Mohtasham Kashani

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Mohtasham Kashani, Shams-al-Shoʿara Kamal-al-Din, (b. Kashan, between 1528 and 1529; d. Kashan, February 1588) was a Persian poet of the Safavid period. He was a prominent figure in the Shi'ite religious poetry, especially Marthiya poetry mourning the tragedy of Ashura. He is well-known for his poetry about on the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Like many poets of the time, Mohtasham had mercantile origins. His father, Khaja Mir Ahmad (d. 1554), was active in Kashan’s prosperous cloth industry, and the poet seems to have pursued the same occupation before a business setback led him to take up poetry as a full-time occupation. His brother, Khaja ʿAbd-al-Ghani, died in the Deccan as a young man in 1552. The poet himself suffered from a chronic debility of the foot, and though he occasionally expressed the desire to migrate to India, he remained in the city of his birth throughout his life. In one poem [1], he refers to a brief marriage that ended in divorce, and he apparently died childless. Shortly before his death in February 1588, he entrusted the collection and arrangement of his literary remains to the poet and literary biographer Taqi-al-Din Kashani. His tomb today stands at the site of his house in Kashan.

This uneventful biography belies Mohtasham’s significant role in the cultural life of 16th-century Persia. Though Tabriz and Qazvin served as the political capitals of the Safavid dynasty during the poet’s lifetime, Kashan held pride of place as the main center of literary activity. In addition to a profusion of locally grown talent, most aspiring poets from around the country, such as Naẓiri Nishapuri and Ṭaleb Amoli, passed through the city at some point in their careers. Taqi-al-Din’s description of Mohtasham as the “absolute master” (ostad-e ʿala’l-etlaq) of the poets of the time was more than mere hyperbole: an edict apparently issued by Parikhan Khanom (1548-78), the daughter of Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-76), required other poets of Kashan to submit their work to Mohtasham for inspection before sending it on to the royal court.[2] Such power and influence inevitably aroused hostility, and both Mohtasham’s own works and the biographies of poets (sing. taḏkera) of the time give ample testimony to the animosity that the poet could inspire and harbor. In a contemporary memoir, Khayr al-bayan, Malek-Shah Hossain Sistani describes how the young Vahshi was promoted by those in Kashan who envied the wealth and pomp that Mohtasham enjoyed. He nursed a grudge long after this potential rival had retreated to his hometown of Yazd and composed an ingenious, but grudging chronogram on Vahshi’s death: kachal Vahshi-i bud saheb-tabiʿat / vali dun o bi-gowhar o bi-haqiqat (“there was a bald wild man [vahshi] endowed with genius / but he was base, ignoble, and untruthful”) in which both halves of the verse yield the year 991/1583.[3] Mohtasham had similar feuds with a number of other poets, yet clearly had many backers as well, and some of his students, such as Zohuri Torshizi and Nowʿi Khabushani, went on to achieve considerable fame in the courts of India.

Though he lived at a distance from the palace, Mohtasham stayed in close touch with the royal family and courted its patronage throughout his life. He dedicated many poems in various genres to the praise of Shah Tahmasp I and his successors Esmaʿil II (r. 1576-77) and Mohammad Khodabanda (r. 1578-88). However, in the political chaos that followed Tahmasp’s death in 1576, kingship was only rarely synonymous with power, and allegiances changed rapidly. Mohtasham’s collected works suggest a frantic attempt to stay afloat on these shifting and dangerous political currents. He addressed poems to the main princely contenders for the throne, Haydar Mirza Ṣafavi and Ḥamza Mirza, to administrators such as Mirza Salman Jaberi and Mirza Lotf-Allah Sharif, and to a variety of Qezelbash tribal leaders like Mohammad Khan Torkoman and Morshed-Qoli Khan Ostajlu. Perhaps in an effort to find a safe haven in India, as a number of his younger contemporaries did, Mohtasham also dedicated poems to the ʿAdelshahis and Nezamshahis, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), and ʿAbd-al-Rahim Khan-e Khanan. Whether or not these poems reached their addressees, Mohtasham remained in Persia; he lived long enough to celebrate the arrival of Prince ʿAbbas in Qazvin, but not to enjoy the stability and prosperity the young king would bring to the country.

Literary Legacy[edit | edit source]

Mohtasham’s fame today rests almost entirely on a single poem—his elegy in twelve strophes (davazdah-band) on the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala, beginning baz in che shureshi-st ke dar khalq-e ʿalam ast / baz in che nowha o che ʿaza o che matam ast.[4] This poem achieved renown even during the poet’s lifetime; the contemporary literary biographer Awhadi Balyani writes that “if his poetry were limited to this one work, it would be enough”.[5] This judgment was prescient; at the beginning of the 20th century, E. G. Browne[6] praises the “true pathos and religious feeling” expressed in the “extraordinarily simple and direct” language of the poem, and even a Marxist critic like Jan Rypka [7] is taken by its “charm of genuine sincerity and intimacy.” Recently, Karen Ruffle has pointed out how Mohtasham integrated the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition of women’s elegy (marthiya) into the context of the Muharram ceremonies that had received a new impetus under the Shiʿite dispensation of the Safavid state. The poem reached the peak of its popularity during the Qajar period, generating dozens of responses and imitations. Mohtasham’s elegy remains one of the best-known works of classical poetry up to the present day and is often pressed onto long pieces of cloth that drape entire cities in Iran during Muharram ceremonies.

The affective power and critical renown of this poem has colored the perception of Mohtasham’s career, his other works, and even Safavid literary patronage as a whole. In a famous episode from the ʿAlamara-ye ʿabbasi, the historian Eskandar Beg Monshi tells how Mohtasham submitted a panegyric ode (qasida) dedicated to Shah Tahmasp through the princess Parikhan Khanom; the king reproached the poet for polluting his tongue with the praises of temporal rulers and directed him to turn his talents to extolling the virtues of the Imams. Mohtasham responded with a seven-strophe poem (haft-band) in praise of ʿAli b. Abi Taleb [8] closely modeled on an earlier work by Mawlana Hasan Kashani (fl. early 14th cent.). The regal payment that Mohtasham received led to a flood of further imitations by other poets.[9] Browne, followed by most modern scholars, mistakenly identified this poem with the elegy on Karbala, resulting in a misleading exaggeration of the importance of the anecdote itself. It came to be regarded as an expression of the attitude of the Safavid dynasty toward poetry and the literary arts in general, “whereas it probably only points to a personal change of heart of one monarch”.[10]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Haft divan, I, p. 435
  2. Haft divan, I, pp. 84-91
  3. Haft divan, II, p. 1601
  4. “What is this tumult now among the world’s creatures? / What now is this wailing, this mourning, this lamentation?” Haft divan, I, pp. 460-68
  5. Golchin-e Maʿani, p. 477
  6. IV, p. 172
  7. p. 298
  8. Haft divan, I, pp. 288-98
  9. Eskandar Beg, tr. Savory, I, pp. 274-75
  10. de Bruijn, 1995, p. 775a

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • For listings of the manuscripts of Mohtasham’s works, see Monzawi, Nosḵahā, III, pp. 1892-93 (Kolliāt) and 2514-15 (Divān). Excerpts of taḏkera sources are found in Golčin-e Maʿāni, Maktab-e woquʿ, pp. 476-78, and Mohtasham’s Haft divān, pp. 52-63; others are listed in Ṣafā V/2, p. 792 (full bibliographical details are given below).
  • Selected printed editions of Mohtasham’s works:
  • Jāmeʿ al-laṭāʾef, ed. Ḥaydar-ʿAli Ṣāheb Širāzi, Bombay, 1887, lithograph; first printed edition of the divan.
  • Divān, Tehran, 1958.
  • Divān, ed. Mehr-ʿAli Gorgāni, Tehran, 1965.
  • Divān, ed. Akbar Behdārvand, Tehran, 2000
  • Kolliāt: I - Ḡazaliāt, ed. Moṣṭafā Fayżi Kashani, Tehran, 2000.
  • Haft divāni, eds. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi and Mehdi Sadri, 2 vols. Tehran, 2001; the edition follows Taqi-al-Din Kashani’s arrangement of the divan.
  • Other sources and studies:
  • Maḥmud b. Hedāyat-Allāh Ašuftaʾi Naṭanzi, Naqāwat al-āṯār fi ḏekr al-aḵyār, Tehran, 1971.
  • Awḥadi Balyāni, ʿArafāt al-ʿāšeqin va ʿaraṣāt al-ʿārefin, ed. Moḥsen Nāji Naṣrābādi, 8 vols., Tehran, 2009, esp. VI, pp. 3574-94.
  • E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, 4 vols., London, 1902-24, esp. IV, pp. 172-77, 241.
  • Ḥosayn Dargāhi et al., Šureš dar ḵalq-e ʿālam: Seyri dar tarkib-band-e Mohtasham-e Kashani va esteqbālhā-ye ān dar reṯā-ye Sayyed-al-Šohadāʾ, Tehran, 1999.
  • J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Muḥtasham-e Kāshānī,” EI2 VII, 1993, pp. 477-78.
  • Idem, “Safawids III. Literature,” EI2 VIII, 1995, pp. 774-77.
  • Eskandar Beg Torkamān Monši, History of Shah ʿAbbas the Great, tr. R. M. Savory, 3 vols., Boulder, Colo., 1979-86.
  • Aḥmad Golčin-e Maʿāni, Maktab-e woquʿ dar šeʿr-e fārsi, 2nd ed., Mašhad, 1995, pp. 476-87 et passim.
  • Mir Tāqi-al-Din Kashani, Ḵolaṣat al-ašʿār va zobdat al-afkār, eds. Adib Barumand and Moḥammad Naṣeri Kahnamuyi , Tehran, 2007, pp. 15-20 et passim.
  • Idem, “Poetics and Eros in Early Modern Persian: The Lovers’ Confection and The Glorious Epistle by Muhtasham Kāshānī,” Iranian Studies 42, 2009, pp. 745-64.
  • Karen G. Ruffle, “Verses Dripping Blood: A Study of the Religious Elements in Muhtasham Kashani’s
  • Karbala-nameh,” MA thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N. C., 2001.
  • Idem, “Writing Muharram: The Influence of Mulla Husain Vaʿez Kashefi and Mohtasham Kashani on the Development of Shiʿi Devotionalism in the Medieval Deccan,” in A Thousand Laurels: Dr. Sadiq Naqvi –Studies on Medieval India with Special Reference to Deccan, eds. V. Kishan Rao and A. Satyanarayana, Hyderabad, 2005, pp. 334-45.
  • Jan Rypka et al., History of Iranian Literature, ed. Karl Jahn, Dordrecht, 1968, esp. p. 298.
  • Ḏabiḥ-Allāh Ṣafā, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt dar Irān, vol. I-, Tehran, 1953-; for Mohtasham, see V/2, pp. 792-99.
  • Sirus Šamisā, Šāhed-bāzi dar adabiyāt-e fārsi, Tehran, 2002, pp. 199-214.

Source[edit | edit source]