Following the cultural shock and the crisis of identity that occurred in the first century after the fall of the Sasanids, the urban literati of Persian origin began to reconstruct the cultural idea of Iran within the Islamic society. A modified version of the pre-modern, Sasanid ethno-national identity, this new cultural identity does not bear much resemblance to the modern notions of political and “civic-national identity” (for definitions, see i, above; for the Sasanid period, see ii, above). The emergence of a new form of Persian as the literary language of Iran, as well as a gradual revival of Iranian traditional history, helped buttress the new Iranian cultural identity. The Persian cultural revival, beginning in the early Abbasid Caliphate, accelerated during the reign of Iranian regional dynasties and laid the foundation of Iranian cultural identity for centuries to come (see IRAN iii. TRADITIONAL HISTORY).

This manner of revival and reconstruction of the Iranian identity was unparalleled among the other ancient cultural areas that were incorporated into the Islamic world. Thus, while Syria and Egypt lost their languages under the hegemony of Arabic, Iran survived as the main cultural area in the emerging Islamic empire that maintained its distinct linguistic and cultural identity (see, e.g., Frye, pp. 1-6).

A number of authors have recently questioned the revival and reconstruction of Iranian identity in the Islamic period. They contend that the idea of Iran and the continuity of its dynastic history is a modern construct, ‘invented’ by western Orientalists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the name “Iran,” they argue, had been rarely used in classical Persian literature, and its frequent use in the Šāh-nāma referred to the pre-Islamic era and not to its contemporary existence (Vaziri, 1993; Fragner, 1999). Such interpretations of Iranian identity seem to have been influenced by Eurocentric notions of national identity, drawn from Western civic-territorial experiences of nationhood and nationalism. Pre-modern, non-Western nations do not fit easily into this ethnocentric Western paradigm. The idea of nationhood in societies of Asia is often derived from fictive genealogical and territorial origins and vernacular culture and religion, whereas Western ideas of nationhood have been historically based on the specific boundaries, the development of legal-rational communities, and civic cultures (see Smith, 2004, pp. 132-34; see also i, above).

The present entry examines the revival of Iranian identity and repeated construction in Persian literature of its pre-modern ethno-national historiography from the 9th to the 18th century, long before the emergence of Western nationalism or ‘Orientalism.’ Iranian identity and the pattern of the use of the term “Iran” in Persian literature evolved in four main phases in the medieval Islamic era: a revival phase under the Persian regional dynasties; a rather complex phase under the Saljuqs, a resurgence phase under the Mongols and Timurids; and finally, the formation of a hybrid Iranian-Shiʿite identity under the Safavids.


The resistance movements. The initial Persian response to the Arab domination seems to have manifested itself in various sectarian movements against the Umayyad rule either through participating in the Kharejite revolts or in the Shiʿite movements (see IRAN ix/2.1. The Advent of Islam in Iran). Influenced by pre-Islamic religious ideas, specially Mazdakism, Persian peasants and artisans took part in a series of rebellions against the Arab domination during the early Abbasid era, including those of Behā-fariḏ (q.v.), Sonbāḏ the Magian, Ostādsis, Moqannaʿ, Bābak, and Māziār (see Sadighi, 1937; Yarshater, 1983b). There is some uncertainty, however, regarding the extent to which “national,” or more accurately “ethnic” sentiments, were involved in these revolts. According to some historians, a strong “national” sentiment or even resurrection (rastāḵiz) was at the core of these rebellious movements (see, e.g., Zarrinkub, 1957, pp. 207-66). On the other hand, M. Rekaya sees these movements as last-ditch efforts by members of the old elite to hold on to their privileges and devoid of any “national” sentiments (Rekaya, 1973, 1974). Taking a historicizing perspective, H. A. R. Gibb, sees these anti-Arab and anti-Islamic movements as manifestations of Persian resistance “if nationalism is too strong or misleading a term” (Gibb, p. 66; see also Minorsky, 1955, p. 243). Regardless of motivations, it is plausible to assume that the participants in these movements were inspired by various elements of pre-Islamic Persian cultural heritage. The revival of the cultural idea of Iran in the context of the Islamic civilization, however, occurred primarily through the efforts of the Persian literati in the early part of the Abbasid Caliphate and under the rule of Persian regional dynasties.

Iranian regional dynasties. The rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-8th century—with strong Persian support—helped to bring about the downfall of the Umayyad rule with its policy of Arab supremacy (see Agha, 2003). The shift of the center of the Islamic empire from Syria to Iraq, the central province of the Sasanid empire bearing the rich legacy of Persian and Persianized Aramaean cultures, contributed further to the revival of Iranian identity (see Yarshater, 1998, pp. 54-74; see also Moḥammadi Malāyeri). Furthermore, the rise of de facto autonomous Iranian dynasties during the 9th and 10th centuries—in Khorasan (Taherids, 820-872, and Saffarids, 868-903), Central Asia (Samanids, 914-999), and the Caspian region, central, southern, and western Iran (Ziyarids, Kakuyids, and Buyids [q.v.], 932-1056)—contributed significantly to the revival of Persian cultural heritage (see Frye, pp. 186-212). The desire of these dynasties to identify themselves as “Iranians” was manifested in their invented genealogies, which described them as descendents of pre-Islamic kings, and legends as well as the use of the title of šāhanšāh by the Buyid rulers (Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 200-202; Minorsky, 1955, pp. 244-45; Amedroz, 1905, pp. 393-99; Stern, 1971, p. 538; Bosworth, 1973, pp. 51-62; Madelung, 1969, pp. 168-83). These dynasties provided the Persian literati with the opportunity to revive the idea of Iran.

Persian literati. As an influential stratum in Iran’s social hierarchy in the Islamic society, the Persian literati or the “men of the pen” (ahl-e qalam), consisted of bureaucrats—including viziers, scribes (dabirs), and accountants (mostawfis)—men of letters and poets, historians and geographers, philosophers and Islamic theologians, jurists, and scholars of traditional sciences. Dabirs (q.v.), who had survived as a distinct social class after the Arab conquest of Persia, constituted the core of the emerging Persian literati and civilian administration (see DIVĀN iv). They played a significant role in the transmission of pre-Islamic bureaucratic skills and lifestyles under the Arab caliphs and later under Iranian local dynasties and the Turkish potentates. In effect, they provided the social base for the institution of the vizierate. The vizier was the head of the supreme divān, and as such was the head of the government’s bureaucracy. A common feature of medieval society was the existence of influential bureaucratic families of Persian origin, such as the Jeyhānis, the Balʿamis (qq.v.) and ʿOtbis under the Samanids, the family of Neẓām-al-Molk in the Saljuq period, and, the Jovaynis (q.v.) and the family of Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh under the Il-khanids (see DABIR ii; Klausner, pp. 37-81). The dehqāns (q.v.) also helped the reconstruction of Persian culture from pre-Islamic to the Islamic period. As regional landed gentry, dehqāns administered local affairs and collected taxes during the late Sasanid era. In the early Islamic period, dehqāns played a significant part in the transmission of stories from the Iranian epic, Šāh-nāma, Iranian traditional history, and romances of pre-Islamic Iran (see also Tafazzoli, 2000).

Persian literati performed their task by contributing to the formation of the administrative apparatus of the Abbasid empire on the Sasanid model, translation of major works of traditional history and ethics from Middle Persian into Arabic and production of Persian recension of them, reconstruction of Persian genealogies for the Iranian regional dynasties, and initiation and promotion of the šoʿubiya literary movement.

The šoʿubiya movement. Those members of Persian literati and a number of Arab poets and prose writers, who were active in the šoʿubiya controversy during the 9th and 10th centuries, contributed significantly to the rise of Persian literature and the revival of Iranian cultural identity. Over time, the key term of the Qorʾanic verse 49:13, characterized as the divine order for the equality of all peoples (šoʿub) within Islam, was used to refer to a diffuse literary movement known as šoʿubiya. The Persian literati used the verse to claim equality with, or supremacy to, the Arab aristocracy. The contrast between the glorious, pre-Islamic Persian civilization and the primitive and unsophisticated tribal lifestyle of the Arab Bedouins is the main theme of the šoʿubi literature, which generally satirizes Arabs for their diet of snakes, mice, lizards, and camel milk. Some of the šoʿubis went so far as to deny any virtue in the Arab culture or even in Islam. A vivid example of the claim for Persian superiority may be seen in a poem by Ebrāhim b. Mamšāḏ of Isfahan, a panegyric written for the Saffarid, Yaʿqub b. Layṯ: “I am the son of the noble descendants of Jam, and the inheritance of the kings of Persia has fallen to my lot. … I am reviving their glory, which has been lost and effaced by the length of time. … Say then to all sons of Hashem: Return to your country in the Hejaz, to eat lizards and to graze your sheep. … For I shall mount the throne of kings, by the help of the edge of my sword and the point of my pen” (cited in Yaqut, Eršād al-arīb, pp. 322-23; English tr. from Stern, 1971, pp. 541-42). The šoʿubiya controversy may be seen as a vivid manifestation of the revival of Iranian ethnic pride and the cultural identity of the time, a variant of pre-modern ethno-nationalism (for a nationalistic interpretation of the movement, see; Homāʾi; Ṣafā, Adabiyāt I, 3rd ed., 1959, pp. 25-29; Zarrinkub, 2004, pp. 296-301; as well as Ignaz Goldziher, 1889, tr. 1966, pp. 137-200; and Samuel Stern, p. 545; for modernist denial of a nationalistic element in the movement, see G. Lecomte, p. xiii; and Fragner, 1999, pp. 16-18; for a balanced, historicizing view, see, Gibb, 1953; and Mottahedeh, 1976).

Reexamining the meaning of šoʿub in the Qorʿān commentaries, Mottahedeh has argued convincingly that the meaning of šaʿb in many Persian commentaries, and other sources, does not refer to a large confederacy of genealogically arranged tribes or qabāʾel, but to the territorial identification of non-Arab social groups. In this reading of the text, šoʿub clearly refers to Persians and other non-Arabs, who were for the most part sedentary peoples, identifying themselves with a locality. Iranian identity was, therefore, reconstructed mainly on the basis of a territorially oriented view of the origin of the Iranian peoples: those who lived in any part of the Iranian territory (Irānzamin or Irānšahr) and thus had presumably descended from fictive Iranian ancestors and shared a common Persian culture. This broad basis for the post-Islamic construction of Iranian identity seems to have survived until modern times, providing the foundation for the construction of a distinct Iranian “national identity.”

The šoʿubiya literary movement not only signified the revival of Iranian ethnic pride, but also became a motivating force for preservation and dissemination of Iran’s traditional history and cultural heritage with the aid of the emerging Persian literary language.

Persian literature and the revival of Iranian identity. It is widely acknowledged that the rise of the Persian literature during the 9th-11th centuries significantly helped the reconstruction of a distinct Iranian cultural identity during the medieval Islamic era. Evolved from dari (q.v.), a vernacular of the eastern regions, the new literature soon developed from a simple, popular folk poetry to the language of the court and the bureaucracy, producing a stylistically refined and sophisticated poetry. Iran, for the first time in her long history, had a cultivated, standardized literary language that became a medium of communication widely accepted by all peoples within its boundaries. It expanded from Khorasan and Transoxania to the central, southern, and western regions and eventually became the lingua franca of the chancery and literati of most Islamic dynasties (see IRAN viii. PERSIAN LITERATURE; see also Lazard; Wickens; Richter-Bernburg).

The desire to preserve the ethno-national history of Iran, as depicted in ḵʷadāy-nāmaqs, may have been a motive for the Persian literati to promote a written literature in the late Sasanid period as well as New Persian literature in the early Islamic era. It was in these critical periods that the construction of Iranian identity by rearrangement of Persian mythologies, legendry narratives, and factual history took place: “A clear concept of Persian identity permeates the traditional history—a concept that may have originated in the Achaemenid period, but was definitely embraced by the Sasanids, who by calling themselves ‘kings of Iran and non Iran (an-ērān)’ clearly distinguished their own nation from the rest” (IRAN iii. TRADITIONAL HISTORY, p. 300). The arranged “nationalistic spirit of Sasanid tradition,” as Ehsan Yarshater has noted, intended to promote ethnic pride leading to a sense of pre-modern “national identity” for Iranian people. He makes a clear distinction between a belief in the ‘primordial’ origin of Iranian people and Iran’s factual history. What is implied by his analysis is that it was the primordial feature of these myths and symbols, rather than the truth of their historical narratives, that provided the Iranian people with a sense of common origin as a pre-modern “nation.” These symbols and myths had long been used as ‘border guardians’ for preserving the cultural identity of Iranians against the inroads of non-Iranians (anērān), including the Turanians, and the Hephthalites (q.v.). Preserved and disseminated by the šāh-nāmas, these historical memories laid the foundation of Iranian cultural identity as preserved in classical Persian literature.

The first part of Ferdowsi’s (q.v.) Šāh-nāma reveals the roots of Iranian identity in ancient mythology. Ahura Mazda created the first man and the first king who laid the foundation of Iranian origin. It was the Kayanid Faridun (see FAREˈəDUN) who divided the world into three parts with peoples of distinct ethnic characters and identities. Examining the basic characters of his three sons, Faridun assigned them to rule over the people of similar characters. Iran, occupying the middle clime, the best part of the world, was assigned to Iraj (q.v.), while Rum (Greece and Rome), on Iran’s western flank, was assigned to Salm, and Turān and China, on the eastern flank, were assigned to Tur. Salm, the king of Rum, is the prototype of the wise, patient ruler. Tur, the king of “Turān and Čin” (i.e., Central Asia) is characterized as being impatient, courageous, and passionate. Iraj, the king of Iran, partakes of both these traits in his character. He is wise, patient, and prudent yet able to act swiftly and boldly if warranted (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi I, pp. 104-55; for further discussion of Iranian ethnic character, see Ashraf, 1994).

Rooted deeply in Persian cosmology and cosmogony (q.v.), an important element of Iranian identity is the notion that Iran is destined to be buffeted forever by its external enemies, who, out of jealousy and fear, conspire continually against the kingdom and its people. The enemies of Iran, be they the wise Westerners or the fearless people of the East, are linked to the evil forces of Ahriman. Iran itself, came into being at the same time as anērān (“non-Iran” or “anti-Iran”). During the reign of the Kayanids a war breaks out among the three parts of the world, with the conflict between Iran and Turān reaching a new height. Alexander invades Iran, overthrows the Kayanids, and on the advice of his mentor, Aristotle, concocts the second major conspiracy against Iran by dividing the country into several regions, leading to the rule of local princes and governors (moluk al-ṭawāyef ). This is done in the hope of obviating the Persian threat against the West (Greek and Roman world; for Aristotle’s letter to Alexander, see Stern, 1970, pp. 25-34). Even worse is his pillaging of Persian cultural treasures of sacred knowledge, philosophy, science, and technology, some of which are translated while the original versions are destroyed. As a result, the translation of Greek works to Persian during the late Sasanid era and to Arabic during the early Islamic period may be seen as returning the Persian repertoire of knowledge back into the hands of their original possessors (see Bailey, p. 155; Ebn al-Nadim, p. 300; Mojmal al-tawāriḵ wa’l-qeṣasá, p. 10; see also Gutas, pp. 34-52).

Many of the myths surrounding these events, as they appear in the Šāh-nāma, were of Sasanid origin, during whose reign political and religious authority become fused and the comprehensive idea of Iran was constructed (see IRAN iii. TRADITIONAL HISTORY; see also Gnoli, 1988; and ii, above).

The idea of fusing Zoroastrian and Abrahamic traditions through creating genealogical links between Persian kings and Biblical prophets, or even merging them into one as reflections of the same entity, as conceived, inter alia, by Ṭabari (d. 923), Balʿami (q.v.; d. 963), and Gardizi (q.v.; d. 1050) led to legitimizing the roots of Iranian identity in Islamic society. The motivation behind forming this idea may be attributed to a scholarly obsession to forge a symbiosis of fecund and powerful systems of beliefs that happened to co-exist at the same time in the same cultural milieu, or to the lack of knowledge of pre-Parthian factual history, or to a genuine desire for legitimization of Persian roots—which seems to be the case for Gardizi and the translators of Ṭabari’s Tafsir—or an amalgam of all these factors. Yet, regardless of motivation, the dissemination of this idea helped to legitimize the roots of Iranian identity for the devout Persian Muslims for the later centuries.

Treating the history of children of Abraham and ancient Persians synchronously, Ṭabari suggests that the Persians believe Kayomarṯ (see GAYŌMARD) was Adam and Hušang-e Pišdād (see HOŠANG), Kayomarṯ’s grandson and successor, was the first man to rule over the seven regions of the earth. In fact, according to some Persian legends, Hušang was the son of Adam and Eve. The story of Solomon is followed by the story of mythical Persian kings. In his rendition of Ṭabari’s history, Balʿami quotes contradictory legends and beliefs about the creation of man and society in order to demonstrate the evolution of the Iranian and Arab wings of the Islamic civilization. Iranian and Abrahamic myths are brought together to form a unified body of mythology (Ṭabari, I, pp. 100 ff.; Balʿami, pp. 112-17). Other Islamic historians, including Maqdesi (Moqaddasi; d. 1004) and Masʿudi (d. ca. 956), also attempted to reconcile and synchronize the Persian and Abrahamic traditions.

In the course of the intermingling of “Arab and Persian” aristocracy, one may note the emergence of a Persianized Islamic geographical notion that the region comprising the land of Persia and Arabia was selected by God as the center of the three climes (q.v.; kešvars) of the earth and were inhabited by the noblest of peoples. Thus, genealogies of both Persian and Arab nobility were honored in the new territory. In Gardizi’s words, “And God created different peoples as the land including Mecca, Medina, Ḥejāz, Yemen, Iraq, Khorasan, Nimruz and parts of Šām (Syria) are known in Persian as Iran.” He further adds, that “from the beginning of the world until now [its] people have been respected and have been masters of all around them and none has been taken as slave by other lands. … the people of this mid-clime of the world are wiser, more courageous and more generous than others and their neighbors are inferior to them in all these respects” (see Gardizi, Zayn al-aḵbār, p. 255). Also implied in Gardizi’s conception of identity is the notion that territorial ties represent genealogical origins (for an informative survey of traditional cartography and the conception of borders and partitions in Islamic societies, see Hartley and Woodward, I/1.).

Still a novel idea to unify the Persian and Abrahamic traditions was conceived by translators of Ṭabari’s Tafsir (exegesis of the Qurʾan) from Arabic to Persian. In an introduction to the translation they noted, “He [The Almighty God] said, ‘I have never sent a messenger except one conversant in the language of his people and a language comprehensible to them.’ Furthermore, the Persian language was known from the earliest times and from the time of Adam until the era of Ishmael the prophet all divine messengers and all rulers on earth spoke in Persian. The first person to speak in the Arabic tongue was Ishmael the prophet; and our Prophet came from amongst the Arabs and the Qurʾan was sent down to him in Arabic; but here in this region the language is Persian, and the rulers here are of Persian descent” (tr. of Ṭabari’s Tafsir, 1960, p. 5).

The existence of a distinct cultural conception of being Iranian (Irāniyat) is most dramatically demonstrated in the trial of Afšin (q.v.) in 840. He was the hereditary ruler of Ošrusana and the commander who defeated Bābak’s (q.v.) 20-year-long rebellion to save the Abbasids. Afšin, who was accused of propagating Iranian ethno-national sentiment, said, “Didn’t I communicate to you [i.e., those who testified against him] my inner secrets and tell you about the concept of Persian national consciousness (al aʿjamiyya) and my sympathies for it and for its exponents?” (Ṭabari, tr., XXXIII, p. 189). This episode clearly reveals not only the presence of a distinct awareness of Iranian cultural identity and the people who actively propagated it, but also of the existence of a concept (al-aʿjamiya or Irāniyat) to convey it.

To examine some of the ways in which the idea of Iran and its pre-modern ethno-national history has found expression in Persian literature, we shall briefly survey in the following sections the territorial and ethnic vocabulary of the concept of “Iran” and its related terms, as well as the frequency and pattern of its usage in Persian literature during several periods of Iran’s history over a millennium, stretching from the 9th-10th to the 19th century.

Territorial and ethnic vocabulary for Iran. Territorial notions of “Iran,” are reflected in such terms as irānšahr, irānzamin, or Fors, the arabicized form of Pārs/Fārs (Persia). The ethnic notion of “Iranian” is denoted by the Persian words Pārsi or Irāni, and the Arabic term ahl al-fors (inhabitants of Persia) or ʿAjam, referring to non-Arabs, but primarily to Persians as in molk-e ʿAjam (Persian kingdom) or moluk-e ʿAjam (Persian kings). The term Tāzik/Tājik found currency as a term referring to Persian people during the period of Turkic domination. The Persian term kešvar (country) was used in pre-modern times to denote both the clime (e.g., haft kešvar [q.v.] “seven climes”) and the dynastic realm or kingdom. The latter usage of the term only rarely conveyed the meaning of “country” in medieval historiography. The most common equivalent of kešvar was the Arabic mamlakat from the root malaka, meaning “to own or to rule” (e.g., malek “king” and mālek “owner”). Mamlakat was often used in Persian historiography for territorially defined kingdoms or dynastic realms and its constituent provinces, e.g., mamlakat-e Irān or mamālek-e Irān or mamālek-e maḥrusa-ye Irān “protected kingdom of Iran” (during the Mongol era and thereafter), mamlakat-e Ḵorāsān or Fārs or Kermān (see below). The Arabic terms welāyat and eyālat until recently referred to provinces. The old terms waṭan (Ar.) or mihan (Pers.) were used in classical Persian literature to refer predominantly to a person’s place of birth and habitation. One’s place of birth and residence was considered as the object of one’s love, admiration, and devotion (see Ashraf, 1993, pp. 159-64; 1994. pp. 521-50; Lambton, 1978, pp. 785-90). The term “Iran,” has stood for the kingdom of Iranian dynasties and the homeland of the Iranian people since the mythical foundation of the country by Faridun. Irānšahr (see ĒRĀNŠAHR), a Sasanid concept, conveys the meaning of the kingdom of the rulers of Iran. These territorial conceptions of Iran were, in particular, significant for identification of Iranian people, who were more concerned with their territorial ties, than Arabs, who were primarily identified with their lineage.

It is important to note that the term “Iran” constitutes only one of the elements that define Iranian identity in its ethnic, cultural, and territorial totality. This may be seen in such monumental works as Bayhaqi’s History, ʿOnsor-al-Maʿāli’s Qābus-nāma, Neẓām-al-Molk’s Siāsat-nāma, Neẓāmi’s Haft peykar and Ḵosrow o Širin, Hafez’s (q.v.) Divān, and Saʿdi’s Bustān and Golestān. These works, while rarely mentioning “Iran,” present the various aspects of Persian cultural heritage and historical memories, including myths and legends, worldviews and moral values, mores and norms of social behavior, principles of political legitimacy and social relations, as well as imagined genealogical origins of the Iranian people. Yet, the survey of the frequency and pattern of the usage of “Iran” and its derivatives in Persian literature must be taken into account in the context of claims by those authors who base much of their argument on the rarity of the occurrence of the usage of the word “Iran” in Persian literature in contradistinction to its frequent application in modern times, a radical innovation that they attribute to the writings of 18th and 19th century Orientalists who passed this legacy to the Pahlavi state, which in turn bolstered and institutionalized it through legislation in 1935 by changing the official name of the country from Persia to Iran (Vaziri, 1993; Fragner, 1999). These frequencies are driven from the indexes of selected historical writings. In interpreting them, however, caution must be exercised, since the criteria used by various indexers and the precision of their efforts may vary considerably from work to work. They are, nevertheless, suggestive of the pattern of the usage of the terms in each period. To simplify the findings of the survey the frequency of the use of the term “Iran” in each period is presented in terms of the average number of terms appeared in each of the historical works of that era.

The remaining part of this section will describe the frequency and pattern of usage of the term “Iran” in Persian literature under the Iranian regional dynasties, during whose rule the pre-modern ethno-national history of Iran was revived and the foundation of Iranian cultural identity was reconfirmed. These same frequencies and patterns of usage in literatures of the Saljuqid, Il-khanid-Timurid, and Safavid eras will be treated in the sections that follow.

The usage of the term “Iran” in the early Persian literature. The period between the birth of literary Persian poetry in the late 9th century and the composition of the Šāh-nāma by Ferdowsi in the late 10th century marks the flourishing of the usage of “Iran” in the emerging Persian prose and poetry. A unique feature of this period is the creation of a corpus of Iranian epic literature and romances dealing with pre-Islamic Iran, using the pre-Islamic notion of Iran and its related terms (see Ṣafā, 1984, pp. 160-342). References to Irān and Irānzamin, its myths and legends, its kings and notables (gozinān-e Irān) begin to appear in a number of books of kings, including Masʿudi Marvazi’s Šāh-nāma (ca. 912), Abu Manṣuriδ Šāh-nāma (ca. 960; although we only have fragments in the form of a preface), and Daqiqi’s (q.v.; d. 976) 1,000 lines narrating the reign of Goštasp that were used by Ferdowsi (see Qazvini, 1953, pp. 5-90). It is, however, in Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (d. 1019 or 1025), that the Iranian worldview and its mythological and legendary history, as well as its later factual history (Parthian and Sasanid periods) is presented with utmost eloquence; in it the name “Iran” and its related terms are used 720 times and “Iranians” 350 times.

A group of Persian literati, who wrote in Arabic during the formative period of Islamic historiography, began to introduce specifically Persian themes and frequently referred to “Iran” and “Iranian” (or in its Arabicized form, Fors or ʿAjam) in the context of Iranian traditional history. Beginning with the pioneering and influential translation of the Ḵʷadāy-nāmag from Pahlavi into Arabic by Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ (q.v.; d. 757; as well as a number of other translations), Persian literati continued to elaborate on the pre-Islamic traditional history of Iran. Notable among them were Ebn Qotayba’s (q.v.; d. 889) various works, including ʿOyun al-aḵbār, referring on various occasions to the Persian history and cultural heritage; Dinavari (d. 895), who dedicates a large part of his Aḵbār al-ṭewāl to the narratives of pre-Islamic Iran; Ṭabari (d. 923), who devotes a book of his monumental History to similar topics; Ḥamza Eṣfahāni (d. 962), who, with deep pride and passion for Iran (taʿaṣṣob al-fors), dedicates a large part of his Seni moluk al-arż to the narratives of pre-Islamic Iranian kings. Other historical works of the same category include Ebn Meskawayh’s (q.v.; d. 1030) Tajāreb al-omam and Tahḏib al-aḵbār, Ṯaʿālebi’s (d. 1038) Ḡorar aḵbār moluk al-fors, and Biruni’s (d. 1048) Āṯār al-bāq-iya. It was within this tradition that a number of prominent Arab historians too, wrote extensively on Iran’s history, including Maqdesi’s (d. 945) Ketāb al-badʾ wa’l-taʾriḵ, Masʿudi’s (d. 956) Moruj al-ḏahab and Ketāb al-tanbih wa’l-ešrāf, and Yaʿqubi’s (d. 987) Taʾrikò. Mention must also be made of such influential works in Persian as Bal-ʿami’s (d. 962) redaction of Ṭabari’s history, which marks the beginning of Persian historiography, and Gardizi’s (d. 1050) Zayn al-aḵbār, whose concentration on Iran was extensive (for discussion on Persian historiography of this period, see Daniel, 1990, pp. 282-321; and Meisami, 2000, pp. 348-74). On average, on 76 occasions the term Irān and related concepts were used in each of the above historical works (including Ṭabari’s Tārikò with 292 cases, and an average of 55 references without counting his work).

The significance of these works lies, not only in their frequent use of the terms Irān and Irānšahr, or Fors and ʿAjam but in the institutionalization in Islamic historiography of the traditional history of Iran as a major chapter in the history of the ancient world. Their narrative of Iran’s ancient history was repeatedly copied and presented in the later periods. As noted, the term “Iran” in these works refers to various aspects of Iran’s traditional history in the pre-Islamic era. Such references, however, helped establish the idea of the territorial and genealogical origin of the Iranian people, which provided the foundation of Iranian cultural identity in the subsequent centuries. Another factor in the survival of Iran’s ethno-national history may be the widespread reading and reciting of the Šāh-nāma by storytellers whose audiences included individuals from all walks of life. The focus of the Persian epic literature and historical writings of this period was mainly on pre-Islamic Iran, referring for the most part to the historical notion of Iran in the pre-Islamic era rather than to the contemporary living reality of Iran after the Islamic conquest.

Contemporary notions of “Iran” began to emerge in this period when the pioneers of Persian poetry started to use the term in reference, albeit symbolically, to contemporary events. Such references to the contemporary Iranian kings, kingdoms, rulers, commanders, sages, and lands are found in several divāns of Persian poetry from this period. For example, Rudaki (d. 941), calls a Saffarid governor of Sistān a nobleman of the Sasanid stock and “pride of Iran” (mafḵar-e Irān), which implies a sense of continuity in Iranian identity from the Sasanid to the Samanid era (Tārik-e Sistān, pp. 319-20). Abu Šakur Balḵi (in Āfarin-nāma [947]; cited by Sajjādi, p. 751), refers to the “sage of Iran.” Furthermore, reference to the contemporary conception of “Iran” flourished under the early Ghaznavids.

The Ghaznavid transitional phase. During the early Ghaznavid period, which marks the beginnings of Turkic domination, the cultural life and literary tradition of the Samanids continued. The early Ghaznavids were raised as slave soldiers in the Samanid military institution and spent a period of their character formation within the rich cultural ambience of the Persian court (Bosworth, p. 61). It was in this atmosphere that Persian literati invented genealogies to connect the Ghaznavids to the Sasanids. According to a genealogy cited by Juzjāni, Sebüktigin, through six generation from his father, was the descendant of Yazdgerd III’s daughter (see Bosworth, p. 61). This genealogical invention is similar to the efforts by Persians to cast the fourth Shiʿite Imam as the maternal grandson of the last Sasanid king Yazdgerd III by supportive genealogies (see further below). As a result, there are references to “Iran” as a contemporary entity in the poetry of this period. A prominent poet of this period, Farroḵi Sistāni (d. 1030), mentions “Iran” over 30 times in his Divān, referring to Sultan Maḥmud and his sons as šah-e Irān (and Turān) and ḵosrow-e Irān, and also makes references to irānšahr and irānzamin (Divān, ed. Dabirsiāqi, index); ʿOnṣori (d. 1040), refers to the “Iranian king” (šāh-e Irān, ḵosrow-e Irān), “Iranian kingdom" (kešvar-e Irān), and “Iranian lands” (irānzamin and zamin-e irānšahr; Divān, ed. Dabirsiāqi, Index); Manučehri (d. 1041), refers to “Iran” and “Turān” and ḵosrow-e Irān. References to “Iran” are also found in the divāns of Abu Ḥanifa Eskāfi (d. 1041) as well as in Asadi Ṭusi’s Divān (d. 1073). Asʿad Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (ca. 1072, Index) refers to “Iran” on 25 occasions (for surveys of references to “Iran” in Persian classical poetry, see Sajjādi, pp. 749-59; Matini, pp. 243-68; Šafiʿi Kadkani, pp. 1-26).

Two novel developments under Sultan Maḥmud significantly helped the foundation of Persian hegemony. The first was the converting of all chancery records and correspondences from Arabic to Persian by the order of Maḥmud’s first vizier, Abu’l-Ḥasan Esfarāʾeni (q.v.). Although his successor, Aḥmad b. Ḥasan Maymandi (q.v.), restored Arabic, Esfarāʾeni’s practice marked the beginning of the establishment of Persian as the literary language of the chancery in the courts of the Turkish and Mongol dynasties in Iran, Central Asia, Muslim India, and Anatolia in the coming centuries. Furthermore, Sultan Maḥmud’s conquest of India marked the beginning of Persian influence in the subcontinent (see INDIA ii).

Although the hierarchical notion of “Turk and Tāzik,” which became prevalent under the Ghaznavids, dealt a blow to the use of the term “Iran,” the increasing hegemony of Persian language helped elevate Iran’s cultural heritage and its expression in the Persian literature of this period. Bayhaqi, for example, identified himself as a “Tāzik,” but used the term very rarely; his matchless History contains a wealth of Persian cultural memories, descriptions of the festivals of nowruz and mehregān, court grandeur and etiquette, as well as the Persian modes of social and political relations. In a telling passage on the occasion of the coronation of the Saljuqid, Sultan Ṭoḡrel, Bayhaqi states that when “the audience hall appeared devoid of all splendor and glitter,” Judge Ṣāʿed addresses the Sultan, “May the lord’s life be long! Take note that this is Sultan Masʿud’s throne that you are sitting on…. Such unforeseeable events do happen and one cannot know what further happenings will emerge from the Unseen.” The Sultan replies, “We are new to this land, and as strangers, unacquainted with the manners and customs of the Tāziks [Persian]” (cited from, History of Bayhaqi, annotated tr. with introd. by C. E. Bosworth and M. Ashtiany, forthcoming). This passage shows how the Ghaznavids were known for their familiarity, as well as sympathy, with Persian customs and how the rising Saljuq sultans were ignorant of Persian cultural heritage. It also signifies how a member of the religious ranks of Persian literati was concerned with the Persian style of court etiquette and ceremony.


Iranian identity underwent a period of complex mutations with mixed consequences under the Saljuqids. In this period, the decline of Persian epic and the less frequent usage of the term “Iran” in Persian poetry and historiography coincided with the flourishing of Persian literature and spread of Persian hegemony in Islamic societies.

Turkic dynasties were for the most part military states bent on war and conquest and imposed an exogenous rule over their Persian subjects. However, the Persian literati took control over many organs of the state administration and from such positions of influence reintroduced their Persian cultural heritage. With the Turkic rise to power, the ‘sword’ and the ‘pen,’ which had been reunified in the Persian hands during the Iranian regional dynasties, were once again separated. The sword and the pen symbolically represented two pillars of the sovereignty of the ruling classes: “military class” and “administrative class” respectively (it should be noted here that the military contingents of Persian origin continued to function, but as a secondary force on command). Thus, the rise of the Turkic slaves and tribes to power in the 11th-12th centuries led to a new binary division of “Turk and Tāzik/Tājik” and less frequent usage of “Iran” in Persian historical and literary works of this period (for a useful survey of the usage of Tāzik/Tājik in Persian literature, see Dabirsiāqi, 1991).

The long period of Turkish rule in Iran could itself be divided into a number of distinct periods in terms of Iranian identity: the Ghaznavid transitional period with the continuity of Samanid tradition (see above); the Saljuq period, marking a complex situation for Iranian identity; the Mongol and Timurid phase, during which the name “Iran” was used for the dynastic realm and a pre-modern ethno-national history of Iranian dynasties was arranged; and the period from the Safavids to the end of the Qajars, when a clear Iranian-Shiʿite identity, based on an amalgamation of Turk and Fārs elements, emerged. It is interesting to note that the Persian literati invented complete genealogies to connect both the first and the last Turkic dynasties that ruled Iran to the pre-Islamic dynasties: the Ghaznavids and the Qajars (see below).

The complex phase under the Saljuqs. Although the great Saljuqs reunified Iran for the first time since the Arab conquest of Persia, the use of the term “Iran” to denote the dynastic realm was not encouraged. This can be attributed to further Islamization of Iranian society and institutionalization of the Islamic state with a universalistic outlook. In fact, the Saljuqs founded a religio-political system by combining the temporal authority of the sultan with the symbolic religious authority of the caliph. Neẓām-al-Molk played a pivotal role in the establishment of Islamic orthodoxy and universalism as an integral part of the Saljuqid state (Bondāri Eṣfahāni, pp. 66-67). The Neżāmiya schools, which were created at his behest, contributed to the interconnection between the state and religious establishments and helped strengthen the status of civil administration and men of the pen vis-à-vis the men of the sword in the Islamic state. The literati of Persian origin, who were trained in both Persian literary tradition and Islamic law at these schools, continued to serve as bureaucratic agents in various Islamic governments in the ensuing centuries and were responsible for spreading the Persian language and culture throughout the Islamic world (see also Klausner, 1973; Lambton, 1980, pp. 203-82).

There was a decline in the usage of “Iran” in Persian historiography (see, Ṣafā, 1984, pp. 154-59; 1977, pp. 126-44, 158-60), with only few references, made to “Iran” or even “Tāzik” in the works of such historians of this period as Bondāri Eṣfahāni’s (d. 1100) Tāriḵ-e selsela-ye Saljuqi, and Nasavi’s (d. 1253) Sirat-e Jalāl-al-Din Minkoberni. The latter (pp. 47, 75) refers to “Iran” on two occasions: the first regarding Goštāsp (q.v.), king of Iran, and the second regarding Neẓām-al-Molk, the grand vizier (dastur) of Iran and Turān. Esfazāri’s Rawżāt al-jannāt fi awṣāf madinat al-Herāt (p. 162) also has one reference to Neẓām-al-Molk as the grand vizier of mamālek-e Irān.

The decline of Persian epic literature and its eventual replacement by Islamic epics or a synthesis of Iranian and Islamic myths and legends must be considered as another distinct feature of this period. This synthesis pre-figures post-Mongol and Safavid developments. Thus, although the ʿAli-nāma contains both an implicit and explicit rejection of purely Iranian epics, the genre of pand-nāma anthologies, which quoted didactic lines from the Šāh-nāma side by side with moral dicta from Imam ʿAli, are emblematic of this forthcoming fusion.

The decline in the number of references to “Iran” in this period is also evident in Persian poetry, as seen in the divāns of Sanāʾi and Anvari. An illustration of the zealous, anti-Iranian Islamic attitude may be seen in the poems of Amir-Moʿezzi (d. 1147) and Sayf-al-Din Farḡāni (q.v.; d. early 14th century). Unaware of the meaning and cultural significance of myths and legends, Amir-Moʿezzi accuses Ferdowsi of lying and wild exaggerations in his treatment of Rostam (Divān-e Amir Moʿezzi, p. 286). By contrast, the poet Saʿdi, quite conscious of the social functions of myths, wrote: “The exploits of the champion Rostam and the brazen-bodied Esfandiār are narrated in fable in order to make rulers and kings realize that this world itself is a memento and a legacy derived from many people from the past” (Kolliyāt, p. 724). Farḡāni, went so far, on the other hand, as to say that the soil and water of Iran are not suitable for a Muslim’s prayer, because the Sasanid kings had rendered it najess, i.e., ritually impure (Divān, p. 31).

Yet, even in this period, one finds works of Persian epic, such as Irānšāh’s Kuš-nāma and Bahman-nāma (ca. 1117), that make frequent references to “Iran,” nearly 160 times in the former case and over 100 times in the latter (see Matini, p. 259). “Iran” is also mentioned in such important historical works as Ebn Esfandiār’s (d. 1217, q.v.) Tariḵ-e Ṭabarestān, referring to “Iran” on six occasions and to Tāzik on 11 occasions. Mojmal al-tawāriḵ wa’l-qeṣasá (ca. 1126), refers to “Iran” on 29 occasions; Moḥamamd b. ʿAli Rāvandi’s (d. 1238) Rātḥat al-ṣodur mentions ʿAjam in 17 cases; and Ebn Balḵi’s Fārs-nāma (early 12th century) also refers to pre-Islamic Iran, its sovereigns, and foundation of cities on various occasions.

Although overt references to “Iran” are relatively rare in this period, abundant mention of its manifestations can be seen in Persian literature. ʿOnsor-al-Maʿāli, well versed in Persian cultural heritage, authored Qābus-nāma, a rare handbook of cultural values and norms of social behavior in almost all major aspects of Persian everyday life. There is, however, no mention of “Iran” or “Tāzik” in this book, making merely six references to “ʿAjam” instead. Neżām-al-Molk (d. 1092) in his influential work Siāsat-nāma simply refers to Persians as Tāziks, while making numerous references to Persian political and cultural heritage in narrating anecdotes and collective memories relating to Iran. In his collection of ‘advices’ from 75 kings, prophets, caliphs, and sages, Ẓahiri Samarqandi presents advices of 38 Iranian mythological, legendary, and historical figures from Jamšid to Sultan Sanjar (mostly from pre-Islamic times), 30 Arab caliphs, and seven Greek, Indian, and Chinese figures. Considering Jamšid as the founder of civilization, he begins the work with a long treatment of his contributions and advices. Similarly, Saʿdi and Hafez—though of later period—who make few references to “Iran” or “ʿAjam” or “Tāzik” in their prose or poetry make many references to the Iranian repertoire of myths and legends as well as Persian ideas, values, mores, and modes of conduct. In the same vein, Neẓāmi, while rarely using the term “Iran,” eternalizes the romances of pre-Islamic Iran in his Ḵamsa (five maṯnavis).

It was also in the Saljuq era that Persian established itself as a literary language, not only on a par with Arabic, but more important than Arabic in certain genres, including mystical poetry (for the role of mystical literature in reconstruction of Iranian ethnic identity, see Meskoob, 1992). Furthermore, it was in this period that Persian, as the first lingua franca, began to spread in medieval Islamic civilization as a trans-regional means of communication of chancery and literati. In the course of time, ‘Perian hegemony’ established itself in the Ottoman empire, Central Asia, the Mughal empire in India, and South-East Asia (for the notion of “Persian hegemony,” see i, above).


The fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, the symbolic guardians of Islamic universalism, in the 13th century, accompanied by a shift from religious orthodoxy to relative religious tolerance and the unification of the Iranian plateau under the Il-khanids, signaled a new era in the history of Iranian identity. These developments provided the Persian literati with a new opportunity to rearrange the ethno-national history of Iran and reinstate—for the first time since the fall of the Sasanid empire—the usage of Iran and Irānzamin as appellation for their dynastic realm.

Also contributing to the new concept of Iran, its global location, and its place in history was the emergence of genuinely “universal” and “world” histories with divisions into different regions describing the mores and manners of the different civilizations, such as the Indians or the Franks (Europeans). It is in this vein that Rašid-al-Din’s Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ is often referred to as the first “world history,” reflecting the Mongol conception of universal rule and world domination. This new historical outlook was prompted by the Mongols’ sweeping advances, east and west, into Europe and elsewhere, combined with their own innate curiosity about different religions.

The prominent historians of this period frequently referred to Iran and Irānzamin both as historical notions and as contemporaneous entities. Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh (d. 1318) refers repeatedly to “Iran” in his monumental work Jāmeʿ al-tawārik, as well as in his Tāriḵ-e mobārak-e Ḡāzāni and Sawāneḥ al-afkār. He also makes a number of references to the country of Iran (kešvar-e Iran). This appears to be one of the first instances of the usage of the concept of country (kešvar) to denote the contemporary kingdom of Iran. On another occasion, he refers to the borders of Iran as extending from the Āmuya river to the Jhelum river in northern India (Āb-e Javn) in the east, and from Byzantium (Rum) to Egypt in the west (pp. 46, 73, 147). Other references to Iran include “Peoples of Iran” (ahāli-e or ḵalāyeq-e Irānzamin), “provinces of Iran” (mamālek-e Irānzamin), “Khan of Irānzamin,” and “sovereigns of Iran” (moluk-e Iran). Influenced by the new conception of the “world,” Rašid-al-Din, like many other historians and geographers, mentions Iran, Turān, Farang, Egypt and Morocco (Maḡreb), Byzantium (Rum), India, and China in referring to the kingdoms of the time, signifying a distinct identity for Iran among major countries of the world (for a pioneering survey of resurgence of the use of the term “Iran” during the Mongol period, see Krawulski, 1978, pp. 11-17).

Other historical works, including Banākati’s (q.v.; d. 1330) Tāriḵ-e Banākati, Šabānkāraʾi’s Majmaʿ al-ansāb (1333), Naḵjavāni’s (d. 1336) Dastūr al-kāteb, Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi’s (d. 1349) Tāriḵ-e gozida; and ʿAbd-al-Razzāq Samarqandi’s (d. 1371) Maṭlaʿ-e saʿdayn wa majmaʿ-e baḥrayn make frequent references to Iran and its related terms. Describing a battle in which Sultan Üljeytu barely defeats his adversaries, Samarqandi exclaims that “if it were not due to God’s benevolence nothing would have remained of the kingdom of Iran but name” (p. 43); On another occasion he outlines the borders of the Abu Saʿidi kingdom from Oxus to Euphrates and underlines that “Irānšahr consists of the cities lying between the two borders” (p. 121). Other historical works that make numerous references to “Iran” include Ḥāfeẓ-e Abru’s (d. 1417) Zobdat al-tawārikò and Joḡrāfiā, Tāj-al-Din Ḥasan Yazdi’s (d. 1453) Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ-e Ḥasani, and Mir Moḥammad b. Sayyed Borhān-al-Din Ḵᵛāvand-šāh’s (Mirḵᵛānd; d. 1497), Rawżat al-ṣafā.

Finally, it is noteworthy that, in a surviving collection of chancery correspondence between rulers of Iran and neighboring kingdoms from the early Timurid to the early Safavid periods, 19 references can be found to the contemporary notions of Iran, Irānzamin, kešvar-e Irān (country of Iran, p. 690), šāhanšāh-e Irān (king of kings of Iran), aḥwāl-e Irān (conditions of Iran), moluk-e Irān (rulers of Iran), mamālek-e Irān (provinces of Iran), šahriār-e diār-e ʿAjam (the ruler of Iran), sepahsālār-e Irān (military commander of Iran), and Irān o Turān (see Navāʾi, 1977, Index). On average, on 42 occasions the term Iran and related concepts were used in each of the above historical works of this period, referring to both pre-Islamic and Islamic eras.

Reconstruction of pre-modern national history. The significance of the historiography and historical geography of this era is not limited to the frequent usage of “Iran” and related terms or even the reinstatement of the term Irānzamin. It extends to the reconstruction of new conception of Iran’s “pre-modern ehtno-national history” in terms of a continuum of dynastic histories from the primordial mythological era to the Mongol period. This mode of presentation of Iran’s history, linking the traditional history of Iran, as reconstructed by the Sasanid literati, to the early Safavid period was a novel phenomenon. This sequence of the dynastic history of Irānzamin was constructed for the first time by Qāżi Nāṣer-al-Din ʿOmar Bayżāwi (q.v.; d. 1316) in his concise (95 pages), yet significant and influential, history of Iran, Neẓām al-tawārikò (The arrangement of history). Bayżāwi was a prominent figure in the religious wing of the Persian literati, who served as the chief justice (qāżi al-qożāt) of Fārs province in the early Il-khanid era and made a number of well-known contributions in Arabic to Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic philosophy, and Arabic grammar. His only work in Persian was his arrangement of the ethno-national history of Iran. In his own words, “I have connected the sequence of governors and kings of Iran—which extends from the Euphrates to the Oxus, or rather from the Arab lands to the borders of Khojand—from Adam to the present day. I have divided it into four parts and written it in Persian so that its benefits might be more widespread” (tr. in Melville, p. 76). As Charles Melville (p. 70) has suggested, Bayżāwi’s rearrangement of Iran’s history from ancient times to the Mongol era “had a rather clear political agenda” and that “he was supported by people at the highest level of the court.”

Although a number of later historians, including Rašid-al-Din and Banākati, frequently cited Neẓām al-tawārik and adopted its reordering of Iran’s history, it appears that Bayżāwi’s rearrangement of Iran’s ethno-national history into “four periods” was followed in a more systematic and substantively expanded version by Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi (q.v.; d. 1349) in his influential work Tāriḵ-e gozida. Mostawfi elaborates on the dynasties that ruled Iran in four sections (bābs): first, the pre-Islamic dynasties of the Pišdādids, the Kayānids, the Moluk al-ṭawāyef (Arsacids), and the Sasanids; second, the Umayyad rule in Iran; third, the Abbasid rule in Iran; and fourth, the dynasties that ruled Iran since the early Islamic era. These dynasties were: the Saffarids and the Samanids, who ruled a part of Iran; the Ghaznavids, who ruled most of Iran in their initial 30 years; the Ghurids; the Daylamites and the Buyids; the Saljuqs, some of whom ruled over all of Iran and some over only parts of Iran; the Ḵʷārazmšāhs; the Atābakān (q.v.) of Fārs and Syria; the Ismāʿilis of Iran and Egypt; the Qarāḵatāys of Ker-mān; the Atābakān of Lorestān; and, finally, the Mongol dynasty.

As Table 1 illustrates, Bayżāwi devotes over three-fourths of his work to kings of Persia, whereas Mostawfi allocates only one-half of his history to them. It is important to note that, although Mostawfi devotes a larger portion of his history to the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, he consciously covers them in terms of their “rule in Iran” and not in the world of Islam in general: moddat-e molkešān be Irān (p. 10). A unique feature of the contributions of Bayżāwi and Mostawfi is their exclusive focus on Iran’s history from the creation of man and society in Iran to the Mongol era, which sets their work apart from Jovayni’s Jahāngošāy, exclusively a history of the Mongols, or Rašid-al-Din’s Jāmeʿ al-tawārikò, a comprehensive world history from its beginning through the Mongol era.

The influence and popularity of both Bayżāwi’s and Mostawfi’s rearrangement of the history of Iran is indicated by the large number of surviving manuscripts of their works from the 13th to the 19th centuries, 58 and 95 respectively (compared to other popular works such as Banākati’s with 31, Juzjāni’s with 23, and Šabānkāraʾi’s with 13 surviving manuscripts). Of Bayżāwi’s work, 27 copies were produced in the Safavid period and 14 during the Qajar era (see Melville, Tables 1 and 2, pp. 73-74). It seems plausible, therefore, that a proportionately large number of manuscripts of Mostawfi’s work may also have been produced during the Safavid and Qajar periods. Indeed, Mostawfi’s influence seems to have surpassed that of Bayżāwi’s, as he is cited in later historical works more frequently. For example, Mirḵᵛānd in Tāriḵ-e rawżat al-sÂafā refers to Mostawfi on 16 occasions and to Bayżāwi in only 8 cases, and Ḵᵛāndamir in Ḥabib al-siar refers to Mostawfi on 56 occasions and to Bayżāwi on only 3 occasions.

It was through the popularity of these works that the new, fourfold paradigm of Iran’s history, which displays a more ethno-nationalistic spirit, enjoyed a prolonged success in Persian historiography in the ensuing centuries. Another important feature of this mode of reconstruction of the dynastic history of Iran is a clear geographical awareness of Iran or Irānzamin both in its totality and its constituent parts, combining the historical depth of the idea of “Iran” with its geographical breadth.

Mostawfi’s significant contribution to the pre-modern “ethno-national history of Iran” is supplemented by his geography, Nozhat al-qolub. The latter work’s importance derives from its treatment of the contemporary geographical notion of Iran, as well as its boundaries and provinces. Prefacing his work with a description of the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina, outside of Iran’s boundaries, Mostawfi begins his treatment of Iran by discussing different views on the foundation of Iran by Iraj (q.v.) and its place in the world’s seven climes. He suggests that all commentators (Greeks, Indians, and Persians) agree that Iran, located at the center of the inhabited world, is its best part, harking back to the old Sasanid notion of Irānšahr. According to Mostawfi, the boundaries of Irānzamin stretch from the Sind river (in India) to Ḵᵛārazm and Transoxania in the east to Byzantium and Syria in the west. Being aware of the depth and breadth of the historical geography of Iran, Mostawfi reiterates that he is treating only those outer lands that are located on the frontiers of the kingdom of Iran, although “some, at times, have been under the sway of the sovereigns of Iran, and even in these parts some cities have been in fact founded by the sovereigns of Iran” (tr. Le Strange, pp. 23-24). Mostawfi describes the provinces of Iran in 20 chapters, beginning with Iraq (ʿErāq-e Arab) or “the heart of Irānšahr,” and ʿErāq-e ʿAjam (western provinces), followed by Arrān and Muḡān, Šervān, Georgia, Byzantium, Armenia, Rabiʿa, Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Fārs and the Persian Gulf, Šabānkāra, Kermān, Mokrān and Hormuz, the province between Kermān and Qohestān (present day Baluchistan), Nimruz, Khorasan, Māzandarān, Qumes and Ṭabarestān, and finally, Jilānāt (Gilan). This mode of conceptualizing Iran’s history and geography has been followed by other historians since the 13th century.


Iran regained its political unity and was given a new distinct religious identity under the Safavids. Shiʿism became the official state religion and henceforth played an important role in the reconstruction of a new ethno-religious identity for the Iranian people. Furthermore, the rise of the Safavid empire coincided with the rise of the Ottoman empire in West Asia and North Africa, the Mughal empire in India, and the Uzbek empire in Central Asia, all adhering to Sunnite Islam. The formation of these political entities helped create a distinct Iranian-Shiʿite political identity among these polities. It also helped to expand the hegemony of Persian language in much of the Islamic world. Persian literature was produced from Anatolia to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent (see Golčin-Maʿāni, Bā kārvān-e Hend).

Under the Safavids, a number of important measures were taken to blend religious and ethno-national traditions, while closely following the historiography of the Mongol-Timurid era (for a survey of Safavid historiography and its connection with Timurids, see Quinn, 2000, pp. 28, 49-50, 52).

“Iran” in Safavid historiography. Ḡiāṯ-al-Din Ḵᵛānda-mir (d. 1524), the first prominent Safavid historian, was one of the last historians of the Il-khanid-Timurid era and the grandson of Mir Moḥamamd Mirḵᵛānd, author of the influential history, Rawżat al-sÂafā. In preparing his general history, Ḥabib al-siar fi aḵbār afrād al-bašar, Ḵᵛāndamir followed the style of Rawżat al-sÂafā and that of such popular historical works as Neẓām al-tawārikò and Tāriḵ-e gozida (see above). The frequency of the usage of Iran, Irānzamin and related terms in the three volumes of Ḥabib al-siar (completed in 1524) reveals the evolution in the usage of these terms in the Islamic era. The frequency is relatively high in volume I, with 28 references to events of the pre-Islamic period; it drops sharply to 12 in volume II, treating the history of the Islamic period up to the Mongol era; and it leaps to 69 references in volume III, dealing with the Il-khanid-Timurid, and early Safavid periods. Other representative works of this period also make frequent references to “Iran,” including ʿĀlamārā-ye Šāh Esmāʿil, ʿĀlamārā-ye Šah Ṭahmāsp, Ḥasan Beg Rumlu’s (d. 1577) Aḥsan al-tawāriḵ, Ebn Karbalāʾi’s (d. 1589) Rawżāt al-jenān, Malekšāh Ḥosayn Sistāni’s (d. 1619) Eḥyāʾ al-moluk, Mollā ʿAb-al-Nabi Faḵr-al-Zamāni’s Taḏkera-ye meyḵāna (1619); Eskander Beg Rumlu’s (d. 1629) Aḥsan al-tawāriḵ; Wāleh Eṣfahāni’s (d. 1648) Ḵold-e barin, Naṣiri’s (d. 1698) Dastur-e šahriārān.

Finally, Moḥammad Mofid Bāfqi (d. 1679), in addition to making numerous references to “Iran” and “ʿAjam” in his Jāmeʿ-e Mofidi (q.v.), refers to distinct borders of Iran and its neighbors, India, Turān, and Byzantium as well as the influx of people from those lands to Iran. In a number of cases, he describes the nostalgia of those Iranians who migrated to India but were later compelled to return by their love for their homeland (ḥobb al-waṭan; see below). He makes a number of insightful comments about Iranian identity and various features of the lands of Iran in his historical geography of Iran, Moḵtaṣar-e Mofid. Adopting the model of Mostawfi’s Nozhat al-qolub, he makes some 20 references to Iran, Irānzamin, and Irānšahr, as well as the borders of Iran’s territory, in the introduction to his work. He makes numerous references, furthermore, to Persian mythological and legendary figures in the traditional history of Iran as founders of a large number of cities in Yazd, Iraq, Fārs, Azerbaijan, and other parts of Iran. Finally, he provides readers with a useful list of Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman.

On average, on 62 occasions the term Iran and related concepts were used in each of the above historical works of the Safavid era.

It is also noteworthy that, from the beginnings of relations between Iran and the West in this period, the Iranian officials tended to consider their distinctive culture and civilization to be unique and superior to all others, including the Western countries (for a survey of the superiority trait among Iranians of the Safavid era, see Matthee, 1998).

Religion and ethno-national identity. Contrary to the views of those who deny the role of religion in the formation of ethno-national identities, it may be noted that in most European societies local churches played an important part in creating and maintaining a sense of national identity, particularly at times of social and political crisis. Eric Hobsbawm argues that, although religion may appear as a rival to nationalism in attracting people’s loyalties, in actual fact it has acted as a catalyst for nationalism both in pre-modern and modern times. As examples of this process he cites the contributions made by Zoroastrianism in the formation of the Iranian ethno-national identification in the Sasanid era and the role played by Shiʿism at the time of the Safavids (Hobsbawm, pp. 69, 137). The evidence pointing to the symbiosis of Persian and Shiʿite traditions includes the use of combined Shiʿite and Iranian titles by the Safavid shahs, the dissemination of the genealogy for the Imams as maternal descendants of the last Sasanid king, invention of the tradition of ḥobb al-waṭan mena’l-imān, and dissemination of various traditions attributed to the Imams providing religious legitimacy to the observance of the Persian New Year and its accompanying rites.

The Safavid kings called themselves, among other appellations, the “dog of the shrine of ʿAli” (kalb-e āstān-e ʿAli), while assuming the title of Šāhanšāh (the king of kings) of Iran. It must be remembered that the title of the king of Iran was also used by Āq Quyunlu rulers (the direct predecessors of the Safavids) who presented themselves as successors to the glorious mythical kings of ancient Persia (Faridun, Jamšid, and Kaykāvus). Even Ottoman sultans, when addressing the Āq Quyunlu and Safavid kings, used such titles as the “king of Iranian lands” or the “sultan of the lands of Iran” or “the king of kings of Iran, the lord of the Persians” or the “holders of the glory of Jamšid and the vision of Faridun and the wisdom of Dārā.” They addressed Shah Esmaʿil as: “the king of Persian lands and the heir to Jamšid and Kay-ḵosrow” (Navāʾi, pp. 578, 700-702, 707). During Shah ʿAbbās’s reign (q.v.) the transformation is complete and Shiʿite Iran comes to face the two adjacent Sunni powers: the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Kingdom of Uzbeks to the east.

The maternal Iranian origin of the Imams. With the spread of Shiʿism in Iran, the idea of the maternal linkage of the Imams with Sasanid stock (real or imagined) was disseminated. The Persian Shiʿites are proud of the lineage of the Imams as maternal descendants of Yazdegerd III, the last Sasanid king. According to tradition, the fourth Shiʿite Imam (ʿAli b. Ḥosayn, Ḥażrat-e Sajjād), is reported to have said: “I am proud to descend from the lineage of my father, Imam Ḥosayn, coming from Qorayš, the noblest of Arab tribes, as I am of the lineage of my mother, princess Šahrbānu, descended from Persian stock, whom the Prophet himself called the noblest of non-Arab peoples” (Dehḵodā, III, p. 1537; Qomi, p. 196; Ebn al-Balḵi, p. 4). The marriage of the Persian princess with the third Imam has been described as having taken place at a dramatic audience of ʿOmar, the second caliph, at which a princess, the daughter of Yazdegerd III, is presented among the booties of the Arab army. At the critical moment when ʿOmar orders the selling of the princess into the slave market, Imam ʿAli appears on the scene and opposes the verdict on the grounds of a Prophetic tradition that forbids “the sale of the royal offspring in Islam.” When Imam ʿAli prevails, he leaves her to the patronage of Salmān Fārsi (a legendary Persian companion of the Prophet) to arrange for her marriage to a man of her choice. Šahrbānu chooses to marry Imam Ḥosayn and gives birth to the fourth Shiʿite Imam. In this imaginary narrative, all Imams from the fourth to the twelfth (the Mahdi, the Lord of the Age) are maternal descendents of the last Sasanid king (see, ʿOnṣor-al-Ma ʿāli, Qābus-nāma, pp. 137-38). Considering that the Safavids had also invented a genealogy linking their lineage to the Imams, belief in this narrative also signifies the Persian genealogical roots of the Safavids.

The love of homeland. On a number of occasions in the Safavid period—apparently for the first time—the notion of waṭan and the love for it were extended from the love of birthplace and residence to Iran. Šafiʿi Kadkani argues, for example, that the Hadith of ḥobb al-waṭan mena’l-imān might have been invented by Persians, who were more concerned with territorial ties, than Arabs, who were primarily identified with their lineage. Šafiʿi argues that Jāḥeẓ did not refer to the tradition in his comprehensive treatment of the subject, al-Ḥanin ela’l-awṭān; it is rarely found in Sunnite Hadith collections; and the main references to it could be found in Moḥammad Bāqer Majlesi’s Beḥār al-anwār and Shaikh ʿAbbās Qomi’s Safinat al-beḥār (Šafiʿi Kadkani, p. 12). Moḥammad Mofid Bāfqi, a contemporary of Majlesi, in his Jāmeʿ-e Mofidi reports that when a prominent statesman, Mirzā Moḥammad Amin, had been serving as the vizier of the Qotbshahids of Deccan (q.v), he became nostalgic and returned to Iran for the love of his homeland (ḥobb-e waṭan and ārezu-ye āmadan-e be Irān). Other examples include a certain Mirzā Esḥāq Beg and Captain Āqā Aḥmad, who migrated to India and later returned to Iran, or that of Mofid himself, who decided to return to Iran from India in accordance with the Hadith of ḥobb al-waṭan mena’l-imān, in spite of the comfort and hospitality extended to him in Šāh Jahānābād (Jāmeʿ … , III, 1, pp. 92, 453, 475, 804). Still another case is the poet, Nawʿi Ḵabušāni (d. 1610), who, becoming nostalgic during his long residence in the court of the Indian king, Akbar, laments in a moving poem that “my tears flow to cleanse the land of Iran” (cited in Šafiʿ Kadkani, p. 5).

Commemorations of Nowruz and ʿĀšurā. Commemorations of historic events in pre-modern societies served as the central vehicle for connecting collective memory with ethnic or ethno-national identification. Placing commemorations of seminal cultural events in their historical setting is an indication that the two distinct yet related ethno-national and religious events, Nowruz and ʿĀšurā (celebrations of New Year’s day for 13 days and the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn, the third Shiʿite Imam, for 10 days), are of utmost significance in the reconstruction of Iranian identity under the Safavids. Initiated in Baghdad in the year 963 by order of the Buyid ruler, Moʿezz-al-Dawla, the commemoration of ʿĀšurā (q.v.) was added to the celebrations of Nowruz and Mehragān. When Āšurā coincided with the other two celebrations, the ethno-national festivals were observed on the next day; this scenario occurred in the year 398/1008, when Āšurā coincided with Mehragān (see Faqihi, pp. 466-67). These dual commemorations became well established under the Safavids and together laid the foundations for the “Iranian-Shiʿite” identity for over 500 years.

The commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn has many similarities to that of the martyrdom of Siāvuš (Sug-e Siāvuš) in pre-Islamic Persian mythology, which was commemorated in Soghdiana and Chorasmia until the early Islamic era and in some villages in Kuhgiluya even until recent times. Given that the two rites display a number of basic common features, some writers have suggested that ʿAšurā may have gradually substituted the mourning for Siāvuš over time (see Meskoob, Sug-e Siāvuš, pp. 80-89). In fact, the similarities of the two commemorations may partially explain the pervasive popularity of Āšurā among Persians. As Yarshater (1979, pp. 88-94) concludes in his comparison of the two rituals: “The martyrdom of Hussein and his kin found a ready ground in Persian tradition in order to develop into an inspiring and elaborate mourning drama. It inherited the major feature of a long-standing practice which had deep roots in the Persian soul.”

While Āšurā inherited basic features of the ritual of Siāvuš, Nowruz found religious legitimization by invention of a number of traditions attributed to Shiʿite Imams from the Buyid to the Safavid periods. The historical narratives concerning the celebration of Nowruz indicate that, despite the objection of zealous Islamic universalists, Persians at large continued to celebrate Nowruz from the advent of Islam to the present time. The length, the joyful collective mood, and the grandeur of Nowruz celebrations in Iran and many parts of Central Asia is unparalleled in comparison to all of the religious and ethno-national festivals in other Islamic societies (see ČAHĀRŠANBASURI; HAFTSIN; NOWRUZ ii. ISLAMIC PERIOD).

The contested, yet mutually supportive nature of the two distinct commemorations of Nowruz and ʿĀšurā has made observance of the Persian New Year the subject of longstanding controversy in Shʿite jurisprudence. This controversy between those who espouse Nowruz’s legitimacy and those who condemn it as a pagan and un-Islamic practice in Iran may be traced to the Buyid period. When Shiʿism was formally declared the state religion under the Safavids and the observance of both Nowruz and ʿĀšurā formed the two major wings of state festivals, a revised and expanded version of the book on Nowruz and the Persian calendar was prepared and incorporated (as a volume of some 90 pages in a set of 110 volumes) into the encyclopedic collection of Shiʿite traditions, Behār al-anwār by Mollā Moḥammd Bāqer Majlesi, the major religious figure in the Safavid state. Of various traditions presented in Behār al-anwār on the celebration of Nowruz, two stand out as of central importance: one attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (q.v.), sanctifying the celebration, and the other attributed to Imam Musā al-Kāẓem, condemning it as un-Islamic. Behār narrates the story of a certain Moʿallā b. Ḵonays, who pays a visit to Imam Ṣādeq on Nowruz. Explaining the significance of Nowruz, as “the day of the primal covenant with mankind, the day of the first rising of the sun, and the day of various other events in the lives of the prophets concluding with the defeat of the antichrist Dajjāl by the Qāʾem,” the Imam maintains that it is “one of our days [i.e., holy days] and one of the days of our Shiʿa, which the Persians have kept, although you [presumably the Arabs] have tried t o suppress it” (Majlesi, Behār al-anwār LIX, p. 92, as tr. and cited by Walbridge, p. 83). The adversaries of Nowruz rely on a tradition attributed to Imam Musā al-Kāẓem, when the Caliph al-Manṣur called upon him regarding the legitimacy of the observance of Nowruz, and he replied: “I have examined the traditions of my grandfather, the Messenger of God, and found nothing about this holiday. It is a Persian custom that Islam has destroyed” (Behār, loc. cit., as tr. and cited by Walbridge, p. 83). While suggesting that this tradition has been frequently attributed to Imam al-Ṣādeq in numerous sources, Majlesi, in a scholarly manner, leaves the door open for the readers to decide the issue for themselves. Also of importance in the controversy is the fact that, since the time of Shaikh al-Ṭāʾefa Ṭusi, one of the founding fathers of Shʿite law in the 11th century, the obligatory fast and prayer of Nowruz has become a part of Shiʿite law, but the date of Nowruz has been the subject of continued controversy. Furthermore, Shaikh ʿAbbās Qomi, in his influential modern collection of Shiʿite prayers, Mafātiḥ al-jenān, talks in support of the tradition attributed to Imam al-Ṣādeq to sanctify the celebration of Nowruz: “On the day of Nowruz wash [perform ablution] and dress in your cleanest clothes …” (as cited by Walbridge, pp. 89-90). The pervasive celebration of Nowruz among people from all walks of life may also be observed by comparing it to the other main Islamic festivals, with the exception of Āšura. The celebration of Nowruz surpasses the two main Islamic festivals: the festival of fast-breaking (ʿId-e Feṭr), during the holiday that follows the completion of the holy month of fasting (Ramażān), and the festival of sacrifice (ʿId-e Qorbān or al-Ażḥā).

The significance of Nowruz is further indicated by its special place in the chronicles of Safavid historians, featuring detailed descriptions of the grandeur of Nowruz festivities, even when it coincided with ʿĀšurā. Nowruz festivities on 21 March 1611 occurred on Friday, 6 Mo-ḥarram 1020, the day on which Shiʿites commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn. Shah ʿAbbās honored both days, mourning on the day of ʿĀšurā and celebrating Nowruz on the following day. The grandeur of the celebration of Nowruz 1611 is well illustrated in the chronicle Āla-mārā-ye ʿAbbāsi: “The Shah then ordered a great feast to be prepared in the Bāḡ-e Naqš-e Jahān to which all classes of society were invited. … Each group was allotted its own particular place in the park, and gold tents and canopies of silk and Chinese brocade were set up. Booths, embellished in curious remarkable ways and illuminated with lamps, were erected in front of each group. Pages plied the assembled gathering with cheering draughts, and the merrymaking went on for several days” (tr. Savory, 1978, p. 1037).


Transcending local, regional, as well as kinship and tribal horizons, a relatively coherent historical and cultural conception of Iranian identity was developed in the long pre-modern history of Iran. The identity of Iranians was largely drawn from their territorial ties. They were identified, for the most part, with their places of birth or residence, which were in turn located in the lands of Iran or kingdom of Iran (irānšahr, irānzamin, molk-e Irān, mamlekat-e Irān, kešvar-e Irān). They assumed that their ties to the historical conception of the lands of Iran were also manifestations of their common imagined ancestry, deeply rooted in Persian mythologies and traditional history. Even the Persianized ruling Turkic and Mongol men of the sword presented themselves as the heirs of Persian kings and amirs in a continuum from primordial times to the end of the Qajar period, and as such they were considered to be Iranian. Belief in Iran’s cultural distinctiveness, commemoration of the national festival of Nowruz, dissemination of the idea of “Iran” through naqqāli and Šāh-nāma ḵᵛāni to the masses, and the popularity of Persian poetry among people from all walks of life continued to serve as the foundation of Iranian cultural identity in modern times.

It is interesting to note that the glorification of pre-Islamic Iranian history and culture recurred in the Safavid period, with many imaginative linguistic inventions, with the Āḏar Keyvāni religious and literary movement (q.v.), a pseudo-Zoroastrian sect (see also DABESTĀN-E MAḎĀHEB; DASĀTIR; for its influence during the 19th century, see Tavakoli-Targhi, 2001, pp. 86-95). Following this movement in the 19th century, a Qajar prince, Jalāl-al-Din Mirzā, identifying himself as being of Persian stock, prepared the first textbook of Iran’s pre-modern ethno-national history from the time of creation to the mid-19th century. It was within this broad framework of historical awareness and cultural consciousness that Iranian identity entered the age of nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries (see iv, below).



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(Ahmad Ashraf)

Originally Published: December 15, 2006

Last Updated: March 30, 2012

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Vol. XIII, Fasc. 5, pp. 507-522