Art +Culture +DiversityHistory +SocietyTurkey & Iran

The Concept of Iran and Iranian Cultural Sphere

The Concept of Iran and Iranian Cultural Sphere - MPC Journal - A view of Palangan village in Kurdistan province, about 660 km (412 miles) southwest of Tehran, on May 11, 2011. Iranian Shi’ite and Sunni Kurds live in harmony with each other in Palangan, although Sunni is the religion of the majority of the people.(Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl)
A view of Palangan village in Kurdistan province, about 660 km (412 miles) southwest of Tehran, on May 11, 2011. Iranian Shi’ite and Sunni Kurds live in harmony with each other in Palangan, although Sunni is the religion of the majority of the people. © Image: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl
[ezcol_2third] Iranian studies, as a university subject in Germany, elaborate the notion and the concept of the Iranian cultural sphere over the past century. In doing so, Iran and the Iranian cultural sphere are divided into old and new disciplines of Iranian studies (in German: Iranistik).

There are diverse dimensions under Iranian studies such as politics, geography, culture, linguistics, myths, poetry, anthropology, mystics, ethnicity, gender, colonialism and religion. These dimensions, however, could be studied holistically or separately.

Transnationality: State and Citizens

Researchers use the term transnationality as an approach to single out common roots of culture, myth, migration, and language across borders. In the contemporary political system of nation states, nations with the same interests, pedigree, language, religion etc. are interconnected through many platforms, especially in the age of Internet. With these viewpoints, one can skip political-territorial borders to celebrate, for instance, the Iranian New Year’s Eve “Nowruz” in the Iranian cultural sphere. Nowruz is an occasion that occurs once a year on 21 March to remind humankind of the awakening of nature.

Nowruz-exhibition-in-Iran-3 - The Concept of Iran and Iranian Cultural Sphere MPC Journal

Wishing to celebrate cultural occasions, citizens of other nation states are obliged to apply for a visa to enter the neighbouring country. So Nowruz, which literally means the new day, is celebrated in Iran, in all the neighbouring countries of Iran, and beyond. In recent years, the scholarship of Iranian studies, such as Christian Bromberger, in collaboration with Iran and other neighbouring states, developed the concept of “Nowruzistan”.

Colonialism: A Roll Back Policy of Language and Culture

In the age of modernity – even though we’ve learnt to speak about “Aufklärung”, “Age of Enlightenment” or “Le Siècle des Lumières” – countries of the global south and east have become the hinterland. In the case of Iranian cultural sphere, the current political borders were outlined as a result of a power struggle. The outcome was divided ethnicities and the downsizing of ancient linguistic and cultural ties. Though, it shouldn’t be buried in oblivion that every great civilization has its distinct features and passes through various levels of evolution. Iran as a local empire is a case in point.

Homayun Alam

is a research fellow at Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Dr. Alam is specialized on cultural Islam, Iran and Persian culture.

How can we imagine such evolution? Many Iranian political and even cultural capital cities prior to the idea of the nation state were located in contemporary places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan or the Caucasus. These countries represent the Iranian cultural sphere. In the long nineteenth century, according to Eric Hobsbawm, Iran lost more than 3000 Kilometres of its area due to the intervention of colonial powers.

Today, many people are confused when speaking about the concept of Iran, which is immediately linked to Persian. Besides Iran, Persian is the official language of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is important to keep in mind that there are many ethnically Persian and Persian speakers in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, the Persian/Arabian Gulf States, India, and China. People of Persian ethnicity are called “Tajik” in the context of central Asia, which is, according to Bert Fragner, an ascription rather than a self-attribution. Before the colonial age, Iran called itself “Mamalek-e Mahruse-ye Iran”, which means “The United States of Iran”.

Cultural Identity and Nation-State

While the term nation-state is defined by the state, the nation and the borders, it is important to put the phenomenon of borders in contemporary time under the microscope. If one is inclined to trace back borders to the first humans walked on earth, we will find out that the limits were defined by rivers, valleys, mountains or forests.

Empires such as the Persian, the Roman and the Ottoman had borders but these were not exactly well defined compared with our modern time. In contrast, borders are politically demarcated in our current age and codified in the international law. The modern individual has become the citizen and the subject of the state. Consequently, political and national borders are to be seen as a matter of fact.

Furthermore, citizens are documented in our time, which is more political than cultural. For that reason almost every single person on earth has an “Identity Card”. At this point, the question remains of whether national identity card completes the identity of a citizen or not? Taking this into consideration, it’s a question of time until normative discourses and charged debates such as majority versus minority become at stake.

In Iran, as well as in the Iranian cultural sphere (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, etc.), there are ethnicities, languages and religions, which have lived side by side since the very foundation of their history, maybe 2500 to 5000 years ago. A Person from the Iranian cultural sphere is usually multilingual and has – similar to a western man or woman in its very stereotype – multiple identities and tendencies.

After knowing about these facts, how does it come borders are drawn between people? Is it possible that people of the Iranian cultural sphere were not separated because of being very much different, but because of having much more in common in their time and environment?

To answer such a question, we have many preferences to choose an appropriate answer from. One of the first options to approach a response is the power of the colonial masters and the weakness of the former Iranian leaders in the long nineteenth century. In this framework, an ethnicity with its culture got the preferential right of being a nation – measures of judgement were less lying in culture and rationality.

In this transitional process a nation runs institutions, scripts, media, language, images, history, and the everyday life. In Iran, Persian became the national language, with a 1250-year history in poetry, which began in what is Tajikistan in present time. The poets in the Persian case were more philosophers who expressed their deep thoughts in poetic lines.

In Afghanistan, Persian (Farsi-Dari) is competing with Pashto, the other national language. But, according to Senzil Nawid, Persian remains the language of cultural production (poetry, literature, newspapers), official institutions, media and the bridging language among all different ethnicities in Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, Persian regained its former position within the society and state following the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Persian Language in History

The language is an appropriate indication for understanding my take on the Iranian cultural sphere. Prior to the Islamic age, Persian had – together with Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese and Latin – a history without interruption, referring to the scholarship of Brian Spooner. The Persian language went through a 13-hundred-year development, divided into three genres: Khorasan-i, Araq-i and Hend-i. The genre of Khorasan-i consists the contemporary states of Iran (eastern part), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The genre of Araq-i entails states like Iran (western part), Azerbaijan and Iraq. The genre of Hend-i consists of states in the subcontinent, which are divided today into Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Kashmir. These three genres have also subdivisions, which are beyond the scope of this article, but as a follower of this discourse one should know the founder of Persian poetry “Rudaki”, who hails from what we call today Tajikistan.

In addition, the Persian language in the Ottoman Empire was used for cultural issues and court proceedings. In the same vein, Persian was a bridging tool for military and religious affairs – all Arabic words passed to Ottoman-Turkish and later to modern Turkish have their roots in Persian.

Persian was at the advent of Islam (7th century AD) the contact and uniting language, at least, in western and central Asia in general, and in the Iranian cultural sphere, in particular. It is until now the Lingua Franca in many ways when it comes to reading historical accounts of the Turks and the Indian subcontinent, or to communicate among nationals around modern Iran.

The Iranian cultural sphere is reinterpreted from two directions: From outside, through old colonial powers and the contemporary order of nation-states, and from inside, through its diverse inhabitants. The internal relationship could be significantly severed, if the same ethnicities, who lived together before the partition of the Iranian cultural sphere, pursued the narrative of “we vs. them”, i.e. Iranians vs. Afghanistanis, Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and so on. Misusing identity concepts and “Othering” the old ethnical, lingual and religious belongings are topics to be tackled by governments and not only the scholarship of Iranian studies.

Iranian Ghashghai men play a traditional game called Dorna Bazi during a nomadic pastoralist festival in northern Tehran, on September 16, 2011. The Ghashghai are Iran’s largest nomadic pastoralist group who live in Fars, Khuzestan and southern Isfahan province. Each year they travel with their flocks from Shiraz in the hot season to the winter pastures near the Persian Gulf. © Image: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl


The word Iran literally stems from “aryanam”, then developed into “Eran” and has subsequently become Iran: Geographically, Iran starts from the eastern highlands of Afghanistan and the western parts of Pakistan, and ends up where is going to flatten in Iraq. This view, reminds us of nostalgia, which is not much wrong. But if we take all the languages existed before the political demarcations as an example, we will be able to detect those tongues again. We should reflect on the shared history of Persian people in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and beyond. Why do Iranians count all the poets, poetry, literature, scientists and philosophers of the Middle Ages as Iranians without caring to share this legacy with Persians from the other states? Where is the centre of “Persianate World”? Who has the permission to call himself/herself Persian and the others outsiders?

It’s necessary to focus on the present ethnic, religious, cultural and language misconceptions of North Africa and West and Central Asia. These misconceptions caused yesterday’s, and are causing today’s unrewarding conflicts. Social engineering processes, according to Karl Popper, didn’t work out for its masterminds the way it happened in the greater Muslim-majority world.

In the twentieth century Iran was the only country to rescue the Persian legacy of literature and poetry. In contrast in Afghanistan, Persian people (so-called Tajiks) and their language were oppressed due to language policies –the name of their language was changed from “Farsi” into “Dari” in the constitution of 1964 . This step went against the currents and nature of their own Khorasan-i language roots. Today, Persians from other countries are reclaiming their share of Iranian and Persian legacy. As Safar Abdullah puts it: “ Contemporary Iran is a part of itself”.

Comment here