Religion in the Art of the Shahnameh

The Shahnameh was created in a religious context; Ferdowsi was a shi’a Muslim (1), and he wrote the book for his Muslim rulers, however, the actual text of the Shahnameh does not contain very much reference to religion. As one of my other group members has discussed in this blog post, Ferdowsi may have had various reasons for avoiding religion in his poem, but references to it still remain. One of Ferdowsi’s goals when writing the Shahnameh was to “preserve the legends and memory of the past,” (2) specifically of the Persian kings who had ruled before the current time, and they were not Muslim. Even though Ferdowsi starts the poem with a traditional Islamic introduction, elements of Zoroastrianism are present throughout the Shahnameh such as the depiction of the beginning of the universe and the presence of the prophet Zoroaster. This is not the case with the artwork.

I have talked before about the disparity between the interests and influences of the artwork and text of the Shahnameh in the context of their depictions of women, and a similar gap can be seen in the context of religion. Even though Ferdowsi included a fair amount of Zoroastrian elements in the Shahnameh does not mean that the people who later recreated it included them in their art. There are Zoroastrian characters who appear, but, like the women, they do not appear often and when they do it is most common to see them in the context of others’ stories. All of the later dynasties, the Ilkhanids, the Safavid, the Qajar, and more, who connected with the text and commissioned it to be recopied were Muslim and the art was tailored to them, so it is possible that Zoroastrian motifs were left out intentionally, they simply were not known or common at that time, or one of many other reasons. But Zoroastrianism is not the only religion that appears in the Shahnameh.

The artwork of the Shahnameh  is somewhat tricky to analyze because it doesn’t include very many blatantly Islamic elements either. One of the reasons for this could be that most illustrations of the Shahnameh are of scenes from the Shahnameh translated fairly literally into a picture. This means most of the illustrations are of characters engaging in combat or in their palaces, instead of doing particularly religious things. But, there are some key aspects that appear, often in the interpretation of characters and events; the lens one uses to view media does affect how it is conveyed. One place that this appears is the interpretation of the Zoroastrian angel, Sorush. Both Ferdowsi and many artists who depict him show him wearing green, as Ferdowsi connected him to an Islamic figure, Khezr (3). All appearances of this character have been affected by one person’s religious context, and a similar phenomenon can be seen at a larger scale.

qajar_shahname_001

The first people to create an illustrated copy of the Shahnameh that we still have today, the Ilkhanids, spread many practices, traditions, and ideas throughout their empire, and this influence can be seen in the artwork of the Shahnameh of that time. But the influence was not contained to just illustrations of the Shahnameh, it also spread to depictions of Muslim figures, and it was around this time that the first shi’ite depictions of Ali as Muhammad’s successor were created (4). Throughout the Shahnameh’s historical lifespan, its illustrations have borne a striking resemblance to many Muslim pieces of art (5).

The main question is why are there so few traces of religion in the Shahnameh’s illustrations? I addressed one theory earlier, but to me it seems like it is because the differences in various editions of the Shahnameh come down to the people they were created for. These rulers and readers have deep connections to the text that made them want to commision entirely new copies of it, and the differences between them tell is more than differences in depictions of religion.

  1. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  2. Ibid., pg. 11
  3. Ibid., pg. 76
  4. Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.
  5. Welch, Stuart Cary and Annemarie Schimmel. “Islamic Art.” Recent Acquisitions, no. 1986/1987

Picture from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

Legend vs History: Narrative of Women in Shahnameh

     For the last couple of weeks, I have attempted to determine the role women in the Shahnameh, which has turned into more of a complex problem than I originally thought it would be. My past blog posts have shown that there are two main differences between the literature on this question. The scholar Gabbay asserted that the Shahnameh depicted females as being submissive to males and not having their own authority. She used the Bahram Gur and Azada story as evidence for the Shahnameh’s favoring of a male-dominant relationship dynamic.(1) Another scholar, Loveimi, declared that the Shahnameh is a progressive work that depicts men and women equally, which was based on the wide cast of female characters that Ferdowsi depicted and their ability to influence the fate of the epic heroes.(2) Each work had strong arguments, but also weaknesses. Gabbay’s work focused in on a singular narrative instead of looking at the Shahnameh broadly. Loveimi showcased a wide cast but did not analyze the relationship those characters had with men. Ultimately, neither scholar was able to put the other’s argument to rest. I was beginning to think that I was never going to find an answer to my question until I read Dick Davis’s “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories” and listened to a lecture he gave at SOAS University of London on youtube (link). His lecture and his article provided a deeper analysis of the work and put context towards both Loveimi’s and Gabbay’s article. Overall, he asserts that the Shahnameh is a complex work that depicts women as equal to men in the legendary portion of the text but in the historical portion, women fall prey to the traditional roles that burden Iranian society.

     A huge takeaway from the video lecture and Davis’s article was that there is a distinction between the females in the legendary section and historical portion of the epic. The females of the legendary section are independent and possess their own agency in completing their goals. Davis uses the love story of Zal and Rudabeh as the main example of female empowerment and possessing their own agendas. In contrast, the females from the historical section of the Shahnameh seem to only function in a male-centric capacity. This concept is most prevalent in Bahram Gur’s story where he refers to women as “mak[ing] [men] more moral, so buy [him] some pretty slave girls.” (3)  The separation Davis points out between female characters between the two segments helps explain why Gabbay and Loveimi took different interpretations to the epic. Gabby had focused on the historical point of the epic while Loveimi focused on characters within the legendary portion of the epic. (4)(5) I will now address the evidence that Davis provided for this differentiation between female characters within the narrative.

     In the Zal and Rudabeh story, Dick Davis used the characters of Rudabeh and Sindokht as examples of women found within the legendary section. Rudabeh is a princess from Kabul, modern day India, who falls in love with Zal, a Persian prince. Problems arise when Rudabeh and Zal realize that their families are sworn enemies of one another. They can never marry if they cannot ease the tension between the two families. Fortunately, due to some earlier events, Zal’s father, Sam, promised one wish to Zal in which he could ask for anything. Zal asks for his father to allow him to marry Rudabeh; he gives in and asks Rudabeh’s father, Mehrab, to allow the marriage. He responded by threatening to kill Rudabeh because the marriage would place Kabul under the wrath of King Manuchehr. Mehrab demanded that Rudabeh refuse the marriage, but she refused to listen to her father, stating that her love for Zal was too great. Sindokht, her mother, immediately disguised herself and went to Sam to persuade him to stop King Manuchehr. She could not stand the tension in her family any longer so she took matters into her own hands. Sam agrees to persuade King Manucher and he eventually gets the King on board. Zal and Rudabeh marry and give birth to Rostam, who ends up being a central hero in the text. (6)

     The Zal and Rudabeh story show woman who are working to achieve their own ends and who are strong-willed and determined. Rudabeh defies her father in order to be with the one she loves. The denial of her parent’s wish expressed that she was making her own decision regarding the marriage. Sindokht went against her husband’s wishes and sided with Rudabeh and helped her by going to the other king. She had her own character arc that had her daughter as the central figure instead of her husband. Both women expressed great agency and successfully achieved their own goals. 

     In the historical section, women do not take on as much as an empowering role as they do in the legendary section. As Davis states:

          “If one had to sum up in one sentence the difference between the women of the mythological/legendary section of the poem, and those of its ‘historical’ section, it would be that the women of the former section generally succeed in confronting the world on their own terms, whereas the women of the latter section virtually always fail if they attempt to do this (and most of them do not even make the attempt, being content to live within a male shadow, either a father’s or a husband’s).”(7)

The main example that Davis used to provide evidence for this claim was the same evidence that Loveimi used in their argument: Bahram Gur and Azada. Please follow this link to see my blog post on this matter: link. He supported Loveimi’s argument also asserting that the moral of the narrative is that men and women should stick to their natural domains. Men should be superior to females. He furthers that this story greatly contrasts the role of females in the opening half of the poem.

     There is a sharp contrast between the role that women play in the first half versus the second half of the poem. Dick Davis speculated that the sources that Ferdowsi used to write each of the narratives were different nearing closer to the present. Ferdowsi used oral history to capture the legendary section, which included tales from nomadic and tribal societies. In those societies, women had independence and control over their own life decisions. (8) The sources he had for the legendary section, thus, expressed more freedom to women and equal relationships with men. In contrast, the historical section had more written works and was influenced by the changing culture. Davis commented:

          “It may be that the historical section reflects an actual seclusion of women from the public affairs, and their relative impotence in controlling their own lives, in Sasanian society (it seems to have been the Sasanians, rather than their Arab and Moslem conquerors, who introduced or at least legitimized by royal usage, purdah, and the veil), but these narratives may well also be strongly influenced by the mores of Ferdowsi’s own medieval Muslim society, so that to draw conclusions from them about the status of women in Sasanian society seems risky.”(9)

The role of women changed in the Shahnameh because times were changing in Ferdowsi’s time. Women’s role in society diverted away from the role they had during nomadic and tribal times. The Shahnameh captured that divergence. The Shahnameh, hence, is a complex work that acts as a complex reflection of culture, as it transforms moving from century to century. The poem mimics this transformation through its epic tales and depiction of women. Woman are a good indicator of how Persian culture changes as time goes on since their role within society change along side it.

 

  1. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” Iranian Studies 42, no. 5 (2009): 677-692.
  2. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 46-53.
  3. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 79. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  4. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” 677-692.
  5. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” 46-53.
  6. SOAS University of London. (2013. November 5) Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ.
  7. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.”79.
  8. Ibid.,85.
  9. Ibid.,85.