A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

By Razib Khan | July 4, 2008 2:08 am

imageDB.cgi.jpgThey say that to understand the present you need to understand the past. This seems likely to be true, but when it comes to understanding human affairs in their historical and sociological detail I have to admit that I’m skeptical of much genuine positive insight. That being said, I do believe that one can constrain the blind choices and flights of intuition one has through an exploration of the sample space of data which might allow for falsification of a subset of the myriad models. In short, to call bullshit you have to know shit.
A concrete example of this are the events leading up to, and the scenarios projected for the aftermath of, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To know that the analogy between the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II and what was to come in Iraq after the invasion was bullshit you had to know something about Iraq and you had to know something about Germany. Too often analogies are viewed as nothing more than a stylistic flourish, so such knowledge is not assumed or necessary. There’s a reason that Adam Smith recommended that genuine scholars use them sparingly, all too often the plausibility of a given analogy is contingent more upon the biases of the two individuals engaging in communication rather than transmitting new structural information from one person to the other. Most people know very little about the source and target of the Germany:Iraq analogy, so its value-add substantively is zero.
Though I’m not particularly interested in international affairs, when some geopolitical dynamic comes to the fore I’m the type who is liable to pick up a few books and articles and just work my way through them. I’m generally often interested in a wide range of topics, but my focus at any given moment is highly contingent. It was with an “in the news” mindset that I picked up A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind. At a little over 300 pages the author, Michael Axworthy, delivers a relatively tight exposition which balances scholarly density with narrative accessibility. You are treated to a seamless interleaving of war & piece details along with social and cultural history. Because of the constraints of length and the popular audience to which the book is obviously aimed one might find that many topics are only given a cursory treatment, but I think that the marginal return for a work of this nature giving a great deal of space to the Sassanid or safavid epochs at the expense of a laser-like focus on the lead up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is there. If you want to explore in depth the nature of Revolutionary Iran of the 1980s, a book like Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty is much more to your taste. On the other hand, if you would like an introduction to the history of Persian Zoroastrianism, along with the styles of Safavid poetry, as well as the extent of the capitulations of the Qajar monarchy to European nations and capitalisms, Axworthy is your man.

Back to my initial point: what can the past teach us about the present? I want to focus on a passage on page 138, because I must admit that it is my own hunch as well:

Under Shah Abbas the Safavid dynasty achieved a more sophisticated, more powerful and more enduring governmental system than the traditional lands of Iran had seen for many centuries. The Safavid state, its administration, and its institutionalizing of Shi’ism set the parameters for the modern shape of Iran….

To some extent this is true even literally. Though the Safavid state was in general a bit more expansive than modern Iran in terms of size, it was more modest than the Sassanid state which usually included Mesopatamia. And it goes without saying that the Safavid domains were more constrained than those of the ancient Persian Empire, which stretched from Egypt and the Balkans to the Indus. But it is not just geography which I believe forces us to look to the Safavids as the most informative germ of modern Iran, it was the Safavids who transformed Iran into a Shia state, making it a champion of this minority sect within Islam. Prior to the 16th century Persia was a Sunni domain, though there were concentrated pockets of Shi’ism around Qom or in the northeast in Khorasan. Shia Islam was most closely identified with the cities of southern Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, as well as mountain redoubts in Lebanon and Yemen. It was an underground religion on the run, always at risk of suffering persecution at the hands of those who colluded with the powers that be. But under the Safavids Shi’ism and Persia became so tightly linked that today many people, even Iranians, blithely assume that this was always the case.
Here are the ethnic groups in Iran today which total above 1% of the population:
Persians (51%)
Azeris (24%)
Gilaki and Mazandarani (8%)
Kurds (7%)
Arabs (3%)
Baluchi (2%)
Lurs (2%)
Turkmens (2%)
For Religion:
Twelver Shia 89%
Sunni Muslim 9%
Other religions 2% (Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, etc.
Kurds and Baluch are most likely to be Sunni Muslims. I wanted to lay out the numbers in this way to point that Iran today is a multi-ethnic state, but religiously it is a relatively homogeneous one. Iran is more Shia than Turkey is Sunni, or Saudi Arabia is Salafi, or India is Hindu (or, the United States is Christian!). Just as Henry the VIII dragged his nation into Protestantism and so solidified Britain’s identity as distinct from the Catholic powers of the continent (and often inclined its sympathies toward underdogs such as The Netherlands and the German principalities), contemporaneously the Safavid program of converting the population to one religion which set it apart from their neighbors on all sides crystallized and unified a disparate populace.
The shape of the relations of this populace are also of note. In Sons of the Conquerors it is noted that the Iranian military has a disproportionately Turkish composition. By Turkish that generally means Azeri. An interesting point about Persian history over the last 1,000 years Persia has rarely been ruled by ethnic Persians. Rather, Iran, the land of the Aryans, has generally been ruled by individuals of Turkic ethnicity. Even the non-Turks, such as the Mongols, or Afghan warlords, have not been Persians. Reza Shah, who has been claimed to be the first ethnic Persian potentate of Persia in 1,000 years, was actually from an ethnicity which is technically not Persian though they were Iranian speakers.1 Michael Axworthy, whose brief seems to specifically be the prose & poetry productions of the Persian language notes with irony that while Persian (Farsi) was the court language of the Turco-Indian Mughals in Delhi, in Safavid Isfahan it was Turkish which was required at court to gain favor!
This is not to deny that the Persian language and ethnicity are at the center of Iranian life and that they take pride of place for both their richness and longevity set next to the Turkic tradition. But rather to point out that it is of note that one could argue that some of the most critical parameters of modern Iran was the work of Turks, and Turks continued to rule as Iran’s military elite down to the 20th century. Even today it is notable that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khameni, is of ethnic Azeri origin, though raised in a Persian environment so that that language is the one in which he is most fluent.
I mentioned earlier the importance of prior knowledge in fully leveraging an analogy. Unfortunately, I assume that most readers have not read a History of Byzantine State and Society, but I will nevertheless go forth. It seems to me that Iran and Byzantium at its height can be usefully compared; though many of its dynasties were not originally Hellenes (e.g., they may have been Armenians), the centrality of the Greek language was not challenged, while the Orthodox Christian religion was the other critical tie that bound together disparate peoples of various languages. 10th century Bzantium was substantially Greek in language, but there were also large communities of Armenians and Slavic speakers within the Empire. But the primacy of Orthodox Christianity was unchallenged, and even the Armenians who rejected Orthodox Christianity would have to accept it if they wished to ascend up the social ladder. By a similar token Iran is substantially Persian, but overwhelmingly Shia. The cultural prestige of a Persian language and history whose antecedents reach back nearly 3,000 years is unquestionable, but the fact that non-Persians have been central actors on the stage of Iran since the time of Alexander is also something which must be considered.
My own intent on following this line of thought and exploring the various angles of Iranian cultural history and ethnographic diversity are due to concerns of comparison and contrast in relation to Iraq. Here are the ethnic breakdowns for Iraq:
Arabs 75-80%, Kurds 15%-20%, Assyrian, Iraqi Turkmen or other 5-10%
Though Iraq is ethno-lingistically diverse, it is arguably far less so than Persia. On the other hand, we do know that Iraq is far less overwhelmingly Shia than Iran. Judging by these numbers I think one would be hard-pressed to wonder as to whether Iraq or Iran were more coherently constructed as nation-states. After all, Iraq had an ancient history of relatively unified rule under Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. But does this truly tell us anything about the present? Some, but not much. Much has happened in the past 3,000 years. I believe that Iranians’ greater consciousness of the Shahnameh in comparison to the likely Iraqi ignorance of the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the former nation-state has a greater continuity with its past, and therefore more natural roots, than the latter.
During the period of Safavid state-building in Iran, the 16th and 17th centuries, the provinces which later became Iraq were simply bones of geopolitical contention between the incipient Iranian nation-state and the Ottoman Turks. By and large Iraq remained an Ottoman domain, though there were rare occasions when the Shia Holy Cities were under Safavid rule. Proto-Iraq was a pawn, and proto-Iran was one of the players. Additionally, it is important to note that Iraq’s religious configuration is of more recent vintage than even Iran’s; during the 18th and 19th centuries modern irrigation techniques opened up vast swaths of land in southern Iraq to agriculture. This resulted in the transition of many nomadic Arab tribes to sedentary lifestyles, and the concomitant conversion of many Sunnis to the Shi’ism which was dominant in the cities of southern Iraq. The Sunni-Shia divide goes back over a 1,000 years, and the cities of southern Iraq have always played a large role in that conflict, but the rise of the Arab Shia peasant majority in Iraq is likely a phenomenon of only the past few centuries.
Iran and Iraq exhibit only one letter difference in English. But they are very different in substance. Not only is Iran a much more populous nation than Iraq, but its coherency as a nation-state is much more a thing of reality than of fantasy. While the Sunni Arab elite of Iraq had to terrorize the Shia majority into submission because of the alienation of religious difference, the Turkic military elites of Iran were united with the Persian bureaucrat class by the common glue of Shia Islam, and the due deference which the former gave the latter in the domain of culture. The integrity of nation-states varies. Nigeria is a creation of the past 50 years, cobbled together out of a gaggle of languages and religions due to the vicissitudes of late 19th century European colonialism. In contrast, modern China has its origins as far back as the Chin dynasty 2,300 years ago! The Chinese state is rooted in the numerical preponderance of the Han nation, whose identity stretches back nearly as far as the Chinese state. I believe Iran lay somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Its contemporary roots can be found in the Safavid period, 500 years ago, and though Persians are Iranians par excellence, they rule in relative amity with other groups via the cement of common faith.
Note: I have made much mention of ethnicity here, but I do want to point out the likely importance of lower order tribal affinities here, especially among the nomads of Persia and among the Arabs of Iraq. It is often pointed out that the Shia of Iraq fiercely resisted Iranian offensives during the Iran-Iraq War. Inversely, the Arabs of Khuzistan in southwest Iran were generally loyal to the Iranian state when the Iraqis had the upper hand and were on the march. One less some take from this is that Iraqis are loyal to their nation-state against ethnic aliens, even if they are co-religionists. I suspect something like this is at work, but additionally, it may be that the tribes of Iraq were operating as actors whose interests lay neither in toto with Shia or Arab identities. Rather, as tribes they were operating to their proximate advantage at any given time, opportunistically emphasizing their religion or ethnicity.
1 – In A History of Iran it is claimed that Reza Shah’s patrilineage might actually have originally been Turk or Pashtun, making him rather more exotic and less plausible a candidate as a Persian of Persians King of Kings.

  • hass

    I think it is a mistake to attribute “national identity” to predominant ethnicity or language, which itself displays a certain European conception of national identity as dependent on blood or genetics etc. Leaving aside the vagueness of those terms, Iran has simply ALWAYS been multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan, and that is itself part of the national identity of Iran. After all, the Medes and the Persians together created the basis of the Achaemenid Empire, which grew to incorporate even more ethnicities – Armenians, Ethiopians, Hellenes, etc. Even in the Savafid state, Armenians acted as merchants and Georgians ran the military.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I think it is a mistake to attribute “national identity” to predominant ethnicity or language, which itself displays a certain European conception of national identity as dependent on blood or genetics etc
    well, not just europeans. e.g., chinese and japanese tended to go in this direction too. also arabs, and so forth. though “national identity” starts to value the further you go into the past with a few exceptions (ancient greeks).
    After all, the Medes and the Persians together created the basis of the Achaemenid Empire, which grew to incorporate even more ethnicities – Armenians, Ethiopians, Hellenes, etc. Even in the Savafid state, Armenians acted as merchants and Georgians ran the military
    re: the ancient persian empire, the medes and persians were ethnically not too far apart, and i wouldn’t have argued it was a precursor to any sort of nation-state. the safavid state is different (apparently lots of georgians were assimilated into the iranian speaking peasantry, as evidenced by particular placenames in parts of the countryside suggesting origins from georgia for the locals).

  • Tim Jones

    The Georgians (and Circassians) were indeed a military class under the Safavids. Shah Abbas used them to counterbalance the Turkic “Qizilbash”. The most famous Georgian general was Allahverdi Khan, who has a bridge named after him in Isfahan, the Safavid capitol. Over its long history, Iran has often had various ethnic groups that at times became dominant, often boosted by foreign invasions but quickly “Persianized” – the Mongols quickly settled down, adopted Farsi, and became benefactors of Persian arts. The Arabs didn’t adopt farsi but did adopt Iranian systems of political administration, the institution of the Vizir for example (which itself may have come from India to Persia) The conclusion is that Iranian national identity is not primarily ethnicity-based, unlike in some other places. Similarly, I wonder if we exaggerate the ethnic uniformity of other places.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    i think another analogy that can be made is with the status of greek in the ‘east roman’ provinces. it was the language of high culture.

  • Danny

    Apropos your comparison with Byzantium, just ran into a WP article about Albanians in Greece. Apparently, the Athens & Corinth, in the very heart of Greece, used to be primarily Albanian-speaking! Since these people were Greek Orthodox, they fought on the Greek side in the war of independence, and have by now been assimilated completely into Greek culture. This corresponds to the pattern you were talking about, that religion trumps language as the most important marker of difference. Other Greek-Orthodox non-Greek-speaking groups to have assimilated include the Vlachs, Turkish-speaking Greek-Orthodox refugees, and (albeit with the use violence) Macedonian Slavs.
    The Greek war of independence seems to me to have great seminal importance. It wasn’t the first modern revolution – France and America preceded Greece – but I do get a sense that whereas France and America furnished the vocabulary of revolution, the content for many revolutions and wars of national liberation was around an ethnic/confessional nationalism – and the Greek war was the first of that kind in the modern age.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    This corresponds to the pattern you were talking about, that religion trumps language as the most important marker of difference.
    as a general matter i can agree with this, but *with great qualification* :-) (i prefer to go case-by-case)

  • mehran

    As you said, I think there has always been a sense of “The cultural prestige of a Persian language and history whose antecedents reach back nearly 3,000 years” at the core of the Iranian identity, no matter which ethnicity (whether persian, azeri, beluch or kurdish) one belongs to Iran. There may be a multitude of ethnicities in Iran, but they has always been an underlying “Persian identity” which as you said has always been considered prestigious. Even now, although the Islamic government discourages such persian feasts as the Norouz, and especially Chaharshanbehsouri (celebrating the last Wednesday of the year) because of their pre-Islamic zarathustrian roots, Iranians, especially the pro-western and nationalistic youth, insist on celebrating them as a token of symbolic resistance to the regime. In fact, many Iranians today seem more proud of their Achamenid and Sassanian heritage than their Safavid one, mostly because those dynasties were pre-Islamic. Although, I think even Shah Abbas converted the country to Shia mostly because he wanted to show a clear distinction between Suni Arabs and the Shia Persians.
    Even after successful invasions, whether Alexander’s, the Monguls, or the Arabs, the Persian identity not only survived but eventually absorbed and integrated the invaders.
    I loved your example of Shaname. Many believe that Ferdowsi wrote the epic to assure the survival of the Persian language after the Arab invasion. Many arabic words may have infiltrated Farsi after the invasion, but you can not find one single arabic word in the Shahname.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Although, I think even Shah Abbas converted the country to Shia mostly because he wanted to show a clear distinction between Suni Arabs and the Shia Persians.
    the initiator of the conversion was ismail, not abbas. also, it is notable that ismail, once he made the decision to align with twelver shi’ism, brought arab ulema from lebanon and iraq to help set up a religious infrastructure. additionally. it is also important to note that shi’ism is the dominant religion of arabs around the gulf and in southern iraq, the vast majority of the expanse across which iran interacts with the arab world. IOW, at the time of ismail *shi’ism was a religion of the arabs*, which very few non-arab muslims adhered to (the main exceptions being among the shia of india).

  • mehran

    Razib, you are absolutely right about Ismail. I was thinking of the Safavids in general. But you are right and I am sorry about my mistake.
    A question though: Were not most arabs in the 15-16th century of the Suni branch of Islam? I am asking only because I am curious.
    Again, I am sorry about my mistake though…

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Were not most arabs in the 15-16th century of the Suni branch of Islam? I am asking only because I am curious.
    yes. most arabs were sunni, but most shia were arab. it is an irony that the closer you get to the “islamic heartland” the greater the number of non-sunni muslims. see here. though the ismailis and kharijites were once powerful in north africa, by the time of the safavids those domains had become almost exclusively sunni. during the time of shah ismail here are the regions i can think of off the top of my head which were mostly shia:
    southern iraq around the holy cities (remember that southern iraq was relatively underpopulated because of the breakdown in agricultural infrastructure due to war and neglect)
    the highlands of yemen
    the highlands of lebanon/syria
    regions of the persian gulf
    holy cities like qom, areas of khorasan
    a few regions of india (though here you would take only the shia:sunni ratio, since hindus were the majority in most places)
    parts of eastern anatolia (from where the safavids emerged, and which are today disproportionately the heartland of the alevi)

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    p.s. oman was/is kharijite, neither shia nor sunni.

  • mehran

    Thank you for the reply… very interesting, I didn’t realize that. I used to think that most shia were only in Khorasan (because of reza’s burial place) and in southern Iraq (before the Safavids, I mean).
    I would also like to thank you for the original article too; I found it very informative and insightful.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    no worries. i would like to add a clarifying addendum: i’m of the opinion that terms like ‘shia’ and ‘sunni’ (especially sunni) don’t have a very good correspondence to what we think of them as today before around 1100. additionally, iran proper was probably majority muslim only from the 900s on (there were zoroastrian revanchist kingdoms in tabaristan into the mid-800s). the fluidity of religious identity and identification during the early centuries makes generalizations informed by modern sensibilities somewhat problematic.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.blogspot.com Fatemeh

    Great review. Not only does the book sound like a decent one, but you’ve really illustrated some great points about ethnicity and history here.
    Note: most Omanis would refer to themselves as Ibadis rather than Kharijites–Ibadi is derived from the Khawarij movement, but it’s not the same thing.

  • salman farsi

    Re: Persian Political Rule in Iran in the Past 1000 years:
    The Zand dynasty of the 18th Century had a Persian core. Also, throughout the Safavid dynasty a Persian element at court was very strong – as it was during most of the Turkic dynasties and Caliphate, particularly during the Abbasid dynasty. Indeed, the Caliphate, during the 10th-13th Centuries, spawned a number of Persian kingdoms of varying levels of autonomy from Baghdad before all were displaced by the Turkic warrior-slave dynasty of the Ghaznavids – and then the Mongols.
    At the same time, an ethnic Persian Iran has probably not been viable since the 12th or 13th Century. Iran/Persia has since had ethnically mixed leadership, with Turks usually on top and Persians viziers wielding varying levels of indirect authority. The Zand dynasty emerged during a power squabble among Turkic factions and was only able to cobble together a government with cooperation from Turkic tribes.
    Part of the inability of the Pahlavis to sustain their rule was their overemphasis on the “Persian” aspect of Iran. The multi-ethnic Islamic Republic is more in keeping with the past 1000 years of Iranian history.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar