Ending without Closure in Classical Persian Narrative

Theodore S. Beers

Nov. 2022


This paper is an attempt to explore a feature of classical Persian (and more broadly Near Eastern) literature, focusing primarily on the example of Kalīla and Dimna, and to a lesser extent on the Shāhnāma. Both works, I will argue, exhibit a phenomenon by which their endings provide little in the way of closure.

I’m going to speak today primarily about a problem that I have found in my study of Kalīla and Dimna—while briefly relating it to an analogous issue in the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī. If that sounds like a tenuous link (and too much for fifteen minutes), it may well be; but there is something that has nagged at me about both of these texts, since I took the time to read them in their entirety.

Terminological note

First, a note on terminology: I will be referring to a distinction between ending and closure. What I mean by ending is the fact that, axiomatically, a text will come to an end. You start reading a book, and at some point you reach the final page. This is an ending. But there can be a different question as to whether closure has been achieved. By closure, I have in mind a couple of the definitions of this term that were suggested by the classicist Don Fowler in an influential article. Two of Fowler’s definitions are particularly relevant for my purposes here. Namely, closure can mean “the process by which the reader of a work comes to see the end as satisfyingly final”; or “the degree to which the questions posed in the work are answered, tensions released, conflicts resolved.” So it is possible to encounter ending without closure. Now to turn to Kalīla and Dimna


As part of an article that our team published last year with the journal Medieval Worlds, my colleague Johannes Stephan describes a bit of the process by which the book that we know as Kalīla and Dimna took shape over time, and how it was received and commented on in Arabic adab literature. He offers the following reflection (lightly paraphrased): “The prefaces [that were added to Kalīla and Dimna], the multitude of references, and the diverging copies of the later full manuscript texts, along with the work’s contextualization within advice literature and narratives with speaking animals, and approaches to its functionality, all together suggest a conceptualization of [Kalīla and Dimna] less as a book that stems from a single … text, but rather as a textual tradition.”

This is an important thing to know about Kalīla and Dimna. There is the core narrative material that we most associate with “the book,” but once we start looking at different Arabic manuscripts of the text—let alone translations into other languages, versifications, and so forth—the original core of animal fables are, we might say, just the beginning of the story. And the addition over time of prefaces and introductions becomes a striking phenomenon.

The first “real chapter” of Kalīla and Dimna is the famous story of the Lion and the Ox (in which the two jackals, Kalīla and Dimna, make their appearance). However, in a representative manuscript of the Arabic Kalīla and Dimna, there will be at least three sections that precede this chapter: the introduction or “presentation of the book” (ʿarḍ al-kitāb) by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ; the story of the voyage to India of the physician Burzūya, sent by the emperor Kisrā Anūshirvān to retrieve the book of Kalīla and Dimna; and the autobiography of Burzūya, as recorded by the vazīr Buzurgmihr. In addition to these three more-or-less mandatory prefatory chapters, there is fairly often in the Arabic manuscripts an extra introduction, attributed to one ʿAlī ibn Shāh al-Fārisī.

Given the assortment of prefatory abwāb that we tend to find in copies of Kalīla and Dimna, it might be natural to wonder: what does the book have in the way of concluding discussion? How does it all end? Is there a similar degree of ceremony and accretion of material over time? The answer is no. What we typically find is a short concluding passage—on the order of a paragraph to a page in printed editions—which does not even occur as a chapter of its own.

In this mini-conclusion, the philosopher finishes his last story, then he praises the king and expresses well wishes for his rule and prosperity. In some relatively longer versions, the king then opens his treasury to reward the philosopher. There is little, if any, tying-together of the disparate threads of narrative in Kalīla and Dimna. And in some manuscripts, the concluding passage is omitted entirely.

It is worth noting that the prefaces that I mentioned earlier are often treated as independent abwāb, listed in tables of contents, their titles given as headings in red ink, etc. By contrast, the conclusion of the book, such as it is, is tacked onto the end of whichever body chapter comes last (usually either the chapter of the King’s Son and His Companions, or that of the Ascetic and the Guest). I have yet to encounter a manuscript of Kalīla and Dimna in which the conclusion is clearly set apart as its own unit. Those who have edited the text for publication—Silvestre de Sacy, Louis Cheikho, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb ʿAzzām—sometimes add a subheading for khātimat al-kitāb. But this is simply for the convenience of modern readers.

To be fair, the inconspicuous treatment of the concluding passage makes sense, if one is familiar with the structure of Kalīla and Dimna in general. Each chapter in the book tends to begin with the king asking his philosopher to tell him a story on a certain moral theme. Then the fable is told, and at the end of the chapter, we move back to the frame narrative, and the philosopher offers some brief comment on the meaning of the story that he has just finished. Chapters are individually framed in this manner. The passage that comes at the end of the whole book is merely a special case of this phenomenon. The last chapter comes to a close, and instead of making a concluding comment on that story alone, the philosopher tells the king that he has finished all of the tales that he wanted to narrate, etc. In this light, it is logical that the final concluding passage is not made into a bāb.

I was struck, at any rate, by the imbalance between prefatory and concluding material when I began to study Kalīla and Dimna in earnest. And the impression becomes stronger still as one considers the continued evolution of this textual tradition in other languages. I will comment very briefly on Persian versions of Kalīla and Dimna to illustrate this point.

In Persian, there are two particularly renowned translations of Kalīla and Dimna. The first was produced by Abū al-Maʿālī Naṣr Allāh Munshī, a secretary at the Ghaznavid court, ca. 540/1146. The second was written by Kamāl al-Dīn Ḥusayn Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī, a prominent man of letters in Timurid Harāt, around the end of the ninth/fifteenth century. Both of these adaptations add a substantial amount of new material to Kalīla and Dimna. The largest additions, unsurprisingly, consist of new prefatory and introductory sections. Naṣr Allāh has placed his own preface at the front of the book, in which he argues for the importance of Kalīla and Dimna as a work of wisdom literature, in a framework of just Islamic kingship. Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī’s version, which is titled Anvār-i suhaylī, has an even larger introductory chapter of its own, which adds several new animal tales.

Again, it might be fair to ask: what have these later adapters of Kalīla and Dimna, who have so enriched the beginning of the book, done with its ending? And again, the answer is “not as much.”

Naṣr Allāh has altered the philosopher’s concluding remarks only to a modest degree. He also follows this with a kind of postscript, which is concerned entirely with praise of his patron, the Ghaznavid sultan Bahrāmshāh. This postscript—a few pages in length in printed editions—does not in any way serve as a conclusion to the narrative content of Kalīla and Dimna. Rather, it adds some closure on the topic of Naṣr Allāh’s decision to translate the book into Persian, the dedication to Bahrāmshāh, etc.

Looking at the Anvār-i suhaylī, the same pattern applies. What Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī has done by way of embellishing the concluding passage of the book pales in comparison to his new introductory chapter. To give credit where it is due, I should note that Kāshifī has provided more of a true conclusion to the frame story of the king and the philosopher than most other adapters of Kalīla and Dimna. Kāshifī expands the final dialogue between the two characters, dwelling on the point of the great practical wisdom that the philosopher has shown to the king, and how the king plans to follow those admonitions for the rest of his life. This provides a more satisfying note on which to end the book—a conclusion that comes closer to fitting the gravitas of the work as a whole.

But the general tendency is clear: authors who worked with Kalīla and Dimna as a textual tradition built upon the book mainly by adding to the front, rather than to the back.

We find here one possible answer to the question of how to end things in Arabic (or Persian) literature. Namely, things can simply be allowed to come to a stop. Or a perfunctory concluding paragraph can be set at the end of a work of great substance and depth.

What does this suggest? Is the “ending without closure” that we find in many copies and versions of Kalīla and Dimna a deficiency in the book? Surely not. This is one of the most pervasive, relentlessly successful works of world literature, ever. To the extent that we find a lack of closure at the end—especially in comparison to the more numerous and voluminous prefatory chapters that have sprung up over time—it seems clear that this did not have a negative impact on the experiences of readers who engaged with the text.

To paraphrase again from Johannes’ contribution to our article last year, the issue is that we, as modern readers, may approach a work like Kalīla and Dimna, and view it in terms of our understanding of what constitutes a book and how a book should be read; but authors and readers in the premodern Arabic tradition may have had “a remarkably different understanding.” Each chapter in Kalīla and Dimna has its own complete internal structure. Who is to say that reading the book from start to finish, and expecting a kind of synthesis and dénouement, would have been a common approach?


At this point, I would like to take a detour, as briefly as possible. Part of the reason that I was struck by the underwhelming ending that I found in Kalīla and Dimna is that it was not the first top-tier work of medieval Near Eastern (and world) literature to give me such an impression. As a student of classical Persian poetry, I found when I first read the Shāhnāma in its entirety—not a quick read—that Firdawsī’s epic has a strange, somewhat closure-less ending.

The final chapter of the Shāhnāma is devoted to the reign of Yazdigird III, the last Sasanian king. And the whole chapter concerns the Arab-Islamic conquest of Iran, as dramatized by Firdawsī. Leading up to the fateful Battle of Qādisiyya, the poem features an exchange of letters between the leader of the Iranian army, a figure named Rustam—not the same Rustam from the legendary part of the Shāhnāma—and, on the side of the Arab invaders, Saʿd-i Vaqqāṣ.

This exchange takes up the bulk of the chapter, and one could also judge that it provides the “real conclusion” of the book. The general Rustam has a kind of inner dialogue, in which he reflects on the impending dissolution of the Iranian empire, and what it will mean for this great civilization and culture that has existed for thousands of years.

And yet the story continues after this dialogue, and after the Iranian defeat at Qādisiyya. Yazdigird is informed of what has befallen his army, and he decides to retreat to Khurāsān, seeking the assistance of the governor of that area, one Māhūy. This local potentate is of an evil nature. He betrays Yazdigird and engineers his murder. In this way the Sasanian dynasty comes to an end. After Yazdigird’s death, he is avenged, to an extent, by a warrior named Bīzhan, who captures and kills Māhūy.

So, at the very end of the Shāhnāma, Yazdigird has been murdered, and Iran is on the verge of being overrun. The book is then brought to a conclusion very suddenly. By suddenly, I mean one line of poetry: kunūn zīn sipas, dawr-i ʿUmmar buvad; chu dīn āvarad, takht minbar buvad. “After this comes the reign of ʿUmar; when he brings the religion [of Islam], the pulpit replaces the throne.”

There is one short passage (of nine lines) after this, in which Firdawsī expresses his relief at having completed the Shāhnāma, after decades of work. But this is best considered a postscript. The ending of the Shāhnāma, in terms of its content, is the abrupt mention of ʿUmar. Reaching this point, after reading some fifty thousand lines of epic poetry, is unsettling. One is left to wonder whether the topic of the actual conquest of Iran was too painful for Firdawsī to narrate in a more thorough manner. Or perhaps the poet was simply exhausted and eager to be done.

There is, admittedly, something about this ending that seems fitting, upon reflection. The demise of Iran as an independent empire coincides with the sputtering collapse of its epic poem. It is at least interesting to contemplate.

But was the abrupt ending of the Shāhnāma, and the relative lack of closure that it provides, an issue in the reception history of the text? Evidently not. A reader today who sits down with the eight-volume critical edition by Jalāl Khāliqī Muṭlaq, and who digests the work from cover to cover, may feel at a loss. This is, however, just an artifact of the way that people of our age tend to conceptualize and engage with books.

The Shāhnāma serves as an unusually clear example of this problem of differing expectations around endings, since it was originally and primarily an oral text. Firdawsī composed the poetry of the Shāhnāma orally. We know that the epic has long been performed orally, in a tradition known as naqqālī, which survived into the modern period. And the format in which people tended to receive the content of this work would have been episodic.

In this light, while it may be interesting to carry out a critical reading of the ending of the Shāhnāma and of the closure that it provides (or fails to provide) to the overall arc of the narrative, such analysis would need to be acknowledged as separate from the question of how the text was historically read and experienced.

This demonstrates just how little of an actual conclusion or dénouement a classic, enormous work of narrative literature could have, and how little relevance that could have.


Returning to Kalīla and Dimna, the indications that we have as to the ways in which it was read or performed are not as obvious. Unlike the Shāhnāma, Kalīla and Dimna is a prose text (with the exception of certain versified adaptations). So this book would not have lent itself as naturally to oral performance and retelling. (There are oral traditions of Kalīla and Dimna, but we don’t have a sense that this was a dominant mode of transmission.) Still, there is work that can be done to investigate why it may have been that the ending of Kalīla and Dimna was not a point in the book that received much emphasis.

To mention Johannes’ work one last time, his research on the quotations from Kalīla and Dimna that are transmitted in medieval adab texts is showing us, among other things, that there appears to have been a disproportionate focus on a few of the most famous (and typically early) chapters in the book—such as that of the Lion and the Ox. It may be the case, then, that Kalīla and Dimna was not often read in its entirety as a unified text. As I have noted, each chapter in the body of this book can function on its own, as a dialogue between a king and a philosopher, framing animal stories. If the tendency was for readers to focus on certain chapters, then the presence or absence of a broader dénouement at the end of the final chapter would not be critical.

And if so, the question of how to end things in a work of literature such as Kalīla and Dimna would better be pursued at the level of the individual chapter. I would have been looking all this time for the wrong thing, in the wrong place.

Thank you for your attention.