Charting the rise of modern Iran with Yale historian Abbas Amanat

Abbas Amanat
Thursday, November 1, 2018

Abbas Amanat, the William Graham Sumner Professor of History at Yale, poured decades of research into “Iran: A Modern History,” his new book charting five centuries of Iranian history and its encounters with the neighboring lands and the Western world.

Amanat guides readers through multiple dynasties, revolutions, civil wars, and foreign interventions, culminating in the rise of the Islamic Republic. He provides a detailed examination of Iranian politics, society, and culture that seeks to understand how the religious establishment seized control of the Iranian state and has maintained power for nearly 40 years.

The book has drawn positive reviews in the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, and The Times and Sunday Times of London.

Amanat, director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies at the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, spoke to YaleNews about his book. An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation follows.

Why choose the 16th century as a starting point for an exploration of the history of modern Iran?

The 1979 Iranian Revolution represented the first time in the modern history of the Muslim world that a movement dominated by the clergy took control of a state. Historically, this is a very unusual event, not just in the Islamic world, but anywhere.

I wanted to see whether there are certain characteristics within Shi’i Islam that facilitated this rise of the clerical class and brought it into a position to control the state. Shi’ism was declared as the state religion of Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. It was extensively, if not fully, enforced upon the Iranian peoples over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. This is not a singular phenomenon. There are similar examples elsewhere, such as the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII.

Shi’ism has played a crucial role in shaping Iran and developing its cohesion as a country. For a long period — virtually five centuries — the religious establishment was in coexistence with the state. It was patronized by the state, protected by it, and materially rewarded by it. Religion and state were seen as two pillars of stability in Iranian society. That’s why it is important to go back to the origins of this historical project and examine what happened since then.

How has Iran’s culture helped the country maintain its national identity through centuries of revolution and political upheaval?

I argue that Shi’ism as a belief system, supported and reinforced by the region’s geopolitical complexity, preserved Iran’s socio-cultural identity. Yet Iran’s historical experience also contributed to its sense of national cohesion.

When the Arab armies of Islam invaded the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the 7th century, Iran ceased to exist as a political entity, but it maintained the Persian language. It adopted elements from Arabic and changed its script — more or less like the way Latin influenced the Anglo-Saxon language in the development of English. Through the preservation of the language, Iran managed to preserve a collective memory of its past, which is also rather unusual. For instance, Muslim armies conquered Syria and Egypt at the same time, but both adopted Arabic. Basically, the memory of Islamic conquest became the foundation myth for the sense of Islamic identity that emerged in Egypt, Syria and eventually Iraq. Iran was different. It preserved its memories of pre-Islamic times and grew quite proud of them.

What was poetry’s role in preserving this collective memory?

Iran developed a strong poetry tradition very early. It was enriched over the course of time by mythology, such as “The Book of Kings” by Ferdowsi in the 10th century, and various other examples that Iranians still revere. In the past, long passages of verse were memorized and popularized by storytellers in the coffeehouses. It wasn’t just in the royal court, it was popular among the general public.

Sufism — a mystical interpretation of Islam — enriched Persian poetry. Refined Sufi themes were expressed in Persian verse narrative and lyrical odes. A great example of the former is the poet Rumi in the 13th century and of the latter is the poet Hafez in the 14th century.

As I have tried to show, in modern times in addition to the above themes, poetry became an important vehicle for expressing sociopolitical messages and especially voicing political protest. One can see it in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to 1911 and thereafter. There are numerous examples in my book of how poetry becomes part of the political discourse up to the present and despite the rise of today’s mass media. It was a major factor in preserving a sense of collective awareness among the Iranian intelligentsia.

And music?

Iran preserved its own musical tradition, which is based on a modal system, but yet it is diverse and adaptive. Over centuries it attracted numerous melodies and tunes of the pastoral countryside as well as the nocturnal music of the taverns, royal court and recitations in the mournful Shi’i ceremonies. Although Islamic law bans music, and there was some degree of opposition by the jurists, musical interest remained strong in Iran. 

Likewise, it is important to note, that Iran preserved its own painting tradition, contrary to the strict interpretation of Islamic law, which prohibits production of images. Since the 14th century, if not earlier, one can see Persian miniature book illustrations. There are magnificent examples of it in museums around the world and at the Beinecke Library.

Finally, Iran — along with the rest of the Muslim world, but perhaps a bit more — preserved a culture of leisure. Wine drinking, for example, remained in practice. Much of Iran’s lyrical poetry is about imbibing wine and the ambiance of the tavern where there was music and dancing. These, too, ran against strict Islamic practices with a puritan undertone.

How did the relationship between the religious establishment and the state become adversarial?

As Iran adopted selective modernizing measures in the 19th century, the society gradually changed. But it was from the early decades of the 20th century, under the Pahlavi rule (1921-1979), that many institutions previously under the control of the clerical establishment, such education and the courts of law, were secularized. For instance, in the course of the 19th century, the Qajar dynasty tried to enforce a European or Ottoman model to create a more state-based judicial system but the religious establishment resisted. In the 20th century, as the state became more centralized and more secularized, it seized control of many of the functions, privileges, and institutions that were the domain of the clerical establishment. The state created a new ministry of justice and its own secular public education that successfully competed with the religious education of the old colleges, known as madrasas.

In the West many religious seminaries managed to secularize — Yale is a very good example, but colleges in the Shi’i world, including Iran, resisted modernization. The curriculum and pedagogy didn’t change. Therefore, it was easier for the state to overshadow them by instituting secular public education.

What role did oil play in the isolation of Iran’s religious establishment?

It was an important factor. Iran’s oil industry was basically a colonial industry created and developed by the British. A massive amount of the revenue went to the British government while a much smaller percentage went to the Iranian government. But even that share of the revenue was crucial for a nearly bankrupt Iranian state in the post-WWI era. It provided the necessary funds for greater centralization; for enforcing modern reforms; for strengthening the armed forces; and for the creation of an autocratic regime under the Pahlavis that no longer sought the traditional support of the religious establishment.

The religious establishment no longer had the privileges it had enjoyed in the past.  Some of its endowments were taken way. It was impoverished and the younger generation of clerical elite was lured to become part of the state bureaucracy. The nature and structure of the clerical community thus changed, and as a result it became more prone to radicalization in the latter part of the 20th century. It was left out of the state-modern sphere and even though it preserved ties to the traditional bazaar business sector, it was by and large isolated.

How did the religious establishment come to adopt its radical political agenda?

There is a paradox here. On the one hand as a result of isolation the clerical community became more conservative and failed to modernize the Shi’i Islamic law. It clung to the same arcane curriculum and teaching methods. It remained a medieval system and that — in a curious fashion — contributed to its radicalization.  You would have expected that a conservative establishment — the Catholic Church or Ultra Orthodox Judaism for instance — would not embrace a hardcore political agenda. It could have remained outside the realm of politics altogether, as in other instances in the Islamic world or in the Christian world. 

Yet for Iran’s religious establishment, a radical political agenda became an alternative to engaging in modernization of Islamic law. By doing so it proved to be successful in attracting certain sectors of the society that were not the beneficiaries of the Pahlavi state’s secularization project. As a result, you see the emergence of a radical religious establishment led by Khomeini and his cohorts as a means of empowerment. At the same time, the Iranian state under the shah became more repressive in the 1960s and 1970s hence closing off avenues to political participation, such as a free press, the development of political parties, free critique of government policies, and absence of free and fair elections.

How did the state’s repression feed the religious establishment’s support?

In such circumstances, forces of popular dissent had few other options except resorting to the relatively untouched environment of the mosques and annual Shi’i mourning ceremonies. Despite its powerful security apparatus, the government did not succeed in closing down these venues where the clergy could express its veiled, but effective, criticism of the Pahlavi state and could blame the shah for its presumed subservience to the West, and especially the United States.

As I have shown in my book, as early as in the late 1960s the clerical community, and especially Ayatollah Khomeini and his students and cohorts, had managed to adopt and make their own much of the nativist anti-Westernism of the intellectual left, such as Jalal al-Ahmad; the remnants of liberal nationalism of the Mosaddeq era; the romantic revolutionary rhetoric of the lay Islamists, such as Ali Shari’ati; and the ideology of the Marxist-Islamist urban guerilla organizations.

How has the religious establishment and the Islamic Republic leveraged anti-Western sentiment to its advantage?

The radicalized clerical community even prior to the rise of the Islamic Republic had adopted a xenophobic perspective almost to the level of an ideology. This was partly justified because of Iran’s bitter experiences of twice being occupied in the 20th century by Western powers — during WWI and WWII. Moreover, twice in recent memory European and the U.S. interventions undermined Iran’s democratic institutions during the Constitutional Revolution and again in 1953.

The Islamic Republic exploited, and is still exploiting, to its own advantage these sentiments that Iranians justifiably harbored because of their troubled history of encounters with the 19th century imperial powers and the 20th century superpowers. If anything, the religious establishment is against liberal nationalism, but it saw a political advantage to be had by condemning the West and accusing it of destroying Iran’s democracy. We should remember that such condemnation, a lip service, comes from a regime that is opposed to any of the political freedoms associated with democratic ideals and institutions.

How has the Islamic Republic managed to endure for nearly 40 years?

From a historian’s perspective, one thing is apparent: The Islamic Republic has been in a state of influx almost from its start. It has managed to survive in this state of perpetual crisis — and sometimes even benefited from it — because confrontation, or anticipation of confrontation with a nemesis, that is with the United States, played into its hand. It gives the regime the pretention of legitimacy as the core to national resistance against Western hegemony and regime change. The sense of emergency hence contributed to its survival.

Moreover, the ruling clergy and its associated groups, such as the Revolutionary Guards, although a small minority devoid of the true support of a majority of Iranians, survived in power probably because of a strong sense of group solidarity. Despite their dismal record in improving the economy and developing the industrial base, and most recently dealing with Iran’s mounting environmental problems, the regime has been successful in eliminating any organized source of opposition inside Iran (and outside). It was also successful in making Iran a regional power, a trend rooted in the Pahlavi era, and in engaging Iran in potentially dangerous enterprises in Syria and Lebanon.  

Will the regime survive another 40 years?

How will the regime evolve? It remains to be seen whether it continues to be in a state of flux or, alternatively, it manages to reform itself through a gradual process. One thing is clear: If the current regime caves under another popular upheaval, the outcome may not be promising at all. The recent Middle East popular movements of political reform, such as the Arab Spring, have by and large failed. Likewise, any attempt toward a regime change through military option or covert operation almost definitely helps strengthen the regime’s popular base. On the other hand, if it is left to its own devices, will Iran become another China? Whether it moves away from a hostile ideological position to a more pragmatic regime with capitalist economy and friendlier posture toward the outside world is a matter of speculation. The recent U.S. departure from the Five Plus One nuclear deal with Iran, and the impending re-imposition of sanctions, does not offer a bright prelude for success of the latter option.

Watch Professor Amanat’s interview on The MacMillan Report about Iran: A Modern History 


Written by Mike Cummings for YaleNews.