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A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind by…

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind (2008)

by Michael Axworthy

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Axworthy introduced the book by calling it "an introduction to the history of Iran for a general readership, assuming little or no prior knowledge." That is basically true...but if that is where you are coming from, you are most likely going to find some sections slower going than others.

The first one-third is a very good overview of ancient central Asian history through Cyrus the Great; the middle third was overwhelming for its wealth of unknown names and specialised terms that demanded one's full attention or repeated readings; the final third was surprisingly fascinating and a painless read given its coverage of the last 50 years of Iran's history--a period I can recall events from (for example: watching a helicopter airlift the Ayatollah Khomeini's casket to safety from the surging mobs on TV). Compartmentalising these sections is the only way I really could come to grips with this book, plucked from a library shelf because of a desire to fill in my knowledge of this much-maligned but historically rich country.

I heartily recommend this history to anyone especially interested in Iran's rich literary past for it includes a very good introduction to Persian poetry and aesthetics. Its coverage of early history is also very good--concise and easy to read. But from 1000-1920, I confess I couldn't keep my focus and didn't re-connect until the final 100 or so pages, which caught me by surprise and completely held my attention...and introduced me to some authors I had not heard of, whose works I am now reading online (such as the banned Sadeq Hedayat. See http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/BlindOwl/blindowl2013.pdf).
( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
A very readable history book is “Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran” (2008), by Michael Axworthy, a British scholar with profound knowledge about the country. He covers the time from before the Archaemenids, via several other dynasties to the Arab invasion and the establishment of Islam in Iran, and up to recent history, including the Revolution and the rise of Khomeini and some of the present day issues, up to the rule of Ahmadinejad in 2005. A comprehensive overview, worth reading to understand where the Iran of today comes from. ( )
  theonearmedcrab | Nov 15, 2016 |
Eternal Persia

In just under 300 pages Mr. Axworthy paints a well-paced overview of 3000 years of continuous Iranian civilisation. His Iran is a country with hot desserts, cool mountains and subtropical forests where half the population is made up of ethnic minorities. It is a land where nomads had the upper hand over farmers until the 20th century. Mr. Axworthy sees Iran as a land where many inhabitants can recite lengthy passages from their favourite poems, that insistently dwell on such joys like wine, beauty, flowers and sexual love, as much as a land of forbidding, censorious and dogmatic Shi'a Muslim clerics (whose religion he often compares to Catholicism). Persian culture survived and thrived under various invasions in various areas. Therefore, Mr. Axworthy considers Iran "an empire of the mind". The book is a traditional, chronological history. I would not have minded even more attention to cultural factors and synthesis, rather than who ruled when.

The Indo-Europeans migrated into the land of Iran in the years before 1,000 BC. By 700 BC the Medes had established a state independent from the Assyrians, ruling the Persians as vassals. Just before that time the religious reformer Zoroaster preached the opposition between the god of truth and light and the god of lies, darkness, and evil. This dualism became a persistent them in Iranian thought. The religion also developed concepts like the single creator-god, divine judgement and angels and the moral world.

The Persian king Cyrus conquered the Median Empire in 549 BC and subsequently much of the rest of the Middle East. Cyrus rule was tolerant of his new subjects and cultures were mixing. Although the rule of the Achaemenid was sophisticated, the culture was largely non-literate. This dynasty fell to Alexander the Great. The Seleucid kings that ruled upon Alexander's death ruled in Persian rather than in Greek style and Greek influence was ultimately superficial. Zoroastrians considered Alexander "accursed". The Parthians would soon conquer much of the Iranian world, including areas currently in Afghanistan. Silk trading became a business and diplomatic ties were developed with the Han emperor Wu Ti. "The recognition, acceptance, and tolerance of the complexity of cultures and influences over which they ruled" were again key elements of Iranian government. The Romans tried to attack the Parthians various times, but were no match for the fast moving horse men (although the Romans would conquer Mesopotamia). At the same time the Parthians expanded in the Punjab. The Parthians would fall to the Farsi Sassanid regime around 230, which became more Persian in outlook. They successfully fought the Romans and captured two emperors. They ruled over large parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan and northern India. India and China were increasingly reached by ship and bazaars grew up in the cities. This is also the time the qanat (underground irrigation canals) were dug. Interest in Greek learning was re-established and Manichaeism was founded in this age. Mani "does seem to have done a remarkably good job of infecting a range of belief systems with the most damaging and depressing ideas about impurity, the corruption of material existence, and the sinfulness of sexual pleasure". He may have had some influence on Islam, but certainly on Augustine of Hippo and thus on Western Christianity. Augustine had himself been a Manichaean. When Armenia and Rome became Christian, Christians became suspected spies and Zoroastrianism more intolerant. Around 400 Nestorianism, a Persian form of Christianity would develop. Kings were supposed to rule by divine grace, upholding justice. Khosraw became one of the dynasties greatest kings, encouraging the translation of texts from the Greek, Syriac and Indian languages.

Continuity from pre-Islamic Iran to the Islamic period is difficult to assess, but can be found in the survival of the Persian language and the Shahnameh with poems and descriptions of pre-Islamic Iran. Weakened by wars with the Byzantine Empire, Arab masters quickly conquered over Iranian lands after 637. The Arabs mainly replaced ruling elites. After some time Zoroastrianism was treated like Judaism and Christianity (i.e. they had to pay jizya). Islamisation was a slow process. While elites converted quite quickly, common Iranians remained non-Muslim for several centuries. For them taxes may have become lower, and Islam was less hierarchic. Iran would be ruled by foreign monarchs for nearly a millennium. Persian influence rose at the Umayyad and later Abbasid courts. The synthesis guaranteed the survival of a strong element of pre-Islamic culture (p.80). Persian architects were busy in the capital cities. The caliphate brought economic improvements and revitalised the Silk Road. The idea for the Beyt al-Hikma was taken from Sassanid royal libraries, and contained translations from Gondeshapur. Hadith scholars were often Persians and Persians established the grammar of the Arabic language. To this day the Persian of the mullahs tends to be the most Arabised. Provincial courts managed to find increasing levels of independence. Poetry flourished. Persian poetry's grand theme is love in all its forms (p.85). It may be present through metaphors, notably through "another great poetic theme", wine. Its verse forms are often Arabic in origin. Sufism was central in the diffusion of Islam outside the towns and cities. The centre of Sufist activity was in Persia, particularly in Khorasan. Many Sufi poets scorned the self-important egotism of the ulema. The Seljuk rulers were themselves attacked by the Mongols, who massacred millions. In the 13th century wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, albeit nomads who were also ruthless mounted warriors. For the third time the Persian class of scholars and administrators would conquer the conquerors. Greek poetry was still rooted in Sufism with Neo-Platonic influences. Around this time Persians and Turks invaded India and founded the sultanate of Delhi. Sufi missionaries were set to work. Around 1300, when Persian miniature painting was under Chinese influence, Timur invaded Persia, raising pillars of human heads as he marched through the country. Valuable survivors were taken back to Samarkand. In his wake the dessert encroached on abandoned farmlands and irrigation works. Iran's vulnerability flowed from its central geographical position, which also gave it great economic and cultural advantages.

The killing of Hosein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad, has nursed a sense of grievance, betrayal, and shame among his followers, the Shi'a. Shi'ism's emphasis on humility, sacrifice, and religious hierarchy sets it closer to Christianity than Sunni Islam. Sunni's emphasis on law and tradition is closer to Judaism. Shi'ism stands for earnest, pious austerity, and is as such often in conflict with political deals and pragmatic compromises. The Safavids establised Shi'ism as the leading religion after 1501. The Safavids persecuted Sufis and intellectual life was channelled into the madresehs. Abbas would be the house's great shah, building spectacular monuments (particularly in Isfahan) and upgrading the military. Alcohol seems to have played an important role in the weak performance of the later Safavid shahs, despite an "Islamic revolution" in 1694 that lasted a few months (p.147). In 1722, Afghans occupied Isfahan, triggering attacks by the Ottomans and the Russians. Nader Shah ousted the Safavids, restored Persia to prominence and adapted some anti-Sunni practices. He made it all the way to Delhi. He failed to modernise Iran in the manner of Peter the Great, however. The end of his reign threw the country into chaos. The 18th century also gave rise of the ayatollah as an "object of emulation" (p.173), giving a few religious scholars great potential power. Shi'ism obtained a hierarchical structure (unlike Sunni Islam), which it combined with a belief in the illegitimacy of secular authority and the righteousness of the oppressed. The early 1800's brought more interest of European powers (France, Britain) and loss of territories held for centuries against Russia. Militarily and economically, Fath Ali Shah's Persia was no match for the Europeans (p.182). The state bureaucracy was small and operated through proxies and alliances with limited opportunities for taxation. The army lacked scale against the Russians.

Cheap European products were accessing Persian markets now. The Baha'i emerged with a more modern version of the faith (interest on money, emancipation of women) and the pretence to supersede traditional Islam; they have been persecuted and killed in almost every decade. Some attempts at modernisation along western lines were made (p.191). Russia and Britain dominated Persia and were both content with stagnation (p.193). Export crop production (cotton, opium) led to severe famines. The shah employed Belgian advisors and foreigners received monopolies (tobacco, fisheries), and in 1901 William Knox d'Arcy started looking for oil. In 1905 bazaar merchants in Tehran demanded a representative assembly, which was granted the next year. The constitution followed the Belgian example, but inaugurated conflict and uncertainty (p.204). Modernisers stood against conservative mullahs and bazaar merchants, whereas Britain and Russia still meddled in the background. Oil was found in 1908 and was a new interest of the British Empire. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded in 1914. After the Great War the local British military leader allowed the former Cossack sergeant Reza Khan to become minister. He promoted to prime minister and shah in 1925.

Reza Khan was an autocrat, aiming at a strong Iran that would be on equal footing with the great powers. Being shah was a means to an end. Kemal Ataturk was his model. 40% of expenses went to an inefficient army. Infrastructure, industry and education were other fields. Censorship was tight. He introduced education for girls and banned the veil. 1941 brought Anglo-Russian intervention. The shah abdicated for his son. In 1951 oil was nationalised, leading to a Western supported coup d'etat. It established to US as the regime's main backer. In 1963 Khomeini, a descendant of the Prophet but also considered a parvenu, started attacking corruption, neglect of the poor, the failure to uphold sovereignty against America and the sale of oil to Israel. It also was the start of an economic boom and urbanisation. Inflation, unemployment, wealth inequality and American arrogance/indifference and torture by the secret police created resentment. The ulema had been sourced out of many traditional and lucrative roles of authority in society, like judges and notaries. The shah even wanted to make them answerable to the state. Demonstrations, strikes and violence drove out the shah.

Khomeini, a follower Ibn Arabi's philosophy of the perfect man (when man through contemplation and self-reflection became a conduit of God), was received by 3 million people when he returned from Paris. Shi'ism lent cohesion to the revolution. Khomeini quickly took the lead and in March 1979 a referendum gave 97% support for an Islamic republic. More moderate ulema were silenced. His own actions and circumstances allowed Khomeini to maintain a level of "revolutionary fluidity". After his death the process to standardise Shi'ism in the state's mould continued. Khomeini's successor Khamenei had no reputation as a distinguished scholar. Despite problems and a disastrous war with Iraq, the Islamic republic had achieved important beneficial results for many ordinary Iranians, introducing piped water, health services, electricity and schools in remote districts. Primary education was extended to all and literacy rose dramatically. 66% of students are women. This despite an ever more self servicing regime and falling mosque attendance. Mr. Axworthy mentions several moments where the George W. Bush-regime had passed opportunities for reconciliation. Things have become more complex with Ahmadinejad. Still, the author advocates a more constructive approach, particularly from America. ( )
1 vote mercure | Jan 9, 2012 |
An excellent history. Axworthy has the clear head of a non-cynical diplomat and an academic's eye for detail and awareness of the flaws and stereotyping inherent in much present day commentary on iran. Most importantly he is passionate about his subject. His view is that of an objective friend of the Iranian ideal which he describes. A really enjoyable read in the best tradition of British "orientalism" - thoughtful, objective and sympathetic. ( )
  DavidHumphrey | Dec 2, 2008 |
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. . . However, when I began to consider the reasons for these opinions, all these reasons given for the magnificence of human nature failed to convince me: that man is the intermediary between creatures, close to the gods, master of all the lower creatures, with the sharpness of his senses, the acuity of his reason, and the brilliance of his intelligence, the interpreter of nature, the nodal point between eternity and time, and, as the Persians say, the intimate bond or marriage song of the world, just a little lower than angels, as David tells us. I concede these are magnificent reasons, but they do not seem to go to the heart of the matter. . . .

. . Euanthes the Persian . . . writes that man has no inborn, proper form, but that many things that humans resemble are outside and foreign to them: "Man is multitudinous, varied, and ever changing." Why do I emphasize this? Considering that we are born with this condition, that is, that we can become whatever we choose to become, we need to understand that we must take earnest care about this, so that it will never be said to our disadvantage that we were born to a privileged position but failed to realize it and became animals and senseless beasts. . . . Above all, we should not make that freedom of choice God gave us into something harmful, for it was intended to be to our advantage. Let a holy ambition enter into our souls; let us not be content with mediocrity, but rather strive after the highest and expend all our strength in achieving it.

--Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man
(translated by Richard Hooker)

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Iranian history is full of violence and drama--invasions, conquerors, battles, and revolutions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465008887, Hardcover)

Iran is a land of contradictions. It is an Islamic republic, but one in which only 1.4 percent of the population attend Friday prayers. Iran’s religious culture encompasses the most censorious and dogmatic Shi’a Muslim clerics in the world, and yet its poetry insistently dwells on the joys of life-wine, beauty, sex. Iranian women are subject to one of the most restrictive dress codes in the Islamic world, but make up nearly 60 percent of the university student population. In A History of Iran, a leading expert on Iran chronicles the rich history of this complex nation from the Achaemenid Empire of sixth century B.C. to the present-day Islamic Republic. In accessible prose, Michael Axworthy explains the military, political, religious, and cultural forces that have shaped one of the oldest continuing civilizations in the world. Concluding with an assessment of the immense changes the nation has undergone since the revolution in 1979, A History of Iran offers general readers an essential point of entry into a troubled region.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:58 -0400)

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ASIAN / MIDDLE EASTERN HISTORY. Iran often appears in the media as a hostile and difficult country. But beneath the headlines there is a fascinating story of a nation of great intellectual variety and depth, and enormous cultural importance. A nation whose impact has been tremendous, not only on its neighbours in the Middle East but on the world as a whole - and through ideas and creativity rather than by the sword. From the time of the prophet Zoroaster, to the powerful ancient Persian Empires, to the revolution of 1979, the hostage crisis and current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad - a controversial figure within as well as outside the country - Michael Axworthy traces a vivid, integrated account of Iran's past.… (more)

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