Etīket in Persian is a loan-word from French etiquette commonly used in both senses of the French word: (1) a label, tag, or sticker and (2) ceremonial, custom .The latter meaning gained currency in the press and in bureaucratic language during the beginning years of the Pahlavi period, or slightly earlier, and is used in the contemporary language of Persia to denote the socially accepted ways of speaking and behaving, the observation of which marks an individual as moaddab (“polite”), mowaqqar (“dignified”),ẓarīf (“refined”), and bā-nazākat (“courteous”); and the failure to observe it is perceived as evidence of being bī-adab (“impolite”), ḵašen (“gruff”), nā mardom (“antisocial”), šalaḵta (“messy”), or bī band o bār (“non-conformist”).
Though the prevailing manners and customs of Persian are more or less Islamic in character, Persian etiquette is a patchwork of various influences, the fundamental features of which can be traced to the Sasanian times, as attested in the Šāh-nāma and other sources. Despite the demographic changes brought about by foreign invasions and immigration; the political domination of an Arab, Turkish, and then Mongol ruling class; the recent influence of the West; and changes in material culture, all of which influenced contemporary Persian etiquette, most of the rituals and ceremonies of the Sasanian court and administration were, excepting those features which seemed to conflict with Islamic practice, either adopted by the caliphs at Baghdad and the courts of the Islamic dynasties of Persia in the early centuries after Islam or adapted to local conditions.
For example, the Sasanian etiquette of kissing the ground at the feet of the ruler was apparently practiced at the caliphal court, although at the Samanid court, either by preference or by necessity, the olamā were exempted from this custom. In the pre-Islamic period it was also considered a breach of etiquette to move, speak, or look away from the shah without permission in the royal presence (Christensen, 1944, p. 466). This practice was scrupulously observed by individuals admitted to the presence of shahs and caliphs and was still in force at the early Qajar court. The story of the commander of Khorasan, Amīn Abū Bakr Moẓaffar Čagānī, who remained motionless and showed no discomfort despite multiple stings inflicted by a scorpion that had crawled into his shoes as he listened to commands being issued by the Samanid ruler Amīn Saīd, Naṣr Aḥmad, serves as an example of the rules of comportment followed at the Islamic courts in Khorasan and Transoxiana. Similar stories are told about other rulers and even about disciples in the presence of Sufi shaikhs” suggesting the prevalence of such standards of etiquette.
Some aspects of non-Persian etiquette appear to have been introduced into the Samanid court by Abū Abd-Allāh Jayhānī, the famous vizier of al-Amīr al-Saīd Naṣr II. Bayhaqī’s history and the Qābūs-nāma also provide information about the decorum observed at the courts of that era. In the Saljuq period, Neẓām-al-Molk, whose Sīāsat-nāma contains recommendations of prescriptions for reform of the structure and rules of the court and administration, was enthusiastic about reviving the practices of the “Persian monarchs” (molūk-e ʿajam) as described in the “annals of our predecessors” (korrāsa-ye pīšīnīān). These customs later amalgamated in the Il-khanid and Timurid periods with the yāsā and Tatar customs, were again altered in the Safavid era in accord with the requirements of the Shi’ite foqahā. They underwent further change in the Qajar period, impelled first by the skirmishes between Persia and Russia and, later, by political progressives who succeeded in forcing the adoption or adaptation by the court and dīvan of some of the rules, customs, and regulations prevalent in the military and government administration of Western countries and the protocol observed at Western courts.
Ebn Moqaffa, the Barmakids, and the Āl-e Sahl were all important agents in the introduction of Sasanian culture to the Islamic domains during the ʿAbbasid period, especially the rules and principles of refined comportment, which eventually came to be subsumed under the rubric of adab, a term which gradually took on a broader connotation than that of “custom and tradition,” obtaining during the Omayyad period and apparently even in pre-Islamic Arabia. These rules of comportment, referred to in Middle Persian as ēwēn, covered in great detail every aspect of individual and social behavior, i.e., speech, eating, correspondence, travel, etc.) These rules were adopted at the caliphal courts, particularly by the Abbasid court at Baghdad, in conjunction with the Arab etiquette of chivalry (morowwat, farūsīyat) and eloquence, all of which together constituted the behavior governed by adab. Thus, the court and administration etiquette of the early Islamic period, especially insofar as it concerned the cultivation of eloquence in speech and composition and of decorous behavior in society, was largely the heritage of Sasanian culture (Nallino, pp. 8-9).
Etiquette of exchanging visits in Iran
The traditional Persian etiquette of exchanging visits with friends and relatives at their homes (dīd o bāz-dīd), the ceremonials of greeting and leave-taking, conveying congratulations on holidays and special occasions, conveying condolences to the relatives of the recently departed, the hosting of parties and weddings all have assumed more or less their present form since Safavid times, as attested by the remarks of foreign travelers. The ceremonies of greeting and farewell, perhaps because of the time constraints of modern life and the lack of interaction between various social classes, have been somewhat abbreviated by the younger generation and the modernized strata of society. Common formulae for leave-taking now include rūz be-ḵayr (“good day”), šab be-ḵayr (“good night”), be-omīd-e dīdār (“hope to see you” [soon]), Ḵodā negahdār (“May God preserve you”), whereas among the more “old-fashioned” strata of society, especially the mollās and those who frequent the mosques, sermons, and rawża-ḵᵛānī performances, the older salutations noted by the above-mentioned travelers, such as salām alaykom (“peace be upon you”), ṣabbaḥakom Allāh be’l-ḵayr (good morning), massākom Allāh be’l-ḵayr (good evening), fī amān Allāh (“May God protect you!”), etc., are still exchanged. The same expressions of ritual politesse (taārof) which Polak reported during the Qajar period, such as loṭf-e šomā kam na-æavad (“May your kindness be with us always”) and sāya-ye šomā kam na-æavad (“May we remain forever in the shade of your protection”), are likewise still employed among virtually all strata of Persian society.
When paying social visits, it is still considered proper behavior, as it was in the Safavid and Qajar times according to the European travelogues, to remove one’s shoes before entering the sitting room, to sit on one’s knees, not to remove one’s headgear, and not to stretch out one’s legs in the presence of others. The origins of most such customs stretch back to pre-Mongol times. For example, during the Buyid period, it was considered a social faux-pas to remove one’s turban or headgear in company, or even when walking through the streets or the bāzār (Faqīhī, pp. 707-8). In the poetry of Ḥāfeẓ, doffing of the headgear was considered undignified and a breach of etiquette. Kneeling down and sitting on the knees is mentioned in the poetry of Ḵāqānī, Rūmī, Sadī, and Ḥāfeẓ and the phrase zānū zadan (lit., “kneeling”) is used metaphorically with the meaning “to show respect.”
Upon entering the room at a dinner party (majles), as was related by Tavernier and Drouville, a guest should, after sitting down, place his right hand on his chest and with a slight bow of the head towards the host and others present, say quietly, so as not to interrupt the conversation in progress, salām alaykom, to which the host responds, alaykom al-salām, ḵoš āmadī [āmadīd] (“welcome”) or ṣafā āvordī [āvardīd] (“you brought joy/pleasure”) or with a Turkish equivalent. Then, after becoming gradually familiar with the subject under discussion, the new arrival may, if need be, participate in the conversation, though without interrupting anyone else or whispering to his neighbors; both these acts are considered breaches of the etiquette of conversation. It is also considered decorous for those present to rise when a new guest arrives, or sometimes also to grasp his hand in both hands (moṣāfaḥa). This practice is also affirmed by Shi’ite law, except in the case of infidels (koffār) and non-Muslim “people of the book” and is still generally practiced at social gatherings. In social gatherings and even in the home, laxness in observing proper attire is considered a breach of etiquette. A concern for cleanliness in clothes and neatness in appearance can be deduced from the remarks of Tavernier and Polak and remains a principle of contemporary Persian etiquette. Proper attire for Persian men at social occasions or even in the street and bāzār has traditionally been long and loose-fitting. At least until the beginning of the Qajar period, it was, as Ḏakāʾ-al-Molk Forūḡī recalled (p. 329), “considered impolite not to wear a long outer garment, such as an abā or labbāda in the presence of notables”.
Hospitality and entertainment in Iran
At dinner parties or even during social calls (dīd o bāz-dīd), where meals are not being served, the offering of a narghile (galyān), and Turkish coffee or tea to the guest has been a cardinal principle of Persian hospitality. The qalyān, which seems to have become popular in Persia in the early Safavid period, was prohibited or condemned by some of the Safavid shahs but later found many partisans, especially among the olamā, poets, and other artists; it developed a special etiquette of its own. Refreshing drinks (šarbat), sweets, and fruits were also placed before the guest, whom the host must then verbally urge to partake. Failure of the host to conform to this etiquette (taʿārof), or of the guest to partake of the refreshments offered before departing, was considered disrespectful or unfriendly, and the aggrieved party would take offense at and/or complain to others about this breach of manners. During brief or ceremonial visits, tea and the narghile would be brought for the guest three times at reasonable intervals, the third serving signaling the conclusion of the visit. This custom, which is still more or less in effect today, has been noted by the European tourists and travelers in Persia at least since Qajar times. However, the practice, typically perceived as a mark of the guest’s importance and social standing, is now out of deference to the other guests and, because it has become customary to specify the hour of invitation, falling out of fashion.
In such gatherings, after all the guests have arrived and refreshments of fruit and sweets have been served, the food is spread on the table, either in the presence of the guests or in another room. Then the host announces that dinner is served, usually with the phrase besmellāh (In the name of God), or inviting and encouraging all to partake, befarmāīd (please proceed). In the rather rare gatherings where food is still served without forks and spoons, pouring tepid water from an ewer over the hands of the guests into a basin (āftāba lagan) before a meal and once again after the meal using warm water, often also with soap, is considered part of the etiquette of the table. In addition, to being considered impolite, breaking the silence while eating is proscribed by religious manuals. Once the meal is finished, it is customary for important guests, the elderly, and the host to remain seated at the table somewhat longer than the other guests. At the end of the evening, the older and more respected guests depart first and the other guests consider themselves obliged to remain until they leave.