Iranian Nationalism during the Constitutional Revolution

Written by: Ritka Lal, University of Toronto

The Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 brought major shifts to Iranian society, the reverberations of which remain evident today. This paper examines the spaces and ways through which social tensions during the Constitutional Revolution manifested, and explores how this evidence engages with Benedict Anderson’s view that religious communities and dynastic realms must fade in order for nationalism to come forward. Consequently, this paper seeks to address a gap in traditional, Eurocentric approaches to international relations history by highlighting the importance of existing Iranian ideas and Iranian political structures to Iranian nationalism. The case study of Iran illuminates a hole in Anderson’s thinking. The nationalism Anderson presents is a passive one, born from the decline of religion and monarchy in Europe (footnote 2). Iranian nationalism, on the other hand, was not a passive development. It was rooted in the determined and conscious curtailing of the Shah’s power, because of the wide-ranging social consequences of his infractions.

This paper argues that the social tensions in Iranian society during the Constitutional Revolution reveal that Iranian nationalism was not solely a product of the European influences that instigated the revolution. As reflected by the ways in which new ideas entered and were debated in Iranian society, the methods of dissent used against the Shah, and the mobilization of underlying alliances, Iranian nationalism came out of the process of adapting contexts and value systems particular to Iran, to European structures of political organization. Thus, Benedict Anderson’s proposal in his Imagined Communities text, that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it … with the large cultural systems that preceded it,” in particular, “the religious community and the dynastic realm,” as the “key elements in their decomposition,” created nationalism[1] is at odds with Iranian nationalism in the early 20th century: the process of struggle and debate between and against the two elements Anderson posits as declining ultimately shaped Iranian nationalism. 

Traditional historiography of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution has tended to focus on the Iranian intelligentsia, and has treated European penetration as the primary instigator of the modernization project.[2] As this approach does not consider the unique interests and visions of an expanse of diverse social groups, subsequent approaches have attempted to either understand the Iranian Revolution in the context of other contemporary revolutions, with an emphasis on the “cross-fertilization” of ideas, or have examined the perspective of specific social groups, such as women and artisans.[3]These approaches tend to focus more on points of agreement, and consequently sideline the shifting and contradiction-ridden dynamic of interests and visions for Iran’s future. This paper thus analyzes these social tensions, to provide insight into the competing ideas that soon comprised the resulting constitutional institutions.

While individual rights were an ambiguous concept, they did exist in the religious realm, particularly in the idea that the people “had the right to expect justice.”[4] The need to define these rights became pressing after the shah made several economic concessions, increased taxes, and publicly punished prominent merchants in 1905.[5] There was now strong agreement that the “unwritten ‘Qajar Pact’—the normative system of elaborate negotiations between the center and different segments of society”—had been violated, and in order for justice to be reinstated, the monarchy, as the perpetuator of the initial injustice, would have to be limited. 

The ulama had been loyal to the shahs since the sixteenth century purely because the shahs protected Twelver Shiism, the geographic entity of Iran, and the interests of the people and the nation, an action which was seen as part of protecting Shiism.[6] The shah had full control of the treasury, the army, and the appointment of officials and advisors, but as his divine mandate was rooted in Shiism, he was expected to abide by the ulama’s interpretation of the law and maintain “good governance.”[7] Failure to comply, according to the Shiite tradition of dissent, would give the people the right to replace the shah.[8]

British and French imperialism throughout the nineteenth century compromised Iran’s territorial sovereignty and ostracized the merchant class and ulama. The shah was left “a prisoner of imperial interests.”[9] As a result, the shah’s infractions had begun to weather religious legitimation for the shahs’ rule. In this way, political ideas existing prior to the revolution served as the framework through which the primary grievances of “arbitrary rule, lack of accountability, inefficiency and general oppression” were understood.[10] These existing ideas thus played a critical role in spurring discontent in the nineteenth century, and served as an impetus for discussions on the need for modernization.[11]

The Iranian rowshanfekr, or intelligentsia, were a diverse group who actively sought modernization, limitations on the shah’s arbitrary rule, protection from European imperialism, and a vision for Iran inspired by secularism and European political ideas (such as individual rights).[12] Their view of needing to curb the ulama’s position was paradoxically based on both secular Enlightenment ideas and the Iranian Shiite tradition of dissent.[13] Even their understanding of the parliamentary system in Europe was a response to European encroachment; although they kept the European “tradition of reacting to domestic autocracy,” they also saw a parliament as a tool to counteract foreign imperialism.[14]

The ulama, on the other hand, became divided: one faction saw constitutionalism and individual rights as compatible with, and even reinforcing shari‘a,[15] while the other view it as “a direct threat to Islamic law.”[16] Among the leading pro-constitutionalist ulama was Mohammad-Hosayn Nāini, who, in his 1909 treatise Awakening the Community and Purifying the Nation, countered the conservative view that a constitution would be a “heretical innovation” by framing it as an example of ijtihad, or the “Islamic ‘rational’ approach”, which allows human reasoning to take precedent in law.[17] The main contention was not with adopting foreign concepts. Even as critical ideas of shura, or consultation, ‘adalat, or justice, and responsibility to the law were evident in both constitutionalism and shari‘a, the new issue was the degree to which the law being followed was Islamic law. In other words, the similarities of the European and Iranian systems created questions around which of the two identities took precedence in Iranian society.[18] This contention regarding how to effectively merge Iranian and European value systems became the basis for the power struggle between the ulama and secular reformers.[19] This struggle is critical because it is a direct reflection of a deep dichotomy between Iranian and European societies. Given the deep entrenchment of religion in Iranian society, the concept of secularism was only understood by a few senior bureaucrats, radical activists, and the well-traveled elite of the mercantile and intelligentsia. Constitutionalism was seen by most as “part of a Shi‘a culture and identity” and not as “a secular goal”. –Thus, only a small group of the secular and religious intelligentsia anticipated the tensions that would soon develop, and live in the political structures created by the revolution.[20]

Initially, many constitutionalists saw the ulama as an ally, particularly because of their deeply entrenched role in Iranian society,[21] and because of their ability to serve as a check[22] on the powers of the Shah. The shari‘a was meant to hold the shah accountable, and thus, by coexisting with constitutionalism, was one of the ways in which Iranian religious values were being adapted into a European framework.[23] While the later secular intelligentsia hoped to diminish the role of the ulama in society, this was not an option. The significance of Islam and the ulama to the Iranian identity meant that ideas of liberty, individuality and justice would not be accepted by Iranian society if it meant relegating Shiism.[24]

Two of the most critical documents written during this time frame were the Fundamental Laws of 1906 and the Supplementary Fundamental Laws of 1907.[25] The former was the first version of the new Iranian constitution, and the latter built on the Fundamental Laws by addressing some missing elements, such as provisions for individual rights. As the Fundamental Laws were hastily written (largely due to Muzaffar al-Din Shah’s imminent death), the primary goal was to place limits on the shah’s authority.[26] They thus created the Majles—an independent governmental body that had financial authority over foreign transactions and the budget, as well as the ability to hold the shah’s ministers accountable. This effectively transferred some of the shah’s power to the legislature[27] to limit further foreign concessions by future shahs.[28] The Supplementary Fundamental Laws of 1907 reduced the powers of the shah further, created three branches of government, and included an 18-point bill of rights.[29] Once limits were set on the shah’s powers through the first document, the tensions between the religious and secular interpretations of constitutionalism and the Majles[30] came out into the open. The ulama, led by Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, sought to increase their influence, while the reformist bureaucrats[31] sought to use social reforms, particularly in education, to reduce the influence of the ulama.[32] The resulting contradiction-ridden second document simultaneously established civil rights and popular sovereignty while including a compromise that institutionalized the ulama’s authority, and increased their influence to an unprecedented degree.[33]

The writing of the Supplementary Fundamental Laws of 1907 reflected critical considerations on the part of constitutionalists on how to incorporate European political structures into Iranian society in a way that complemented existing Iranian value systems. While the 1831 Belgian Constitution was used as a model for administrative structures and the outlining of civil rights, it came with complications as it intentionally diminished the powers of the Catholic Church.[34] Hence, the constitutionalists also drew on the Bulgarian and Ottoman constitutions, which established state religions, to keep Shiism a part of Iranian state structures: sovereignty was granted to the shah “as a trust confided” by the people, in Article 35.[35] Although sovereignty was thus given to the people, the ulama in Article 2 had the right to ensure that the Majles remained in accordance with the shari‘a – which essentially decreased the authority of both the legislative and judicial structures.[36]

The critical difference between the European and Iranian conceptions of constitutional monarchy is that the goal of Iranian reformers was neither to eliminate the position of the shah[37] nor to establish representative institutions. Instead, the Iranian reformers sought to create structures that would allow the state to modernize, such as protecting against arbitrary rule, stabilizing the state of Iranian finances, and increasing bureaucracy.[38] This goal, and the fact that major contradictions in the core of Iranian identity were allowed to exist side-by-side in the Supplementary Fundamental Laws, reveal an important, underlying element of the Constitutional Revolution: although civil rights were important to reformers, the “protection of the rights of the nation” were of preeminent importance.[39] In this context, the Supplementary Fundamental Law was an attempt at top-down identity reform to strengthen the state. This is particularly evident in the Press Law of the Supplementary Fundamental Law, which provided greater protections for journalists and allowed for increased debate at all societal levels about what constituted Iranian nationalism, the Iranian identity, and the role of Islam.[40] Over 200 new publications[41] emerged during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, which allowed for “the creation of a common mind” and resulted in the mass-mobilization of Iranian society on the idea that state reform and modernization were the path to alleviate poverty and the weakness of the state.[42]

Expression of discontent was in no way only restricted to those framing new guidelines for Iranian society. Opposition to the shah was expressed at all levels of society through various means: revolutionary poetry, shabnamehs, or night letters, and newspapers. These methods of dissent were a critical part of the Constitutional Revolution because they facilitated a discussion about how European ideas of constitutionalism should be incorporated into an Iranian context.[43]For instance, the revolution changed how Iranians defined their relationship with the state, and these changes were reflected in Iranian poetry. Poetry had historically functioned as “the main vehicle … of literary and social expression, discharging sentiments, moralizing, disparaging, and lampooning,” and was now being used to understand nationalism, law, and freedom.[44] Thus, folk poetry— colloquial, simple and facetious—suddenly became more popular than the “rigid, unrealistic and detached” Qajar high poetry.[45] In this style, the poet Muhammad Taqi Bahar criticized one of the more repressive shahs of the constitutional era[46] claiming, “To discuss freedom with the shah of Iran is a folly … Religion of the shah is not shared by any … If the shah of Iran cares not for justice, no wonder… To the eyes of a bat sunshine is agony.”[47] Additionally, poetry emerged as a space for tensions between religious and secular elements to come to the fore. For example, the poet Seyyed Ashraf al-Din Hoseini, a deeply religious figure, used poetry to criticize the factions of the ulama opposed to constitutional reform by accusing them of being “the enemy of the free people” and likening them to merchants of second-hand goods who sold out religion and the country to foreigners.[48] The language and imagery of the revolution itself were thus employed and developed through contemporary poetry.

Another important figure during this period was the linguist Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda, who used poetry, satire, articles, and essays to analyze and recontextualize the problems that arose from incorporating European ideas lacking an Iranian precedent, particularly by engaging pre-existing frameworks in Iranian society. For instance, in one of his philosophical essays intended for the secular intelligentsia, he introduced the idea of religion being an ‘internal secret police’, and while the Quran could be looked to for law, the constitution could provide the just and moral enforcement of that law.[49] In his pieces meant to appeal to the masses, Dehkhoda primarily made use of street poetry and satire, with exaggerated characters based on existing figures in society, such as a horsefly who facilitates selling Iran to foreigners and a traveler who exposes the corruption of the state and the religious community.[50] By creating a ‘carnival of the absurd,’ Dehkhoda analyzed the hierarchies and tensions[51] within Iranian society, and connected both the intelligentsia and the illiterate classes to the emerging nationalist discourse.

Dissent was also expressed with shabnamehs, or jelly-graphed sheets produced by secret societies during the early years prior to the Constitutional Revolution, which attacked the shah and his administration, and often railed against the state for selling the country to foreign interests, particularly to Russia.[52] These were either mailed directly to the leaders they criticized, or were left in highly public places, or were placed in “such unlikely places as on the Shah’s private table.”[53] These letters show opposition to the shah’s policies even before the revolution began, and were a reminder to the shah of the principle that the ulama and constitution would re-establish during the revolution—that “his rule depended on the nation’s right to confer it upon him.”[54] One even made use of Iran’s poetic tradition, using the style of the well-known fourteenth century poet Hafez to criticize foreign concessions made by the shah’s administration: “Oh man of base appetites, why wilt thou drain the dregs of the Russians’ Cup? For this dark cup in the end kills the guest.”[55]

The explosion of new publications during the Constitutional Revolution was critical as the function of newspapers went far beyond simply supplying information. Traditionally, contributors to newspapers comprised a small elite, but in the constitutional era, newspapers became an open space to all members of society.  Most readers were interested in the letters to the editor. These pieces rarely responded to published articles and sometimes even responded to each other, but were usually a way for men and women from all backgrounds to voice their opinions and engage in public debate with the greater Iranian imagined community.[56] As these letters were anonymous, they gave a voice to historically oppressed segments of the population[57] and often allowed editors to publish views otherwise too dangerous to express.[58] As a result, newspapers became an increasingly important part of daily life: there are accounts of illiterate people gathering in coffeehouses—where tales from the Iranian epic Shahnameh were formerly read—to listen to newspaper articles and letters being read aloud.[59] As newspapers allowed people to join the discourse about merging European constitutionalism with Iranian values to solve the social issues caused by the shah’s intransigence, they effectively were how people claimed the justice that the shah was required to provide. 

As has been discussed until now, new ideas created room for debate and thus fostered tensions in Iranian society’s relationships with both the religious community and the dynastic realm. These ideas, however, are particularly relevant because they also created tensions between the dynastic realm of the shah, and the religious community—all of which gave rise to a range of key alliances. The main reason as to why merchants, guilds, the secular intelligentsia, the religious community, and the working poor coalesced between 1905 and 1908 into a united movement to end the arbitrary rule of the shah[60] was because the shah’s foreign concessions had undermined the welfare of the merchant class. As the merchant class was crucial to the functioning of the Iranian economy, their difficulties had a myriad of devastating effects on all those tied to them. For instance, the ulama was no longer able to collect their religious taxes and endowments (which were how they remained financially independent of the shah) so they could no longer fund shrines, mosques, and social services for the poor.[61]

Once the underprivileged could no longer rely on the ulama, an institution that was the very cornerstone of society, the ulama united and led a diverse set of groups in favor of the constitutionalist, modernizing initiative that reformers and the intelligentsia had envisioned.[62] This underlying alliance between the merchants and the ulama, which has historically been of tremendous significance, is reflected in the composition of the First Majlis: the First Majlis, which convened to write the constitution to curb the powers of the shah and thus begin the modernizing project, was dominated by merchants and bazaar guild members.[63] The mobilization of alliance systems entrenched in Iran’s social fabric was critical to the shape of the institutions that emerged through the Iranian Constitutional movement.

The Iranian Constitutional Revolution was a multifaceted movement that both united and demonstrated the contradictions between broad elements of Iranian society. The tensions between disparate elements in the Constitutional Revolution reveal that Iranian nationalism during the constitutional era was much more than a byproduct of European economic imperialism and liberal ideas. Exploration of the ways Iranian society engaged with and debated new ideas, expressed opposition to the shah’s policies, and formed alliances to achieve its aims shows that the process of molding a European-inspired constitutionalism to fit an Iranian context was not an easy feat, for it created social tensions that were critical to the development of Iranian nationalism. The Constitutional Revolution redefined the relationship between the state and broader Iranian society and created the multi-dimensional tensions which shaped Iranian nationalism in the constitutional period and beyond. Thus, Anderson’s Eurocentric view that the dynastic and religious realms must decline for nationalism to form is misplaced: while the basis of the dynastic and the religious realms’ legitimacy did change in Iran, it was their struggle against each other, and with Iranian society at large, that shaped Iranian nationalism during the Constitutional Revolution.


References

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983), 12.

[2] John Foran, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Iran’s Populist Alliance: A Class Analysis of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911,” Theory and Society 20, 6 (Dec., 1991): 800, 802.; Joanna de Groot, “Whose Revolution? Stakeholders and stories of the ‘constitutional movement’ in Iran, 1905-11,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 18; Ansari, Politics of Nationalism, 36-37.; Litvak, “Construction of Iranian national identity,” 23.

[3] de Groot, “Whose Revolution?,” 18, 21, 25.

[4] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 110.

[5] Gheissari, Narratives of the Enlightenment, 35.

[6] Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and civil law,” 71-72.; Vanessa Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism: The Constitutional Revolution of 1906, (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013), 109-110.

[7] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 461-462.

[8] He would be replaced by either a family member, an official, or an adviser. Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 462.

[9] Ali Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and the development of civil law in Iran, 1907-41,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 71.

[10] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 462

[11] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 462. The understanding of modernization being applied here is in a European sense, whereby the processes of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment reformed political structures and laws, and allowed for greater progress in science, industry and trade. Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 33.

[12] Bayat, “The rowshanfekr,” 169. ; Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 37, 112.

[13] Bayat, “The rowshanfekr,” 174.

[14] In fact, the classes most affected by the shah’s European concessions and drastic inflation, such as the merchants, secular and religious intellectuals, guilds, reformist bureaucrats, the lower classes, some members of the clergy and a minority of the political elite formed the backbone of this group. Gheissari, Narratives of the Enlightenment, 17 ; Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 112.

[15] Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and civil law,” 73. ; Gheissari, Narratives of the Enlightenment, 37.; Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 4, 111.

[16] Foran, “Strengths and Weaknesses:” 812.

[17] Gheissari, Narratives of the Enlightenment, 36-37.

[18] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 35.

[19] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 113.

[20] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 1, 4, 36-37, 11.

[21] The ulama had historically played a role in facilitating protest against the state, and was thus trusted by the people. Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism,1, 43.

[22] Bayat, “The rowshanfekr,” 171.

[23] Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and civil law,” 73. 

[24] Farzaneh, Clerical Leadership, 63.

[25] Eric Massie and Janet Afary, “Iran’s 1907 Constitution and its sources: a critical comparison,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (January 30, 2018): 3-4.

[26] It was known that Mozaffar al-Din Shah was on his deathbed, and was sympathetic to the constitution, unlike his successor, Thus the constitution had to be written and signed by him as quickly as possible. Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 4.

[27] Gheissari, Narratives of the Enlightenment, 38.; Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 115.

[28] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 4.

[29] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 6, 8.

[30] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 113.

[31] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 471.

[32] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 9-10.

[33] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 10, 13, 17.

[34] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 13.

[35] Massie and Afary, “1907 Constitution and its sources:” 13, 14.; Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 472.

[36] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 472.

[37] Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and civil law,” 72.

[38] Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 462.

[39] Gheissari, “Constitutional rights and civil law,” 72.

[40] Litvak, “Construction of Iranian national identity,” 12.

[41] Litvak, “Construction of Iranian national identity,” 13.

[42] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 36.

[43] Nahid Mozaffari, “Crafting Constitutionalism: An Iranian Secular Modernist Project,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 193

[44] Homa Katouzian, “The Poetry of the Constitutional Revolution,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 1.

[45] Sorour Soroudi, “The Impact of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution on the Social and Literary Outlook of the Poets of the Time: Part I,” Iranian Studies 12, 1/2 (Winter-Spring 1979): 5-6, 8.

[46] This refers to Muhammad Ali Shah, who was the successor to Mozaffar al-Din Shah, who signed the 1906 Fundamental Law. Muhammad Ali Shah eventually used his militia to destroy the Majles in 1908. Martin, “State, Power and Long-Term Trends:” 474.

[47] Soroudi, “Social and Literary Outlook of the Poets:” 25.

[48] Katouzian, “Poetry of the Constitutional Revolution,” 1-12.

[49] Mozaffari, “Crafting Constitutionalism,” 206.

[50] Mozaffari, “Crafting Constitutionalism,” 211.

[51] Mozaffari, “Crafting Constitutionalism,” 211.

[52] Nikki R. Keddie, “Iranian Politics 1900-1905: Background to Revolution,” Middle Eastern Studies 5, 1 (Jan., 1969): 15.

[53] Keddie, “Iranian Politics:” 16.

[54] Bayat, “The rowshanfekr,” 172.

[55] Keddie, “Iranian Politics:” 16.

[56] Negin Nabavi, “Readership, the Press and the Public Sphere in the First Constitutional Era,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 220.

[57] Nabavi, “Readership,” 221.

[58] Nabavi, “Readership,” 220.

[59] Nabavi, “Readership,” 219.

[60] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 112.

[61] Farzaneh, Clerical Leadership, 60.

[62] Martin, Iran Between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism, 112.

[63] Soheila Torabi Farsani, “Merchants, their class identification process, and constitutionalism,” in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution: Popular politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections, ed. H.E. Chehabi and Vanessa Martin, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 121.


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Martin, Vanessa. “State, Power and Long-Term Trends in the Iranian Constitution of 1906 and its Supplement of 1907.” Middle Eastern Studies 47, 3 (May 2011): 461-476.

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Soroudi, Sorour. “The Impact of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution on the Social and Literary Outlook of the Poets of the Time: Part I.” Iranian Studies 12, 1/2(Winter-Spring 1979): 3-41.

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