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The Mythopoetics of Conversion:Crosssing and Transgressing Religious Boundries in Persian Literature

Monday, April 8, 2013
12:00 AM
Thayer Building Room 2022 202 South Thayer St. Ann Arbor, MI 48104

This paper, drawing on examples from the 10th to 15th centuries CE, attempts to sketch a taxonomy for prevalent Persian tales and topoi of religious conversion, including both change of confessional allegiance and “internal conversion” through a variety of catalysts:  dream narratives and visions; encounters with charismatic saints; disorientation in the liminal realm of the dayr-i mughan; amorous encounters and affairs with a beautiful religious other; social and commercial encounters across confessional boundaries; exposure to thaumaturgic events; violence, captivity or other modes of coercion; etc.).


A discourse of faith versus infidelity (iman vs. kufr) permeates the Persian tradition and constitutes a central symbolic repertoire of Persian poetics. It gives rise to a wealth of metaphors, topoi, and narrative typologies, in homiletic and didactic prose, in biographical literature, as well as in poetry.  This symbolic discourse of faith versus infidelity is expressed variously, often through narratives of religious conversion or transgressing against religio-social norms and boundaries; this may entail an actual change of religious allegiance, or some kind of crossing from the state of non-belief, wrong belief or weak belief into a state of certain faith, correct belief, or zeal. 

Studies of literary conversion narratives for the medieval and pre-modern European tradition, especially in the genres of romance and Renaissance drama, have opened interesting vistas onto categories and markers of identity, the transgression or adulteration of which frequently – but not necessarily – involve violence, violation of conscience, or social coercion.  Comparatively little attention has as yet been devoted to the literariness of conversion narratives in the medieval literatures of the Islamicate, and specifically the Persian, tradition.  Can we establish a semiotics of conversion, and assess the paradigmatic role of violence and compulsion in these imagined or fictionalized events?  What is the relative importance of markers of gender, class, age, ethnicity and particular communal or creedal affiliation in the construction of a Persian sense of collective or self-identity, and what are the paradigms for how that identity is changed?  Can we discern a chronological evolution (perhaps responding to historical forces, such as the Crusades) in the typology of Persian conversion narratives? 

Franklin Lewis, Associate Professor of Persian Near Eastern Studies Languages and Civilizations University of Chicago