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Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture

Farzin Vejdani, Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

[This review was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Arab Studies Journal. For more information or to subscribe, click here.]

Making History in Iran is a much-needed examination of how various social and institutional changes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped how the people of Iran wrote about, taught, and understood the past. Farzin Vejdani traces the gradual formation of modern historiography in Iran through periods of shifting patronage networks, the expansion of reading publics, and the adoption of reformist and internationalist revolutionary ideas. These structural transformations made it possible for history to move out of the court and into the hands of amateur writers, private educators, and activists who introduced the nation as a central historical framework.

Previous studies on Iranian historiography have focused on how top-down authoritarian reforms of the late Qajar and Pahlavi periods were responsible for writing nationalism into the history books. Vejdani, however, utilizes a wide variety of source materials, such as historical textbooks, training manuals, periodicals, correspondences, and school curricula to argue that such a view excludes a larger pool of autonomous contributors who were indispensable to the writing of history before the professionalization and standardization of the field in the 1920s.

The book opens with the late nineteenth century, when historical writing’s primary objective was to legitimize the Qajar dynasty (1875–1925) through religious and pre-Islamic understandings of kingship. Such works were deeply rooted in the king list and “mirror for princes” traditions—established eclectic genres that drew on poetry, religious sayings, court chronicles, and the biographies of past kings to instruct monarchs on good governance (19). After the state established translation bureaus, reform-minded court historians and translators were able also to draw upon texts about modernizing European autocrats worthy (and unworthy) of emulation.

At the same time, technological innovations in printing and papermaking as well as economic transformations helped foster an “emerging public sphere” for which independent historians such as Jalal al-Din Mirza and Mirza Khan Kirmani could write (26). By the beginning of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, “the mirror for princes” had shifted to “the mirror for nations” as these independent translators and writers looked toward the histories of democratic struggles in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and China in order to introduce and propagate constitutional and anti-imperialist ideals inside Iran (29–32).

The reception of pro-constitutional national histories within the independent public sphere, as Vejdani demonstrates in chapter two, was influenced by new educational networks. At the turn of the century, with the Qajar state strapped for cash due to decades of foreign concessions, reformists were able to create private schools with nominal state support. In these schools, educators like Muhammad Husayn Furughi and his son Muhammad ‘Ali wrote history textbooks that centered the “people” (mardum) and presented learning history as a civic duty that allowed students to advance the nation by identifying and removing the barriers to education and political participation that had plagued the country in the past. These schools also introduced the notion of universal progress, positioning Iran on a developmental trajectory to “join the community of ‘civilized countries’” (54). The adoption of world-history models did not, however, necessarily produce a singular vision of history and civic development; instead, it led to a diversity of historical narratives and formats.

This plurality in history writing was ultimately short-lived. During Riza Shah Pahlavi’s reign (1925–41), the central government finally became the driving force behind education, and state ideology was incorporated into a newly standardized historiographical narrative and pedagogy. With the establishment of the Teacher’s Training College in 1919 and later the University of Tehran in 1935, teaching history became a viable profession, and new state institutions such as the Ministry of Education began to provide instruction manuals to primary and secondary school teachers on how best to convey their lessons. Outside the classroom, historians could find opportunities with propaganda-oriented institutions such as the Institute for Sermons and Speeches and the Organization of Public Instruction, which attempted to spread nationalist historiography to the general public.

Whereas the previous generation of historians viewed constitutionalism and citizenship as the primary vehicles of a nation’s progress, these new institutions, Vejdani succinctly shows in chapter three, produced textbooks that cast racial, religious, and civilizational factors as central to national progress. Citing the world history of ‘Abbas Iqbal Ashtiani, he shows how statist narratives made use of European racialist theories to explain the decline of Iranian greatness. While recent scholarship has explored anti-Arab trends and the valorization of Aryanism, Vejdani’s study demonstrates that many historians conducted research on Islamic Iran, disproving that state histories lauded only ancient Iran and actively avoided any period following the advent of Islam.

The rise of state education institutions, coupled with heavy censorship, led to a decline in the autonomous voices that had championed democratic causes in the constitutional era. Instead, the newly invigorated state-patronage system encouraged the production of a homogenized historical narrative that portrayed Iran as a single territorial unit and championed military leaders like Nadir Shah (and the current ruling monarch) who had managed to vanquish domestic and foreign divisive forces. While Pahlavi-era historiography aimed to be all-encompassing, its homogenizing tendencies often obfuscated the role of women, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

In the fourth chapter, Vejdani turns his attention toward women’s history—a topic that was omitted from textbooks but had a particularly robust life in the independent press of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Throughout the constitutional period, pioneering women had joined together in voluntary associations to advocate for equality, the right to education, and their participation in civil society. Through the use of periodicals and newspapers such as Women’s World, these women challenged male-centric historical narratives by printing the biographies of significant women and their indelible contributions. As opposed to relying on Iranian national figures such as pre-Islamic Sassanid queens, the women’s historical press relied on non-Iranian historical figures like Zenobia and more contemporary activists such as Halide Edip, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, and Safiya Zaghlul. These histories reflected the internationalist nature of the women’s movement in Iran, which envisioned its efforts as part of a greater struggle for women’s liberation across the globe. By the Pahlavi era, however, many of these outlets had shut down and their writers had been co-opted by the state-sponsored program for women’s reform. Thus did such writers shift, as Vejdani describes it, “from a subaltern counterhegemonic position to a hegemonic one” (112).

Another historiographical shift during the Pahlavi era was the subsuming of local and regional diversity under a larger national narrative. During the constitutional period, chapter five shows, provincial centers such as Tabriz, Rasht, and Mashhad played a significant role in opposing tyranny, and historians of the 1910s cast these local populations as defenders of the revolution. When these same areas (in addition to Kurdistan) became embroiled in rebellion against the centralizing policies of Riza Shah just a decade later, state-approved historians attempted to integrate these restive regions into their national narrative by downplaying ethno-linguistic difference. Vejdani gives much of his attention to Ahmad Kasravi, a prolific historian who wrote about Khuzistan and Azerbaijan, provinces inhabited predominately by Arabs and Kurds, respectively. In these cases, Kasravi attempted to highlight the inherent “Iranianness” of these regions and to label the autonomous movements—which he claimed were inspired by tribal politics, religious heterodoxy, and foreign meddling—threats to national integrity.

The standardization of Iranian history also affected the cultural field, particularly literature, and in chapter six Vejdani traces the development of a “Persian Republic of Letters”—“a community of scholars and writers not bound by the constraints of territory” (147). Made possible through the rise of print and the postal system, this transnational network stretching from India to the Caucasus (and including European interlocutors) was responsible for canonizing the multifocal Persian language under a nation-state framework. British orientalist Edward Granville Browne’s seminal works, A Literary History of Persia and The Press and Poetry of Modern Persia, exemplify this literary exchange. Browne’s correspondences with Iranian colleagues like Muhammad Qazvini and Nazim al-Islam Kirmani demonstrate not only the collaborative nature of knowledge production in the Persian Republic of Letters, but also how nationalist and anti-imperialist concepts territorialized literary history.

Despite the attention it pays to the sociopolitical transformation in Iranian society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Making History in Iran successfully stresses continuity over rupture in the development of historiographical genres, state patronage, and the formation of reading publics. It improves our understanding of how Iranian historiography represented Arab and Islamic historical figures and drew upon Arabic-language secondary sources, such as Jurji Zaidan’s Tarikh al-Tamaddun al-Islami (History of Islamic Civilization) as well as his writings on the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. Scholars of the Arab world and scholars interested in knowledge production in semicolonial contexts should be most attentive to Vejdani’s concluding pages, in which he puts forward a compelling set of research questions for future comparative historiographical studies, taking into account how state power (whether colonial or noncolonial) influenced the composition of history and how these diverse institutional settings might have affected transnational circulation and transmission.

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