Roy Mottahedeh Remembers Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani

July 7, 2022
Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani, William Graham, William Granara 2012
Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani, William Graham, and William Granara at CMES in 2012

Professor Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani, who taught part-time as an associate at Harvard University from 1987 to 2014, died on June 17, 2022 (13th of Shahrivar, 1305). He was born on September 5, 1926, in the shrine city of Mashhad, where his father, Ayatollah Shaykh Muhammad Kazim Damghani, was a distinguished cleric. He pursued both a secular and a Shi‘ite clerical education in the schools of Mashhad. Afterwards he studied at the University of Tehran, where he received a PhD in Islamic theology and in Persian literature. Subsequently, he was appointed Professor in that university, both in the School of Theology and in the School of Literature. He taught in these faculties from 1962 to 1985.

Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani, William Graham, William Granara 2012
Ahmad Mahdavi Damghani, William Graham, and William Granara at CMES in 2012


Mahdavi Damghani’s memory was legendary. He was famous for knowing by heart tens and tens of thousands of lines of Arabic poetry as well as almost as many lines of Persian poetry. Even those who studied with him in his old age marveled at his ability to help a student understand a line by reciting a parallel passage in other poems. This knowledge also helped him to write over 300 academic articles as well as over ten editions and commentaries on classical works in Arabic and Persian literature. He was honored in several Festschrifts, including one by his Western colleagues published in Berlin in 2016. In addition to Harvard University, he also taught at the University of Pennsylvania during his stay in America.

He was known to be a very fine cook of Persian food, a skill he was careful to explain to his friends. He believed that a learned man should be a good cook so that he might not marry the wrong woman for her cooking. He was endlessly supportive of his children. One of his daughters, Farideh Mahdavi-Damghani followed in his footsteps and became a celebrated translator, winning a prize in Italy for her Persian translation of Dante.

Mahdavi Damghani’s passing was mourned not only in Iran but throughout the Shi‘ite world, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for most Twelver Shi‘ites, wrote an open letter mourning the passage “of one who had so many perfections of learning and excellences of character.” At his passing, Ayatollah Mohammad Hasan Safi wrote that his father, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayeghani, “praised him (Mahdavi Damghani) for this spirit [of devotion to knowledge] and considered him an example of an educated and pious man.” It is doubtful that anyone of comparable skills has survived him. He will be buried in Mashhad.

—Roy P. Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History, Emeritus, Gurney Research Professor of History