A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy

I imagine that Michael Axworthy’s brief for this book ran something like this: Write a one-volume history of Iran, from as early as possible up through as close to the present as is practical. (The hardback edition was published in 2008; the edition that I have was published in 2010 and has an epilogue that discusses events through late 2009.) It should be roughly 300 pages long, accessible to the educated public, and not overly annoying for specialists. Axworthy appears to have been an excellent choice for such a brief. He was a British diplomat for 14 years, ending with two years as head of the service’s Iran section. At time of publication he was Director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter. He wrote a biography of Nader Shah, a man who rose from local strongman to ruler of all Iran in the first half of the 1700s and extended its influence past Kabul into Transoxiana in the north and Delhi to the east. Axworthy is an expert, but not entirely an academic, and he fulfilled his brief admirably.

A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy

By design, Axworthy’s history is primarily political; that is, its main concern is who ruled what territories at what times. He considers other aspects of history — most notably religion and literature — but they are clearly subordinate to tracing the thread of who held power in the Iranian lands (and nearby territories) through the centuries. He begins with what linguistic and genetic evidence can tell historians about the people of the area in times before written records. The Iranian languages are Indo-European, indicating that their speakers came into the Iranian plateau “from what are today the Russian steppes … in a series of migrations and invasions in the latter part of the second millennium BC.” (p. 1) The Elamite empire is known to have pre-dated the Iranian invasions, and archeological evidence has shown that people have lived in the area for many millennia. “From the very beginning then, the Idea of Iran was as much about culture and language—in all their complex patterns—as about race or territory.” (p. 3)

Axworthy has barely introduced the peoples—Medes, Persians, Parthians, Sogdians, and others—who first enter the historical record through Greek accounts before he turns to the importance of religion in Iranian history with a sketch of what can be known about the prophet Zoroaster. From linguistic and textual evidence, Axworthy concludes that Zoroaster lived around 1200 or 1000 BC, roughly the time of the Iranian invasions. “Other evidence supports the view that Zoroaster did not invent a religion from nothing. Instead, he reformed and simplified pre-existing religious practices (against some resistance from traditional priests), infusing them with a much more sophisticated philosophical theology and a greater emphasis on morality and justice.” (p. 6) Axworthy notes that “Modern Zoroastrianism is much more strongly monotheistic, and to make this distinction more explicit many scholars refer to the religion in this early stage as Mazdaism,” after Ahura Madza “the creator-god of truth and light.” (p. 7) Though this religion dates back three thousand years — and further, considering how it incorporated existing beliefs and divine beings — its influence continues in present-day Iran in large and small ways. Large: The dualism present in Zoroastrian thought shows up again and again in religious revelations and developments in Iran. Small: “The names of several of these archangels—for example Bahman, Ordibehesht, Khordad—survive as months in the modern Iranian calendar, even under the Islamic republic.” (p. 7)

I knew next to nothing about Iran before reading this history, and it is a testament to Axworthy’s narration that I never felt overwhelmed by the parade of names and places. He also gives a number of places where a reader familiar with the general outline of western history can link that with events in Iran. In early chapters, for example, he shows how the empires of Cyrus and Darius looked from their own side, rather than the Greek view. He sketches the Achaemenid Empire, which arose in Iran and eventually stretched from Thrace and Egypt to Transoxiana and the banks of the Indus. He details how Alexander came to be reviled in the Zoroastrian tradition. He also mentions relations between Jewish people and the kings of the Middle East, demonstrating how long Jewish communities have existed in places such as Baghdad.

From the time of Cyrus forward to the beginning of the twentieth century, the political story of Iran is a story of dynasties that rise and fall, of empires that extend beyond what their resources can support and retreat in disorder. The story is shaped by long contention with empires to Iran’s west: first Rome and then the Ottomans. The conflicts with the Ottomans are further complicated by both powers’ attempts to be the leading polity of the Islamic world, made more vexatious by the Ottomans largely representing the Sunni tradition and successive Iranian states having an increasingly Shi’a character. Axworthy gives careful attention to the historical development of Islam and clearly explains the Sunni/Shi’a division, alongside explications of Sufi traditions and how all three sometimes splintered, sometimes acquired new schools of belief.

While there was ebb and flow in the west — except of course for the Arab invasion that brought Islam — the north was the source of two great waves of invasions that swept through the Iranian lands: the Mongols and Timur. Both brought short-term devastation to the Iranian lands, but the rulers both left behind were in the end co-opted by Persian administrators and traders. Axworthy also notes, almost as an aside, that not long before the Mongols arrived in Persia, Muslim Persians and Turks invaded northern India and set up what became as the Mughal Sultanate, a fabulously wealthy polity that eventually stretched east into Bengal. Ayse Zarakol discusses how several of these empires fit into larger Asian trends across the centuries; Axworthy shows how these trends played out in a specific geographic area.

One of the paradoxes of the Mongol era is that it was also the period of a great flowering of Persian poetry, producing poets whose phrases have become aphorisms still used in the present day and whose works are still a familiar part of Persian literary culture. It’s as if the time halfway between Beowulf and Chaucer had produced several Shakespeares. Axworthy has great regard for the literature of the 1200s and 1300s and devotes fully a tenth of the book to the topic. He shows not only the art of poets who are known even in the English-speaking world but also the interplay between poetry and religious ideas, and how the poems continued to find audiences down the centuries.

Poems like this [from Hafez] unsettle many Iranians even today. Some religious Iranians will say directly that these poems are not really about wine or erotic love at all—that the meaning is entirely on a spiritual level, and that the poets themselves never touched wine. Whether or not that is true (and personally I doubt it), the fact is that the poems only work if the eroticism and the alcoholic intoxication are real. Rather, they work because they are real, because they ring true and speak directly to our own experience as only great literature can. They seem to remind us of something we had always known but hat somehow forgotten. Otherwise the metaphors would be just a device, the rebellion against convention no more than a pose. This poetry has more impact than that. …
In later times, Hafez was appreciated and translated by Goethe, whose enthusiasm for this poetry reflected that of many other Europeans. As for the Persians, they so revered Hefaz that his Divan (the conventional term for a book collecting the poet’s work in one volume) was used as an oracle, and sometimes is still. People wanting to know their fortune open it at random in the hope of texts that can be interpreted as optimistic predictions. The only other book used in that way is the Qor’an. (pp. 114–15)

Having written about the long arc of Iranian history, Axworthy devotes the final third of the book to developments in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, judging — probably correctly — that his audience will be most interested in reasonably contemporary events. At times his previous discussions of religious motivations and popular uprisings made me wonder whether he was reading current Iran backward into the past. It’s an occupational hazard for historians. He makes a good case for recurring themes in Iranian history — religious movements that distrust established authority and then wind up establishing their own authorities, for example — but I did have the occasional niggling doubt. There’s no doubt that for me the 1979 revolution looms largest in my view of twentieth-century Iran, so the rise of the Pahlavis points to their downfall.

One thing that Axworthy does well is to show the complexities of Iran’s relations with Russia, how first the territories of the Caucasus and then lands populated by Azeris were contested between Russia and Iran. These disputes spanned several Iranian dynasties and, on the northern side of the border, both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. (Thanks to a Yugoslav Communist, I was already aware of the extent of Soviet dominance of WWII Tehran.) He is also good at sketching out competing ideas and factions throughout twentieth-century Iran. He shows how some of the ideas of 1979, such as rule by Islamic jurists, were novel extensions of existing tendencies. He also shows how constitutional tendencies lost out at key junctures, but have never entirely gone away. Throughout the book, he argues that Shi’a Islam has a strong tendency to distrust established authority. This tendency works one way when groups are agitating against a dynasty grown tyrannical, but another when people who rebel in the name of Shi’a values attempt to set up a new authority.

I liked that in the later chapters Axworthy is not afraid to offer his evaluation of the actions of various countries and their policies towards Iran, even when I found myself in less than full agreement. For example, he is critical of other powers’ tendency to regard Iran as an object for their actions rather than a subject in his own right. He doesn’t, as far as I can tell, address Iran’s tendency to regard neighbors such as Georgia as an object for its actions. Further, he tends to criticize Britain for regarding Iran as less important than other parts of its policy. He argues that reversals in policy toward Iran because of British priorities elsewhere, for example in policy toward Russia, caused Britain to appear unreliable in Tehran and led to costs later. That may be entirely true, but it does not necessarily follow that the changes were wrong. British policymakers were probably right to judge that Russia was more important to them than Iran; setting priorities and weighing competing costs is what making policy is all about.

The book’s last chapter gives a great deal of detail about Iranian elections and protests in 2008–09. More than a decade on, this looks like understandable overemphasis. The themes he identified at that time remain important: corruption within the Islamic Republic has eroded its popular support. Select clergy are increasingly preoccupied with protecting a particular vision of state power; the instruments that were seen as liberating by large swathes of Iranian society in 1979 have often turned to oppression forty years later. “[President Khatami] said several times [in the late 1990s] that he believed his reform program was the last chance for the Islamic republic—that if reform were blocked, the people would demand secular government and overturn the theocratic regime altogether. But his reforms were blocked…” (p. 277) The government repressed the 2009 protests, which had mainly aimed to re-run the presidential election. Since 2022, a new wave of popular protests has shaken Iran’s government. Now, as Khatami predicted, people are demanding an end to the morality police, freedom of women not to wear a chador, and overturning many other day-to-day aspects of religiously-mandated control. The call for a secular government is not a universal demand of the protestors. Not yet.

Axworthy passed away in 2019, but he would have recognized the return of democratic and constitutional aspects of Iranian thinking. His book can help readers to recognize it too.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2023/02/19/a-history-of-iran-empire-of-the-mind-by-michael-axworthy/

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