Who are we?

The Persians
Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran
by Homa Katouzian
Yale University Press, 2009

Homa Katouzian’s latest book The Persians is arguably the most comprehensive and learned history of Iran and the Iranian people encapsulated in a single volume in the English language to date. Few authors would be so bold as to take on the mammoth task of writing a history covering several millennia of Iranian history, but then again, few are as qualified as Katouzian for just such an undertaking. And the reason for Katouzian’s success in pulling off such a massive feat, is not only the wealth of experience and learning he has brought to bear in this book, but the tightly argued and analytical structure by means of which Iranian history, from the mythological birth of Kiumars to the Islamic Revolution, is deftly imparted to the reader. The only comparable book one could possibly cite would be Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind, which although certainly an excellent and thoughtfully written general history, is a very different book from The Persians, which manages to dexterously straddle multiple readerships of differing levels – while it works perfectly as an introduction to Iran and Iranian history, society and culture, on another level it delivers a whole raft of penetrating observations, insights, facts and figures for more seasoned Iran-watchers.

Katouzian, is the Iran Heritage Foundation Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and has been researching and studying Iran for in excess of forty years. He has written on as diverse subjects as the political economy of modern Iran, Sadeq Hedayat, the political life of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, ideology and economics and the great13th century Persian poet Sa’di. Moreover, Katouzian is a phenomenon, which nowadays is increasingly difficult to come by in the academic world, due to the seemingly implacable tendency toward greater and greater specialization – he is a fully-fledged Iranshenas or Iranologist, in the very truest sense of the word, with an abiding passion and sensitivity for not only any single period or disciplinary approach, but what over the course of thousands of years has come to be recognized as Iran-e zamin in its entirety. Thus in The Persians, we witness not only a firm grasp of Iranian history in its entirety, but also an interdisciplinary approach, with forays into literature, history, socio-cultural history, art, politics, journalism and economics.

While structurally speaking, the book does assign greater weight to modern Iranian history – well over half the book covers the beginnings of the Qajar dynasty through the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), Reza Khan’s coup d’etat of 1921, the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and his overthrow by the coup d’etat orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA in 1953, Mohammadreza Pahlavi Shah’s White Revolution, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the devastating eight-year war with Iraq, the rise of the reform movement, the “chain murders”, the Ahmadinejad phenomenon and even the advent of the “Green Movement” in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election, the outcome of which is still to be decided.

The first half of the book by contrast provides a clear and highly readable account of Persian myths and legends, ancient history and the inauguration of the Persian empire, by the Achaemenid dynasty’s founder, Cyrus the Great, the rise to power of Mehrdad I, founder of the Parthian empire in the 2nd century BC, the Sassanian empire, Zoroaster and Zoroastrian cosmology, Mani and Manichaeism, the Sassanians decline and eventual destruction at the hands of Arab tribes galvanized by the newly revealed religion of Islam, the devastation wreaked by the Mongol invasions which precipitated the end of the Abbasid Caliphate, in which Iranians were an integral part, and who were indispensable to the renaissance in scientific, philosophical and artistic creation manifested in the works of such luminaries as Abu Ali ibn Sina, Rumi, Farid al-Din Attar, Mohammad ibn Zakaria Razi, Abu Nasr-e Farabi and Kharazmi to name but a few. The final chapter before we cross the threshold into the modern era is dawn of the Safavid empire, which saw Shi’ite Islam formally enshrined as Persia’s state religion in the 16th century and Abbas I turn his country into a powerhouse on the world stage.

Because of the book’s deployment of a wide-ranging and immensely rich variety of Persian literary, diplomatic/archival and historical sources the layperson and expert unable to read Persian or without access to the historical documentation in question, can acquire a great deal from Katouzian’s effortless familiarity with such materials; from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, and the worldly poetry of Sa’di, to the diaries, correspondences and articles of Qajar offialdom and intellectuals, such as Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri, Moshir al-Dawleh, Malek al-Movarrekhin, Prince Zel al-Soltan, Mirza Fath’ali Akhundzadeh and Malkam Khan, and more contemporary figures who played a crucial role in shaping Iranian history such as Ahmad Kasravi, Hasan Taqizadeh, Mohammadreza Pahlavi, Mehdi Barzargan, and the infamous “hanging judge” Sadeq Khalkhali.

As I alluded at the beginning of this review, what sets Katouzian’s approach apart is his attempt not merely to retell Iranian history, but to understand that history through and by means of analytical insights and argumentation. As Katouzian tells us in the ‘Preface’, “This book is about the ‘what’, the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’ of Iranian history.” (px) What lies at the very heart and runs through the entirety of this study is Katouzian’s now famous theorization of the inveterate and recurring conflict of state and society in the course of Iranian history. The Iranian “state”, according to Katouzian, has always tended towards absolute and arbitrary rule (estebdad), while society has tended towards rebellion and chaos (harjomarj, ashub, fetneh) (p5). Quite unlike the feudal states which emerged in the aftermath of the Holy Roman Empire’s collapse and lasted through to the Renaissance (see ‘Appendix: Iranian Society’, p394-398), landlords were creatures of the state and were without independent rights of ownership, which meant in effect that the privileges and status they enjoyed could be withdrawn at anytime and in accordance with the caprice of the state. This was part and parcel of the vicious circle of Iran’s emergence as a “short-term society”, which posed as a major obstacle to the formation of a long-term aristocratic class, long-term investment and capital accumulation – ingredients arguably crucial to long-term economic and political development. What would be the use of looking to the future, when in the words of a well-known Persian expression Katouzian quotes, “Six months from now, who will be dead, who will be alive?” (p9).

The arbitrary power of the state in Iran was not constrained or curtailed by either independent laws or social classes and was thus beyond reproach and without recourse to any external criterion when executed by the strong ruler and enervated and divided in the case of the weak ruler. However, and as a direct result of the conflation of the ruler’s will with “the law”, the state was usually conceived by society as illegitimate and alien and as standing in opposition and confrontation with it. And so, once state and society became sufficiently polarized as society became increasingly alienated and weary of arbitrary rule, society would engage in full-scale revolt or at other times remain indifferent to external invaders. The collapse of the state in turn, would spell the beginning of chaos and insecurity until another strong ruler was able to re-establish the semblance of order and in time the decline into arbitrary rule and despotism (estebdad) would begin once again, only to be followed by chaos upon the state’s disintegration and so on, ad nauseaum. An important point to note of course, Katouzian never attempts to reduce Iranian history in its entirety to my rather simple rendition of his theory of state and society, but uses it as an analytical paradigm and/or heuristic device to illuminate the intractable tendencies and currents which have recurred and resurfaced throughout the course of Iranian history. Iranians are not locked in an inescapable cycle of despotism and chaos, but they can learn from the lessons of the past in choosing their future.

The Persians will undoubtedly include facts, arguments and conclusions which will fail to sit well with virtually every colour of the Iranian ideological spectrum – from royalist through to Islamist. This is characteristically Katouzian, who has always let his integrity as a scholar and the integrity of the historical record speak for themselves – and on a more personal level, his moderation, integrity and foresight vis-à-vis those dramatic developments through which his generation and others experienced first-hand, shines through not only in this book, but Katouzian’s entire corpus – one quite remarkable example of this is when at the very height of the revolution and in the face of the all-encompassing and vengeful wave gripping Iranian society, Katouzian as head of the London based Committee for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, issued a declaration in no uncertain terms condemning the seizure of the American embassy by a group of radical students know as ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Line of the Imam’ (Daneshjuyan-e Mosalman-e Peyrov-e Khatt-e Emam) – an act which has come to be lamented and subject to criticism by many of its formerly most ardent supporters and advocates (p339).

What Katouzian has also endeavoured to achieve in this book and his many other publications is to set the record straight, free from the outright and all-too familiar politicization of Iranian history refracted through the prism of conspiratorial rumours and self-justifying agendas. For instance, with significant historical documentation and evidence the reader is shown that Reza Shah wasn’t a mere pawn thrust into power by British imperialists, something which he himself even had doubts about! But Katouzian certainly never minces his words, laying out the progressive as well the more unsavoury moments of Iranian history as evinced by his exposition of Reza Shah’s steady decline into arbitrary despotism and the murder of many of his erstwhile nationalist supporters, in the years following his much applauded reinstatement of security and centralized authority in the intervening years between the end of the First World War and his coronation. “Every country has a certain type of regime. Ours is a one-person regime” as he once told his cabinet (p207).

We also find out that Mohammadreza Shah was far more independent of the United States, than many at the time of the revolution even dared to imagine. His refusal to bow to Nixon’s demands preceding the 1973 OPEC Oil Crisis and desire to shore up Iran’s power as a regional hegemon, with or without US backing, as well as widespread corruption, the machinations of SAVAK, the annihilation of political competition and consolidation of a one-party state under his control, and the growing megalomania and despotism in the course of the latter years of his rule. Though I’m unable to enumerate the myriad of instances in which Katouzian forcefully disabuses us of our preconceptions and prejudices, it’s an endearing and much needed trait which characterizes his scholarship and crucial if we are ever going to understand Iranian history free from the ideological shadow, which so often tarnished our understanding of events.

Though I have failed to do justice to the breath of material addressed and the depth of Katouzian’s erudition and analyses, the only antidote I can suggest is that you read this timely and no doubt enduring contribution to Iranian studies and effort at understanding both Iran’s past and its future. Quite simply, it’s a tour de force.

Eskandar Sadeghi,
Doctoral Candidate in Middle East Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

The Persians available from Amazon.com.

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