Political Loyalties and Social Ties: Historicizing Reliable Information in 18th Century Persianate Biographical Dictionaries

By Mana Kia
Submitted to Session P2109 (Science, Culture and Society, Part I: The Social and Cultural Practices of Commemorative Texts, 2009 Annual Meeting
India; Iran;
13th-18th Centuries;
This paper uses four Persian poetic biographical dictionaries produced in Iran and India in the mid-18th century to argue for the importance of these sources for cultural and social history. Though ostensibly about poets, the authors and subjects of these texts were merchants, scholars, statesmen, military leaders, religious figures or some combination, and imbricated in a skein of political loyalties and social ties beyond that of poetic circles. Because they are usually mined for facts, the primary concern of the few scholars outside of literary studies who do use these texts as sources is their reliability. One of the major reasons they are deemed unreliable is the way in which the author’s social ties and political loyalties pervade the text. Understood as subjective and thus partial and lacking in objectivity, scholars either try to read the objective truth around the author’s prejudices, thus erasing the very practices of commemoration which tell us the most about a particular historical moment, or discard the text all together. This paper proposes to read biographical dictionaries in a different way, considering the features of the text as a whole - how their biographical narrations were shaped by the political loyalties and social ties of their authors, and animated by particular cultural anxieties or historical conditions. All four texts demonstrate a shared idea of what constituted the source material of reliable information, overwhelmingly characterized by personal acquaintance. The scope of biographical dictionaries was in part determined by the scope of their authors’ social circles, themselves dependent on personal itineraries, relationships and access to circulating texts and correspondence. This access to information was in turn shaped by the broader political events of the 18th century, such as the fall of the Safavids, the rise of Nadir Shah and the fragmentation of political power in Mughal India, which affected the circulation of people, correspondence and texts. Biographical dictionaries also reflected particular political loyalties. Positions of affiliation under monarchs, patrons or teachers demanded that authors negotiate certain sentiments of loyalty in their narrations. This historically specific notion of reliability determined how authors incorporated previous biographical dictionaries, as well as anecdotes and poetry transmitted orally or through correspondence in their texts. In exploring these topics, this paper seeks to highlight the methodological issue of what kinds of questions maybe asked of texts constituted by ideas of reliable truth different from those that inform modern historical scholarship.