Ahmad Khani and his New Spring for Kurdish Children

By: Abbas Mohammadi

In this essay I will discuss the legacy and influence of Ahmad Khani (1650- 1707) on Kurdish national awakening. Ahmad Khani was a famous Kurdish poet and well-known for his book, ‘Mam-u-Zin’. Over decades of debate on Kurdish nationalism and its origin, scholars and researchers can be divided into two different schools of thought: one of which dates back to the Kurdish nationalism of Khani’s Mam-u-Zin. The second branch of thought, however, acknowledges Khani’s Mam-u-Zin and its influence, but argues that Kurdish nationalism began in the 20th century when political nationalism appeared. This research focusses on ‘Nubihara Bichukan’ [the new spring of children], an Arabic to Kurdish dictionary composed by Ahmad Khani, to support the first school of thought. The purpose of this argument is first to illustrate that the focus of scholars was on Khani’s Mam-u-Zin, and then, to show that his dictionary and its influence has been neglected by both schools of thought. This research paper considers how his dictionary can demonstrate Khani’s awareness of the importance of children’s education, and furthermore, the inspiration this gave to the Kurds over time. The central claim is that Ahmad Khani’s dictionary ‘Nubihara Bichukan’ along with Mam-u-Zin can give a new interpretation of Khani. Perhaps, Khani should not be seen as a pessimist poet, but as an educator who planned for Kurdish future generations.

Hassanpour (1992) in a section of his book dedicated to Ahmad Khani and his legacy, focuses more on analysing Khani’s Mam-u-Zin. Hassanpour believes that for Khani the two elements of state and literature were two essential components for establishing a civilised and self-ruled nation. Hassan’s (2013) argument is based on two general perceptions; primordialism, which argues that nations are ancient, and modernist views regarding the subject of Kurdish nationalism. He says, “the primordial account relies on specific narratives, language and Kurdish literature to formulate an ancient nation.” He describes Khani’s Mem-u-Zin as a ‘touchstone’ of any discourse on the genesis of Kurdish Nationalism. Edmonds (2016) in his article ‘Kurdish Nationalism’, says, “Verses are quoted from the national epic Mem-u-Zin (the Kurdish Romeo and Juliet) of Ahmad-e Khani of Botan (1650- 1706) as evidence that Kurdish nationalism has its roots deep in the past.”  According to Hassanpour, Hassan and Edmond’s see Mam-u-Zin as a significant book to study the origin of Kurdish identity and nationalism.

By contrast, Bruinessen (2003) assesses Khani’s Mam-u-Zin differently. He describes Khani as the ‘precursor’ of Kurdish nationalism by mentioning Mam-u-Zin’s significance to the Kurdish national movement, he asks, “But is it justified to call him a Kurdish nationalist himself?” Bruinessen answers that we cannot judge from a few lines in Mam-u-Zin that Khani had an idea of a Kurdish state. More strongly, Ozoglu (2010) argues that it is inaccurate to say Khani’s Mem-u-Zin was the nationalist literature of its time. He says, “it was only after the penetration of the Western concept of nationalism into the Kurdish community early in the twentieth century that Mem-u-Zin became a monument of nationalist literature for the Kurds and mobilized them politically.” Ozoglu’s arguments lies in the definition of the modern theory of nationalism from which, in the 20th century most nations and their political movements formed an identity and independent state. Similar to Ozoglu, Vali (2003), in his evaluation of Kurdish historical writing, disagrees with Hassanpour’s view on Khani as a nationalist. He supports the view that the Kurdish national identity is modern. He believes that Hassanpour conflated concepts such as ethnicity with nation and ethnic identity with national identity. Soleimani (2016) in a chapter of his book, Islam and Competing Nationalism in the Middle East 1876-1926, writes, “for instance, despite Ahmad Xani’s [Khani] (the renowned seventeenth-century Kurdish poet) emphasis on writing in the Kurdish language, his poetic oeuvre Mem-u-Zin does not evidence the presence of Kurdish ethno-nationalism.” He claims that Sheikh Ubeydullah Nahri (1830-1883), a Kurdish revolutionary and a poet in nineteenth century, who felt the significance of ‘self referentiality’ not Khani.

The argument of these two schools of thoughts needs to consider the character of Khani himself and his dictionary ‘Nubihara Bichukan’. Khani’s dictionary which was written in poetic language for children, inspired poets and Kurdish religious schools to write and adapt lessons on the Kurdish language in their curriculum to our present day. Regarding Khani’s dictionary, Hassanpour admires how Khani dared to introduce such a work to the educational programme of that time which was based on ‘the language of Allah’, by which he means Arabic. Hassanpour does not elaborate on Khani as an ambitious educator. At the time of the Ottoman empire, however, there were Kurdish Emarat under the authority of Kurdish emirs and education was at the mosques and in Arabic. Although the Farsi language was popular among poets and scholars, Kurdish writers had no platform. Khani in Mem-u-Zin complain of this, where he writes:

If only there were harmony among us,

If we were to obey a single one of us,

He would reduce to vassalage,

Turks, Arabs and Persian, all of them,

We would perfect our religion, our state,

And would educate ourselves in learning and wisdom.

(Khani cited in Ozoglu, 2010)

At the time of Ottoman empire, however, Kurds had their own Emarat, they were under the rule of Turks, Arabs and Persians. Khani believed if Kurdish emirs had one voice and one leader, they would overcome barriers to have their own independent state and have their own education system by their native language.

Khani thought education was dependent on an independent state, he was not without hope of a Kurdish independent state. In the introduction of his dictionary Khani starts with these lines;

These few words from the languages

Were compiled by Ahmad Khani

Who named it Children’s Nubar

[It is] not intended for the reputable [people]

But for Kurdish children

Who, after finishing Koran

Should become more literate

(Khani cited in Hassanpour 1992, p. 88)

Khani was a teacher who taught Quran and Arabic lessons in mosques. By writing his dictionary Khani wanted to teach Kurdish alongside Arabic. He called his dictionary ‘The new spring of children’, which can be understood as an indication of his dream for a new beginning for Kurdish people. Khani’s dictionary can be studied from a couple of perspectives. The first perspective is the importance of poetry for children and how Khani approached writing poetry for children as an educational experiment. In the world’s modern education systems there is great consideration to adopt poetry in lessons for children in schools. Styles (2011), a professor of children poetry, writes in an article, “Why does children’s poetry matter? Children’s responses to poetry are innate, instinctive, natural – maybe it starts in the womb, with the mother’s heartbeat? Children are hard-wired to musical language – taking pleasure in the rhythm, rhyme, repetition and other patterning’s of language that are a marked feature of childhood.” As Khani was a religious man he may have been inspired by the Koran when he was writing ‘Nubihara Bichukan’ as its verses use poetic language. Undoubtably writing such a work for Kurdish children for first time in the seventeenth century suggests that Khani was aware of educating young people.

Benton (1990), in an article on the importance of poetry for children learning, states that poems give a new experience and access to new thoughts and involvement in a genre which differs from other kinds of texts. Regarding the power of poetry to shape identity, Benton writes, “A second source of the power of poetry is more explicitly cultural. All societies have their storytellers, whether it is the elder in the tribe, the poet in the medieval court, the ballad-monger in nineteenth century London streets or a rabbit called Dandelion in Watership Down. Poems and stories establish and confirm the identity of a culture,” (p 4). It may be right to say that the establishment of Kurdish cultural identity for Kurdish children was in Khani’s thought.

The second perspective lies in Khani’s intention. According to Mam-u -Zin, Khani was aware of the Kurdish political situation under the rule of the Ottoman empire. Writing a dictionary for Kurdish children to memorize Kurdish words was to educate a new generation. When Khani says: ‘[It is] not intended for the reputable [people], But for Kurdish children’, it can be interpreted as his plan to generate a new Kurdish generation into learning and wisdom by their native language. Although Khani was disappointed by the Kurdish emirs not being united and fighting for a Kurdish independent state, writing a dictionary to literate Kurdish children can show his hope for a better future.

Over time what Khani cultivated found its route into Kurdish religious schools and rooted in them. Khani’s dictionary was taught by Kurdish religious schools to the Kurdish children. Nearly one hundred years after Khani’s dictionary, Marouf Nodeyi, a poet from north of Iraq, inspired by Khani wrote ‘Ahmadi’, a similar work in Sorani dialect. Ahamdi spread among Sorani speaking religious schools similar to Khani’s work among Kurmanci speaking religious schools. Dezaiy (1984) in his research shows how Khani’s dictionary influenced Nodeyi and how these two dictionaries influenced Kurdish poets and Kurdish religious schools. Dezaiy says there are various similar examples from the structure and content of both Ahmadi and Nubihara Bichukan that Nodeiy had the chance to read Khani’s dictionary before writing his own dictionary. In the past decades Kurdish religious schools adapted new Kurdish books of vocabulary and grammar from the influence of Khani and Nodeyi legacy into their curriculum. For instance, ‘Renusi Sharif’ is a Kurdish book which introduces Kurdish grammar, poetry and a range of Kurdish words. The purpose of designing and teaching this book is to give sense and consciousness of Kurdish identity.

It might be to some extent the view of some researchers that Khani’s complaints in few lines of his poetry mentioned above about the Ottoman and Safavid rule and his quest for a Kurdish king do not necessarily signify the existence of Kurdish nationalism and political motivation in the seventieth century.  The lack of a political movement should not distract from the significance of a new movement Khani developed with his works. The consequence of Khani’s work on Kurdish literary and political movements especially in the twentieth century after the time of collapse of Ottoman empire and the rise of political nationalism in the Middle East cannot conceal or neutralize Khani’s desire for Kurdish identity and a unified state for the Kurds.

Regarding the right term for the Kurdish awareness of their identity, Bruinessen (1992) distinguishes between ‘Kurdish ethnicity’ and ‘Kurdish nationalism’ so that Kurdish ethnicity is old but Kurdish nationalism by having political movements is new. Maxwell and Smith (2010) study the historiography of Kurdish national awakening, they write, “terminological diversity nevertheless makes a surprising theoretical agreement about how to approach Kurdish national awaking.” He means diversity of terms, such as the primordial and modern view, Kurdish ethnic and Kurdish nationalism, makes it more complicated to approach the case of Kurds. Here, as an example, it is worth examining Kurdish nationalism with Anderson’s ‘print capitalism’ and ‘imagined community’ concepts. According to Anderson’s ‘print capitalism’ theory, development of nations imagined community (Anderson, 1991) was allowed by printing their dialects and languages. Imagined community is a community of people, whom never meet face to face yet have feeling of belonging to that community. It is important to note that at the time of Khani there were no modern medias, printing and communication tools. It was not time of capitalist print media to create a Kurdish imagined community. But Khani’s works reached many people. Dezyi (1984) believes that Nodeiy who lived in the south part of Kurdistan read Khani’s dictionary before writing his own dictionary. It may be interesting to ask how Nodeiy had a copy of Khani’s dictionary? Possibly it was printed and reached the south of Kurdistan. Were Khani and Nodeiy’s dictionaries printed for Kurdish religious schools in Kurmanchi and Sorani speaker population? Finding answers to these questions may suggest avoiding to study the Kurdish case with Anderson’s concepts.

The argument on the origins of Kurdish nationalism which relate it to Khani’s Mam-u-Zin without considering his dictionary and himself as an educator, can be read as a deliberate act of neglect. However, events in Kurdish history support the view that the solidarity among Kurds was mainly among poets, writers and religious people, and so there was not any Kurdish political movement until the twentieth century. Khani’s effort and that of his followers can be called as an ‘identity movement’ or ‘cultural movement’. Also, it is important for researchers to be careful when they use modern Western concepts and terms regarding the sensitive case of Kurds. At his time Khani was not a member of any political or cultural movement, but he was highly influential in generating a Kurdish cultural awareness and that may have led to the political movement in the contemporary world.


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