Tekyeh Dowlat, Tehran c.1894
Tekyeh Dowlat, Tehran c.1894
Courtesy City Photography Museum, Tehran.

The Qajar class structure

By Ahmad Ashraf & Ali Banuazizi
Encyclopaedia Iranica

In the Qajar era, as in previous periods, there continued to be a fundamental division between a narrow stratum of courtiers, state officials, tribal leaders, religious notables, landlords and great merchants, at the top, and the vast majority of peasants, tribes people, and laborers in agriculture, traditional industries and services, at the bottom.

Recognition of this binary division is evident in the oft-cited distinction in the Qajar sources between the nobles and notables (a'yan va ashraf), on the one hand, and the commoners or the masses (avam-al-nas or ra'iyat), on the other. The use of such terms of contrast as khavas va avam (the elite and the masses), aghniya va foqara (the affluent and the poor), and aqva va zu'afa (the powerful and the meek), moreover, indicate an implicit awareness of the three main dimensions of inequality, i.e., social status, material resources, and power, respectively.

Between those with privilege and power at the top and the masses there were several "middling strata", including local notables, headmen of urban neighborhoods and villages, ordinary landowners and merchants, master artisans and shopkeepers, and the like. After the ruler, members of his court, and major governors, the leading religious leaders enjoyed the highest social prestige, followed by other high state officials, tribal chieftains, great merchants, master artisans, and petty landed proprietors.

This ranking is reflected in the period's official decrees and ceremonies, manuals of titles, genealogies, urban histories and chronicles. An especially revealing document, which reflects quite accurately the prevailing image of the social order in the late Qajar period, is the electoral law (Nezam-nama-ye entekhabat), enacted on 19 Rajab 1324/12 August 1906. The purpose of the law was to set forth the basic procedures for electing deputies to the first session of the new national assembly (majles-e dar-al-shora-ye melli).

Instead of applying a simple "one man, one vote" rule, the law defined the electorate in terms of the following six distinct "classes" (tabaqas): (1) princes and the Qajars, (2) nobles and notables (a'yan va ashraf), (3) olama (religious leaders) and theology students (tollab), (4) merchants (tojjar), (5) landed proprietors and farmers (mallakin va fallahin), and (6) master artisans and shopkeepers (asnaf), and allotted each class a certain number of votes. In the case of the capital (to which 60 of a total of 156 deputies were allotted), the law set specific quotas for the number of deputies to be elected by each class, including four deputies each for the "princes and the Qajars" and the olama; 10 deputies each for the "merchants" and "landed proprietors and farmers"; and 32 deputies to be chosen by members of various specific crafts and trades.

Perhaps due to the inherent vagueness of the "nobles and notables" category, it was dropped from the apportionment list for Tehran, and, as a result, its members (mainly the governing notables) voted under the category of "landed proprietors and farmers". The law limited the right to vote to men over the age of 25 and restricted it further to those among them who belonged to one of the aforementioned categories. Thus, the vast majority of the population, i.e., those who fell outside of these social categories (including the masses of peasants, tribesmen, laborers, apprentices and foot-boys in the bazaar, etc.), was not enfranchised by the law and in effect not recognized as "citizens."

The Dominant Strata

The privileged strata in Qajar Persia included princes and tribal chieftains, governors and men of the sword, bureaucrats and men of the pen, the olama and prominent sadat (the descendents of the prophet). Not only were these elements exempted from taxation and were often granted benefices, they were remunerated from government revenues which were extracted in the main from the cultivators of land. These remunerations in the form of salaries, pensions, and subsidies comprised the bulk of state expenditure in the last decades of the 19th century. Thus, for example, of the total government budget of 39.6 million qerans in 1888-1889, 26.8 percent was allocated to the Shah's court and harem, princes of the royal household, subsidies to Qajar tribes, and pensions to nobles; 45.7 percent to the armed forces; and 27.5 percent to the men of the pen, including salaries (7.3 percent) and pensions (20.2 percent) of bureaucratic officials and the olama. The available budget accounts for other years show that the pensions of the olama and the sadat accounted for some 6 percent of the total annual expenditure

Numbering literally in the thousands, the Qajar princes descended from two distinct lines. The majority were the descendants of Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834), whose harem housed 160 wives who bore him 60 sons and 48 daughters who reached maturity. It is estimated that at the time of his death he left some 700 children and grandchildren. The second line consisted of the 26 sons and 22 daughters of Abbas Mirza (1788-1833) and their descendants, who formed a more powerful branch of the royal lineage.

Following Safavid customs, the suffix mirza was added to the first names of the Qajar princes and prominent princes were addressed by the title nawwab. Qajar princes were stratified according to their distance from the sovereign, their fathers' position, their mothers' family background, and their own achievements. They ranged from the powerful princes who were ranked only next to the Shah, to the middle-rank princes who held no official position and lived off their more affluent relatives or acquaintances, to those who occupied such relatively low status jobs as clerks at the telegraph office, scribes, entertainers, and the like, to those who lived in poverty. The condition of princesses was no less precarious: "[T]hey have been forced by destitution to marry persons of very inferior condition; and one lady in particular had taken for her husband a man who had been a cobbler."

In spite of such differences in their social standing, Qajar princes exhibited, at least on occasion, a modicum of group solidarity through their collective actions. A dramatic example of such solidarity occurred in Tehran on 27 July 1888, when some 200-300 princes formed a lynching crowd and burned the headman of Sangalaj quarter for arresting, killing, and burning one of their kind, Shahzada Jalil Mirza. In the course of the Constitutional Revolution, many privileged princes refused to join the political associations (anjomans) of other classes and formed their own anjoman; on the other side, many middle-rank princes (some of whom were among the emerging intelligentsia) supported the cause of the Constitutionalists.

On another occasion, when the anti-Constitutionalist princes refused to assemble and elect their representatives to the new Majles, as they were required to do by the newly enacted election laws, Mozaffar-al-Din Shah summoned them to the court and instructed them personally to choose their representatives. Qajar princes also maid a collective attempt to establish a school for poor children of the Qajar clan in this period.

The Religious Hierarchy

The Shi'i religious establishment in Qajar Iran consisted of a wide spectrum of groups and educational, cultural, and political functions, and whose socioeconomic positions ranged from the highest to nearly the lowest strata of society. At the apex of the religious hierarchy were the most knowledgeable jurisprudent (mojtahed-e a'lam) and other jurists (mojtaheds), including such eminent olama as Aqa Mohammad Baqer Behbahani (d. 1205/1801), the leader of the osuli school and the renewer of Shari'a at the turn of the 13th/19th century; Shaikh Mortaza Ansari (d. 1281/1864), who was generally acknowledged as the most eminent jurist of the time and who became the main mojtahed; and Mirza Hasan Shirazi (d. 1312/1894), in whose name the edict against the Tobacco Concession was disseminated in December, 1891.

In addition to these celebrated figures, there were other religious leaders who served as patrons of provinces and districts (olama-ye belad, molla-ye walayat). Often acting as intercessors and spokesmen for the common people, these clerics provided an important political linkage between the rulers and the ruled. More or less equal in status with the latter group, but lacking its political independence and popular base, were clerics who were appointed by the state to such official positions as leaders of Friday prayers (emam jom'a), chief provincial judges (Shaykh-al-Eslam), custodians (motawalli) of certain state-controlled religious establishments and charitable endowments (awqaf).

There were also positions that were often occupied by the upper-middle and middle level olama, including molla bashi (head of mollas), nezam-al-olama (a governmental position), sadr-e diwan-khana and nayeb-al-sadr (chief and deputy chief of justice department), and kaateb-e darbari (the palace orator. Often these positions tended to be hereditary, as, for example, was the case of the emam jom'as of Tehran and the emam Jom'as and Shaykh-al-Eslams of Isfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz, who had occupied their offices since late Safavid times.

At the lower levels of the olams hierarchy were teachers at the religious seminaries (madresas) and a large number of neighborhood mollas who acted as prayer leaders (pishnamaz, emam-e jama`at) of the neighborhood mosques in the urban centers. The latter, while not necessarily distinguished as scholars, were expected to be just (`adel), acted as trustees of the people, and some of them were in turn entrusted by the leading mojtaheds to collect religious taxes and charitable contributions on their behalf.

And, finally, there were the "men of the pulpit" (ahl-e menbar), including preachers (vo'az), and reciters of martyrdom verses of Emam Hosayn (raoza-khan). Though viewed with some ambivalence by the leading olama, popular religion flourished in the Qajar era in part thanks to the shahs' patronage of religious festivals and rituals. A prime example was Takiyya-ye Dawlat, an edifice constructed by Naser-al-Din Shah as the major auditorium for passion plays during the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hosayn. Similar rituals were organized in other major cities by the governors and the leading princes and notables in their private takiyahs. Merchants and affluent bazaaris, too, sponsored religious ceremonies in which hundreds of tollab, sadat, darwishes, and the poor were fed .

In terms of their socioeconomic position and political affiliations, the olama could be divided into three fairly distinct strata: (1) those who were affiliated with the royal court; (2) those who possessed considerable landed property or were closely associated with the provincial landowning classes; and (3) those who were connected with the urban middle and lower classes. The prime examples of those in the first group are Hajj Mirza Zayn-al-Abedin Zahir-al-Eslam (d. 1321/1903) and his son, Hajj Mirza Abu 'l-Qasem (d. 1346/1927), from the hereditary line of the leaders of Friday prayers (emam jom'as) of Tehran, who married Naser-al-Din Shah's and Mozaffar-al-Din Shah's daughters, respectively.

Many members of this clan became wealthy landowners and leading figures in national politics, enjoying a lavish lifestyle symbolized, among other things, by their use of the carriage as means of transportation around the city. Not surprisingly, they stood on the side of the reigning monarchs during both the Tobacco Rebellion of 1890-91 and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911.

The second stratum of the olama in socioeconomic terms was composed of local magnates who did not hesitate to use their religious and juridical authority to advance their personal wealth and political influence. Using the power and privileges of the office of religious courts, they forged close relationships with the governing notables and other powerful elements in the area. These clerics participated eagerly in state ceremonies, paid visits to the Shah, the viziers, and the governors, and were in turn visited by them.

They were involved in day-to-day politics of the cities, at times threatening the governing notables with mob actions that they could easily instigate -- especially against the religious minorities. Some became involved in moneylending (with interest rates as high as 40 to 50 percent), hoarded large supplies of grain for a higher profit, and were active in land speculation and urban real estate. For example, Hojjat-al-Eslam Mohammad-Baqer Shafti (d. 1260/1844), who became a grand jurist, rose from poverty to affluence in the course of his career. He amassed an enormous network of properties, including 400 caravansaries, 2,000 shops, numerous villages in Isfahan, Borujerd, Yazd, and Shiraz. His residence consisted of several large units in which his seven sons and their families lived, and had an entourage of 100 persons.

The third group consisted of mostly pious mojtaheds and middle-rank clerics in the major cities, who were affiliated neither with the court nor with the landowning classes, and whose social and economic bases of support were the urban bazaars. Their sources of livelihood were the charitable contributions and religious taxes paid by the bazaaris and mid-level landowners. Their favorite means of transport was the large white donkey. Aqa Sayk Hadi Najm-Abadi (d. 1320/1902) of Tehran, Hajj Fazel Mojtahed Khorasani (d. 1342/1923), Mirza Mohammad Taqi Hojjat al-Islam (d. 1312/1894), and Aqa Sayyed Mohammad-Baqer Dorca'i of Isfahan, known widely for their knowledge, piety, and asceticism, may be cited as examples of this stratum.

In addition to the above strata, the ranks of the "men of the turban" (arbab-e amamem) included in every city a large "crowd of mollahs, who live[d] by their wits, and [had] little of a priest but the name. They practice[d] astrology, [wrote] letters and contracts for those who [were] ignorant of penmanship, and contrive[d] by these means to prolong a miserable existence. Nothing [could] be lower than the character of these people; their hypocrisy, profligacy, and want of principle, [were] the subject of stories, epigrams, and proverbs without end." By many accounts, the majority of the religious students (tollab) at the religious centers were semi-illiterate and unscrupulous men who lived off the income from religious endowments (awqaf) and other charitable contributions from the community.

Other Iranica articles

Iranian diaspora, pre-Islamic: Maintaining ethnic and cultural identity under alien rule. (THE IRANIAN, Dec96/Jan97)

Persians in the Russian empire: 74,000 Persian subjects in Russia in 1897. (THE IRANIAN, Dec96/Jan97)

Divination: Art of gaining knowledge by observing and interpreting signs.(THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)


Zoroastrian Divorce: From ancient to contemporary times.(THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)


The Dog: The love-hate relationship with man's best friend. (THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

Sabt-e ... Ma: An interview with Ehsan Yarshater, editor of the Iranica, in Persian. (THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

Sharh-e Hal: An autobiography by Ehsan Yarshater, editor of the Iranica, in Persian. (THE IRANIAN, May/June 1996)



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