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Iranian Studies as an Academic Field

"Iranian Philology" and "Iranian Studies": a cultural science based on the study of source texts

According to an internationally agreed definition, Iranian Studies is an interdisciplinary field which deals with the languages and written sources, the history and society, the mental and material culture of peoples speaking Iranian languages from antiquity to the present time. Iranian Studies, or Iranology, is thus not only a philological-linguistic discipline devoted to the study of more than twenty early, middle and modern Iranian languages but also a historical, social and cultural science which focusses on the history, social structures, religions and literary traditions of the Iranians from the start of written records to our days.

Its object of interest geographically is not restricted to the territory of the contemporary Iranian state, but embraces the whole region that was historically under Iranian influence, where Iranian languages were spoken and written and where relevant sources have been found. In ancient and mediaeval times, this sphere of influence stretched from Chinese Turkestan in the East to Egypt in the West. Today it comprises, besides Iran itself, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan as well as parts of Turkey and Iraq (Kurdistan). The time span considered by Iranian Studies covers around 3,000 years which are usually divided into two areas of work, viz. pre-Islamic Iran (up to the 7th century AD) and Islamic Iran up to modernity. It is a particular aim of our Institute to overcome this artificial division, reflected in the separate study of partial aspects of Iranian Studies by disciplines such as Indo-European Studies or Islamic Studies, in order to better investigate the issue of continuity and discontinuity in Iran’s history and culture. Many characteristics of islamised Iran can only be explained with a knowledge of pre-Islamic developments, so that incorporating both fields of research will also enable Iranian Studies to make a valuable contribution to the analysis and understanding of the Iranian variant of Islam.

The study of sources written in Iranian languages remains the foundation of Iranian Studies. Although religious and social history as well as literary issues have gained importance in the past few decades and are also central to the discipline’s promoted public image, it is the philological and linguistic analysis as well as the interpretation of primary sources that continue to provide the most important clues even to these relatively new fields. Considering the great number of sources as yet unedited, or accessible only in antiquated editions, and a still significant want of reference works (grammar books, dictionaries), philology with its grammatical and lexical work will remain the primary and indispensable method for some time to come. Nonetheless, thanks to the scholarly efforts of past decades, it has become possible for Iranian Studies to evolve from a primarily philologically orientated academic discipline into a strain of cultural history that endeavours to apply the methods and insights of other fields as well, particularly those of Religious, Social, Law and Literary Studies. The theoretical models derived from Social Anthropology and Gender Studies are also being put to use – and thereby put to the test of generalisability – by Iranologists. This has become a matter of course especially in research work about modern Iran.

See also Main Areas of Research

Proceed to Institutional History of Iranian Studies at the Freie Universität