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COLLECTIONEncyclopedia articles
TITLEConstitutional Revolution (Iran): Intellectual Background
AUTHOR 1Abbas Amanat
VOLUMEVolume 6
TITLE_PARENTEncyclopaedia Iranica
PUB_THISColumbia University
ABSTRACTBrief excerpt, with link to article offsite.
NOTES The following is an excerpt of the article at
CONTENT ... [excerpt] ...

A less widely acknowledged work by an early expatriate was al-Resāla al-madanīya, written in 1292/1875 by Mīrzā ʿAbbās Nūrī ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, who developed themes from the writings of his father, Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī Bahāʾ-Allāh. He proposed creation of representative institutions not unlike those envisioned by the Young Ottomans, some of whom were in exile with the Bahai leaders in ʿAkkā, Palestine. ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ criticized the ʿolamāʾ for their rigidity and proposed the establishment of “councils” (majāles) and “consultative assemblies” (maḥāfel-e mašwarat) of devout and learned “elected representatives” (aʿżā-ye montaḵaba).

Persian and Turkish circles in the Caucasian cities of Baku, Tiflis, and Yerevan also viewed the cultural aspects of traditional Persian life as the chief causes of stagnation. ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm Najjārzāda Tabrīzī, better known as Ṭālebof (1834-1911), wrote simple educational works on geography, physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences (1312/1894-95) and, later, on the social and political institutions of modern Europe. These works had an even greater popular audience than Āḵūndzāda’s plays. ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm’s enthusiastic exposition of European sciences made plain for the lay reader the technological backwardness of Persia, which was much lamented in the constitutional period. His works on modern geography challenged the ethnocentric complacency of the religious milieu (1324/1906; 1323/1905; 1325/1907; 1329/1911; 1310/1893; cf. Kasrawī, Mašrūṭa, p. 45; Afšār, 1344 Š./1965, pp. 47-89; Ādamīyat, 1365 Š./1986).

The most pertinent theme that emerged in the writings of the late 19th century was the idea that, in order to guarantee social justice and material improvement and maintain Persia’s independence and national identity against European imperial domination, it was essential to inaugurate a constitutional order. It was hoped that in such an order the shah’s power would be limited, separation of powers secured, and the functions of government organs defined. Patriotism and recognition of the Persian cultural heritage were also favored as complementary—or even alternatives—to loyalty to traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Yet the early reformers failed to come up with a systematic and well-rounded theory of government. Overt endorsement of European political and institutional ideas hindered the growth of a school genuinely concerned with problems of the state and its relationship to clerical authority in Shiʿism. Traditional philosophers (ḥokamāʾ) and jurisconsults (mojtaheds) refrained from the debates, thus leaving the task of conceptualizing the new constitutional order to dissident intellectuals, popular preachers, and political activists.

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Internal dissent

Themes expounded by expatriates often reached Persia through dissident circles with radical aspirations. The small but influential circle of Azalī Babis and their sympathizers included at least six major preachers of the Constitutional Revolution. By the beginning of the 20th century the separation of the Bahai majority and the Azalī minority was complete. The Babis, loyal to the practice of dissimulation (taqīya), adopted a fully Islamic guise and enjoyed a brief revival during the reign of Moẓaffar-al-Dīn Shah. As they broadened their appeal beyond the Babi core, a loose network of assemblies (majles) and societies (anjomans) gradually evolved into a political forum in which both clerical and secular dissidents who favored reform were welcome. These radicals remained loyal to the old Babi ideal of mass opposition to the conservative ʿolamāʾ and Qajar rule. An example of their approach is Roʾyā-ye ṣādeqa, a lampoon in which the notorious Āqā Najafī Eṣfahānī is tried on Judgment Day; it was written by Naṣr-Allāh Beheštī, better known as Malek-al-Motakallemīn, and Sayyed Jamāl-al-Dīn Wāʿeẓ Eṣfahānī, two preachers of the constitutional period with Babi leanings. Such figures as the celebrated educator and political activist Mīrzā Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī; Moḥammad-Mahdī Šarīf Kāšānī, a close advisor to Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbahānī and chronicler of the revolution; and the journalist Mīrzā Jahāngīr Khan Ṣūr-e Esrāfīl shared the same Babi background and were associated with the same circle (Malekzāda, 1328 Š./1949, II, pp. 236-44).

A reform-oriented critique of the clerical establishment, Taḥrīr al-ʿoqalāʾ by Shaikh Hādī Najmābādī (d. 1320/1902), epitomized the dissent even among senior mojtaheds. As a response Sayyed Moḥammad-Ṣādeq Ṭabāṭabāʾī called for his excommunication (takfīr; Browne, Persian Revolution, p. 406). Although these men were barred from the First Majles, on the ground of their suspected “corrupt belief,” their influence is evident in the Constitution and its provisions for civil liberties. What Sayyed Jamāl-al-Dīn and Malek-al-Motakallemīn expounded from the pulpit to their large and enthusiastic audiences, what the newspaper Ṣūr-e Esrāfīl presented to its readers, was a call for patriotism and political awakening, for radical change and ultimately revolution, in language accessible to the masses (al-Jamāl 135, Moḥarram 1325-Rabīʿ I 1326/February 1907-April 1908, passim; for Sayyed Jamāl-al-Dīn’s sermons, see Yaḡmāʾī). Even before the revolution these popular preachers had recognized the benefits of acquiring the backing of high-ranking mojtaheds who were supportive of constitutional reforms. Having their blessing made constitutionalists immune from charges of ill belief and allowed them to voice their criticisms with greater liberty. The proconstitutional mojtaheds, on the other hand, sought such alliances with activists not only because of their own liberal convictions but also because they found in their preaching a channel to augment their own popular standing. This informal alliance was supported by the merchants of the bāzār and the reform-minded nobility. In the coup d’etat of June 1908 Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah (1324-27/1907-09) succeeded in eradicating the Babi core of this group, which he and the conservative religious leader Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī blamed for radicalism inside and outside the Majles.

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