The Kushnameh: The Persian Epic of Kush the Tusked, translated by Kaveh Hemmat and edited by Hee Soo Lee, is the first edition of the Kūshnāmah, a mytho-historical poem written by Irānshāh (or Irānshān) ibn Abī’l-Khayr ca. 1108-11 AD, to be published in English. In keeping with the conventions of its genre, it describes the exploits of a legendary character, and in the original Persian it was composed in verse using rhymed couplets and a fixed meter. While this English edition is in prose (and therefore cannot adhere to the poetic conventions that shaped the original poem), it is otherwise quite faithful to the original composition.
The Kūshnāmah relates the exploits of Kūsh, a warrior and ruler with a monstrous, elephantine face; the text refers to him as Kūsh-i Pīldandān, “Kūsh the Elephant-Toothed” (or “Kūsh the Tusked”) and Kūsh-i Pīlgūsh (“Kūsh the Elephant-Eared”). As befits an epic, the narrative is quite broad in its geographic scope: the titular character’s journeys take him from Spain to Korea. While it was not uncommon for medieval Persian epics to discuss lands beyond Iran (Central Asia, China, India, and Europe are fairly common), the Kūshnāmah’s mention of Korea is unique. Indeed, much of the available scholarship has, in the main, focused on the global scope of its narrative (with a particular focus on its depiction of Korea) and its value as a historical source. However, this review will instead focus on the Kūshnāmah’s treatment of ethical and religious questions.
The text’s titular Kūsh is born the son of another man named Kūsh, brother of Żaḥḥāk, a more famous mythic king, who, on the advice of Satan, kills his father (the king of the Arabs), usurps his throne, conquers Iran, kills its king, Jamshīd, and endeavors to eliminate his bloodline, dispatching his brother to China (Chīn) to hunt down Jamshīd’s descendants. Kūsh the elder sires his son after having done battle against, and taking a wife from, the Pīlgūsh tribe. This younger Kūsh is born with monstrous, elephant-like tusks and ears (hence his epithets), for which his father kills his mother and abandons him. Ābtīn, a descendant of Jamshīd, takes Kūsh in and raises him until Kūsh joins forces with his father and turns against Ābtīn. While pursuing Abtin, who eventually flees to a land scholars today identify as Korea (known in the text as Machin and Basila, the latter deriving from the Silla kingdom located on the Korean Peninsula), Kush conquers China, ruling it as a tyrant. After Żaḥḥāk’s overthrow, Farīdūn (Iran’s new and rightful ruler) imprisons Kūsh with Żaḥḥāk until enlisting him to rule over restive territories in North Africa, on the grounds that their pacification requires a tyrant like Kūsh.
Despite initially swearing loyalty to Farīdūn, Kūsh eventually turns against him and, after fleeing the territory he ruled on Farīdūn’s behalf, he continues to seize new lands and tyrannize their populations, demanding they worship him as God. However, one day, after getting lost while hunting and, needing the aid of a wise old man who demands that Kūsh renounce his claims to divinity as a condition of receiving his aid, he does so and then learns to worship God (among other things) from this old man, who also cures his face of its monstrousness. It is this latter part of the epic that raises ethical and religious questions most clearly.
Previous research has helped frame Persian epics as mirrors for princes, highlighting their role in conveying norms of rulership, including the expectation that a ruler will defend and maintain religion. While these texts take place in the pre-Islamic era, their composition after the conversion of Iran to Islam situates them within an Islamic context that likely influenced their norms.
Early on, the Kūshnāmah evinces its religious priorities, in a possible reflection of the norms mentioned above, using the opening section in praise of the author’s patron to praise him for taking up arms in defense of Islam (42-5). As with Żaḥḥāk, we see the parallel between physical and ethical monstrosity, but this raises further questions about the fate of a monstrous ruler. In the case of Żaḥḥāk in Firdawsī’s Shāhnāmah, snakes grow from his shoulders upon his acceptance of Satan into his court (after he has already acted upon the advice of the Devil when he appeared in other guises) and he persists in brutality and tyranny (and remains a snake-shouldered monster) throughout his reign, which only ends with his defeat, overthrow, and imprisonment.
Kūsh, however, is given the opportunity to repent, and when he seizes the opportunity, he is cured of his monstrosity. At one level, this is consistent with the treatment of monstrosity outlined above—once Kūsh stops being a monster in ethical terms, he also stops being one in aesthetic terms. But it raises other questions about the text’s religious orientation. As part of his repentance, Kūsh chooses to worship God after having previously claimed that title for himself. This places the story in a tense relationship with the Islamic orientation suggested in the poem’s opening: shirk, deifying anything but God, is one of the few unforgivable sins in Islam, and Kūsh commits it repeatedly, demanding that his subjects recognize his own divinity, but is given (and takes) the chance to repent, and after his repentance, resumes his rule, this time as a good and just ruler rather than a tyrant (387-402). In short, Kūsh, the explicit mushrik, gets a happy ending, but Żaḥḥāk (who, for all his sins, does not demand that his subjects call him God) does not. Why might this be?
The historic and folkloric sources for each character may explain their different fates. Żaḥḥāk was, in ancient sources, a demon: Żaḥḥāk is the new Persian rendering of the Avestan Azhī Dahāka, who was, in the Avesta, a demon, which is to say, a supernatural and fundamentally evil being. Given these origins, it may be that the authors (and audiences) of later epics proceeded from the assumption that Azhī Dahāka’s humanized successor, Żaḥḥāk, was also fundamentally evil and therefore felt no need to write the opportunity for redemption into his story. However, some scholars have hypothesized that the character of Kūsh represents the Kushan empire, which, for a time, rivaled the Persian Sasanian empire, but eventually allied with it. Thus, unlike Żaḥḥāk’s, Kūsh’s story is one of being brought into the fold—either the pre-Islamic Persian empire, in the case of the Kushan, or Islamic norms of kingship, in the later (Islamic-medieval) telling of Kūsh the Tusked.
Iranshah ibn Abu’l-Khayr (sometimes written as Iranshan) was a poet active at the turn of the twelfth century, in the Seljuq empire. His other known work is the Bahmannameh (Epic of Bahman).
Kaveh Hemmat is Assistant Professor of History, Professional Faculty, in the Department of History, Philosophy, and Theology at Benedictine University. His research focuses on perceptions and representations of East Asia in premodern Islamicate culture.
Hee Soo Lee is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Hanyang University and Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at Sungkonghoe University, Seoul. He is the author of numerous books and articles focused on the history of relations between the Middle East and Korea.
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