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Persian Kalīla and Dimna

Theodore S. Beers

Persian is one of the key languages in the global textual tradition of Kalīla and Dimna. This is true whether we mean Middle Persian (also known as Pahlavi) or New Persian (which we call simply Persian). According to the traditional origin story of Kalīla and Dimna, the book began its life in Sanskrit; was brought to Iran and translated/adapted into Middle Persian in the Sasanian period; and was, from that basis, translated into Syriac and Arabic—the latter at the hands of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ (d. ca. 757 CE), an ethnic Persian secretary at the Umayyad and Abbasid courts. All subsequent versions derive from the Arabic. The Middle Persian intermediary translation is not extant, but, in the “family tree” of Kalīla and Dimna, it represents the second node, a direct ancestor of everything that followed.

The interplay between Persian and Kalīla and Dimna did not, of course, end after the work of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘. By the tenth century CE, there were efforts to adapt his influential Arabic version into New Persian. Abū al-Fażl Bal‘amī (d. 940), who served at the court of the Samanid ruler Naṣr II b. Aḥmad, was commissioned to write a prose translation of the text of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘. (This has not survived.) Soon thereafter, the great poet Rūdakī (also d. ca. 940) produced a verse adaptation of Bal‘amī’s work—fragments of which are extant. It was in the twelfth century, however, that Kalīla and Dimna was reworked in Persian in a way that would have significant and lasting influence. Abū al-Ma‘ālī Naṣr Allāh Munshī, a secretary at the Ghaznavid court during the reign of Bahrāmshāh (d. 1157), took it upon himself to carry out a new translationfrom the Arabic. His version of Kalīla and Dimna, which dates to the mid 1140s, is noteworthy for the large volume of quotes from outside sources, including the Qur’an, ḥadīth, and Persian and Arabic poetry, which are weaved into the narrative. The style of Naṣr Allāh’s prose was innovative in several respects. He is considered to have written one of the foundational works of Persian “artistic prose” (naṡr-i fannī), or “ornamented prose” (naṡr-i maṣnū‘). This text will be discussed in greater detail below, as it is arguably the most important of the Persian adaptations of Kalīla and Dimna from the standpoint of the AnonymClassic project.

Remarkably, another Persian translation from the Arabic was carried out in the 1140s—in this case at the court of a Zangid atābak of Mosul. The author, a certain Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Bukhārī, produced a much simpler rendering of the book. (He and Naṣr Allāh seem not to have been aware of each other’s work—which is hardly surprising, given the distance between them.) This adaptation by al-Bukhārī was not as influential in the development of Persian literature. It is not mentioned at all in later sources (as far as we know), and it has survived in just one manuscript. (For a detailed study of this work, see the dissertation of James N. Gehlhar.) The issue of codicology, however, is highly significant with regard to the translations of both Naṣr Allāh and al-Bukhārī. The unique manuscript of the latter text dates to 1149 CE, and the earliest of the many extant copies of Naṣr Allāh’s version was produced in 1156. (The next-oldest manuscript is dated 594 AH, i.e., 1197–8 CE.) The fact that we have copies of these Persian reworkings of Kalīla and Dimna from so close to their time of authorship leads to an interesting situation. That is, they are derived from the text of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, and yet the oldest extant manuscripts of the Arabic date to the early thirteenth century! The Persian of Naṣr Allāh and al-Bukhārī is, therefore, authorially subsequent to the Arabic, and codicologically precedent. These translations become valuable sources for the textual history of Kalīla and Dimna more broadly.

The treatment in Persian of this old collection of animal fables continued to evolve throughout the later medieval and early modern periods. Two works are perhaps especially worthy of mention for our purposes. First is a versification based on Naṣr Allāh’s text, carried out by Bahā’ al-Dīn Aḥmad Qāni‘ī Ṭūsī in the mid thirteenth century, under Saljuq patronage. This reflects the ongoing demand for Kalīla and Dimnain verse beyond the Samanid era. (Of course, the classical Persian literary tradition is noted for its bias in favor of narrative verse, rather than belletristic prose. The latter category is far from empty, but the most famous and highest-status narrative texts tend to be poems—with Kalīla and Dimna representing something of an exception.) Second, and more important in a general sense, is a reworking of Kalīla and Dimna byKamāl al-Dīn Ḥusayn Vā‘iẓ Kāshifī (d. 910/1504–5), a major author and scholar in Timurid Harāt. Kāshifī titled his version Anvār-i suhaylī (“The Lights of Canopus,” though suhayl is also a reference to the name of the dedicatee). This work would become staggeringly famous. Not only did the Anvār supersede Naṣr Allāh’s text as the dominant version of Kalīla and Dimna in Persian, but it served as the basis for new translations into several languages, including Ottoman Turkish. Given that Kāshifī was writing around the turn of the sixteenth century, the Anvār-i suhaylī is of less direct relevance to the editorial work of the AnonymClassic project. But it has been influential enough that it ought to be mentioned in any overview of Persian Kalīla and Dimna. It should also be noted that there is an excellent, fairly recent monograph focusing on the Anvār, by Christine van Ruymbeke.

What has been sketched above is a basic introduction to the role of Persian in the Kalīla and Dimna tradition, and vice versa. It may also be helpful to outline a few ways in which the work of the AnonymClassic team is augmented by research on the medieval Persian adaptations—with particular reference to the version by Naṣr Allāh Munshī. We will touch on three issues: the insight into the textual history of the Arabic Kalīla and Dimnathat can be gained through examining the texts of Naṣr Allāh and al-Bukhārī (given the survival of early manuscripts); the incorporation of material from outside sources in Naṣr Allāh’s version, to an extent that makes it almost a bilingual Persian-Arabic text; and the status of Kalīla and Dimna as one of the most frequently illustrated books in the medieval Near East, and therefore as a vector for the art of Persian miniature painting to exert influence in the Arabic sphere.

Authorship vs. Codicology

It is unfortunate, though not entirely surprising, that we lack extant manuscripts of the version of Kalīla and Dimna attributed to Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ from the initial centuries after it was composed. Similar problems affect the textual history of many works of Classical Arabic literature. What is perhaps more remarkable is the survival of pre-Mongol manuscripts of the Persian adaptations of Naṣr Allāh Munshī and al-Bukhārī. These twelfth-century codices represent our earliest physical documentation of the complete text of Kalīla and Dimna, in any language.

Since we know that Naṣr Allāh and al-Bukhārī were working from copies of the Arabic, their translations should reflect the content of the book as it was then circulating—at least at a macro level. We may not have manuscripts of the version of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ from before the thirteenth century, but looking at the Persian can provide insight into what some of those copies would have contained. To take an easy example, the Arabic manuscripts that the AnonymClassic project has collected display variation in the ordering of chapters (and even in their inclusion or exclusion of certain sections). One of the chapters that has been placed at rather different points in Kalīla and Dimna is that of “the King and His Dreams” (abbreviated Kd). This can occur closer to the middle of the book, just after “the Ascetic and the Weasel” (Aw); or near the end. Both Naṣr Allāh and al-Bukhārī follow a chapter sequence that can be classified as “late Kd” (among other shared characteristics). We therefore have an indication of the order that was commonly found in Arabic manuscripts of Kalīla and Dimna that were available in Greater Iran in the sixth/twelfth century.

To be continued…