By JOAN WEEKS
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Near East Section, highlighted the rich cultural tapestry of the Persian civilization.
He spoke on "The Components and Aspects of Persian Culture" to a capacity audience on July 14. His loecture was the fourth in a series on the Near East.
Dr. Billington in his introduction said that while some people see a "clash of civilizations" in the cultures of the Middle East, at the Library such diversity is seen as an opportunity and source of hope, rather than peril.
While admitting the daunting task of compressing an 8,000- year legacy into a 50-minute lecture, Dr. Nasr said he would "paint with a brush just a few strokes" to give some of the common elements that have survived and are shared by all who call themselves "Persian."
According to Dr. Nasr, the term "culture" is a 19th century European invention that compartmentalizes groups by common race, religion, language or location, such as the Hindus in India. "This does not work well with Persians because these lines are not clearly defined. The borders of Iran were set artificially by the great powers, and there is not a single language. ... Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Persian [are] used frequently."
Leading thinkers in the 1960s described culture as a "shared historical experience," he said. Within this framework, he traced the legacy to the 8,000-year-old city of Kashan in central Iran. "Archaeologists have determined that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world," said Dr. Nasr.
He explained that the shared historical heritage stretches over much of central Asia, a vestige of the Persian Empire. From "Afghanistan to Kashmir, there is a consciousness of Persian history and culture in the literary heritage of the people." While peoples across central Asia adhere to the tenets of Islam, Dr. Nasr said that Persians are aware of their uniqueness in the Islamic world. "In Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, use of Arabic expanded with Islam, but when it came to Persians they retained their own language."
As an aside, he remarked that the classical language is "Persian" not "Farsi," which is a modern corruption.
According to Dr. Nasr, "The synthesis of Persian culture has not changed with the Iranian revolution." Classical Persian culture, philosophy and religious thought are still intact. "The fusion of religion to the language is the ethos of Persians."
The professor gave an overview of the pervasive influence of Persian thought on other cultures in the region. "Azerbaijanian poetry is impregnated with Persian aesthetic thought, and there is a rich tradition of Persian phraseology in Kurdish expression," he said. Through the Sufi orders (a mystical sect of Islam), he explained that the Persians extended their influence on Islam in Turkey, and the Ottomans in turn transmitted it throughout the Arab world. Persian literary influence spread through Tajikistan to Pakistan and India and on into China.
Dr. Nasr provided evidence showing that Zoroastrianism, the major ancient, pre-Islamic religion of Iran, can be found in Plato's writings. Known as a mathematician and magician in the West, Zoroaster exerted a far greater influence on philosophical thinking as Islam swept eastward, he said. "The ancient Greeks feared the Persians but looked upon them as a great civilization.
"What is the most profound element of a Persian?" Dr. Nasr asked. "Each person must answer that."
Author of more than 50 books, Dr. Nasr is well known throughout the Islamic world for his writings and lectures on classical Persian and Islamic thought. He was the cultural adviser to the royal court when Reza Mohammad Shah Pahlavi reigned, and as professor, dean and chancellor at Tehran University, lectured and wrote about Islamic literature. He also was president of Ariyamehr University and founder of the Iranian Academy of Philosophy. Many of his writings have been translated, especially in Pakistan, where he lectures frequently, and many of his works in Persian and English are housed in the Library's collections.
Dr. George N. Atiyeh, head of the Near East Section, gave an overview of the work of the Near East Section during the past 50 years. Ibrahim Pourhadi, Persian area specialist, discussed the Library's Persian Collection, which includes 50,000 cataloged volumes. The collection contains a wealth of resources in the fields of literature, religion, politics and economics, as well as such treasures as illuminated calligraphy and rare 15th century manuscripts. He invited researchers to contact him for assistance in using the Persian collections for their studies.
Joan Weeks is a public affairs specialist in the National Reference Service.