Tajik Literature and Poetry

Tajik Literature and Poetry, Culture of Tajikistan Rudaki monument in Dushanbe


Tajik literature and poetry developed across two millennia under conflicting influences, and today is one of the most vivid and beautiful representations of Tajikistan culture.

The history of local poetry and prose is inextricably linked with the literary developments of Iran, India and Uzbekistan, while influence from the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, is particularly discernable in Tajik folklore. Division broke out in the region in the 16th century as Shia Muslims came to power in Persia and Sunni Muslims continued to rule in Central Asia, and it was during this era that Tajik literature began to branch off from its Persian counterpart to develop a style all its own.

Although literature in Tajikistan has always reflected the local political and cultural climate, this has taken diverse forms throughout the centuries. Depending on the era, writers were known in turn for penning their philosophical ponderings, extolling their rulers, criticizing the authorities and toying with ideas of enlightenment before eventually grappling with realism and the quandaries of modern life. Yet throughout each shift in focus, the defining feature of Tajik literature and poetry, namely the preservation of local poetic traditions, has remained unchanged.

Early Folklore

Folklore has been regarded as the bedrock of Tajik literature for over 2,000 years, yet since it did not appear in written form until the 19th century its historical value is difficult to fully assess. Tajik folklore is first mentioned in Arab chronicles dated to 789 AD which indicate that the inhabitants of Balkh (modern-day Afghanistan) would sing a song relaying how the highlanders of Khatlon (now southern Tajikistan), had driven back the Arab troops.

Early local folklore was filled with ideas from the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, including musings on the relationship between man and nature, the struggle between Light and Darkness and the value of hard work. With time other genres began to form, including the long doston poem, the short choma poem, ritual songs, parables and fairy tales, the latter of which became the link between folklore and classical literature.

In the 12th century, the writer Faromurz penned a three-part novel based on a fairy tale character created by an oral narrator named Sadak, and today this story is known as Samak-e Ayyar (Samak the Trickster). In the 21st century, the creation of "folk books" emerged in Tajikistan as a means of preserving local lore. These folk books are typified by the recording of fairy tales written by unknown authors which are then read by storytellers before an illiterate audience.

Persian Era

Before the 16th century, Tajik literature was closely tied to Persian culture, for local authors wrote exclusively in Farsi, the language of Persia.

The founder of Persian poetry is widely regarded as the 9th-10th century author Rudaki, believed to have been born in a small village in Tajikistan. Rudaki’s works influenced a group of writers who began to call themselves the "Pleiades of Rudaki". Within this following was the young Tajik poet Dakiki, who grew to fame as the author of the epic poem “Shahnameh” (Book of Kings) but died before he could finish his masterpiece. Dakiki’s work was completed in the early 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, who included the lines written by Dakiki and supplemented them with both Islamic and Zoroastrian thought. The result was a truly epic poem twice the volume of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Contrary to its title, " Shahnameh " is less about kings than it is about the triumph of humanism, for Ferdowsi went so far as to contradict the Islamic stance on time.

During the 12th-century era referred to as “Poetry of the Palace”, Persian poets were known to praise their kings through gushing eulogies. At the same time, “Shack Poetry” addressed the struggles of the common people while also helping readers to escape their reality into the world of mysticism.

Invasions by Genghis Khan in the 13th century precipitated a period of decline in Persian literature as writers were forced to escape to India, Asia Minor and the Caucasus. Local literature was not revived until the following century, when authors used the pen to voice their complaints against the existing system. Due to the sensitive nature of their writings, the poets would creatively cloak their accusations in satire and allegory.

Even as Tajik poetry continued to evolve alongside Persian culture in the 15th century, local writers began to forge ties with their Uzbek neighbors despite the fact that they wrote in two different languages. One example of this exchange of ideas was the friendship forged between the famous Tajik poet Jami and Alisher Navoi, the most renowned Uzbek poet of all time. Jami is regarded as the last of Tajikistan’s classical Persian poets, for just a few years after his death profound cultural changes took place which drove Tajik literature in a new direction.

Tajik Era

The religious and political split between Sunnis and Shiites in the early 16th century brought monumental changes to Tajik literature, most noticeably a growing, pervasive criticism of the feudal order in local works. As ideologies and writing styles grew diverse and even controversial, the genre of satire was formed. One of the most beloved authors of Tajik satire is Mullah Mushfiki, known as a witty hero of folk jokes and famed for his poems that ridicule the feudal order.

The works of the 17th-18th century poet Abdul Bedil, who lived in India but wrote in Farsi, had a tremendous influence on many Tajik authors. His works are packed with mystical Sufi philosophy which gave birth to the literary movement known as "Bedili school" or "Bedilism".

In the 18th -19th centuries, present-day Tajikistan was divided between the Bukhara and Kokand Khanates. Stringent censorship in the Bukhara Khanate restricted creativity, but in Kokand many famous poets who wrote in the Uzbek and Tajik languages helped to further develop the nuances of Bedilism.

Russian Influence

The second half of the 19th century saw the dawning of a new era in Tajik literature and poetry. Together with the rest of Central Asia, Tajikistan was annexed by the Russian Empire and consequently absorbed many elements of Russian culture. The most prominent figure of this era was Ahmad Donish, known for his harsh criticism of local authorities and his recognition of the need for universal education. Other prominent Tajik poets of the time included Vozekh, Sakhbo, Somi and Shokhin.

In the early 20th century, a reactionary movement of writers known as the Jadids emerged. The ideologies of the Jadids centered around the necessity of educational reforms and the development of the bourgeois class. After the establishment of Soviet power in Tajikistan, Jadid writers were forced to either join the USSR or flee the country.

One of the most beloved writers in 20th-century Tajikistan was Sadriddin Ayni (Sadriddin Aini). Initially a member of the Jadid movement, Aini eventually acquiesced to the ideas espoused by the USSR. While known as the founder of realism in Tajik literature, he also held great sway in scientific and educational circles, participated in archaeological expeditions, studied the history of Tajik literature and was even appointed President of the Academia of Sciences of Tajikistan shortly before his death. As Sadriddin Ayni was born and raised near Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, he also wrote some of his works in Uzbek, and today he is still highly regarded in this country.

Soviet literature had a profound impact on Tajik writings through the latter half of the 20th century, and under the influence of the Russian language in Tajikistan, new literary movements such as dramaturgy were developed. Nonetheless, many local works retained a classic Tajik narrative style, being filled with folk tales and mystical stories.

Contemporary Tajik Literature

After gaining independence in 1991, the development of local literature remained stagnant for some years before authors gradually returned to writing in Tajik, now the official language of Tajikistan. As contemporary Tajik writers often cannot afford to publish books, their works are commonly distributed through social networks and posted on personal blogs. Today a wide variety of genres are available in the country, with historical novels among the most popular. Thanks to the similarities between Tajik and the Dari and Farsi languages, Tajik literature and poetry has also earned a following in Afghanistan and Iran.