The Shaping of Iranian Identity

​The Shaping of Iranian Identity

February 8, 2014
What does it mean to talk about ‘Iranians’ when focusing on the period encompassing the 9th to 11th centuries? In her monograph, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory and Conversion (Cambridge University Press, September 2013), Dr Sarah Bowen Savant examines how the adoption of a new religion, Islam, resulted in a gradual reinterpretation of the past and perceptions of identity. In her research of the rich variety of materials from the period Dr Bowen Savant, through comparing early with later sources, demonstrates how stories were retold, omitted or re-shaped over time.

“Most societies that undergo really major change through, for example, imperialism, colonialism or conquest, have some form of adjustment to their historical consciousness,” she explained.

“The general nature of Arabic writing about the past – historiography in particular – is that it is very accretive; historians would pick up older reports and they would put them together to make new works but they couldn’t just make it up – they had to wrestle with the past,” she added.

She noted that bibliographical works featured more prominently in the later period within the regions. It was also noteworthy, she said, that that events of the pre-Islamic period were being written about from the vantage point of some two hundred years after they took place.

On the subject of how consciously the materials were moulded over the generations, Dr Bowen Savant said that when conscious efforts were made these were more easy to track

A lot of the materials were produced by members of the learned classes, both with and without patronage. In cases where there was overt control it’s easier to say, ‘well – this is the perspective of a regime trying to produce a view – but at other times it’s much harder to say that’.” 

Dr Bowen Savant observed that, “a lot of Iranian scholarship is divided on questions of religion and nationality; there is a ghost of Iranian nationalism somewhere. But the reality is that you don’t find the term ‘Iran’ in works from this period, and that is problematic.

“A lot of what I am trying to do is to think about identity from another angle, considering the issue of Persian ethnicity, but also other forms of identity that over-lapped and competed with it; for example, affiliation to schools of law or affiliations to neighbourhoods. There were lots of different ways that people became Muslims through other associations. There is a lot to think about in the works I am looking at in terms of how the past was made more meaningful to individuals and groups.”


Fleur Adolphe


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