A preliminary discussion of the origin and disposition of the idea of the Persian Prince in classical and contemporary contexts. Introduction of the idea as an archaic Iranian archetype that has gone through varied historic gestations, from ancient Persia to the Hebrew Bible to classical Greek antiquity to medieval European mirrors for princes to its Renaissance resurfacing in modern political thought to its postcolonial resurrection as a rebel, a prophet, a poet, and a nomad. Who, what, where is the Persian Prince? It is an idea, an ideal type, an archetype, a political proposition, a mode of thinking politics, a manner of speaking history, culture, civilization, ethics, normative morality, moral philosophy. The Persian Prince is more a persona than a person. I
Today the term "Persian Prince" has transfigured and atrophied into fertile grounds for Orientalist fantasies, ethnic nationalism, reactionary politics, misogynistic patriarchy, clichéd cinematic tropes, outdated fairy tales, even as a marker of arrested modernity, fodder and forage for colonial conquests, nativist xenophobia, and even racist ressentiment. Persian cat, Persian carpet, Persian caviar, Persian prince: they all sound the same—the paraphernalia of a foregone Orientalist nostalgia that serves delusional fantasies of one sort or another. This degeneration and decline in part have to do with the history of the term "Persian" in English or any other European languages. In part this also has to do with the epistemic chasm between scholarship one performs in these languages and scholarship done in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and other Islamic languages.
As I conceptualize it in this book, the Persian Prince moves through the Persianate history of countries and climes, from the classical to the contemporary periods. While Xenophon meant his Cyrus as a typical ideal and a mirror for princes, Machiavelli's conceptualization of his Prince was proscriptive and Gramsci's analytical, while my idea of the Persian Prince is entirely descriptive—mapping, detailing, and theorizing its amorphous disposition to both constitute political legitimacy and, paradoxically, dismantle it. I call it "Persian" as opposed to "Arab," "Greek," "Indian," or anything else in entirely gender-neutral and actively deracialized terms, and only because the provenance of its rising legitimacy is definitive to the Persianate world, from the Indian subcontinent to the Iranian plateau to the Mediterranean shores. From its Iranian provenance to its Indian inspirations to its Greek theorization to its Hebrew canonization, the Persian Prince dwelled on varied and multiple planes.
The recollections of Persian monarchs of the Sassanid and earlier empires not only informed the political cultures of Muslim caliphs and sultans but in fact offered them a prototype of rulership as well as a mode of historiography that becomes emblematic of how the rest of Muslim history is recalled and recorded. What is evident from these early sources making their ways from Pahlavi, Sanskrit, and Greek into Arabic and Persian is that learned courtiers were looking around the globe—ancient Iran, India, and Greece in particular—in search of pre-Islamic bluepri Shaunaka, or Sanskrit masterpieces like Ramayana and Mahabharata, or such Pahlavi texts as Khwaday-Namag, Muslim rulers were actively in search of manners of imagining themselves legitimately sitting on their thrones—while their court chroniclers were learning the prose and politics of telling their stories.
The Persian provenance of Muslim empires, caliphates, sultanates, and other dynasties was de facto and de jure. Two major institutions linked Islamic political thought and practices to their pre-Islamic Persian sources: the literary genre of Andarz-nameh (advice literature) and the political office of the vizierate. Through the intermediary of the vizierate, Islamic institutions of caliphate and sultanate, best represented in the Abbasid (Arab) and Saljuqid (Turk) dynasties, were predicated on the Persian prototype of imperial monarchy metamorphosed into new Islamic forms. The Byzantine empire and the Indian, Turkic, Mongol, and Arab patrimonial practice were equally important at various stages of Muslim empires, as the idea of the Persian Prince itself was equally at work in Indian, Greek, Roman, European, and Hebrew contexts.
I now observe what's inside the archetype—how its soul is formed, fragmented, animated, and made into the prototype of the human it is meant to rule and implicate. I open up the expansive domain of the erudite courtly and non-courtly literatures guiding the moral universe of the Persian Prince into wider, more potent horizons. I limit those horizons to the Islamic contexts of the Persian Prince, with necessary allusions to its pre-Islamic Iranian and singularly crucial Greek gestations in Xenophon's Cyropaedia. But here I reach beyond the Islamic domains and broaden the view into the wider Hebrew, Christian, Greek, and European domains. My purpose is to show the shades and shadows and the porous boundaries of the archetypal presence of the Persian Prince in the larger Persianate cosmopolis (Persepolis) as a vision of the world that comes into and exits the confined geographical territorialities of Iran-Shar.
This way of reading the Persian epic, where the Persian Prince is best at home, places the archetypal text and context at the threshold of the condition of coloniality that has resulted in both revolutionary mobilization and critical theorization. The trilateral disposition of the temporal narrative of the Shahnameh, ranging from mythic to heroic to historical, frames the renewed reading of the epic in the emerging public sphere, where the condition of coloniality is actively revived and revised. The succession of the colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial are all prelude to an emancipatory act of decoloniality, which is neither romantic nor tragic but decidedly epic. That means the mythic, heroic, and historical framing defines the contours of the modern epic in those terms, whereupon the postcolonial parapublic sphere the postcolonial epic rises. This trilateral temporality of mythic, heroic, and historical provides the space where the Persian Prince is resurrected.
The case of Rostam al-Hokama's Rostam al-Tawarikh, with its provocative prose and thematic roots in earlier sources and its wider domains of parody and satire around the world, marks the emergence of the living author as the chronicler of a new time and place in which the Persian Prince finds a renewed significance in contemporary history. Without such vessels of formative subjectivity for the Persian Prince to rise as the modus operandi of political consciousness, the archetypal figure would not have the birth channels of his rebirth and resurrection. The resurrection of the new Persian Prince could be predicated only on the metamorphosis of the classical archetype from its institutional courtly habitat back to its worldly origins. The Persian Prince is here reminded of his prophetic voice, of his poetic disposition, and through all that is drawn back to his rebellious character.
From this premise, in the archetypal figure of the Persian Prince we may detect the nodal point at which the political universe of Persian and Persianate cosmopolis intersects and branches out to bring the trilateral ideals of Iran-Shahr, Jahan-Shahr, and Arman-Shahr together. If we were to translate Iran-Shahr as Persopolis, then Jahan-Shahr would be Cosmopolis, and Arman-Shahr Utopia. By bringing these takes on the Persian cosmopolis together, we can theoretically pivot toward an excavation of a genealogy of postcolonial subjectivity outside but adjacent to the European project of colonial modernity—which the world has received under colonial duress. That people around the world are not "European" is not only not enough but deeply distorting, for it cross-authenticates the fiction of "Europe" and further alienates the varied cultures and civilizations from the terms of their own humanity.
I was drawn to Machiavelli's seminal The Prince, intuitively pulling it back to Nizam al-Mulk's Siyasat-nameh and even Xenophon's Cyropaedia. It was not until I considered Antonio Gramsci's take on Machiavelli in his "Modern Prince" (1929, 1935) that things began to gel, and I was led to thinking comparatively in the context of Islamic and Persian literary and political genres, discourses, and histories—in a comparative context of Indian, Greek, Hebrew, and European resonances. The idea of the Persian Prince as I theorize it was at the focal intersection of these trajectories. I therefore opted for consecutive comparative moments with Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Gramsci, leading to Ernst Cassirer and coming down to Rosi Braidotti's articulation of the nomadic subject closer to our own time, as the theoretical signposts of navigating the historical unfolding of the Persian Prince from its archaic origins to its contemporary metamorphosis under colonial duress.