ii. In Islamic Persia
In Islamic Persia letter writing (Ar.-Pers. tarassol < Ar. r-s-l “to send”) developed into a genre of great literary, historical, and social importance. With the establishment of Omayyad rule in 41/661 tarassol began to develop as an integral part of the administrative system. As in other affairs of state, the first caliphs followed the models and traditions of the Sasanian and Byzantine empires and depended on the expertise of Christian and Zoroastrian officials. In Syria and Egypt Greek remained the language of the state secretaries for several decades (the words resāla “letter” and tarassol apparently translating Greek epistolḗ and *epistolographía < epistéllō “to send” [a message or order]). Similarly, Persian was the prevailing language in the chancelleries and financial offices of Iraq and Persia, though correspondence between the court and subject provinces was written in Arabic. The caliph Moʿāwīa (41-60/661-80) established dīvāns (administrative offices), including the dīvānal-rasāʾel (office of correspondence), the officials of which were responsible for drafting letters and presenting them for comments and approval. Once a letter was in final form, it was reread, scaled, and dispatched, and a copy was preserved in the dīvānal-ḵātam (office of the seal) as a check against forgery or alteration (cf. Jahšīārī, pp. 24-25).
By the time that the ʿAbbasids came to power (132/749) and moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad Arabic had replaced Greek and Persian as the official language of administration, and non-Muslim scribes and officials had largely been replaced by Muslim scribes (kātebs), most of them mawālī (clients) and very often of Persian origin (Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia I, pp. 204-06). Under the caliph al-Manṣūr (136-58/754-75) the dīvānal-rasāʾel and the dīvānal-ḵātam (which had become the dīvānal-tawqīʿ “office of decrees”) were combined in the dīvānal-rasāʾel wa’l-serr (office of correspondence and confidential records).
In the early ʿAbbasid period tarassol developed into a literary genre. ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd Kāteb (d. 132/750), secretary to the last Omayyad caliph, Marwān II (127-32/744-50), had addressed an epistle to his colleagues in which he enumerated the requisite moral and professional qualifications for training as a kāteb and described the ideal curriculum (Jahšīārī, pp. 73-79; Qalqašandī, I, pp. 85-89). ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd, like his famous colleague Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ (d. 145/762), was acquainted with pre-Islamic Persian culture and had translated a collection of epistles from Pahlavi into Arabic (Brockelmann, GAL, Suppl. I, p. 105). His elegant style and polite phraseology became the model for later generations of scribes. At the hands of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, and others who emulated their standards, the terse and simple diction of earlier tarassol evolved into a more ornate style. Persian influence was so conspicuous that Jāḥeẓ bitterly denounced the secretaries for neglecting Muslim traditions and even the Koran in favor of the “outlandish” wisdom of the Persians (von Grunebaum, p. 255). By 377/987, when Ebn al-Nadīm compiled his Fehrest, many collections of letters and several treatises on epistolography and style were available. He devoted a large chapter (2nd fann of the 3rd maqāla) to the kātebs and their works and enumerated the various categories of personal and official correspondence.
Ebn al-ʿAmīd (d. 359/970), dabīr (secretary) and vizier of the Buyid ruler of Jebāl Rokn-al-Dawla (335-66/947-77), raised Arabic tarassol to a high degree of sophistication; it was commonly believed that “the art of epistolography began with ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd and ended with Ebn al-ʿAmīd” (Nicholson, p. 267; Hitti, p. 250), though in fact it continued to develop in Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries.
With the rise of local dynasties in eastern Persia during the 9th and 10th centuries, Persian began to emerge as the language of the court and literature. Although letters to Baghdad and to Arab governors had to be written in Arabic, correspondence between the courts and provincial amirs was in Persian (Bahār, Sabk-šenāsī I, p. 236). From this pattern it may be concluded that after the Arab conquest Persian continued to be the language of written communication among Persian-speaking people and that in the northern provinces local dialects were used in the correspondence of local rulers. The existence in northern Persia of Pahlavi inscriptions dating from the 11th century (Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” pp. 50-51) and the fact that most surviving literature in Pahlavi was written during the 9th century are evidence that it was used among Zoroastrians (and perhaps non-Zoroastrians) for bookkeeping, contracts, and correspondence.
Under the Ghaznavids (366-582/977-1186), Saljuqs (429-590/1038-1194), and Ḵᵛārazmšāhs (ca. 470-628/ca. 1077-1231) the dīvān-e resālat was one of the most important state institutions. The chief secretary (dabīr-e ḵāṣṣ) was head of the chancellery and in touch with all the secret matters of the kingdom. In that period Persian epistolography was developed by writers like Abū Naṣr Moškān and his pupil Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqī (d. 470/1077), the secretaries of the Ghaznavid sultans Maḥmūd (388-421/998-1030) and Masʿūd I (421-32/1030-41) respectively; Rašīd-al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ (d. 578/1182) and Montajab-al-Dīn Badīʿ Jovaynī, secretaries of the Saljuq sultan Sanjar (511-52/1118-57); and Bahāʾ-al-Dīn Baḡdādī, head of the dīvānal-enšāʾ (chancellery) and later vizier for ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn Takeš Ḵᵛārazmšāh (567-96/1172-1200). Such men were indispensable to the state, not only because of their literary qualifications and competence in handling diplomatic correspondence, but also because of their technical knowledge of finance and administration.
The abundant literature in Persian on the epistolary arts falls into two categories: one consisting of essays and treatises on the principles of epistolography and the qualifications and training of secretaries and the second consisting of collections of sample letters to serve as models. Sometimes the two types were combined in a single work, in which theoretical points might be illustrated by sample letters. The earliest work on principles was Zīnat al-kottāb by Bayhaqī (now lost; Ebn Fondoq, p. 175). The Qābūs-nāma of Keykāvūs b. Eskandar (comp. ca. 475/1082) and the Čahār maqāla of Neẓāmī ʿArūżī (comp. ca. 550/1082) each contain a chapter on epistolography; according to Moḥammad ʿAwfī (Lobāb, pp. 78-80), Montajab-al-Dīn (see below) wrote Roqyat al-qalam on the duties and qualifications of secretaries. The letters of famous scribes, among them Rašīd-al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ, Montajab-al-Dīn (al-Tawassol ela’l-tarassol), and Bahāʾ-al-Dīn (ʿAtabat al-kataba) were collected. Letters written by Sufis, philosophers, and scholars to their fellows and disciples or in reply to questions put to them are of a similar nature. Noteworthy among them are letters by Abū Ḥāmed Moḥammad Ḡazālī, Sanāʾī Ḡaznavī, ʿAyn-al-Qożāt Hamadānī, and Ḵāqānī Šervānī (see bibliography).
The Dastūr-e dabīrī of Moḥammad Meyhanī (mid-12th century) begins with instructions on penmanship, characteristics of good style, models of address, greetings and conclusions, benedictions, and the formal structure of the text. The second half of the work consists of models of personal (eḵwānīyāt), official (solṭānīyāt), and legal (maḥāżer) letters. Personal letters might be sent for congratulation (thanīat), condolence (taʿzīat), gratitude (šokr), invitation (daʿwat), complaint (šekāyat), and so on, either initially (ḵeṭābī) or in reply (jawābī) to other letters. The tone and phraseology, as well as the wording of the address (ʿonwān), opening (eftetāḥ), and closing (ḵātema), differed according to the ranks and positions of the writer (kāteb) and the addressee (maktūb ʿalayh) and the relationship between them. Official correspondence included royal orders (tawqīʿāt, farāmīn), deeds of appointment (manāšīr) and investiture (ḵaḷʿat, taqlīd), treaties (ʿahd-nāma), announcements of victory (fatḥ-nāma), and the like (Meyhanī, pp. 1106-15; Montajab-al-Dīn, passim). They were issued by and recorded in the chancellery. Official letters always began with an introduction (eftetāḥ), which usually consisted of an invocation to God, chosen to suit the occasion, and the name and titles of the addressee (ʿonwān). Legal letters included deeds of purchase (qabāla), depositions (šahādat-nāma), marriage contracts (ʿaqd-nāma), protests (šekāyat-nāma), wills (waṣīyat-nāma), and similar documents that had to be sealed, signed, and witnessed.
Except for literary style and calligraphic variation (e.g., nasḵ, taʿlīq, šekasta; see calligraphy), until recent times the external forms and internal structure of Persian epistolography remained essentially unchanged. The use of the ṭoḡrā (royal emblem) at the tops of letters issued by the dīvāns was introduced by the Saljuqs and Ḵᵛārazmšāhs. Under the Safavids it was replaced by the royal seal, which, however, sometimes appeared at the bottom (for specimens, see Martin, pp. 171-206, 246-54).
During the Mongol period (mid-13th to late 14th century) a number of new terms and expressions (mostly Mongol and Turkish) were introduced into the dīvān literature, for example, yā/ărlīq (decree), soyūrḡāl (hereditary grant), toyūl (officeholder’s fief), parvāṇčī (officer in charge of minor appointments), īḷčī (ambassador; Bahār, Sabk-šenāsī III, pp. 97-99). Colored inks and rich decorations were employed in state correspondence, and even the seals were stamped in different colors (Taḏkerat al-molūk, tr. Minorsky, pp. 21, 24, 40; Spuler, Mongolen 2, p. 293).
The use of different seals for different documents was fully developed in the Safavid chancellery; the names of the twelve Shiʿite imams were inscribed on the large seals that were often stamped at the tops of letters. The rather complex organization of the Safavid dār al-enšāʾ (secretariat) was inherited by subsequent dynasties. The director, monšī al-mamālek, supervised a large staff of monšīs (secretaries, redactors) and moḥarrers (clerks; Taḏkerat al-molūk, pp. 61-62). Less important letters were prepared by the wāqeʿa-nevīs, and high state officials also maintained secretariats. Each letter was subject to a long process of registration in different daftars of the royal cabinet (daftar-ḵāna-ye homāyūn-e aʿlā), under the direction of the mostawfī al-mamālek; several signs, seals, and flourishes had to be added before it was delivered.
The simple prose of such early secretaries as Abū Naṣr Moškān and Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqī did not suit the sophisticated tastes of later generations. The prose style of the 12th and 13th centuries was characterized by long and complex sentences, a high proportion of Arabic words, and such rhetorical embellishments as rhyme (sajʿ) and parallelism (mowāzana). According to Bahāʾ-al-Dīn (p. 9), the ornate style and the use of rhymed prose in Persian tarassol had been introduced by Rašīd-al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ in imitation of Arabic epistolographers (cf. Bahār, Sabk-šenāsī II, p. 248). The intention was partly to reflect glory on the royal patron and partly to demonstrate the dabīr’s own erudition and refined style. Bahāʾ-al-Dīn, though himself a distinguished representative of this new tendency, nevertheless criticized the excessive use of rhetorical devices (pp. 9-10).
Čengīz Khan, who understood only the simplest spoken Persian, ordered his secretary to write a letter in plain, direct language; as he was unable to do so, he was punished and dismissed (Montajab-al-Dīn, I, pp. 25-26; Bahār, Sabk-šenāsī III, pp. 168-69). The effect of the early Mongols’ preference for simplicity can be seen in the letters (monšaʾāt, rasāʾel) of the Il-khanid minister Rašīd-al-Dīn Fażl-Allāh (d. 718/1318); Moḥammad b. Hendūšāh Naḵjavānī, better known as Šams-e Monšī (late 14th century), who wrote Dastūr al-kāteb fī taʿyīn al-marāteb, one of the most comprehensive works on Persian tarassol; and Abū Bakr b. al-Zakī al-Ṣadr (late 13th century), who was attached to the court of the Saljuqs of Rūm and compiled Rawżat al-kottāb wa ḥadīqat al-albāb, a collection of his own letters, mostly eḵwānīyāt. All these writings were in a fluent language, precise, eloquent, and generally free of rhetorical embellishments. This style persisted in all kinds of correspondence under the Timurids, but the polished, coherent, and lucid language of earlier writers was gradually being lost. The change can be observed in letters collected in Farāʾed-e ḡīāṯī, compiled by Jalāl-al-Dīn Yūsof Ahl (mid-15th century), the Šaraf-nāma of ʿAbd-Allāh Morvārīd, and the Nāma-ye nāmī of the historian Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Ḵᵛāndamīr (first half of the 16th century). The specimens produced and collected in books like Enšāʾ-e Māhrū by ʿAyn-al-Molk Māhrū (14th century), Rīāż al-enšāʾ by Ḵᵛāja Moḥammad Gāvān (vizier of the Bahmanids; d. 886/1481), and Badāyeʿ al-enšāʾ; or Enšāʾ-e Yūsofī, by Ḥakīm Yūsofī, the monšī of the Mughal emperor Homāyūn (937-62/1530-55), show a parallel development in the style of Persian epistolography in India during this period (see iii).
The deterioration of style that had set in during the late Mongol period became more obvious in the works of the monšīs of the Safavids and their successors (Bahār, Sabk-šenāsī III, pp. 265-66). Formal correspondence between personalities of equal rank or from an inferior to a superior usually began with a long introduction (eftetāḥ) in Arabic, in which the full name of the addressee was preceded by a long chain of titles (alqāb), epithets (noʿūt), and detailed benedictory formulas (doʿāʾ and salām). Sometimes a letter might open with poetry in Arabic or Persian, designed to eulogize the addressee, characterize the writer’s feelings, or prefigure the contents. The text (matn) was full of Arabic expressions, quotations from the Koran and Hadith, and difficult words used synonymously and in rhymed and cadenced sentences. The meaning was often obscured by verbosity, recondite constructions, and far-fetched figures of speech. What could be said in a few lines was extended to much greater length, with repeated interruptions for Arabic and Persian verses. A similar trend may be observed even in friendly and informal letters (maktūbāt, roqaʿāt, raqīmāt) written by educated people (for specimens of different types, see Taḏkerat al-molūk, ed. Minorsky; (ʿAlī b. Ḥosayn Kāšefī, Maḵzan al-enšāʾ, ms. 3931, Malek library, Tehran; Qāʾem-maqām; Navāʾī).
Only in the 19th century did Persian epistolography begin to break free from the mannerisms of earlier writers, especially in the works of such monšīs as Fāżel Khan Garrūsī (d. 1253/1838), ʿAbd-al-Wahhāb Našāṭ (q.v.; d. 1244/1829), and Mīrzā Abu’l-Qāsem Khan Qāʾem-maqām, the most distinguished representative of this reform (see bāzgašt-e adabī), which reflected partly a conscious “return” to pre-Mongol stylistic and literary principles (a movement that had already started in poetry) and partly the introduction of printing, the development of journalism, and the growth of literacy in Persia, all of which encouraged a more precise, lucid, and straightforward language. The introduction of a modern bureaucracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries put an end to the old system of dīvāns and related institutions.
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Originally Published: December 15, 1993
Last Updated: October 31, 2011
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Vol. VI, Fasc. 3, pp. 290-293