Scripture as Frame in Naṣr Allāh Munshī’s Kalīla and Dimna

Theodore S. Beers

Nov. 2022


This paper is motivated by the idea that the narrative content of Kalīla and Dimna—a classic, famously adaptable book of fables—can be framed in a variety of ways, and at different levels. Generally speaking, it is difficult for the literary historian to approach Kalīla and Dimna at all. This is a sprawling and complex textual tradition that evolved over the course of more than a millennium, across the entirety of the Old World, touching (and being impacted by) dozens of languages and literary cultures along the way.

In order to gain some analytical purchase on this book without becoming overwhelmed, one must limit oneself—for example, by addressing primarily a single version of the text, or perhaps a few versions. The current paper, which is intended to demonstrate that Kalīla and Dimna was open to creative interventions in its narrative framing, will focus on an influential Persian translation/adaptation (based on the Arabic), written by Abū al-Maʿālī Naṣr Allāh Munshī in the mid sixth/twelfth century.1 Naṣr Allāh’s take on this collection of fables has its own peculiar narrative structures. We will examine in particular one of his more distinctive practices: the use of Islamic scriptural material—quotes from the Qur’an and aḥādīth—to frame the content of the stories.

That Kalīla and Dimna exhibits multilayered narrative framing is one of the most prominent features of the book. It is also obvious that many versions of Kalīla and Dimna appeared over the centuries, and that they are diverse in almost every way imaginable—including, for starters, the languages in which they are written, their setting in prose or poetry (or a mixture of the two), the inclusion or exclusion of certain chapters, the addition of new sections, and the ordering of material.2 What may be less clear is the interaction between framing and adaptation. In the version of Naṣr Allāh Munshī, we find that translating Kalīla and Dimna into Persian, and recasting it for a new audience, involves (among other things) modifying the “framing structure” of the text. Naṣr Allāh has added a new prefatory chapter, in which he presents Kalīla and Dimna as a book of practical wisdom that is uniquely valuable within a framework of just Islamic rule. He then reinforces this perspective by intervening in the opening passages of individual chapters, in which new fables are introduced and contextualized. As we will see, the invocation of scriptural quotes is a key part of the process.

Narrative framing in Kalīla and Dimna

Before turning to Naṣr Allāh’s text, it will be helpful to discuss in general terms what we mean by narrative framing in Kalīla and Dimna, and how it operates in multiple, nested layers. This is true even of the relatively early incarnations of Kalīla and Dimna—for example, the Arabic version attributed to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. ca. 139/757), from which flowed many translations and adaptations.3 At a high level, the book takes the form of a dialogue between a king and his philosopher-advisor, with the philosopher offering ethical instruction to the king via a series of fables, many of which feature animal characters.4 There are on the order of fifteen “fable-chapters” in Kalīla and Dimna, depending on which version, and even which manuscript, one reads. It is the first of these chapters, along with the third through the sixth, that correspond to the Pañcatantra (“Five Treatises”)—with the remaining sections having been added to the book as it passed from Sanskrit, to Middle Persian, to Arabic and Syriac (and beyond).5 The fables narrated by the philosopher serve as units in the dialogue between him and the king. This is the primary layer of narrative framing in the book.

Within a chapter-level fable, however, there are often substories that are told by characters. For example, the chapter of “The Ascetic and the Guest” is meant to illustrate the foolishness of trying to move into a position in society for which one is not well suited.6 The main fable concerns a guest who visits the home of an ascetic, and who is so taken with the ascetic’s Hebrew tongue that he expresses a desire to learn it in place of his native language. This is, of course, presented as a mistake. The ascetic, wishing to explain to the guest the folly on which he is embarking, tells him the story of a crow who attempted to learn to walk like a partridge (and failed). What we see, in such a case, is a nesting of narrative frames: the philosopher offers the king a fable about an ascetic and his guest, and the ascetic in turn offers the guest a fable about a crow.

The experience of reading Kalīla and Dimna involves continually moving up and down layers of embedded narrative. One is liable to become confused, on occasion, as to which level is operative at a given moment in the book. And all of this is just the basic framework of Kalīla and Dimna. This fits a conservative definition of narrative framing as “stories’ being told within stories”—i.e., the structure that we see in other classics of Near Eastern literature, such as the Thousand and One Nights, or the Haft paykar of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (d. ca. 605/1209).7 But it is worth noting that, if we adopt a slightly expanded understanding of narrative framing, there are still further layers to consider with Kalīla and Dimna.

This is, again, a book that spent hundreds of years moving from one language to the next, from prose to poetry and back again, from one patronage context to another. And it grew as a result of those processes—especially through the addition of prefatory chapters. One important chapter that stands outside the core narrative of Kalīla and Dimna is the story of how Burzūya, an Iranian physician and advisor to the king Khusraw I Anūshirvān (r. 531–79 CE), was sent to India to retrieve this book of fables. Including the account of Burzūya’s mission among the prefatory sections adds its own kind of frame to Kalīla and Dimna. The reader is told of the high value of the book: it was kept in the treasuries of the kings of India, and it was worthwhile to the Sasanians to obtain a copy, and to have it translated into Persian, at great difficulty and expense.

In addition to the narration of Burzūya’s voyage, there is a chapter in which he gives some of his own biography and describes his path toward philosophical and religious enlightenment.8 This reflects the fact that Burzūya has, in a sense, become a character in Kalīla and Dimna—located ambiguously both without and within the narrative. The process of bracketing the overall content of the book did not end with its reception in Middle Persian. The landmark translation into Arabic attributed to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ comes with a new preface of its own. There the focus is to emphasize further the beneficial qualities of Kalīla and Dimna. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ points out, for example, that the use of animal characters to act out stories in which wisdom is encoded has the effect of making the book accessible to readers from different backgrounds. “The wise would study it for its wisdom, and the simple for its value as entertainment.”9 (Of course, those who read for amusement would still benefit. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ has, in his interpretation of Kalīla and Dimna, given an early statement of what would come to be regarded as a fundamental principle of Arabic adab literature: the mixture of seriousness and jest, al-jidd wa-l-hazl.)10 Much of the preface of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ is then concerned with arguing that Kalīla and Dimna must be approached in earnest, with the right perspective, in order for its treasures to be unlocked in full.11 Any reader can gain some practical ethical knowledge from the book, but an attentive reader will go much further. This serves, again, as a kind of frame for the narratives of Kalīla and Dimna. We can perhaps say that the growing body of prefatory passages that came to surround the fables represent paratextual narrative framing—though, in the case of Burzūya’s voyage, it is not entirely paratext.

The evolution of Kalīla and Dimna was, in principle, and for a long time in practice, open-ended. Any new author of a translation or adaptation could add another preface, or a concluding passage, or new material at any layer in the narrative. Below we will examine one particularly inventive version of Kalīla and Dimna, by Naṣr Allāh Munshī. He added, among many other things, a substantial original preface. The reader of his translation will first encounter the new preface; then the story of Burzūya’s mission to India; then the preface of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ; then Burzūya’s (auto)biography. Only after all of this ceremony does one reach the first “real” chapter: “The Lion and the Ox.”12 As we will see, Naṣr Allāh’s introductory chapter is just one part of an extensive program of intervention in the text of Kalīla and Dimna. He has added an overall frame (per the more generous definition of the term), but he has also left his mark at points in the book at which narrative framing of the more traditional variety is taking place—namely, the passages in which the Brahmin/philosopher introduces new fables to the king.

On a final note before addressing Naṣr Allāh’s translation, it is worth observing that studying Kalīla and Dimna from a narratological perspective, and exploring its history as a textual tradition, may lead one to appreciate that the work is characterized by fractal complexity. What is meant by this? The idea is that, if we approach Kalīla and Dimna as a trans-historical, trans-regional phenomenon in world literature, it is massive and forbidding—more than any one scholar would be capable of understanding. If, on the other hand, we focus “simply” on the Arabic Kalīla and Dimna of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, we will realize that the degree of complexity is, in effect, no less. We have a text that is ever-shifting, a codicological history with large gaps, and huge variation among extant manuscripts.13 And of course, beyond all these difficulties lies a book that is intricate in a literary sense—with features such as narrative framing that demand careful attention. There is no easy path. Whether one zooms in or zooms out on Kalīla and Dimna, one is faced with a comparably daunting task. This fits the model of a fractal.14

Turning to Naṣr Allāh Munshī’s version

Having reviewed the concept of narrative framing and how it applies, in both broader and narrower senses, to Kalīla and Dimna, we can turn our attention to the sixth/twelfth century Persian version of Naṣr Allāh Munshī. Few translators or adapters of Kalīla and Dimna in any language, in any time period, have so thoroughly made the text their own.15 Naṣr Allāh’s accomplishment is especially striking because what he produced appears, on its surface, to be a rather “standard” rendition of the book. It is in prose, which already makes it seem more familiar than the verse adaptations of Kalīla and Dimna that exist in various languages (including Arabic and Persian).16 All of the chapters that one expects to find in Kalīla and Dimna are present in Naṣr Allāh’s version, in an order that is at least similar to what we tend to see in the Arabic. (Again, there is significant variation as to the number and order of chapters in Arabic manuscripts of this book, but certain common patterns emerge.)

At first glance, a reader would notice two features of Naṣr Allāh’s text that clearly set it apart from the version of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ on which it is based: first, it is (mostly) in Persian; second, it has a new preface at the beginning. Only upon closer examination will one notice that Naṣr Allāh has made constant little interventions along with his work of translation, on virtually every page of the book. The stories are peppered with quotes from the Qur’an, aḥādīth, anecdotes from histories of the caliphs, lines of Arabic and Persian poetry—some of it original, some drawn from the work of others—and beyond. It seems that Naṣr Allāh took every opportunity to quote from a respected outside source, or to add a poetic flourish, where he had something in mind that was relevant to a point raised in Kalīla and Dimna. Those familiar with classical Arabic literature will recognize that what Naṣr Allāh has done is effectively to produce a further “adab-ized” version of the book.17 It is remarkable that he has taken this approach with a text that is also a Persian translation—albeit one that is practically bilingual in many passages.18

Naṣr Allāh’s work played an important role in the evolution of Kalīla and Dimna as a textual tradition,19 and it was pivotal in the development of Persian belletristic prose literature. This is not the place to attempt a full assessment of the impact of Naṣr Allāh’s imaginative translation.20 Suffice it to say that his book would be on anyone’s short list of the most influential works of prose that appeared in the early centuries of New Persian literature. Naṣr Allāh’s Kalīla and Dimna deserves mention alongside, e.g., the Tārīkh of Abū al-Fażl Bayhaqī (d. 470/1077) and the Chahār maqāla (ca. 551/1156) of Niẓāmī ʿArūżī. Beyond the great value of the content of this work, Naṣr Allāh has often been credited with establishing a new style in Persian, known as “artistic prose” (naṡr-i fannī) or “ornamented prose” (naṡr-i maṣnūʿ).21 This style involves, among other things, the weaving of quotes and bits of poetry into the text.

What is of interest in the current paper is that Naṣr Allāh’s innovations in translating Kalīla and Dimna—the addition of a large new preface, and adorning the whole of the book with frequent snippets of outside material—are connected to the issue of narrative framing. Many of the points at which he intervenes are what we might call “framing junctures” in the text. The preface, of course, adds a layer of perspective to everything that follows. As will be discussed shortly, Naṣr Allāh introduces an original framework for interpreting Kalīla and Dimna, in which it serves as a kind of manual for just Islamic kingship (which, in turn, enables the flourishing of the religion). This is a frame in the more liberal sense of the term.

In the body of the text, on the other hand, we find that Naṣr Allāh often supplements the passages in which the philosopher/Brahmin introduces the next fable.22 That is, he leaves his mark at moments when the narrative is shifting from the frame story to an inner story. In both the preface and the Brahmin’s introductory remarks, Naṣr Allāh frequently draws on scriptural material. He was, in fact, the first author to lend explicitly Islamic frames to the tales of Kalīla and Dimna. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Naṣr Allāh’s sole objective in crafting his own version of this book was to islamicize it. He also quotes a great deal of poetry, wisdom sayings, etc.; and perhaps a better overall statement of his authorial project would be that he took Kalīla and Dimna as a vehicle to adapt the conventions of Arabic adab to a Persian (though also biliterate) context. Still, the copious use of scriptural material and application of a religious valence to many of the stories—and to the book as a whole, via the preface—is noteworthy.

In what follows, we will examine the theme of “scripture as frame” in Naṣr Allāh’s preface, and in his treatment of the Brahmin’s introductions to two body chapters: “The Ascetic and the Weasel” and “The Lion and the Jackal.”

Naṣr Allāh’s preface

The preface that Naṣr Allāh Munshī added to his translation of Kalīla and Dimna evidently has a few different purposes.23 One of those—and, in a sense, the most important—is to dedicate the book to Naṣr Allāh’s patron, Sultan Bahrāmshāh (r. 511–52/1117–57) of the Ghaznavid dynasty. The Ghaznavid court was Naṣr Allāh’s place of employment: he served Bahrāmshāh as a secretary (munshī). In the preface, he describes the process by which he became interested in writing a Persian adaptation of Kalīla and Dimna, proposed the idea to Bahrāmshāh, and received the ruler’s blessing.24 Virtually every aspect of Naṣr Allāh’s text can be interpreted, at least in part, as having been crafted with his patron’s approval in mind. Having Kalīla and Dimna rendered in its entirety into New Persian—a language whose status the Ghaznavids had done much to elevate—would be yet another cultural achievement for the dynasty.25 The fastidiousness of Naṣr Allāh in quoting a qur’anic verse, or a ḥadīth, or a line of poetry, at any point in the text at which he could summon something relevant, was (inter alia) a way for the author to flaunt his erudition to the ruler and others at the Ghaznavid court. Finally, and conspicuously, there is Naṣr Allāh’s preface, which includes pages of effusive praise for Bahrāmshāh and his ancestors, going back to Sultan Maḥmūd (r. 388–421/998–1030) and Sabuktagīn (d. 387/997).26 Analyzing this version of Kalīla and Dimna in terms of its patronage would be fruitful—though it is not the focus of the current study.

In the sections of the preface that are less than completely panegyric in nature, Naṣr Allāh advances a series of arguments relating to Islam, kingship, justice, and the role of Kalīla and Dimna as a book of practical wisdom. This is what becomes a “scriptural frame,” suggesting to the reader a way to approach the stories that follow.

It may be worthwhile to review briefly the contents of Naṣr Allāh’s preface. In a forthcoming, unabridged translation of the chapter, I have divided the text under ten headings.27 First, introductory praise of God and the Prophet; second, on the need for rulers in upholding Islam; third, on the need for justice in kingship; fourth, in praise of the Ghaznavid dynasty; fifth, on Naṣr Allāh’s own biography; sixth, in praise of Kalīla and Dimna; seventh, on anecdotes about the caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 136–58/754–75);28 eighth, in further praise of Kalīla and Dimna; ninth, on the process of carrying out the translation from Arabic to Persian; and tenth, on dedicating the work to Bahrāmshāh.

Several of these passages can be set aside for our present purposes. What is most important for us to consider is the “argumentative core” of the preface, i.e., Naṣr Allāh’s advocacy of the importance of Kalīla and Dimna within a framework of just Islamic kingship. This he pursues in three stages, corresponding to the passage on the indispensability of worldly rulers for the flourishing of Islam; the subsequent discourse on justice as the central virtue that will enable a king to do this work; and the later sections in praise of Kalīla and Dimna, which is presented as an uncommonly valuable book of practical wisdom (for those in authority and their subjects alike). This is how Naṣr Allāh argues that Bahrāmshāh—and the rest of us—should pay heed to Kalīla and Dimna. At each step in the argument, unsurprisingly, Naṣr Allāh employs quotes from scripture.

One of the first qur’anic verses that he cites relates to the idea that Islam explicitly endorses political authority. It is the so-called “obedience verse,” al-Nisāʾ 59: “O believers, obey God, and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.”29 Naṣr Allāh follows this with what he identifies as a ḥadīth: “Kingship and religion are twins” (al-mulk wa-l-dīn tawʾamān).30 With these first two scriptural (or purportedly scriptural) quotes, Naṣr Allāh advances the idea that Muslims are not only enjoined to obey political authority, but that there is in fact a complementary relationship between religion and worldly rule.

From this starting point, Naṣr Allāh goes on to explain that many ordinary people will not be able to follow the guidelines of Islam, as set out in the Qur’an and through the example of the Prophet and the early community, because they lack the capacity (intellectually or otherwise) to become God-fearing in the absence of some external enforcement. As Naṣr Allāh puts it, “The ignorant one is not held back from sins except through the immediacy of punishment” (nādān juz bih ʿājil-i ʿaẕāb az maʿāṣī bāz na-bāshad).31 He also quotes a statement of this principle that he attributes to ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb: “The sultan restrains more than the Qur’an” (ma yazaʿ al-sulṭān akthar mimmā yazaʿ al-qurʾān).32 He then invokes verse 13 of Sūrat al-Ḥashr: “Why, you arouse greater fear in their hearts than God; that is because they are a people who understand not.”33 All of this helps Naṣr Allāh to build up to his first key conclusion, which he explains in his own words: “Religion without rule will go to waste, and rule without religion is baseless” (dīn bī-mulk ʿāṭil ast, va mulk bī-dīn bāṭil).34 Neither endeavor can succeed without the other.

There are further quotes that Naṣr Allāh uses to reinforce this section of his preface. Most importantly, he devotes a substantial passage to an interpretation of the central verse (no. 25) in Sūrat al-Ḥadīd—the verse that describes how iron (al-ḥadīd) was bestowed upon mankind, along with scripture (al-kitāb) and the balance (al-mīzān), in order for humans to maintain justice.35 Iron is, of course, metonymous for the sword, and by extension for political authority. This verse can be seen as another concise statement of the idea that Naṣr Allāh is trying to emphasize about the symbiotic nature of religion and rule.

After bringing this point to a conclusion, Naṣr Allāh transitions into the next stage in his argument, in which he demonstrates that justice (ʿadl) is “the most valuable adornment” (ṡamīn-tar ḥilyatī) and “the most precious gift” (nafīs-tar mawhibatī) for kings.36 He immediately cites a qur’anic verse (Ṣād 26) to support this idea: “David, behold, We have appointed thee a viceroy in the earth; therefore judge between men justly.”37 It is hardly surprising that Naṣr Allāh reaches for the example of David in this context. David has a special status in the Islamic tradition as one of the few prophets who also held political authority.38 He is the only human other than Adam to whom God explicitly assigns vicegerency (khilāfa) in the Qur’an. And David is further associated with just rule—including in this verse. Naṣr Allāh adds a bit of his own interpretation, observing that it is David’s capacity for justice that accounts for the distinction that he enjoys among the prophets.39

The scriptural references do not stop here. Naṣr Allāh proceeds directly to another verse, al-Naḥl 90, which he views as a summary of the behaviors that are necessary for a person to lead a good life: “Surely God bids to justice and good-doing and giving to kinsmen; and He forbids indecency, dishonour, and insolence, admonishing you, so that haply you will remember.”40 To demonstrate the value of this verse, Naṣr Allāh relates an anecdote about a man who, upon hearing it, promptly converted to Islam after having been “one of the deniers of the prophethood of the master of religious law” (yakī az munkirān-i nubuvvat-i ṣāḥib-i sharīʿat).41 Naṣr Allāh’s advocacy of justice goes on at some length, and we need not cover all the details here. One noteworthy argument that he makes is that generosity, despite being a great virtue, has clear limits (bī-shakk nihāyatī-st): a ruler can award only so many favors. Justice and sound governance, on the other hand, are of endless benefit to everyone, from the élite (khāṣṣ) to the commoner (ʿāmm).42

Having explained the need for kings in upholding Islam, and the need for justice in order to govern effectively, Naṣr Allāh has reached an apt moment at which to discuss a ruler (and a dynasty) that he professes to consider most exemplary: the Ghaznavid Bahrāmshāh. As has been noted above, a large portion of the preface is devoted to praise of the Ghaznavids. This has the effect of delaying the final step in Naṣr Allāh’s broader argument—in which Kalīla and Dimna is linked to the matter of just kingship. Again, it is not that Naṣr Allāh’s dedication to Bahrāmshāh is an unimportant part of the content of the preface. To the contrary, the patronage context of this version of Kalīla and Dimna has influenced it from start to finish. Our goal here is more to tease out the sections of the preface in which Naṣr Allāh makes his case for the importance of the book and suggests how it should be read.

Naṣr Allāh eventually brings his praise of the Ghaznavids to a close, and he turns to a discussion of some of his own biography, culminating in his realization that Kalīla and Dimna is an extraordinarily valuable text.43 He does not quote directly from the Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet to support this judgment,44 but his comments still have a religious inflection. According to Naṣr Allāh, “after the books of religious law, in the span of the life of the world, they have not made a book more beneficial than [Kalīla and Dimna]” (pas az kutub-i sharʿī, dar muddat-i ʿumr-i ʿālam, az ān pur-fāʾida-tar kitābī na-karda-and).45 He substantiates this argument in a few ways, including by emphasizing the point—made often by commentators on Kalīla and Dimna—that the book will be beneficial to people who read it for entertainment, and not only to the serious-minded.46 In one of his stronger statements, Naṣr Allāh asks rhetorically, “What excellence could be higher than this, that [the book] passed from religious community to religious community, and from nation to nation, and was not rejected?”47 Islam is the latest in the sequence of religions with whose teachings Kalīla and Dimna is compatible. Naṣr Allāh makes this unusually clear through his discussion of religious themes and his weaving of scriptural quotes into the text.

By the end of the preface, the reader is primed to consider Kalīla and Dimna as a book of practical wisdom that is fully in accord with Islam. The religion cannot flourish in the world without the work of rulers; those rulers need to practice justice; and the fables of Kalīla and Dimna can help people to cultivate that virtue (among others). Naṣr Allāh has added an extra frame, in the broad sense of the term, around the entirety of the work. Next we will examine the way that he continues to strengthen this framing in the body of the book, in part by having the Brahmin/philosopher quote qur’anic verses and aḥādīth in the introductory passages of chapters, where he is preparing to narrate a new story to the king.

Body chapters

To discuss the “framing interventions” in each chapter of Kalīla and Dimna might require a book-length study. For the purposes of this paper, we will draw from only two chapters. Nevertheless, it may help to begin with an overview of findings. Naṣr Allāh’s version has eighteen or nineteen chapters—depending on how one categorizes the brief concluding passage that he sets at the end, and in which he reiterates his praise of the Ghaznavid sultanate.48 If we treat the conclusion as a chapter, then there are nineteen in total; otherwise, eighteen. Four of the chapters can be considered prefatory (as has been reviewed above), and the remaining fourteen constitute the body of the text, i.e., the fables.

All fourteen of the body chapters contain at least one direct quote of a qur’anic verse or a ḥadīth—and in most cases, multiple such citations. In seven of those chapters, scriptural material is invoked by the Brahmin/philosopher in his introductory comments.49 It is these cases that represent fairly clear examples of “scriptural framing.” That is, the Brahmin explains the context and significance of the fable that he is about to narrate to the king, and, where possible, he (or the author, speaking through him) makes an explicit link to Islamic ethics. Interestingly, Naṣr Allāh adds this kind of framing predominantly in later chapters of Kalīla and Dimna, rather than in the Pañcatantra sections. The only early chapter in whose opening passage the Brahmin invokes scripture is that of “The Ascetic and the Weasel.”50

The chapters vary widely in the extent to which Naṣr Allāh has “islamicized” them by incorporating scriptural material. “The Ascetic and the Guest,” for example, has just a single ḥadīth quoted in the introduction. (It concerns the importance of sticking to what God has allotted for you in this world, rather than trying to rise above your station or to pursue a radically different way of life.) On the other extreme, the chapter of “The Lion and the Jackal” is replete with quotes from the Qur’an and aḥādīth. The philosopher uses one qur’anic verse and two aḥādīth in his introductory comments—in addition to a substantial amount of poetry in Persian and Arabic.51 Then, in the body of the fable, characters invoke a further two verses from the Qur’an, and three more aḥādīth.52 Other chapters fall somewhere in between.

It is possible that the degree to which Naṣr Allāh expands the introductory passage of a chapter reflects his judgment of its value. Toward the end of the new preface, when discussing his approach to translating Kalīla and Dimna, Naṣr Allāh singles out one chapter that he has chosen not to embellish: the (auto)biography of Burzūya. He explains that “[the chapter’s] foundation is on storytelling” (binā-yi ān bar ḥikāyat ast)—in the sense of mere storytelling—and so he has rendered it “as concise as possible” (har-chih mūjaz-tar).53 If the lack of a fable with a practical ethical message caused Naṣr Allāh to devote less attention to one chapter, then we might hypothesize that other chapters featuring substantial interventions were especially important in his view.

So much for the general picture of the use of scripture throughout Naṣr Allāh’s version of Kalīla and Dimna. As should be clear, this is far from an incidental phenomenon in the text. And again, all of it is new in this version and tied to Naṣr Allāh’s authorial program.54 He has taken the work in a distinctive direction relative to prior translators and adapters. The remainder of the paper will be devoted to showing a few examples of “scriptural framing” in the body chapters.

The Ascetic and the Weasel

One chapter to use as an example of the phenomenon in question—chosen effectively at random from among the several chapters that display it—is “The Ascetic and the Weasel.”55 This is a story about the danger of acting in haste, which carries the risk of making an irrevocable mistake. The fable concerns an ascetic, who, after a long wait, is finally blessed with a son. His wife leaves the house one day to run an errand, and then the ascetic is called away to some unavoidable business. He is forced to leave the child at home alone, in the care of a weasel that lives with the family. While the ascetic is away, a snake tries to prey upon the boy, and the weasel kills it to protect him. The ascetic returns and sees the weasel covered in blood. He assumes that the weasel has attacked the child, so he beats it to death. Then he goes inside, finds that his son is alive and well, and is overcome with regret.

This is one of the shorter chapters in Kalīla and Dimna. In the Arabic, the opening passage in which the king requests a story and the philosopher introduces it takes a total of only two or three sentences.56 In Naṣr Allāh’s version, however, this is on the order of a page and a half. The Brahmin begins to explain the importance of patience and clemency, and he soon quotes a ḥadīth in which the Prophet states, “You cannot extend your wealth to everyone, so instead extend to them your good qualities” (innakum lan tasaʿū al-nās bi-amwālikum fa-saʿūhum bi-akhlāqikum).57 This calls to mind one of the arguments that we saw in Naṣr Allāh’s preface: that, for a ruler, justice is a more widely applicable virtue than generosity. A bit later in this introductory passage, the Brahmin emphasizes a similar point by quoting verse 159 of Āl-i ʿImrān: “Hadst thou been harsh and hard of heart, they would have scattered from about thee” (wa-law kunta faẓẓan ghalīẓa ’l-qalbi la-’nfaḍḍū min ḥawlika). This is followed by a quote from verse 75 of Sūrat Hūd, in which the prophet Abraham is described as mild-tempered (ḥalīm): inna ibrāhīma la-ḥalīmun awwāhun.58

Naṣr Allāh next quotes a statement attributed to the caliph al-Muʿāwiya (r. 40–60/661–80), regarding the appropriate traits of different clans of the Quraysh.59 The point, as Naṣr Allāh interprets it, is that al-Muʿāwiya wishes for the Umayyads (his own clan) to be clement (ḥalīm), so that they will win popular support over the others. While the quote from al-Muʿāwiya is, of course, not scriptural, it adds a meaningful connection to early Islamic history. And it is followed by another ḥadīth, to the effect that “no one is ḥalīm except that they have patience” (lā ḥalīma illā dhū anātin).60 Naṣr Allāh thus brings the discussion closer to the specific circumstances of the tale of the ascetic and the weasel. The introductory dialogue closes with yet another ḥadīth, which places the focus firmly on the mistake of the ascetic in this chapter: “indeed haste is from Satan” (inna al-ʿajala min al-shayṭān).61

The relative brevity of the chapter of “The Ascetic and the Weasel” makes Naṣr Allāh’s additions all the more obvious. He has taken an opening section that is basically formulaic in the Arabic of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, and built around it a meaningful discussion of the virtues of patience and clemency in an Islamic context. This demonstrates that even a cursory framing passage with the king and the philosopher can be seized upon by Naṣr Allāh as an opportunity to cite relevant scriptural material. He also finds ways of returning to the themes that he discussed in his preface. “The Ascetic and the Weasel” is recast such that it aligns clearly with the framing that has been given to the book overall. Naṣr Allāh drives home his argument about the importance of just Islamic governance—whether in the political realm, or on the level of managing one’s household.

The Lion and the Jackal

The chapter of “The Lion and the Jackal” has some thematic overlap with that of “The Ascetic and the Weasel.”62 It focuses on the importance of forgiveness, and of leaving open the door to reconciliation. The core fable is the story of (unsurprisingly) a lion, who is the king of his domain in nature; and a jackal, who has developed a reputation for wisdom. The lion essentially forces the jackal to become his advisor, though the jackal is wary of the dangers of getting involved in politics. Eventually, other animals who desire the favor of the lion conspire against the jackal and convince the lion that he has been disloyal. The lion comes close to having the jackal executed. At the last moment, the lion’s mother urges him to reconsider, and he realizes that there has been a conspiracy. The jackal’s life is saved. Significantly, the jackal then advises the lion to forgive the other animals for their dishonesty. This is, then, a story of courtly intrigue, with the moral lesson that a ruler (or anyone in a position of authority) should be cautious about rushing to judgment, and should be open to showing forgiveness and allowing for reconciliation to take place. There is also the message that servants who are unusually capable and loyal—the jackal, in this scenario—ought to be treated with care.

It should come as no surprise that Naṣr Allāh Munshī is keenly interested in this fable. More than almost any other chapter in Kalīla and Dimna, “The Lion and the Jackal” serves as a microcosm of the book, offering a concise representation of several key themes. And it centers on the cutthroat atmosphere of the court, where accusations of treachery are constantly in the air. For Naṣr Allāh, who worked as a bureaucrat for the Ghaznavids, the advocacy of judiciousness and clemency that we find in this chapter must have hit close to home. In any case, within the context of Naṣr Allāh’s version of Kalīla and Dimna, which has many enhancements, the story of “The Lion and the Jackal” is enriched to an unusual degree. And it is given a strongly Islamic framing in the introductory comments by the Brahmin.63

Before making any scriptural references, the Brahmin opens with a quote that he attributes to the caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 813–33/198–218), that if criminals knew how much he enjoyed granting forgiveness, they would commit more crimes (law ʿalima ahl al-jarāʾim ladhdhatī fī al-ʿafw, la-’rtakabūhā). The Brahmin then cites a (purported) ḥadīth, in which the Prophet states, “Let me inform you that the strongest person among you is he who controls himself in anger” (a-lā unabbiʾukum bi-ashaddikum man malaka nafsah ʿinda al-ghaḍab).64

Next, verse 134 of Āl-i ʿImrān is quoted, in an unusually elaborate context. Naṣr Allāh narrates (through the voice of the Brahmin) that one of the leaders of a Sufi order (yakī az mashāyikh-i ṭarīqat) was asked to explain the following part of the verse: “and [those who] restrain their rage, and pardon the offences of their fellowmen; and God loves the good-doers” (wa-’l-kāẓimīna ’l-ghayẓi wa-’l-ʿāfīna ʿani ’n-nāsi wa-’l-lāhu yuḥibbu ’l-muḥsinīna). The Sufi shaykh replied that, from a legalistic point of view, the meaning of the verse is perfectly clear. In mystical terms, however, “restraining rage” means not meting out excessive punishment (dar ʿuqūbat mubālaghat na-ravad); “pardoning offenses” means “erasing all trace of hatred from the page of the heart” (aṡar-i karāhiyyat az ṣaḥīfa-yi dil maḥv karda shavad); and “good-doing” means “returning to the basis of friendship” (bih aṣl-i dūstī va ṣuḥbat murājaʿat numūda āyad).65

The Brahmin, still nowhere near the end of his introductory remarks, then invokes a ḥadīth to the effect that, if clemency (al-rifq) were personified, no more beautiful person could be seen (la-mā raʾā al-nās khalqan aḥsan minhu); whereas, if harshness (al-khurq) were personified, it would be the ugliest (la-mā raʾā al-nās khalqan aqbaḥ minhu).66 Naṣr Allāh plainly wants to ensure that anyone who reads his rendition of this fable—including, one supposes, Bahrāmshāh and others at the Ghaznavid court—will have a thorough appreciation of the need for authority figures to act carefully and to be willing to show forgiveness.

We have not covered all of the references to Islamic texts used in the introduction to “The Lion and the Jackal.” Nor have we even touched on the Brahmin’s frequent quoting of snippets of poetry. Hopefully our review of some of the scriptural material has been enough to demonstrate this remarkable—and novel—feature of Naṣr Allāh’s translation of Kalīla and Dimna. It should perhaps be emphasized again that all of the quotes from various sources that we have discussed were added by Naṣr Allāh. The version attributed to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ did not include any references of this kind (judging from relatively early extant manuscripts). We do find an introductory passage for each chapter in the Arabic, but—as we have seen with “The Ascetic and the Weasel”—it tends to be a much simpler exchange between king and philosopher, in which a new fable is requested and briefly contextualized. That is to say, stories in Kalīla and Dimna always come with some framing; but Naṣr Allāh has built upon this aspect of the book, including by giving much of the content an explicitly religious valence.

On a final note relating to this chapter, as has been mentioned above, the body of the fable also contains scriptural quotes. Naṣr Allāh has animal characters invoking the Qur’an and aḥādīth while arguing with one another.67 There is, then, a still broader conversation to be had about the application of an Islamic perspective to Kalīla and Dimna. It does not take place only at “framing junctures” in the narrative. But the passages on which we have focused—the new preface, and chapter introductions—represent the key points at which Naṣr Allāh intervenes to make the text his own.


Naṣr Allāh Munshī’s adaptation of Kalīla and Dimna is a fascinating work that deserves more comprehensive analysis than can be offered here. We have examined two chapters (in addition to the preface), but many parts of the book offer good examples of the phenomena in question. This is easily one of the few most purposefully conceived versions of Kalīla and Dimna ever produced in any language.

How can Naṣr Allāh’s authorial program best be characterized? This paper has suggested two angles. First, given the content of the new preface, and the large quantity of scriptural material inserted throughout the text, one could focus on the degree to which Naṣr Allāh has “islamicized” Kalīla and Dimna. This is, in fact, the first unmistakably Islamic version of the book, marking a significant departure from that of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (to say nothing of the Syriac and the Middle Persian). There has been much speculation in scholarship surrounding the religious themes in the chapter on the biography of Burzūya in the Arabic Kalīla and Dimna. Studies have focused on, for example, the ways in which Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ may be speaking through Burzūya about his own journey of faith as an Iranian convert from Zoroastrianism to Islam.68 But when it comes to Naṣr Allāh’s text, there is no such need to search for a latent message. He often tells us precisely which qur’anic verse he sees reflected in a given story.

While it is easy to consider Naṣr Allāh’s Kalīla and Dimna as a work of Islamic (not just “Islamicate”!) literature, this is not the only, and perhaps not the most productive approach. For those who are familiar with medieval Arabic literature, Naṣr Allāh’s style will be immediately reminiscent of adab. Several of the key ingredients are present. Kalīla and Dimna is, to begin with, a book that sets serious messages in the context of entertaining stories—i.e., al-jidd wa-l-hazl. Naṣr Allāh has added references to all kinds of sources, moving seamlessly from one genre to another: lines of poetry in Arabic and Persian; qur’anic verses and aḥādīth; wisdom sayings; stories about the early caliphs; etc. The result is a text that would defy categorization, except that we have adab as a category. Indeed, the weaving of scriptural references into a narrative or an argument also fits nicely within the tradition of adab literature.69

It may be possible, in future research, to identify certain Arabic adab works that Naṣr Allāh would have known from his education as a member of the scribal class, and on which he could have drawn in enriching his version of Kalīla and Dimna.70 While this paper has not addressed Naṣr Allāh’s use of poetry quotations, it appears that many of those were taken from the anthology of Abū Tammām (d. 231/845–6), known as the Dīwān al-ḥamāsa.71 Perhaps Naṣr Allāh also had a few favorite sources on, e.g., aḥādīth for practical ethics.

To return to the central idea of this paper, regardless of how we interpret the innovative aspects of Naṣr Allāh’s take on Kalīla and Dimna, it is noteworthy that he makes such use of junctures in the book that relate to its narrative framing. He has added a preface that couches the entire text in terms of its applicability to just Islamic governance. The reader is, to a meaningful extent, told how to approach the material that follows. Naṣr Allāh then reinforces this message, repeatedly, by expanding the Brahmin’s dialogue at the beginning of individual chapters. In sum, he achieves a multilayered reframing.

TODO: Add another sentence, to bring the focus out to Kalīla and Dimna in general. e.g., I could comment on how this book lends itself to continual reframing.


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