Why Iran Fell Behind

Iranian self-centrism and “victim psychology syndrome”


Why Iran Fell Behind
by Dariush Gilani

From time to time this historical question comes up. Iranians wonder how it was that they once had a great civilization and, at its peak, they ruled 19 kingdoms and when they compare it to the present time they are frustrated with finding an answer.

There are different schools of thought which attempt to find reasons for the stagnation and regression of Iran’s civilization on the invasions and the conspiracies of foreigners. Thus the fall of the last great civilization of Iran, i.e. Sasanians, is blamed on the Arabs, the inability and weakness of Iran in the middle ages blamed on the invasions of Turks and Mongols, and lack of development in modern ages is blamed on the colonization of European countries or the United States. What all of these people have in common is that they all find the fault lies with outsiders and not with Iranian geography, the peculiarity of its religion, social system and its government which, hand in hand, are the most prominent reasons why this falling behind took place. First theory: Great minds in recent Iranian history such as Sadegh Hedayat and Ahmad Kasravi are among many others who, in various degrees of racial intensity, believe that the Arab invasion and the onset of Islam were the main culprits which ended the Sasanian dynasty when Iran was at its pinnacle of its civilization. They further maintain the opinion that Islam, establishing a religious-ideological system, prevented scientific and intellectual advancement in Iran for a century and then digressed it before stopping the growth completely.

Proponents of such point of view argue that if the Sasanian civilization had not been defeated Iran would have gone shoulder to shoulder in civilization with Europe. If the ancient religion of Iran had survived the invasion, they maintain, we would have had a better chance for advancement in science. That sort of simplification of the argument is a convenient answer to a very complex question. When Iran had a great civilization during nearly 450 years of Ashkanian (Parthians) dynasty we had a parliament and practiced Greek philosophy. When a Zoroastrian holy man, namely Ardeshir Babakan, ended the Parthian reign he brought religion into the court and allowed the clergy to meddle with the government. He established the first theocracy in Iran with a semi-cast social system which was not too popular with the masses. He allowed the Zoroastrian Moghs to interfere with politics. It was the same clergy who advised the King of Iran to burry 60,000 of Mazdak’s followers (head first in lime pits ) in one day or have Mani killed. In return, the clergy awarded the king the title of “ The Just”, the same clergy that appointed a dozen kings and two queens (in the absence of male heirs) in the last days of the waning rule of Sasanians. In the end, the marriage of religion and government destroyed both of them. If religion had been separate from the government, Sasanians could have fallen but the religion would have survived. Similarly in the fourth century the Roman Empire accepted Christianity and declared it as its official religion. Up until then the church did not have a share in politics. But the union of these two gradually resulted in the fall of the empire and the loss of humanitarian messages of the Christ. The consolidation of religion and government transmitted the innate brutality in the fabric of the government to this religion which was devoid of violence. In the name of Christ the European Church and kings committed horrible crimes for many centuries. The brutal treatment of non-Christian societies by the Church throughout history, and its world conquests have not been less than that of Islam. The government viciousness in the Islamic countries has more to do with the backwardness and under-development of these societies. Contemporary Islam is the religion of under-developed societies and not the other way around.

Yes it is true that the Arab hordes killed, enslaved and brutalized hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the years following 634 AD. The intensity of the savagery of the Arabs was, however, mostly due to their backward social and cultural background and not their ideology. After the death of the prophet in 632 there was a chaos among the tribes who had made peace with the prophet before he had died. In an effort to get rid of these hotheaded tribes, the elders of the ruling tribes in Mecca encouraged some of these trouble making tribes to invade Iranian border towns thinking that Iranian army would take care of these rebels. The same ruse was later used by Pope Urban II in 12th century encouraging the unemployed masses to go on Crusades. Once the Arab tribes gained early gains and closed in on Tisfoon , Omar sent his general to take over the invasion forces in the name of Islam.

Within decades after the victory of the Arabs, Iranians took over the administration of the new governments. Since the Arabs learned all facets of running a government from the Iranians, the fusion of religion and government was also transferred from Iranian prime ministers to the Arabs, which became part of the religious imperatives.

The social laws of a society are based on logical, relative, changeable agreements controlled by the will of masses. In a theocracy the religious and canonic principles are faith, finality, non changeability and control by the will of an individual. The merger of religion and government creates a more central and absolutist rule. Such governments were not strangers to brutality. Thus it made no difference what religion Iranians had. If a religion merges with the ruling government the result is, soon or later, the same.

The peculiar nature of Islam however made this subsequent consolidation a lot easier than other religions. There are two reasons for the choice of Islam as the official religion of the state. First, where in Christianity the church and the court had a separate identity, Islam had both of these identities at its inception. That is, Islam was born as a state-religion ideology. Arab rulers issued both religious and governmental orders. The religion brought with itself its own set of rules for marriage, divorce, criminal justice, division of inheritance, etc. The second reason for the popularity of Islam as the official religion is the defiant nature of Islam where injustice is not tolerated by the faithful. The harsh and inhospitable natural conditions of the Arabian Peninsula had infused a sense of callousness in its tenets. The defiance and state-religion qualities of Islam made it an ideal official religion to merge with to complete the inherent viciousness in the composition of governments. Thus it was much easier for the power hungry rulers to use Islam to put down any dissent, internal or external. There is a general belief among the Iranians that Islam was forced upon them and if they had a choice they would have preferred to return to the old religion. There are arguments both pro and con regarding this outlook. However, whether true or false, it is conveniently forgotten that Iranians themselves had a big role in the inculcation and spread of Islam. After the end of the rule of the Arab Khalifs, Iranians became supporters and protectors of Islam In 945 AD Ahmad Booyeh captured Baghdad and ended the 311-year reign of the Arabs. He was in such a high position and stature that he could have changed the country’s religion or ended the religious rule of the Khalif. Yet he and the following local rulers became ardent supporters of Islam. The Booyeh king reinstated the Khalif in Baghdad and returned to Gilan but he stopped on his way to build the city of Qom as the holy city of Shiites. Even the greatest king of the Deylami dynasty (Azedod doleh), who also had the Khalifeh in Baghdad under his thumb, gave his own daughter to him as a wife so he could have a grandchild in Baghdad court.

The underlying grounds for the appearance of autocratic rulers in our part of the world, or “Oriental Despotism“, are location, social trend, natural condition and geography. We all know that the most precious commodity in ancient times was water, which we did not very much of in our plateau. Constructions of dams, wells and Qanats required the labor of masses of people and the supervision of this vast water system necessitated a central disciplined government. Obviously, the rulers reigned with an iron fist and made sure that , at all costs , these valuable water sources were protected. The destruction of these water systems by the invading hordes was a death blow to Iran .

After going through its Golden Age stage in history Islam became a tool in the hand of administrators and ministers of Turkish kings and Khalifs in Baghdad. Scholasticism or ( awyin é modarresi) is blamed by some Islamist scholars as the main factor for the corruption of Islam and decadence of the Islamic governments. In this ideology science comes to this world to be in the service of divinity and the research in the worldly discoveries must be limited to the recognition of the Divine source. Any discussion or research in the scientific issues, or basically any non religious instruction and learning of sciences in the schools of the Khalifeh and Iran were forbidden. Only religious teachings were permitted. This mentality was passed from the West to the East. Europeans were able to shed this dogma and move on, yet the East decayed. The proponents of scholasticism such as Khajeh Nezam ol Molk and Imam Ghazzali maintained that their rulers should employ a policy quite similar to Machiavellian system of government in later Italy. They believed that there were three forces in the society ; “Wisdom, Fury and Lust.” These forces are then compared to and identified with the roles of the King, Army and the Peasants.

Whereas the power of wisdom uses a coercive force to control lust, the king then must use the military to place the peasants where they belonged. The peasants must always fear the king and the military. Khajeh clearly advises his kings not to give the peasants any freedom, which would be harmful for the image of the monarch since, according to him, peasants must always fear the might of the king and the king should, from time to time, punish the people. Don’t teach them to love you because if you teach them how to love they can also learn how to hate. They must only know how to fear. Khajeh and Ghazzali bear huge responsibilities for the instillation of scholasticism in Iran and Islam . Where Khajeh was the “political” advocate of this philosophy to manage the vast empire of Seljuqs , Ghazzali , on the other hand was the “spiritual” promoter in Baghdad. Both Khajeh and Ghazzali opened a vast system of religious schools in their respective spheres of influence and they encouraged the faithful to study only religion. Ghazzali even condemned the learning of the game of chess or such sciences as math. Obedience to the government was now a divine duty . The demise of science in Baghdad took a century to be concretely settled in Iran. Philosophical thinking dependent on natural sciences in Iran had a major role in the rise of population and cities in the country. City dwelling was on its way to grow the formation of Bourgeois class enabling Iran to undergo its own renaissance and reformation within a couple of centuries. But at the height of promotion of city dwelling Mongol hordes (1220), Holagu Khan 1257), Tamerlane (1381) razed the cities one after the other and, except for a few cities, turned Iranian cities into rubbles .

Defeatism, despair, resignation and despondency in Iranians gave birth to Sufism or Mysticism, which followed the invasions of these central Asian hordes. It was the child of the demise of philosophy which, contrary to discussion and research, mysticism had no inclination to math or natural philosophy.

The second group believe that the invasion of genocidal Mongols in the 13th century and the ensuing attacks of the central Asian tribes are the main factors behind the regression of Iranian civilization. It is true that these invasions caused irreparable damage to agricultural and the irrigation infrastructure. The massive subterranean Qanats were destroyed, damns were broken, rivers were rerouted and wells were poisoned . The Mongols turned Northern Iran from an agricultural land into cattle pastures. They viciously depopulated the country (estimated into a few million dead) forcing the populace to emigrate. The destruction of water sources contributed to the stoppage of physical and mental progress for centuries. The Mongols also heralded a new and peculiar feudalism. The ensuing invasion of the Turkish tribes and their use of Islam as a state religion further prevented Iran from continuing its social evolution. What we Iranians forget is that the longest rule of invading hordes was by the Turkish tribes controlling Iran all the way to the Pahlavi Dynasty (maybe with the exception of the Zand Dynasty)

Yet Iran rose up again and again, and within 300 years, she peaked to a level of civilization not much less glorious than that of contemporary Europeans. At this juncture the Safavi kings had regained almost all the territories lost to the Arabs in 7th century. For 220 years some advancement was made during the rule of these kings. That was the last time Iran was firmly a major power with secure borders. Yet, scholasticism returned to the country and, facing a major military to its west, a new sect was born. With the introduction of 12 imamate Shi’a sect as a defensive identity and ideology, Iran’s demise as a superpower started to gain momentum. The religion became full partner of the Shah and , as a gesture of this union, the palace of the Shah and the Mosque in Esfahan were joined from behind. Why Iran did not follow in the shoe steps of the West? The unprecedented advancement of the West in the 16th century in capitalism and trade needs to be analyzed so that the answer to the question is found.

The third theory finds the colonization of the West as the responsible factor. They suggest that the coming of western capitalization economy and the spread of new military industry was the main roadblock to the growth of the under developed regions. This theory which mainly was the mindset of the socialist countries, who do not differentiate between the civilization in the West and imperialist territory expansion, advocate that under developed nations such as Iran are the victims of the conspiracies of world expansionist imperialist countries. Western colonizers did not need to directly block technological growth in Iran. The political and economical system of Iran did not allow the growth, creativity and proliferation of Iranians. The public mentality was controlled under central power either by the tyrannical dictator or reactive sheiks. These two centers of power considered themselves the hub of all the world knowledge. Only by shattering these two centers of power was it possible for Iranians to have the groundwork for financial and intellectual growth . This system was shattered in the West through the rise of the bourgeois class. If the Western powers later influenced the Iranian society and politics was because the social structure of the West and East were completely different. The West had feudal lords who had their own lands and armies and paid lip service to the king. If they did not like the reigning monarch they could have removed him or her. In Iran there was no independent feudal system; all of the country was owned by the king and nobody could remove him from the throne unless by military action, which only resulted from the change of power from one tribe to another. The power and wealth of the king in the West were limited where the king in the East had limitless power and he could have taken anybody’s land at will and given it to the others.

Contrary to the West, social revolutions did not place in Iran outside of the religion. Mass uprisings were mostly in religious forms. Certain events in Europe such as renaissance and the scientific revolution increasingly required water routes in the oceans, which resulted in the discovery of the New World. It further brought about the Commercial Revolution and Mercantilism. There was no structure for the appearance of growth of capitalism. The geography of Iran, tribal systems, agricultural, economy lack of private ownership of land, and centrality of power in the government are also partially responsible for this regression. So far we have studied the internal and external factors happening in the immediate vicinity of the Iranian plateau. We have not looked at certain time lines which had great impact on the slowing down of Iranian civilization.

In 1386 the Ming Dynasty finally pushed the Mongols out of China and immediately stopped the land trade from China to Europe through Iran in order to make sure that the Mongols would never regain revenue from the land trade and return to China when they were stronger. The new emperors then began a new campaign of naval buildup for the trade with Europe. The first victim of this decision was Iran which had until then benefitted for centuries from earning money from the caravans going back and fourth through Iran. Not only Iran had been the recipient of great amount of revenue she also was the recipient beneficiary of science, new technology, inventions, food , fruits , philosophy and a lot more in transit. The “Silk Route”, the artery of Iran’s livelihood, was rapidly drying out. With the defeat of Mongols in China and Iran the Islamic lands were divided in three Muslim realms in India, Iran and Turkey. By far the most important event in the 15th century which shook the world and caused an everlasting impact on Iran’s history was the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The fall of Byzantium Empire had a ripple effect on Europe. The Turks straddled all known trade routes (both see and land, and they immediately went to work and implemented unreasonable tariffs. Since they also captured Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula the Red Sea trade route was also controlled by them. Europe was now surrounded by two Islamic powers, the other being the Moors in Spain.

The feudal in Europe then adopted the Ming policy of concentrating on the sea trade. They supported the campaign of King Ferdinand to take out the weaker Islamic power in Spain and poured money into ship building industry. European sea captains had already had good experience with post Crusade centuries taking pilgrims back and forth to Holy Land. One thing Europe had a lot was access to the oceans and abundant lumber. The emplacement of Ottomans in Istanbul caused Europe to seek alternative sea routes to India and China. It led to the discovery of North America and successive sea routes around Africa. Only and only it was because of the Turkish hegemony in the Middle East that the New World was discovered in 1492. Otherwise America would have been discovered many years later.

The more ocean faring ships were made the more the middle calls got richer. The interests of the merchants were now with the investors and not with the church. The capitalist and middle class movement was in no way after the destruction of the church. Rather they wanted a balanced and logical church establishment to return to its principle role that is strengthening the social ethics and performing religious rights.

Gradually the church was told to let go of the political power and return to the religious bases. One after the other the Western countries went through a second renaissance in scientific and technical advancements without any interference from the church. One after the other all the countries with Atlantic harbors became richer and more powerful.

In the 19th century the Russian military, with the backing of the power of the church, became the last bastion of aggressions against European revolutions of the middle class. The new burgouise of entire Europe could not have been victorious in their revolution unless the main base for the old feudal system, that is the church and the military of Russia were defeated. With the elimination of this greatest foundation of traditionalism in Europe in 1917 the middle class revolutions of central and east Europe were fruitful one after the other. The scientific, technological and rationalistic advancements of the capitalist societies did not leave any room for the absolute rule of the church. Because the criterion for the arbitration of the people’s conduct was transferred from the region of tradition and book to the region of law, and popular election. While Europe was experiencing rapid growth in civilization, Iran was going through a stagnation period of major proportion. Blocked on the west by the Ottomans and trickling trade from the east, the Safavi kings had to do major reforms to save their country. A new religious sect was introduced to give a unique identity to the Iranian people versus the other two Turkish powers in India and Turkey who were Sunni. This move had tremendous effect on Iran’s history; it saved Iran’s sovereignty against the Ottomans, on the one hand, and it brought a more complex set of religious beliefs on the other. Yet for the first time in 800 years of massacres by invading hordes Iran was secure. These fateful centuries changed the mindset (and the features) of the Iranians. The legacy of the past is reflected in the personality of the Iranians of the present. The rough period of foreign dominations has affected them more so than the glorious days of the Persian Empire. It has shaped the attitudes of the Iranians of today to be one of individualism (except in times of national crisis) and hostile to any authority (unless they truly respect it). As a defense mechanism against 600 years of genocide, Iranians adopted Shi’a religion in the 16th century to protect themselves politically and to keep the integrity of their sovereignty. Safavi kings also introduced their own version of mystical wisdom of Sufism which ensured lasting happiness and peace of mind for those Iranians who could not stand the test of hard life. The combination of these traits, political as well as mystical, have shaped Iranian attitudes toward life, the ability to appreciate life in all its sweetness and bitterness. The spirit of aloofness, along with an unlimited sense of humor, helps Iranians endure their daily encounters with life.

While Europe was rich in water, waterways and lumber for its ship making, Iran was poor in waterways, with no lumber in the south and limited access to the oceans since the Portuguese navy patrolled Persian Gulf. By 1620 Shah Abbas was able to defeat the Portuguese and gain some sort of sovereignty over the water ways. Yet the British moved in later and no sound system of sea trade was adopted by the rulers in Iran. The secret of the appearance of civilization in the contemporary West should not be found in science rather it should be sought in the feudalism of Europe. The seeds of the emergence of this civilization is hidden in the decentralization of power and the economy of the feudalism at the time.

The fact that Iran is embroiled in one dictatorship after the demise of another is a multi-dimensional phenomena which is not limited only to the political arena. Rather it entails all foundations of the society. The most important factor is the alliance of politics and economy and the hegemony of the commerce bourgeois which is a unique leftover of the Asian production system. Religion must also be added to this unity. The merger of these three institutions prevents the appearance of the important principle of growth which is “competition”. The independence of these three institutions in the political, economic and religious arenas are the prerequisite to advancement. In order get rid of a political dictatorship we need economic growth; for that we need social growth, and for that we need political growth.

It is not right to maintain that whatever is logical, scientific and positive was Iranian, or that its religions and whatever is anti-scientific, anti-philosophical and negative have to do with Arabs and Islam. Those who associate the name of Iran with progress and scientific achievement and relate whatever is ugly and incorrect to the Arabs or Islam will acquire a kind of destructive racism. Such viewpoint finds its roots in Iranian self-centrism and “victim psychology syndrome”. Such mindset always searches for a foreign perpetrator to justify his weakness, defeat or lack of success . He pretends that others prevent him to advance in the world “A great civilization will not be destroyed from the outside unless it is destroyed from the inside” , according to Will Durant. Therefore the growth and strength of a civilization must take form from within the same society.

Principle book used for this article is "Why Iran Fell Behind" by Kazem Alamdari with the same title


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yeganeh Sadeghi

Excellent Article

by yeganeh Sadeghi on

Every Iranian should read this article. The writer takes direct aim at Arab haters who believe that the Iranians are the best race in the world and pure and noble. The writer has meticuolously and chronologically taken Mr. Kazem Alamdari’s masterpiece book and , using historical facts and timelines, clearly proves that Iranians should not blame others for their problems and look within themselves for an answer. Kudos to Mr. Gilani ( and Mr. Alamdari) for enlightening us.

Hamid Y. Javanbakht

Cultural Syncretism

by Hamid Y. Javanbakht on

What made Iran so powerful was its ability to borrow and resynthesize elements from diverse cultures, we have to make ourselves more globally aware, everyone has a unique way of doing so.

"Syncretism is the attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining," but see below for the origin of the word. Syncretism may involve attempts to merge and analogise several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.

Syncretism also occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture (see eclecticism) as well as politics (see syncretic politics)."

"This paper presents a way of looking at the world that enables us to foster the diversity inherent in the human species as it exists today without perpetuating our alienation from nature and from each other. By exploring the concept of unity in diversity as an expression of unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation, this paper offers a resolution to many of the concerns felt by those who are resistant to the spread of one particular cultural hegemony and those who fear that awareness of differences can lead to greater intolerance."

"Rifkin puts a brilliant argument about how the identities that defined us are a function of size of community we interact with. In the medieval ages, the sense of identity was limited to only a local tribe. Hence, our empathy extended up to only blood ties. In the hydraulic and agricultural economy, more sophisticated interactions gave rise to collective and theological consciousness that detribalized us and extended associations based on religious ties ("All Christians saw each other as their extended family"). The industrial revolution created the nation-state identities as we see today. And the internet age is making us feel empathic on a global scale to the suffering as we witnessed the overwhelming response through the internet to the victims of the Haiti Earthquake in 2009. He questions if  we should stop at our attachment to identities of a nation and whether we would eventually empathize with all human life and ultimately, the entire biosphere and planet. He concludes by saying that we have no choice but to feel the oneness of life and look at all world as large extended family and attune ourselves."

Hamid Y. Javanbakht

Scholarly Realism

by Hamid Y. Javanbakht on

Mr. Gilani,
Thank you for the in depth analysis, your realism is refreshing, and your service to the Iranian community invaluable.
Post-Revolutionary Islamic Discourses on Modernity in Iran: Expansion and Contraction of Human Subjectivity

"O people of Persia! Awake from your drunken sleep! Rise up from your lethargy! Be fair in your judgment: will the dictates of honor permit this holy land, once the wellspring of world civilization, the source of glory and joy for all mankind, the envy of East and West, to remain an object of pity, deplored by all nations? She was once the noblest of peoples: will you let contemporary history register for the ages her now degenerate state? Will you complacently accept her present wretchedness, when she was once the land of all mankind’s desire? Must she now, for this contemptible sloth, this failure to struggle, this utter ignorance, be accounted the most backward of nations?
Were not the people of Persia, in days long gone, the head and front of intellect and wisdom? Did they not, by God’s grace, shine out like the daystar from the horizons of Divine knowledge? How is it that we are satisfied today with this miserable condition, are engrossed in our licentious passions, have blinded ourselves to supreme happiness, to that which is pleasing in God’s sight, and have all become absorbed in our selfish concerns and the search for ignoble, personal advantage?
This fairest of lands was once a lamp, streaming with the rays of Divine knowledge, of science and art, of nobility and high achievement, of wisdom and valor. Today, because of the idleness and lethargy of her people, their torpor, their undisciplined way of life, their lack of pride, lack of ambition—her bright fortune has been totally eclipsed, her light has turned to darkness. “The seven heavens and the seven earths weep over the mighty when he is brought low.”
It should not be imagined that the people of Persia are inherently deficient in intelligence, or that for essential perceptiveness and understanding, inborn sagacity, intuition and wisdom, or innate capacity, they are inferior to others. God forbid! On the contrary, they have always excelled all other peoples in endowments conferred by birth. Persia herself, moreover, from the standpoint of her temperate climate and natural beauties, her geographical advantages and her rich soil, is blessed to a supreme degree. What she urgently requires, however, is deep reflection, resolute action, training, inspiration and encouragement. Her people must make a massive effort, and their pride must be aroused."


Our Strength comes from Freedom as delivered by Monarchy

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

Therefore the growth and strength of a civilization must take form from within the same society.

Yes and this won't happen as long as we try and reform a bunch of wolves or build a system based on giving people the choice of which wolf will govern them.

Freedom is best delivered by a monarch.