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The Constitutional Revolution in Iran

N. Zahra Rizvi (USA)
Events of September 11th, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and of Iraq (2003), Israeli invasion of Lebanon (2006), Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah connection, fundamentalism, war on terrorism, and oil politics along with “bringing" democracy to the Middle East have flooded headlines in recent years. While at the same time mainstream discourses regurgitate a supposed inability of Islam to adapt to modernity; and use inconsistent entities like Western ideals against realities in the Muslim world to justify their arguments. Authors like Bernard Lewis, Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, Asra Nomani and Samuel Huntington come to mind. Essentialism and anachronism attribute failures to the Islamic faith rather than long standing social, historical and economic causes for problems within current political systems throughout the Muslim world.[67][2]
Meanwhile Islamic Revivalism in the Middle East and the world over has piqued interests of historians, political scientists and sociologists. The rise of Islamic–oriented political parties in Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Iran has surprised many in the West. The question arises as to why Islam continues to be an influential factor in many parts of the world today. And has not, like Christianity and Judaism, undergone serious doctrinal evolution bringing it into the 21st century. Rather what is missing here is questioning of how religion itself is defined.
The universalistic assumption of religion being limited to merely a privatized abstraction is what is problematic here.[68][3]
Islam has played an important role in social, historical, legal, economic, domestic, political and sociological dimensions of the human experience in the Middle East and still does today.[69][4] Similarly the comparison of the schism between Protestantism and Catholicism directly applied to differences of Sunnism and Shia’ism is also disproportionate since there was no schism in Islam.[70][5] Shia’ism is just one of the expressions of Islamic orthodoxy as is Sunnism and Sufism.
Though much attention is given to Iran as naturally inclined to Shia Islam, this is in fact not historically true.[71][6] After the Arab conquests under the Umayyads, either through marriage or client–patron relationships the Persian tribes became Muslim. It was not until Shah Isma’il in 1501 C.E. that the Safavid dynasty imposed Shia Islam as the state religion. It was not until the mid– to late–17th century that most of Iran became Shia. By the late 19th century and 20th century, Shia Islam had taken an activist role, as this paper will explore.[72][7]
At the turn of the twentieth century Turkey, Egypt, India (to some extent) and Iran experienced a popular urge for constitutionalism. From the Iranian perspective this meant establishing a constitution—an order of law that everyone from royalty to the common people were considered accountable to equally, and a parliament which would reserve certain powers from the monarch impeding his absolute grip on the nation.[73][8]
A number of discontented groups came together in what was the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to 1911. This paper will explore why and for what reasons the ‘ulama[74][9] (religious establishment) took part in the movement; and the term ‘ulama may include supporters like theology students, mullahs, mujtahids, ayatollahs and their assistants.
Their reasons include their intimate links with the merchants, interconnectedness with the people, anti-absolutism, implications of the constitution with shari’ah laws, and how Islamic principles justified the ‘ulama’s involvement in the movement. Participating ‘ulama include those from Iran, Sayyid[75][10] Muhammad Tabatabai and Sayyid Abdullah Behbahani. Tabatabai is known as being open-minded and familiar with Western philosophers. Behbahani was known for promoting his own personal agenda. The ‘ulama from Ottoman Iraq were a force from the outside of Iran who are Mirza[76][11] Husayn Tehrani, Mirza Muhammad Kazim Khurasani, Shaykh Mazandarani instigated the Tobacco Protest of 1891-1892 and are collectively addressed in this paper. Sayyid Hasan ibn Taqi (Taqizadeh) obtained his education from a madrasa and the leader of the First and Second Majlis.[77][12] Taqizadeh had close ties with the merchant class. Finally, Shaykh Fazlallah Nuri was in support of the monarchy.
“…The blood of Naser al-Din Shah is the price paid for the successive triumphs of English and Russian diplomacy in Persia”
–Edward G. Browne, The Persian Revolution, 1909.[78][13]
Under Naser al-Din, excessive concession granting caused resentment. The British and Russians controlled commodities including tea, tobacco, railway systems, mining, canals and many industries.[79][14] Open revolt broke out in 1891 he gave an Englishman, Major G. F. Talbot, a 50-year monopoly over the distribution and exportation of tobacco in exchange for very little in return.[80][15] As living conditions worsened for the poor, the ‘ulama turned against the shah, publicly declaring their disapproval. A fatwa[81][16] from Mirza Hasan Shirazi in Ottoman Iraq forbade the use of tobacco in all forms until the shah withdrew from the concession.
Though smoking was a compulsive habit of many Persians, the fatwa had a far-reaching impact. From the remotest villages to the women’s quarter in the palace, the fatwa took effect almost overnight.[82][17] The power of the ‘ulama to move the masses in what was known as the Tobacco Protest of 1891-1892 was a dress rehearsal for what was later to come.
There were two obvious sides in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911: one in favor of constitutionalist goals and other opposed. Royalists were those that served in the Qajar court or benefited from the current system; they resisted change in any form because it would threaten their status and power in society. The Qajar family, the shah’s nobles and viziers (advisors) of the court, and the British and Russians that were infiltrating Iran, are part of this group. Secularists wanted a constitution free from all religious influence, but used religious rhetoric to attract average Iranians to their cause. Mirza Malkum Khan is a representative example of a secularist constitutionalist.[83][18] Mirza Jahangir Khan, founder of the newspaper Sur-I-Israfil, held radical secularist views, many suspected of being Babis like many other editors of newspapers of the time.[84][19] Aside from the two obvious groups, the ‘ulama who took part in the Constitutional Revolution were a diverse group of thinkers.[85][20]
Governors in cities all over Iran publicly humiliated merchants based on accusations of price gouging. Such was the case in 1905 when Muzaffer al-Din Shah had announced another trip to Europe, and the Belgian customhouse officials whose arrogance already tyrannized the Persians enough, decided to impose new tariffs. The Qajar shahs’ wealth came directly from taxing the Persian people, government functionaries would extract these taxes from peasants and laborers and merchants by crack of the whip. The Qajars spent this revenue in frivolity, paying for multiple trips to Europe, building new palaces, adding jewels to the Qajar crown and so on.[86][21] The Shah’s excessive opulence, and the Belgian officials’ cruelty and exploitation culminated into widespread protest.
In Mashhad, people had taken refuge, in the holy shrine of Imam Reza[87][22] in an act of civil disobedience. When the governor ordered his soldiers to fire at the bastis[88][23] in the holy shrine, they became enraged. In Kerman, the governor ordered a public beating of the main mujtahid of the town. The same happened in Qazwin in addition to merchants bastinadoed for supposedly raising the price of sugar.[89][24] Soon after these events, many merchants among others took sanctuary in the Royal Mosque in Isfahan, where ‘ulama such as the renowned scholars Tabatabai and Behbahani joined them.[90][25]
The Imam Juma and his men were ordered by the shah to expel the bastis (refugees) from the Royal Mosque. The bastis then migrated from Isfahan to another holy shrine of Shah ‘Abdul ‘Azim[91][26] where they took refuge again for six weeks. Many more students and ‘ulama, such as Nuri joined the older bastis and at this point Behbahani and Tabatabai had formed an alliance between themselves as well as with the merchants who had taken refuge. They would leave on the condition that a Parliament and an Adalet-khana, (House of Justice) be created; the Qajar government promised the bastis this with no intention of fulfilling these promises.[92][27]
When they realized the Qajars were not going to grant a Majlis and House of Justice, people became anxious and riots broke out. Bazaars closed, the bastis went to Masjid-i-Juma for refuge. After a violent confrontation between Mirza Ali Asghar Khan[93][28] troops and some bastis, this killed two sayyids, the riots died down and the ‘ulama were told to return to Qum. Not long after, the bastis which included merchants, some ‘ulama that had refused to leave and other people took refuge in the British Legation. Their numbers grew rapidly from 858 to 5,000 in only three days. From there the bastis pressured Muzaffer al-Din Shah to grant their demands: invite the ‘ulama to return from Qum; dismiss the infamous governor of Tehran for his increasingly oppressive measures; and thus, enforce a code of laws consistent with the shari’ah, and a national assembly that represented them.
When the number grew to 14,000 within a month, Muzaffer al-Din decided to grant all demands. In 1906, Muzaffer al-Din Shah signed the constitution (including a parliament and house of justice). Later on his brother, Mohammad Ali Shah deposed him in 1908, and under his rule, he arrested many constitutionalist leaders and ordered the Cossack Brigades, to destroy the parliament.[94][29]
Consequently, the bastis quitted the Legation. It was to the benefit of the ‘ulama to support the merchants in their demands for removing the despotism of the Qajar state. The Qajars allowed Western[95][30] infiltration of their economy via granting of concessions, administration of customhouses, collection of taxes and tariffs, and so on.[96][31] This situation hurt domestic enterprises and made the bazaaris uncertain of their future.
The ‘ulama, known for dislike of foreign interference in Persia, received their living allowances from the bazaar and so the alliance between the two groups was natural. The ‘ulama were held the esteemed position of intermediary between various groups, this key standing created cohesion in social and political life of the cities and the countryside. Other groups did not have the same education, aptitude, influence, or associations.[97][32] Taqizadeh is an example of both ecclesiastical and bazaari background and Tabatabai’s son was married into a mercantile family.[98][33] For these reasons, the ‘ulama had an integral role in coordinating revolts against the government.[99][34]

Historical Background: Rise of the Qajars to the dawn of the Constitutional Revolution
The Qajars were a Turkic tribe that migrated to Persia from Central Asia in the 14th and rose politically at the beginning of the 16th century. Part of an alliance of Turkic and Shia tribes, called the Qizilbash (Red Heads), they helped the Safavids establish an Iranian empire, spanning from 1501 to 1722, when the Safavids crumbled under an Afghan invasion. Bakhtiyaris, Afshars, Zands, Qajars, Turkomans, and Kurds among other tribes wrestled for territory and invasions by the Russians and Ottomans did not improve the situation.[100][35]
Eventually Aqa Muhammad Qajar declared himself shah in 1796 and ruled like a tribal chieftain. Early on, the Qajars established their throne and significantly lessened tribal warfare. Aqa Muhammad’s successors, Fath ‘Ali Shah (1797), Muhammad Shah (1834-1848) and Naser al-Din Shah (1848-1896) tried to capture the old glory of past shahs by adopting ancient imperial traditions.[101][36] They created a royal treasury, mint, armory, and storehouses.
Nevertheless, the Qajars failed at establishing an enduring statewide bureaucracy as had previous Persian[102][37] shahs.[103][38] As a result, local communities maintained their own administrative autonomy.[104][39] Qajar relatives filled government posts and hired more employees than needed for each governmental position. Similar to the Ottoman Empire, chief governorships were auctioned to the highest bidder and usually these positions were filled by Qajar relatives.[105][40] Nepotism, autocracy, oppression and inefficiency plagued the Qajar dynasty but they managed to maintain their throne by taking advantage of quarrelling groups and withdrawing when faced with growing resistance.[106][41]
From the 1870s to the 1890s, globalization of Iran’s economy caused the decline of some domestic industries and the expansion and export of others like carpets and tobacco. As a result, a commercial and financial middle-class and a new industrial working class appeared.[107][42] Meanwhile, economic life improved but failed to keep up with the growth in population, which resulted in relative deprivation, though conditions of the wealthy improved this was not true for the general public. This, and absolute deprivation in the political sphere led to widespread social unrest. In an era when telegrams, roads and postal service maintained contacts with other communities, accompanied by economic improvement and political awareness, the situation became ripe for revolution.[108][43]

Historiography
Exceedingly scarce has been written on the participation of the ‘ulama in the Constitutional Movement in Persia. They are woven into the story with passing comments on how unusual it is for religious leaders to take part in a modernizing movement. There is information about them but scattered in most books. It is near impossible to find a book written by any of the ‘ulama during the Constitutional Movement; much of what we know we derive from eye-witness accounts of those that knew them or newspapers that quoted them. Edward Granville Browne’s writings on the subject, the most famous one being The Persian Revolution 1905-1911.
He quotes from other primary sources and includes interviews with political figures, newspaper articles and translations of letters he sent and received.[109][44] Historians have always referred back to Browne’s Revolution.
Abdul–Hadi Hairi’s “Why Did the ‘Ulama Participate in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909?” was the only source that directly addressed the topic of exploring their motivations. Other books focus on the movement itself and weave ‘ulama into the overall picture based on the assumption they were all the same. Hairi provides a fresh new perspective. He dedicates entire sections to important individuals from Iran (Tabatabai and Behbahani) and Iraq (Khurasani, Mazandarani). Hairi stands out for his work because he does not look at the ‘ulama as a homogeneous group with the same outlook on the movement; and introduces the students and assistants of the ‘ulama as a new, subversive element. Meir Litvak in his book, Shi’i scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq: The ‘ulama of Najaf and Karbala’. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) explains the significance of the Iraqi ‘ulama in the Constitutional Revolution.
Hamid Algar, Nikki Keddie, Vanessa Martin, Mangol Bayat, Said Amir Arjomand and Ervand Abrahamian and have all written in great detail about the Constitutionalist Movement and those works have made a substantial impact on how this period of modern Iranian history is seen today. Their books contain considerable sections on the ‘ulama; however, they are treated as a group and not as individuals. Algar puts forth the argument that the ‘ulama and the Qajar state have seldom been in agreement with one another.
The ‘ulama and state battled for power and influence, the latter holding symbolic power and the former, influence among the people. He asserts they were the natural leaders of the people and the push for a constitution was their claim for legitimacy against the state, foreign intrusion and coercion. Keddie draws many conclusions on how the Tobacco Protests (1891-1892) were significant to the Constitutional Movement. Like Algar, she looks at social aspects and agrees that the ‘ulama had an integral role in the Movement. Keddie agrees with Algar’s view of the ‘ulama as popular leaders. Her focus is ‘ulama-state relations, ‘ulama’s relations amongst themselves and how the Tobacco Protest ignited the Movement.[110][45]
Like Algar and Keddie, Martin is interested in the interactions of the ‘ulama and the state. Martin argues that the ‘ulama’s connection with the people was highly significant in gaining momentum for the Constitutional Revolution and that the ‘ulama were important patrons more than the Qajar shahs as this paper will later elaborate.[111][46]
Bayat on the other hand, treats the ‘ulama as a distinct professional class. This view completely deviates from the authors aforementioned. But at the same time they used Islamic doctrines, such as ijtihad[112][47] to further their influence in the movement. Bayat demarcates their sociopolitical agency; confining them to operate solely within a religious discourse and thus cutting them off from having any political or popular support; she writes along a European secular–liberal model of modernity.
Many authors agree European ideas such as rationalism, nationalism, progress, reform, parliamentary system and democracy were imported and absorbed by a small number of intellectuals. Anglo-Russian rivalry over Iran sparked political activity among the ‘ulama and consequently, the unifying of the people as a nation. Incorporating Iran into the international economic system is of significance: the fact that Constitutionalists wanted to expel foreigners from positions such as tax collecting and running state finances failed because even after granting the Constitution the Second Majlis hired the American financial advisor, Morgan Shuster.[113][48] Indeed the movement did indigenously grow out of conditions within Persia as Ali Gheissari, Vali Nasr and Reza M. Ghods all elaborate in their books As this paper will explore, modernism and religiosity worked in unexpected and interesting ways.

Exploring Possible Reasons for the Participation of the ‘Ulama in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905
As previously mentioned, a small group of intellectuals promoted the idea of constitutionalism in their writings, but because literacy in Iran was uncommon at the time, these ideas remained on paper. As Gheissari and Nasr explain, the ‘ulama’s position as intermediaries cannot be emphasized enough since they provided cohesion different groups.
Sociological and ideological reasons drew the ‘ulama to participate in the Constitutional Revolution. First, the financial support of the merchants was significant in allying with the ‘ulama and utilizing them as a vehicle for change; owing their loyalty to those that gave the ‘ulama their allowances. Second, the ‘ulama, which provided guidance to people of all classes, from peasants to bazaaris (merchants) were important patrons. Even Muzaffer al-Din Shah requested advice from his favorite ‘alim from time to time.[114][49]
Third, the ‘ulama thought that anything to replace the autocratic, oppressive shah would do and that opposition took the form of constitutionalism. Fourth, advanced religious education gave the ‘ulama the tools to justify their positions.[115][50] The last reason for the ‘ulama participating in the Constitutional Revolution was because constitutionalism would have made it easier to implement the shari’ah.

Friendly Bazaars and Financial Freedom from the Qajars
Merchants include artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, masons and others in similar enterprises. The ‘ulama and merchants were more intimately linked than either group was to the common people. Due to the ‘ulama’s elevated position in society a number of merchant families married into the religious establishment. According to Ghods, the merchants political crutch and shield were the ‘ulama, and the ‘ulama relied on the merchants economically.[116][51] Articulating their grievances to them, they had found a legitimizing voice, and an avenue under which they could rally their cause.
For the most part, the ‘ulama were beyond the bounds of governmental control. Imam Juma in Tehran’s main mosque is a famous example of a Qajar-elected member of the ‘ulama. The Qajars would appoint members of the ‘ulama for establishing legitimacy symbolically. ‘Ulama from Qajar patronage received their salaries from the state treasury which came directly from taxation or foreign ‘gifts’. Majority of the ‘ulama were independent of royal support, receiving their salaries from zakat, khums and or sadaqa (general charity).
Zakat, being one of the major pillars of Islam, requires Muslims with financial means to give a certain percentage of their wealth to the poor. It is a mandatory tax of 2.5% of all earnings and is exempt if one has a hardship or if one is a dependent.[117][52] Similar to zakat, khums developed in early history of Islam and based on a principle that one-fifth of any acquired luxuries are due to the Prophet and in the Shia community, is for the support of sayyids, usually poorer ones.[118][53] Khums paid by merchants, artisans and others in the bazaar gave the ‘ulama in Iran a large degree independence from the state and freedom to establish networks among the poor, bazaaris and ordinary people.
These networks were the avenue of powerful patronage that increased the number of their allies; the religious establishment used these funds to live by and for spiritual institutions such as madrassas, mosques, or seminaries, and is part of the awqaf. Awqaf is the plural of waqf, which defined in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam as a “holding and preservation of a certain property for the confined benefit of… certain philanthropy with the intention of prohibiting any use of disposition of the property outside of the special purpose... [It is] an idea that is practiced all over the world.”[119][54] The alliance between the two was natural. The ‘ulama depended on the merchants for their livelihood and in turn, the merchants needed the ‘ulama to strengthen their cause.

Populist Patronage: Advocates for the People
While it is no surprise that the constitutionalist ‘ulama supported the merchants, they were also concerned about the general welfare of the people. Because they were also Qajar subjects, their interests and the people’s interests were not at odds with one another. They saw themselves as being one with the people and, similarly sharing their experiences. They were an influential social class who were familiar with the people because they emerged from the people. And without the coordination with ‘ulama the Iranians could not have defeated the Tobacco monopoly or have gotten the constitution.[120][55]
Provincial governors were known to be forcefully cruel in collecting taxes. Tabatabai in one of his letters to Muzaffer al-Din Shah writes, “Last year when the Quchani tribe didn’t have the [means to pay] tax[s] for their wheat crops, they sold their daughters to the Turkoman [tribe] and the Russians.”[121][56] In his second letter, he says that government officials beat, killed, and raped people’s of their entire livelihood. Basically, “what the Qajar state has is the wealth of the powerless.”[122][57] This negligence and exploitation led to agitation among the masses that began to hate the dynasty.[123][58]
Being oppressed by the shah, his government and violated by foreign aggressors and they sought to keep the integrity of the Persian nation intact.[124][59] In a letter to the Ottoman Sultan, the Najaf ‘ulama write that the “people applied to us asking for our intercession” because they believed “that the shari’ah should be obeyed and the word of its people ought to be listened to.”[125][60] Considering in the 20th century Persia had not adopted a standardized public educational system, the ‘ulama were the collective few among the people that were literate, educated and liaisons to the government.
The Iranian people appealed to them because they are “servants of the sublime religious law sheltered by the protections of [another] Government.”[126][61] Taqizadeh said the “people considered the ‘ulama as representatives of public opinion” and that they in return were supported the people “against tyranny and the unchecked oppression of the government.”[127][62] They were an “inviolable authority” who could defend them against the government and the ‘ulama in turn worked with the people to reach their own goals.[128][63]
An example of this is when the unconventional member of the ‘ulama, Shaykh Fazlallah Nuri and his fellow anticonstitutionalists set up tents in heart of Tehran, Tupkhaneh Square to protest the constitution and establishing of parliament. They wanted to institutionalize the “religion of the prophet” which they assumed was opposed to a constitution. When the commotion ended, Taqizadeh delivered a victory speech to thousands of supporters that flooded the streets:[129][64]
“We [religious leaders] had, and still have, complete confidence in the people… The people… had not one by one this strength [would fall] under the yoke of tyranny and despotism. [Nevertheless], from the time that they gave each other the hand and united, they have seized their rights; and we hope that this unity may last until the coming of the Twelfth Imam (may God hasten his glad advent

… The anjumans were the cause of the victory. They had drawn the people together and united them in one common cause, and had organized their strength to such an extent that in the day of trail tyranny found, to its, surprise, a united front against it.”[130][65]
Constitutionalism in Iran started out with a few intellectuals that wanted to see their country change. ‘Ulama such as Tabatabai and Taqizadeh were catalysts in transitioning from views held by discontented elite into a mass movement.[131][66] Nuri known for his oratory skills started out on the side of the constitutionalists but personal conflicts with Behbahani led him to turn against the movement and side with the monarchy.[132][67]
The synthesis of religious support and modern ideology is an important aspect of the Iranian political experience—, which makes it entirely different from the Western European experience, which became strictly secular, in other words there was a division between church and state.[133][68] However, it was in the best interest of the religious establishment to stay alongside the people since disagreeing with “popular feeling would seriously damage” their standing and both groups were “compelled to seek each other’s support.”[134][69] In a time when religion saturated every aspect of life, from intellectual to economic, turning to the ‘ulama was a clever choice. They had privileged access to education, and for this reason, the people turned to them to represent the collective national conscience.[135][70] ‘Ulama such as Tabatabai, Mazandarani, Taqizadeh and Tehrani with their wisdom and guidance led the Iranians out of their misery.[136][71]

Any Political Form is Better than Autocracy
The Qajar state was manifestation of the shah’s temperament making the governmentunstable.[137][72] The reign of Muzaffer al-Din Shah was known as the Greater Autocracy and his brother, Mohammad Ali Shah’s rule, the Lesser Autocracy.[138][73] While the Qajar shahs’ influence was recognized, it remained symbolic and held inadequate force over Iran.[139][74] Furthermore, the Qajar dynasty being autocratic and oppressive throughout their rule did not have a standing army, no concrete bureaucracy and held minimal control over their provinces. In fact, amazingly, they held very little power outside of Tehran. Excessive taxation and keeping groups quarrelling amongst one another kept their grasp over the Persian people.[140][75]
However, the arrival of Westerners on the Iranian landscape introduced a new dilemma: British and Russian economic infiltration, use of foreign goods, higher taxes, and generous concessions to foreigners represented the Qajar’s subservience to foreigners who sold Iran at the expense of the Iranians. Furthermore, absolute deprivation in the political sphere, meaning there was no medium to channel these grievances and create institutional change. Absolutism prevailed because there was no written code of laws that would limit a monarch’s despotism.
The ‘ulama were not against the monarchy or its absolutism as long as the shah protected the people, the territory and the faith—all of which were equated with the Iranian–Shia realm. Nevertheless, the shah failed at fulfilling his duties; therefore it was the ‘ulama’s personal, national and especially religious responsibility to fight against injustice and give voice to the people.[141][76]
This is seen in Tabatabai’s letters to the Shah, Taqizadeh’s and Nuri’s writings. Indeed religious responsibility may have been the single most important factor in compelling the ‘ulama to take action.[142][77] The belief in jihad[143][78] propelled one to struggle against injustice especially if one had more knowledge than another did. Religious devotion obligated them to alleviate tyranny and oppression and regardless of personal motives, they allied with the constitutionalist movement because they were unhappy with government misconduct.[144][79] While it seems contradictory to popular belief that the ‘ulama of all people joined and promoted constitutionalism, a Western political innovation and, like most things Western were usually contradictory to their line of thought; this was true for some ‘ulama more than others.[145][80]

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