The Qajar Pact: Bargaining, Protest and the State in Nineteen-Century Persia


The Qajar Pact: Bargaining, Protest and the State in Nineteen-Century Persia
Vanessa Martin
London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2005, Pp.x+214, glossary, illustrations, bibliography, index, £45 (cloth) ISBN 1 85043 763 7

Vanessa Martin's book is a very welcome addition to the growing body of works dealing with the Qajar era that are willing to take a fresh look at accepted interpretations and established clichés about that crucial period of Persian history, particularly concerning the nature of the rule of Qajar shahs before the Constitutional Revolution.

In her brief but useful introduction, Martin explains that the focus of her study is twofold and built around two related questions: The main question: '[H]ow did a country the size of Iran contrive to retain its independence and to keep foreign control at bay for over a hundred years, in the nineteenth century and beyond?' and a second related, but 'lesser', question, concerning the origins of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. These questions are tied together around the concepts of consensus and negotiation, concepts that explain the choice of the word 'Pact' in the title of her book, and which, she argues, are essential in understanding the true nature of the delicate balancing-of-power act engaged in by the Persian government both in foreign and domestic matters in that period. Martin also emphasizes that without this dual balancing act, Iran would not have been able to resist 'foreign conquest' or have enough internal cohesion to be able to govern. In this, Martin is able to challenge the accepted notion that rule in nineteenth century Persia was absolute and that the ruler could disregard domestic forces in governing the country.

The project of this book is, however, not limited to a mere documentation of the fact that negotiation and consensus-building were necessary devices engaged in by the government to stave off domestic collapse and foreign domination. What makes this book a particularly valuable addition to the field of Qajar Studies is that in Qajar Pact Martin pioneers an approach that so far has received scant attention in Iranian Studies in general. She states: "My purpose is to look at how people below the elite level were involved in the political process, and what influence they were able to exert, as well as to illustrate the ways in which they were organized so as to alter government policy" (p. 1)

This 'look below the elite level', known as historiography 'from below' or 'from the bottom up', was introduced in the early decades of the twentieth century in Europe by historians at the University of Strasbourg and became known as the Annales school of historical writing, named after the French scholarly journal Annales d'histoire economique et sociale renamed Annales, for short, in 1994. Their approach rejected focus on the 'great man theory of history' in favor of a focus on long-term trends, large-scale factors and their effects on events. With the work of Fernand Braudel in France and Howard Zinn and others in the United States, this approach also focused on the perspectives of individuals and groups hitherto neglected by traditional historians, groups typically considered marginal such as women, the underclass, the poor, and merchants. In political science, in particular in the subfield of comparative politics, the approach chosen by Martin is termed "State-Society Approach." Famous exponents of this approach in Political Science are Samuel Huntington and Theda Skocpol, and in Iranian Studies Homa Katouzian, whom Martin cites in her introductory remarks (p.2).[1] In choosing to focus on the influence of these groups on the policy-making capacity of the Qajar state, and in discussing the sources that inspired her to take this approach (p.2), Martin places herself squarely in this same tradition, although association with the Annales approach remains an unstated assumption in her book.
Qajar Pact is divided into three sections, with the introduction, chapter one and the conclusion forming the theoretical core; chapters two, three and four being case studies of interactions of non-elite groups with the state and foreign powers in Bushehr and Shiraz, and with the domestic power structure in the form of the prince-governor of Esfahan, Massoud Mirza Zell-e-Soltan, in the chapter on Esfahan (chapter four); and chapters five through nine being a thematic focus on under-represented groups: women, Iutis, soldiers and slaves. The case study on the slave Haji Bashir Khan, in particular, which is the focus of chapter nine, is an interesting tour de force in linking an ostensibly idiosyncratic story to the larger theme of influence of the under-represented in charting the course of policy. Readers critical of Martin's approach might contend with her on the validity of her argument in the chapter on slaves (chapter eight) on several fronts: First, in that she limits her discussion to African slaves, and not slaves in general such as women purchased for or presented as gifts for the harems of the elite and the shah himself, who would then become integrated in the social fabric in the same manner as Martin describes with regard to African slaves. Second, those slaves as a group had in fact very little, if any, power to influence outcomes of policies, though individual cases such as the role of Mirza Yaqub and the Armenian slaves in the Griboyedov assassination and the odd case of Haji Bashir Khan can point to instances of a possible causal connection. [2]

However, Qajar Pact is not just a book about nineteenth century history with relevance limited to that period of Persian history only. In discussing Islamic notions of legitimacy, especially in their Shi'i interpretation of just rule and rightful opposition to unjust rule (p.20), Martin draws attention to obvious parallels between this period and the waning days of the Pahlavi regime. The challenge to Mohammad Reza Shah by the leaders of the Islamic revolution, particularly that of Ayatollah Khomeini, was framed in similar if not identical terms to those of his nineteenth century counterparts. Martin's discussion of the oppositional role of the bazaar on the question of concessions also parallels the frustrations of the traditional bazaar merchants of the Pahlavi era with the privileged access of the new commercial class to large and lucrative contracts and their resulting support of the Islamic revolution (p.188). One can also not miss the suggested parallel between the discussion of the role of women at the forefront of opposition in the Qajar era and the role of women in opposition in Iran today.

Yet, by far the most fascinating aspect of the book, for this reviewer, is Martin's theoretical discussion and her rejection of an unqualified notion of absolutism as an adequate description of the relationship of the ruler to his subjects, or more broadly stated, of state-society relations in chapter one of her book, and secondly, Martin's musings on the question of the causes of the Constitutional Revolution in the conclusion of her book (pp.183-191).

In questioning the basis for the absolutism thesis, Martin is joining a small but increasingly important group of academic authors focusing on European and non-European monarchies before the advent of constitutionalism, who have argued that a closer look at the empirical evidence suggests that what in name was absolute or 'arbitrary' rule, to use the term preferred by Homa Katouzian, was in fact a product of institutionalized intricate and delicate relationships. pressures and push-backs, that resulted in decisions by the ruler with much more complex factors in mind than his immediate will or whim.[3] Martin looks at the process of decision-making by the shah in the larger context of Islamic jurisprudence and Iranian culture in particular, as a balancing act of rights, duties and prerogatives, to which the shah and the people were equally subject, and of which both were eminently aware (pp.8-13 and pp.183-185). The picture that emerges in not only one of a ruler bound by convention and religious edict, but also or a ruler whose reach is not as deep as absolutism and arbitrary rule would suggest. As .Martin points out, commerce, education, health and welfare and religion were beyond the purview of the shah, as was most of the administration of the territory, for which power, of necessity, had to be devolved to the level of governors and tribal chiefs in order to achieve the desired goal of sufficient tax collection (p.13). That is not to say, however, that the shah was therefore bound by constitutional constraints before 1906, but only that his rule before 1906 must be viewed in a more nuanced way. This new direction indicated by Martin is particularly welcome as it will certainly lead to a healthy debate in Iranian Studies and in Qajar Studies in particular, helping to accelerate the shedding of some of the old notions about the Qajar period, in favor of a fresh and more accurate look at this important period of Persian history.

This leads us to the last question Martin addresses in Qajar Pact, the question of the Constitutional Revolution. Martin points out that the 'pact' kept state-society relations stable for as long as the ruler understood the limits or his power and acted within expected boundaries. Unity and, in this sense, stability, was the paramount concern of both the government and society, and yet the subtle balance between state and society in Qajar Iran came to an abrupt end with the Revolution. Martin hints at additional factors-external in the form of foreign concession seekers and the competition for influence over Persia by colonial powers, and internal in the form of infractions of the dictates of 'urf (societal custom) and shar' (religious edict) by the state-that help explain this breakdown in the "pact" (pp.188-189). Martin considers her emphasis on the process of bargaining, concessions and negotiation to be her singular contribution to a better understanding of the causes for the Constitutional Revolution, while acknowledging the existence of additional causes beyond the scope of her study (p.189). By drawing on the events unfolding around the Tobacco Concession in each of her thematic chapters in particular, Martin manages to show the breakdown of the bargaining process to be the proximate cause of the Revolution.

Martin leaves the reader with this final assessment on the Revolution itself, an assessment that will surely have to result in a fuller elaboration, if not a sequel, to this valuable addition to the study of the Qajar era:

Why did the Constitutional regime itself fail to endure? Time did not allow the opportunity for compromise in the gradual adaptation of the nineteenth century practice of the shari'a to the needs of twentieth century society. Nor did it allow for the principles of the shari'a to be transferred into a modem legal system; for the means of social justice to be applied; for new institutions to provide the same security as the old organizations and networks, particularly the clan network; or for the new citizens to develop a sense of loyalty to the state, rather than to tribe and village; for the creation of a new and better means of establishing social justice and welfare in the form of modem institutions. (p.191)

[I] See H. Katouzian. State and Society in Iran: the Eclipse of the Qajars and lire Emergence of the Pahlavis (London and New York: I.B. Tauris. 2000.
[2] For the case of Mirza Yakub and its domestic and international implications as a parallel to Haji Bashir's case, see L. Kelly. Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran: Alexander Griboyedov and Imperial Russia’s Mission to the Shah of Persia (London and New York: LB: Tauris, 2002), pp.187-222.
[3] To be sure, the discussion is a complex one and cannot be resolved simply in terms of presence or absence absolutism. Several factors will have to be brought into the equation and new terminologies might have to be coined to capture the more complex picture that is emerging. Clearly also, a redefinition of the state-society relationship away from absolutism does not imply Ihal.lhe relationship can now properly be called constitutional. Yet, the willingness to look more closely at the patterns of interaction has allowed for a gradation that previous approaches or new approaches relying on old classifications were incapable of or impervious to. Regarding European systems see N. Henshall. 'The Myth of Absolutism,' in History Today, June 1992, pp.40-47 (published in book form as The Myth of Absolutism: Change And Continuity in Early Modem European Monarchy, Longman, 1992). Regarding Iran see R. Sheikholeslami, The Structure of Central Authority in Qajar Iran, 1871-1896, (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997), but also H. Katouzian, op. cit., to mention two recent examples of scholarship paralleling Martin's approach. While Katouzian, clearly characterizes Qajar state-society relations as 'arbitrary' and Sheikholeslami still calls them 'patrimonial', Martin, Katouzian and Sheikholeslami agree that the Qajar state was not centralized enough to allow it to be absolutist in the sense of twentieth century authoritarian or totalitarian, and Martin leads this trio in being most willing to leave behind the absolutist thesis altogether. (See Katouzian. pp.I-29; Sheikholeslami, pp.I-18, particularly 9-18; and Martin pp.13-15.) For a related discussion see, H.E. Chehabi and J.J. Linz. eds., Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1998) where the history of the term 'sultanism' is discussed and interestingly, and in my view more appropriately, applied by H. Katouzian to the Pahlavi regime, particularly to the period of Reza Shah's reign and to that of his son's, post 1953 (Ibid .. pp.182-205).

Manouchehr Eskandari-Qajar
Source: Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3, 2006, pp: 525-529



 
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