David Blow has a brief TLS review (subscription only) of what sounds like a very interesting book, Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway (Table of Contents; note that the last article in the book is “Persian Scribes (munshi) and Chinese Literati (ru): The Power and Prestige of Fine Writing (adab/wenzhang)” by Victor H. Mair, a frequent Language Log contributor), and I thought I’d quote the final paragraph for its summary of the spread of Persian:
Persian as a lingua franca spread not only through much of the Islamic world, but even as far as China during the thirteenth century, when Iran was loosely incorporated into the Mongol Empire. David Morgan shows how Persian became for a time the most important foreign language in China, where it was used in commercial exchanges with Muslim merchants profiting from the Pax Mongolica. But it was the Muslim realms in India that most fully adopted the Persian language and culture. The high point was reached in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the generous patronage offered by the wealthy Indian courts, and especially the Mughal court, attracted many poets from Iran. Muhammad Aslam Syed traces the decline of Persian in Muslim India and the rise of Urdu, a related vernacular language, to the second half of the eighteenth century. He associates it with the “humiliating” sack of Delhi by the Iranian ruler, Nadir Shah, in 1739, and the rise of a “new nobility” of poets who were merchants and shopkeepers and were uncomfortable with Persian as the language of the “old nobility”. The final blow to the status of Persian in India came in 1835 when the East India Company replaced it with English as the official language and in 1837 with Urdu as the language of the law courts. But for many, the loss of Persian was a cause for lament. Syed quotes the Indian poet Ghalib (1797-1869), who is regarded as the greatest Urdu poet, but who also composed poems in Persian: “If you want to see all the colours of life, read my Persian poetry, my Urdu diwan does not have all those colours. Persian is the mirror (of life) and Urdu is just like rust on that mirror (with which you start but when it is clean, it is Persian)”.