During his Presidential Faculty Award Lecture, titled “Dwelling in a World of Poetry,” Professor of Islamic Humanities, History and Religious Studies Shahzad Bashir spoke Monday afternoon about the prevalence of poetic language in medieval Islamic culture.
The Presidential Faculty Award is given to one professor each semester in order to “distinguish innovative scholarship” and “celebrate intellectual leadership” among faculty members, said President Christina Paxson P’19, who established the award in 2013. Those who receive the award are granted a research stipend of $5,000 and an invitation to give the Presidential Faculty Award Lecture to showcase their research to the community.
Bashir read aloud selections from diverse Middle Eastern texts from 1400 to 1650 in order to demonstrate the poetic nature of all written documents from the period.
The words of poetic letters and chronicles — as well as memoirs and even medical records written in verse — echoed in the elegantly carved marble walls and tapestry-laden floors of the John Carter Brown Library.
Bashir, who also serves as director of the Center for Middle East Studies, said that he chose this read-aloud approach for his lecture because he wanted to showcase the special nature of the material he works with.
Bashir read aloud from a medieval medical record containing a description of a common cold that was purposely written in verse. According to Bashir, poetic form was used instrumentally in this context to help doctors memorize symptoms and other medical facts.
Bashir did not exclusively cite intentionally poetic texts, though. He also read from the letters of a woman who used poetic language to critique her elderly husband’s looks and express her desire to cheat on him. In another instance, he showed excerpts from the memoir of a dying man who, even in his last moments, produced a poetically crafted text that reflected on “existence and non-existence,” Bashir said.
“There are no texts that are purely prose,” he said. “There are texts that are purely poetry, but all texts (in the medieval Middle East) that have prose have some poetry in them.”
The examined texts were all written in Persian, which Bashir said was widely used as a type of “lingua franca” in the region. He also stated that in that region, formal language nearly always took the form of poetry, whereas prose was less highly regarded.
“The process of trying to understand why there is all this pervasive poetry throughout this material ... is what motivates my work,” Bashir said.
Professor of Humanities and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies Mark Cladis, who gave an introduction to Bashir’s lecture, said that he was struck by its assertion that poetry was a “public language” used in “every part of the empire” in the medieval Middle East, especially when compared to modern society’s use of poetry. Cladis also called Bashir’s lecture “a great argument for the humanities” in showing its potential to “open up windows so we can see different cultures.”