Metaphorical language as a battleground for tradition and newness in late Mughal Persian

19 Jan 2018

Abstract Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Khān, known as Ārzū (d. 1756), made a number of sweeping pronouncements during his impressive career as a poet and philologist in Delhi. He claimed to be the first person in the Persian philological tradition to have noticed the historical ties between Persian and Indian languages. That claim is well known to scholars, but a more obscure but arguably even more important statement appears in the preface of his ʿAṭiyya-i Kubrā (The great gift). He writes that it is the first work to explain “the science of clear statement” (ʿilm-i bayān) in Persian. This article situates this facet of rhetoric in its historical context. By considering several exemplars of contemporary critical discourse, we can reevaluate a dominant paradigm in Persianate literary history, namely, decadence. Modern critics have typically indexed the degree of the apparent degradation in sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Persian literature to its metaphorical complexity. In fact, far from fretting over a decadent and degraded literature, critics like Ārzū were grappling with the possibility of theorizing the integration of new ideas and new metaphors into the rhetorical tradition. Furthermore, the consolidation of rhetorical scholarship in Persian in this period coincided with the expansion of literary production in the north Indian Islamicate context in other languages. Many of the people responsible for translating and reformulating Arabic philological texts in Persian had a stake in both Persian and what would later be called Urdu literature. The implications of this trilingual consciousness have not been satisfactorily explained.