Part Two


Consolidation of the Qajar dynasty set the stage for Iran’s gradual transformation through the long nineteenth century. New strategic and economic realities, particularly the rise of two European empires on the northern and southern frontiers, turned Iran into a buffer state, a mixed blessing with important consequences. Despite the loss of territory and depleted economic resources, Qajar Iran preserved its political sovereignty and reinvented the Persian institution of kingship. Stronger bonds with the urban elite included the revived clerical establishment, sustained the state’s otherwise fragile sway over the tribal periphery, and brought about a period of recovery.

The growing volume of foreign imports from industrialized Europe and the export of cash crops, such as tobacco and opium, tilted the economic balance in favor of big merchants, large landowners, and European firms. Less privileged sectors of society, such as guilds, retailers, and peasants, bore the brunt of the changing economy. Chronic visitations of famine and pandemics worsened their lot. Popular grievances against the Qajar state and the Shi‘i clerical establishment in the middle decade of the century triggered the millennial Babi movement. A pivotal event in the anti-shari‘a trends in the Iranian milieu, the movement, charged with Shi‘i messianic aspirations, gave voice to anticlerical and socioeconomic grievances. Despite its military defeat, the clandestine Babi loyalties remained the vehicle of popular dissent throughout the Qajar period. By contrast, the discourse of reform that was articulated by modernist intellectuals enjoyed a far smaller audience.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, selective projects of modernization, particularly the creation of a telegraphic network and the introduction of modern banking, anticipated the rise of a national market. Though primarily beneficial to foreign interests, these networks allowed the Qajar state to further centralize and more effectively govern the provinces. By the close of the nineteenth century, modern communications also allowed for voices of protest to be widely heard during the Tobacco Protest. By the turn of the twentieth century, mass protests that came to shape the Constitutional Revolution fused older demands for social justice and national salvation with modern notions of the constitution, rule of law, popular representation, material development, and awareness of modern nationalism. The revolution brought together for the first time dissident intellectual, merchants, members of the high-ranking clergy, and reformist elements within the nobility. Against many domestic and foreign odds, the Constitutional Revolution proved a transformative experience with multiple facets. Beyond its sociopolitical discourse, the revolution piqued a period of rich cultural and artistic fluorescence, and the Qajar period found its distinct voice in poetry, painting, calligraphy, book production, architecture, music, photography, journalism, and performing arts. In what might be called a process of Persianization, aspects of Western art and literature were incorporated with an air of cultural confidence.



During the first half of the nineteenth century, Qajar Iran partially recovered from the material losses of the previous decades. The slowing of nomadic incursions from the periphery allowed a degree of stability, and the Persian model of government they had adopted brought a semblance of control over most of Iran proper. Agriculture recuperated and regional and international trade revitalized. Urban populations began to grow and the hinterlands were recouped. Yet by the end of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s reign (1798–1834), Iran’s population still barely exceeded four million.

Facing European powers on its borders, both Russia and Britain, Qajar Iran appeared unprepared. It began to sense the magnitude of challenges to its empire in war and diplomacy while still recovering from ravages of the past. European powers defeated Iran in war, seized portions of its prized territory, put pressure on the state through diplomacy and trade, and at times even threatened its very sovereignty. At the outset of the nineteenth century, the east-west two-frontier Iran of the Safavid and post-Safavid eras was substantially changed to a new north-south two-frontier reality. Qajar Iran’s self-image as an empire at the center of its own universe also changed into one of a vulnerable nation in the throes of Christian powers. Yet despite its inherent disadvantages, Qajar Iran escaped domination by colonial powers in part because of the dictates of its geography but also because of a degree of resistance displayed by the Qajar state and its subjects. Iran endured within its shrunken borders while many countries in the non-Western world gradually succumbed to colonial rule. The Iranian state and society also began to adopt, in their own terms, selective aspects of Europe’s material and intellectual cultures. The mixed experience of contention and adoption helped shape Iran’s perceptions of modernity throughout the Qajar period.

The early Qajar period also witnessed the emergence of a potent Shi‘i clerical establishment. It was conservative in outlook and at times defiant toward the state, suspicious of its modernizing measures. To maintain its network of privileges and social influence, the jurist establishment of the Usuli school articulated a legal theory that promoted believers’ close following (taqlid) of the mojtaheds in all intricate matters of religious life. Grounded in Safavid learning, the Usuli school regulated not only the believers’ behavior but also society’s moral and legal conduct through an elaborate set of rules and rituals. The Qajar state’s desire to preserve the status quo helped sustain the Shi‘i jurists as a formidable force. Yet the symbiosis of the state and the ulama establishment acted as a barrier against innovative thinking and wider cultural adaptation.

These themes have provoked contesting viewpoints about the Qajar period. Much historiography of the twentieth century, influenced by condescending European attitude, viewed the Qajar period as an age of defeat and decadence. Such an outlook belittles, if not discredits, the important achievements of the Qajar period, not only its survival as a sovereign state but also its cultural agility. The early nineteenth century witnessed a literary and artistic revival of lasting influence. Shi‘i legal scholarship scored great gains. Despite their scholastic rigidity, Shi‘i jurists of the period articulated a complex discourse of methodology of law, better known as the “Principles of Jurisprudence” (usul al-fiqh), after which the Usuli school is named.

The revival of the Aristotelian philosophy of the School of Isfahan also encouraged new approaches and produced new commentaries. The revival of the Shi‘i Sufi orders, a legacy of the Zand period, counterbalanced the ulama in the cities at all levels and generated new theosophical and mystical works. The Qajar era also witnessed the rise of new socioreligious movements that espoused indigenous reforms embedded in Perso-Shi‘i environment rather than being wholesale imports from the outside. The Babi movement was the culmination of a process of dissent within Shi‘ism with a message of religious and social renewal rooted in Iran’s messianic experiences of the past. Later in the century reformists of all shades—freethinkers, revolutionaries, state officials, and dissidents—addressed moral and material decline, critiqued the social and cultural norms of their time, and offered either indigenous or Western-inspired syntheses.

Qajar Iran displayed remarkable artistic and literary vitality in painting, calligraphy, bookmaking, music, and architecture, as well as in poetry and prose. Traditional industries and crafts, especially textiles, reached a new level of refinement, and Western techniques and technologies including the telegraph, photography, and book printing gained popularity. These landmarks stand in contrast to the backdrop of depravity and misfortune with which the Qajar era has often been associated.


Even before encountering the European powers on his doorsteps, Fath ‘Ali Shah had to quell half a dozen rebellions throughout Iran, first in Azarbaijan and Isfahan, where he faced a pro-Zand resurgence, and later in Luristan, Khorasan, Yazd, and the Caucasus, where a variety of tribal chiefs shunned the notion of loyalty to the Qajars (map 4.1). Even though Aqa Mohammad Khan believed that he had “raised a royal palace and cemented it with blood”—the blood of actual and potential contenders to the Qajar throne—there were still claims to the Qajar crown, and not just allegorical ones. Sadeq Khan Shaqaqi, the ambitious Kurdish chief in Aqa Mohammad Khan’s army and possibly the brains behind his assassination, had snatched away the newly constructed Kayanid crown and the royal jewels and marched back to his tribal estate in northern Azarbaijan. In 1798 Fath ‘Ali Shah had to wage a war to recover Azarbaijan and regain his symbols of royal power, which he could do only piecemeal. The rebellion of the Shaqaqi chief more importantly demonstrated a palpable desire by the Kurdish tribes to rule over a region stretching from Sulaymaniyah (in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan) to the southern Caspian coasts and on to northern Khorasan. Sadeq’s defeat and destruction—by the shah’s order his prison cell was bricked up and he was left to die—put an end to the Kurdish defiance. By 1800 the Qajars took the last stronghold of the Afsharids in Khorasan after several expensive campaigns.

The Qajar shah, nevertheless, was mindful of his Qajar chiefs and their whimsical loyalty. Some of them covertly backed the shah’s younger brother in his bid for the Qajar throne. With great difficulty Fath ‘Ali Shah eventually succeeded in removing his adventurous brother but not before destroying his influential grand vizier, Haji Ibrahim Kalantar, who was accused of treason, presumably for colluding with the shah’s rebellious brother. The chief minister was put to death along with most members of his extended family. His execution was the first of a number of executions of viziers in the Qajar era, as a sign of the monarch’s consolidation of personal power. The practice once more displayed the fundamental vulnerability of the divan with respect to the shah’s authoritarian rule. The struggle between the minister and the monarch for control of the government hindered the divan’s autonomy and its greater institutionalization. Haji Ibrahim has often been harshly judged by posterity, seldom credited for his motivations to cure Iran of tribalism and civil war. The British representative of the East India Company, Capitan John Malcolm, who met Haji Ibrahim shortly before the grand vizier’s downfall, advised him to respond with a better temper to the shah’s “occasional fit of ill-humor and violence.” In response, the vizier restated his yearning for a united country under a strong government. “I could easily save myself but Persia again be plunged in warfare. My objective has been to give my country one king; I cared not whether he was a Zand or a Kajir (Qajar), so that there was an end of internal destruction. I have seen enough of these scenes of blood; I will be concerned in no more of them.”1

Map 4.1. The rise of Aqa Mohammad Shah Qajar and early Qajar consolidation, 1779–1835

After Haji Ibrahim, some members of the Fars bureaucratic faction who were suspected of collaborating with the fallen minister returned to royal favor and gained high office within the divan’s multiregional structure. They were the counterforce to the northern party, the officials who were from Mazandaran, especially the Nur region, who early under Aqa Mohammad Khan came to the service of the Qajar. The influence of both factions was curtailed by a third party from the central provinces, mostly from Farahan and its vicinity, a region of high literacy with a culture of statecraft. Even more than the southern and the northern parties, the Farahan faction secured its own continuity in the state administration. Having earlier served under the late Safavids and the Zands, Farahan produced capable statesmen, including the Qa’em-Maqam family and their client Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir. The Qajar rulers played off the competing factions and manipulated rivalries to their own advantage.

Subduing provincial revolts, the Qajar khans and divan went hand in hand with a new spirit of grandiosity in Fath ‘Ali Shah’s court. Elaborate protocol, ceremony-laden public and private audiences (salam), an ostentatious show of wealth, and large numbers of court attendants, page boys, servants, guards, musicians, and dancers, as well as ornate dresses, sumptuous dishes, a lavish lifestyle, numerous royal palaces, gardens, hunting grounds and royal cavalcades—all became symbols of Qajar power. A large number of life-size portrayals of female musicians, singers, and dancers, no doubt many of whom were employed in the sprawling courts of Fath ‘Ali Shah and his sons, exhibited an epicurean culture of leisure and revelry (pl. 4.1).

Fath ‘Ali Shah was as much the center of this glittering universe as his uncle Aqa Mohammad Khan had been the master of the military camp, of long horse rides, incessant campaigning, and military discipline. Even Fath ‘Ali Shah’s personal appearance epitomized this stark contrast. Unlike Aqa Mohammad Khan’s slight physique and wrinkled, beardless face, Fath ‘Ali’s long, black, bushy beard and his attractive, though rather effeminate, countenance was meant to announce to all his majestic dignity and sexual potency. In contrast to the rough and ready tent-dwelling warrior khans, Fath ‘Ali was a calm and colorful king of kings, well established in the secure and opulent surrounding of the royal palaces (pl. 4.2; fig. 4.1).

This surely was the image the court painters of the period were commissioned to present in their numerous life-size portrayals of the shah. He often was shown sitting on his new Sun Throne (Takht-e Khorshid, later known as the Peacock Throne, or Takht-e Tavus) wearing his reconstructed Kayanid crown, which was distinct from Aqa Mohammad Khan’s. The shah dressed in the most exquisite silk robes, wore the legendary armlets with the Darya-e Nur and Taj-i Mah encrusted on two armlets, and was surrounded by the implements of his sovereignty: sword, shield, mace, and royal scepter. All these were meant to convey symbolically a sense of continuity and control, particularly to the neighboring European empires. The new Kayanid crown, which replaced the turbanlike cap of the Zand period, advertised the recapture of the royal jewels, spectacular trophies bundled together in a cylindrical structure symbolic of the political power gathered in the office of the King of Kings.

Figure 4.1. The open veranda of Golestan Palace in the Tehran citadel functioned as the public facade of the Qajar court, where public levies (salam) were held. The supporting columns were removed from a Zand palace in Shiraz and reinstalled here by order of Aqa Mohammad Shah. The Marble Throne, a creation of the early Fath ‘Ali Shah era, recalled the magical thrones of Persian legend.

E. Flandin and P. Coste, Voyage en Perse, vol. 8, Perse moderne (Paris, 1851–1854).

The Qajar kingship drew attention to the memory of the ancient Iranian past, as narrated in the Shahnameh and visible in the rock reliefs and ancient ruins of the Achaemenid and Sasanian periods. Fath ‘Ali Shah, who was brought up in the Zand court and served as governor of Fars under his uncle, assimilated these imperial symbols to underscore centralization of his rule and to forge an alternative source of legitimacy. These perceptions of Iranian kingship were revived and maintained alongside Timurid ties to a tribal past, which the Qajars had a difficult time abandoning entirely. These perceived sources of authority, of course, went hand in hand with a Qajar claim to temporal leadership of the Shi‘i community and defense of Shi‘i Islam, a Safavid legacy. It can be argued that the Qajars’ multiple layers of political authority tied the image of the King of Kings more closely to Iran.

The royal image that was put on display—through the media of stone sculptures in rock reliefs, large-scale paintings, epic poetry, and dynastic histories—was meant to be seen by both the elite and the general public, and by the Europeans. As early as the 1810s the Qajar rock reliefs and other pictorial presentations were being carved in the Achaemenid and Sasanian styles, some adjacent to ancient sites. Even acts of archeological vandalism, such as the rock relief commissioned by one of the shah’s sons, Mohammad ‘Ali Mirza Dowlatshah, carved over a corner of the famous seventh-century Sasanian relief in Taq-e Bostan in Kermanshah province, were meant to remind viewers of the return of ancient royal splendor. Another rock relief that depicted a courtly scene, near the ancient ruins of Ray, south of Tehran, was a clear breach of the general Islamic ban on depicting the human image (fig. 4.2).

Efforts to demonstrate historical continuity are also evident in the literature of the period, notably in the revival of the classical Khorasan school of epic poetry. A clear break from Safavid metaphorical formalism, such a conscious return to the style of the classical masters of the tenth and eleventh centuries is well evident in the Shahanshah-nameh (book of the King of Kings) by the poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Like many figures in the literary “royal society” (anjoman-e khaqan) patronized by the shah, Saba came from the Zand cultural milieu. Modeled on Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Saba’s long poem recounted Fath ‘Ali Shah’s epic deeds (pl. 4.3). With generous poetic license, it imagined the exploits of the Qajar ruler in battle and on the hunting grounds. The triumphant spirit in the poem nevertheless militated against the reality of heavy setbacks in the war with Russia.

Figure 4.2. Fath ‘Ali Shah hunting a lion. The rock reliefs of Cheshmeh ‘Ali, near the ruins of the ancient city of Ray (Rhages), south of Tehran, conveyed the revival of Persian royal tradition. Hunting lions, which are still extant in Fars province, was a symbol of regal valor.

E. Flandin and P. Coste, Voyage en Perse, vol. 8, Perse moderne (Paris, 1851–1854).


To further strengthen royal authority, Fath ‘Ali Shah also embarked on a long-term policy of ridding the throne of the troublesome Qajar chiefs, largely by installing in their place members of his own immediate family, especially a new generation of royal princes who soon were to come of age (chart 2). In an incredible feat of reproduction, more than one hundred sons and daughters were born to the shah in less than fifty years, the outcome of maintaining a large harem with hundreds of wives and concubines. Fath ‘Ali’s conscious effort to compensate for the childlessness of his castrated uncle has been the subject of much criticism and ridicule by later observers. Though certainly he was not free from sensual indulgence and narcissistic extravagance, as evident from the reports of the period, having a large harem and many children was not without a political rationale.

The senior princes of the royal family liberated the shah from the yoke of the rancorous Qajar khans and provided him with more reliable tools of governance. Political marriages, whether his own or those of his sons and daughters, fostered family ties with khans of Qajar and other tribes, military officers, and urban dignitaries. Multitudes of royal offspring, moreover, were progeny of captive Zand, Afshar, Kurd, and Lur wives. Others were born to Georgian and Armenian women captured during earlier campaigns in the Caucasus, or to Jewish young women taken by consent or by force from communities throughout Iran. The shah’s sons also created their own large households, in the image of their father. By the 1860s, some three decades after Fath ‘Ali’s death, the highly pro-creative Qajar princely class numbered about ten thousand.

In reclaiming imperial authority, Fath ‘Ali Shah introduced a semi-autonomous system of princely governments under the umbrella of the central state. A legacy of the Safavid era, and before that the Saljuq period, this feature gave new meaning to the official title of the country as the Guarded Domain of Iran. Senior princes mostly served as provincial governors in Tabriz, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Isfahan, and Mashhad or as high officials in the expanding Qajar court and military. Younger princes were sent to smaller governments. Creating regional governments was a realistic solution to the center-periphery tension embedded in the geopolitical setup of Qajar Iran. There was a limited degree of interference from the capital, but the prince-governors often acquiesced to the shah’s oversight. They were accompanied by their tutors, often high-ranking members of the Qajar nobility, and by senior bureaucrats who served as acting governors. Both officers reported directly to Tehran.

Chart 2. Genealogical chart of the Qajar dynasty

‘Abbas Mirza (1789–1833), the crown prince and most celebrated of the shah’s sons, was sent off to Tabriz in 1799 with the title of viceroy (na’eb al-saltaneh), the highest of the princely ranks. His minister Mirza ‘Isa (Mirza Bozurg) Qa’em-Maqam was a former Zand official of the Farahani faction and one of the most capable statesmen of the early Qajar period. ‘Abbas Mirza came to Tabriz at a time when the city was recovering its position as a gateway to the Caucasus and beyond. It also became the center for a flourishing trade with Europe, through the Ottoman Black Sea port of Trabzon, and it maintained its overall prominence for the rest of the century as the most prosperous and most populated city in the realm. It was through Tabriz in the first quarter of the century that the earliest manifestations of modern European military arrived: regimentation, new weaponry, drill officers, uniforms, and military education. Also through Azarbaijan came European and American missionaries, the press and publications, the earliest foreign newspapers, luxury goods, machine-manufactured fabrics, gadgets of all sorts, and the much-admired Sheffield penknives.

The Tabriz administration was given significant latitude by the central government to conduct diplomacy and trade, and if necessary, war, in the northwest. ‘Abbas Mirza’s diplomatic engagements with both Russia and Britain gave Qajar Iran its first taste of European empires. During the two rounds of war with Russia, Tabriz served as the hub of diplomacy and the headquarters for conducting military operations. As the “abode of sovereignty” (Dar al-Saltaneh), the official title of the city, Tabriz held control over its own army, finances, and regional affairs. ‘Abbas Mirza himself not only held the title of viceroy but also was frequently addressed by the title of shah, in contrast to Fath ‘Ali Shah’s title, shahanshah. Only toward the end of his father’s reign was ‘Abbas Mirza officially recognized as crown prince (wali-‘ahd; lit. “the guardian of the [royal] covenant”). Tehran’s official name, Dar al-Khilafa (the abode of the caliphate)—an odd title for a Shi‘i capital, which possibly claimed in competition with Istanbul as the capital of the Ottoman caliphate—pointed to the multipolar nature of Qajar sovereignty. The eastern Safavid capital, Herat, which also was referred to as Dar al-Saltaneh, never acquired by the Qajars, despite several attempts.

Azarbaijan’s regional autonomy was offset by at least three other powerful princely seats in the south, the west, and the east, and by several less prominent seats in Kerman, Isfahan, and Kurdistan. After ousting his rebellious brother, Fath ‘Ali Shah assigned Fars and the Persian Gulf provinces to another of his senior sons, Hosain-‘Ali Mirza. The same age as ‘Abbas Mirza, but of a non-Qajar mother—his official title being farmanfarma (lit. “enforcer of royal decrees”)—Hosain-‘Ali Mirza maintained regional autonomy in the south. And as did ‘Abbas Mirza, he survived in his post for more than three decades. Similarly, a vast domain in western Iran was assigned to the shah’s oldest son, Mohammad ‘Ali Mirza, a bold and ambitious prince born to a Georgian mother whose title, dowlatshah (lit. “the shah’s political fortune”) implied that he, too, was shah of his own domain. He remained in office until his death in 1821 (see map 4.1).

Long-term tenure entrenched the princes in their provinces and fostered the all-too-familiar rivalry among the shah’s sons. Yet the balancing act in the Qajar princely system proved successful insofar as it recognized the reality of Iran’s regional diversity and helped the country’s economic recovery. The manner of succession, however, despite efforts to regulate it, remained a contentious issue in early Qajar politics, and it had domestic and foreign implications. Competition for the succession, which had not been fully decided, began very early. To prove their worth, the princes were encouraged not only to rebuild the economy and secure calm in their domains but also to resume territorial expansion along Iran’s frontiers. The shah gave his implicit consent for such campaigns, often carried out to deflect attention from internal strife. He even played a part in fostering some fraternal rivalry. ‘Abbas Mirza’s investiture as heir apparent in 1828 was not fully supported by all his ambitious brothers. Later, from the 1830s on, the struggle for succession further entangled the Qajar throne in a web of European imperial politics.


The domestic equilibrium that was achieved under Fath ‘Ali Shah was put to the test of European power politics from the very beginning of the nineteenth century. This was a mixed blessing for Iran, which had emerged from its eighteenth-century isolation only to encounter Europe at the outset of Napoleonic era. On the one hand, the presence of European powers helped stabilize the Iranian frontiers and consolidate the Qajar state. On the other hand, European strategic, territorial, and commercial ambitions turned Iran into an arena of intense—and at times highly disruptive—rivalries. Europe’s territorial gains and diplomatic pressures came with interventions in Iran’s domestic affairs and with a race to acquire commercial and other advantages, capitulatory rights, and, later, economic concessions. Europe’s condescending attitude, gradually setting in as Iran’s weaknesses on the battlefield became more apparent, served as a cultural backdrop.

In the north, Iran was taken by surprise at the territorial ambitions of its northern neighbor and soon bore the brunt of Russian expansion in the Caucasus and then Central Asia. To Iran’s south and southeast, somewhat more distant but still threatening, was the expanding British India, with its concerns for the security of its most precious colonial possession. Concern with Afghan principalities in the northwest, and soon after fear of French and then Russian advances toward the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent, largely determined the British strategy toward Qajar Iran. Russia and Britain’s mutual fears and suspicion of each other in effect sealed the fate of Iran’s geopolitics for the entire Qajar period. Increasingly, Iran became a buffer between two ambitious empires, neither of which was particularly mindful of its wishes or its plight (maps 4.1 and 4.2).

The arrival in 1800 of the East India Company’s mission, headed by Captain John Malcolm, opened a new chapter in Anglo-Iranian relations. Perhaps the most influential envoy of the Fath ‘Ali Shah period, Malcolm sought an alliance to persuade Iran to move against Zaman Shah, the Afghan ruler of Kabul who posed a threat to Punjab, then in the midst of a complex power struggle. He also announced the East India Company’s victory in 1799 over Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. Shortly before Malcolm, Tipu Sultan had sent a mission to the Persian court proposing a grand anti-British alliance to Fath ‘Ali Shah, as well as to Zaman Shah in Kabul and the sultan of Masqat. Malcolm, who played a pivotal role in the conquest of Mysore, and later as the private secretary of Marquess Wellesley, the chief architect of British colonial hegemony, viewed Iran as an important party to the security of Hindustan, a policy that remained in effect for the entire Qajar period.

Map 4.2. Iran’s loss of territory in the Qajar era, 1806–1881

After the lapse of a century, the Qajar government welcomed diplomatic and commercial relations with Britain. Yet before granting Malcolm and his retinue a royal audience, the state officials were anxious to learn more about English advances in India. As early as the victory over the French at the Battle of Pondicherry in 1759, and later the English advances in Bengal in the final decades of the eighteenth century, the Zands—and later the Qajars—viewed British colonial successes with a mix of awe and anxiety. The arrival of a sizable English mission at the Qajar court therefore had symbolic implications insofar as it allowed the Qajars to register equality with the British crown. The state officials thus were careful to negotiate with Malcolm the details of court etiquette. English officers’ caps and boots particularly became a major issue. The court agreed that caps could be removed, as it was the British custom, and the boots to be wrapped in makeshift covers, to observe Persian custom of taking off shoes in interior spaces. Permission to sit in the presence of the shah, however, was denied. The audience with Fath ‘Ali Shah went amicably. There was every reason for each side to impress the other with displays of wealth and might, but also of knowledge. Malcolm amused the shah and amazed his court officials with his knowledge of the Qajar tribe and its history. Fath ‘Ali Shah impressed Malcolm, and later other English envoys, with his awareness not only of the East India Company’s advances in India but also of the loss of the American colonies and the rise of a modern republic in the New World.

Other examples of cultural exchanges highlighted the contrasting goals that each hoped to achieve. Offering and receiving of gifts was but one symbolic language employed in this new diplomacy. Malcolm’s presents of jewels and luxury goods for the shah and his ministers and officials, which had cost the East India Company a small fortune, were meant to impress the Persian court, purchase their favor, and persuade the shah to act against the Afghan threat, which he eventually did. The English had long been accustomed to offering gifts to Indian princely states in exchange for colonial treaties. But the shah preferred to receive the presents and view the company’s overtures in a different light. He did not see the gifts as an incentive to facilitate his cooperation; rather, he received the gifts as a tribute brought to his throne as proof of his imperial might. The pomp and circumstance of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s court, his opulence and elaborate protocol, may well be viewed as a necessary display of political power to impress his domestic and neighboring contenders having been aware of the English naval might and commercial power.

It perhaps took two decades before the Qajar ruler and his government fully absorbed the complexity of European colonial enterprise and what it meant for Iran. At the outset of the Russo-Persian conflict in 1800 (the same year as Malcolm’s arrival in Tehran) over the vassalage of Georgia, it would have been highly impolitic of the shah to turn down Malcolm’s offer of friendship and the prospects of concluding a treaty of cooperation and commerce—one that took thirteen more years to be ratified, in 1814, at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. In contrast to the Russians, whom the Qajars considered as brute aggressors, the English were perceived as shrewd, disciplined, and foresighted. They were admired for their negotiating skills, stratagems, and measured use of military force.

Malcolm epitomized the enterprising spirit of the British colonial expansion in its most flourishing era. A colonial strategist, soldier, diplomat, and scholar, he defined British policy toward Iran and promulgated the British attitude toward Iranians. His History of Persia: From the Most Early Period to the Present Time, first published in 1815, featured Iran as a nation with geopolitical integrity and historical continuity stretching back to ancient times—a nation whose best days, in his portrayal, had already passed. Based on European and Persian sources, in every respect his Historydisplayed the spirit of the English Orientalist enterprise: curious and disciplined and with a desire to collect, systematize, represent, and ultimately dominate. He portrayed a Persian state that was alert and even awe inspiring, and a society that was fascinating and complex. Yet he pointed to decadence and despotism everywhere.

Malcolm’s was among a host of early nineteenth-century European accounts published on Iran as the country and new state became a focus of European strategic interests. Travelogues, histories, geographical descriptions, and archeological discoveries, many of them illustrated, became a source of fascination for European readers. These accounts, not as extensive as the literature produced on Hindustan or Egypt, nevertheless were influential in shaping perceptions of Iran. Like other travel literature of the colonial period, they were often taken by readers as reassuring evidence of European, and especially British, material and cultural superiority. By contrast, Persian knowledge of Europe and colonial India remained scant and anecdotal. By the time Malcolm’s mission arrived, the Qajar state knew little about modern Europe and its geography, history, society, and politics, and even less about the New World. A few Persian accounts of contemporary Europe had been compiled, mostly by members of the Persian secretarial class residing in Hindustan and in contact with the British colonizers. They translated brief passages from European almanacs about the history and geography of Europe and the New World.

One such example, Tuhfat al-‘Alam (Gift of the world), by Mir ‘Abd al-Latif Shushtari (with an addendum completed in 1805), in addition to praiseful review of Western scientific innovations and contempt for such upheavals as the French Revolution, offered a view on the systematic pathology of British colonial expansion. Annexing Indian princely states, he observed, invariably began with early trade relations and the signing of treaties of friendship, then continued in the next stage with the offer of military assistance and political advice to what Shushtari viewed as lethargic and hedonistic rulers, eventually leading to full takeover by means of persuasion or coercion. Shushtari ended his account with a hopeful note, wishing for the Iranian state to not go down the Indian path, to remain alert and withstand the imminent threats to its sovereignty through insight and good government. His word of caution, however, was heard by his compatriots only years later, when Tuhfat al-‘Alam was finally published in 1847, and then only in Hyderabad. By then Iran has already lost to Russia its prized possessions in the north.


For Qajar Iran the strategic value of an alliance with England was primarily the ability to withstand the Russian threat. By 1801 Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801–1825) reaffirmed his predecessor’s seizure of Georgia over the objection of a few of his advisers (see map 4.2). What made the southern drive appealing to the tsars was in part a desire to place Russia on an equal footing with other European powers in the race for colonial gains. Alexander and his like-minded advocates of Russian expansion relied on sympathizers in the Georgian royal family and in the Armenian Church who viewed Russian annexation of the eastern Caucasus as the only way to lift the yoke of Persian rule. Memories were still fresh of Aqa Mohammad Khan’s Tiflis massacre and abduction of Christian woman and children remained.

Yet Persian rule generally had been favorable to the people of the Caucasus, allowing them communal autonomy and lenient taxation. Armenian landowners (maleks), in particular, were content with Persian rule, although their voices were lost to the self-serving enthusiasm of wealthy Armenian merchants abroad and their ecclesiastical allies at home. Similarly, a faction of the Georgian ruling elite viewed decentralized Iranian suzerainty as a blessing, while another faction was lured by the idea of Russian protection. By 1803, Russia claimed sovereignty not only over Georgia but also over all other Iranian possessions east of the river Kora, provinces coveted for their silk production (see map 4.2).

In response, the government of Tabriz, under ‘Abbas Mirza, began to exert greater control over the remaining provinces of the Caucasus. But even the Qajar governor of Iravan, who had already anticipated Russian intervention, was not willing to yield. The first round of the Russo-Persian wars, which began in 1805 with sporadic raids by Iranian irregulars into the interiors of the Caucasus were aimed to reassert Qajar authority. The Russians ominously retaliated in campaigns organized from Tiflis. For seven years thereafter, the two parties, Russia and Iran, engaged in campaigns for control of the region north of the river Aras. During the early phases of the war, the Iranians often emerged victorious. By 1807, they had been able to repulse the Russian onslaught, slaying the Russian governor-general of Tiflis in a move much celebrated for its symbolism and recapturing nearly all the Caucasian provinces except for Georgia (see map 4.2). Despite the arrival of Russian reinforcements, in 1810 a Qajar general defending Iravan managed to repel the Russian offensives and capture a substantial number of prisoners of war. The new Russian commander in chief was obliged to ask for a peace treaty.

Yet the Persian gains remained unconsolidated, and in a matter of just three years the fortunes of war were reversed. In October 1812 at the Battle of Aslanduz on the banks of the Aras River, some 120 miles north of Ardabil, the Russians, despite their numerical disadvantage, struck a heavy blow to Persian forces. Qajar methods of irregular warfare were incompatible with modern Russian tactics. Reforms of the Qajar army along the European model were too little to have any effect, and then there was the questionable loyalty of local vassals in the Caucasus, some of them of Qajar blood. They were as defiant of Qajar rule as they were resistant to Russian control. By October 1812 Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia had reached its final stages, making the victorious Russians, now more confident, capable of striking a heavy blow to their southern nemesis.

The Treaty of Golestan, concluded with British mediation in October 1813, granted Russia nearly all of the eastern Caucasus north of the river Aras, and Russia annexed the whole of Georgia and southern Caucasian provinces of Baku, Shirvan, Qarabagh, Darband (Derbent), and Ganja. Only Iravan and Nakhijevan remained in Iranian hands. The treaty also gave exclusive rights to Russia to maintain a naval force in the Caspian Sea, in effect exposing northern Iranian provinces to future Russian exploits. By the way of conciliation, the tsar recognized, albeit ambiguously, ‘Abbas Mirza’s claim as the rightful heir to the Qajar throne while promising, at the same time, not to interfere in any potential succession disputes over the Persian throne.

The Treaty of Golestan was a turning point in modern Iranian history, for it epitomized the gravity of the Russian threat for the remainder of the Qajar era. Golestan, however, was not the final word on the question of the Caucasus. Russia had left several articles of the treaty deliberately ambiguous as a pretext for making further territorial and concessional demands. It took another round of war before the Russo-Persian border was permanently settled along the Aras. War with Russia also brought Qajar Iran to the realization that its northern neighbor was a world power with an advanced army and military capabilities that could repel a massive French invasion on its European front while checking, and eventually defeating, both the Qajars and the Ottomans on its southern front.

What also became evident, almost immediately after the start of the conflict, was Iran’s entanglement in European politics. In search of security and potent allies against Russian aggression, the Qajar state intermittently negotiated with both Britain and Napoleonic France. Already in 1801, in the draft treaty negotiated by Malcolm, Iranians had been promised British military and monetary incentives to move against Zaman Shah of Afghanistan and soon after to preempt a potential Franco-Iranian alliance. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s 1797 occupation of Egypt, British authorities were fearful of a potential overland French campaign against colonial India via the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Napoleon’s sortie into the Levant, though unsuccessful, added to British anxieties. To the British, this was a tangible sign of the French using Iran as a gateway to India. Although such a prospect was highly unrealistic, it made the Qajar shah and his advisers more conscious of their own strategic position. Playing off the warring British and French, they hoped to muster support for their own objective of containing Russia.

British hesitation to ratify the 1801 draft treaty and to honor articles pertaining to monetary support for Iran in the event of foreign aggression disappointed Fath ‘Ali Shah and his advisers. By contrast, he was encouraged by French diplomatic overtures. Early in 1805, an emissary, Amédée Jaubert, arrived in Tehran, proposing an alliance with Napoleon. Having already terrified both Russia and Britain on the battlefield, in 1805 Napoleon appeared to the Iranians a brilliant warrior and a natural ally. The French overture was irresistible, even though the shah had a difficult time accepting Napoleon as the product of a popular revolution that had executed the French monarch. More so, he found it implausible that the French army could ever cross Ottoman territory and overland reach Iran.

The May 1807 Franco-Persian Treaty of Finckenstein, nevertheless, was assuring enough for the shah to give it his seal of approval. The treaty not only promised French support for the return of Georgia to Iran, presumably upon the defeat of Russia in the war with France, but also, and more realistically, offered training and modernization of the Iranian army by French officers and military engineers. With Iran an ally of France, the treaty demanded that Iran expel the British from Iran and declare war on England at a time when Iran was already engaged in war with Russia. Moreover, it obliged Iran to persuade its Afghan subjects in Herat and Kandahar, still considered Iranian vassalages, to attack British possessions in India. In the event that Napoleon started an Indian campaign, a scheme he contemplated when he could not defeat England at sea, Iran would be required to provide overland passage to the French army as well as to make available its ports along the coast of the Persian Gulf.

The French military mission in Iran, under General Charles-Matthieu Gardane, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon, began training Qajar forces, building foundries, and surveying the land. Under the competent general, the French drill officers and engineers worked with revolutionary zeal. It seemed there might be a chance for the Qajar state to modernize its army and withstand Russian pressure. Soon, however, Gardane was obliged to abort his mission and return to France. In July 1807, two months after the Treaty of Finckenstein, Napoleon concluded another peace treaty, this time with the Russian tsar. The Treaty of Tilsit with Russia, one of the many short-lived alliances concluded by the French emperor, betrayed Napoleon’s erratic war policy. To Fath ‘Ali Shah, however, the treaty was at odds with, if not detrimental to, the French obligations laid out in his own treaty with the French conqueror.

Napoleon’s fickle opportunism offered the English an excellent chance. Although in 1808 the shah, still hopeful about the French initiative, had rebuffed Malcolm on his second mission to Iran, in early 1809 he was ready to welcome to his court another envoy of the British crown, Sir Harford Jones Bydges. He was accompanied by the secretary of the mission, James Morier, the future author of the Oriental satire The Adventures of Haji Baba of Ispahan. Jones, in his earlier career as a merchant of precious stones and English council in Basra, was aware of the Iranian affairs at a turbulent juncture, when political power was acquired by the Qajars. He even had once dissuaded the desperate Lotf-‘Ali Khan Zand to sell off Nader Shah’s jewels, the same jewels that now adorned Fath ‘Ali Shah. As a diplomat, Jones hoped to gain Iranian favor for an anti-French alliance to the tune of £120,000, a backhanded payoff in place of the subsidy that had earlier been promised to Iran but later denied. This was in addition to a large diamond that Jones presented to the shah on behalf of George III (r. 1760–1820). Negotiations with ‘Abbas Mirza and his team in Tabriz were followed shortly afterward by further negotiations with John Malcolm, on his third mission, representing the East India Company. The rivalry between the two envoys, Jones and Malcolm, reflected conflicting British priorities for acquiring Iran’s friendship.

London’s chief objective was Britain’s security in Europe through an anti-French coalition, one that must include Russia. For the government of British India, the chief objective was to sustain Iran as a buffer against French threat and against possible Russian expansion toward the Persian Gulf and India. The two objectives finally were reconciled during the 1811 mission under Sir Gore Ouseley, the British crown’s special envoy to Iran, who managed to exert greater influence over the shah and the court. ‘Abbas Mirza’s administration had already welcomed the British officers who accompanied Malcolm from India as partial fulfillment of the earlier British commitment to support Iran. By 1810, they were serving on the Caucasian front along with the Iranians and training soldiers in the art of European warfare.

The British government refused, however, to pay the monetary assistance it had promised. Article 4 of the Anglo-Persian Definitive Treaty of Defensive Alliance, renegotiated in 1808 by Jones and finally ratified in November 1814 by Britain, stipulated:

In case of any European nation invading Persia, should the Persian government require the assistance of the English, the Governor General of India, on the part of the Great Britain, shall comply with the wish of the Persian Government by sending from India the force required, with the officers, ammunition, and warlike stores, or, in lieu thereof, the English government shall pay an annual subsidy . . . it is hereby provided that the amount of the said subsidy shall be two hundred thousand (200,000) tomans annually. It is further agreed that the said subsidy shall not be paid in case the war with such European nation shall have been produced by the aggression on the part of Persia.2

The British government rather artfully interpreted Iranian war in the Caucasus as an offensive rather than a defensive measure. Hence, there was little hope that it would support funding Iran with a subsidy or military support. Instead, Ouseley persuaded the shah and his ministers to accept defeat and enter into peace negotiations with Russia, with himself acting as the mediator and ultimately as peace broker.

By 1814, Iran received far less than what it had initially bargained for. Not only had it lost the greater part of its Caucasian provinces; its prestige had been ransomed to conflicting foreign demands. With France defeated and Napoleon in exile, the shah and the Qajar elite came to the conclusion that if Iran were to survive Russia’s onslaught, it had to rely on British support and bravely accommodate that power’s whims and wishes. The silver lining for the Qajar state, if there was one, was that Iran served usefully as a buffer between them, even if both Britain and Russia wished to parcel out its valuable pieces. For Qajar statesmen such as ‘Abbas Mirza and his minister, who were the first line of defense, there was still hope for them to regain what had been so painfully lost. As in Egypt, and shortly after in the Ottoman Empire, Muslim modernizing regimes in the early nineteenth century eagerly sought to make military reforms, not only to resist European advances but also, and more urgently, to accelerate the power of the centralized state against the periphery at a time when external defeat incited domestic subversion.

The “New Army” (nezam-e jadid, lit. the “new [military] order”) of Azarbaijan was the first of several attempts to create a modern force capable of waging modern warfare, if not always effectively against foreign enemies, at least against rebels at home. Clad in Western-style uniforms with red jacket, blue pant, and long boot, and equipped with fixed-bayonet musket, the soldier of the New Army, named sarbaz (lit. “he who sacrifices himself”), was a novelty on the Qajar landscape. The conservative ulama initially disapproved of the new uniform for being made in the image of the infidels and as a breach of Islamic dress. Yet they were persuaded by the state officials to accept it as necessary for the defense of Muslim lands. In 1838, a firman by the Qajar monarch Mohammad Shah praised the new military uniform, made of Iranian fabric, as the most honorable attire not only because it was durable, simple, and practical, as compared to the old military uniform, but also because it distinguished the defender of the nation, including the shah, from the rest of the population, just as soldiers appeared on the carvings of the ancient palace of Persepolis.

The New Army of Azarbaijan successfully adapted itself to the training and tactics of a modern army. Throughout the late 1810s and early 1820s it put on an impressive show of discipline and endurance, and the Iranian soldiery was viewed favorably by European observers for its battle hardiness (fig. 4.3). The New Army certainly helped ‘Abbas Mirza remain atop the princely hierarchy, and in later decades it served as a potent agent of the state, eventually facilitating the rise of the reformist premier Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir in 1848.


War with Russia left a lasting impression on the Iranians and on the shaping of their responses to the outside world. Though in their collective memory there were many foreign invasions, this was the first loss of territory to a Christian power since the rise of Islam. The last land war with a Christian power was in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert in eastern Anatolia, between the Saljuq Empire of Iran and the Byzantine Empire, which ended in the former’s decisive victory. The only significant Iranian defeat by Christians occurred in 627, when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated the Sasanian Empire in the Battle of Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, 285 miles north of Ctesiphon.

Figure 4.3. Shah Square in the capital in the early 1840s (leading to the Tehran citadel), with soldiers drilling in modern uniforms. The cannon at the center, manufactured in 1818, later became an object of urban legend.

E. Flandin and P. Coste, Voyage en Perse, vol. 8, Perse moderne (Paris, 1851–1854).

Defeat in the hands of the Russians were significant since it made early Qajar Iran more conscious of its Shi‘i identity, independent of the sphere of the state but related to it performance in the war. The high-ranking Shi‘i jurists, the mojtaheds, controlled a growing religious domain that included the judiciary, the mosque, the madrasa, and religious public endowments. These institutions gave them considerable social status and political leverage, which they began to exploit at times to their own advantage, often at the expense of mystical or other non-shari‘a interpretations of Islam. The closer involvement of the Shi‘i mojtaheds in the affairs of the community, and eventually the conduct of the state, especially after calling for jihad against Russia after defeat in the first round of the war, could not have come about without a key doctrinal component.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Shi‘i ulama had to reinvent themselves to regain the ground they had lost since the fall of the Safavids. They were no longer functionaries of the state, nor were they bookish scholars in the secluded seminaries of Isfahan and Najaf endlessly debating the minute details of Shi‘i hadith and brandishing hefty glosses and commentaries on the works of earlier jurists. The Usuli Shi‘i mojtaheds’ answer to the crisis of the post-Safavid era was to come up with a new legal approach to shari‘a that stressed the methodology of jurisprudence (or roots of jurisprudence, usul al-fiqh) as the key to a broader legal application of the principle of ejtehad. The sole authority to exercise ejtehad, or legal judgment based on sources of Islamic law and through limited use of deductive analogy, distinguished the Shi‘i ulama, and more distinctly the Usuli mojtaheds, from their contemporary Sunni counterparts.

For mojtaheds, the study of jurisprudence (fiqh) was the most authentic articulation of Islamic shari‘a, and they, as jurists, were the only experts qualified to interpret Islamic law. The Usuli jurisprudence in effect equipped the mojtaheds with claims for collective representation on behalf of the Hidden Imam. The Hidden Imam, or the Lord of the Age, was the Shi‘a reference to the Islamic Mahdi, whose advent from the world of invisible according to the Shi‘is was expected to trigger the End of the Time. Such self-assumed authority offered doctrinal grounds for the mojtaheds to demand that their followers, or more specifically, their “emulators,” seek their legal and moral opinion and follow their expert advice in all matters of shari‘a. The doctrine of emulation (taqlid) obliged Shi‘i believers to follow an individual mojtahed of their choice in all issues of Islamic law. Any qualified Shi‘i mojtahed could issue independent legal opinions (fatwas). More important, given their social implications, these opinions were to exert, at least in theory, an unprecedented degree of control over the beliefs and practices of followers

Progressively over the course of the nineteenth century, the binary of ejtehad-taqlid became axial to the mojtaheds’ legal authority and at times key to their social and economic power. Emulation involved a wide range of duties, as benign as saying prayers behind a mojtahed during “congregational” Friday prayer, and as critical as conducting jihad, even though the latter duty was not always seen within the mojtaheds’ jurisdiction. Even the permissibility of holding Friday prayer long was disputed among the Shi‘i jurists. Earlier in the Safavid era, the followers of the declining Akhbari school had rejected Friday prayers on the basis that in absence of the Hidden Imam, no authority has the legitimacy to lead public prayers. By the late eighteenth century, however, the Usulis came to accept congregational prayer, utilizing it as a powerful tool to expand their authority and display their personal acumen.

The dynamics of the mojtaheds’ interaction with their followers, however, was a complex one. Shi‘ism never set objective standards for ejtehad beyond unspecified years of studying various subjects in the madrasas colloquium and acquiring some kind of informal accreditations from their teachers. The ulama’s greater autonomy from the state in the post-Safavid era made the latter practice more prevalent. The success of the mojtaheds thus largely hinged on their followers. To attract more followers and create a larger constituency, so to speak, a mojtahed had to listen to his followers, comply to a certain extent with their wishes, and even sometimes succumb to demagogy and crowd pleasing. The intricate interplay between the mojtaheds and their followers was further complicated because of the so-called one-fifth of the expendable income (known as khoms) and other religious dues disbursable to the mojtaheds by their followers. Collecting the one-fifth, at times referred to as the “share of the Imam,” became the major source of income for the Usuli mojtaheds in the Qajar era as they began to assume greater authority over the affairs of the community.

The inefficacy of the literalist Akhbari approach to shari‘a became more apparent with the rise to power of the Qajars and the return of some degree of urban tranquility. It is not a coincidence that Usuli mojtaheds grew in number and influence during the same period. Contrary to Nader Shah, who wished to emasculate, or even destroy, the ulama establishment of the Safavid period, Aqa Mohammad Khan and then Fath ‘Ali Shah appeased the mojtaheds and sought their blessing in order to buttress their lack of sacred descent. The mojtaheds yielded to the Qajars’ wishes from a position of relative strength, not merely as clients of the state. At the close of the eighteenth century many mojtaheds returned from the Shi‘i cities of southern Iraq, where some of the ulama had taken refuge after the fall of the Safavids. Soon the new class of the Usuli mojtaheds began to build an urban network while the Qajars were still consolidating their power over the country. The new dynasty, and Fath ‘Ali Shah in particular, could hardly afford to lose support of this influential class of the urban elite.

For most of the nineteenth century, however, the mojtaheds remained partners in power with the Qajar state. They did so by remaining within the self-defined boundaries of their legal mandate, what they called “authority to adjudicate” (welayat-e qada), and by leaving the political affairs of the realm to the state. While shari‘a was the domain of the mojtaheds, the customary law (‘orf), or more broadly, the political affairs, was more or less left to the government and its agents. The Usuli ulama, despite their legal activism, never really abandoned the Shi‘i idea of avoiding the temporal government, a relic of piety-minded tendencies in early Islam. In theory, they considered any government authority in the absence of the Imam of the Age unjust and tyrannical, a presumption that required their distance from political affairs and from holders of political power.

That in the post-Safavid era the chief center for Shi‘i learning remained in Ottoman Iraq, and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Qajar state, created a new power dynamics, one that persisted throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Fath ‘Ali Shah’s numerous gifts to the ulama of Najaf and Karbala, who were mostly of Iranian origin, as well as his lavishing of enormous sums in cash, gold, and jewels for the restoration and beautification of Shi‘i holy shrines of southern Iraq helped elevate him, and later his successors, to the position of patrons of Shi‘i scholarship and protectors of the Shi‘i community of Iraq. Despite Fath ‘Ali Shah’s patronage of Iranian mojtaheds and the revival of teaching centers in Isfahan, Qom, Kashan, and elsewhere, Najaf maintained its standing as the center of scholarship and produced important texts in jurisprudence while also training mojtaheds at an advanced level of their education.

Najaf scholars were known for their conservative approach on issues of jurisprudence, and they were universally recognized as authorities by generations of mojtaheds throughout the Shi‘i realms. The works of Shaykh Mohammad Hasan Najafi, a jurist of Iranian origin who specialized on rules and rituals (furu’), exemplified the high receptivity of Najaf scholarship. His major work, Jawahir al-Kalam fi Sharh Sharayi‘ al-Islam (The jewels of the words in explication of religious laws of Islam), was a forty-four-volume compendium of Shi‘i religious rules and rituals based on the work of the well-known thirteenth-century jurist Muhaqqiq Hilli. Completed in 1846, a high point for Najaf scholarship, it went through twenty-four printed editions between 1846 and 1957, and many editions still later (its 1981 Beirut edition amounts to more than eighteen thousand pages).

Widely used as a comprehensive manual, Jawahir glaringly revealed the insularity of the Shi‘i legal scholarship. Loyal to the antiquated organization of the Shi‘i law, it was divided into four major categories of devotional acts, contracts, individual obligations and religious commands. In all, about 46 percent of the work was devoted to purification rites (taharat) and devotional acts (‘ebadat). Within this category, a hefty 26 percent was on pollutants and rules of purity, 40 percent on prayer, and the remaining 44 percent on fasting, Hajj, and religious dues. Placing great emphasis on the issues of purity and pollutants, perhaps a relic of the deep memory of the Zoroastrian rituals of the pre-Islamic past, Jawahir discussed with fetishistic precision the minutiae of pollutants and methods of purification. Scatological cleansing in particular, including ritual purging of traces of urine and excretion, as well as menstrual discharge and other “tainting” bodily fluids, sexual intercourse, corpses, and pollutant animals received overzealous treatment. Other polluting situations, such as coming into contact with the religiously impure, including infidels, were also discussed at length.

Beyond cleansing and devotional acts, some 24 percent of Jawahir discussed the laws of contract (‘oqud), to include marriage and trade, and 21 percent, individual obligations (iqa’at), such as methods and rules governing inheritance and divorce. By contrast, only 9 percent of the compendium was devoted to the commands (ahkam), of which the most significant was enforcement of the penal code. Operating on the Islamic principal of “enforcing the good and prohibiting the evil,” harsh penalties (hadds) and laws of retribution (qesas) were prescribed, including lashing, stoning, and beheading, for such breaches as drinking, playing music, gambling, homosexual relationships, out-of-wedlock intercourse, and prostitution.

What was most remarkable about Najafi’s comprehensive treatment was the preoccupation with individual behavior and the means of controlling and policing it. This ritualistic aspect, more than civil or public conduct, interested the Shi‘i jurists over the centuries with little, if any, deviation. What determined the shari‘a primarily and predominantly were rituals and individual conduct, not the modern sense of law. Remarkably, despite jurists’ great emphasis throughout the Qajar period on the methodology of law, as is evident in the field of usul al-fiqh, the traditional division of legal categories remained firmly in place. Inaccuracies in defining contract versus individual obligations versus religious commands remained unresolved, and the two categories of “approbated” (mostahab) and reprehensible (makruh), the gray areas of the law, so to speak, were preserved. Most striking, Shi‘i legal concern never extended to the areas of public law or attempted to define the social rights and obligations of the individual in the modern sense. Nor did it made the faintest attempts to define the boundaries of state power. Instead, it adamantly adhered to the rituals and rules that regulated the life of the individual.

Even then it remained notoriously bookish and out of touch with the realities of the society it was supposed to serve. A vast number of intricate cases discussed in Jawahir, as in all compendiums on fiqh, were purely academic and had little, if any, practical implications. More than anything, they represented their authors’ legalistic obsessions and the scholastic acrobatics of the madrasa environment in which they were produced. Jawahir was rife with hypothetical cases devoid of any practical application: implausible, even bizarre, situations of bodily defilement and remote and highly improbable annulment of ritualistic ablution, daily prayers, fasting, and correct practice of Hajj rituals. Like most scholastic and exclusive teaching environments, it was as if these elaborations were to impress jurist counterparts and rivals in the madrasa rather than having any useful purpose even for jurists’ own students and training as mojtaheds.

Yet despite rising rivalries and bickering among the jurists, at moments of crisis, the ulama felt their duty to defend the survival of the shari‘a, what they called the “kernel of Islam” (bayzeh-ye Islam), even at the cost of contesting the state. Such interventions, however, were far less common and far more anecdotal than some modern apologists for the authority of the ulama versus the Qajar state would like us to believe. Contrary to popular images of the ulama as champions of the weak, most mojtaheds were supplicating subjects of the shah and admirers of Qajar rule. At no time before the end of the nineteenth century did any Shi‘i mojtahed of significance question the legitimacy of the temporal rulers of their time. The few who did protest the government’s action, such as during the Regie Protest in 1891 and 1892 against the concession granted by the Qajar state to a British company, did so at the urging of political activists and only briefly and on specific issues.

The early incubation of the Usuli school took place in the seminaries of Najaf, in Ottoman lands. Though safely distant from the seat of the Persian shah, they were more dependent on their Qajar patrons to protect them from the Sunni Mamluks of Iraq and later, in the early Tanzimat era, from the Ottomans. The first generation of Usuli jurists, mostly teachers rather than judges, overcame their Akhbari opponents in Najaf under the leadership of Aqa Mohammad Baqer Behbahani (1706–1791), the recognized initiator of the Usuli school in modern times, who is often esteemed by his students as the “unique one” (vahid) and the “renovator” (mojadded) of the thirteenth Islamic century.

A descendant of Mohammad Baqer Majlesi, the prominent theologian of the late Safavid era, and himself a refugee of the Afghan invasion and reign of Nader Shah, Behbahani succeeded in establishing the Usul school in Najaf not just by triumphing in debates with his mostly Arab Akhbari opponents or by producing legal works on usul al-fiqh. His greater success was building a network of patronage and a growing body of mostly Persian students who studied with him and with other senior Usuli cohorts in Najaf, with the intention of returning to Qajar Iran to occupy judicial positions. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Usuli network was firmly in place in most Iranian cities, patronized by the state and the urban elite, and well assimilated into the religious affairs of its communities.

Contrary to a number of “aristocratic” ulama families, both Arabs and Iranians, who dominated the teaching circles of Najaf and Karbala (known as the ‘Atabat, or “the thresholds”), the mojtaheds who returned to Iran were often of humble origins. Typically they were village boys who had gone through arduous years of education in dire poverty and then returned home, equipped with one or several “certificates” (sing. ejazeh) from their Najaf teachers. Home often was a newly revived trading center such as Isfahan, Yazd, Qazvin, and Tabriz, a place where they could gradually build their constituency, “prohibit the evil deeds” (nahy ‘an al-munkar), compete with one another for prestige and influence, and often amass fortunes.

Perhaps the foremost example of an early nineteenth-century Usuli is the celebrated Sayyed Mohammad Baqer Shafti (1767–1844), a powerful mojtahed in Isfahan whose career highlights all facets of the ulama’s power and privilege. Before the twentieth-century days of prolific use of honorifics among the clergy, Shafti was the sole Shi‘i figure referred to as Hojjat al-Islam (lit. “the proof of Islam”), a title normally reserved in Shi‘ism for the Imam of the Age, which implied that Shafti was solid evidence of Islam’s steadfastness. He was a poor boy from Shaft (fifteen miles south of Rasht) who had gone through long stretches of madrasa education in Iran and attended the “right” teaching circles of Najaf while still living in dire poverty, subsisting on stale bread and rotten melons, as he reminisced in conversation with his students

In Isfahan, which was gradually regaining its status as the most important religious center in Iran, Shafti steadily rose in the clerical hierarchy despite the fact that he was not a native of the city. He built his base by, among other things, issuing harsh legal opinions, lashing moral offenders, smashing wine cellars, crushing musical instruments, banishing prostitutes from the city, fining drunkards, and—if we trust his biographer—personally executing some of the seventy individuals he had sentenced to capital punishment. In one case, he beheaded an offender charged with pederasty and afterward said prayers at his burial. He held a popular teaching circle, appropriated the trusteeship of unclaimed or disputed pious endowments (awqaf), and acquired vast private properties that included shopping alleys, villages, and agricultural estates.

Isfahan at the time was just beginning to recuperate from many decades of decline and depopulation. Shafti engaged in trade and acquired property in collaboration with a merchant from Gilan, enriching himself through astute investments and even moneylending, in violation of the Islamic ban on usury. A key to his success was the immediate confiscation of collateral upon default, which in due course provided him with vast estates in and around Isfahan, as well as in Shiraz and Yazd. According to one source, by the 1830s his wealth included forty caravansaries, a thousand shops, and a vast number of villages in the fertile district of Borujerd and in Yazd. Though perhaps exaggerated, such figures reflected the awe he inspired among the ordinary people of his time. Amassing such wealth was often associated with high-ranking officials or tribal khans, and seldom with members of the clergy, who normally held a reputation for frugality.

Shafti was a bibliophile with a substantive private collection and a keen observer of domestic and regional affairs. On his Hajj pilgrimage, he took the Persian Gulf route, reportedly accompanied by two thousand followers. He corresponded with Mohammad ‘Ali Pasha of Egypt, then in control of the Hejaz, and reportedly persuaded him to endow the income from the famous Fadak hamlet, claimed by Fatima, daughter of prophet Mohammad, to the sayyeds of Medina. Shafti’s response in 1839 to the British envoy Sir John McNeill on the question of Iranian claims over Herat reveals political astuteness and maturity, some knowledge of the British parliamentary system, and recognition of the legitimate authority of the Qajar state in matters of defense, governance, and diplomacy. Shafti, nevertheless, regularly made demands on the Qajar state that were more for his own interest, rather than the public. His bickering with the government in his latter years tarnished his image even in the eyes of his followers as he resorted to violence and demagogy. Finally, it was left to the powerful governor of Isfahan, Manuchehr Khan Mo’tamad al-Dowleh, a Georgian convert to Islam, to put an end to Shafti’s rule. A shrewd state official, Manuchehr Khan had risen from being a eunuch in Fath ‘Ali Shah’s inner circle to the shah’s confidant, and then to one of the most powerful statesmen of the era of Mohammad Shah (r. 1834–1848). In Isfahan he crushed the city’s brigands (lutis) and restrained Shafti’s control of the market and the judicial affairs.

Fath ‘Ali Shah generally condoned the mojtaheds’ growing power, granting them tax exemptions and reaffirming tenure over their properties. Royal patronage, however, was not the only grounds for the mojtaheds’ success. They were astute maneuverers who negotiated with big landowners, merchants, and city officials. Haji Mohammad Hosain Isfahani, the future sadr ‘azam of Fath ‘Ali Shah, for example, sought Shafti’s legal sanction to reconfirm his own hold on land and property. The mutual collaboration between mojtaheds and members of the landed class did not exclude the Qajar state at the local and central levels, so long as the mojtaheds were rewarded with lands and gifts from the shah and his administration.

The mojtaheds were able to broaden their base through the madrasa, the mosque, and the bazaar. Their constituency included the lower clerical ranks, multitudes of students of the madrasa (talabeh), preachers and reciters of Muharram tragedies, and custodians of mosques and shrines. Their large and often chaotic teaching circles, where textual instruction was interlaced with the practical adjudication of legal cases, offered hands-on education on how to become a mojtahed. Big merchants as well as smaller retailers and shopkeepers were also among the mojtaheds’ followers. Placing themselves in the clerical pecking order, some urban mojtaheds controlled the luti brigands and, if necessary, incited a mob. It was not uncommon for the influential mojtaheds to settle differences between the provincial governors or officials and other urban elite by inciting riots. Despite the lutis’ popular image as protector of the weak, some terrorized neighborhoods, living a life of violence and heavy drinking, extortion and racketeering, and even sexually violations of young boys and women. Such crimes were often condoned by their patrons. At the lower echelon of the ulama hierarchy, the village mullahs offered religious instructors to the headmen and peasants and often served as a nominal shield from the excesses of the government tax collectors and other sources of coercion.

Fath ‘Ali Shah’s willingness to caress the mojtaheds’ egos or assign to them monetary gifts and land tenure was not entirely out of love of shari‘a. He must have been tempted to wash away the significant public evidence of his greed and lust with a good dose of religiosity. What was at stake, however, was the very credibility of Qajar rule, both domestically and in the face of menacing neighbors. The shah had to keep the ulama content to acquire their approval, especially in dealing with the Europeans. Powerful mojtaheds were aware of the Qajars’ weakness and willing to exploit it.

In 1811, while Sir Gore Ouseley was in Tehran, the English Evangelical missionary Henry Martyn visited Iran to spread the message of Christ and find some converts among the Shi‘i Iranians. Fiery but naive, he entered into theological disputation with a Shiraz mojtahed in which Martyn was declared, rather unjustly, to be the winner. The clerical establishment all over the country was up in arms to prove that the mojtaheds were the true saviors of Iran’s Shi‘i soul. In his treaties, young Martyn challenged the veracity of Islam and the authenticity of the prophet of Islam. In his private notes, he dreamed of Christianizing Iran and the rest of the Muslim world. The Shi‘i mojtaheds, by contrast, came across in their responses as more tolerant and open minded, even if their approach to Martyn’s challenge was outmoded and decidedly oblivious to its colonial subtext. They were alert and consistent but insular and intellectually unprepared. Martyn did not win any converts, although his translation of the New Testament into Persian, published in 1815 in St. Petersburg by Ouseley’s support, and in 1816 in Calcutta by the Church Missionary Society, went through several editions. It was one of the earliest printed books to be widely distributed in Iran and have some impact on the Persian readership. Ouseley’s support for Martyn and sponsorship for his translation of the Gospels—Ouseley even presented a manuscript copy to Fath ‘Ali Shah—may be seen as part of the English desire in the early decades of the nineteenth century to spread Christianity in Iran and India. Shi‘i Iran offered even less fertile ground for conversion than India did.

If the Martyn episode demonstrated clerical vigilance in encountering a theological challenge, such wariness proved inadequate in the face of modern military threat. During the first round of wars with Russia, the ulama backed the state as the defender of Islam waging jihad against infidel intruders. To save face, the Qajar state had to portray the 1813 defeat in war with Russia a temporary setback, not the final word. Subsequently, the Tabriz administration under Mirza Bozorg Farahani had to approach the prominent mojtaheds of Iraq and Iran to seek their approval for another jihad against the Russia aggressor. The exercise also aimed to buttress ‘Abbas Mirza’s succession in the eyes of the public, as he faced new challenges from his ambitious brothers.

The mojtaheds’ responses, particularly a cogent one by Sayyed ‘Ali Tabataba’i, a respected teacher of usul al-fiqh in Najaf, served as the basis for the 1819 publication of a small volume titled Jihadiyah (On jihad), the first publication to be produced by the newly founded government-run press in Tabriz. This exercise to seek public support by publishing a collection of fatwas far exceeded government expectations. As representatives of the Imam of the Age, the ranking mojtaheds willingly accepted the Qajar state’s initiative. They called for jihad on the grounds that defense of Muslim lands against outside aggression was an inalienable “individual duty” of all qualified believers. The mojtaheds’ assertions of their role as leaders of the community and their widening jihad to include all able-bodied civilians had important implications. On the one hand, it allowed mass mobilization to wage a successful war, while on the other hand, it took the initiative out of the hands of the state in favor of the ulama.

A few years later a collection of fatwas by Mohammad Baqer Shafti in the form of a catechism (written before 1826 but published in Tabriz in 1831) echoed the outmoded attitude of the mojtaheds in dealing with the Russian challenge. It included a section on jihad and the believer’s individual duty. Reinstating an arcane Islamic injunction, Shafti declared in one instance that all captives of war with infidels, no doubt a reference to the Russians, Armenians, and Georgians captured during the war in the Caucasus, were to be killed except for the children, the old, and the women, who were to be enslaved. Oddly enough the Russian captives, in practice, were welcomed and treated well, many preferring life in Muslim Iran over the arduous and inhumane lifetime of military service in the tsar’s army. Shafti’s ruling, and similar opinions by other mojtaheds, also showed the limits on the jurists’ impact on the relaxed and often nonconforming Iranian public. The mojtaheds were revered for their zeal and learnedness, but they were not always followed. Coming out of the madrasa and into the social arena, they sought status, wealth, and legal influence, and while not disappointed, they were unable to fully dictate the course of state policy or dominate the minds and hearts of most of their followers. The equilibrium between the state and the clerical establishment, though, would soon be put to a new test.


Among the reasons for renewed hostility were disagreements over implementation of the Treaty of Golestan, demarcation disputes, and anti-Russian resistance among the Muslim population of the annexed territories. At least some ranking Russian generals were determined to consolidate Russian gains as far south as the river Aras, which they considered the natural Russo-Persian border. Furthermore, for the majority of ulama and Iranian statesmen, the loss of the Caucasian provinces had not yet been fully absorbed. These anxieties became more transparent during the second round of wars with Russia between 1826 and 1827. ‘Abbas Mirza was convinced that the price for his eventual confirmation as heir apparent would be a successful Persian offensive in the Caucasus. Only a small antiwar party at the Qajar court and administration were realistic about Iran’s vulnerabilities and its prospect of defeat should it engage in another war with Russia.

What seemed to have tipped the balance against the antiwar minority, however, was the call for jihad by prominent members of the ulama. Distraught by the fate of the Shi‘i in the Caucasus under Russian occupation, who lived in fear of mass deportation, in July 1826 a group of mojtaheds marched to Fath ‘Ali Shah’s military camp near Soltaniyeh (today’s Arak, some 180 miles southwest of Tehran). They were led by, among others, Sayyed Mohammad Tabataba’i, son of the above-mentioned ‘Ali Tabataba’i, who came to be known as Mojahed (crusader), as well as by Mohammad Baqer Shafti. They pressed the war council, convened by the shah, to opt for war with Russia. They also pressured the shah and his officials to abandon negotiations with the enemy and ask the Russian envoy, General Alexey Yermolov, to leave the camp. The state had little choice but to comply. It was as if a spirit of defiance enwrapped the Qajar elite, which was patriotic and religiously galvanizing but essentially untenable.

Despite early advances by the New Army into the interior of the Caucasus and the valiant resistance mounted by a handful of Qajar commanders—for instance, in the defense of the fortress of Abbasabad near Iravan—the Iranian forces were soon routed in a few short campaigns. The troops of General Ivan Fyodrovich Paskevich, the commander of the Russian army, secured control over the entire region north of the Aras, crossed the river, and marched in the direction of Tabriz. The celebrated general, a member of the Ukrainian Cossack gentry, epitomized the thrust of Russian imperialist ambitions. He had earlier distinguished himself during the Napoleonic Wars and also defeated the Ottomans in 1814, which made him a hero of the conquest of the Caucasus but hated by the Iranians. Later, he would be equally despised by the Poles for his victory in the 1831 Battle of Warsaw during Polish-Russian War. He also served as the commander of the tsar’s army that crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

The demoralized Iranian camp was dispersed, most of the artillery deserted behind enemy lines, and Iravan and Nakhijevan, the last of the Iranian strongholds, fell into Russian hands. The expected uprising by the populations of Shirvan, Baku, Ganja, and Tiflis never occurred, and the ulama, who had relied on mass resistance could not persuade the people of Azarbaijan to organize a vigilante force or to put up a meaningful defense against the advancing Russian army. Some of the ulama of Tabriz did not even bother to pretend that there was a call for jihad; they were busy preparing speeches to welcome the Russian generals to the seat of the Qajar viceroy. Fleeing before the Russian army, ‘Abbas Mirza himself, accompanied by his small entourage, had taken refuge in his summer resident in Khoy on the Ottoman border. Betrayed and disillusioned, he hoped at least to retrieve his capital through negotiation. The English envoy John Macdonald Kinneir—summoned to help him—was obliged to lend the crown prince some cash for his subsistence. This was probably the lowest ebb of ‘Abbas Mirza’s career (fig. 4.4). Residing near Chaldiran, the scene of the decisive defeat in 1514, ‘Abbas Mirza must have wondered how similar was his misfortune to that of Isma‘il I.

The peace treaty of Torkamanchay, concluded in February 1828 between the victorious Russian army, then in control of the entire Caucasus and Azarbaijan and even threatening to march on Tehran, and the demoralized Qajar officials, could not have been negotiated in a gloomier climate or with greater disadvantage for the vanquished party. Torkamanchay has often been deemed the most disastrous treaty in modern Iranian history, even though territorial Iran came out of the ordeal relatively intact (see map 4.2). Perhaps it was the perseverance of the Iranian negotiators, with the assistance they received from the British, or the Russians’ desire to conclude the peace because the prospect of another war with the Ottomans was looming large, which saved Iran from further humiliation and subservience, and perhaps even from the loss of all of Azarbaijan or even Iran’s descent into some kind of Russian vassalage.

Figure 4.4. ‘Abbas Mirza receiving the victorious general Ivan Paskevich and his officers in November 1827 in Dehkhvareqan, south of Tabriz. Behind ‘Abbas Mirza is his young son Khosrow Mirza, later sent as special envoy to St. Petersburg to convey the apologies of the Persian court for the assassination of Alexander Griboedov (fifth from right among Russian delegates) and members of his mission in 1829.

Contemporary engraving based on a painting by Vladimir Ivanovich Moshkov, Batailles de la glorieuse campagne du Comte Paskevitch-Arivansky, dans l’Asie mineure en 1828–1829 (St. Petersburg–Paris, 1836). © «Государственный литературный музей» (State Literary Museum), T. 47–48, S. 221, Sm. ill.

The final loss of seventeen khanates of the Caucasus, consisting of the eastern part of today’s Republic of Georgia, as well as the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, amounted to more than 10 percent of Iran’s territory at the time and more than 10 percent of its population of about five million. The Caucasian provinces were highly prized for their agriculture, silk production, trade, and manufacturing. The loss of revenue from the khanates, therefore, was substantial—perhaps as high as 20 percent of the Iranian government’s total income of about three million tumans ($3,560,000). Politically, the loss of the Caucasian provinces was even greater, for it compromised the very prestige of the Qajar state as protector of Iran’s Guarded Domains. The Qajars’ tarnished image further cast a shadow on their ability to govern, as the postwar period witnessed insurgencies throughout the remaining years of Fath ‘Ali Shah, especially in Khorasan.

Figure 4.5. Qajar officials disbursing in gold the first installment of the five-million-tuman war reparations (twenty million silver rubles in 1828 currency) as stipulated in article 6 of the Torkamanchay Treaty. The war booty is weighed with a huge scale hanging from the ceiling and packed by Russian officers to be sent to St. Petersburg.

Contemporary engraving based on a painting by Vladimir Ivanovich Moshkov in Batailles de la glorieuse campagne du Comte Paskevitch-Arivansky, dans l’Asie mineure en 1828–1829 (St. Petersburg–Paris, 1836) © «Государственный литературный музей» (State Literary Museum), T. 47–48, S. 221, Sm. ill.

The war indemnity imposed by Russia, no less than five million tumans in gold (about US$6 million, or twenty million Russian silver rubles), was nearly twice the size of Iranian state’s annual income. Of the four million tumans collected immediately, a huge sum by any standard, a smaller part was drawn from the royal treasury, but the greatest portion was raised through extra taxation (fig. 4.5). Disbursing the indemnity brought the Qajar state to virtual bankruptcy. In addition, the victorious army carried away from occupied Ardabil vast possessions, including manuscripts and artifacts, from the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili, the patriarch of the house of Safavi. In Tabriz, too, the defeated Qajar ruler was forced to make more gifts of great value to the tsar in the hopes of lubricating peace negotiations. On his return to St. Petersburg, Paskevich received, in addition to a promotion and new title, a reward of a million rubles from the tsar, which no doubt contributed to the construction of his vast estate and palace in Belarus.

It was not only the Qajar state but also the high-ranking mojtaheds who also lost face. The hollow exhortation to wage jihad stood in sharp contrast to the realities of defeat. The transfer of the Shi‘i population of the Caucasus, the so-called emigrants (mohajerin), mostly to Iranian Azarbaijan, was a stigma and humiliation visible to ordinary Iranians. The Shi‘i Muslims constituted the majority of the population of the most provinces of southern Caucasus, and their grievances had been a major reason for the outbreak of the war. In the khanate of Iravan they constituted as much as 80 percent of the total population. Although a majority remained in their homeland, the Russian government insisted on a population exchange, no doubt aimed to enhance the Christian identity of the annexed provinces. Over the course of the population exchange, a substantial segment of the Armenians, mostly from Iranian Azarbaijan, left their homeland to settle in Iravan province under the Russian aegis, while some of the Shi‘i population of the Caucasian provinces immigrated to Iran. As late as the 1850s the Iranian government was paying a hefty sum for the upkeep of the émigrés from the Caucasus. Much higher amounts, however, were paid over the years in installments to disburse the Russian war indemnity.

Torkamanchay also reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to ‘Abbas Mirza as heir to the Persian throne, the only favorable term the devastated and ailing crown prince could procure during the treaty negotiations (see chart 2). The defeat had emboldened other senior sons of the shah to challenge the crown prince, which in turn encouraged him to seek the tsar’s blessing. The end result was that the Tabriz administration accepted the harsh terms of the treaty to buttress ‘Abbas Mirza’s shaky stance. As far as the Russians were concerned, this was nothing short of ‘Abbas’s admission of his virtual vassalage status. Upon his death in 1833, the Russians, along with the British, imposed on Fath ‘Ali Shah a purposeful reading of the article of the Treaty of Torkamanchay according to which Abbas’s son would succeed to the throne, which would remain hereditary in his house. For the rest of the Qajar period the rule of primogenitor was observed in the house of ‘Abbas Mirza, and with the blessings of the neighboring powers. Although the new rule of succession did not prevent a mini–civil war after the death of Fath ‘Ali Shah, the new order of succession was an important departure from the customary contest between sons of the deceased king, which often bore ruinous results for the state and society.

The treaty also defined the Iranian northwestern frontier as it still appears today. The Iranians had exchanged peace treaties and settled frontier boundaries with their foes as early as 450 BCE, in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian wars. This was the first time, however, that Iran’s boundaries with its neighbor Russia were defined by meticulous demarcations. This in effect initiated a process throughout the nineteenth century of defining Iranian boundaries vis-à-vis British India and the Ottoman Empire. Shaping an integrated Iran proper thus came at the expense of losing the periphery to the neighboring powers. Russia’s exclusive rights to navigate both naval and commercial vessels in the Caspian Sea, reaffirmed in the Treaty of Torkamanchay, also deprived Iran of whatever control it had once held beyond the Caspian shores.

The supplementary commercial treaty attached to Torkamanchay imposed on Iran equally important articles with long-term consequences. Russia acquired not only the right, long resisted by Iran, to open consulates in Iranian cities but also the capitulatory rights of the so-called Most Favored Nations, for Russian diplomatic representatives to preside over disputes between Russian and Iranian subjects. In due course, the denial of both the state’s and the mojtaheds’ legal jurisdictions set a precedent for granting similar capitulatory privileges to other European nations, most notably to Britain, which concluded a new commercial treaty with Iran in 1841. Likewise, the supplementary commercial treaty granted Russian traders, and later other Europeans, fixed customs duties and other commercial advantages over their Iranian competitors, with negative results for Iran’s balance of trade. The effect of the capitulatory rights was not in commerce alone; European powers routinely included these privileges for their own Iranian employees and clients. In the following decades, these protégés of the foreign legations frequently posed challenges to the authority of the Qajar state.


Not surprisingly, Iran’s image degraded after 1828 in the eyes of foreign observers, becoming a weak state with vulnerable frontiers. The image of decline is visible most intensely in literary works by such writers as James Morier and James Baillie Fraser. The prejudices in these works aside, there was some substance to this shift in attitude toward Iranians as the Qajars’ weakening grip over the country became apparent immediately after the defeat by the Russians. In addition to a number of provincial uprisings, the notorious Griboedov affair in the capital demonstrated not only the intensity of public anger toward the triumphant Russians but also the ulama’s gaining ground at the expense of the demoralized state.

In 1829 a large Russian embassy had arrived in Tehran under Alexander Griboedov (1795–1829), the celebrated Russian poet and writer. Implementing the terms of the treaty, the envoy Griboedov displayed the condescending zeal of a conqueror toward the “natives.” At the instigation of an Armenian eunuch, himself a captive from earlier Qajar raids into the Caucasus, Griboedov demanded the release into his custody of Georgian concubines who were kept in the harems of the Qajar nobility, including that of Allahyar Khan Asaf al-Dowleh, a Qajar khan who formerly served as grand vizier. He was an advocate of war with Russia. Relying on a provision in the Treaty of Torkamanchay calling for the exchange of prisoners of war, Griboedov sent out his Armenian and Georgian aides to bring the women to the Russian legation. Such an act was bound to be seen as a violation of great symbolic weight, threatening the authority of the state and Shi‘i religious mores. Allahyar Khan, who was known for his pro-British sentiments, pleaded with the Tehran mojtahed, Mirza Masih Tehrani. In turn, the mojtahed called upon the people of the capital to rise up and rescue the concubines, now presumably converted to Islam, and return them to their Muslim households. The ensuing clashes with the Russian guards led to the deaths of three of the demonstrators. Following a fatwa by Mirza Masih, the angry mob then attacked and massacred Griboedov and the entire Russian embassy staff of seventy, except for one.

Griboedov had largely fallen victim to his own indiscretion, although one cannot entirely dismiss provocations from other quarters, including the British envoy in Tehran or the crown prince’s many rivals. The episode came across as much as a sign of public discontent as one of government inability to handle the angry crowd. Though it did not substantially change the European power’s future attitude toward Iranians, it did draw a line as to how far Europeans could meddle with Iran’s mores and religious sanctions. The shah and ‘Abbas Mirza rightfully feared a Russian military reprisal, or at least imposition of new monetary retribution. Yet circumstances helped Iran escape any harsh consequences. At the time, Russia was at war with the Ottoman Empire and did not wish to renew hostilities with Iran. Furthermore, Griboedov was not a popular figure at the court of the new Tsar Nicholas II, for he had been accused of collaborating with the Decembrist reform movement.

To apologize for the incident, ‘Abbas Mirza dispatched one of his young sons, Khosrow Mirza, to St. Petersburg, along with a large retinue. Anxious to reaffirm his own shaky position, he even spread rumors that if his brothers were to actively oppose his succession, he might go as far as defecting to the Russian side to seek the support of the tsar. The Persian mission was cordially received by the tsar and the young Khosrow and his retinue for a short while were the focus of the curious Russian elite. The only retribution requested was that Mirza Masih Tehrani be exiled to Ottoman Iraq.

Relying on heavier taxation in the provinces to finance the war and to pay the indemnity, the Qajar state faced renewed resistance from tribal khans, the clergy, and ordinary folks. In Yazd, a major commercial and industrial center in the south, there was a popularly backed uprising by the local governor. In Fars, the prince-governor, ‘Abbas Mirza’s chief rival, was at odds with the shah for not being able to raise the hefty dues requested by Tehran. In Khorasan there were insurgencies by the eastern Kurdish tribes of the region and renewed raids by the frontier Turkmen and Afghan tribes. Clearly besieged by the sudden change of political climate, the shah called on ‘Abbas Mirza and his Azarbaijan New Army to quell the insurgencies, a campaign that gave the crown prince a chance to rebuild his tarnished reputation, boost his officers’ morale, and ingratiate him with his father.

The New Army’s greatest success was a campaign against the Tekeh and Akhal Turkmen of the northeastern frontier (see map 4.1). These semi-nomadic camel and horse breeders of the desert steppes of Karakum, around Marv and Sarakhs, were nominally subordinate to the khanate of Marv (in today’s Turkmenistan), an ancient Iranian vassalage which in it heyday controlled the large-scale export of horses from Central Asia. Increasingly restive since the late Safavid period, and an endless source of vexation to Nader and his successors, the Turkmens were early allies of the Qajars in their bid for power but after Aqa Mohammad Khan’s consolidation were soon left out. Pressured by the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara to their north, the Tekeh Turkmen had for some time engaged in banditry, raiding, and pillage (chapu) of cities and villages of Iranian Khorasan. Blessed by fatwas of the Sunni jurists of Bukhara that declared the Shi‘is of Iran infidels, their plunder and abduction of the peasant and urban population stretched all the way into the Iranian interior.

Riding durable horses, Turkmens carried out night raids on the caravans and settlements and carried thousands of defenseless Iranians first to their desolate nomadic settlements and then across the Central Asian desert to the slave markets of Khiva and Bukhara. Alternatively, they held their captives in yurts in their nomadic camps until a ransom was paid for their release. For the Qajars, the Turkmen raids were a serious nuisance and a source of embarrassment. According to one estimate given by the crown prince’s minister Mirza Abol-Qasem Qa’em-Maqam, during the 1832 Sarakhs campaign on the northeastern frontier, the Qajar forces were able to free more than twenty thousand Iranian captives from the Turkmen camps. The Turkmen casualties were heavy, and so were the ravages to the countryside along the trail of the New Army.

The Khorasan campaign was celebrated by the Qajar state as a great, and badly needed, victory, and ‘Abbas Mirza and his sons as its champions. Yet the Turkmen threat to the northeast remained throughout the nineteenth century and was a source of horror to the sedentary population. The Kurdish and other tribal populations of northern and central Khorasan, who had barely succumbed to Qajar domination, posed an additional problem. Powerful tribal coalitions put up stiff resistance to the Qajar state before Khorasan was fully incorporated into the Guarded Domains after the 1850s. The anti-Shi‘i overtones of the Turkmen raids, especially those conducted against Mashhad, a city that held a special place in Shi‘i sacred memory, sharpened the Shi‘i awareness of its historical vulnerability. Like the Muslims of Azarbaijan, in Khorasan, too, the sense of insecurity fostered distrust toward the Qajar state and triggered disillusionment with the ulama establishment. The Qajar tribe itself was not free from internecine conflict and insurrection.

In 1833 ‘Abbas Mirza returned to Mashhad and died at the young age of forty-four, remembered, like his Safavid namesake, as a champion of Shi‘i liberation. Although his military record carried more defeats than victory, the memory of ‘Abbas Mirza has remained unblemished. More than any member of the Qajar royal family, he embodied a new national awareness and understanding of modernity. Despite his strong tribal and family loyalties and his traditional notion of royal power, and despite yielding to Russian wishes in his final years, he viewed Iran not merely as a disparate conglomerate of peoples and territories but a country in need of modern defenses and new technological and industrial advances from Europe. Thanks to his small corps of advisers who schooled him in Persian history and literature, he entertained a sense of indigenous state-centered identity.

‘Abbas Mirza’s reform measures, mostly military modernization and ancillary expertise such as European medicine, engineering, and uniforms, were meant to strengthen the state, much in line with the policies of his contemporaries, Mohammad ‘Ali Pasha of Egypt and Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire. His model was to be adopted later by Qajar statesmen trained in the Azarbaijan administration, most notably fifteen years later by the premier Amir Kabir. Students who were dispatched by ‘Abbas Mirza to Europe to study medicine, engineering, glassmaking and tool making, however, proved less influential in shaping Qajar Iran than did homegrown officials such as Amir Kabir, men who came to know about Europe indirectly, and often through experiences in the New Army. A generous prince with an inquiring mind, ‘Abbas had resided in Tabriz since he was ten. There he came to learn about Europe and European powers through merchants, diplomats, and missionaries, as well as through newspapers and other Western and Turkish publications. Much in the style of Peter the Great of Russia, ‘Abbas Mirza was inclined to invite Europeans as agents of reform to settle in Azarbaijan, and he went as far as placing advertisements to that effect in the Times of London. After him, his vision of modernity was inherited, to an extent, by a few of his many sons, including the following crown price and future ruler Mohammad Shah.

Fath ‘Ali Shah died in Isfahan in October 1834, while on a campaign to collect taxes in arrears from his own son, the governor of Fars. The dictum appearing on the royal emblem—“Thus rested the seal of kingship by the eternal might, in the hand of the king of the time, Fath-‘Ali”—reflected some of the achievements of his reign. He was able to transform largely Turkic and tribal rule into a centralized and stable monarchy based on the old imperial model. He offered Iran a period of relative calm and prosperity, secured a symbiosis of state and ulama, laid down rudiments of the Qajar divan, and fostered a period of cultural and artistic revival that has remained the hallmark of the Qajar era. Traditional Persian industries also received a new lease on life after a half-century hiatus. Demand for refined woolen shawls of Kerman, the silk fabrics and delicate rugs of Kashan and Isfahan, and other luxury goods substantially increased as the royal court, the Qajar harems, and the urban elite became accustomed to a lavish lifestyle. Exports of Persian silk also were revived. Raw silk and refined fabrics were exported to neighboring Russia and the Ottoman Empire. As far northeast as Kashmir, where a community of Persian craftsmen and merchants from Hamadan was established as early as the fourteenth century, both the patterns and the technique of Persian textiles, especially shawls, were used in the production of cashmere and pashminas of the Ladakh region, even as late as the nineteenth century. Cotton fabrics of all kinds for the domestic market also increased in volume once the rising population, especially in the larger cities, acquired greater purchasing power.

The vast building project commissioned or patronized by Fath ‘Ali Shah, the prince-governors, and the divan officials, including numerous palaces, mosques, madrasas, caravansaries, and designed gardens, left distinct marks on the Iranian architectural landscape. Although Qajar architecture remained loyal to the Safavid style, there were also evident signs of innovation. The mosque and madrasa of Aqa Bozorg in Kashan, built in honor of the chief mojtahed of the city, Mulla Mahdi Naraqi (known as Aqa Bozorg), is an excellent example of sustainable architecture. The novel design of multistory garden structures in Tehran and Shiraz, perhaps influenced by the garden design of the Zand era, is another (fig. 4.6).

Under Fath ‘Ali Shah, the Qajar state successfully incorporated the Persian tradition of statecraft and imperial authority. It established a system that weathered for a century despite external and internal pressures. Yet his complacency, rooted in a culture of conquest, was never distant enough from tribal norms and familial mores. With few exceptions, the budding of a modern state, on par even with his Ottoman and Egyptian contemporaries, was stifled. At the outset of his reign, the shah still stood a fair chance to slow down, if not repel completely, European military expansion that had begun to affect his country. By the end of his reign, his compounding financial troubles and military and technological disadvantages brought about a serious crisis hastened by an ensuing war of succession.

Figure 4.6. The multistoried garden palace, Takht-e Qajar (Qajar throne), in Shiraz commemorated the capture of the Zand capital. Unlike the Persian garden design, it may have been inspired by the raised platform in nearby Persepolis.

L. Dubeux, La Perse (Paris, 1841), pl. 48.


The full effects of the defeat and unraveling of the imperial order became apparent under Fath ‘Ali Shah’s grandson and successor, Mohammad Shah. Though transition to the new rule did not result in a protracted civil war, the transformational effects of European influence and the domestic dynamics that ensued, were significant. The accession of the new shah marked a departure from earlier imperial culture, and especially the state-ulama equilibrium that it had sponsored. The new shah’s swift victory over a pretender to the throne—his own uncle, the prince-governor of Fars—and rounding up of half a dozen suspect brothers and uncles promised a strong start to his rule. The power of the Azarbaijan army became instantly apparent when regiments of the New Army (Nezam Jadid) brought a relatively quick end to the claims of succession. The understanding between the European powers became an enduring feature of Qajar succession. This was the first tangible recognition of Iran as a “buffer” state, as a calmer Iran served both powers well and kept the space between them unperturbed.

The premier, Abol-Qasem Qa’em-Maqam, a major statesman of the Tabriz school and a figure belonging to the literary revival of the early Qajar era, dominated the new administration almost to the exclusion of the young shah. By 1835, however, the premier had lost most of his allies in the court as well as his master’s trust. His secret murder at the order of Mohammad Shah, recalled the ugly tradition of murdering the vizier, which had last been practiced by his predecessor a quarter of a century earlier. Above all, Qa’em-Maqam’s fall can be attributed to the young shah’s fear that his premier was conspiring to remove him from the throne in favor of one of his senior uncles from among the princes of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s house, an anxiety rooted more in his insecurities than in Qa’em-Maqam’s intent. At a deeper level it was a tangible departure from the governing style of Fath ‘Ali Shah era and the class of powerful officialdom of whom Qa’em-Maqam was a representative.

Mohammad Shah’s new premier was his own tutor and mystical guide, Mulla ‘Abbas Iravani, better known as Haji Mirza Aqasi, an émigré from Iravan with some religious and Sufi training. Aqasi’s self-deprecating personality appeared to some of his contemporaries, and to later historians, to be a sign of his weak and eccentric character. He exerted influence on the young, and soon ailing, shah, who he had converted to some modified interpretation of Ne‘matollahi Sufism, the most prominent Sufi-Shi‘i order in Iran of the nineteenth century. The shah’s serious gout, which incapacitated him toward the end of his reign, further cleared the way for Aqasi’s escalating control. During his thirteen-year term of office, Aqasi transformed the Qajar state in two distinct ways. First, he removed most, if not all, of his real and potential competitors from among the Qajar aristocracy of the Fath ‘Ali Shah era. His critics labeled him “destroyer of the nobles” (hadem al-anjab). Second, he tried with some success to place a degree of state control over the powerful mojtahed establishment, reminiscent of the Safavid practice.

Undoubtedly there was a spirit of modernity in Aqasi’s restructuring of the Qajar state (which incidentally was a source of inspiration for his successor in office, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir). Yet Aqasi was an outsider, untrained in the state bureaucratic tradition. He never mastered the ins and outs of the government’s revenue collection, court etiquette, troop recruitment and maneuvers, or conventions of diplomacy. In a few short years state revenue dropped, payments and salaries were delayed, troops could no longer be sufficiently maintained, communications were stifled, disputes with foreign legations had increased, and signs of discontent had become more visible throughout all sectors of society. The changes that came about with the Industrial Revolution as well as with greater Anglo-Russian diplomatic and commercial presence in the 1830s and 1840s contributed to Iran’s economic and political setbacks.

The first obstacle the new premier faced was the entrenched Qajar nobility. Having successfully kept Mohammad Shah under his thumb, the new premier, who called himself “First Person” instead of the customary sadr-e a‘zam, presumably to avoid the sad fate of his predecessors, had to rely on the support of émigrés from Iravan and officers of the Azarbaijan New Army. He appointed many of them to military posts in the provinces to counterbalance the provincial governors chosen from among ‘Abbas Mirza’s numerous sons. In due course a few of Mohammad Shah’s uncles were replaced by a handful of the new shah’s brothers. Some of this latter group, the third generation of Qajar princes and their descendants governed the provinces for the following half century. But they often governed either nominally or with shorter terms of office than was customary under Fath ‘Ali Shah. The new arrangement was applied haphazardly, however, and was seen as a sign of the state’s weakness.

Numerous urban uprisings throughout the 1840s in Tabriz, Mashhad, Yazd, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kerman characterized the state’s loosening grip over the provinces. One frequent cause of these uprisings was clashes between the local population and the government troops stationed in the cities whose members were of different ethnic and geographical backgrounds. Often badly paid and near starvation, the unruly troops harassed the population; plundered city neighborhoods; engaged in brawls, theft, and extortion; and abducted women and children from the very cities they were dispatched to protect. Adding to the conflicts was the discord between the governors and the military chiefs, echoed in a host of local factional, as well as sectarian and personal, rivalries. The mojtaheds were not the only urban provocateurs; landowning tribal khans residing in the cities, municipal officials in control of urban wards, and members of the older Qajar nobility frequently had their fair share of the action. The lutis, hired guns serving the highest bidders, were active as well.

Not all troubles were because of urban unrest or the government’s lack of resources. Far more disruptive were outbreaks of cholera, plague, and smallpox. The growth of foreign trade throughout the nineteenth century, especially with India and with Russia, both overland and through sea routes, opened new conduits for the transmission of cholera. Pandemics often spread through Iran to neighboring provinces of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, though at times Iran also was on the receiving end of diseases transmitted in reverse direction. The high mortality rate from cholera in the cities and in the countryside was a major cause of depopulation, which in turn resulted in a reduction in the workforce, lower economic output, and routine occurrences of famine. From the 1820s to the 1840s, tens of thousands died of cholera in the big cities at a time when there were no effective sanitary measures or medical treatment.

Although accurate statistics are difficult to come by, it is quite plausible that in one early outbreak of cholera in 1820–1821, within four weeks some three-quarters of Shiraz’s total population of forty thousand was ravaged. By the time cholera reached the capital, the casualties throughout the country exceeded one hundred thousand. A decade later, an outbreak of plague in the northern Iranian provinces of Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and eventually Tehran, reportedly killed two hundred thousand people. About the same number of casualties is given for the cholera outbreak of 1831–1832 in neighboring Iraq, with the highest number of casualties in Baghdad and the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. In the years between the 1840s and 1890s, cholera, now an endemic malady throughout the country, flared up at least six more times, each time in short intervals of four to eight weeks in each locale. Although by the 1870s the rudiments of a public health network were in place, including frontier quarantines, the rate of casualties barely subsided.

A conservative estimate of the total population losses to pandemics stands as high as a million, a staggering figure given that the average population of the country did not exceed eight million by the end of the nineteenth century. As in Europe, before the discovery of germ theory, contagious epidemics in Iran were associated with noxious air. They were accepted as horrifying facts of life and feared as acts of divine punishment. One significant feature of divine favor, however, was social class. The Qajar elite and more affluent sectors of the urban population soon learned that once the pandemic was at its peak, taking refuge in their less populated and more isolated estates in the countryside was safer than staying in the cities. The ordinary urban populations, however, were easy prey. The declining economic output caused by these outbreaks brought major decreases in agricultural production, at least during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, which in turn triggered starvation in most provinces and periodic famines, at times countrywide.

Beyond damage from pandemics and famine, Iran’s agrarian economy faced other setbacks in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The revenue loss from Caucasian raw silk after 1813 was compounded by the decline in silk production in Gilan province. From the 1860s, the Caspian provinces experienced the virulent phylloxera pest, originally from North America, which ravaged European grapevine and silkworm production as far as west Asia. Once it reached Iran, it caused irreparable damage to an industry that had endured since medieval times and brought revenue to the state. It took a while, as long as a few decades, before the loss of the Persian silk market was compensated for by other major exports, such as cash crops and the expanded Persian carpet industry (fig. 4.7).

Figure 4.7. As late as the 1870s, silkworm breeding in Gilan province was a viable local industry, though at a smaller scale than in the Safavid era.

“Silk and Silk Culture,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (New York: Frank Leslie’s Publishing House), vol. 8, no. 6 (December 1879), 661–669.

Cultivation of the new crops such as opium and tobacco, though already a nascent industry, only picked from the 1870s, bringing much-needed income to Iran’s otherwise subsistence and localized agriculture. The long-distance merchants of Tabriz, Shiraz, Yazd, and Mashhad became, over time, the driving force behind the cultivation and processing of these new crops for domestic consumption and, importantly, for export to Europe and China. The merchants had a major stake in security on the road and in the marketplace, and they suffered from the state’s inability to offer either.

Land ownership had been transformed since the rise of the Qajars, although the rules governing the agrarian economy remained essentially unchanged. Most of the land used for agriculture, usually consisting of a village, its orchards, and the surrounding arable land, theoretically was recognized as crown land. Throughout the century, however, more and more land came under private control. The mostly absentee landlords consisted of tribal khans, urban nobility, ranking bureaucrats, and—from the 1830s onward—wealthy merchants and the mojtaheds. Some estates were assigned by the shah as fiefs (toyul) to Qajar princes, officials, and the ulama, and these often became hereditary among their descendants. Vast religious endowments, in contrast, were controlled, and at times appropriated, by the ulama. If privately created, the endowments remained in the hands of the trustees, mostly the descendants of the founders of the endowment.

As the century progressed and private landowning became more prevalent, the sharecropping regime became less favorable to peasants. Land taxes ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent of total income, depending on region and prevailing customs, were to be paid proportionately by the landlord and peasants in cash or in kind. Yet in reality a large part was extracted from the peasant’s meager share, which reduced his actual share to as little as one-tenth of total income in exchange for a year of labor. Even though the Qajar tax collection system became increasingly inefficient, peasants could barely subsist given the extortion of bailiffs acting on behalf of the landlords and harassment from tax collectors. It was not unusual for an entire village to flee to the surrounding hills and plains at the first sight of the dreaded tax collector and his accompanying troops. Nevertheless, the Iranian peasantry was not bound to the land by any form of serfdom. Families, even a whole community, could migrate and settle on a different estate and enter into sharecropping pact with a new landlord.

The harshness of village life, the insecurities it involved and varying agricultural production, did not go entirely unnoticed. One measure undertaken by Aqasi was to repossess the misappropriated toyul and their development as property of the divan. This had the dual objective of increasing agricultural production, especially around the capital, and increasing government revenue. For the first part, to increase agricultural output, the government dug numerous subterranean qanat irrigation systems around Tehran and built a water canal from the Karaj River in order to improve the city’s water shortage. Similar irrigation projects in Shiraz and elsewhere were initiated to increase wheat and grain production, as well as to introduce new plants, fruits, and flowers. By the end of his premiership, Aqasi had appropriated, purchased, or revived nearly ten thousand estates. He transferred all land ownership to the shah, out of desperation perhaps, though he seems to have intended to use the revenue to boost the state’s income. The scale of Aqasi’s operation, however, was negligible in comparison to the size of the problem.

The most visible change during the middle decades of the century was growth in the trade sector, most significantly foreign trade. After a lull of nearly a century, Iran began to become reincorporated into the world economy, and not only through contacts with Europe. In the decades after 1828, the revival after a long lapse of Persian Gulf trade via Bandar Abbas and Bushehr to Muscat, the western coast of the Indian subcontinent and Europe was a major breakthrough in trade for the south. The Yazd-Kandahar overland route to India also became more active. The opening of the northern Trabzon-Tabriz route through the Ottoman interior and the Black Sea port, as well as Caspian trade with the Caucasus and southern Russia, and Khorasan trade with Central Asia and Herat, revitalized the markets of Tabriz, Qazvin, Anzali, Barforush, Mashhad, and other commercial towns in the north. Despite growing insecurity foreign trade expanded out of an already-brisk domestic network of caravans crisscrossing the Iranian interior. This network connected agricultural suppliers in smaller towns with merchants and wholesalers in larger cities, as well as weaving and tool-producing workshops and other local manufacturers of glass, pottery, metals, and carpets with growing consumer markets (see map 5.1).

The merchants often supplied raw material to manufacturers and distributed their final products domestically or to foreign markets. Their social standing and financial means, but also their reputation for honesty, frugality, prudence, and piety, made them natural leaders of the bazaar community. Most merchants were thriving in the nineteenth century and the community grew in size and operations, acting also as bankers and moneylenders. Their operations grew within Iranian cities and beyond to Mumbai, Calcutta, Srinagar, Muscat, Baghdad, Basra, Istanbul, Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo, then later to Shanghai, Ceylon, and Rangoon (Yangon). Trade was a family business, and though it was not always hereditary, there was a natural tendency to preserve capital within the family network. In the early nineteenth century most long-distance merchants, as well as most local merchants and distributors, were Muslim. This was in contrast to the neighboring Ottoman Empire and Egypt, where Christian and Jewish merchants dominated trade. There were merchant families from non-Muslim communities in Iran: Armenians in Isfahan and Tabriz; Zoroastrians in Yazd and Kerman; Jews in Kashan, Isfahan, and Mashhad; and Hindus in Yazd. However, these became more prominent toward the end of the century.

By the early 1840s the Iranian merchants faced new challenges, largely as a result of growing foreign trade. The commercial treaties with Russia in 1828 and with England in 1841, both imposed on Iran, greatly facilitated imports by European firms and their agents. Machine-made cotton cloth at affordable prices, the miracle of the European Industrial Revolution, was the first to have an impact on the Iranian markets. Manchester chintz, calicoes, and other print cloths soon captured a large share of the market at the expense of local textile manufacturers, whose manual looms could not compete with factory products. The local manufacturers were not entirely ruined, as they were, for instance, in some parts of British India, but serious disruptions did occur in the old weaving centers such as Yazd, Kashan, Isfahan, and Kerman.

In 1845, Keith Abbott, then the British consul in Tabriz, could observe that British manufacturers

appear to have found their way into the remotest parts of the country and they are continually superseding those of Persia. Their present very low prices, owing partly to the influx of too great a quantity of goods this year (1845) will probably lead to their becoming still better known and there is yet abundant scope for increased consumption, for at present our manufactures are little used by, and indeed little known to, a great number of the rude Tribes in this country.3

Two years later Abbott reported that Persian manufacturers had “declined for some time past in consequence of the trade with Europe, which has gradually extended into every part of the [Persian] Kingdom to the detriment or ruin of many branches of native industry.”4 By 1850, of the total eight thousand silk looms at work in Kashan, only eight hundred had survived; in Isfahan, only two hundred.

The import trade required fewer merchants as agents and offered a smaller profit margin. The Persian merchants lost business to European firms that sold directly to the Iranian market, often through Armenian, Assyrian, Jewish, and later Zoroastrian agents or through a handful of foreign nationals such as Greeks, Georgians, and Hindus who, as protégés of the European powers, controlled near monopolies. In Tabriz alone, between 1839 and 1845, there was a 45 percent increase in the volume of European trade. Of the total of £1,547,050 ($7,735,000) in foreign imports to Tabriz in 1845, cotton and wool manufacturers accounted for 94 percent of that, and 80 percent were from England. In the south, the total imports through the Persian Gulf ports were about £900,000 ($4,500,000), and the greatest part was British textile goods.

The terms of the treaties with the so-called Most Favored Nations, among other privileges, required that their merchants pay a fixed tariff of 5 percent of the value of imported merchandise (known as ad valorem), which was well below the rates charged to Iranian merchants. The unfair competition consequently resulted in financial loss for Iranian merchants and an increase in the number of bankruptcies. Their numerous petitions to the Iranian government, particularly during the 1840s, complaining of unfair trade practices and economic hardship had little effect. Even the Qajar state’s periodic campaigns to encourage the consumption of Persian goods, and in particular Mohammad Shah’s insistence on wearing Persian fabrics and encouraging others to do so, bore only limited results. The local manufacturers could not compete with the lower prices and wider variety of European cloth, which was less durable but within the reach of the poorer classes. It cost considerably less to make an overcoat in Tehran from German woolens than it did to make a Khorasan barak or a Kerman shawl. The average woman in Tabriz and even Isfahan would pay less for Manchester chintz or calicoes than for the local products, even though some of the local products themselves were woven with English yarn.

The high volume of imports only intensified Iran’s monetary problems. The chronic drainage out of the country of Iran’s precious metals, mostly silver, which had endured since the Safavid era, now also included payments for the widening trade deficit. The depletion of gold and silver to foreign export, as well as actual export of Iranian species in the form of bullion, were chief cause of the Iranian currency’s fall in value throughout the nineteenth century and its drastic depreciation. Between 1817 and 1823, for instance, the total of £1,533,194 (about $7,665,000) of Iranian bullion, specie, and pearls were exported from the Persian Gulf ports to India and Arabia, mostly by British and Banyan traders.

As the century progressed, the volume of these exports swelled. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, one Iranian tuman (of ten qaran) was equal to one English pound sterling (about US$5). By 1845, the tuman had depreciated by half, and by the end of the century it was one-fifth of its original value. The tuman’s loss of purchasing power brought major inflationary pressures to Iran’s economy, most visible in the foreign-trade sector. The impact of currency depreciation and the ensuing inflation, moreover, was compounded by a visible shortage of funds on the Iranian market and a higher cost of borrowing. Exorbitant rates of interest, as high as 25 percent annually, were not uncommon. The shortage of funds encouraged not only usury, against all Islamic prohibitions, but also a culture of the middleman, indicative of the high rate of hidden unemployment. Goods changed hands several times between the manufacturer and the consumer, which added to the price while providing a meager income for a host of intermediaries. Shortage of funds and high rates of interest in turn encouraged commercial defaults and the prevalence of buyers’ reneging (dabbeh) after the transaction was complete.

By the middle of the century, the gap between the incomes of Iranian average urbanites and elites had become glaring. Throughout the first half of the century, the Qajar princely class, the court, the high-ranking state officials, the landowning khans, and the wealthy mojtaheds, as well as a sector of the mercantile community (those who had succeeded in warding off the ravages of the economy by affiliating themselves with the European import trade) all accumulated wealth. The state officials’ income from informal proceeds, known as madakhel, particularly became rampant, serving as a substitute for inadequate and irregular fixed salaries. From ministers and governors all the way down to state accountants and tax collectors, madakhel was condoned as an institutional form of corruption. The government’s failure to redress the economic injustices of the market and protect the domestic workforce from intrusions and social insecurity plunged Qajar society into even greater crisis.


The state’s endemic flaws and the country’s economic plight barely concerned the ulama establishment. Mojtaheds were increasingly seen as part of the power structure, if not always in cahoots with the state. They held sway over the madrasas, including their curricula and the stipends of students. They also distributed funds to their network of followers and could excommunicate at will dissidents, critics, or rivals. There were influential jurists who were accused of bribery and of acting for the benefit of a party that was offering them greater largesse.

In 1826 the call for war with Russia further tarnished their image. With the prevalence of Usuli legalism, the rival Akhbari tendency virtually disappeared, except for brief instances of last-ditch resistance. Most significant among such resistance was a scholar of Indian origin, Mirza Mohammad Akhbari, whose anti-Usuli pronouncements were the first of several calling for an end to the mojtahed’s power and control. His pleas to Fath ‘Ali Shah, however, remained unheeded. He also entertained protomessianic ideas and esoteric interpretations of Shi‘ism. His virtual isolation demonstrated the waning of alternative voices within the ulama community.

The mojtaheds also faced competition from Sufi orders that had made a successful comeback after an absence of more than a century from the Iranian landscape. Most notably, the Ne‘matollahi order, named after the influential fourteenth-century mystic Shah Ne‘matollah Wali, emerged from obscurity and made remarkable gains throughout the Zand period, first in collaboration with the newly revived Isma‘ili Shi‘i community in Kerman and later in other Iranian cities. Under the leadership of a Perso-Indian mystic, with the Sufi title of Ma‘sum ‘Ali Shah (d. 1798), the Ne‘matollahi order recruited from among artisans, madrasa seminarians, merchants, princes and officials of the Qajar court—especially in Tabriz—and women of the nobility. In the initial stage of its revival in the late eighteenth century, the Ne‘matollahi order was virtually identical with Isma‘ili Shi‘ism, which itself made a comeback in Kerman after a hiatus of more than a century. Soon the two trends diverged, but a degree of affinity survived between them.

The Sufi message provided relief from the tedious world of the madrasa and the stern loftiness of its jurists. It was one attuned to music, poetry, and painting, as well as love for God and for fellow men and women, adoration of beauty—both in nature and human—nocturnal gatherings, and a community of brotherhood. Through mortification, prayers, fasting, and devotion the Sufis sought the “truth,” which among most Shi‘i orders, if not all of them, still corresponded to a modified form of unitarian pantheism. The so-called unity of being (vahdat-e vojud) had been cherished in Persian Sufism for many centuries. God was perceived not as a terrifying transcendental lord of vengeance but as an all-encompassing emanation in all beings. For the Sufis, whether in their speculative writings—mostly commentaries on the Qur’an and mystical poems—or in their popular exhortations, the divide between human and divine was not unbridgeable. Persian Sufism of the nineteenth century was distinct from the unyielding Sunni “neo-Sufi” revival in India and North Africa, which often led to puritanical and revivalist interpretations of Islam.

To the mojtaheds, the threat of the Sufis was not only confined to what they labeled as heretical beliefs and corrupt practices. More important, the Sufis’ mostly implicit claim to the status of walayat (friendship) rivaled the mojtaheds’ religious claim of welayat (guardianship) as legitimate leaders of the community. The living Sufi “guide” aimed to liberate believers from stifling rituals and obligations of the shari‘a and steer them instead to the path of inner purity. The poetry of the celebrated Ne‘matollahi leader Nur ‘Ali Shah (d. 1801), for instance, urged seekers to surpass the superficiality of the shari‘a and find the truth in the unfolding mandate of the Sufi saint, a claim that brought them close to the idea of moral representation on behalf of the Hidden Imam.

The Ne‘matollahis were part of a wider Sufi revival that swept through Iran during the early nineteenth century. The mendicant dervishes of the Khaksar order, with their curious demeanor and unusual outfits, were familiar sights in the Persian popular landscape. Their chants in praise of ‘Ali, the patron saint of all Shi‘i Sufis, were heard in the streets, bazaars, the “houses of strength” (zurkhaneh), and the Sufi convents (khaneqah). Use of drugs, commonly hemp and opium, was accompanied by the recitation of lyrical odes and musical instruments. Their alternative lifestyle and unorthodox pronouncements, some relics of a waning Noqtavi past with clear antinomian messages, were not mere curiosity but markers of their persistent nonconformity.

The dervishes’ widespread network—stretching from Sufi convents in northern India to Central Asia, Anatolia, Iran, Kurdistan, and beyond to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala and to Mecca and Medina—allowed for frequent encounters with urban and rural communities in their path. Their street performances and storytelling in the coffeehouses offered ordinary people an outlet to learn about distant lands and peoples, events beyond their limited surroundings, and marvels of the past sacred history. Later in the century some itinerant dervishes equipped with large portable paintings (pardeh), which they sequentially unrolled to narrate the Shi‘i tragedies of Karbala and events of the Day of Judgment in multiple iconic scenes, presented believers with a poignant audiovisual narrative that echoed the stories in the murals in the Armenian churches, such as those in New Julfa. They functioned as compact versions of the ta‘ziyeh passion plays (pl. 4.4).

To the mojtaheds, however, the unconventional beliefs and lifestyle of the Sufis and their dervishes were worrying signs of moral corruption and ploys to deceive their followers. They assumed the task of defending public morality under the rubric of “commanding the good and forbidding the evil,” which required that they combat Sufis not only through numerous polemics produced in the Qajar period but also by issuing and enforcing fatwas on apostasy. Several leaders of the early Ne‘matollahi revival fell victim to the mojtaheds’ anti-Sufi campaign. Ma‘sum ‘Ali Shah and a few of his followers were executed in 1798 in Kermanshah by a fatwa of the powerful Usuli mojtahed Mohammad ‘Ali Behbahani, popularly known as the “Sufi killer” (sufi-kosh). He was the son of Mohammad Baqer Behbahani, founder of the neo-Usuli school who earlier challenged the Akhbaris.

Ma‘sum ‘Ali’s favorite pupil, the poet Nur ‘Ali Shah, also died three years later under suspicious circumstances. An icon of popular art in the Qajar period, images of Nur ‘Ali Shah as a youthful saint of serene innocence and handsome look were depicted in pictorial rugs, the covers of pen cases, and in metalwork. The endurance of these images mirrored silent praise for the Sufi saint among the artisans and the ordinary folks in defiance of the jurists and their exhortations. The talented Ne‘matollahi poet and master musician Mohammad Moshtaq ‘Ali Shah, who is credited with adding a fourth resonator to the three-stringed Persian setar instrument, was killed in 1791 by a mob incited by an Usuli mojtahed of Kerman. He was condemned for blasphemy, for reciting the Qur’an with musical accompaniment by his setar. The mojtaheds’ anti-Sufi campaign enjoyed the blessing of Fath ‘Ali Shah, whose unfavorable attitude toward the Ne‘matollahis dated to their support for the Zands, as in Kerman in 1792.

Even though the mojtaheds’ campaign under Fath ‘Ali Shah succeeded in containing the growth of Sufi orders, it could not stop them altogether, and least of all within the elite circles. Under Mohammad Shah, himself a Sufi, the Ne‘matollahis benefited from royal patronage and for a while were shielded against further persecution. Haji Mirza Aqasi even appointed fellow Sufis to positions of power, including assigning a Ne‘matollahi scholar to the newly revived office of sadr to oversee the religious affairs of the kingdom, a move no doubt aimed to harness jurist hegemony. This gesture was not received kindly by the conservative mojtaheds, who by the middle of the century had become even less tolerant of nonorthodox trends.

Even traits of mystical philosophy within the madrasa curriculum did not escape charges of heresy. The students of philosophy, almost always followers of Sadr al-Din Shirazi, were harassed and forced into isolation. Those who endured had to cover their discourse in a garb of shari‘a so thick that nothing remained but dreary regurgitation of philosophized acrobatics, devoid of any creativity. To the ulama’s chagrin, in 1815 a celebrated Ne‘matollahi scholar produced the most comprehensive exposition in reply to Henry Martyn’s polemics. His version was adopted as the Qajar state’s official response. Another Ne‘matollahi scholar, Zayn al-‘Abdin Shirvani (from Shirvan, in today’s Republic of Azerbaijan), who traveled the length and breadth of the Islamic lands produced some of the best geographical travel narratives of the Qajar era. Yet despite its scholarly grounding and support in high circles, Ne‘matollahi Sufism was not match for Usulism and the mojtaheds’ grip on Iranian society.

A greater challenge to the ulama’s supremacy, however, came from within the clerical milieu in the form of the Shaykhi theological school. Named after Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa’i (1753–1826), a peripatetic scholar from the Shi‘i province of al-Ahsa’ on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula (map 4.3), the Shaykhi school appealed to a younger generation of seminarians in search of something more than sheer study of jurisprudence. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Ahsa’i held a reputation as an accomplished scholar of theology and jurisprudence. Above all, he was a practitioner of mystical philosophy (hekmat) with roots going back to Mulla Sadra (who, ironically, he denounced as a heretic) and even farther to the familiar older trends of Perso-Islamic Sufism, Neoplatonism, and the “Illumination” (eshraq) philosophy.

Ahsa’i’s popularity among madrasa students especially in Karbala, and later with a growing body of followers in Iran, was primarily because his eclectic approach to Shi‘ism, which offered a third alternative to the shari‘a of the mojtaheds’ and the mysticism of the Sufis. He was well versed in scholastic tradition but posited a moral-mystical alternative that went beyond the strict legalism of the jurists. His piety—a quality that for centuries marked the behavior of reluctant ascetics in the Shi‘i-Iranian world—was particularly appealing to some among the merchant classes and other members of the nonelite.

Ahsa’i utilized the rich apocalyptic tradition in Iranian milieu to answer to an essential question in Shi‘i theology, namely the extra-corporeal existence of the Hidden Imam in the invisible world, the means of recognizing him, and the time and circumstances of his advent. Ahsa’i sought salvation for humankind not through sheer religious obligations but through an intuitive experience of the sacred in a space he called horqalya, an intermediary world between the earthly existence and the heavenly world. In the imaginary world of horqalya, a concept he borrowed from the twelfth-century Iranian philosopher Shehab al-Din Sohravardi, the Hidden Imam was invisible to humankind, as were all the souls of the believers as prototypes awaiting the Day of Resurrection. In this world, the believers who perfected their intellectual and moral potential could meditate on the presence of the Imam of the Age and experience his “manifestation” in this world. For Ahsa’i, the “Perfect Shi‘a” thus referred to the one who had arrived at this state of visionary perfection and could guide others along the same path. This notion was a reworking of the familiar idea of the “Perfect Man” (ensan-e kamel) that had long been contemplated in speculative Sufism. He thus proposed an answer to the troubling question of the Hidden Imam’s thousand-year longevity in a non-physical state by assuming the existence of his celestial prototype in the horqalya sphere. Though in his often cryptic works Ahsa’i never explicitly stated it, he allowed for the conclusion that the Hidden Imam would manifest himself in a new earthly body at the End of the Time.

Map 4.3. The Babi movement, 1844–1852

Such a rendition was a radical departure from conventional Shi‘i belief on the subject of the return of the Hidden Imam. The Imam’s celestial existence not only facilitated visionary encounters with the Imam of the Age but also enabled his eventual return to the world of matter not as the son of the Eleventh Imam, who according to mainstream Shi‘i belief had gone to Occultation a thousand years earlier, but in a new metaphorical human cast. Ahsa’i and his successor also reinterpreted the fantastic Signs of the Hour, which were a precondition for the apocalyptic return of the Hidden Imam. The Perfect Shi‘a was perceived as a status reserved for Ahsa’i himself, and after him by his successor, Sayyed Kazem Rashti (1793–1843), as the person most conscious of the Hidden Imam and who would prepare the preliminary steps before his return. The Perfect Shi‘a, and not the mojtaheds, in effect held the true mandate (welayat) on behalf of the Hidden Imam. Human perfection in the Shaykhi school, moreover, required the historical progression in the course of time and called for the eventual return of the Hidden Imam, when time is mature for him to reveal himself from the implicit world of prototypes into the explicit world of reality.

The millennial markers in the Shi‘i calendar no doubt added to the Shaykhis’ messianic preoccupation and its appeal. The approach of a millennium after the presumed Occultation of the Twelfth Imam in AH 260 (873–874 CE) corresponded to the year AH 1260 (1844 CE). The latter date played prominently in the Shi‘i imagination, invoking messianic speculations. By the 1840s the Shaykhi school, under Rashti’s leadership, had grown into a network distinct from that of the Usulis and in competition with it. Shaykhis consisted mostly of younger madrasa students and new mojtaheds trained under Ahsa’i and Rashti. They were critical of the Usuli jurists for their archaic madrasa education, their futile study of usul al-fiqh at the expense of moral and mystical dimensions of religion, and their corruption and excesses.

Ritual symbolism also played a remarkable part in dividing the two communities, especially the visitation of the sacred tombs and shrines. The Shaykhis performed the rite of visitation (ziyarat, in Imam Hosain’s shrine in Karbala) by staying at the foot of the tomb, as a sign of respect, and by performing visitation in utter humility. The belief in the prototypical existence of the Imams made the ritual of visiting their tombs an existential experience. This contrasted the usual Shi‘i practice of standing at the head of the tomb, embracing the shrine’s outer case (zarih), tying rags and padlocks to it to make wishes, and reciting the visitation tablet rather routinely. In the eye of the Shaykhis, these acts were symbols of utter irreverence toward the Imam; hence the Shaykhi label of “head standers” (balasari) for the Usulis.

Shaykhi adepts were often of village or small-town backgrounds and accustomed to the austere life of the countryside, which was at odds with the lifestyle of some of the established mojtaheds in Iran. The associated Shaykhi merchants and artisans, to the extent we know about them, shared with Rashti and his students the ideals of material detachment and ethical rectitude, characteristics they no longer identified with the ulama establishment. The Usuli denunciation of Ahsa’i and attempts to excommunicate Rashti outraged the Shaykhi and further sharpened their aspirations for a messianic breakthrough. Rashti, whose inner circle recognized him as the “gate” (bāb) to the Imam of the Age, even foresaw a messianic revolt in the face of his Usuli harassers. Surely, the bloody Karbala rebellion against the Ottoman authorities hastened such expectations.

In 1842, the new governor of Baghdad province, Mohammad Jajib Pasha (d. 1851), harshly reacted to Shi‘i defiance of the Ottoman authorities, which included establishing Sunni state courts in Shi‘i cities. The gang leaders of the revolt in Karbala, and the Usuli mojtaheds who blessed it, heeded Rashti’s attempts at mediation and resisted the pasha’s warnings. The result was the Ottoman massacre of close to nine thousand Shi‘i civilians, nearly half the population of the city of Karbala. The Shaykhi leader’s willingness to cooperate with the Ottomans saved some lives. Those who showed allegiance to Rashti were spared, and Rashti himself emerged as a voice of moderation, presumably favoring the Ottoman judicial and administrative reforms. The heavy-handed assault, endorsed by the Sublime Porte, nevertheless was in brazen contrast to what the Tanzimat era of reforms was supposed to usher in: greater latitude toward minorities. In reality, it reasserted Istanbul’s full control in place of the pro-Shi‘i Mamluk rulers of Iraq.

To the Shi‘i victims, the Turkish atrocity was another sign of Shi‘i disempowerment in the face of Sunni oppressors. Only four decades earlier, in 1802, the Shi‘is of Karbala and Najaf had witnessed a horrifying assault, that time by the marauding Wahhabi warriors of the Najd in the Arabian Peninsula who considered it their religious duty to massacre nearly five thousand Shi‘i civilians and plunder and destroy Shi‘i holy shrines. In both instances the killing of innocents and the defiling of the shrine of Imam Hosain distressed the Iranian public, and both times the upheavals demonstrated the Qajar state’s inability to defend the Shi‘is of Iraq or alleviate their suffering. It was against this complex sectarian backdrop that the Babi movement found its first adherents.


As a significant consequence of the Shaykhi teaching, the Babi movement echoed the ongoing crisis both in Shi‘i Iraq and in Qajar Iran. In 1844, a young merchant from Shiraz called Sayyed ‘Ali Mohammad (1819–1850) proclaimed to a small group of young Shaykhi mullahs who had come from Karbala to pay their allegiance to him that he was the “gate” (bāb) to the Truth. This was interpreted not only as a claim of Rashti’s succession but also a representation on behalf of the Hidden Imam. The Bab, as he came to be known, called upon all believers to denounce the mojtaheds’ authority in favor of his proclamation, for which he offered as proof verses composed in the style of the Qur’an. His messianic call for the imminent coming of the Mahdi attracted young converts across Iran and Shi‘i Iraq among mullahs, seminarians, merchants and small-time bazaar retailers, artisans, urban and later village women, divan functionaries, small landowners, and soon villagers and landless laborers.

The loose network of the early Babi converts conveyed the new message to an eager public and to Shi‘i authorities, calling on them to recognize the Advent (zohur) of the Bab as the only sacred source of authority, or else await dire consequences at the Mahdi’s impending advent. The spread of the new movement stirred some enthusiasm in Shiraz, but soon the Bab and his followers were denounced heretics and became targets of growing harassment. Even the Shaykhis, loyal to the old school, turned against them. At the instigation of the mojtaheds, who feared the movement’s rapid growth, government authorities intervened especially after the Bab claimed that he was the awaited Mahdi himself, and soon afterward when he further asserted that he was not only the Mahdi of Shi‘i faith but also the initiator of a new prophetic cycle. His new religion, he claimed, had brought an end to the Islamic prophetic cycle and had initiated a new order in which Islamic shari‘a and its representatives were no longer legitimate. Predictably, any claim to the imminent advent of the Mahdi, who was safely relegated to theological limbo, was bound to be treated as blasphemous.

In the coming years, Babi efforts to engage the ranking jurists in peaceful debate were dismissed offhandedly as ludicrous and heretical. Facing more persecution, the radicalized Babis called for more drastic action against their opponents, especially the ulama, whom they criticized for their illicit material gains, conservatism, and insolence toward the new prophet. Between 1848 and 1851 the Babis were forced to take up arms against the government. The move proved detrimental. By 1852, the movement had been suppressed and its leadership killed, exiled, or driven underground, only to reemerge as a clandestine religion of protest in the following decade. Eventually the prevailing faction within the movement, which denounced violence in favor of peaceful moral reconstruction, prophetic continuity, and interfaith tolerance, emerged as the Baha’i faith in the final decades of the nineteenth century (see map 4.3).

The young Bab, who was born to a family of petty merchants and clothiers with a clerical connection, had gained some business training in his family’s outlet in Bushehr. When he first made his claims public, he was engaged in local trade in the south, importing tea and other items from India and exporting them along with dried fruits and other local products of the Fars province to the Iranian interior. The young Shaykhis who had given their allegiance to him were mostly from the villages and small towns of Khorasan and Azarbaijan. The Bab’s proclamation in May 1844 marked a turning point in the evolution of the Shaykhi inner circle to an open movement with a public following. Shaykhi teachings, complemented with memories of sectarian tensions in Karbala, charged these eager followers. Their adherence to a young merchant from Shiraz with a reputation for sanctity and devotion but no clerical credentials was highly unconventional. It no doubt denoted a search for a charismatic leader from outside the sphere of the madrasa. Thanks to the energetic Mulla Hosain Boshru’i, the Bab’s first convert and a key figure in shaping the movement, by 1848 there were Babi cells in most cities in Iran and in the Shi‘i shrine cities of Iraq.

Almost from his first public proclamation in his hometown of Shiraz, the Bab was labeled a heretic and soon after put under house arrest (fig. 4.8). Even though for a while he took refuge with Isfahan’s governor, Manuchehr Khan Mo‘tamad al-Dowleh, who took a serious interest in him and his message, he was soon deprived of his protector. While still in hiding in Isfahan, sheltered by the governor, at his request the Bab wrote a treatise on the validity of Mohammad’s prophetic mission, an indication no doubt of Manuchehr’s ambivalence about Islam as a divine religion. That the Bab penned the treaties to convince his patron also confirmed his belief in the cyclical recurrence of prophetic revelations, of which he considered himself the latest. However, upon the death of the Isfahan governor, perhaps foul play devised by Haji Mirza Aqasi, the Bab lost a powerful protector, and with him any realistic chance to successfully expand his mission.

Figure 4.8. The House of the Bab in Shiraz was typical of the merchants’ residences in southern Iran. The two-story structure is where the Bab first proclaimed his mission and later was kept under house arrest.

Drawing by Houshang Sayhun, November 1976. Private collection.

In 1846, unable to meet with Mohammad Shah, who had initially invited him to the capital to hear his call, the Bab was rerouted halfway to Tehran by the order of the premier, then sent off to the fortress of Maku in Azarbaijan, a safe Aqasi territory at the northwestern corner of the Russian and Ottoman borders (see map 4.3). It was in the seclusion of the remote fortress that he articulated the Babi doctrine in his most systematic work, Bayan (lit. “explication” [i.e., of divine secrets]). Composed in the style of the Qur’an but with heavy esoteric undertones, the Bayan offered a mélange of occult Shi‘i beliefs, elements of modern social ideas, and kernels of a cyclical view of history that consciously strived to break away from Islam.

The Bab envisioned his mission as the most recent among prophetic cycles that were divinely inspired and progressively renewed toward the gradual perfection of humankind—what came to be known in Babi thought (and later for the Baha’is) as “progression” of the divine “megacycle.” Messianic Shi‘ism, whether in its Isma‘ili era or during other trends in the Iranian world, long had adopted the idea of prophetic cycles, a notion shared with ancient Zoroastrian belief in Renewal (farashkart) at the end of consecutive millennial cycles. The Qur’an also accepted the idea of a chain of divine revelations that went back to Abraham and through the biblical line to Adam, the first human and the first prophet. Such concepts of religious reification seem to have had their origins in the Manichaean religion of the second century CE, which was widespread throughout the Iranian world. The Islamic orthodoxy considered Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, as the Seal of the Prophets (khatam al-nabi’in) and his religion as the most perfect and the final one until the End of Time. The idea of perfection through time cycles, however, was never abandoned in heterodox circles or in the speculative mysticism of medieval Islam. Though the theory of cycles was often reconciled with the idea of Islam’s perfection, the idea of the advent of the Mahdi at the End of Time, especially in Shi‘ism, remained the major conduit for survival of the idea of cyclical revelation.

The Babi doctrine interpreted Resurrection not as an apocalyptic destruction of the material world but as the eclipse of one revelatory cycle and the dawn of the next. Relying on a long history of millennial speculations, the Bab utilized the familiar metaphor of seasonal changes to explain the nature of cyclical progression. The “tree of prophethood,” as he called it, blossoms in the spring, gains strength in the summer, bears fruit in the fall, and dies in winter, only to be reborn in the next seasonal cycle. It is the same tree and yet it is different every year as it grows with time. The sense of historical relativism embedded in this notion of prophetic renewal acknowledged historical change. It allowed for the potential for human innovation and promoted a forward-looking perspective, concepts that defied the essentially regressive worldview of the Shi‘i orthodoxy.

The human potential for moral and intellectual growth through these cycles was immense. Echoing the Neoplatonic thought widely appreciated in the Persian mystical milieu, Bayan implied that humankind not only can climb to a prophetic status but in fact can surpass that status by mirroring the light of the divine sun in its entirety. The Babi intention was to make this reality explicit and final. The Babi endeavor, it can be argued, was striving to build in its own esoteric language an indigenous concept of modernity that relied on historical progression rather than the sanctity of the past. Likewise, it called implicitly for human agency rather than prophetic finality. In this light, the Babi message should be seen as the fulfillment of more than a millennium of Shi‘i apocalyptic yearnings to break with shari‘a, and more specifically with the shari‘a that had been set in place with the rise of the Safavid Empire.


The making of the Babi community in a way resonated an important social momentum. As a grassroots movement, it brought together, perhaps for the first time, converts from all over Iran, from different occupations and social groups, to share a new objective based on their own individual convictions rather than their traditional loyalties, geographies, or ethnicities. A national community in the making, it was independent of both the state and the ulama establishment, and it eventually opposed both of them. It was a network patterned more on the needs of the bazaar than of the madrasa, and therefore was symptomatic of mercantile and artisan aspirations and deprivations as well as those of other marginalized and underprivileged groups.

Its inconsistencies aside, and there were many, and its destructive preoccupation with fulfilling Shi‘i messianic prophesies, the nascent Babi faith carried with it the kernel of a new national identity. The Bab wrote some of his works, including the Bayan, in Persian, which he considered a sacred language, like Arabic. Babi theology was encoded with scores of familiar Persian theosophical and mystical terms and notions. He designated his birthplace, the ancient Fars province, as the sacred land of the Bayan and the house in Shiraz, where he first declared his mission, the direction of the Babis’ daily prayers. He adopted a “novel” (badi’) solar calendar consisting of nineteen months, with each month consisting of nineteen days. The start of the year was the Persian Nowruz celebration at the vernal equinox. The new calendar, with its first year being the start of his mission in AH 1260/1844 CE, was to replace the lunar Islamic Hijra calendar. A drastic change of calendar conveyed more than the sheer computation of time; it symbolically denoted the advent of a new era.

While still a junior merchant in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr, the Bab had witnessed some display of Europe’s industrial power and naval force. His “Letters of the Gospel” (horuf-e enjil), as he often identified the Europeans, were threatening and yet appealing—both characteristics that anticipated the Iranian ambivalence—and more generally that of the non-Western world—toward the West. In his writings he applauded European manufacturing and allowed for trade with Europeans within certain limits. He prohibited their commercial penetration into the land of Bayan unless they could bring useful trade and occupations. He considered their gifts ritually pure and acceptable. He praised their material advances, their cleanliness, and their outward dignity. He was impressed by their legible handwriting, efficient postal communication, and press and publications. Despite these approbations, however, the Bab believed that as long as Europeans denied the veracity of the prophet of Islam, they could not be saved on the Day of Judgment. He expressed hopes that in future they would welcome his true message and be included among the “letter of light.”

Despite its novel potentials, the Bayani religion remained entrapped in the heterodox milieu in which it was rooted. The Bab viewed his own mission and those of his early followers as the fulfillment of the Shi‘i Islamic prophecies. The Shi‘i tragic narrative of martyrdom became even more tangible as he and his followers faced persecution and death. He saw his own mission not only as a Mahdi and a new prophet who brought a divine creed but also as the “return” of Imam Hosain, the paradigm of Shi‘i martyrdom, an image of himself that anticipated his tragic end.

The Bab’s growing following, with little direct supervision from their detained leader, continued in Khorasan, Mazandaran, and elsewhere. Concerned with the rapid growth of the new movement, the ulama persuaded the reluctant government of Haji Mirza Aqasi to act. A tribunal was held in the presence of the young crown prince Naser al-Din Mirza (1831–1896) in Tabriz in 1847 to examine the Bab’s claims. There the Bab unequivocally declared himself none other than the Mahdi whom the Shi‘is had been expecting for a whole millennium. The Bab’s audacious claim had a number of important implications. For the first time in recent Islamic history, at least since the fifteenth-century Noqtavi movement, a conscious break from Islam came at a time when Iran was experiencing a period of socioeconomic inertia and foreign intrusion.

The Babi uprising that later began in 1848 was in some respects the fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecies anticipated by the Bab and his early followers. While most mullahs among the Babis opted for a jihad scenario as perceived in the Shi‘i literature, others began to articulate the meaning of the interregnum after the abrogation of Islamic shari‘a and the coming of a new age. Perhaps the most pivotal figure among the Babi leadership, with no less influence in shaping the movement than the Bab himself, was a young woman—the poet, scholar, and revolutionary protofeminist Fatemeh Zarrin-Taj Baraghani, better known as Qurrat al-‘Ayn (the apple of the eye) and by her Babi title, Tahereh (the pure). A remarkable figure in modern Iranian history, Tahereh is unique not only because she stood in contrast to the persistent misogynistic norms and attitudes of a patriarchal society but also because she represented a break from the prevailing shari‘a limitations, which were palpable to women of her background.

Born to an influential and affluent family of Usuli mojtaheds in Qazvin, Tahereh shared with her mother, her aunt, and her sisters a rarely known example of women with literary and scholarly interests. Despite her family’s predominantly anti-Shaykhi stance—her senior uncle denounced Ahsa’i—she studied in Karbala under Rashti and acquired proficiency, a rare achievement for a women of her time. She accepted the Bab’s claim in absentia and the Bab in return included her among his “Letters of the Living,” a radical break from the gender barriers of the time. The Bab also defended her against the criticism of conservative Babis who were shocked by the young women’s uninhibited demeanor.

An independent woman with a growing following, both female and male, Tahereh eloquently defended herself in Arabic before the mufti of Baghdad while under house arrest by Ottoman authorities on a charge of inciting anti-Shi‘i sentiments. Married and with four children, but estranged from her husband, who was her first cousin, she was forced by family pressure to return from Karbala to Qazvin. Soon after her arrival, however, in 1847 she escaped house arrest when her uncle and father-in-law, the prominent Imam Jome’h of Qazvin, was assassinated by radical Babis. The assassination was the first violent Babi reaction to the rising tide of persecution.

Shortly after her flight, and while in hiding, Tahereh attended a crucial gathering of the Babis in the village of Badasht in northern Iran in June and July 1848. The meeting was convened to discuss the future of the movement and the fate of the Bab, who was incarcerated in another remote castle in Chehriq in western Azarbaijan, near the Ottoman border. In the course of deliberations Tahereh emerged as the leader of the radical faction, which was seeking not only a break with Islam but also open defiance of the Shi‘i ulama.

Tahereh’s public appearance at the Badasht gathering without a facial veil (neqab) during her public speech from a pulpit shocked her fellow Babis as a symbolic breach of one of the most sacred Islamic mores. This was probably the first instance in the history of Islamic Iran that an urban Muslim woman had intentionally removed her facial veil in public, an act that remained unrepeated for at least another half a century. Echoing the Bab, she argued that the Babi movement was an independent revelation that abrogated the Islamic cycle and that in the post-shari‘a interregnum, religious obligations were no longer binding. In contrast, the charismatic leader of the opposing faction, the young Mulla Mohammad ‘Ali Mazandarani, better known by his Babi name Qoddus, rejected a complete break with the Islamic past and viewed the Bab’s mission only as fulfillment of Shi‘i prophecies.

The Badasht debate brought to the surface a major dilemma. While Tahereh’s position—that the Babi faith was independent of Islam—prevailed, the opposing camp succeeded in impressing on the gathering a need for a messianic jihad, a course of action fashioned by the Shi‘i scenario of the advent of the Mahdi. Given the growing hostility the Babis were experiencing mostly from the ulama’s corner, and the bleak prospects of any sympathies, let alone protection, from the Qajar state, the Babis could hardly have opted for a more disastrous course.

The fateful armed resistance in the fortress of Tabarsi in central Mazandaran during 1848 and 1849 embodied both of these tendencies (see map 4.3). Emboldened by prospects of a millennial victory and encouraged by the political unrest after the death of Mohammad Shah, a band of Babis from Khorasan headed by Boshru’i marched toward Azarbaijan to liberate the Bab from captivity. The armed Babi contingent, no more than two hundred in number, poorly equipped and poorly armed, faced harassment from the local government militia in the city of Barforush (today’s Babol), where they were temporarily stationed. Fearing for their lives, the Babi contingent moved out of town and eventually took temporary refuge inside a small structure over the shrine of Tabarsi in the thick of the forest, some twenty-five miles south of Barforush. Fellow Babis, among them Qoddus, were soon joined by other Babis from all over Iran, as well as new converts from among the smaller landowners and peasants in the vicinity.

Loyal to their messianic vision, the besieged Babi party engaged the government forces for several months in bloody partisan warfare. Despite early successes, soon starvation, casualties, and low morale brought them to an ignominious surrender, which was followed by the execution of nearly all remaining fighters. As in many messianic movements of the same nature, the Tabarsi community, while still hopeful, lived an austere camp life with communistic ideals (fig. 4.9). Most significant, the leadership of the movement during the Tabarsi resistance evolved. Since the incarcerated Bab could not assume the movement’s active leadership, both Boshru’i and Qoddus were identified as “risers” (qa’em), another name for the Mahdi that previously had been applied only to the Bab. The diffuse Babi leadership and democratization of the notion of the Mahdi were not entirely alien to the collective vision of its founder, as evident in the concept of the eighteen Letters of the Living and the utopian community modeled on the unity of nineteen. Deeply preoccupied with numerology and numerical value inherent in letters of the alphabet, the Bab held the number nineteen as the organizational cornerstone of his emerging community. Within this community the role of the Mahdi could be shared among the “Letters of Living,” a feature symbolic of the egalitarian traits inherent in the movement.

Figure 4.9. This drawing of Shaykh Tabarsi in 1888 by the young scholar Edward Granville Browne is probably the oldest visual record of the Babi stronghold. The humble size of the site and even smaller covered interiors of the shrine reveal the trying conditions inside the makeshift fortification.

Edward Granville Browne, trans. and ed., The New History of Mirza ‘Ali Muhammad the Bab (Cambridge, 1893), opp. 56.

The failure of the Tabarsi community and the loss of more than four hundred lives left a lasting mark on Babi morale. Other insurrections in Zanjan in northern Iran, in Nayriz in Fars province, and elsewhere lacked Tabarsi’s revolutionary flair, even though they were as intense and as bloody as the Tabarsi affair. In Zanjan, where the Babis briefly controlled some quarters inside the walled city, there were more than five thousand Babi casualties in the factional fighting and in clashes with government forces. The Nayriz uprising, in contrast, was fueled by the peasants’ revolt against landowners and tax collectors.

In all instances, the Babi message motivated dissent and gave the people a sense of agency and hope for their eventual triumph. The Qajar state under the new premier Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir had to invest a great deal of its military and financial resources to extinguish Babi insurrections. In 1850 when the Bab himself was brought to Tabriz to be executed by firing squad, he stood his ground to the end despite great pressure to recant and gain his freedom. His public execution in the courtyard of a military barracks, was the first in Iran to be conducted in the European military style. It was aimed not only at crushing the revolt and intimidating its sympathizers but also at displaying the restored power of the Qajar government under the new chief minister.

Two years after the execution of the Bab an unsuccessful assassination plot against the new ruler, Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848–1896) cost the lives of the movement’s remaining prominent leaders. In a frenzy of torture and killing orchestrated by the government, Qajar princes, the clergy, merchants, and bureaucrats took part in a gruesome mass execution. A short while after, Tahereh, who had been held in detention by the governor of Tehran, was brought before two mojtaheds who, after long and inquisitive debate, issued a death sentence on charges of blasphemy. One late night, in secret, a drunkard gholam, on the orders of the commander in chief of the army, killed Tahereh, suffocating her by stuffing a scarf in her throat. Her body was dumped in a shallow ditch at the edge of a garden outside the capital. At the time she was thirty-eight.

Tahereh’s death signified the end of the first phase of the movement. Eight years into its inception, the Babi call had gained popularity despite widespread persecution of its followers. The movement’s political defeat signified a chance to articulate a new, though sketchy, version of religious reform inspired by the inner dynamics of Shi‘i Islam. This was at a critical juncture when Iranian society had become more conscious of its own national identity, more aware of external military and economic challenges, and more critical of the shortcomings of its own state and religious institutions. In this sense, the Babi movement was a messianic answer to the millennium-long unresolved question of temporal versus sacred authority. The concept of divine progression and renewed cycles, though not new in Iranian Shi‘i thought, found a new resonance in Babi teaching. That the movement emerged just before Iran’s full exposure to imported models of modernity in the second half of the nineteenth century adds to its significance.

Despite its many shortcomings, the Babi movement anticipated the alliance of small-time merchants, artisans, low-ranking clergy, and other voiceless and marginalized groups a half a century later during the Constitutional Revolution. The suppression of the Babi movement under Amir Kabir, a modernizer with Western notions of state-enforced reforms, in effect exemplified the clash between two visions of change. The state’s actions did not eradicate the movement but forced it underground and banished abroad any remnants of its leadership. That the Babi project could not succeed in its original phase was in part because of its inability to disengage from its Shi‘i past. The Bab’s language of prophecy and perception of change did carry the important kernel of renewal; however, it was often imbued with mystical and metaphorical language unable to create a cohesive program of rational modernity. In later decades, the division of the majority Baha’is versus the minority Azalis would reflect more than a succession dispute; it highlighted competing visions. Whereas the Azalis remained mostly committed to political dissent, the Baha’is eventually aimed for a universalistic vision of moral renewal.

During the leadership of Baha’ullah (1817–1892), the Babi movement—in a period of more than half a century, between the upheavals of 1852 and the virtual end to Ottoman exile in Palestine in 1909—adopted an ecumenical message of universal reconciliation and socio-moral modernity. Most of the Babis of Iran, first simply known as “People of Baha’,” paid their allogeneic to the new prophet. Born to a family of affluent landowning officials of the Qajar divan, Mirza Hosain ‘Ali Nuri—later known by his Babi title, Baha’ (radiant glory) and afterward Baha’ullah, throughout the period of his exile in Baghdad (1853–1864) and later in the old Ottoman capital, Edirne, and eventually from 1869 to 1892 in the Ottoman penal colony of ‘Akka in Palestine—rendered a novel mystico-moral message. This was mostly a non-shari‘a rethinking of “divine command” (amr) that, unlike nearly all Islamic modernist trends of the time, tried to fuse the Perso-Islamic Sufi heritage of Iran (such as Sohravardi’s Illumination philosophy) with European modern humanist and universalist endeavors. Moving beyond the then-prevalent paradigm of territorial nationalism, Baha’ullah did not remain impartial to some ideals propagated by some leaders of the Young Ottomans—his co-prisoners—and to the reforms of the Tanzimat era. His approach to such social notions as universal peace, racial and gender equality, economic justice, and the rudiments of a democratic model, were groundbreaking though mostly inspirational. As a step beyond Babi millennialism, the Baha’i message was fused with familiar Sufi imagery of the “sun of truth” projecting on the mirror of the human heart. Maturation of “human status” (maqam-e ensan), Baha’ullah argued, calls for human agency to define the world almost independent from the biblical and Qur’anic notions of divine intervention. The new rendering of the doctrine of the “Unity of Being” (vahdat-e vojud) appealed to the post-apocalyptic Babi community of Iran, which absorbed the evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary, message coming from ‘Akka and proselytized it through the nascent Babi network in the Iranian, and eventually non-Iranian, environments.

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