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August 09, 2004

Basis of Iranian Nationalism(s)
Pouria Lotfi  [info|posts]

kurosh.jpg I try, very briefly, to answer the question "what is Iranian nationalism?" This is particularly difficult since Iran is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. Iranian nationalism is not a uniform concept. While one may argue that no concept of national identity that functions as a base for its respective nationalism is uniform, Iranian concepts of nationalism are diverse in the extreme. My goal is not to do a survey but rather to discuss broad factors that may be seen as encompassing the multiple facets of Iranian nationalism and provide a framework for discussing its general characteristics. For the purposes of this paper, I have identified three inter-related factors that provide the basis for Iranian nationalism(s): a strong sense of history or collective memory; a distinct, continuous culture; and geographical continuity. These are broad factors that can be may be seen as encompassing the multiple facets of Iranian nationalism and provide a framework for discussing its general characteristics.

This article is divided into the following sections for easier navigation:

1. Introduction,
2. Thesis,
3. Conclusion,
4. References.

Iran is what Shahrough Akhavi calls an "old new state" by which he means that "if one views it as a member of the third world societies, it nevertheless has an ancient tradition and history within roughly the same frontiers as those of today[1]." Thus, Iranian nationalism fits into the mould that Ryszard Kapuscinski has set for ancient civilizations. He writes: "Societies with a historical mentality are directed toward the past. All their energies, their feelings, their passions are dedicated to greater times already gone by. They live in the realm of legends and founding lineages[2]."

Scholars of the modernist school tend to negate the role of collective memory. The popular conception of nations and nationalisms is that they are fairly recent phenomena, arising around the time of the French Revolution or after. For modernists, the formation of nations is deeply rooted in the advent of modernity, with little consideration for the pre-modern historical context[3]. However, Anthony Smith's critique of the modernist perspective and his consideration of the historical roots of nationalism is particularly applicable to the Iranian case. He distinguishes two problems with the modernist argument. Firstly he argues that in the modernist theories, "the nation... is divested of 'identity'." It is, he goes on to say, "either conflated with the state, to become the 'nation state', or it is equated... with modern high culture." Secondly, he faults modernist theories as having as having a "tendency to rely on purely structural explanations." By this he means that they "trace the origins, rise, and course of nations and nationalism to the consequences of (uneven) capitalism, industrialism, militarism, the bureaucratic state, or class conflict, or a combination of these[4]."


Few scholars would argue against the idea that there has been an Iranian identity long before the modern era. This is of course, not to say that there was an Iranian nation in the modern sense of the term, but there has long been the notion of "Iranianness" but it meant different things in different historical contexts. The Achaemenids regarded themselves as Iranian in insofar as Iranian signified a group of various ethnic entities sharing common linguistic, religious and cultural traits[5]. The Sassanian consolidated the definition of Iranian by adding a definite political and geographical facet to it[5]. In the Islamic period, this definition lost its political and religious connotations and became merely a cultural and geographical concept. Furthermore, in each period right up to the modern era, political and cultural elites have made use (even if in a selective or manipulative manner) of this common history to reinforce a collective sense of identity.

Early Iranian intellectuals did not create the Iranian nation ex nihilo: Qajar period thinkers started making extensive use of an Iran-centred history in formulating and promoting Iranian nationalism. As Mohamad Tavakoli Targhi argues, "The narratological centrality of Iran signified the emergence of a new conception of historical time differing from the prevalent cyclical arrangements of chronicles[6]." A glorified ancient past (particularly pre-Islamic) was used to establish an Iran-centred continuity directly connect with the present. It was in the Qajar era that intellectuals made the first attempts to imagine an Iranian nation. Writers such as Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh (d. 1878), Mirza Agha Khan Kermani (1853-1896) amongst others used history to "reawaken" Iranians in the face of imperialism and the countries declining fortunes. A perfect example of such a use is provided by ‘Abd al-Baha ‘Abbas (1844–1921) in his treatise al-Asrar al-ghaybiyyah li asbab al-madaniyyah [Hidden Secrets of the Causes of Civilization]. He writes, "O people of Persia! Look into those blossoming pages that tell of another day, a time long past. Read them and wonder; see the great sight." He gives a brief account of past glories, real and imagined, taken from sources such as the Old Testament, the Shahnameh, as well as contemporary European works, then implores his country men to: "Awake from your drunken sleep! Rise up from your lethargy!" In short he beseeches them to consider what they were and what they have become[7].

Closely tied to the collective memory is the idea of a collective cultural consciousness. Benedict Anderson, like Smith, stresses the cultural and historic roots of nationalism. He writes that nationalism is best understood, not with "self-consciously held political ideologies," but instead with "the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which — as well as against which — it came into being[8]. In the same way that the Greeks of the various city states saw themselves as having a Hellenic culture different from other, so too did Iranians distinguish between themselves and ‘others'. Granted, in the Islamic period, this "sense of Iranian community and culture" was "largely centred on the Persian language and literature[9]." There were however other subjective cultural traits that can be considered common to Iranian culture: the celebration of common festivals, notably the Iranian New Year; religious peculiarities common to the Iranian cultural area, and later, on the Iranian plateau, Shi'ism; common myths and legends; and distinctive material culture. To give but one example, it was this common sense of community that sided Safavid Turcomans with the Persians, against the Turkish Ottomans and Uzbeks. They held in common, religious beliefs (Shi'ism) and common history/myths (e.g. Iskandar Beg Monshi, hinself of Turcoman origin, writes of the armies of Iran and Turan when describing a battle between the Safavids and Uzbeks.[10]).

The Persian language is often fetishized as the common denominator of Iranian heritage and while this may have been true to in the pre-modern period it is less so today. In the pre-modern period Persian was not only the language of ethnic Persians - it was the lingua franca of the Iranian geographical area and beyond. Homa Katouzian writes: "Massive evidence of this broader Iranianism — which remained alive during the centuries of political disunity, mainly through the medium of the Persian language and literature — is provided by classical Persian literature[9]. However he goes on to say that the pan Persianist policies of the 20th century have "dealt a blow to the wider sense of Iranianism which had always existed", since the non-Persian minorities began to see themselves as subjects of discrimination[9]. It can thus be said that, despite the predominant conceptualizations of an Iranian nationalism based on language, Persian no longer has the same paramount status as it once had[11].

Finally there is the important physical aspect of Iranian nationalism that must be taken into account. This however provides an interesting contradiction: on the one hand Iranian history and culture are linked to a definite geographical context and on the other hand, the physical geography stood as a barrier against easy communication — a requisite for forming a nation[12]. These geographical barriers also kept the Iranian plateau relatively isolated. As Cottam states, "To the extent that geography was responsible for the uniqueness of Iranian character, culture, and history, it helped create a national particularism which in turn served as a catalytic force for the growth of nationalist sentiment.[12]" Thus there is a dichotomy where the Iranian geographical area was relatively inaccessible to foreign influence but was also to centralized political control. Of course the past tense is important here since with modern forms of communication, transport and control, this is no longer the case.

There is another more important aspect in the discussion of geography and Iranian nationalism. There has already been mention of an Iran as a geographical concept, but it is important to analyse its connection to Iranian nationalism. The idea of Iran, as the land of Iranians, is an old one. Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet convincingly argues that "Iran" and its corresponding territories therefore were not 19th century innovations… Nor did these ideas originate with the works of Orientalists... The impulse to set apart things Iran — land and language, culture and civilization — had old roots and simply found a new application and context in nationalism[13]."

History is again of relevance when we consider that the limits of Iran as described in Perso-Islamic sources have direct roots in Sassanian Iran. The Sassanians distinguished, even in there own empire, between Iran (Eran) and non-Iran (an-Eran)[14]. The land of Iran "corresponds roughly to the eastern Iranian world, the Iranian plateau, and Mesopotamia[15]." In a world context, Iran held special prominence as the first and central of the seven lands (keshvars). This concept of Iranshahr persisted well into the Islamic era and has influenced modern Iranian nationalism. In medieval Persian geographies, Iran would often be given special consideration as the most beautiful, fertile land, etc. If the notion of Iran, in a cultural or historic sense, was subjective and intangible, a geographic Iran was objective and tangible. As Kashani-Sabet notes, "scholars had reified this abstraction (i.e. Iran) and justified the "truth" of its existence by connecting it to a concrete reality: a territory[13]." Furthermore, "the mapping of "Iran" reinforced the idea that something concrete sustained the idea. Land existed tangibly and with a measure of constancy that culture did not, and its reality was repeatedly supported by visual evidence[13]."


Even today, Iranzamin ["land of Iran"] is given special importance in Iranian nationalism. While, areas that were historically considered part of Iran, are no longer part of the Iranian state, the so called "Iranian heartland" is still in tact. The very land or earth of Iran is held in semi-sacred reverence. One has only to read modern literature for many examples of this. For example, the un-official Iranian national anthem starts right off by extolling Iran as the "treasured land" (marz'e por gawhar) and with "soil that is the wellspring of virtue" (khakat sar cheshme'ye honar).

As already noted, Iran is multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. Yet, it does have the basis to constitute a single nation, in the simplest sense formed as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of people living together generation after generation, in a common territory[16]. Iranian nationalism is reflective of Iran's long and diverse history. Thus, it is not unusual to have nationalisms based on the pre-Islamic heritage, Shi'ism, etc. Iranian heritage provides a collage of experiences that Iranians can pick and choose from, focusing on some while paying less attention on others. Ultimately, Iranian nationalism is a romantic notion, perhaps best described by Renan when he writes,

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent , the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common[17].


[1] Shahrough Akhavi, "State Formation and Consolidation in Twentieth Century Iran" in Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (eds), The State, Religion and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, Syracuse University Press, 1997, pp. 198-99.

[2] Ryszard Kapuscinski, "One World, Two Civilizations," New Perspectives Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1988), p. 39.

[3] For a critique by a historian of Iran see: Roger Savory, "The emergence of the Modern Persian State Under the Safavids," Studies on the History of Safawid Iran, Variorum, 1987, pp. 1-5.

[4] Anthony Smith, "Memory and modernity: Reflections on Ernest Gellner's theory of nationalism," Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 2, no. 3, 1996, pp. 371-88.

[5] Gnoli, Gherardo. "The Idea of Iran," Roma : Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1989.

[6] Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, "Refashioning Iran: Language and Culture During the Constitutional Revolution," Iranian Studies, vol. 23, numbers 4, 1990, pp. 77-101.

[7] Abdul-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, tr. M. Gail, Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990, pp. 6-9.

[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991; Paschalis Kitromilides and Georgios Varouxakis, "The 'Imagined Communities' Theory of Nationalism," in Athena Leoussi and Anthony D Smith (eds) Encyclopaedia of Nationalism . Oxford: Transaction Books, 2000, pp. 136-139.

[9] Homa Katouzian, State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis, I.B. Taurus, 2000, p. 77; pp. 327-328.

[10] Eskandar Beg Monshi, Tarikh-e 'Alamara-ye 'Abbasi, tr. R. Savory, Westview Press, 1978.

[11] Mehrzad Boroujerdi, "Contesting Nationalist Constructions of Iranian Identity" Critique: Journal for Critical Studies of the Middle East, no. 12 (Spring 1998).

[12] Richard Cottam, Nationalism in Iran, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979, p. 23.

[13] Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, "Fragile Frontiers: the Diminishing Domains of Qajar Iran," Int’l. Journal of Middle Easter Studies, vol. 29, 1997, pp. 205-34; p. 207.

[14] D.N. Mackenzie, "Eran, Eransharhr," Encyclopaedia Iranica, ed. E. Yarshater, vol. VIII, Mazda Pub. 1998, pp. 534-535. See for etymology and connotations.

[15] Touraj Daryaee, Sharestaniha’i Eranshahr, Mazda Pub., 2002, p. 1.

[16] Joseph Stalin, "The nation" in John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith (eds.), Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 19.

[17] Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation? in John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith (eds.), Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 18.