An Introduction to the History and Culture of Iran
“In the Middle East,” I tell my students, “history is not something that goes away after it happens; it piles up in heaps and gets in everybody’s way.” When I first encountered Baha’is, I heard the story of the Bab and Bahaullah, but I only came to understand the story when I knew a great deal more about the history and culture of Iran and the Islamic Middle East. Islam is tolerably familiar to well-read Western Baha’is, who have taken to heart Shoghi Effendi’s dictum that it is necessary for Baha’is to know the basics of Islam and its history. Iranian culture, except in the most superficial aspects of food and etiquette, is less well known to them. This is a pity, since the Bab, Bahaullah, ‘Abd al-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi were all profoundly Iranian figures, though each in different ways, and can really only be fully understood in their Iranian contexts. The Iranian contexts in question, moreover, go back several thousand years. For example, the fact that the Bab traced his discent to the Prophet Muhammad, while Bahaullah traced his to the last Zoroastrian emperor of Iran tells something quite important about their characters and religious projects, and thus about the differences between the Babi and Baha’i religions. In the chapter that follows, I attempt to give a sketch of the main features of Iranian history and culture that have shaped the Iran of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and thus provided the cultural and historical context of the rise of the Babi and Baha’i Faiths in Iran.
1. Geography. The modern state of Iran is centered on the Iranian Plateau, a high arid plain surrounded on most sides by mountains. The center of the plateau contains several regions of almost impassable desert. Most of the population of the plateau lives in oases near the mountains where water is available, often conveyed to the irrigation works by long tunnels called qanats, an irrigation system that has been in use for several millennia. The bulk of the population of the plateau is Persian-speaking. In the past large parts of the population have been nomadic, with most of the rest of the population living in agricultural villages. In the twentieth century most of the nomadic population has become sedentary, and the proportion of the population living in cities has greatly increased.
The modern state of Iran also includes several adjacent geographical areas. In the northwest, Azerbaijan is a region of mountains and high plains. With more rainfall than in most areas of the country, it has traditionally been Iran’s most important source of grain and meat. Its population, though Shi‘ite in religion and Iranian in culture, is Turkish-speaking and thus is closely tied by language and experience to Turkey in the west and to the Republic of Azerbaijan to the north, the latter a province of Iran until the early nineteenth century. North of the plateau are Mazandaran and Gilan along the south and southwestern shores of the Caspian. These areas, below sea-level, contain rainforests. Though the predominant language is Persian, these areas remain somewhat distinct from the rest of Iran. South and west of Adharbajan is Iranian Kurdistan, an area inhabited by the semi-nomadic Kurds and closely related by culture to the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Separatist movements have flourished in this area. The corner formed by the Iraqi border and the Persian Gulf is an ethnically Arab lowland, geographically contiguous with Iraq, of which it has often been a part. Though Arabic remains the predominant language, there are large Persian settlements there and the region has become much more culturally integrated with the rest of Iran since the discovery of oil at the turn of the century. The extreme southeast of Iran is inhabited by the Baloch, a nomadic people also living in neighboring areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Finally, northeastern Iran is a continuation of the plains of Central Asia.
It should be noted that just as all Iranians are not Persian speakers, not all speakers of Persian live in Iran. Persian is one of the two main languages of Afghanistan, and Tajik, a closely related dialect, is spoken in Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan. Persian was also the lingua franca of Islamic India and survived in India and Pakistan as a literary language into the twentieth century.
A large country, the climate of Iran varies from region to region. On the Iranian Plateau, summers are hot and dry. In the northern areas and in the mountains winters can be quite severe. Even in Tehran, snow is common in the winter.
The Aryans and their religion. The Iranians are an Indo-European people. Sometime, probably in the early second millenium B.C.E., a people calling themselves Aryans migrated from north of the Black Sea southwest towards Iran and Afghanistan. These people worshipped a pantheon of gods preserved both in Hindu and Zoroastrian mythology. Their economy seems to have been based on cattle-raising. One group, the Indo-Aryans, went southeast into northwestern India, where they apparently conquered the native population. Their religion formed the nucleus of modern Hinduism. Another group, the Iranians, moved southwest into Iran, eventually settling a region including much of Afghanistan, Iran, and the area east of the Caspian. There is no direct evidence of the movements of the Aryans, but something can be deduced from comparing the languages and mythology of the Aryans of India and Iran. The Indo-Aryans, for example, used a word for “god” that the Iranians use to mean “devil,” thus indicating a religious split between the two groups early in their histories. Likewise, the oldest myths of both peoples preserve something of their early culture. By the early first millenium B.C.E. various Iranian groups were dominant on the Iranian plateau and neighboring areas to the east and north.
At some time before or during the migrations of the Iranians, a prophet named Zarathushtra (“Zoroaster,” the usual English form, derives from the Greek rendering of his name) arose among them. He was a priest of the traditional religion. On the basis of visions of the supreme god Ahura Mazda (probably meaning “Lord Wisdom”), he denounced abuses and taught a religion in which believers were to carry out various rituals, particularly concerning purity, in order to aid Ahura Mazda in his battle against the devil, Ahriman. Zoroaster formulated his teachings in the form of a series of hymns known as the Gathas. These were committed to memory by his followers and passed down by them until they were finally written down, together with much additional traditional material, sometime around the fifth century C.E. This body of literature is the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroaster’s religion. For his teachings Zoroaster was persecuted until he finally found refuge with King Vishtaspa, who established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of his kingdom and fought the enemies of the new faith.
Though there is no direct evidence about Zoroaster until much later, there cannot be much doubt that he lived and preached. There is great controversy about where and when he lived, the traditional date and place—258 years before Alexander (570 B.C.E.) in Adharbayjan—being clearly too late and too far west. Various modern authorities place him in Sistan (on the border between modern Iran and Afghanistan), Choresmia (south of the Aral Sea), and Kazakhstan. Dates range from the early second millenium to the early first millenium.
The Medes and the Persians. The Iranians come into written history with the rise of the Median empire, an Iranian dynasty, in western Iran in the ninth century B.C.E. In the seventh century one of the Iranian vassals of the Medes, Cyrus II the Great of Persis in southwestern Iran, overthrew his master and went on to conquer a vast empire, which eventually stretched from Libya to the gates of India and from the Bosphorus to the Indian Ocean. The Persian or Achaemenid Empire, as it is known, was the greatest state the world had yet seen, and its efficient administration set the pattern used throughout the Middle East for centuries to come. The Persian Empire plays a conspicuous role both in the Bible—it is the Persian king who restores the temple in Jerusalem—and in classical Greek history—Xerxes’ famous and unsuccessful effort to conquer Greece. It was by means of the Persian Empire that Iranian culture and religious ideas were conveyed to the Mediterranean world.
The Persian Empire was unexpectedly and suddenly destroyed by Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334. Alexander himself died before he could establish his dynasty, and the empire was divided by his generals, Iran falling to the descendants of Seleucus, who also ruled Iraq, Syria, and the Holy Land. Though the Greek culture brought by Alexander influenced the Iranians, there was only a thin Greek veneer on what was still an Iranian nation. By the second century B.C.E. the Seleucids had been supplanted by an Iranian dynasty originating near the southeastern corner of the Caspian. This dynasty, known to the West as the Parthians and to themselves as the Arsacids, ruled a loose confedation controlling a territory from Iraq and the borders of Syria to Afghanistan and the Aral Sea. Their famous mounted archers were the most formidable opponents of the Roman legions. Though more Iranian than the Seleucids, they were still much under the influence of Greek culture.
In the third century C.E. the Sasanians, a local dynasty of Fars (the same region that was the homeland of the Achaemenids) overthrew the Parthians and formed the Sasanian empire. Occupying much the same territory as the Parthians, the Sasanians were militantly Zoroastrian in religion and continued the Parthian tradition of opposition to the Romans. The Sasanian empire was well-organized and centralized. At their high point in the early seventh century, the Sasanians were able to occupy much of the Byzantine Empire and besieged Constantinople itself. Whereas the Persians nearly forgot the Achaemenids and Parthians, the Sasanian kings have remained well-known figures in many aspects of Iranian culture: literature, statecraft, art, and folklore.
The Arab Invasion and Empires. In the years when Muhammad was preaching his new religion and establishing a Muslim state in Medina and northwestern Arabia, the Sasanians faced military defeat and civil unrest. Thus when the Arabs invaded Sasanian Iraq, resistence was ineffective. The provincial nobility failed to unite to support the central government against the invader. Thus, the Arabs were soon able to occupy both Iraq and Iran. Yazdegerd III, the fugitive Sasanian emperor, was killed in Marv, in the far northeastern corner of his empire. Thereafter, Iran was ruled first from Medina and then until 750 from Damascus.
Persians quickly came to play a key role in the Islamic state. The first Arab occupiers were dependent on Persians to administer the old Sasanian provinces: Persian was the official language of administrative records in the eastern part of the Islamic world through the seventh century, and Persian officials carried on the routine of tax collection and administration under the eyes of their new Arab rulers. By the end of the century considerable numbers of Persians had become Muslims. In 750 a Shi‘ite revolution in eastern Iran led to the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus. The Abbasids, the new caliphs, were descendants of an uncle of the Prophet. They moved the capital to Iraq, building the new city of Baghdad. Their chief power base was the eastern empire—Iraq and Iran, the Sasanian lands—and Persians played an ever-greater role in administration and cultural life. The administrative system and court rituals of the Sasanian empire were to a considerable extent resurrected by the Abbasids. During this period Iran gradually became overwhelmingly Muslim, mainly Sunni in this period, although there were always pockets of Shi‘ite sympathy.
The Military Successor States. By the end of the ninth century the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad could no longer exercise full control over their dominions. Governors of distant provinces became independent while still acknowledging the nominal authority of the prestigious but powerless caliphs in Baghdad. The example of independent provincial governors was soon followed by military adventurers who carved out ephemeral empires for themselves. Frequently drawing their strength from nomadic Turkic or Mongol tribes, such states characterize Iranian history into modern times. Often these rulers were little more than adventurous gangsters whose states prospered so long as the founder lived and fell apart under less ruthless heirs. Under such rulers life continued unchanged in the Persian cities, for a change of ruler usually meant nothing more than a change of tax collector. Such cultural achievements as these military rulers could boast of tended to consist of monumental architecture or the books written by the poets and scholars they subsidized—both intended to legitimize the sovereign’s rule. Only in a few cases did these states have lasting effects on Iranian life.
Iran as a political entity can scarcely said to have existed in this period. Political boundaries bore little relation to ethnic boundaries. Religious identities were often stronger than identies based on language or nation.
The Safavids. The modern state of Iran came into existence in 1500 through the conquests of Shah Isma‘il Safavi, the hereditary head of an order of militant Shi‘ite Sufis. Isma‘il was a Turk from Ardabil in Azerbaijan, in the northwest of modern Iran. His state occupied the territory of modern Iran and some parts of Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. Until this time Iran had been largely Sunni, though there was a long tradition of sympathy for radical Shi‘ite groups. Isma‘il forcibly converted his territories to Twelver Shi‘ism, to the great irritation of neighboring Sunni regimes such as the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. Though under continual military pressure, particularly from the Ottomans, Isma‘il and his successors were able to consolidate a regime that lasted for over two hundred years. The cultural achievements of the Safavids were considerable. The Safavid kings and their courtiers were often lavish patrons of art, literature, and scholarship. Safavid architecture represents the highest achievement of Islamic architecture in Iran, notably Shah Abbas the Great’s magnificent capital, Isfahan. Islamic philosophy reached its highest level of sophistication under the Safavids.
After a series of weak rulers the Safavid state collapsed in the early eighteenth century in the face of an invasion from Afghanistan. This event triggered a half-century of instability in Iran. Two rulers in this period managed to gain control of the bulk of the old Safavid territories. The first, Nadir Shah, was a Sunni soldier from Khorasan, who in the classic pattern of military rulers in Iran, rose through his bravery, charisma, and luck to become a conqueror. His greatest achievement was his invasion of India in 1739, in which he sacked Delhi and brought back to Iran a fabulous treasure, including the famous Peacock Throne. He was eventually assassinated by his own soldiers and his empire fell apart. The second strong ruler was Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751-79), who ruled much of Iran from Shiraz. Less ambitious than Nadir, he ruled under the unpretentious title of “regent” (vakil). Though typical of military adventurers in Iran throughout history, he won the affection of the Persians through his wise and moderate rule, his concern for commercial prosperity, and the magnificent buildings he erected in his beloved Shiraz.
The Qajars. Karim Khan’s successor was immediately challenged by Aqa Muhammad Khan (d. 1797), a eunuch of the Turkish Qajar tribe. He had been variously a rival and advisor of Karim Khan. After the latter’s death he established himself as ruler of most of the old Safavid territories, first uniting the various branches of the Qajar tribe under his rule, then defeating and killing Karim Khan’s son Lutf-‘Ali, and finally recapturing the lost territories of Georgia and Khorasan. After Aqa Mohammad’s murder in 1797, his nephew Fath-‘Ali became the ruler. Fath-‘Ali Shah was distinguished less for his statecraft than for his uxoriousness: his wives, concubines, and resulting children numbered in the hundreds. During his reign Iran faced its first serious challenge from Europeans. Blundering into two disastrous wars with Russia, Iran lost the northern half of the key province of Azerbaijan. Fath-‘Ali Shah’s heir apparent was his son ‘Abbas Mirza, who ruled Azerbaijan for more than thirty years and conducted Iran’s foreign policy. ‘Abbas Mirza was an intelligent and forward-looking man, who sought to adopt European-style reforms in such areas as the military and fiscal administration, much as the Ottomans were doing at the same time. His European advisors hoped that under ‘Abbas, Iran would develop into a strong and stable modern state. Unfortunately, he shared his family’s tendency towards dissipation, and he died shortly before his father. The throne thus passed to ‘Abbas Mirza’s son, Muhammad (r. 1834-48). Muhammad Shah showed little interest in continuing the reforms that his father had undertaken, and relied on an incompetent prime minister, the ignorant and superstitious Sufi Haji Mirza Aqasi.
Muhammad Shah’s son and heir, Nasir al-Din (b. 1831, r. 1848-96), came to the throne as a teenager and ruled nearly half a century. Nasir al-Din Shah had been governor of Azerbaijan (the traditional post for the heir-apparent) under the supervision of Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, who then became prime minister. Amir Kabir was an ardent reformer, who sought to institute European-style reforms under an absolutist monarchy. For example, he established the first modern institution of higher learning in Iran, the Dar al-Funun (“Polytechnic”). It was he who ordered the execution of the Bab, apparently because he saw a charismatic and revolutionary religious movement as a threat to the stability of the state. However, Nasir al-Din Shah soon tired of his brilliant and overbearing prime minister, removed him from office, and had him killed in 1852. For the remainder of Nasir al-Din Shah’s reign, Iran came under increasing pressure from the European powers—political, military, and economic. The Shah was himself interested in Western technology and methods, traveled in Europe, and periodically attempted to carry out reforms. However, he lacked the intelligence and will to follow through on these measures, not all of which were well-thought-out in any case. His major achievement was simply preserving the independence of Iran through the period when European imperialist rapacity was at its height. By the time of his assassination in 1896 at the hands of a supporter of the Pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din Afghani, Iran was entering a crisis.
The Constitutional Period. Both Nasir al-Din Shah and his successor Muzaffar al-Din Shah were perennially short of foreign currency to pay for imports of foreign goods and travel in Europe. They developed the practice of selling concessions—monopolies on some part of the economy—to raise funds. These concessions caused great resentment in the Iranian public, for not only did the resulting monopolies force Iranians to pay unnecessarily high prices, but they often led to the ruin of sectors of the traditional economy. In 1890, the Shah sold a monopoly on the sale of tobacco to a British businessman. An outcry resulted, the clergy banned the use of tobacco, and the Shah was forced to withdraw the concession. A few years later the discontent crystallized in the form of a demand for a constitution. An alliance of modernist intellectuals (some of whom were secretly Azali Babis), bazaar merchants, and reformist clergy forced the dying Muzaffar al-Din Shah to agree to a constitution and a parliament, the Majlis. When Muhammad-‘Ali, the new Shah, tried to dissolve the Majlis, a civil war resulted in which the Constitutionalist forces eventually triumphed. Though the next decade was marked by unstable government and economic depression caused by World War I, the ideal of constitutional parliamentary government became firmly rooted in Iran.
The Pahlavi Dynasty. In 1921 Reza Khan, the head of a Russian-trained cavalry regiment that was the most effective military force in the country, seized power in Tehran and was proclaimed prime minister. He was a resolutely secular and absolutist reformer who sought to modernize Iran from above on the model of Atatürk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy. Though measures such as the forced unveiling of women and the curtailing of the authority of the clergy caused resentment, under his rule Iran rapidly developed a modern state apparatus and economy. He proclaimed himself Shah in 1925, deposing the powerless Ahmad Shah Qajar. The symbol of his achievements was a railroad he built from the Persian Gulf through Tehran to the Russian border. It was this railroad, together with his fascist sympathies, that proved his undoing. When Germany invaded Russia, the Allies occupied Iran in order to be able to send supplies to Russia. Reza Shah was deposed and died in exile on the island of Mauritius.
His son, Muhammad-Reza came to the throne as a teen-ager and for some years was virtually powerless. During the 1940s political life flourished in Iran as the Majlis was freed from the heavy hand of Reza Shah. By the early 1950s the Shah was attempting to consolidate power. When Muhammad Mosaddeq, a nationalist politician, became prime minister and nationalized the Bristish-owned oil fields, the American Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and brought the Shah to power. Like his father, Muhammad-Reza Shah attempted to modernize Iran from above. Paid for by steadily increasing oil revenues, vast changes occurred in Iranian life. Education became widely available, the country became firmly integrated into the world economy, and a large middle-class grew up. The clergy grew increasingly marginalized, particularly after 1963 when they were unable to prevent a land-reform program from stripping them of the lands that supported the religious institutions.
The Islamic Republic. Under the Pahlavis political reform failed to keep pace with economic and social change. When uncontrolled inflation created havoc in the economy in the mid-1970s, the Shah began to lose his popularity. In 1978 an alliance of Islamic, leftist, and bazaar groups, united by the prestige of the Ayatollah Khomeini, forced the Shah into exile. Khomeini’s own Islamic supporters, the best organized of the revolutionary groups, seized power. Despite a bitter campaign of terrorism by leftist groups and a long war with Iraq, the Islamic regime was able to consolidate its power, uniting the country in hostility towards the Western powers, especially the United States. Despite a dismal human rights record and near economic collapse caused by war and mismanagement, the regime continued to enjoy wide support due to the reforms it was able to carry out and its genuine independence from foreign influence. Moreover, the fact that a modicum of democracy was maintained allowed the Islamic Republic to lay claim to both the nationalist and the consistituionalist political legacies. After the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Khomeini, the regime gradually became more democratic.
The best way to make sense of the complicated history of Iran is to see it as the interplay of a set of cultural patterns and tensions, some of them going back to ancient times.
Iran and Islam
A continuing theme in Persian culture is whether Iran should be primarily Iranian or primarily Islamic. As early as the eighth century Persian Muslims had begun to reassert their identity as Iranians against the prevailing Arab chauvinism of their Arab Muslim rulers. The greatest expression of this attitude is Firdawsi’s Shah-Nama, the “Book of Kings,” an eleventh-century poetic adaptation of a pre-Islamic national history written in Sasanian times. Thus, Iranian rulers and officials through the last thousand years have tended to identify with the heritage of pre-Islamic Iran, an identity reinforced by the Persian language. This Iranian identity was closely linked with a cult of monarchy, in which pre-Islamic ideas about the divine right of kings, elaborate court ceremonials, and administrative traditions were resurrected. It was the administrative classes, the most permanent element of the government, who clung most tenaciously to the pre-Islamic Iranian heritage. Thus, Bahaullah’s family, which had a tradition of government service, proudly asserted their pure Iranian descent from the last Sasanian king.
On the other hand, pre-modern Iranian Muslims also saw themselves as citizens of the Islamic or the Shi‘ite nation. Thus a Persian Shi‘ite would be quite willing for his daughter to marry an Arab Shi‘ite but would on no account allow her to wed a Zoroastrian Persian. In most cases the Iranian and Islamic identities co-existed. Sometimes they were fused, as when the mother of the Imam Husayn was identified as the daughter of Yazdegerd III, the last Sasanian emperor. The fact that Iran was the only Muslim state with Shi‘ism as the state religion tended to smooth over potential conflicts between Iranian and Islamic identities, since it set Iran apart from other Islamic countries.
In modern times the conflict between these two identities has sharpened. The Pahlavi Shahs, seeing Islam and the Shi‘ite clergy as barriers to the modernization of Iran and the consolidation of state power, appealed to a specifically Iranian nationalism. Outward symbols of Islamic allegiance such as traditional headgear were outlawed, and symbols of the glories of ancient Iran were brought forward to replace them. Thus, the Zoroastrian calendar replaced the Islamic calendar in official use. A campaign was launched to rid Persian of loan-words from Arabic—a nearly hopeless task, since Arabic words are as prominent in Persian as French, Greek, and Latin loan-words are in English. Parents were encouraged to give their children names from the Shah-Nama. Postage stamps portrayed the royal family, the monuments of ancient Iran, and symbols of modernization, like trains and telegraph offices, but they almost never portrayed the Islamic side of Iran. This program of Iranization reached absurdity in 1971 when Muhammad-Reza Shah held a lavish celebration (thirty-five years late) at Persepolis, the old Achaemenid capital, of the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian monarchy. At the same time he revised the calendar to date from that event. The year 1355 was followed by 2536. (The change proved extremely unpopular and was reversed two years later.)
The clergy naturally resisted such measures. Khomeini, for example, insisted on signing his name “al-Khomeini,” a small act of rebellion that converted his name from Persian to Arabic. After the Islamic Revolution the new Islamic rulers appealed once again to symbols of pan-Islamic identity, replacing, for example, the Persian national symbol of the Lion-and-Sun with the Arabic name of God, Allah, on the Iranian flag. The study of Arabic, the language of Islam, was once again made mandatory in Iranian schools. However, soon the country was locked in a desperate war with Iraq, and the Islamic leadership was forced to once again invoke the symbols of Iranian national unity to rally the nation to the fight. Nowadays, visiting foreign delegations are once again taken to see the monuments of the ancient kings at Persepolis, where they are treated to a thoroughly Iranian and monarchical sound-and-light show.
Shi‘ism and Islam.
Somewhat comparable to the conflict between Iranian and Islamic identity is the conflict between Shi‘ite and Islamic identity. Shi‘ites see themselves as both part of and separate from the larger Sunni Islamic world. Ancient resentments born of the persecution of the Imams separate Shi‘ites from other Muslims, but both parties see the Shi‘ites as part of the larger Islamic nation. On the whole, the experience of Iran, often at war with neighboring Sunni states, has predisposed its people to see themselves primarily as a distinct community surrounded by nations hostile to their faith. Thus, Shi‘ism can be invoked to rally the Iranian nation against enemies, real or imagined. The propaganda of the Iran-Iraq war drew on ancient memories of the persecution of the Imams in Iraq, especially of the Imam Husayn. On the other hand, the official policy of the Islamic Republic has been to stress the commonalities between Shi‘ite and Sunni Islam. In practice attitudes vary considerably among individuals. In the Shaykhi school, for example, and also in the writings of the Bab, Shi‘ite particularism is predominant. On the other hand, Bahaullah had little interest in Shi‘ite/Sunni differences.
Class structure of Iranian society.
The fundamental class structure of Iranian society has its roots in pre-Islamic times, when Zoroastrian clergy tried, not very successfully, to enforce a caste system something like that of Hinduism. Although class lines have never been rigid in Islamic Iran, there are distinct class patterns characteristic of medieval and even modern Iranian society.
Peasants: The largest portion of the Iranian population until very recent times consisted of peasants living in small agricultural villages. Their situations could vary considerably, depending mainly on whether or not they owned their own land. Typically villages and their agricultural land were the property of absentee landlords, usually civil or military officials. Villages sometimes belonged to charitable foundations—in effect to the clergy—or to wealthier merchants. The rent was paid in kind, and the crop was divided according to traditional formulae among the landlord, the cultivator, and the individuals who supplied irrigation water, animals for cultivation, and seed. As in other pre-modern agrarian societies, the whole of Iranian goverment and urban culture was dependent on the surplus extracted from the peasants. Due to a number of factors the economic situation of the peasants became steadily worse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading many peasants to migrate to the towns and cities.
Nomads: Most of the area of Iran is mountainous, arid, or both, and agriculture is usually only possible in oases at the feet of mountain ranges. Thus, at one time nomadic tribes constituted nearly half the population of Iran. The nomadic peoples, or at least the chiefs of the major tribes, enjoyed considerable wealth and political power. Nomad soldiers were the backbone of the traditional Iranian army, and many of the Iranian dynasties of Islamic times, notably the Qajars, were of nomadic origin. The tribes were often not Persian-speaking or even Iranian. Turkish tribes were important in the north, Kurds in the west, and Baloch in the southeast. Under the Pahlavis the power of the tribes was broken, and most were forced to accept a sedentary life. Since the Islamic Revolution, some of the tribes have been able to resume a nomadic life.
The Bazaar: Traditional urban economic life in Iran is based on the bazaar, an amorphous physical, social, and economic entity that is at the heart of Iranian cities. The bazaar as a social class included shopkeepers, apprentices, craftsmen, wealthy wholesale merchants, moneychangers, peddlers, porters, and other participants in the market, great and small. The bazaar tended to be allied to the clergy against the government, whose taxes, exactions, and interference was usually the bazaar’s chief problem. The pious bazaar merchants supplied the money and the bazaar’s gangsters and mobs supplied the power in the streets that maintained the worldly influence of the clergy. In the twentieth century new sorts of economic activity based on Western models destroyed the bazaar’s monopoly on economic life, but the bazaar still remains important, both economically and politically. It was critically important in the outcome of the Islamic Revolution. Socially, the Bab’s family belonged to the bazaar.
The “Men of the Sword”: Ruling was normally the prerogative of soldiers, who were often non-Persian invaders or tribesmen. The highest posts in government were normally occupied by members of this military ruling class.
The “Men of the Pen”: The continuing administration of government was the prerogative of an educated bureaucratic class, mainly Persian in origin. The bureaucratic families maintained specialized skills in such areas as accounting, tax collection, official correspondence, and record-keeping. Thus, while a provincial governor in Qajar times would most likely be a Qajar prince whose place was owed to his family connections and his tribe’s Turkish military traditions, his secretary and his chief accountant would most likely be Persians whose families had monopolized these skills for generations. Bahaullah was from such a family and would thus have been expected to assume his father’s administrative position. The cultural and administrative traditions of these bureaucratic families went back far into Sasanian times, and this class was the most loyal supporter of pre-Islamic Persian traditions of nationalism and culture. Paradoxically, as an educated class they also tended in recent times to become Westernized, so they also played critical roles in the emergence of modern Iran.
The Clergy: The Shi‘ite clergy constituted a small but important social class. To some extent, the profession of cleric was hereditary like most other occupations and crafts in pre-modern times. However, the class and professional boundaries were not rigid, and there was a steady flow of talented young men of other backgrounds entering the clergy, while the sons of clerics often took up other professions, usually as merchants. The clergy had very close links with the bazaar, and clerical families were and are often linked by marriage to bazaar families of comparable social station. For example, the Bab came from a merchant family, but he himself spent some time in the seminaries of Iraq, a cousin of his father became a leading cleric, and the family maintained close links with some of the Shaykhi clerics.
Few religious positions were directly controlled by the government, so the clergy frequently played roles as intermediaries between the government and other classes. The allegiances of the clergy varied considerably depending on their positions. Some—for example, the Friday Prayer leaders, who were appointed by the government—were closely linked to the authorities.. Clerics supported by endowments and contributions were more likely to be aligned with the merchants, the main source of such revenues, whereas village mullas would be likely to occupy a position between the landlord and the peasants.
The New Middle Class: The rise of Western-style education in the early twentieth century created a new middle class without strong links to traditional Iranian culture. The possessors of the new education rose rapidly in influence and wealth as the Pahlavi reforms created a demand for officials, technicians, and businessmen. The new class represented a discontinuity in Iranian society since their experiences and outlook were in many ways fundamentally different from those of the traditional classes. Their rise was bitterly resented by more traditional groups like the clergy and the bazaar. Most urban Baha’i families belonged to this new class, which is one of the factors explaining the hatred directed at them by more traditional groups in Iranian society.
Monarchy. In traditional Iranian political thought the monarch did not belong to any class. Ideally, the king’s social independence and his absolute power allowed him to identify himself with the state and thus administer justice equally to all groups. One ancient king is said to have had a bell at the door of his palace that anyone who had been wronged could ring to gain access to the king and justice. Conversely, if the king was unjust, society would suffer and even the fertility of the land would decline. The worst offense for a king was to rule arbitrarily. The Iranian and the Islamic strains in Iranian political thought approached the question of the legitimacy of the king slightly differently. In Islamic thought kingship is a “collective” rather than a “personal obligation,” which is to say, someone has to be king, and a person who happens to be king, however he may have gained power, has certain responsibilities by virtue of his de facto power—to rule justly, above all. On the other hand, in the Iranian tradition a certain light of God, the farr, comes to a man and brings him kingship. If he rules well, that light will stay with him, but if he rules unjustly, the light will desert him and he will lose power. The Iranian tradition has some conception of hereditary monarchy, but not so strictly as in European ideas of succession. In general, the Iranian king is much more of supernatural figure, surrounded by extraordinary pomp, than was the case for Arab rulers.
Revolutions. Counterbalancing its tradition of monarchy, Iran has a strong tradition of revolution. Alone in the Islamic world Iran has had at least two major revolutions in modern times. (The Babi movement may perhaps be seen as an abortive third revolution.) The archetype of Iranian revolution is the story of the overthrow of the tyrant Dahhak by Kava the blacksmith, as told in Firdawsi’s Book of Kings. Dahhak was a tyrant who had ruled for a thousand years. Snakes grew out of his shoulders, and they had to be fed on the brains of children. When the tyrant called for the last of his children, Kava put his leather blacksmith’s apron on a staff and marched towards the palace, rallying the people as he went, and together they overthrew the rule of the tyrant in favor of the rightful prince. Popular revolutions, usually nominally religious, have been a recurrent feature of Iranian political life since ancient times. In the twentieth century the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11, the unsuccessful popular movement of Mossadeq in the early 1950s, and the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 have shaped Iranian political life—overthrowing two dynasties and establishing parliamentary government as a permanent feature of Iranian government. Perhaps more important, Iranians view revolution as a normal and legitimate, though perhaps traumatic, feature of political life.
Persian Language and Literature
Persian is an Indo-European language and is thus related by structure to most European languages, but its alphabet and much of its vocabulary are Arabic. The language underwent vast changes in the millennium between the fall of the Achaemenid empire to Alexander in the fourth century B.C.E.and the reemergence of New Persian in the early Islamic period. Unlike other areas conquered by the Arabs, Iran never adopted Arabic except as a learned language. When independent states with Persian-speaking courts emerged in Iran around the 10th century, Persian reappeared as a literary language. The preeminent literary form in New (Islamic) Persian has always been poetry, and almost every educated Persian has at least dabbled in writing poetry. A knowledge of poetry is one of the basic attainments of an educated Persian, both in medieval and modern times. The first great classic of New Persian literature was Firdawsi’s Shah-nama, the “Book of Kings,” an adaptation of the Sasanian national history. This work served as a rallying point for the reviving Persian nationalism. The educated bureaucratic classes continued to cultivate such nationalistic literature, as well as Persian adaptations of Islamic scholarly works and dynastic histories glorifying their patrons.
The best known tradition in Persian literature is mystical poetry. The rise of New Persian coincided with the rise of organized mysticism in Islam. A huge and impressive literature of mystical poetry, both lyric and epic/didactic, soon arose in Persian. Mystical themes came to permeate even secular Persian poetry, so that it is usually almost impossible to distinguish a mystical poem from a secular love poem. Mystical poets like Rumi and ‘Attar developed Persian into a subtle and expressive medium for discussing spiritual matters.
There was also prose literature in Persian. As a scholarly medium, Persian was until recently subordinate to Arabic, so Persian works on scholarly and scientific topics tended to be popular adaptations of more serious Arabic works. Notable genres in Persian include literary letter-writing, history, and manuals of statecraft. In Baha’i literature these genres are represented by such works as Bahaullah’s and ‘Abd al-Baha’s tablets, Dawn-Breakers, and Secret of Divine Civilization respectively.
It should be noted that Persian was the language of polite society throughout the eastern Islamic world—in Iran itself, much of Central Asia, Islamic India, and to some extent in Ottoman Turkey. Iranian literary models were the basis of the literatures of such vernacular Islamic languages as Ottoman Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashtu, and Bengali. As late as the early nineteenth century the British governed India in Persian.
Apart from literature, three arts in which Persians excelled may be mentioned: calligraphy, decoration, and miniature painting. Because Islam discouraged figurative art and stressed the importance of the sacred text, calligraphy became an important art in Islam. Calligraphy was highly cultivated in Iran, so that any educated Persian was expected to have a reasonable command of one or more calligraphic styles. The Bab’s calligraphy was seen as a miracle by his followers, and the production of display calligraphs and fine manuscripts was one of the ways in which the Babis and early Baha’is propagated and legitimized their religion.
Persian artists excelled at decorative arts of all sorts. Even architecture was often subordinated to the surface of the wall or ceiling with its elaborate tile or carved plaster ornamentation. Decoration with elaborate calligraphy and floral or geometrical elements is heavily used in all kinds of Persian arts and crafts.
Miniatures—paintings illustrating books—were a particular Persian specialty. The place filled in Western art by great oil paintings is in Iran occupied by the magnificent decorated books produced for discerning royal patrons.
A portrait of Iran would be incomplete without some reference to the role played by etiquette, in many ways the most distinctive feature of Persian life. Iran is a very old society, for much of its history ruled by outsiders and subject to unexpected upheavals. Thus, it seems that Persian society turned inward and lavished much of its creativity on private life. Thus, Persian society has developed an elaborate system of etiquette. Two features are particularly noteworthy. First is a stong emphasis on hospitality, sometimes referred to pejoratively by Persians as ta‘aruf, “polite hypocrisy.” The underlying assumption is that the guest honors the host by his presence, so that the host is obliged to reciprocate by unquestioning and unstinting hospitality and generosity. Second is an elaborate set of rules governing interactions among individuals with finely graduated nuances to reflect personal, social, professional, and class distinctions. Titles, style of speech and diction, and even pronouns reflect the relative status of the two parties. Though this system of etiquette gives Iranian society its characteristic graciousness, it is sometimes criticized by Iranians themselves as providing a mask for hypocrisy.
A good introduction to many aspects of Iranian society, particularly in the twentieth century, is R. Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet. Two well-informed European views from the nineteenth century are G. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Problem, a detailed and profoundly well-informed study of Iran from a political standpoint, and James Morier, Hajji Baba of Isfahan, a charming but unflattering novel about Persian life. The most thorough survey of all aspects of Iranian life and history is Cambridge History of Iran, 8 vols. In many respects the finest general account of Iranian culture is still E. G. Browne, The Literary History of the Persians.