SABKŠENĀSI, tāriḵ-e taṭavvor-e naṯr-e Fārsi (Stylistics or The history of change in Persian prose), the title of a book by Malek al-Šoʿarā Moḥammad Taqi Bahār first published in 1942. Spanning three volumes, the work traces grammatical and literary transformations in Iranian prose literature from the Achaemenid era (ca. 700 to 330 BCE) to the early 20th century. The author’s stated purpose is to educate students in correctly identifying manuscripts and placing them in their historical contexts (Bahār, p. 29). Sabkšenāsi is one of the earliest examples of modern Iranian literary scholarship, something Bahār himself recognized in referring to his work as a “new science” (Bahār, p. 32).

The genesis of Bahār’s work lay in a series of talks he delivered at a literary society in the years 1930 and 1931, having been prompted by the neglect of prose literature in “schools old and new” and the lack of a systematic method of instruction. An edited version of these speeches was published as a series between 1933 and 1934 under the title “Literary Return” (“Bāzgašt-e adabi”) in the journal Armagān. A chapter based on Bahār’s talks also appeared in Reżā-zāda Šafaq’s The History of Iranian Literature for High School.  Although the articles sparked a debate about Sabkšenāsi among “scholars and young people who knew little of the services rendered by their predecessors,” the discussion still “did not go beyond the realm of poetry,” prompting Bahār’s thorough investigation of prose literature (Bahār, p. 27).

Between the years 1929 and 1933, Bahār was twice imprisoned by the recently crowned Reżā Shah Pahlavi and then sent to exile in Isfahan for five months, despite having already announced his withdrawal from politics.  Before being imprisoned, he spent a year teaching the history of Persian literature at the Dār al-Moʿallemin-e ʿĀli, a college for teachers of secondary education (later known as the Dānešsarā-ye ʿĀli), and throughout this period he edited a number of classical texts, including Tāriḵ-e Sistān and Tāriḵ-e Ṭabari (Mehrdād Bahār, p. 26). While in exile, Bahār published articles on “the transformation of the Persian language” in the journal Bāḵtar and upon his return to Tehran was invited to lecture at the University of Tehran, where, he writes, “for the first time, the science of Sabkšenāsi was introduced under the title of ‘The History of Change and Transformation in Persian Poetry and Prose’” (Bahār, p. 28).

Structure and contents. Each of the three volumes is devoted to a distinct historical period, though these divisions are not always strictly observed. The first deals with pre-Islamic literature and the early Islamic era to the advent of the Samanid dynasty in 819 CE. The second begins with the Samanids (819-1005) and continues through the Seljuq dynasty of eastern Iran (1038-1194), while the final volume stretches from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911.

Volume One includes an introduction by Bahār, valuable for its explanation of the author’s motivation and a brief history of the method of Sabkšenāsi. He cites the traditional biographies of poets (taḏkeras) as the origin of the method, tracing the development of these early attempts at literary criticism through the Safavid and Mughal courts and the development of the so-called “Indian style” (sabk-e Hendi) to the reaction against it in Iran, known as the “Literary Return,” (bāzgašt-e adabi) of the late Zand and early Qajar eras. The present volume, he claimed, represented the first attempt to apply critical methods to Persian prose. (Bahār, p. 26).

Approximately half of the first volume deals with pre-Islamic literature. Its broad scope includes a history of Iranian languages from Median to modern Persian, sometimes straying into more tangential topics, such as the invention of the written word, or a quite lengthy discussion of numismatics. Bahār, like many of his colleagues, studied ancient Iranian languages with Ernst Hertzfeld while the German archaeologist was residing in Tehran from 1925 to1934 (Mehrdād Bahār, p. 30), but the field was not Bahār’s specialty and this portion of the book has been strongly criticized (see below).

He is on firmer ground as he begins to deal with Persian literature after the Arab invasion of the seventh century. Bahār provides a fairly nuanced portrait of linguistic change, noting the persistence of pre-Islamic languages under the new regime. He also broaches a theme central to his theory as a whole when he addresses the tension between Persian and Arabic literatures. He ascribes “the revival of the Persian language and the creation of the Šāh-nāma and its like in Khorasan” to the literary and political šoʿubiya movement of the 9th and 10th centuries, which he also refers to as the “Free Men” movement (āzād mardiya). Bahār often ranges beyond the volume’s scope into the Ghaznavid, Seljuq, and even Mongol eras to reinforce his point, concluding that while the introduction of Arabic gave the Persian language a new “breadth and depth,” (Bahār, p. 311), by the 11th century, “imitation of Arabic prose” had “eradicated the luster, splendor and value” from Persian literature (Bahār, p. 314).

The latter half of volume one focuses on transformations of grammar and vocabulary in modern Persian, particularly in relation to Arabic and earlier Iranian languages such as Pahlavi. Bahār reveals an awareness of broader intellectual debates by including a discussion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Ludwig Bucher’s adaptation of that theory to linguistic change (Bahār, p. 211).  From this, Bahār concludes that linguistic change occurs gradually through “the coalescing of various smaller agents, none of which are notable on their own” (Bahār, p. 213).

Volume Two presents a more focused argument restricted to the period from the rise of the Samanid dynasty to the fall of the Seljuqs. He continues to explore the relationship between Arabic and Persian and the development of rhetorical complexity in prose literature. Thus, the style of the Samanid era is marked by brevity and simplicity following in the manner of “Pahlavi authors” and the “ancient Arabs” (Bahār, p. 545), but by the 10th century, a “revolution in prose style” had taken place, introducing poetic conventions such as rhyme and repetition into prose (Bahār, p. 730). This more elaborate style had its origins in Arabic literature, but until the end of 9th century such conventions were used as points of emphasis. The 10th century saw an explosion in the number of authors vying for the attention of the courts, encouraging competition and innovation, which often meant borrowing literary devices from poetry. As styles changed, “the old customs were gradually weakened…and one hundred years later, the effects of this revolution were felt in the Persian language and ornate prose following the Arabic [style] appeared in Iran” (Bahār, p. 730). 

Bahār illustrates each of his points exhaustively, using selections from appropriate texts, a method which, though it sometimes favors example over explanation, is of great use to the student, particularly considering that when Bahār was writing many of these texts had not been published or were not easily available. He was actually editing some of the texts, such as Tāriḵ-e Sistān (published in 1935), while compiling Sabkšenāsi, thus providing a dual service to student and scholar alike.

The third volume begins with the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 13th century and ends with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. Bahār writes that the devastation wrought by the Mongols spurred a decline in the quality of Persian prose and poetry, despite the fact that the conquerors’ interest in “establishing the facts” led them to commission a great many historical accounts (Bahār, p. 922). He mourns the loss of traditional styles and objects to the increased use of “Arabic words and a concern with technical language and artifice,” which becomes most apparent “in the 8th [14th] century” (Bahār, p. 924). Despite this assessment, he gives the histories written during this period a good deal of attention, providing numerous excerpts in support of his arguments, and admires earlier works such as Ḥamd-Allāh Mostowfi Qazvini’s Tāriḵ-e Gozida for the “simplicity” of their style (Bahār, p. 1094).

Bahār does make other exceptions to his depiction of gradual decline, most notably when discussing the Golestān of Saʿdi. He circumvents the difficulty Saʿdi presents to his theory by placing the famous poet and author in a stylistic category all his own. Though Saʿdi’s prose writing did have aspects in common with contemporary authors, he also introduced his own innovations, to which Bahār devotes much attention (Bahār, pp. 1025-1040).

However, the narrative of decline predominates (this single volume contains two subheadings titled “The Decline of Persian Prose”) and takes on a renewed emphasis in the surprisingly brief chapter dealing with the Safavid dynasty and the Delhi court. Bahār blames the dearth of “skilled writers” during the Safavid era on the “effects of the corruption, ill fortune, and adversity of the preceding centuries” and the “slaughter” of “talented and free men” by invading powers (Bahār, p. 1169). Still, in his even-handed way, he does note several examples of “unadorned prose” (naṯr-e sāda).

This period contained the seeds of the “literary resurrection” of the Qajar dynasty in the compilation of Persian dictionaries at the Indian courts, which Bahār describes as an attempt to “analyze and understand Persian [Dari] words” (Bahār, p. 1204). Echoing his earlier articles dealing with the development of poetry, he briefly mentions the “Literary Return” school of poetry, which sought to revive the style of the pre-Mongol era (lamenting that “authors of literary history” have neglected to cite him as the source of the theory [Bahār, p. 1233 n.]). This brings him to modern developments such as the printing press, newspapers, and the influence of European literature, ending with a discussion of the forward-looking authors who came to prominence during the Constitutional Revolution. In fact, it was these same technological and social transformations, along with a greater sense of political stability and personal security under the Qajars, which encouraged many of these authors to champion a modern version of the naṯr-e sāda style. Bahār saw himself as a link connecting the innovations of the younger generation with the historical knowledge of the traditionalists (Mirābedini, p. 30).

Reception. Bahār’s discussion of pre-Islamic literature has been widely criticized for containing numerous flaws in the translation and transcription of the Avestan and Pahlavi texts. These very flaws were used by Mojtabā Minovi to prove that the Andarz-nāma (see FORGERIES IV; OF ISLAMIC MANUSCRIPTS), a manuscript purported to be among the earliest known examples of Islamic Persian literature, was in fact a modern forgery which drew heavily on Bahār’s work (Minovi, pp. 481-95) and hence repeated the same modern errors which were apparent in Bahār’s faulty understanding of Middle Persian.

Bahār’s interests were heavily weighted toward the literature of eastern Iran and Khorasan in particular, and he neglected works produced in western Iran under the Daylamites and later governments (Šamisā, p. 146). His discussion of literature under the Safavid and Mughal dynasties is also far too brief given the deleterious effects he ascribes to these periods. It must also be remembered that Sabkšenāsi is a product of its time and reflects strongly the nationalistic ideals to which the author devoted much of his life. This, combined with the lack of a strong methodical framework, makes the text read more like a work of literary history than literary theory (Ahmadi, p. 142), limiting its wider application. Conversely, the method itself, with its distinction between “artificial” prose (naṯr-e fanni) and “simple” or “unadorned” prose risks separating “the form of the narrative from its contents,” thus neglecting “the traditions that influenced the development of Persian literature and determined its principal characteristics” (Poliakova, p. 238).

Still, the influence of Bahār’s text is easily recognizable after even a brief glance at current literary studies. The main thrust of the book, the delineation of Persian literature according to historical periods distinguishable by stylistic traits, was a major breakthrough in research methods and lent a great deal of weight to the work’s initial impact (Yusofi, p. 163). Though Bahār’s method of describing an author’s work borrowed heavily from the classical taḏkera genre, his attempts to provide a more nuanced depiction of change in prose style and technique over time often went far beyond the simple comparisons of traditional biographical sketches. As one modern observer notes:

“The importance of [Bahār’s] work lies in his description of linguistic details and an author’s individual style of expression, as well as in distinguishing the characteristic style of each historical era, all while referring to the relevant classical texts.” (Mirābedini, p. 31).

His terminology has entered the general lexicon and phrases such as “Khorasani style” [sabk-e Ḵorāsāni] and “Literary Return” are widely used. Bahār was familiar with the broader field of literary studies and incorporated modern methods of scholarship by supporting his arguments with numerous examples and statistical data and by supplying bibliographical references. He was obviously aware of European scholarship, making mention of Darwinism and referencing the Encyclopedia Britannica and French schools of literary research (Šamisā, p. 144). This led him to address topics such as the effect of the environment on literature, which, though not always successful by current standards, were innovative at the time and expanded the boundaries of literary research in Iran. The broad scope of Sabkšenāsi also allowed Bahār to incorporate discussions of social issues such as the effect of political change and population migration on literature, an ambitious project simply not matched by any contemporary author. In fact, “his interests were not limited to the theory and history of Iranian poetry and prose ... Bahār studied his country’s history, philosophy, religious teachings (Sufism, Manichaeism), [and concerned himself with] issues related to the appearance and development of the Persian language, with the Persian language itself, and with Iranian linguistics.” The product of this study is “the most important fundamental work in the field of [Persian] prose and poetry dealing decisively not only with [literary] styles and meters, but also addressing broader issues of literary history” (Peĭsikov, p. 4).

It has been said that nearly all contemporary Iranian authors have been either directly or indirectly influenced by Sabkšenāsi  (Yusofi, p.157) and it is to the detriment of scholarly knowledge that Bahār passed away before completing his study of historical change in Persian poetry (Šamisā, p.147). His work remains a useful resource and an example of groundbreaking scholarly research. 



Wali Ahmadi, “The Institution of Persian Literature and the Genealogy of Bahar’s “Stylistics,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 31/2, 2004, pp. 141-52. 

Mehrdād Bahār, “Takamela bar noḵostin Zendagi-nāma-ye ḵoᵛdnevešt [-e Malek-al-Šoʿarā Bahār],” Arj-nāma-ye Malek-al-Šoʿarā Bahār, ed. ʿAli Mir Anṣāri, Tehran, 2006.

Moḥammad Taqi Bahār, Sabkšenāsi, ya, tāriḵ-e taṭavvor-e naṯr-e FārsiTehran, 1997.

The three volumes of Sabkšenāsi were originally published between 1943 and 1949 by the Ministry of Culture as a Faculty of Literature textbook, bearing the subtitle “for study in the faculty and the doctoral program in literature.” The second edition appeared in 1958 (seven years after Bahār’s death) courtesy of the well-known Tehran publishing house Amir Kabir and included “revisions and additions which the author himself supplied during his lifetime.” These consisted mostly of minor typographical corrections. All subsequent publications have been reprints of this revised edition, the ninth and most recent appearing in 2007 from the same publisher.

M. Minovi, “Kāpusnāma-ye Ferāy,” Part two, Yaḡmā  9, 1957, pp. 481-95.

Richard Frye states that W. B. Henning originally discovered that “the Pahlavi forms of the words...were copied from M. Bahār’s book Sabk shināsī” (R. Frye, “W.B. Henning, Selected Papers,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 40:2, 1981, p. 154).

L. S. Peĭsikov, “Malek-al-Šoʿarā: Bozorgtarin šāʿer va rajol-e ejtemāʿi-e moʿāṣer-e Irān,” Peyām-e Novin  4/2, 1961, pp. 1-7. 

E. A. Poliakova, “The Development of a Literary Canon in Medieval Persian Chronicles: The Triumph of Etiquette,” Iranian Studies 17/2-3, 1984, pp. 237-56.

Reżā-zāda Šafaq, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt-e Irān barā-ye dabirestānhā, Tehran, 1942. 

Sirus Šamisā, Kolliyāt-e sabk-šenāsi , Tehran, 1993.

Tāriḵ-e Sistān, taʾlif dar ḥodud-e 445-725, ed. M. Bahār, Tehran, 1935.

Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Yusofi, Kāḡāz-e zar: yāddašthāʾi dar adab va tāriḵ, Tehran, 1984. 

(Matthew Smith)

Originally Published: November 12, 2010

Last Updated: November 12, 2010