|Detail of the Rose Garden of Sa’di, from a manuscript of the Gulistan. Mughal Empire, c1645. Courtesy Wikipedia|
by Mana Kia, Psyche
Edited by Sam Haselby
In Persian, the word often translated into English as ‘manners’ or ‘etiquette’ is adab. However, adab is about far more than politeness or ethics even. It means proper social and aesthetic form and, across Persianate culture, form conveyed substance and, by extension, meaning.
From the 13th to the mid-19th century, Persian was the language of learning, culture and power for hundreds of millions of diverse peoples in various empires and regional polities across Central, South and West Asia. Persian was not the language of a place called Persia – this placename is used only in European languages (otherwise, the place is known as Iran), and using it as an adjective to describe its people obscures the fact that Persian-speakers lived in many other lands. Increasingly, scholars use ‘Persianate’ as the cultural descriptor of Persian as a transregional lingua franca. For six centuries, Persianate adab – the proper aesthetic and social forms – lived in this language through its widely circulated texts, stories, poetry: the corpus of a basic education. To learn adab, these particular forms of writing, expression, gesture and deed, to identify their appropriate moments, and to embody them convincingly, was to be an accomplished Persian.
The term adab existed in other, related languages, including Arabic, Urdu and various forms of Turkish spoken in Anatolia and Central Asia (Ottoman, Chagatai and Uzbek). But what was proper as aesthetic or social form was specifically constituted within particular language traditions – for example, generosity might look different in stories in a particular language, and be called for at differing moments. The educated and less educated across Eurasia were multilingual in varying ways, and these diverse traditions permeated each other, with language traditions circulating through storytellers, preachers, reciters, mendicant-poets and prayer leaders. However, in the Islamic east, across Anatolia, but especially beyond Baghdad after the 13th century, Persian became the language of new empires, linking these other traditions and constituting the core of adab.