Category Archives: religion

The Veil as Status Symbol

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3561-82:

Traditional tribal costumes vary enormously across Iran even today, and are often colorful and eye-catching, with no veil in sight.

Of the remainder of the population, the majority were peasant farmers and laborers. But among these people, too, women had an essential economic role and some independence (insofar as anyone in the poorer classes could properly be thought of as independent). Women had to work hard in the fields and probably did the majority of the routine work—of all but the heaviest sort. Again, a veil of the enveloping chador kind was normally quite incompatible with that sort of activity.

Even in the towns and cities, the majority of people were relatively poor, and in those households most women would have had to work outside the home. And there were significant numbers of prostitutes, to whom the rules of respectability certainly did not apply. So the setup we might think of as typical—of heavily veiled women seldom leaving the home and even in the home kept apart from males who were not relatives—was in fact atypical before 1900. When it did occur, it was limited to middle-or high-class families in towns (precisely the class that looms large historically, being the book-writing, book-reading class—perhaps only four percent or less of families overall). But that arrangement was, or became, an aspiration for many men who could not afford to make it a reality. One could think of the heavy veil as a kind of elite fetish, similar to some of the fashions of nineteenth-century Europe that immobilized women, being wholly impractical and incompatible with work of any kind. For a man’s wife to be out of the house and out of his control, especially in the towns, perhaps partly because of the presence of prostitutes in the towns, potentially exposed him to derision and ridicule. But for her to be kept at home and to emerge only veiled was expensive and a sign of the man’s status. It would be easy to overlook or underestimate the significance and implications of this trope among men in Iranian society and elsewhere. Rather than being an outgrowth of traditional religion and society—there is little justification for it in the Qor’an or the earliest hadith, which originated in different social circumstances—it may largely underpin them. Possession of material goods had its patterns and its social consequences, but so also did the possession of women.

As the population later became steadily more urban and in some ways at least more prosperous, more women were more restricted, stayed in the home more, and wore the heavy veil. But we should not think of those arrangements as typical of pre-industrial Iran; one could accurately say that for the majority of Iranian women, they were a twentieth-century innovation.

An interesting comparison with foot-binding in China.


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Safavid Religious Persecution

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2701-18:

The Shi‘ism of the Safavids and the ulema under their rule had from the beginning more than a streak of extremism and intolerance within it, and this tendency was intensified by the religious conflict with the Ottomans. The Safavids from the outset tended to be more earnestly religious than many previous Sunni rulers had been. This is a delicate subject, but it is important to look at it squarely. The Sufis were increasingly out of favor, and intellectual life was channeled into the madresehs. There were always hangers-on and pseudo-mullahs who could attract a following among the luti (unruly youths) of the towns by being more extreme than their more reflective, educated rivals; and the perceived history of persecution suffered by the Shi‘a did not always prompt a sensitivity to the vulnerability of other minorities once the Shi‘a became the dominant sect. Notions of the religious impurity (najes) of unbelievers, especially Jews, contributed to a general worsening in the condition of minorities, and after 1642 there was a particularly grim period of persecution and forced conversions. Orders were issued that Jews should wear distinguishing red patches on their clothing to identify themselves, that their word at law was near worthless, that they must not wear matching shoes, fine clothes, or waist sashes, that they must not walk in the middle of the street or walk past a Muslim, that they must not enter a shop and touch things, that their weddings must be held in secret, that if they were cursed by a Muslim they must stay silent, and so on. Many of these would-be rules (running directly contrary to the spirit of proper tolerance accorded to People of the Book in Islam, and reminiscent of similar ugly rulings imposed in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages and at other times) probably reflect the aspirations of a few extremist mullahs rather than the reality as lived. Conditions would have varied greatly from town to town and changed over time, but they were still indicative of the attitudes of some and appeared to legitimize the actions of others. As authority figures in villages and towns, humane, educated mullahs were often the most important protectors of the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. But other, lesser mullahs frequently agitated against these vulnerable groups.

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How Persia Turned Shi‘a

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2546-69, 2585-99:

It is uncertain just when the Safavids turned Shi‘a; in the religious context of that time and place, the question is somewhat artificial. Shi‘a notions were just one part of an eclectic mix. By the end of the fifteenth century a new Safavid leader, Esma‘il, was able to expand Safavid influence at the expense of the Aq-Qoyunlu, who had been weakened by disputes over the dynastic succession. Esma‘il was himself the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the great Aq-Qoyunlu chief of the 1460s and 1470s, and may have emulated some of his grandfather’s charismatic and messianic leadership style. In 1501 Esma‘il and his Qezelbash followers conquered Tabriz (the old Seljuk capital) in northwestern Iran, and Esma‘il declared himself shah. He was only fourteen years old. A contemporary Italian visitor described him as fair and handsome, not very tall, stout and strong with broad shoulders and reddish hair. He had long moustaches (a Qezelbash characteristic, prominent in many contemporary illustrations), was left-handed, and was skilled with the bow.

At the time of his conquest of Tabriz, Esma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi‘ism as the new religion of his territories. Esma‘il’s Shi‘ism took an extreme form, which required the faithful to curse the memory of the first three caliphs that had preceded Ali. This was very offensive to Sunni Muslims, who venerated those caliphs, along with Ali, as the Rashidun or righteous caliphs. Esma‘il’s demand intensified the division between the Safavids and their enemies, especially the staunchly Sunni Ottomans to the west. Recent scholarship suggests that even if there was a pro-Shi‘a tendency among the Qezelbash earlier, Esma‘il’s declaration of Shi‘ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act.

Within a further ten years Esma‘il conquered the rest of Iran and all the territories of the old Sassanid Empire, including Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid capital of Baghdad. He defeated the remnants of the Aq-Qoyunlu, as well as the Uzbeks in the northeast and various rebels. Two followers of one rebel leader were captured in 1504, taken to Isfahan, and roasted on spits as kebabs. Esma‘il ordered his companions to eat the kebab to show their loyalty (this is not the only example of cannibalism as a kind of extreme fetish among the Qezelbash).

Esma‘il attempted to consolidate his control by asserting Shi‘ism throughout his new domains (though the conventional view that this was achieved in a short time and that the import of Shi‘a scholars from outside Iran was significant in the process has been put into doubt). He also did his best to suppress rival Sufi orders. It is important to stress that although there had been strong Shi‘a elements in Iran for centuries before 1501, and important Shi‘a shrines like Qom and Mashhad, Iran had been predominantly Sunni, like most of the rest of the Islamic world. The center of Shi‘ism had been the shrine cities of southern Iraq.

But Esma‘il’s hopes of westward expansion, aiming to take advantage of the Shi‘a orientation of many more Turkic tribes in eastern Anatolia, were destroyed when the élan of the Qezelbash was blown away by Ottoman cannon at the Battle of Chaldiran, northwest of Tabriz, in 1514. A legend says that Esma‘il vented his frustration by slashing at a cannon with his sword, leaving a deep gash in the barrel.

After this defeat Esma‘il could no longer sustain the loyalty of the Qezelbash at its previous high pitch, nor their belief in his divine mission. He went into mourning and took to drink. Wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi‘a Safavids continued for many years, made more bitter by the religious schism. Tabriz, Baghdad, and the shrine towns of Iraq changed hands several times. Shi‘a were persecuted and killed within the Ottoman territories, particularly in eastern Anatolia where they were regarded as actual or potential traitors. The Safavids turned Iran into the predominantly Shi‘a state it is today, and there were spasmodic episodes of persecution there too, especially of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews—despite the ostensible protected status of at least the latter two groups as “People of the Book.” One could make a parallel with the way that religious persecution intensified either side of the Roman/Persian border in the fourth century AD, in the reign of Shapur II, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Safavid monarchs also turned against the Sufis, despite the Safavids’ Sufi heritage. The Sufis were persecuted to the point that the only surviving Sufi order was the Safavid one, and the others disappeared or went underground. In the long term, the main beneficiary of this were the Shi‘a ulema. This was important because the Sufis had previously had a dominant or almost dominant position in the religious life of Iran, especially in the countryside.

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Problems of Dynastic Succession

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2645-58:

Succession was a common difficulty for many monarchs. In Europe, the problem was that every so often a ruler could not produce a son. This could create all sorts of difficulties—attempts at divorce (Henry VIII, for example), attempts to secure recognition for the succession of a daughter or more distant relative, disputes over succession resulting in war. In the Islamic world, the problem was different. Polygamy meant that kings did not normally have a problem producing a son, but they might, on the contrary, have too many sons. This could mean fierce fighting among potential heirs and their supporters when the father died. In the Ottoman Empire such battles were institutionalized—rival sons who had served their father as provincial governors would, on hearing of his death, race for the capital to claim the throne. The winner would get the support of the janissaries, and would then have the other sons put to death. Later, the Ottomans adopted a more dignified arrangement, keeping the possible heirs in the Sultan’s harem palace until their father died. But this meant they would have little understanding of or aptitude for government, and the new practice helped to increase the power of the chief minister, the vizier, so that the vizier ruled effectively as viceroy. It was a conundrum.

Many fathers have disagreements and clashes with their sons, and history is full of feuds between kings and their crown princes. Abbas was no exception; he had come to power himself by deposing his father. Following the Ottoman precedent again, he imprisoned his sons in the harem for fear that they would attempt to dethrone him. But he still feared that they might plot against him, so he had them blinded, and he had one of them killed. Eventually, he was succeeded by one of his grandsons. The unhappy practice of keeping royal heirs in the harem was kept up thereafter by the Safavid monarchs.

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Schisms in Islam and Christianity

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2431-40, 2477-88:

The great schisms of the Christian church, between East and West, and later between Catholic and Protestant, came centuries after the time of Christ. But the great schism in Islam that still divides Muslims today, between Sunni and Shi‘a, originated in the earliest days of the faith—even before Karbala, in the time of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Comparisons with the Christian schisms do not really work. A more apposite analogy, as noted by the historian Richard N. Frye and others, can be drawn between, on the one hand, the emphasis on law and tradition in Sunni Islam and Judaism and, on the other hand, the emphasis on humility, sacrifice, and the religious hierarchy in Christianity and Shi‘ism. The public grief of Ashura is similar in spirit to that which one can still see on Good Friday in some Catholic countries. The purpose in making comparisons between Shi‘ism and various aspects of Christianity is not to suggest that they are somehow the same (they are not), nor to encourage some kind of happy joining-hands ecumenism (naïve), but rather to try to illuminate something that initially looks unfamiliar, and to suggest by analogy that it may not be so strange or unfamiliar after all. Or at least, that it is no more strange than Christian Catholicism.

Despite the schism, in the early centuries there was a fairly free interchange of ideas, a considerable pluralism of belief, and considerable diversity of opinion among the Alids or Shi‘a themselves. Overall, Shi‘a theology and law tended to be looser than in Sunni Islam, more open to the application of reason in theology, more inclined to a free will position than a determinist one, and more open to some of the more heterodox ideas circulating in the Islamic world. This was partly the result of a broader hadith tradition, which included the sayings and doings of the Shi‘a Emams. Shi‘a theology also differed because it addressed problems that were specific to the Shi‘a, such as conduct under persecution.

The sixth Shi‘a Emam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, developed a strategy for the evasion of persecution that was to prove controversial. The doctrine of taqiyeh, or dissimulation, permitted Shi‘a Muslims to deny their faith if necessary to avoid persecution—a special dispensation that has striking similarities with the doctrine of “mental reservation” granted for similar reasons by the Catholic church in the period of the Counter-Reformation, and associated with the Jesuits (though it originated before their time). Just as the Jesuits acquired a reputation for deviousness and terminological trickery among Protestants (whence in English we have the adjective “Jesuitical”), so the doctrine of taqiyeh earned the Shi‘a a similar reputation among some Sunni Muslims.

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Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

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