Assaulting Dignity and Admiring Self-Restraint: Dignity in Early Modern Persian Texts

The 15th and 16th centuries offer a wide range of historical sources in Persian, originating from the territories of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India and Pakistan. There are histories, memoirs, biographical dictionaries and hagiographies containing the descriptions of different private and public situations, people’s conduct and sometimes the author’s remarks. The authors are usually courtiers, aristocrats or freelance literati, so these texts can give us an insight into the value system of the intellectual elite of the time.

A famous saying of Muhammad that states: “Every infant is born according to the fitra, then his parents make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian,” is usually considered a declaration of human beings’ primordial equality. In reality, it was accepted as axiomatic that there had to be inequality determined by religious beliefs, piety, inner capacities, upbringing, etc. of the person in question, and every human being should be treated in accordance with their qualities. The concept of dignity was thus most closely tied to the concept of prestige, and a person had to be on their guard against anyone who might threaten their prestige and, consequently, their dignity.

Two types of dignity can be distinguished in the texts originating from the Persian-speaking region of the period. There is personal dignity, mainly concerning piety and professional skills and characteristics, and corporate dignity, concerning family and household members, place of origin, religious beliefs, spiritual leader, patron etc.

Different kinds of threats to one’s dignity and the ways of defending oneself offered in the texts will be discussed in my paper. In the case of corporate dignity, there can be both outside and inside threats to one’s dignity: an assault on another member of a community or on its head is to be considered as a personal insult, while every member of the community is expected to behave properly to preserve the dignity of the others, otherwise they have to be punished for the sake of preserving the others’ reputation. Without paying much attention to the family matters, we will proceed to professional dignity, pride in one’s birthplace and loyalty to the community leader. The praised and condemned qualities and behaviours will be named.

We will see that the approved methods of defending one’s dignity are not always exclusively chivalrous and honourable, being reminiscent of Sa’di’s evergreen masterpiece with its famous double standards. Special attention will be paid to the word, especially poetry, as the best weapon of self-defence, being the best tool for destroying or building a reputation.

We will also see that the community leader is usually above the rules or rather is subject to another system of rules. If a person criticises the leader explicitly, he or she is no longer considered a part of the community but becomes an opponent or a rival who must be treated accordingly. Also the other members of the community are not equal; the dignity of each of them is measured in money, knowledge and professional skills, social contacts, piety, physical power, etc. The dignity has to be paid for both with money and responsibility.

There is also the question of denying others’ dignity or the dehumanization of the other. At the beginning of the 16th century, as a result of the rise of the Shia Safavid dynasty and other political changes in the region, religious intolerance was also on the rise. The Shaybanids used the tactics of announcing jihad against both the Safavids and the Qazaqs, thus proclaiming their property open for appropriation and the enslavement of war captives possible. Examples of such dehumanizing invectives of both Shia and Sunni authorship can be found in the historical sources of the period. It should be mentioned that they have very much in common.