in Luke 18:10­-14; and the verse in which Ḥāfeẓ (ca. 726-92/1326-90; Dīvān, ed. Qazvīnī, ḡazal 142, v. 9) wrote that, “if the grace of the Holy Spirit comes to our help again, others will do as the Messiah did,” probably echoes John 14:12. These and other references to Jesus in the Dīvān of the Ismaʿili poet Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (d. 470/1077), the Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqa of Sanāʾī (d. ca. 526/1131), the Maṯnawī of Jalāl-­al-Dīn Rūmī (604-72/1207-73), the Būstān of Saʿdī, and elsewhere suggest that the poets or their informants had direct knowledge of Christianity.

It is certain that some of the classical poets, like Rūdakī and Kesāʾī of Marv (d. 391/1001), had lived in proximity to Christian communities in their native cities (on Samarkand, see Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 372; on Marv, see Bīrūnī, Āṯār p. 389). Their ready references to Jesus and Christian monks can thus be easily explained. As a native of Ṭūs, Ferdowsī (ca. 329-411/940-1020) must also have been in touch with the Christian community, which in his time had a street of its own (kūy-e tarsāyān) in the town (Meyhanī, I, p. 59); nevertheless, his Christian references in the Šāh-nāma generally echoed statements and senti­ments that he found in his sources. For example, in one passage he derided Jesus’s teaching of nonresistance (Moscow ed., IX pp. 95-96, vv. 460-64), and in another he called Jesus the deceiving (farībanda) Messiah and wrote disparagingly of his execution by the Jews (Moscow ed., VIII, p. 105, vv. 894-96, cf. IX, p. 96, vv. 1474-75). On the other hand, in some contexts he expressed a more broad-minded view, for instance, in the story of Alexander and Keyd the Indian (Moscow ed., VII, pp. 16-17 vv. 180-­84).

Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, who was born at Qobādīān near Marv and made a long journey to Syria and Egypt, was keenly interested in theological and philosophical questions and must have acquired a relatively profound knowledge of Christian doctrines. He mentioned Christianity in many passages in his Dīvān and his Rowšanāʾī-nāma. Another poet of the same period, Moʿezzī (440-542/1049-1148), also showed a special interest in Christianity and Chris­tians, perhaps partly because of his familiarity with Christian communities in Nīšāpūr and Marv, the towns where he spent most of his life; in addition, first his father, Borhānī, and then he himself served as poet laureate (amīr al-šoʿarāʾ) at the court of the Saljuq sultans Alp Arslān (455-65/1063-72) and Malekšāh (465-85/1072-92), who were frequently at war with the Byzantines. Alp Arslān’s great victory and capture of the emperor Romanus Diogenes (r. 1067-71) at the battle of Manzikert (Malāzgerd) in 463/1071 was described by the Saljuq court poets as a glorious achievement; Moʿezzī showed great interest in Christian customs and monarchies, but his comments are more anti-Byzantine than anti-Chris­tian in tone.

Neẓāmī of Ganja recounted a story about Jesus’s encounter with a dead dog lying on the road (Maḵzan al-asrār, p. 129), which became so well known that it passed into European literature (as in Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan). The story was based on one of Jesus’s sayings in the Gospel of Matthew (7:3-5), which suggests that Neẓāmī’s knowledge of Christianity was not limited to the infor­mation given in the Koran and related literature; but his references to Christianity in Šīrīn o Ḵosrow and his Eskandar-nāma do not provide much additional information about his sources. His reticence may have been owing to religious strife in the region of Ganja, which he mentioned in some of his works. Even so, his relative silence on the subject of Christianity seems surprising in a poet who, as his Eskandar-nāma shows, was well acquainted with the Greco-Roman cultural legacy in the form in which it had been inherited by the Muslims (Bausani, pp. 688 ff.).

In marked contrast, the poet Ḵāqānī Šervānī (ca. 520-95/1126-99), Neẓāmī’s contemporary, showed excep­tional readiness to disclose his knowledge of Christianity. His mother was a Nestorian convert to Islam, and he himself, it seems from his Dīvān, was interested in theological questions and well informed about the rituals and customs of contemporary oriental Christianity (Rypka, Hist. Iran. Lit., pp. 202-03). Scattered references to such issues can be found in most of his poems. The famous qaṣīda entitled Ḥabsīya or Tarsāʾīya, which he addressed to “the grandee of Rūm” (ʿaẓīm al-Rūm), a Byzantine prince (probably Andronicus Comnenus) who had recently ar­rived in Šervān, is so full of Christian words and phrases and references to Christian beliefs and ceremonies that it cannot be understood without knowledge of these matters (Minorsky).

The attitude of Sufis, as of other Muslims, toward Christianity was rooted in antitrinitarian conviction but generally characterized by tolerance. In most of the Persian Sufi literature a tendency to favor peaceful coex­istence among different religions can be observed. One curious feature is the number of stories about love for a beautiful Christian, a love that can drive even a Muslim shaikh to become or pretend to become a Christian (Forūzānfar, pp. 322-26). The best example is the story of Shaikh Ṣaṇʿān and the Christian girl in Manṭeq al-ṭayr by ʿAṭṭār (ca. 540-618/1145-1221). The number of similar anecdotes in Persian verse and prose works is by no means small (cf. Forūzānfar, pp. 387-88). Persian Sufi authors often showed exceptional interest in Christian beliefs and institutions. Sanāʾī (pp. 80, 185, 381-94, 417) revered Jesus, whom he called the rūḥ (spirit), and in several passages he expressed respect for Christians, whom he placed together with Zoroastrians among the travelers on the right path and seekers of the one truth (p. 92). ʿAṭṭār also considered Christians capable of attaining salvation, even though in the story of Shaikh Ṣaṇʿān he called them idolaters, perhaps meaning simply worship­ers of icons, and derided their belief in God’s having had a son (Elāhī-nāma, discourse 3; Kollīyāt, III). In one qaṣīda (Dīvān, pp. 278-79) he even went so far as to describe monks as knowers of the mysteries of the love for God, which breaks the bonds of worldly attachment. His refutations and criticisms of Christian belief have none of the asperity to be found in the writings of doctrinaire theologians and faqīhs. Jalāl-al-Dīn Rūmī told many edifying stories about Jesus, some of which were taken from the Gospels (1925, index, s.v. ʿĪsā, bk. 21, v. 4). Stories found in the work of Aflākī (ca. 690-761/1291-1360) suggest that Rūmī maintained generally friendly relations with the Christians at Konya and else­where in Asia Minor (e.g., pp. 591-93, 610-11; but cf. Rūmī, 1951, p. 124). On the whole Rūmī took a more favorable view of Christianity than of Judaism. Shaikh Maḥmūd Šabestarī (d. 720/1320), on the other hand, showed particular interest in Christianity and a sympa­thetic attitude toward Christians. In his explanation of the symbolic imagery of Sufism he cited a number of Chris­tian examples and sayings as capable of interpretation or application in a Sufi sense.

In Persian lyric poetry, which was strongly influenced by Sufism, Christians and Christianity were connected with the themes of love and wine. As Christians (and also Zoroastrians and Jews) living in the Dār al-Eslām were allowed to make and sell wine for their own use, monasteries and the behavior of Christian young people were viewed by Muslims as typifying hedonism and profligacy. In the symbolic vocabulary of the Sufis the mon­astery (dayr) became a metaphor for the hospice (ḵānqāh) of the Sufis, the Christian (tarsā) for a person unconstrained by Islamic law, the young Christian (tarsā-bačča) for a shaikh or spiritual guide (moršed) who enchants the de­siring disciple (morīd) and frees him from worldly bonds. Such lyric symbolism imparts a perplexing ambiguity to the ḡazals of poets like Sanāʾī, ʿAṭṭār, ʿErāqī (d. 688/1289), Rūmī, Saʿdī, and Ḥāfeẓ.

Perhaps the last use of Christian terminology in classical Persian poetry is in the well-known Tarjīʿ-band of Sayyed Aḥmad Hātef of Isfahan (d. 1198/1783-84), one of the poets who rejected the Indian style popular in his time and reverted to classical Persian models. In the second stanza Hātef not only implied that different religions can be equally true but also used words like “Christian,” “Trin­ity,” “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” in support of belief in the unity of existence, which he reiterated in the refrain throughout the poem. His expression of such pantheism and use of such words were not considered objectionable in contemporary Shiʿite circles.

As already mentioned, the terminology referring to Christianity in Persian prose and belles lettres falls into two categories: words and phrases that entered Persian from Arabic sources, mainly the Koran, religious litera­ture, and pre-Islamic Christian Arab poetry, and those that appear to have entered as a result of contacts with Christian communities in Persia. Noteworthy examples of the first category are ebn Allāh (son of God), Rūḥ-Allāh, ṯāleṯ ṯalāṯa (third of the three), rūḥ al-qods or qodos (holy spirit), oqnūm (person of the Trinity), enjīl (Gospel), ḥawārī (disciple), rāheb (monk) and rohbān (monks), qessīs (priest), šammās (deacon), osqof (bishop), baṭrīq (patriarch), jāṯalīq (catholicos), ṣalīb (cross), zonnār (girdle), ṭaylasān (pallium), dayr (monastery), ṣawmaʿa (cell), nāqūs (church bell), qandīl (lamp), Fesḥ (Easter), and taʿmīd or maʿmūdīya (baptism). Some of these terms are loanwords that entered Arabic as a result of contacts with Christianity in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times. Persian or persianized forms in the second category are fewer, for example, Angelīūn (Gospel), čalīpā (cross), sokūbā (bishop), kašīš (priest), kelīsa (church), yaldā (winter solstice, i.e., Christmas). Some are of Syriac (or ultimately Greek) origin and must have entered Persian directly, rather than through Arabic.

Also noteworthy is the large number of Persian literary expressions and compounds built on the names ʿĪsā (Jesus), Masīḥ (Messiah), Maryam (Mary), and tarsā, for ex­ample, dam-e ʿĪsā (breath of Jesus), noṭq-e ʿĪsā (words of Jesus), morḡ-e ʿĪsā (bird of Jesus, i.e., the bat), ḵom-e ʿĪsā (wine jar of Jesus), ḵar-e ʿĪsā (ass of Jesus), sūzan-e ʿĪsā (needle of Jesus), Masīḥā-nafas (having breath like that of the Messiah), rešta-ye Maryam (Mary’s thread), rūza-ye Maryam (Mary’s fasting, i.e., silence), jāma-ye tarsā (garment of the Christians), dayr-e tarsā (monastery of the Christians), ḵaṭṭ-e tarsā (Greek writing). These ex­pressions are generally noted in Persian dictionaries (cf. Āryān, 1960).

Another sign of the lasting impact of Christianity on the culture and literature of Persia is the abundance of idioms and proverbs reflecting the experience of living beside Christians and the opinions of Muslim Persians about them. Some refer to the dam-e ʿĪsā, ḵom-e ʿĪsā, ḵar-e ʿĪsā, morḡ-e ʿĪsā, noṭq-e ʿĪsā, or the rūḥ al-qods. At least sixty have been noted by ʿA. A. Dehḵodā (s.vv.), and even more are in vernacular use.



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(Qamar Āryān)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 18, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 5, pp. 539-542

Cite this entry:

Qamar Āryān, “CHRISTIANITY vi. In Persian Literature,” in Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. V, fasc. 5, Costa Mesa, 1991, pp. 339-42; available online at