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Iran and Muslim Renaissance

By Suroosh Irfani

Eminent academics in Iran and abroad are actively involved in pushing the boundaries of Iran’s intellectual culture, many of them by translating for a ‘thirsty’ and growing Persian readership western works in literature, art and sciences

Ever since his victory in Iran’s presidential elections in August 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has emerged on the world scene as the face of an anti-Western, isolationist, Iran.

However, a recent visit to Ahmedinejad’s Iran showed that the Iranian society is anything but ‘isolationist’ or ‘anti-Western’. Indeed, what seems remarkable about Iran today is a groundswell in its intellectual culture marked by the reclamation of a Persian-Islamic past and interpenetration with western thought. Indeed, visible expressions of such a groundswell are to be found in both governmental and non-governmental initiatives. There is a spate of government-supported international conferences, inter-faith dialogues and seminars hosted by Iranian universities and cultural centres and a publication boom in the civil society.

The importance of such a vibrant intellectual culture signifying a broadening of life’s horizons becomes all the more vital in light of the much-quoted Arab Human Development Reports published by the UNDP in 2002 and 2003. These studies were carried out by Arab academics and experts for diagnosing the reasons for the stagnation of Arab societies, notwithstanding their oil wealth.

Besides deficit in freedom and women’s empowerment, a severe deficit in the production of knowledge was identified by the reports as the obstacles to human development in the Arab region. As the 2002 Report noted, a ‘severe shortage’ of new writing and ‘a dearth of translations of works from outside’, was intrinsic to the ‘disabling constraints’ that undermined ‘the acquisition, diffusion and production of knowledge’ in the Arab world. Only 339 books, the report observed, were translated annually in the whole of Arab world, ‘one-fifth the number that Greece translates’ in a year.

Against this grim picture of intellectual stagnation in the Arab region, the Iranian intellectual scene appears vibrant and alive: Between 1992-2002, a whopping 24, 098 books were translated and another 84,820 new works were authored in Iran. Moreover, there was a remarkable increase in the number of translated and authored books during this period: Whereas in 1992, 1055 books were translated and 2013 authored, the corresponding figures for the year 2002 were, respectively, 4603 and 15,807, according to the figures available from Khana e Kitab (Book House), the repository of published works run by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

It is also noteworthy that during the above period, 819 dictionaries and glossaries were written or translated covering a wide range of areas besides language and literature, politics, computers, cinema etc. Indeed, one could say that as with the compulsive list making and drawing up of taxonomies that marked a distinctive feature of 16th century European renaissance, the publication explosion of dictionaries constitutes a gripping manifestation of the intellectual ferment in Iran. Such ferment indicates the onset of “a new historical consciousness, less hampered by dated biases and delusions”, as Abbas Amanat, an Iranian-origin professor at Yale has observed.

To be sure, eminent academics in Iran and abroad are actively involved in pushing the boundaries of Iran’s intellectual culture, many of them by translating for a ‘thirsty’ and growing Persian readership western works in literature, art and sciences. Dr Hooshang Rahnema, professor of comparative literature at Pennsylvania university and a consultant with Hermes — a dynamic publishing house that has emerged in Tehran in recent years — believes that while book translation had always entailed a form of cultural dialogue, such dialogue had become all the more urgent in a world marked by an unprecedented explosion in the production and exchange of knowledge.

An ardent admirer of Allama Iqbal whom he discovered way back in 1952 by reading Rumi e Asr — a book by Khawja Abdul Hamid Irfani introducing Iqbal to Iranians as ‘Rumi of the present age’ — Dr Rahnema has been deputed by Hermes to re-launch Iqbal in Iran through bilingual translations of Javed Nameh, Iqbal’s poetic magnum opus.

Javid Nameh — or Book of Eternity — also featured in the paper I presented at the International Conference on Prophetic Art (honar e Nabawi) — a three-day Conference held at Isfahan University of Art on the eve of 2007. Reflecting the universal scope of an awakened Muslim consciousness, Javed Nameh imbibes the spiritual heritage of both East and West.

Indeed, Iqbal himself has described his magnum opus as ‘a kind of Divine Comedy and in the style of Rumi’s Mathnawi’, inspired by the Prophet’s Mairaj (Ascension). An Ascension during which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), with the archangel Gabriel as his guide, journeyed through the seven heavens ‘and conversed with earlier prophets from Adam to Abraham’.

However, Javed Nameh’s ensemble of pre-Islamic and modern figures also includes prophets and angels like Zoroaster and Sarosh, beheaded mystics and heretics like the 10th century Sufi Hallaj and Qurutul Aa’en Tahira, (the female Bahai preacher executed as a heretic in 19th century Iran), Muslim reformers and rulers, and Hindu saints. Even the German philosopher Nietzsche, perhaps history’s best-known atheist, is described as ‘a man of sublime thoughts and defiant uncrucified Hallaj’. Such spiritual pluralism of Iqbal’s poetic masterpiece resonated at the Isfahan Conference, where the works of young artists reflected a fusion of ‘present knowledge with a spirit and idea rooted in the past’, as observed by Dr Farhang Mozaffar, President of the Isfahan University of Art.

At the same time, however, Dr. Mozaffar noted that the Conference was originally conceived as a ‘cultural’ response to last year’s Danish cartoon controversy — it was to be a sophisticated defence of the Prophet’s (pbuh) sanctity in the context of theoretical papers and art works. Over 1500 Iranian academics and artists participated in the Conference that attracted more than 200 art works, and as many as 300 papers, out of which 60 were presented by Iranian and foreign scholars on the various dimensions of Islamic Art, the Prophet’s (pbuh) personality and Mairaj.

Surprisingly, President Ahmedinejad’s message, which was read out at the Conference, was anything but ‘isolationist’. The message recalled that Iranian national identity was shaped in the context of the teachings of the prophets, “and it contains many as yet undiscovered horizons’. Furthermore, the message highlighted the Conference as

a ‘ continuity to cultural production and expansion of knowledge’ through ‘the creation of new works’.

Clearly, notwithstanding its origins in the ‘cartoon controversy’, the Isfahan Conference went beyond instrumental politics in its scope and implications: it represented a creative engagement with the issues of religion and art in Muslim society, with a view to broaden life’s horizons as the basis of a knowledge society.

Such engagement between religion and art also marked the theoretical axis of another international seminar held in Tehran on 6 January 2007 on “Theatre and Religion” — where theatre was explored as the primordial form of all art, and the ‘primary vehicle for effectively connecting the human with the Divine’.

However, for many Muslims, such ideas about art and its relationship with religion would simply seem un-Islamic. Such a mindset is bound to preclude a ‘knowledge renaissance’ that the Arab Human Development Report has identified as the need of the hour. Even so, the vibrant energy of Iran’s intellectual culture might well be a marker of just such a renaissance in the Muslim world.

Suroosh Irfani teaches Cultural Studies at the National College of Arts, Lahore





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