Austin O'Malley

For me, the most compelling aspect of the MMC Junior Fellows program is the opportunity to share my work with a wider community of dissertation-writers, scholars, and interested non-academics, whose feedback will help me not only to craft a more effective and nuanced dissertation, but also to refine my analytical and communicative skills. As every dissertation-writer knows, coming up with a proposal involves quite a bit of “narrowing” and “focusing” of the topic, which often involves (inadvertently) limiting one’s audience as well. I am excited to work with others interested in different aspects of religion and culture, to see how I can make my work attractive and relevant to those without a specific interest in 13th-century Persian religious poetry.
My research focuses on the extensive didactic mas̱navis of Farid al-Din ʿAṭṭâr (d. c. 1221), extended poems which contain hundreds of morally pointed anecdotes and exhortations, often nested in allegorical frame-tales. Recent scholarship’s overriding concern has been to categorize these anecdotes, tease out their moral and theological points, and then assemble them into a “system" of sufi thought. While a noble endeavor, these studies tend to bracket questions of rhetoric and audience in favor of the poems' more abstract “meanings," obscuring their pedagogical aims and social function. For ʿAṭṭâr and his reader-listeners, these works' significance lay in their power to spiritually transform their audiences, a rhetorical orientation that has left discernible traces on both these poems in particular and the wider Perso-arabic poetic and homiletic traditions in which the operate. I'm particularly interested in the rhetorical stances these mas̱navis adopt, and the communicative situations they encode, because they show how this kind of sufi literature offers itself not as systematic collection of positive ethical and theological knowledge, but as a site for self-transformation, in which reading and recitation are conceptualized as spiritual exercises that purify the soul and the inculcate a godly praxis of living.