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Khwājū Kirmānī’s Humāy o Humāyūn: Illuminating
Issues of Image and Word in
Medieval Persian Manuscripts

Advisers: Thomas W. Hare, Michael Barry

Mariam Rahmani

Comparative Literature

“After spending hours staring at one eight-by-twelve centimeter miniature on a snowy day in Vienna, I comprehended the beauty of the work I was writing about as an admirer who memorizes every line in the figure of the beloved.”


I have always been frustrated by the passivity of reading.

I started writing short stories in the first grade, less than a year after my professor mother had coached me to read while the other kids were learning the alphabet. A few years later, I began writing poetry. I have kept a journal since age nine, and in high school I wrote two one-act plays. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, my writing shone. I conceptualized myself as an amateur writer, a poetic personality—that is, until I arrived at Princeton.

An inferiority complex (my writing would be compared to my intellectual peers) combined with a desire to achieve a “serious” education forced me to face reality freshman year: I would never be a famous author. Statistics predicted it. History made it obvious. I fell in love with authors as diverse as Gustave Flaubert, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jane Austen, and, rather than feel inspired by their work, I was incapacited by my awe of their ingenuity. I would never be able to think like Nietzsche, craft a story like Flaubert, or possess Austen’s wit. F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at 24 and John Keats died at 25. Already at 19, I had started no magnum opus. In short, I have always been a realist.

By the end of freshman year, I had acquiesced to my fate. Acknowledging that I would never be a writer, I zealously committed myself to being a reader. Sophomore year, I declared my major early and produced my first junior paper that spring. I began learning German and dived into literary and art theory. After reading more of Nietzsche and interpreting the value he placed on creative production to prove the inferiority of criticism, my destiny was clear. No longer poetic, I was instead the heroine of a great modern tragedy—being capable enough to realize my own incapacity.

But there also were alternative interpretations. My friend and classmate pointed out that criticism is itself a creative act. The same semester in which Nietzsche made me look in the mirror, we read Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” and my deflated ego was somewhat restored with the contention that I contributed to the creation of the texts I read as actively as the authors who wrote them. Perhaps this was the single most important lesson I learned as a literature student: Texts live and breathe in us. There is no such thing as passive reading. 

Reading is creative.

To me, that is what lies beneath the thesis. I want to impress upon you that you are beginning a wonderful intellectual journey and that there is every reason to be excited. No matter what the field, you will have to read before you begin to write, gaining a grasp of the extant literature whether your thesis topic is Egyptian economics or Ming dynasty ceramics or even if the project is a collection of your own short stories. In most cases, you will then make a claim, one based on original research in the lab or hours spent ruminating about the syntax of a few lines of poetry, and that claim will relate to the literature you have read. You are synthesizing information and suggesting a different interpretation; you are constructing something out of the information you have so thoroughly examined and meticulously sewn together. You are being creative.

I urge you to remember that because, at times, especially on a sunny spring day when the green grass in front of Firestone Library could not seem more inviting, your thesis will seem like a chore. And certainly, that day, it will be. But the bigger picture is that over the course of these days, some of which will be more enjoyable or at least less frustrating than others, you will have worked through an issue and crafted a coherent argument. You may even contribute to your field, but most of us don’t. Instead, the thesis is about the process, not the product. For eight months or more, you will have dedicated yourself to a project and carried it through from start to finish, from the first partially formed idea to the last edit (or, if you don’t happen to ever reach the editing phase, to writing that last sentence).

Back to those beautiful days when all of Princeton seems to be frolicking in the grass and you’re stuck in Firestone or Friend Center, don’t always be responsible. Sometimes you need a day off, not only to recharge, but also to enjoy Princeton and life. Unless something goes terribly wrong, this is your last year: Make sure you take advantage of your time to hang out with a friend or read a magazine article. During fall semester, schedule time for your thesis, so that it doesn’t get perpetually pushed until next week while you deal with classes and other senior-year concerns such as graduate school or finding a job. During the spring, schedule time for other things, like your classes (they are still important; don’t be tricked into thinking that they are not), your friends, and yourself.

I also would recommend that you write an outline, no matter what the field. In comparative literature, for example, most students are not used to starting a paper with an outline. Sure, a 10- to 12- page Dean’s Date paper can organically take shape as you start writing, but for your thesis, this will not work. In the off chance it does work, it will be much more painful than if you had started with an outline. Outlining makes it much easier to organize and rearrange your research as well as your own thoughts. Another advantage is that it makes the task of writing your thesis much more manageable. Rather than forcing yourself to tackle Chapter 1 after a few months of research, you can use the outlining process as a transition period. Plus, if what you thought would be good in Chapter 1 makes more sense in Chapter 4, this will be much easier to fix after you have completed your outline and can see a rough sketch of your thesis but before you have started filling in the detailing by writing it all out.

Try to travel for your thesis and gather information outside the classroom or the library. Working on issues of image and word in a 14th-century Persian romance, I was lucky enough to secure a grant from the dean of the college’s office to see medieval illustrated manuscripts housed in London, Paris, and Vienna over winter break. Second semester, I arrived in Princeton absolutely thrilled to discuss what I had seen. My work was no longer an esoteric or removed intellectual exercise but a personal and emotional experience. I was not restricted to understanding the works through viewing plates and reading arguments printed in books in Marquand Library, but had had the opportunity to behold the paintings. After spending hours staring at one eight-by-twelve centimeter miniature on a snowy day in Vienna, I comprehended the beauty of the work I was writing about as an admirer who memorizes every line in the figure of the beloved. These paintings revealed their histories and inner lives to me; I established a relationship with them and entered in a dialogue in which we each made demands of the other. My thesis, as an attempt to say something original about these works, was really a way for me to pay homage to that experience and homage to the beauty I had been privileged to witness.

Take spring break off. Tacking on the weekends on either end, I traveled for 10 days during spring break to attend a contemporary art fair in Dubai. When I returned, I did write a few pages in my conclusion about what I had seen in a gesture toward contemporary Middle Eastern art, but, in the interest of honesty, the time I spent watching waves crash against the beach hardly contributed to the quality of my thesis. Or maybe it did, because I returned to Princeton energized and ready for the final stretch through April.

Lastly, recognize that it’s just a thesis. Again, the thesis is about the process and not the product. Allow yourself a moment to fall in love with a 14th-century manuscript, or alternatively, to indulge in a scoop of Bent Spoon’s dark chocolate sorbet, rather than rework that last paragraph you just wrote. Realize that, contrary to Princeton talk, you are not writing a book. In fact, when you adjust for the double spacing, your thesis will be closer to the length of a typical academic article, but still, your work will likely not go through the rigorous editing process that precedes the publication of an article. This is an undergraduate thesis—it can and will have mistakes, certainly typos, but perhaps even something as big as methodology. For many of you, this may even be your last significant academic project. And yet, the thesis is not necessarily meant to prepare you for a future in critical thought (though it may and will do that for some of us): It is an experience in building something substantial from start to finish.

When writing your thesis, you are an architect and an artist, a reader and a writer, a learner and a teacher. Do not underestimate how truly awesome that will be.

Khwājū Kirmānī’s Humāy o Humāyūn: Illuminating
Issues of Image and Word in
Medieval Persian Manuscripts

Mariam Rahmani

Thomas W. Hare

William Sauter LaPorte ’28 Professor in Regional
Studies; Professor of Comparative Literature

“The gradual emergence of Mariam’s vision was an awakening to a new world for me.”

Writing a senior thesis is so much a part of being an undergraduate at Princeton that it is difficult to imagine what the University would be like without it. A rite of passage? Yes, it is that. No doubt, some of the significance of the experience comes from the esprit de corps of students all over campus who have this one common responsibility in their senior year. Deploying your ingenuity in writing, whipping the structure into coherence, aiming your analytical expertise at a subject you yourself chose to work on—all these academic skills are crucial to success in the thesis. But it’s not, in the end, about that.

For some, the thesis is an early milestone in a career devoted to persuasion through writing. That would, I think, be the case for future lawyers, for administrators of various sorts, for those with jobs in public policy and journalism . . . and of course for professors-to-be. But for others, the thesis is the longest sustained written document you will ever write, so it is not necessarily a building block for a career.

When I wrote my thesis—I graduated from Princeton in 1975—it was certainly the longest thing I had ever written. I worked on it throughout the year and was deeply interested in the topic. I still ended up pulling an all-nighter on the last day before it was due, and that is probably the part of the experience that retains the most visceral and immediate associations for me. It wasn’t a bad thing. I felt like I was really getting somewhere, and that the end was in sight. It was an accomplishment, and the caffeine that flooded my senses didn’t, on that occasion, make me jittery and irritable, but calm and self-possessed. It was, that night, a purely solitary experience, a kind of meditation even, although the objects of my attention were only as spiritual as footnotes and bibliographical citations and captions for the few hand-drawn images I wanted to include.

It was very different for me working with Mariam Rahmani and Dr. Michael Barry on her very fine thesis on the Persian poet Khwājū Kirmānī. Mariam was engaged with the interrelation between the poetic text and the magnificent illustrations that accompanied it in the romance of Prince Humāy and Princess Humāyūn, a classic of Persian literature. I think it was because I too am interested in the interaction of word and image that I had the privilege of working with Mariam. It certainly wasn’t because of my knowledge of Persian literature or art—of that I have only a sliver, and all of it thanks to Mariam and her other adviser, Dr. Barry.

What a privilege, then, for me! I gained a vantage on the state-of-the-art in Persian art criticism and poetic analysis. The gradual emergence of Mariam’s vision was an awakening to a new world for me. The opportunity to eavesdrop on the intellectual give-and-take that animated Mariam’s work with Dr. Barry was invaluable.

I’m afraid I had little to offer in comparison with Dr. Barry’s erudition and Mariam’s passion for the subject, but the common enterprise of seeing the thesis through to its wonderful completion was an experience I won’t soon forget.

It’s a coincidence of my own departmental affiliation with comparative literature that I had the benefit of this experience. In the department, we have made it a central policy that we work with students in whatever languages they have made their own. This is a bit of a stretch sometimes, and we’re certainly lucky that we can draw on the professional expertise of members of the faculty in other departments. At the same time, it is assumed in comparative literature that a deep grounding in languages will allow for an engagement that reaches beyond the cultural boundaries of any given language toward a common understanding. For me, that was the greatest harvest of working with Mariam and Dr. Barry, a singular and splendid experience.

Khwājū Kirmānī’s Humāy o Humāyūn: Illuminating Issues of
Image and Word in Medieval Persian Manuscripts

Mariam Rahmani

Michael Barry

Lecturer in Near Eastern Studies

“Mariam flung herself unflinchingly into such study, and all her years as a Princeton undergraduate have served, essentially, as preparation for her thesis ...”

Advising Mariam Rahmani for her senior thesis—a study of several of the world’s finest 14th- and 15th-century Persian manuscript illuminations (from two manuscripts now preserved complete in London’s British Library and Vienna’s Nationalbibliothek, plus an important fragment in Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs) for a now almost unread 14th-century Persian verse romance, “The Tale of Prince Humāy and Princess Humāyūn” by the poet Khwājū Kirmānī—has been one of the most challenging, and fundamentally fulfilling, educational projects that I have been privileged to experience, working with any undergraduate, here at Princeton.

Mariam first attended my classes on classical Persian literature in autumn 2006 as a bright, very eager young Iranian American girl enthusiastically determined to learn about her cultural heritage in true depth. She already spoke Persian, her parents’ heritage language, colloquially and fluently enough, and could even read out some liturgical Arabic as well. But tackling the extremely abstruse centuries-old classical writings in their Persian and Arabic originals was altogether another and most demanding scholarly matter. Mariam’s mastery of written Persian improved immensely, and she has greatly progressed with classical Arabic. Within three years, Mariam was already reading, analyzing—and writing wonderful junior papers on—some of the most difficult medieval mystical Persian poetry, struggling to cut through the 13th-century Anatolian poet Rūmī’s knotty philosophical issues, with sharp comparative insight honed by her superb knowledge of German, to which, at my request, she has now added French.

Reaching to the level beyond, and learning to decipher the visual symbolism of the miniatures that actually illustrated the medieval manuscripts of such literature, in all their precise coded allegorical equivalence between pictorial signs and written spiritual and literary conceits, was an even starker challenge—and Mariam rose to this challenge superbly. One must very much stress here that the allegorical keys to Eastern Islamic painting (Persian, Indo-Persian, Ottoman Turkish) were largely lost when this artistic tradition collapsed in the 18th century, hence present study of Persian and Indo-Persian manuscripts, with elucidation of their richly complex paintings, remains very much in the pioneering stage—comparable to, say, present decipherment of Mayan codices (yet no easy feat even for Mexican or Guatemalan contemporary native speakers of Mayan languages!). But Mariam flung herself unflinchingly into such study, and all her years as a Princeton undergraduate have served, essentially, as preparation for her thesis—and beyond—to emerge as probably one of the leading scholars of her generation in her chosen discipline: classical Islamic art, clearly understood in its own symbolic terms.

On the literary side, Mariam followed with me, under whatever guidance I could provide her through these formidable intellectual thickets, the most rigorous course of study possible for an undergraduate in the Arabic and Persian mystical classics of the 10th to 15th centuries, including thorough initial grounding in Islamic Gnosticism, in the Hellenistic precedents of Islamic Gnosticism, and in the systematic allegorical rendition of such mystical themes in medieval Persian poetry. Throughout, to keep Mariam’s comparative perceptions sharp, I moreover asked her to study, diligently, the most pertinent works on medieval Christian civilization, allegorical literature, and symbolic art—and she did.

On the artistic side, Mariam explored with me, over these four years of our intellectual journey together in Princeton, almost the full extant corpus of surviving Eastern Islamic book paintings, not only in reproduction, but in actual reality: an extremely rare privilege. She has not only studied medieval Persian manuscripts in collections in Washington, London, and Vienna, but on my recommendation served as research assistant in the Department of Islamic Art of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art one day a week in 2007 and 2008, and at the Musée du Monde arabe in Paris in the summer of 2009 (helping prepare the blockbuster exhibition there of London’s David Khalili collection). She currently is under contract to carry out research on pieces in the collections of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, in Geneva, ultimately to be transferred to the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

Hence Mariam’s thesis: the first systematic exploration, literary and artistic, ever carried out, of the richly illustrated manuscript tradition of a 14th-century Persian romance once as famous throughout the Eastern Islamic world as The Romance of the Rose in the late medieval West—and now just as forgotten. Yet the 14th- and 15th-century illuminations to the Persian romance of Humāy and Humāyūn, cut, framed, displayed out of context (especially the painting of ca. AD 1430 in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs), today rank among the most reproduced and celebrated “Persian miniatures” in the world. But the Persian text of this romance was only published (in Tehran by K. `Aynī) as late as 1992!—and has never been translated.

Mariam read carefully through the romance’s Persian text, mastered every detail of its complex allegorical idiom in light of the Ishrāqī (“illuminating dawn”) tradition of Eastern Islamic Avicennan and Suhrawardian mystical scholasticism studied in the original Arabic and Persian and through the best modern scholarship (e.g., Henry Corbin), learned to determine the narrative function of every painting in all the surviving Humāy and Humāyūn manuscripts, and to present, and cogently to argue, the symbolic charge of every identified detail (from hand gesture to item of clothing, etc.), in close comparison with illuminations to manuscripts of other Persian poetic romances of the 14th and 15th centuries, notably those preserved in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The result is Mariam’s admirable undergraduate thesis, lucidly written, logically constructed, profoundly researched, beautifully illustrated, convincingly argued and presented, hardly marred by minor slips that will of course disappear as her work matures. I graded Mariam’s thesis by the exacting standards of one professional reading another: because I know that Mariam, in this field, will prove one of our most magnificent professionals.