Map I.1. Contemporary Iran


Long before Iran came to be known in the mid-twentieth century as one of the countries of the Middle East, for nearly two and a half millennia it was known to the Western world as Persia. An ancient land in western Asia, it is strategically located between the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and China to its east; Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world to its west; Russia to the north; and the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula to its south. At the crossroads of two major trade routes—the “Silk Road,” passing through northern and central Iran, and the so-called the spice route, from South Asia through the Persian Gulf—for many centuries Iran, as a regional empire, was fertile ground for cultural, commercial, and population exchanges with its neighbors. As early as the second millennium BC, when the Indo-European pastoralists first entered the Iranian plateau, and as late as the twentieth century, Iran was host to a diverse ethnic, cultural, and linguistic population, either through conquest or through peaceful settlement. Despite prolonged political lapses, for two and a half millennia Iran remained a cultural entity distinguished by its indigenous characteristics and recognized as such by the world around it. Since the early sixteenth century, when the Safavid state came into being, Iran has maintained an uninterrupted political identity.

For most of the period up to the mid-seventh century, when the Sasanian Empire fell to the conquering Arab armies of Islam, Iran (or, more accurately, the Persian Empire) managed to outlive as a political community a number of its rivals to the west, starting with the Greeks and continuing with the Romans and then the Byzantine Empire of late antiquity. This despite devastating defeats, nomadic invasions, ethnic hegemonies, changes in its religious identity, and recurring domestic upheavals. Iran perhaps is one of the most invaded and most revolution-prone countries in world history, a debatable merit with lasting consequences. In between the Islamic conquest and the rise of the Safavid state, Iran survived more as a cultural than a unified political entity, in part because of geography and ecology, but also because of the prevalence of the Persian language and high culture. In adopting the Arabic script in the early ninth century, Iran preserved much of its key cultural paradigms, myths, and memories.

The Perso-Islamic renaissance that occurred soon thereafter in the eleventh century, and long remained at the heart of Muslim cultural efflorescence, helped shape Iran’s cultural identity. Yet classical Persian language coexisted with a wide range of other languages and dialects, regional cultures, and customs and ethnicities within and beyond Iran proper. The Persianate world—as Marshall Hodgson, the historian of Islamic civilization called it—stretched throughout eastern Islamic lands, from Central Asia and Xinjiang (Khotan in Persian) to Hindustan, and spread from the Caucasus, Anatolia (today’s Asian Turkey), and the southern Balkans to Mesopotamia.


The Persians, and before them the Medes, were among the first people known to the ancient Greeks outside their own geographic sphere. As early as the sixth century BC, when Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 BC–330 BC) conquered Asia Minor, the Persians came to occupy in the Greek mind the place of a formidable Other. For more than two centuries the Persians inspired in the Greek imagination a mixture of awe and fear toward an imperial power, which, in contrast to the vulnerable Greek city-states, was based on a centralized state and ruled by the King of Kings. It was admired as a vast multinational empire with legendary wealth and economic power, universal currency, as well as an efficient administration, army, and communication (long-distance carriage roads and horse couriers rather than barefoot runners). It had a belief system totally different from that of the Greeks’ own quarreling Olympian deities. Herodotus, himself a Greek subject of the Persian Empire living in Asia Minor, embarked on The Histories, with the chief aim of answering one major question: how was the only “superpower” of his time, the empire of Cyrus and Darius, resisted and eventually defeated in the Persian Wars (499 BC–449 BC) by the seemingly vulnerable Greeks? His flattering answer, a blend of fact and fiction, greatly influenced ancient historical consciousness and even helped shape Western ambivalence toward Iran in modern times.

The Greeks called this civilization “barbarian” (barbaros), which in the original sense of the term meant “alien,” or more specifically, a person who mumbles, presumably because the Greeks could not understand the languages of Iran, whether ancient Persian or Aramaic. The term implied Persian inferiority to the Greek, and later, Roman sense of superiority. Such a condescending attitude was a predictable reaction, one could argue, to the Greeks’ fear of succumbing in real life to the Persians and their material superiority. Aeschylus’s The Persians, the first surviving Greek historical tragedy, written by a soldier who himself had fought in the Persian Wars, celebrated the Greek victory by imagining the impact of the devastating news of the Persian defeat in the war on the Persian royalty and the court—a clever ploy, no doubt reflective of the Greeks’ jubilant mood at being saved from Persian hegemony.

It was not an accident that the Athenian Parthenon, the architectural representation of a rare moment of Greek solidarity, was built to celebrate victory in the Persian Wars. As has been related, on the famous shield of Athena, whose huge statue was worshipped in the Parthenon, the Persians were depicted as barbarians clad in effeminate dress, about to be humbled by the masculine and victorious Greeks. In this case, Occidental artistic representation seems to have determined long ago its choice depiction of Persia as the Orient par excellence: feminine and exotic. Nor was it an accident that the chief target of Alexander’s world-conquering ambition should have been the Persian Empire.

The Macedonian adventurer, whom the Zoroastrian sources of pre-Islamic Iran labeled as “evil Alexander,” no doubt exploited these anti-Persian sentiments, rampant among the Greeks of Asia Minor, as a pretext to reclaim Greek lands after more than two centuries under Persian rule. When Alexander conquered the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BC, he was too anxious—to the dismay of some of his generals, and against the advice of his teacher, Aristotle, who viewed the Persian state as tyrannical—not only to adopt Persian costumes and courtly manners, but also to create a universalistic Greco-Persian political hybrid. In this vision, as far as can be recovered from the Greek narratives, greater weight was given to the realties of the Persian model of government than to the Greek ideals. The Greek conquest nevertheless resulted in infusion of Hellenistic culture into the Iranian world that lasted for hundreds of years afterward and well into the Islamic era.

Resonating through the early modern and modern centuries, the victory against the Persian Empire was celebrated in post-Enlightenment Europe and during the Western imperial expansion in the nineteenth century as a turning point in the history of Western civilization. For modern Europeans who “rediscovered” Persia, these memories were alive and hugely reinforced by the retrieval of classical texts, and later by archeological findings in the Near East and in Iran.

References in the Hebrew Bible were far more favorable to the Persians. Cyrus the Great (Heb. Koresh, taken from the Old Persian), in particular, fared well. He was the “anointed one” (messiah, or mashiah) who delivered the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to their homeland and later, under the Achaemenid successors, to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. He was the only historical figure in the Hebrew Bible to be recognized as the Lord’s “messiah” and his “shepherd” (Isaiah 44–45), and one of the very few rulers to be praised for his tolerance and compassion. Furthermore, the story of the book of Esther—whereby the Jewish concubine of the Persian King of Kings saves his coreligionists from massacre at the hands of a sinister minister—is largely a composite narrative pieced together to reassure the Jews of their ultimate redemption against later occurrences of anti-Semitism, it nonetheless demonstrates the Israelites’ favorable attitude and loyalty toward their Persian overlords in exchange for Achaemenid royal protection.

The positive attitude of the Bible toward the Persians may also be attributed to the affinity the Israelites felt between their own omniscient God and the Persian Wise Lord, the Ahura Mazda of Iranian religion and later of Zoroastrianism. Unlike the Babylonian deities, Ahura Mazda was compassionate and predictable, a supporter of the righteous and an enemy of the wicked. A distant memory of such an affinity can be seen in the book of Daniel, which, though a composite product of later centuries, represented in its apocalyptic imagery a just and mighty Persian King of Kings who redeems the saved and eliminates the damned, an image that may well have been colored by the Zoroastrian apocalyptic tradition of Iran.


Both Greek and Hebrew portrayals represented ancient Iran as an alternative space, as the land of the Other, which should be dealt with on its own terms. To this extent, they were not far from the idea of Iran as a political community, a geopolitical entity with a centralized state and a dominant religion. The name Iran, as is often noted, is derived from the Iranian term Aryanum, the land of the Aryans, the branch of Indo-European pastoralists who settled in the Iranian plateau some four thousand years ago and gave their name to the land. Although in our time Aryan has been besmirched beyond recovery, etymologically it implied something benign. Iran and its origin, as the brilliant French philologist Émile Benveniste has argued, essentially meant “we who are next of kin” or “we cousins,” a term of kinship identification implying “us,” by which these pastoralists distinguished themselves presumably from the indigenous inhabitants of the plateau or from other Indo-Europeans.

This sense of kinship solidarity is stressed in the Shahnameh, the great Persian epic of the tenth century, whereby the term Iran as a political community is contrasted with aniran (in Middle Persian), the “non-Iranians” or the “aliens.” Like other ancient nations who employed similar kinship terms for their homelands, Iran came to be the sole name by which Iranians signified their own land and their state. Iran as a cultural identity persisted through the Islamic period and later was fully revived in the thirteenth century by the great Persian ministers of the Ilkhanid dynasty.

Ancient Greeks, and later their Western cultural heirs, however, continued to refer to Iran by the name of the original homeland of the prevailing Achaemenid Empire. The Greek Persica (or Perses), as well as the Hebrew Paras, was Anglicized to Persia, a reference to the heartland of the Iranian plateau, the Pars region (and today’s Fars province) from which the Achaemenid Persians rose to power and came to dominate the entire Iranian plateau and beyond. For many centuries Persia was the name of the country to the outside world, and Persian a reference to its people, language, and culture while the term Iran was consistently used by Iranians in reference to their country. It was only in 1935 that the Iranian government adopted Iran instead of Persia as the official name of the country, a choice that made uniform the nomenclature but effectively obliterated beyond recovery the historical and cultural memory that the old name invoked.

As in most ancient states, power in Persian political culture was primarily built on a patriarchal model, one that replicated itself at royal, regional, local, tribal, and family levels. In conjunction with the institution of kingship, but still separate from it, the clerical authority demanded that its followers comply with the legal interpretation of the sacred text, be it Zoroastrian law or Islamic shari‘a. For most of the early modern and modern times, the ulama (the class of the learned), or more specifically the jurists (faqihs), remained a semi-independent institution tangential to the authority of the state.

Yet the clerical establishment, and even state power, was occasionally challenged by the prophetic paradigm, a third force in the Persian tripartite model of authority. Over the centuries, numerous such figures—from the third-century Mani and the sixth-century Mazdak in the Sasanian era to the twelfth-century Isma‘ili leader Hasan Sabbah, the fourteenth-century Noqtavi prophet Mahmud Pasikhani, and the nineteenth-century Sayyed ‘Ali Mohammad the Bab—called for the reform of religious norms and eventually the prevailing sociopolitical order by means of moral reconstruction and, at times, apocalyptic revolution. It is the interplay of these three sources of authority that punctuates Iran’s narrative: violent revolts, contested historical memories, religious paradoxes, norms of gender and social divide, but also cultural florescence and fluidity. Whether by design or accident, such a narrative of anguished and volatile complexity persisted over centuries.

Crucial to the rudiments of political authority in Iran, and perhaps the oldest in its political culture, is the idea of the shah, the universal title for Iranian kings up to modern times. With no etymological equivalent in other Indo-European languages, shah is of Old Persian origin, xshay, which basically means the “one who deserves [to rule] on his own merit,” which implies innate merit as the qualifying criterion for power. Rendered in Greek as basiliocus, originally in reference to Persian kings (and Basilus Basilcus for “King of Kings”), the term shah also implied autocratic independence from any priestly or other human legitimizing agency. This is depicted well, for example, in reliefs from the third century CE of the investiture of Sasanian kings, who received their divine mandate directly from a deity and not from a Zoroastrian priest. In contrast to rex in European languages and raj in Sanskrit—both of which referred to rulers who were essentially priest-kings leading their people along the “right” path of religion—the shah possessed kingly “charisma” (farr or farrah). The royal “charisma” radiating from the king’s countenance (the term charisma in European languages probably is derived from the Persian xoreh, “sun ray”) was divinely bestowed upon the ruler of the right “quality” (Persian gohar), but it could be taken away from him if he lost the art of governing (in Persian honar, a word of the same origin as “honor”). Deprived of charisma, the shah would ultimately be deposed by popular revolt, dynastic contestants, or foreign invaders.

The contingency of preserving the royal charisma thus served, at least in theory, as a tempering mechanism against tyranny. Despotic rulers who lose their charisma would not endure, as the prototypical example of mythical Jamshid in the Shahnameh reminded the historical rulers (pl. I.1). At the outset Jamshid is the founder of the cities, the teacher of new crafts, the initiator of the Persian Nowruz festival, and a great empire builder, but he loses his farr because of his arrogance and self-glorification, failings that came with material power and despotic behavior. Western observers, from Aristotle to Montesquieu, were only too anxious to point to these pitfalls of Persian despotism, perhaps for reasons that had to do more with the threat of despotic rulers in their own societies than with the realities of Persian kingship.

The Persian theory of government envisioned certain checks and balances to restrain the brute and unbridled exercise of power. A functional model of government known as the “circle of equity” was the ideal by which the manuals of government, a much-revered genre in Persian political writing, reminded the rulers of their duty to administer “justice.” Essentially, the shah was required to maintain social balance by honoring each constituency with its due protection and reward: by keeping at bay the army and the state administration (divan) so as to inhibit their oppressive intrusion into the life of the subjects (fig. I.1). If the subjects are oppressed and plundered, so the circular model explains, they cannot produce and prosper, as a result of which the land will become impoverished and the state will be weakened, and eventually the ruler’s power base will crumble and he will be deposed and destroyed. This cyclical model of power, inspired no doubt by the precariousness of the agrarian cycle in which it developed, seldom corresponded to the realities of power.

The reality was more like the infinite complexity of a game of chess (from the Middle Persian shatrang, from the original Sanskrit chaturanga), with the shah often in a position of checkmate (from the Persian shah-mat), itself a concept in chess that developed in the Persian environment when the game was first imported from India during late antiquity. The political symbolism of the game can hardly be missed. Few shahs over the long course of Iranian history managed to maintain the formidable “balance” of both the polity and society at large without being isolated to the point of checkmate. The analogy of chess as a discourse of moves and countermoves in Persian political culture and the chessboard as the political arena is further evident in the introduction to the game of another piece, farzin (Persian for “sage,” and later minister, or vazir), which later was identified in the European version as the queen. The mobility and versatility of the minister or queen (including his or her revivification to the stage from the position of a negotiating pawn) as opposed to the shah’s isolated vulnerability is a telling commentary on the hazards of ministerial office as head of the divan.

Figure I.1. A nineteenth-century French presentation of the “circle of equity” based on a story in Sa‘di’s Golestan. Here depicted on a Qajar hunting excursion, the king safeguards the property of his subjects from intrusion by his entourage.

Nineteenth-century postcard. Author’s collection.

The uneasy collaboration for control of the government between insecure shahs and shrewd chief ministers (sing. sadr-e a‘zam) is a recurring theme in Iran’s political history, with frequently fatal outcomes for the ministers. Fragile alliances within the divan and maneuvering for privilege and influence, moreover, made it impossible for the ministerial institution to withstand the onslaughts of its royal master. Over the long term, the divan never created an independent base free from royal intrusion, remaining instead the servant of the shah and subject to his whims and wishes.

Employing a chess analogy, the great Persian poet Hafez gives us the skeptic’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship and its volatile dependency on the minister’s skilled maneuvers:

Waiting for the rook to make a move, we drive a pawn,

On the skeptics’ chessboard there is no room for a king.

When the endgame comes, a pawn, symbolizing the often humble origins of the ministers, still has a chance to turn into a minister (or queen) and change the fortunes of the game, depending on how the rook (from Persian rokh), perhaps a symbol of peripheral power, decides to move. Otherwise, the king has no future, for he is about to be checkmated.


Even when the structural deficiencies in the Persian model of government were to be overcome by the ruler or his ministers, there were marginal forces outside the state’s immediate reach. Most prevalent, perhaps, were the tribal landlords—the khans—on the periphery of the kingdom who, taking advantage of the difficult Iranian terrain, resisted full control of the central authority. The expediency of coming to terms with peripheral powers, the rooks of Hafez’s verse, was generally acknowledged by the Persian central government, which, instead of costly and often ineffective methods of direct rule, resorted to granting khans of the periphery a semiautonomous status. By allowing oversight through princely rule or other agencies, nurturing parallel leaderships within tribal confederacies, and using the dual means of persuasion and punishment, the state held sway over the geographical periphery.

Iran’s geographical realities hence determined its administrative structure, a legacy that lasted throughout premodern times and up to the beginning of the twentieth century. In European languages, the terms satrap for “provincial governor” and satrapy for “provincial administration” are from the ancient Persian term for the protector of frontier dominion in the Achaemenid Empire, who acted as a semiautonomous agent of the King of Kings. The term ustan, the provincial administrative unit of the Sasanian Empire, in contrast, became the standard suffix for all districts (the suffix -stan, as in Uzbekistan, for example), and later sovereign states, of the Persianate world from the Balkans and Caucasus to Central and South Asia.

The delicate arrangement between the center and the periphery was at the core of the idea of the King of Kings (shahan-shah), a key notion in Persian political culture. Beyond the vainglory that was attached to the term—especially in the twentieth century—the title of the King of Kings was an acknowledgment of a pyramid of power that made the imperial “shah of the shahs” superior to the “guardian kings,” the padshahs, of the provincial divisions. Originally the title of the Persian imperial sovereign of antiquity, the King of Kings was revived both in Persian epic and court poetry and as an official title of rulers of the Persian dynasties from the tenth century CE onward, and with even greater regularity from the Safavid period.

The efficacy of guarding vulnerable frontiers through provincial agents prolonged the idea of a multinational system. The “Guarded Domains of Iran” (Mamalik-e Mahruseh-e Iran), which became the official title of the country, perhaps as early as the thirteenth century, implied decentralized autonomy and acknowledged diversity of cultures and ethnicities. The idea of the “guarded domains” implied the presence of contesting powers at the frontiers. In this notion of Iran, one may argue, there was a realistic recognition not only of its complexity but also of the inherent necessity for the central state.

The confines of sovereignty were expressed in another definitive term. The word Iranshahr, the official name of Iran proper in the Sasanian period (224–651), reinforced the idea of Iran as a protected political entity dominated by the state and with a definite geographic space. The term shahr, the standard word in Persian for a walled city, etymologically denotes a “domain within which the authority of the shah is enforced.” The shahr, in effect, is the centralized state as it crystallized within the space of the city, a concept close to that of the Greek polis. In the historical sense it referred to the ten provinces of Iran proper of the Sasanian period, through which the authority of the central government was directly enforced.

The interplay between Iranshahr and its periphery generated a central theme in pre-twentieth-century Iran and was a decisive force in shaping political authority even in the Islamic classical period, when the land of Iran became fragmented or was annexed to a larger Islamic empire. Caving under pressure, the crumbling central authority was overridden periodically by a new and more dynamic peripheral power. Since the first of the Turkic dynasties of Central Asia who came to the Iranian plateau in the tenth century, for an entire millennium nearly all dynastic states of Iran were originated in the nomadic periphery or supported by it.


The delicate interplay within the Guarded Domains finds a natural, almost ideal, locale within the confines of Iran’s geography. The high-altitude Iranian plateau in western Asia serves as a natural four-cornered fortress, or a walled garden, as the Persian mythology of the Sasanian era imagined the Iranshahr, dominated by mountain ranges on its northern and western ridges and large bodies of water on its fringes. The contrast with the lowlands of Mesopotamia to the southwest and with Central Asia to the northeast is even more pronounced when we look at the dramatic topography of Iran’s interior, or at its geological formation, diverse climates, limited rainfall, sparse vegetation, and clusters of human habitat. Decisive though they were in shaping Iran as a country, natural geography neither seriously hindered contact with the outside world nor repulsed the conquering armies from Central Asian steps or the interiors of Arabia. It did not stop the trade caravans coming from all directions either.

The massive and seemingly impenetrable Zagros range, stretching from the northwest to the southeast of today’s Iran, separated the heartlands of the Iranian world from Mesopotamia and beyond, and historically functioned as Iran’s natural defense line. Significant chasms throughout the Zagros system, however, allowed not only the passage of victorious Arab armies of Islam in the seventh century but also major incursions by the Ottoman armies in early modern times (and, most recently, the Iraqi invasion of 1980–1983). The high-altitude Alborz (Elburz) range, part of a mountain system stretching from the Alps to the Himalayas, extends from northwestern Iran to northern Khorasan, eventually linking to the Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan.

Iran’s most serious geostrategic weakness, however, was the passageway into the plains of Central Asia, through which waves of Turkic and Mongolian hordes swept through since the eleventh century. The profound impact of these nomadic invasions, which continued in one form or another up to the end of the eighteenth century, is notable in virtually all aspects of Iran’s history and ethnicity. The prevalence of Azarbaijani Turkish and other Turkic dialects in northern Iran is but one indication. The Caucasus and the Alborz ranges, stretching across Azarbaijan and the lush but impenetrable mountain barrier on the Caspian shores, however, proved a more formidable defense against the northern threat. These natural barriers were overcome only in the nineteenth century by Russia’s modern armies. Similarly, the coasts of the Persian Gulf never posed a serious strategic threat to the Iranian interior before the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and, more effectively, British naval incursions in the nineteenth century.

The maritime trade with Hindustan, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and later Western Europe gave rise to the Persian Gulf as a vital alternative to the overland Central Asian trade with northern China or to the Mediterranean and Black Sea routes in the northwest. Since late antiquity the Persian Gulf had been incorporated into the maritime trade of the south, reaching the western shores of the Indian subcontinent and southern Arabia as far south as Yemen. Lack of forests along the Persian Gulf coasts did, though, handicap Iran’s naval predominance in the region. Before the arrival of the European maritime powers, the Persian Gulf trade thus relied mostly on the Omani and Sindhi seafarers.

Being in the global arid zone, Iran is deprived of substantial rainfall at lower elevations, except for a narrow strip of the Caspian coast. In the Iranian interiors the most significant feature shaping the human habitat has been the narrow margin for survival between topographic and climatic extremes. Of the 636,296 square miles of today’s Iran, close to half is mountain and desert. Of the remaining 50 percent, less than 15 percent is cultivated, another 15 percent is potentially arable, 10 percent is forest and woodland, and the remaining 10 percent is pasture. The mountainous regions, both on the periphery and throughout the plateau, are sparsely populated. The desert plains of central Iran, separating Khorasan and the southeastern provinces from western Iran, are dotted by agricultural oases and small towns on the internal trade routes that connect them to large population centers on the margins of deserts and foothills of mountain ranges. It has always been a challenge for any central government to hold sway over deserts or the high mountains in the center or on the periphery.

The horizontal and perpendicular dictates of the Iranian landscape, the deserts and the mountains, are further augmented by the limits of temperature and climate, and even more so by the scarcity of accessible water resources, perhaps the single most important contributor to sustainable life on the plateau. Although the annual rainfall on the plains does not exceed twelve inches, there are wide local vacillations. While the deserts and the Persian Gulf littoral receive only five inches on average, the Caspian littoral has an annual rainfall of forty to sixty inches. Heavy snowfalls on the mountain peaks (at least before recent global climate changes) served as the principal source of water for irrigation of the plains. The changing of the seasons is precise, with the Persian festival Nowruz announcing spring and the ancient feast of Mehregan declaring the coming of autumn. Though most of the central plains on the Iranian plateau have a predictable seasonal climate, temperature throughout the plateau at any time of the year can vary by as widely as forty degrees Celsius. These factors further condition human habitats, whether nomadic, agrarian, or urban, to clusters largely on the low-elevation foothills and mountain slopes and in the adjacent fertile plains on the edge of the desert, where drainage from the surrounding ridges is just enough to allow for irrigated cultivation, dry farming, and seasonal pasturing at higher altitudes.

In contrast to the river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere, Iranian river valleys historically played less of a role in the country’s food production. Instead, there was heavy reliance on the laborious hydrological marvel of subterranean water recovery. The qanat (or kariz) sustainable water system, a Persian invention with wide usage from Japan to Morocco, was an ingenious water-delivery system employed throughout the central Iranian plains (before the days of deep-well and river-dam technologies). The subterranean canal, some as long as thirty miles, connected numerous shafts from the mountain slopes, where water was in abundance, to the thirsty plains, where it could irrigate agricultural land and keep inhabitants of towns and villages alive (fig. I.2). Yet it could sustain only a limited population in any given locale. In areas with access to shallow aquifers, lifting water by beasts of burden was an alternative to qanat (fig. I.3). Thus, availability of water largely determined the geographical distribution of nearly thirty thousand villages and hamlets throughout the Iranian landscape, where the aridity of the wilderness sharply contrasted to the precious vegetation of a controlled environment.

Moreover, water explained the feasibility of the growth of major Iranian cities at strategic crossroads at the edges of watered plains, where a fertile cluster of villages in the hinterlands would supply the cities with food. The cites were connected to one another within and outside the plateau via a network of caravan routes, which passed through strings of smaller market towns, villages, and oases. Within this web of urban, rural, and pastoral habitats, each unit preserved a fair degree of subsistence but also maintained a delicate interdependence with the whole. The Isfahan region, with a metropolis at its heart, is but one example. With a well-irrigated network of villages and farmlands in its hinterland, a vast trade network stretching in all directions, and the nomadic Bakhtiyari territory in its vicinity, Isfahan clearly demonstrates interdependence among the urban, rural, and nomadic forms of habitat in a delicate ecological system.

Figure I.2. Cross-section of a qanat.

By Sam Baily.

Figure I.3. An 1822 sketch of Persian farming tools and irrigation methods.

The World in Miniature: Persia, ed. F. Shoberl, 3 vols. (London, n.d.), opp. 159.

As much as the cities held administrative, commercial, and cultural sway over the countryside, they accounted for only a small fraction of the total population. By the 1900s the urban population of Iran was no more than 10 percent of the total population of nine million to ten million. The vast numbers of villages, in contrast, which contained the bulk of the sedentary population (perhaps as much as 50 percent before the end of the nineteenth century), were the most vulnerable and economically impoverished sector of the population. Although villagers were not bound by serfdom and there was a fair amount of self-governance within villages, as well as freedom of mobility to other regions, the ancient agrarian regime overseeing the sharecropping system allowed absentee landlords to control the means of agricultural production and a substantial share of the crop (usually three-fifths), leaving the peasants to subsist at best and starve at worst. With the demise (or rather the impoverishment) of the Persian dehqan class—the closest equivalent is the English gentry—in the early Islamic centuries, Iran’s villages and the land around them often came to be squeezed between the urban elites and the tribal landlords. By means of resistance, peasants’ moves from one village to another were not uncommon, nor was a switch between agrarian and pastoral modes of subsistence.

Far more mobile than the peasantry and less subordinate to the city, the tribal pastoralists constituted probably as much as 40 percent of the Iranian population at the turn of the twentieth century. Their nomadic or semisedentary life in regions generally beyond irrigated lands, dictated a subsistent, at times harsh, lifestyle that largely relied on herding. Yet their use of pastures in the vicinity, caused clashes with the sedentary population and disrupted trade, especially during seasonal migrations. Consisting of smaller kinship units within the fluid confederacy of a tribe, the participating subtribes shared a common language and ethnicity, even though some confederacies, such as the Khamseh (meaning “consisting of five”) in Fars province, were of diverse origins.

The vast territories under tribal control were virtually off limits to the state’s direct jurisdiction and governments invariably appointed, or endorsed, leaders of the tribes from within the tribal elite. At times, strong governments also broke up tribes, organized new ones, or removed and incorporated clans into existing tribes at will for reasons of domestic security and defense of the frontiers. Numerous Kurdish tribes of the northwest were settled along Iran’s northeastern borders to safeguard against Uzbek and Turkmen raids during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The tribes depended on the cities as venues for offering their livestock and animal products for sale and replenishing their supplies but also to seek allies in the conflicts with rival tribes or to prevail in internecine power struggles. The tribes’ flexible superstructure, however, neither diminished their patriarchal ethos nor sapped their military potency.

Major tribes on the northern Iranian periphery, at least from the mid-Safavid period, were Turkish speaking (such as the Shahseven of Azarbaijan) or Kurdish. The Turkmens (such as the Yamut and Kuklan) roamed the northeastern periphery, whereas the tribes on the southern periphery were largely Arab and Baluch. In the interior the major tribal formations mostly were of Iranian stock (such as the Bakhtiyari of Isfahan and Khuzestan, and the Lur of Zagros), but there were powerful Turkish-speaking confederacies such as the Qashqa’i of Fars province. The tribal mosaic, however, seldom determined lines of political loyalty, especially at times of domestic crisis or war. Before the conscription army of the twentieth century, the tribes were the backbone of Iran’s fighting force, and the presence of tribal regiments of different ethnicities in the dynastic armies of the Safavid and post-Safavid periods was the norm. The armies of Nader Shah in the middle of the eighteenth century, for example, included numerous Turkish, Kurdish, Afghan, Turkmen, and Lur contingents.

The “irregular” forces, as these tribal fighters are often identified in Western sources, were almost always mounted, and since the seventeenth century increasingly equipped with firearms, mostly light muskets, the weapon of choice for which the tribesmen of Iran developed an enormous fascination, almost a love affair. The use of firearms decidedly increased the potency and versatility of tribal forces, but it did not essentially change their tactics. The ancient Persian offensive-defensive warfare (jang va goriz)which Xenophon survived to describe in his Anabasis from the fourth century BCstill was characteristic of the sorties of the Iranian horsemen in their encounters with modern armies in the early nineteenth century. The required contingents of tribal horsemen summoned by the state were assembled annually to take part in seasonal military expeditions in exchange for partial payment of taxes. Facing modern European armies, though, the Iranian tribesmen no longer had a military edge. By the early part of the twentieth century, they were almost completely subdued by the centralizing state.


A typical city of the Iranian plateau was an enclosed oasis developed as much by the dictates of the environs as by the necessities of cultivation, trade, and the military, a combination that explained the survival of these cities against many odds, as well as their recovery after natural or human-induced calamities. Connected through a web of caravan routes, they preserved some economic sovereignty, cultural urbanity, political prominence, and ethnic diversity. Surrounded by high walls of thick mud breaks with ramparts, moats, ditches, and other fortifications, the multiple-gated cities controlled not only against illicit traffic but also against hostile forces, be they bandits, marauding nomads, or invading armies. A limited and often crowded space divided into many wards, the city was dominated by two structures at the center: the citadel (arg), or the government headquarters and residence, and the bazaar, or the commercial and manufacturing quarter. Complementing the state and the commercial sectors was often the mosque in the center, representing the moral authority of Islam. Numerous other mosques in each neighborhood, moreover, reflected the self-sufficiency of urban wards. Mosques functioned not as mere sacred spaces, but as gathering places to socialize or to stage protests.

Similar to the nomads of the countryside and in villages, patriarchy was the prevailing form of social organization in the cities. Most city quarters consisted of a number of extended families and men of authority, property, and influence, collectively known as notables (a‘yan), who controlled the city wards. These men wielded influence not only in the affairs of their own wards and in the politics and economy of their city and its environs; they also constituted the backbone of the bureaucracy at the regional level and even in the central government. As in the rest of the Middle East, Iranian urban patricians were of diverse origin and social status, but unlike European nobility, they were not always distinguished from the rest of society by blood and hereditary privileges. They were mostly large landowners of urban or tribal origin, officials in government service, large-scale merchants, and wealthy members of the religious establishment. Conservative in their social outlook and political leanings, the notables viewed themselves as pillars of stability (and when circumstances required, instability) in the city.

Much of the history of urban Iran, especially during periods of unrest and the weakening of the central government, was written from the point of view of the urban notables, their internecine competitions and quarrels, vested interests, political patronage, and control of economic markets. At times, even the rise of one dynasty and the fall of another was not so much the outcome of the overriding might of one powerful tribal leader as it was the support of the patricians for one side against another. The rise of the Qajar dynasty at the end of the eighteenth century is one example. The influence of the notables over the city folks, and especially over the urban vigilantes, known as the lutis, occasionally turned city thoroughfares into violent scenes of conflict between neighboring wards.

Fortified by walls at the heart of the city was the citadel (arg, originally a fortified military camp in pre-Islamic Iran). The seat of city’s government housed the governor, his ministers and officials, and the army barracks. The citadel was often located on a hillside or higher grounds overlooking the city, symbolic of the government’s defiant presence and its uneasy dealings with the urban folk. Yet it could not remain entirely isolated. The arg complex was populated by soldiers, servants, officials, and retainers who had their ties to the city, and it was served by a string of traders, physicians, artisans, urban officials, village bailiffs, and tax collectors. The ties to the populace were too numerous to be easily severed, a fact that explains the government’s limitations in enforcing absolute control. Affairs of the government, at least insofar as involved city notables, were to be settled through negotiation, persuasion, and token punishment rather than sheer force.

The government’s interactions with city dwellers were epitomized in the shape and multifunctional nature of the public square (maydan), a vast intermediary space in a typical Persian town that connects the citadel, the market, the mosque, and the city thoroughfares. An old Persian urban concept with wide usage throughout the Islamic world and beyond, the maydan (lit. “the space in the middle”) was the closest equivalent to the Roman circus and the English commons. In this public square the government displayed its might through military parades and playing polo (a game of Persian origin designed to show the physical fitness and riding skills of the shah and other royalty), as well as the staging of public performances during national and religious festivals, public executions of rebels, and the flogging of hoarders and profiteers. For the people the public square was a gathering place to celebrate, protest, and mourn; to receive and send off caravans; to trade their goods and beasts of burden; and even to camp (fig. I.4).

The communal function of the maydan is evident through its close relationship with another major Persian urban institution, the bazaar. Entering the European vocabulary through the Portuguese language, the word bazaar in Old Persian meant a gathering place (of both humans and for the sale of domestic animals), comparable to the Greek agora. Located typically on the opposite end of the citadel, the bazaar served as the commercial, financial, and manufacturing center of the city. A vast network of shops, wholesale trading houses, caravansaries, storage houses, workshops, and small industries, the bazaar, often a roofed space, housed guilds and professions in separate clusters along the arteries and side alleys. Such coexistence in a confined space may not have engendered entrepreneurial competition, but it did encourage professional solidarity and, in times of crisis, defiance. Organized in guilds with designated leadership, the merchants, traders, and manufacturers of the bazaar constituted one of the most coherent sectors of the society.

Figure I.4. A caravan stationed outside the Isfahan city gate.

J. Dieulafoy, “La Perse, la Chaldée et la Susiane,” Le tour du monde (1881–1882), 180.

The large-scale merchants (tojjar) dominated the trade and finances of the bazaar, as well as its political orientation and loyalty. They were an indigenous equivalent of a bourgeoisie with a strong capitalist ethos, but in contrast to their European counterparts, they were often introverted in their private lives and pious in negotiating an Islamic mercantile ethics. Yet in times of crisis they did not hesitate to incite the bazaar to protest, often against government intervention in the market. Because of its economic muscle and its professional cohesion, the bazaar remained an integral part of the political process all through the modern period, demonstrating its power not only through control of the market but also by backing the ulama and other “pressure groups,” bribing officials, and staging protests and shutdowns, the latter often being a weapon of great potency.

The caravan (from the Persian term for “army logistics”), the quintessential Persian method of transportation, was the bazaar’s long commercial arm extending across the wilderness to markets in other cities. A train of pack animals, usually double-humped Khorasan camels (a sturdy crossbreed between Arabian and Central Asian species), was the most practical and cost-efficient method for the overland movement of goods, operating through caravan routes at a slow but steady pace and relying on a support network of caravansaries throughout the landscape of the Iranian plateau. The crisscrossing caravan network also served as an information network, bringing news from distant lands, a mix of fact and fiction retold by caravanners and pilgrims, which in premodern times was city residents’ source of information about a larger community beyond the confines of their own city or village.


Beyond their indigenous sociopolitical institutions, Iranians shared distinct cultural memories and religious beliefs, which gave them a degree of communal identity long before the arrival of modern ideologies of nationalism. The most evident, perhaps, was the tenacity of the Persian language as an enduring and yet adaptable means of communication, source of literary efflorescence, and repository of collective memories and shared symbols. Belonging to the Indo-Iranian linguistic family (a branch of Indo-European languages), over the course of three millennia Persian evolved from the ancient tongue of Achaemenid times, known as the Old Persian, to the Middle Persian (Pahlavi) of late antiquity, and eventually to “Modern” Persian (Farsi) of today’s Iran (and with minor variances, Dari of Afghanistan and Tajik of Central Asia). Presumably rooted in the court parlance (dari) of the Sasanian period, Modern Persian first developed as a literary medium in the early ninth century CE, only to become, in the following centuries, the lingua franca of the Persianate world, including Iran proper and in use from India to Central Asia.

Remarkable in its development is the Persian language’s successful adoption of scripts and borrowing of words and concepts from a variety of linguistic traditions in the rich environment of western Asia and Central Asia. Old Persian not only heavily borrowed words, ideograms, and concepts from Aramaic and other languages of the conquered nations—the Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Greeks—but its very script was an adaptation of Babylonian cuneiform. Middle Persian, which developed its own Pahlavi script, also borrowed from the Aramaic of Mesopotamia, itself one of the official languages of the Sasanian Empire.

Of even greater impact, Modern Persian of the Islamic period not only adopted the more versatile and more accurate Arabic script, abandoning the confusing Pahlavi script (which itself was an adaptation of Aramaic script), but also came to rely heavily on Arabic vocabulary to widen its literary and conceptual potential. The Qur’an and the hadith, in particular, profoundly influenced Persian religious thinking, and Arabic poetics helped shape classical Persian poetry. In later centuries, especially after the Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century, Persian absorbed a variety of Turkic and Mongolian words and concepts that remained, along with Arabic, inseparable components of today’s Persian language and endogenous to Persian culture.

Equally significant on Iran’s complex linguistic map is the survival until very recently of an extraordinary mosaic of regional languages, dialects, and accents, which functioned side by side with Persian, contributed to it, and borrowed from it. Most notable among these are at least two major dialects of the Kurdish language in western Iran; the Turkish of Azerbaijan (and other Turkic variations, such as the Turkmen dialects of northeastern Iran); Baluchi in the southeast; the Arabic dialects of Khuzestan and the Persian Gulf coasts; a whole plethora of dialects from the Caspian region and other northern, central, and southern parts of Iran, many of them relics of the pre-Islamic period; as well as Armenian, Syriac, and liturgical Pahlavi of the Zoroastrian communities of the southeast, and the Judeo-Persian of the Jewish communities of Iran.

The diversity of the Iranian linguistic environment and adaptability to both Arabic and Turkish helped the Persian language to become a vehicle for cultural versatility. Over the course of a millennium, starting in the ninth century Modern Persian produced a vibrant literary tradition of its own built on epic, lyrical, and mystical poetry; works of history, ethics, and political didactics; mystical treatises; popular romance; and in later centuries, passion plays and religious elegies. As it became more standardized through wider oral and written usage, by the late medieval era Persian was competing with Arabic not only demographically but also in the production of knowledge. It also competed with Sanskrit in the Indian subcontinent and held sway over Turkish in Central Asia (and even in Anatolia) at least up to the seventeenth century.

The cultural content of Persian as a body of oral and written texts took the language far beyond courtly circles when it first thrived in the early Islamic period. Even though by the fifteenth century, the Timurid period, large sectors of the population, especially on the Iranian periphery, conversed in their own local or ethnic vernacular and produced a body of writings in those languages, they shared a communal consciousness based on the diverse manifestations of Persian culture, whether the Sufi liturgy recited in the convents (khaniqahs), stories of the Shahnameh (and other variances of pre-Islamic Persian epic poetry and prose) performed by itinerant storytellers, or the sermons and elegies recited from the pulpits of the mosques.

The Shahnameh, and the cultural milieu associated with it, had a lasting effect on Persian awareness even before Shi‘ism became Iran’s state creed in the sixteenth century. Two of Iran’s most revered poets and national icons, for example, the thirteenth-century moralist and lyrical poet Sa‘di and the great fourteenth-century lyricist Hafez, both from Shiraz, were associated with the pulpit, one a preacher of ethical sermons, the other a hafez (a person who memorizes the Qur’an by heart and recites it melodically for a living), as his nom de plume indicates. It was in the works of these poets that the genre of lyrical ode (ghazal) became the most cherished form of Persian poetry, a genre of amorous odes of longing, often with a mystical subtext, which were amplified in their emotional effect through the medium of Persian music. Remarkably, the life of preaching did not seem to have interfered with the poets’ incredibly liberal—indeed, libertine—worldviews as expressed in their nocturnal odes. Their readers, too, were at ease with this seemingly irreconcilable duality.

Poetry occupied a prominent place in the Persian collective memory and perhaps was the most important form of artistic expression in premodern times. Metered and rhymed verse appealed to audiences not only because of the ease of memorization, in a culture still substantially oral, but also because the society praised its bards for employing sophisticated techniques and mastering a language brimming with images and allusions. Lyrical ghazal and panegyrics, epics, romances, mystical and religious poetry, as well as satire and metered prose, were widely appreciated in diverse environments ranging from the court to the Sufi convents, mosques, taverns, street corners, and the privacy of one’s inner quarters.

While court panegyrics helped solidify a ruler’s legitimacy and allowed cultural assimilation of Turkish or Mongolian conquerors, epics and legendary histories, such as the Shahnameh, memorialized a national myth. Sufi poetry, with stories, aphorisms, and lyrics, as in the works of the thirteenth-century Jalal al-Din Rumi, offered a mystical discourse with pristine philosophical and psychological dimensions. Praise for his magnum opus, the Masnavi, across a wide geographical span, is best captured in a rubric that equated it to “the Qur’an in the Persian language.” The liberating space that was Persian poetry thus allowed subversive—indeed, heretical—expressions forbidden in any other media. Skepticism, even about the most sacred beliefs and duties, and sneering at the authorities, religious and political, was tolerated as the fruit of poetic imagination.

A close affiliate of Persian poetry, Persian music, transmitted the messages of lyrics and epics to ordinary people, and as a fluid medium it also was able to incorporate and refashion many of the folk regional melodies and nomadic tunes of Iran and the neighboring lands. The Persian modal system (dastgah), with its roots in Sasanian court music, influenced the shaping of musical systems in Anatolia, Egypt, India, Central Asia, and Khotan (Xinjiang). Through forums as diverse as Sufi chants and ecstatic dance, recitations of the Qur’an and the Shi‘i elegies and passion plays, court and military music, hymns recited in Zoroastrian temples, the nocturnal melodies of taverns, and means as humble as the chants of itinerant dervishes and vagabond musicians, reed-pipe tunes of shepherd boys, lullabies, and caravanners’ calls to their camels, Persian music and its lyrics brought home to the diverse inhabitants of Iran shared experiences and memories. Persian musical instruments, among them the lute-shaped string instruments, also had their share of cultural diffusion. The Persian word tar (string) is the name of the long-necked, double-bowled six-string instrument at the core of Persian ensemble, and the word tar, signifying “string instruments,” influenced a vast geographical array of instruments, from the Spanish guitar to the Indian sitar.

Significantly, these reflective experiences aimed to reconcile contesting sides of Persian, or more broadly, Iranian, culture: the formal with the informal, the mainstream with the subversive, and the inward with the outward. The desire for reconciling opposite trends is evident not only in Persian literature and art but also in Iran’s religious modalities, social norms, and political practices, in ways perhaps more pronounced than in cultures of comparable historical experiences. The prevailing duality of the Persian outlook—the private sphere (baten, or nahan) versus the public (zaher, or ashkar)—is acknowledged as much in Persian mystical and philosophical discourses as in religious practices, moral dicta, and modes of social etiquette. One can attribute the strong presence of these contrasts, and especially the two-dimensional interior-exterior perspective, to the lasting religio-cultural paradigms and to Iran’s complex experience of Islam.

Despite the near predominance of Islam as a socioreligious construct in virtually all aspects of premodern Iranian culture and society, there also persisted an element of subversive irreligiosity—more specifically a non-Islamic, even counter-Islamic, subculture—with equal pervasiveness in most, if not all, areas of Iranian life. Tolerated by most sectors of society as well as by most upholders of authority, this semi-institutionalized “Dionysian” counterreligion often corresponded to the internal, or esoteric, sphere of the Iranian past.

One should note that the Persianate cultural domain was about the only one in the entire Islamic world that over a long period of time preserved and advanced a vibrant and comprehensive musical tradition with an extensive body of lyrical, romance, and epic verse and literature entirely of non-Islamic origin and inspiration. Moreover, it also developed a thriving school of painting and book illustration, with roots traceable to Manichaean and other painting traditions of the pre-Islamic period and with remarkable continuity and artistic creativity. The Iranian world was among the very few cultures, including the Berber (Amaziagh) culture of North Africa, that did not succumb to the predominance of the Arabic language. Nor did it ever entirely abandon its pre-Islamic cultural memories. It preserved not only its endogenous solar calendar along with the Islamic lunar calendar but also its pre-Islamic rites such as the Persian New Year festival of Nowruz at the vernal equinox.

These expressions of identity were preserved over a long period of time despite Islamic disapproval, and even prohibition, and in the face of outcries from the religious establishment. Crystallized into a stern and exclusionist legal tradition, Islamic law emphatically prohibited playing or listening to music for leisure, and reproducing any images of humans and living things in any form; it denounced any preservation and celebration of “pagan” myths and festivals of the pre-Islamic past; and even more intrusively, it banned, at least in theory, social practices such as wine drinking, singing, mixing of the sexes, same-sex affection, recitation of lyrical poetry, and most, if not all, forms of social leisure. Despite political defeat and the relatively swift conversion to Islam, it can be argued that Iran never was fully won over by the predominant culture of normative Islam, perhaps less even than Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia. It converted to Islam at its own pace and on its own terms, and with paradigms and practices it improvised along the way.

Islam as a salvation religion with a distinct notion of prophethood appealed to the endogenous salvation tradition that Iran had inherited from its Zoroastrian past. Though as a religious creed Zoroastrianism suffered steady decline since the rise of Islam (with only a small community surviving in today’s Iran, and in India, where they are known as Parsis), the legacy of this Iranian religion had a lasting impact not only on the making of Islamic Iran but also in the shaping of other “Western” religions. In its inception Zoroastrianism upheld a clear notion of a human prophetic agent with inspired scripture, whose mission from Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) was to teach his people the wisdom and the agency of choosing between good and evil in this world. The recipients of this wisdom then either are helped by the angels to safeguard their salvation in the hereafter or are misled by Ahriman, the powerful source of all evils, to damnation.

Associated with this sense of prophetic and human choice was the key notion of Paradise (from the Persian fardis, from the Pahlavi pardis, meaning a walled garden), which later found currency in nearly all religions of the Middle East. This Zoroastrian invention imagined a utopia of consummate blessing in the form of a celestial garden protected from the harms of the wilderness, an idealized Iranshahr surrounded by lofty walls barring outsiders, with lush gardens teeming with game, fruit trees and flowers, domestic animals, and an abundance of water, a world of color and gaiety visualized in Persian garden plans, carpet designs, and miniature paintings (fig. I.5). The Zoroastrian eschatological contribution thus not only lay in the very notions of Paradise, apocalyptic renewal, and millennialism associated with it but also made final salvation conditional on human moral choice between the forces of good and evil.

Figure I.5. Golshan garden in the oasis of Tabas, in the central Iranian desert, is typical of Persian walled gardens.

A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich: Atlantis-Verlag, 1937), 91.

Inheriting this utopian perspective, either directly or via its Judeo-Christian legacy, Shi‘ism also became engrossed with the myth of divine justice and its inevitability. The Shi‘i consciousness found ample grounds for meting out such a vengeful justice in the history of early Islam, especially in the martyrdom of Hosain, the Third Shi‘i Imam, the Prince of the Martyrs, whose tragic fall in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE stamped in their minds an irrevocable memory. The myth of martyrdom, as represented by Hosain (not unlike at least two Iranian legendary hero-martyrs in the Shahnameh), commemorated a heroic but failed attempt to restore to power a legitimate ruler and his deserved community, a paradise lost to the alien forces of oppression and evil. Reversing this could be achieved only through an apocalyptic revolution, whereby the Mahdi, the charismatic savior of Islam, renovates the world, redeems the suffering faithful, and avenges the injustices of the past. The persistence of messianism as a distinctive feature of Iranian religious culture is most evident in the long list of Persian prophetic and crypto-prophetic figures.

The prophetic paradigm stood in contrast to the authority of the religious establishment, which spawned jurisprudence (fiqh) and regulated the life of the faithful. The ulama, the men of religious learning, held sway over interpretation of scripture. The jurists (foqaha; s. faqih), stood at the top of an informal hierarchy in Shi‘i Iran that also included the lower-rank teachers of the madrasa, preachers on the pulpit, reciters of Shi‘i elegies, and even lower, the seminarians, mosque custodians, and presumed descendants of the house of the Prophet.

The jurists were distinct for their legal conservatism, scholastic outlook, and elitist demeanor. These jurists were also known by their judicial status as mojtaheds (often inadequately translated as “doctors of law”). They were qualified to issue legal opinions (fatwas) to be abided by their “followers” (moqalleds). In making their opinions, the mojtaheds exercised limited human reasoning (ejtehad; lit. “striving”) to utilize the sources of Islamic law. Since the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of following (taqlid; lit. “immolation”) gave the mojtaheds great legal, moral, and social latitude over the community of believers. What made the ulama especially conscious of themselves as a relatively coherent group was their self-assumed mission to preserve the “kernel of Islam” unmolested against the ever-present threat of heresy. Any sort of nonconformity or innovation contrary to mojtaheds’ understanding of the shari‘a was viewed as reprehensible. They were equipped with weapons of denunciation (takfir) and censure, which they freely used to mobilized the faithful and to call on the government to come to their aid.

As early as the sixth century CE, Sasanian Iran came up with a dictum that symbolized and sanctified the need for a bond between the state and the religious establishment, above all to combat heresies, which were often labeled “bad religion.” Contrary to the modern principle of the separation of church and state, Persian political theorists insisted that the “good government” and the “good religion” were like “twin siblings” who could not survive independent of each other. If either of the two institutions abandoned the other, “bad religion” would prevail and bring about the downfall of both institutions. It was this dictum that for centuries resonated under the domes of the Islamic madrasas and similarly through the corridors of royal power.

Among the authors of the “council to the kings,” who prescribed such a symbiosis, was the eleventh-century Abu-‘Ali Hasan Tusi Nezam al-Molk (d. 1092), perhaps the greatest minister and political patron in all of Islamic history. He and other members of the landowning secretarial class were keenly aware of the threat of “subversive” religion because it was prevalent in their time and appealing to the people over whom they ruled. Together with the idea of just rule, symbolized by the aforementioned “circle of equity,” concordance between the state and religion was the most pronounced principle in Perso-Islamic political culture. In reality, however, the relationship between the two sources of authority, the quarreling siblings, was guarded at best and antagonistic at worst. In some respects the tension reverberated between them all up to the Islamic Revolution in the late twentieth century.

The fragile accord between the state and the religious establishment, nonetheless, could not be entirely disposed with, because of the crucial function of the jurists as judges and their near monopoly over the judicial system. In contrast to the messianic notion of divine justice to be meted out against evildoers, the mainstream Perso-Islamic political culture viewed justice as a human function that at the macro level was an imperative royal duty bestowed on kings. Justice was the social equilibrium to be maintained by the ruler through acts of reward and punishment and through wisdom and expediency. On a micro level, justice was to be implemented by the jurists through a judicial process that was at best unregulated and at worst haphazard. In practice, however, justice was modified by customary laws and local practices, and by the fact that the shari‘a was never codified into a consistent, universal system.


Underneath the prevailing social contract, and the elite who presided over it, there endured a vast sector of the population essentially absent from the public space. If visible at all, they were regulated by binds of the shari‘a and by patriarchal mores. It is true, as often noted, that Islamic law was more generous to women than were most premodern orders, including Christian Europe. It recognized women as legal persons and allowed them an economic standing almost equal to that of men. Women received a share of inheritance, albeit less than men did, owned properties, and had the right to accept or reject a marriage proposal and to demand divorce under special circumstances.

The practice of “temporary marriage” (popularly known as siqeh), as sanctioned by Shi‘i law, gave women some agency through their choice of partner, as well as duration and terms of the marriage. Although open to many abuses, such as prostitution, temporary marriage essentially functioned as an accepted form of cohabitation, which offered some security to women and the right of inheritance to their children. For women of lower classes, such as daughters of peasants in the households of landowning families, temporary marriage with men of higher status served as a form of social mobility.

Yet norms of female inferiority and gender segregation remained strong even as late as the twentieth century under the secularizing Pahlavi rule. The interiors (andarun) defined both women’s quarters within the carefully segregated Persian traditional household and a conceptual space as well. Dependency especially in the urban setting on male family members—fathers, husbands, or sons—and displays of loyalty and obedience toward them were accepted norms, as were restrictions on movement and contact with the outside world and limitations on female education and custodianship of their children. Women essentially were recognized, in legal sense, for their reproductive capacity and were valued according to the number of their progeny.

Women, even nonelite women, were nevertheless able to exert a fair amount of agency within the household. A hidden matriarchy below the male-dominated fabric of the elite society, especially in dynasties of tribal origin, had an enormous indirect influence in Iran’s political history. Mothers, sisters, and daughters advised the shahs and fought on behalf of the often irresolute or inexperienced heirs to the throne, protecting them against court intrigues and allying themselves with the members of the divan. Outside cities, in village and tribal setting, women were less segregated but more exploited by their male family members to carry out arduous physical duties. In all, Iranian women, as elsewhere in premodern world, experienced a tripartite life cycle: daughterhood, when they were essentially seen as betrothal commodities; wifehood, when they functioned as reproduction units; and motherhood, when they earned power and respect by exerting matriarchal control over their sons.

The history of domestic life in Iran in premodern times, as elsewhere, includes the untold stories of a vast number of women and men who were servants, slaves, concubines, eunuchs, and others—all living under some form of indenture. Repeated raids across Trans-Caucasus in the Safavid and post-Safavid eras, as in the classical Ottoman era, produced a vast number of white female slaves who inhabited the harems of the royalty and the elite and mothered numerous princes of royal families. The purchase of black slaves for domestic service from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Zanzibar, and the Sudan, imported through the Persian Gulf ports or purchased during the hajj pilgrimage, was also prevalent in affluent households, especially in the Fars province.

The British-enforced ban on the import of the slaves in the middle of the nineteenth century was partially effective but did not prevent slaves from being smuggled through even as late as the turn of the twentieth century. Many descendants of the slaves remained in Persian households, and although it is hard to come by any statistics, their numbers can be safely assumed to exceed two hundred thousand in the early twentieth century, or about 2 percent of the total population. They married other people of black origin and brought up their children within the households of their owners or former owners; children of mixed marriages were not uncommon.

Blacks in Iran were not plantation slaves, as in the New World, but served as house servants, nurses, and trusted attendants. Historical black communities in the Persian Gulf littoral, mostly eking a livelihood through fishing and cultivation, have preserved aspects of their African culture and music. As in Egypt or in Arabia they also mixed with the white population through marriage more freely than they did in the Western world. The slaves did inherit from their owners and could be manumitted in their old age, as recommended by the shari‘a. Yet physical punishment and sexual abuses were not rare. In a predominantly white environment, blacks, even if they were not slaves, stood out as anomalies and were treated as such for their accent in Persian, their physique, and their demeanor. Despite inherent racial biases, some blacks nevertheless rose to prominence in the court, where they served as eunuchs, and in the bazaar, where they engaged in trade.

Male slaves were often stereotyped as shrewd and witty, and females as trusted practitioners of white magic. The characterization of black slaves in a genre of popular comedy known as “black acting” (siyah-bazi) is a case in point. Here, a black slave lampooned his white master—often a gullible merchant—while he capably attended to his owner’s affairs. Role reversals such as this no doubt hinted at the ambivalence with which black people were often perceived by white people. Instances of emotional bonds between the children of the slave owners and their black nannies crossed the boundaries of racial Other.

The religious minorities in Iran’s prevailing Muslim society also stood out as an Other and were treated as such, even though communities of Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians were indigenous to Iranian lands since ancient times. Yet by the early modern times non-Muslims were far fewer in Iran than in the Ottoman Empire or in Hindustan. These communities have further dwindled since the early twentieth century as the result of emigration. The Baha’is, the largest non-Muslim community in Iran, and followers of a religion indigenous to the country, historically were branded as heretics and suffered accordingly. The followers of Ahl-e Haqq (people of the truth), another indigenous religion of Kurdish origin, did not fare substantially better. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the entire non-Muslim population of the country probably did not exceed 5 percent.

The historical place of non-Muslims in the economic and cultural domains nevertheless is significant. Even before the seventh century Armenians of Iran were the core of a vast commercial network that stretched from the Mediterranean to India. The Jewish traders and bankers, too, rendered vital economic functions, even though their social standing steadily diminished since the seventeenth century. As musicians they were important in transmitting classical Persian music. Though minorities were generally tolerated and the Islamic principle of protecting the “People of the Book” was honored, contingencies of the Shi‘i jurisprudence—especially treatment of non-Muslims as ritually polluted (najes)—erected insurmountable barriers to the path of social assimilation. A range of discriminatory codes came to define the impoverished Jewish and Zoroastrian communities. They were known as those who were “humbled by Islam” (moti‘ al-Islam). Perceptions of superiority—that Shi‘is were the “guided sect” of Islam—expected exclusive salvation for the true believers, an “unfolding destiny” of a sort. The gradual relegation of Sunni communities to the Iranian periphery since the rise of Safavid Shi‘ism in the sixteenth century further broadened the sectarian divide. It can be argued that accentuating this sense of internal Otherness—which applied to non-Muslim communities and “heretics” as well—helped reinforce conformity and unanimity among the Shi‘i majority in the face of many external perils.

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