The Role of the Shahname in Iranian Society


Iraj Bashiri

copyright © Bashiri 2003

As the most instrumental, influential, and constructive literary contribution to the reestablishment, in medieval times, of the Persian language and Iranian culture, Firdowsi's epic permeates many aspects of Iranian society, especially the lives of those who cherish Iran's ancient legacy. The epic spans the cosmological, mythological, and historical eras not only for those who populate present-day Iran, but those who populate the land where the events in the epic took shape, the Afghans, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Kyrgyz. Discourse on the epic tends to distinguish the Iranians, i.e., those living within the political boundaries of present-day Iran, as the heirs to Firdowsi's contribution; but that would be too narrow a view both of the epic and of the vision of its creator. People who outwardly seem to have nothing, or, at most, very little in common, enjoy the bard's contribution to Asian culture and commemorate it in "Shahname Recital" sessions, "Shahname show" presentations, and by reciting the epic in teahouses, and in sports clubs (zurkhaneh).

Shahname Recital

Firdowsi could have written the Shahname in prose to present a detailed account of the activities of Iran's mythical kings and champions, but he did not. Rather, he chose the medium of poetry through which he could produce a multi-volume oeuvre providing the same information. He chose poetry because prose was not as accessible to his illiterate audiences as was poetry. In other words, around AD 1000, the Iranians' capacity for retaining large tracts of poetry in memory was superior to their ability for retaining many lines of prose text. Besides, he intended the stories in his epic to become part of the daily life of his contemporaries, irrespective of their Persian, Arab, or Turkish ethnic background. The success of his epic, especially its safe passage through the devastation of the Mongols to modern times owes a great deal to this initial correct decision.
One place where the general public, especially the lower classes, can hear the Shahname recited is in the corner of the public bazaar. There, an individual, usually referred to as Dervish, presents an episode of the Shahname. In doing so, he uses a canvas that unrolls like a screen as a prop. Pictures depicting the heroes of the Shahname episode that he is about to recite mesmerize the onlookers. The contents of the episode, once recited, fascinate the audience and leaves them with a sweet memory of their visit to the bazaar or, in the case of the villagers, to town. Master couplets (shah bayt) from the epic leave an indelible mark on their memory prompting them to return, to listen to more, and to learn more heroic verses so that they can become the story teller in their own district or village and astonish audiences. It is important to note that in times prior to radio and television, for some Iranians, this was the only opportunity they had to become acquainted with their national epic. The picture that these recitals presented was a simple image that emphasized both the audience's Islamic and national Iranian identity. The choice of which aspect or episode to present and where to place the emphasis, depended on the social and political needs of the time.


Another place where one can enjoy listening to the Shahname is in the teahouse (qahvekhane). The audience at the qahvekhane (lit., coffee house) is somewhat different from that at the bazaar. Here, we encounter the regular patrons of an establishment as opposed to the one-time visitor in the market place. The patrons of the teahouse include shopkeepers, drivers, office workers, managers, policemen, and the like. Although they may not wish to participate in the recitation of the epic, they enjoy hearing the exploits of the heroes of the epic while sipping their tea. The Shahname allows their imagination to be taken to realms that, in reality, are beyond the bounds of their earthly existence. The teahouse keeper provides the service in order to sell more tea, cigarettes, and tobacco for the hookas and the long-stem pipes. The audience for the teahouse is better educated than the first group. Some teahouses advertise the particular episode that will be presented and the specific time for the presentation.

More educated Iranians form Shahname recital groups and, over a lengthy period of time, recite the 60,000 couplets of the epic, episode by episode, and discuss their import. These gatherings are usually held in private homes. The participants rotate the difficult task of recitation, which is, at times, accompanied by music. Often they engage in a discussion of the finer points of the epic. All this happens, very much as it did in the teahouse, except in the context of enjoying the hospitality of a host and his family.

Yet another place where the Shahname is recited with fervor is at the zurkhaneh (house of strength). This is a Persian-style sports club, where athletes undergo a rigorous regiment of training under the direction of tested masters (murshed). The aim of the endeavor is to perfect the body and the mind at once. Like in ancient Greece, in ancient Iran, too, development of physical and mental faculties was among the most sought after aspects of an accomplished person's career.

Two types of zurkhaneh are responsible for the two types of athletes trained in Iranian sports clubs. Some zurkhanehs emphasize Iranian nationalist sentiments. Their code of chivalry, described below, promotes ancient Iranian ethics, especially those advocated by ancient Iranian saint-kings like Kaykhusrau, as well as such historical monarchs as Darius the Great and Ardashir I. The other type of zurkhaneh emphasizes the Iranians' ties to the Shi'ite faith. The code of ethics in these sports clubs includes praises of the Prophet Muhammad, the Saint Ali, and the descendants of Ali. Their code of conduct, too, is presented further below.

Recitation of the Shahname over a long period of time, rigorous training that promises the individual to become a Rustam or a Siyavosh, learning the code of conduct of the Saint Ali, taking an oath to follow the code of ancient kings and of the leaders of the Shi'ite faith, all of these are likely to influence a young mind determined to contribute to the well-being of his society. Depending on the socio-religious, socio-political, and socio-economic direction of the society, as well as on the desire of the individual athlete, a number of social categories appear. An individual might fall into one or more of the following groups: dash, sufi, qalandar, malamati, and ayyar. In what follows an attempt will be made to distinguish these categories. It should be understood at the outset, however, that these categories are not divisible into the neat columns we would like them to fall into. There are major overlaps. Additionally, none of these categories can be defined with a few words or a few sentences. They are ways of life that grow out of the fabric of the culture and must be mastered by examining the total culture.

Dash (short form of dadash, Turkish word for brother) is a title of respect conferred on a graduate of the traditional sports clubs. Known also as dash mashdi, he shares a number of his traits with the sufis, malamatis and qalandars. Drawing on the strength of his character, as well as on his physical strength, which in his case is a given, a dash tends to be detached from the world--not in the sense of the sufi mystic but in the sense of the hermit warrior. During the days when cities were surrounded by walls and were divided into distinct districts, the dash served as the tough guy of the district. The oppressed sought him out to gain justice against the oppression of feudal lords and their demanding families. Orphans, families who, for one reason or another, were left without protection temporarily or permanently, were sure to receive protection from the dash. Often, a dash deposited a strand or two of his hair as assurance that he would see to the well-being of a family or a child, or someone's property. You could trust that he would protect all that he had pledged to protect to the point of his death.

The sufi is the most well-known of the group of individuals who undergo rigorous training to improve their body and mind. The difference between a dash and a sufi is in that the dash is a product of the zurkhaneh, while the sufi is a product of the khaniqah or cloister. They both are trained by tested masters (murshed) but the orientation of their studies differs. The sufi's orientation is towards cognition of the godhead; the dash strives to learn the tested ways of past saints and champions to forge a tool for the betterment of society. The stations and states that a sufi passes as he walks the tariqa are explained in Islam and Iran to AD 1400.

The qalandar is a difficult individual to explain. Like a dash, he seeks the well-being of people in general but, unlike the dash, he does not interfere with the social order. He does not look after other people's property or worry about the orphans and their problems. He is, however, tied to the spiritual dimension of which the sufi is a part. Unlike the sufi, however, he does not flaunt either his devotion or the extent of the arduous rituals he performs.

The malamati is a sufi who passes the state and stations only to become cognizant of the extent of his inability to measure up to the perfection required. He blames himself for everything and draws blame against himself by hiding rituals and by uttering words that, on the surface, sound blasphemous. Hafiz of Shiraz is a prominent malamati figure. Many of his ghazals (sonnets) point to the inadequacies of the world and, thus, of the individual who is no more than a spec of dust at the threshold of the Beloved.

The ayyar is a dash-type individual who lives by the strength of his wit. He participates in battles and might gather like-minded individuals to instigate uprisings against the mighty in society. In this endeavor, his main intention is to improve the social situation for his people, but in the end, he might end up with the kingship or rulership that he had lived to despise.

Finally, a word about the dervish. He is the individual who has tried his hand at one of the categories outlined above but has failed to master the task. A dejected sufi, a timid dash, or a defeated ayyar might appear in society in the guise of a mendicant, seeking his living through charity extended to him as he travels from village to village and town to town, praising the Lord.

National Champion's Code of Ethics

  1. Be upright. Be not evil. Life is too short.
  2. Do not fret for what is gone by, and do not worry about things yet to come.
  3. Do not disrespect your commander; be a steady soldier.
  4. Do not advocate for others things that you would not advocate for yourself.
  5. Do not become a slave.
  6. Avoid those who anger easily and those who seek vengeance.
  7. Befriend only those who seek your interest.
  8. Follow the dictates of the creator Yazdan (cf., yazata).
  9. Do not divulge your secrets to anyone.
  10. Do not repeat things you hear (about others) hastily.
  11. Do not prevent your family from becoming educated.
  12. Do not laugh without having a reason to laugh.
  13. Before giving a reply, consider the matter at hand carefully.
  14. Do not laugh at others.
  15. Do not seek the advice of the lowly.
  16. Do not mingle with the very rich and the very drunk.
  17. Do not borrow from the lowly or you will become their slave through excessive interest.
  18. Do not flaunt your wealth before the envious.
  19. Do not expect an unjust ruling from a king.
  20. Do not listen to the backbiter and to those who tell lies.
  21. Do not encourage the exercise of vengeance.
  22. Do not engage in a struggle on the street.
  23. Do not strike an upright man.
  24. Do not fight over status.
  25. Befriend pure, knowledgeable, and wise men.
  26. In war, if you are entrusted a major responsibility, fear the consequences of your decisions.
  27. Stay away from the very rich.
  28. Do not antagonize the learned.
  29. Respect the learned and engage them in conversation.
  30. Do not lie to anyone.
  31. Do not accept wealth from the shameless.
  32. Whether you are in the right or not, do not take an oath.
  33. Gather a fortune before you seek a wife.
  34. Choose your own wife.
  35. If you are accumulating wealth, begin with land and water, once all property vanishes, land and water remain.
  36. Do not injure others with your tongue.
  37. Do not cause a loss to others, be they friend or foe.
  38. Be generous in giving away of your wealth.
  39. Do not deceive others.
  40. Speak openly and plainly.
  41. Do not speak before thinking your answer through.
  42. Marry a wise and chaste woman.
  43. In assemblies, do not occupy a high place so that you are not moved down in disgrace.
  44. Be an early riser so that you can accomplish your task.
  45. He who digs a well with the intention of destroying others falls in it himself.
  46. Even if you are a good swimmer, do not stay in the water more than it is necessary.
  47. Even if you are a skillful snake catcher, do not try to catch a snake.
  48. Marry a young and wise woman.
  49. Protect religion because the protection of your soul rests therein.
  50. The most blessed gift to all is education; properties can be destroyed and animals can die, but education can only be increased.

Islamic Champion's Code of Ethics

  1. An upright man seeks the truth and avoids evil. Those who engage in evil deeds do so out of ignorance; they are blind to the truth in things. Know that Allah is all knowing.
  2. An upright man avoids worldly materials and interests. He does not allow them to become reasons for his happiness or sadness. He is not a doubter. He has patience and knows that Allah bestows all that is blessed and that individuals are likely to transform Allah's blessing into evil.
  3. An upright man will not look at other peoples' wives; rather, he will consider them to be his own sisters. If an unfamiliar woman comes to him, he would not change his demeanor as he would not in the presence of his own sister or mother. If someone mentions a woman, he would not allow bad thoughts to overwhelm him. If an unfamiliar woman is alone in a desert or in a ghost town, the upright man would not have bad thoughts about her; rather, he recalls that Allah is everywhere, and that He is omnipotent.
  4. A pious man avoids all sin, especially back-biting, as back-biters are despised by all.
  5. An upright man repents his sins and does not take pride in worldly things. He keeps an immaculate heart and a tidy appearance. He knows that those who do good deeds will join the pure light of Allah and those who engage in evil deeds will be lost in the darkness of Satan.
  6. An upright man is loyal and mindful of Allah throughout his life. He walks the way of truth, keeps a pure heart, and remains serene under pressure.
  7. An upright man has a pure self; he does not seek what is forbidden to him.
  8. An upright man does not covet other peoples' property or women.
  9. An upright man tells the truth even at the expense of a personal loss to him. He does not swear and does not do unto others what he does not want others to do unto him.
  10. An upright man keeps his word and never reneges on his word.
  11. An upright man keeps his appointments.
  12. An upright man is not greedy. He does not covet other peoples' property or wives.
  13. An upright man does not sleep with someone else's wife; because, for him, sleeping with someone else's wife is tantamount to sleeping with his own mother.
  14. An upright man does not laugh outloud because laughing aloud is an act of the Satan. An upright man laughs, however, when evil is vanquished and when justice is served.
  15. An upright man, wherever he is and whatever he does, thinks of Allah first and considers the women and wives of others as if they were his own sisters and mother. He avoids committing acts that are not allowed.
  16. An upright man fears God; he never denounces Allah.
  17. An upright man recalls his sins, fears Allah, and repents. He seeks knowledge, and walks the tariqa (the Sufi way).
  18. An upright man befriends others because he loves them, rather than for the material things that he might gain out of his friendship.
  19. An upright man puts the interests of others before his own. He creates comfort for others before comfort for himself, and he shares the joys and sorrows of his brothers.
  20. An upright man does not become happy upon receiving material things and he does not become sorrowful upon losing the same. He considers pebbles and precious stones to be of the same value.
  21. An upright man is like a lion at heart, not a fox. He has true faith and loyalty to his religion.
  22. An upright man is patient; he defends the rights of the oppressed.
  23. An upright man constantly thinks of Allah. He sees death near him and strives to improve his afterlife.
  24. An upright man believes that a man's body belongs to God first and to him second.
  25. An upright man avoids pride, greed, envy, and other such vices. He follows the words and deeds of the Saint Ali and does not flinch at spending his wealth and life in the way of God.
  26. An upright man respects the aged, advises the young, and is kind to children. He is merciful to the weak and generous to the poor. He respects the learned, fights the tyrant, and despises the wicked.

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