Persianate Universal Histories Turned Upside Down

by Kit Myers

With “Breaking Historiographical Boundaries: Early Modern Persianate Universal Chronicles,” Sholeh Quinn turns upside down the traditional way of examining universal histories of the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Most scholars have inspected these historiographies separately because this is still an emergent area of study. In particular, scholars have often been concerned with the last section of chronicles covering the newly established empire. Quinn’s presentation and broader research, however, turn way from atomized analysis of dynasties within this distinct genre toward an approach that investigates the entire chronicles in a comparative fashion.

Quinn’s paper illustrates the fruitful insight gained from—and broader importance of—comparative work. Such an approach makes us consider what part of the picture have we missed, and in what ways do our assumptions get turned upside down by using such an approach? Quinn’s preliminary research considers both the structure and content of four Persianate universal chronicles under the Ottoman and Safavid empires: 1) Mawlana Shukrullah’s (1459) Bihjat al-tavarikh, 2) Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad Khvandamir’s (1524) Habib al-siyar, 3) Yahya ibn ‘Abd al-Latif Husayni Qazvini’s (1542) Lubb al-tavarikh, and 4) Muhammad Muslih al-Din Lari Ansari’s (1566) Mirat al-advar.

Her analysis of universal history reveals that the four chronicles share numerous sectional and elemental components. Historians included portrayals of creation, biblical prophets, pre-Islamic Persian kings, the life of Muhammad and his immediate successors, subsequent dynasties, and lastly, the current dynasty. In looking at these universal histories, Quinn found that they were even less Ottoman- or Safavid-centric than anticipated. Thus, Quinn argues that they should indeed be considered universal histories rather than dynastic. Despite what one might expect, the authors of these universal histories did not explicitly disparage pre-Islamic figures and rulers. Instead, they narrated a shared or “universal” past, placing Islamic history within a larger historical context. Similarly, the authors were not simply Ottoman and Safavid historians because they in fact had varying roles for multiple dynasties, and thus, they were more accurately Persianate historians.

Indeed, the narratives are not entirely independent historiographical accounts but rather closely related and sometimes overlapping variations, revealing low and porous historiographical boundaries. Yet, Quinn’s close reading of the universal histories—such as the way in which Kayumars, who is said to be the first Persian king and first human, was included in the four texts—also illustrates that historians were not merely copying the first chapters of prior universal histories. Historians worked from previous sources but also inserted their own perspectives, making minor to significant revisions of prior accounts. Without a comparative analysis, scholars could easily miss the ways in which historians recorded universal chronicles that possessed shared and divergent pasts. What becomes clear is that studying universal chronicles not only requires understanding the historical context but also historiographical context.




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