Sholeh A. Quinn is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Merced. Her studies focus on the history of 16th and 17th century Iran, with a particular emphasis on historiography, or the tradition of chronicle writing during the Safavid dynasty. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago which was published as Historical Writing during the Reign of Shah Abbas: Ideology, Imitation, and Legitimacy in Safavid Chronicles (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2000). She is co-editor of History and Historiography of Post-Mongol Central Asia and the Middle East: Studies in Honor of John E. Woods (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006). Her most recent book is Shah ‘Abbas: the King Who Refashioned Iran (London: Oneworld Publications, 2015). She is currently working on a comparative study of Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Persian historiography.
Dear Prof. Quinn, it is my great pleasure to have an interview with you about Persian historiography. One of the controversial issues in Iranian studies has to do with what we periodize as “medieval”. How do you periodize the history of the medieval and early modern periods? What are your parameters of periodization?
I think periodization can be flexible, depending on what aspect of history you are examining. And as long as one defines the characteristics of a particular time period and explains the periodization, I feel comfortable with different possible ways of breaking down large periods of history. Perhaps because I spent many years as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was influenced by reading Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam, in which he breaks down the medieval period (or “middle periods”) from 950-1500, and the early modern period from 1500-1800. I prefer the most neutral phrase “middle periods” to the word medieval, which has associations with medieval European history.
In Historical Writing during the Reign of Shah ‘Abbas: Ideology, Imitation, and Legitimacy in Safavid Chronicles, what are the main topics you explore regarding Safavid historiography?
In this book, I spent a great deal of time simply trying to discover the main conventional elements of historical writing. I learned that Safavid historians used conventions much like we do today in formal writing--for example, we cite our sources in certain ways, our acknowledgments and introductions contain very specific kinds of information, and we have methods of formatting our information. The Safavid chronicles similarly engaged in such practices, only it took some work to discover what those conventions were. These are most apparent in the prefaces to the history, where we find a number of elements, including the chronicler’s list of previous works, praise for his patron, an account of the circumstances that brought him to write his history and several others.
I also spent considerable time learning about the relationship between the various historical works. It was important to do this because Safavid chronicles engaged in a process of “imitative writing” when narrating their past. In other words, they chose one or much earlier works as a model, and then used that model as the basis for their own history, modifying it in various ways, usually to make the past conform to the political standards of the present. For example, during the reign of Shah Tahmasb, Safavid chronicles re-wrote the history of the Safaviyya Sufi order to make it appear that the early Safaviyya shaykhs were practicing Twelver Shi‘is. One of the interesting things I learned in my research was that the chroniclers of Shah ‘Abbas’s were interested in making links between Shah ‘Abbas and Timur. They did this in a number of ways, for instance, calling him “sahib-qiran” (a title mostly though not exclusively associated with Timur) or using abjad numerical reckonings to connect the two rulers.
What are some of the primary characteristics of Safavid historiography when compared with earlier periods of Persian historiography?
I see Safavid historiography, initially anyway, as very much a continuation of late Timurid historiography. For example, one of the earliest Safavid chronicles, Khvandamir’s Habib al-siyar, is a continuation of his maternal grandfather Khvandamir’s Rawzat al-safa, a late Timurid chronicle. Furthermore, the Safavid historians help up Sharaf al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi’s Zafarnamah as a model of historical writing that they wished to emulate. Other elements of Safavid historiography also echo earlier forms. We see, for instance, a large number of universal histories written in the Safavid period, and these too look to models written in earlier periods. In the later Safavid period, we see the interesting development of works of what we might call “historical fiction,” which were written in a very different style, containing, for example, a great deal of dialog. These histories focus primarily on Shah Isma‘il but were written very late in the course of the Safavid dynasty, as writers were perhaps looking with a certain amount of nostalgia to the earlier Safavid period.
In your recent book on “Shah ‘Abbas,” you write about one of the greatest Iranian kings in early modern times. How did you approach this subject?
It was challenging for me to condense the life of a monarch who reigned for approximately 42 years into a very short volume that was written in order to be accessible to both a specialist and a general audience. I tried to write the book keeping both audiences in mind and focused on some of the most significant aspects of Shah ‘Abbas’s life. Rather than adhere to a strictly chronological framework, I present his life using both a chronological and thematic organizational scheme.
You have done some comparative research on Safavid and Mughal historiography. In terms of themes and structures in historical writing, which differences do you notice between them?
I am becoming ever more aware of the shared historiographical heritage that the Safavids and Mughals (and Ottoman) writers shared. Universal histories were among the earliest Persian works written under all three dynasties. I find it interesting that these often very long texts point to a shared history and contain many similarities. Of course, they also diverge in interesting ways. A number of historians moved between Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal territory. Khvandamir, whom I mentioned above, went to India and wrote his last work, the Qanun-i humayuni, for the Mughal emperor Humayun. He rewrote in interesting ways a portion of his earlier history for this particular text. Even if historians did not move about, they were aware of each other’s writings. The well known Safavid chronicler, Iskandar Beg Munshi, mentions Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnamah, about the Mughal emperor Akbar, in his Tarikh-i ‘alam-ara-yi ‘Abbasi.
Can you explain a little about your forthcoming study on Persian historiography?
The book project I am working on now is a comparative study of Persianate historical writing under the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. I am examining a number of historiographical conventions that made their way across the Persianate world and trying to understand how and why they underwent various transformations. I am also developing and presenting in much greater detail a number of the points I make above.
Thank you very much for your consideration and time.
Interviewed by: Maryam Kamali