The Persianate Bazaar

By Fahad Bishara

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about the Persianate world. I only came across the term something like six years ago, when I heard someone present their research at a workshop. I don’t study Iran (and barely study India), and I don’t know much Persian (though I hope to change that, and to that end I’ve recently taken one intensive course in Persian reading with my colleague, the inimitable Shankar Nair, here at UVA). And so, when Nandini Chatterjee wrote to me in 2015 asking if I’d join her in a submitting an ERC grant proposal on forms of law in the Persianate world, I was certain that she had me confused for someone else – maybe a Farhad somewhere who would have known something about Persian. As it turns out, I was wrong: she meant Fahad, not Farhad (I’ve lost count of how many times people have called me Farhad, though, so there’s still a chance that she could have the wrong person) – and here I am, on the team, apprehensions and all.

And I’m glad that I’m on Nandini’s team. It has forced me to read more about this idea of the Persianate world, and to think about my own academic interests (the Indian Ocean) in relation to it. In many ways, the Persianate world is the land-based counterpart to the Indian Ocean world; maybe a distant cousin. Those who study these two worlds are interested in fundamentally the same thing: connections, circulations, and movements of people, texts, goods, etc. that transgress national and even continental boundaries. Although language seems to be much more of a central feature of the Persianate world than the Indian Ocean (as the labels alone would suggest), work on the Persianate has exhibited much interest in entanglements between language groups. Researchers in the Lawforms team work in Persian-Marathi, Persian-Rajathani, and a range of Perso-Sanskritic languages. All of this has forced me to think about some of the shared frontiers between the Arabic-language Indian Ocean documents I work with and this broader sphere of the Persianate: the economic actors in the Gulf that moved between the two language registers with ease, contracting in both, and the side-by-side Arabic and Gujarati (itself an Indo-European language, like Persian) that one sees in so many documents in Oman and East Africa.

What has been particularly interesting to learn about is the range of work on transactions in the Persianate world – work on “law in the bazaar,” if you will. A 2018 workshop at the University of Exeter highlighted ongoing work by Zahir Bhalloo, Prachi Deshpande, Arash Khazeni, Nobuaki Kondo, Gijs Kruijtzer, Ghulam Nadri, Samira Shaikh, Elizabeth Thelen, Dominic Vendell, and Christoph Werner (to say nothing of work by Nandini Chatterjee herself). Through meticulous archival research in a range of languages, these scholars are showing how actors in an Indo-Persian arena – one stretching as far as Southeast Asia – mobilized a range of different forms of writing to manage and circulate wealth, from different commercial associations, and to more deeply intertwine the natural and written worlds. The realms of commerce, law, and writing were inextricably bound up in one another, and commercial and legal actors tapped into deep wells of jurisprudence and substantive law as they shaped the transactions that they entered into in this far-flung arena.

The thing that immediately struck me about work on law and commerce in the Persianate world was the degree to which scholars grappled with questions of form (maybe unsurprising, given the interests of the research group). Whereas research in the Indian Ocean world has acknowledged a range of different forms that documents could take, ranging from detailed contracts to acknowledgements of obligation quickly scribbled down on scrap pieces of paper, contractual production in the Persianate world appeared to have been a much more elaborate affair in which writers paid much closer attention to genre form and detail than, say, in the Gulf, Oman, or East Africa.

And yet, for all of the attention to form, work on the Persianate world makes it clear that this was the same sort of socially-embedded world of law that one sees elsewhere. Despite the detail that they furnished, contracts could not speak for themselves: when faced with a contractual dispute, juridical authorities routinely turned the documents over to panels of witnesses and arbitrators to get at the context of the transaction – a recognition that even in the marketplace, law could only operate through sets of social relations even as it tried to reconfigure them.

Much like the Indian Ocean, the arena of contracting in the Persianate world may have been grounded in a broadly-construed Islamic law, but shared boundaries with many other legal worlds. Litigants moved between a variety of legal forums – some rooted in the administrations of places like Rajasthan and Maratha-era Poona, while others were more tied to the growing legal bureaucracies of the various European East India companies and satellite states. The world of law in the Persianate bazaar, then – as in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds – was one that increasingly unfurled beyond even the capacious scope of the Islamicate.

Though I still cannot claim any expertise on the Persianate world, what I’ve come to appreciate in my consumption of research on it is that the world of the bazaar that I’m interested in is in no way limited to the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world nor even oceanic spaces, as broad as they might be. A fuller account of the bazaar in the history of global capitalism (a subject I will take up in the next post) must, then, incorporate narratives of law and economic life beyond the “Islamic heartlands,” in all of their rich linguistic articulations.

Leave a Reply