The religious works in the exhibition represent confessional and philosophical traditions of the various faiths practiced in the Persian-speaking world today. By 650 BCE, the Zoroastrian faith, a monotheistic religion founded on the ideas of the philosopher Zoroaster, had become the official religion of ancient Persia. Later Judaism and then Christianity came to Persia via Mesopotamia, with both developing vibrant faith communities in Persian lands. To the east of the Persian Empire, the regional kingdoms of what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia adopted Buddhism from India in the third century, blending it with Zoroastrianism and Greek traditions.
With the spread of Islam in the mid-seventh century, the Persian-speaking world became predominantly Muslim although vestiges of the earlier pre-Islamic religious and philosophical traditions remained. Sufism, a meditative and mystical path of Islam, evolved in the region in the tenth century, while the Ismaili Shi`ite doctrine became prominent in Persia by the eleventh century. Later, during the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), much of present Iran and Azerbaijan converted to the Twelver Shi`ite sect of Islam. Newer faiths like the Baha’i Faith developed as late as the nineteenth century in Persia expanding to the Near East and beyond.
Zoroastrian Religious Texts
The religious texts of the Zoroastrian faith of ancient Persia are referred to as the “Avesta.” The oldest part is the Gathas, which includes a collection of hymns and one of the oldest examples of religious poetry attributed to the prophet Zoroaster (ca. 630–550 BCE). Displayed is a page from the Gathas, in the Middle Persian language Pahlavi, and its translation into modern Persian. The Faravahar, a man and a winged disc that symbolizes the Zoroastrian faith adorns the opening of the page. The Zoroastrian faith has survived from ancient times with followers worldwide, mainly in Iran and India. The Zoroastrians who settled in India more than one thousand years ago, referred to as the Parsi (Persian) community, are very influential in Indian society today.
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The Psalms of David
This unique illuminated book of psalms, alternating between Hebrew and Persian, is a modern work produced in Tehran to highlight the importance and value given in Iran to all Abrahamic faith traditions. The Persian translation written in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style makes the Jewish holy book accessible to Persian speakers and celebrates the historic presence of Jewish religious communities in Iran. Persian Jews have been in the region since antiquity and along with the Zoroastrians constitute the most ancient faith communities that remain in Persian lands.
کتاب مزامير حضرت داويد (The Psalms of David). Mahdī Bahman, calligrapher. Tehran, 2000. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)
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A number of Christian communities, particularly Armenian and Syriac, maintained a strong presence in Persian lands. The Syriac or Aramaic-speaking people in western Persia constitute one of the oldest Christian communities of Persia and are referred to as the “Assyrians.” The language used for communication and liturgical writings is modern Aramaic. This rare Assyrian Christian gospel contains the first four books of the New Testament and is from the Urmia region of Iran.
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The Holy Qurʼān
Over the centuries, production of Qurʼān manuscripts with elaborate calligraphic and decorative motifs has evolved into a high art. Historically in Persian-speaking lands the Naskh calligraphic style was used for the Arabic Qurʼān text. Since the Il-Khanid dynasty (1256–1335), a tradition of interlinear Qurʼān, in which the original Arabic text, usually in Naskh, is followed in a smaller size font in Persian in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style, has also flourished.
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Call to Morning Prayer
Prayer is at the foundation of the Islamic faith. The Library’s Near East Section manuscript collections include handwritten, illuminated prayer books and booklets and manuals featuring various prayers for different occasions. The morning prayers that set the tone for the day are highlighted in the seventeenth-century manuscript on display, which is illuminated and bound in embossed red leather. The Arabic text of the prayers is written in a very clear and bold Nasta‘liq calligraphic style.
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The Sources of Jurisprudence
Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq today are predominantly followers of the Shi`ite branch of Islamic faith. In Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Central Asia, where the Sunni branch of Islam dominates the religious Persian-language works reflect the Sunni school of Islamic thought. This lithographic book was published in the nineteenth century by the Royal Kabul Publishing House and is a source for judges who work on Islamic jurisprudence. The fine quality of the printing and binding attest to the importance given to Islamic law texts.
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Sufism, a mystical and introspective interpretation of Islam that emerged after the initial spread of the religion, combines Islamic teachings with Gnosticism. The practice embraced the idea of enlightenment through spiritual knowledge, with pre-Islamic Greek, Zoroastrian, and Indian spiritual practices. By the thirteenth century in Persia, Sufi thought was expressed primarily through poetry or in poetic works of prose such as this Sufi treatise. The fine illuminated manuscript pages with animal and floral motifs and the highly prized Nasta‘liq calligraphy style of the manuscript demonstrate the importance of spiritual and philosophical works in medieval Persia.
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The Gift of the Kings
At the request of Muhammad Taqi Mirzā, the son of Qajar dynasty monarch Fath ‘Ali-Shāh, the author compiled this ethical-philosophical treatise drawing on Sufi mysticism and Shi`ite doctrine. In three long chapters, the book presents a detailed discussion of reason (Arabic/Persian ‘aql) and its qualities. Numerous images illustrate the author’s argument concerning different spheres in which reason reigns in differing qualities. This book is noteworthy as a rare example of printing in gold.
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The Jewel in the Crown
Among the rare Persian manuscripts in the Library’s holdings are a number of unique Shi`ite Iranian prayer books that are ornately illuminated with floral motifs and gold ink. One such manuscript is this Persian and Arabic prayer book, which includes prayers intended to be read on pilgrimage to various Shi`ite holy sites in Iraq and Iran. Specific prayers read at the mausoleum of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam, are highlighted. The author Ibn Rustam Khān Ṣafī Qulī evokes his Safavid ancestors under whose reign (1501–1722) Iran became predominately Shi`ite.
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Shi`ite Prayer Manual
One of the most revered religious and holy figures of Islam is ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (ca. 601–661), whose honorary name, Amīr al-Mu‘minīn, translates into Persian as the “prince of the believers.” Written works by ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and sayings attributed to him are sacred to the Shi`ite faithful, particularly among Persian-speakers. This hand-written prayer manual displays the words of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib in the original Arabic in the Naskh calligraphic style and in a smaller-font Persian translation in red in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style by Abū al-Qāsim Shīrāzī.
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The Babi religious and social movement, which had its origins in Shi`ite Islam, began in the mid-nineteenth century, and, after a number of upheavals, evolved into the Baha’i faith based on the teaching of Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (1817–1892), better known as Bahá‘u‘lláh to his followers. He authored a number of religious and theological works in Persian and Arabic. Because of political turbulence in Iran, many Baha’is moved to neighboring lands and spread out across the world. This book, published in Europe, is a modern Persian publication of Bahá‘u‘lláh’s teachings to be studied with morning and evening prayers.
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