The Legacy of Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution for Today: A Book Review

In 1907-1909,  Dehkhoda was a revolutionary who simultaneously opposed the monarchy, the clergy,  the imperialist powers and the capitalist system which they represented.  He defended the rights of women and oppressed minorities and advocated free thought based on rationalism.

Dehkoda, Ali Akbar.  Charand-o Parand:   Revolutionary Satire from Iran, 1907-1909.  Translated by Janet Afary and John Perry.  Yale University Press, 2016.  335 pages.

Reviewed by Frieda Afary

March 5, 2018

This book consists of a series of witty satire columns written by Ali Akbar Dehkhoda for the social democratic newspaper,  Sur-e Esrafil ( Trumpet Call of the Archangel  ) in the midst of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911.    Sur-e Esrafil which discussed the complicated political issues of the time in an easily accessible language, was shared by 1000s of literate, semi-literate and illiterate citizens at that time.(p. 1).

Recently,  a new and complete translation of these columns entitled, Charand-o Parand,  (Stuff and  Nonsense or Cock and Bull  ) has been published by Janet Afary (an Iranian historian of the Constitutional Revolution,  who is also my sister)  and John Perry( a linguist and historian).   In addition to offering a  superb translation as well as scholarly and thorough explanatory notes,  the translators have also provided an outstanding introduction which situates the work of Dehkhoda in the context of the Constitutional Revolution,   broader historical developments and the intellectual debates of his time.

Translating Dehkhoda’s text is extremely difficult.  It requires a command of the vernacular Persian of early 20th century Iran as well as a command of classical Persian literature and a deep knowledge of the historical facts and characters to whom Dehkhoda alludes,  often in indirect and convoluted ways.   Both translators are strongly rooted in linguistics and history.

What was the Constitutional Revolution?

In 1905-06,  a movement for a democratic constitutional order against monarchic autocracy and imperialist domination arose in Iran.   Partly inspired by the 1905 Russian Revolution against the autocratic Czar,  the supporters of a new constitutional order in Iran included various tendencies including liberalism, nationalism and social democracy.  The latter advocated land distribution among peasants, an eight-hour day for factory workers, reforms in child labor,  modern schools for boys and girls,  a free press,  and  rights for women.

After a series of protests which forced the king Mozaffar al-Din Shah (d. 1907)  to allow for the formation of a national parliament to draft a new constitution,  an election based on limited  male enfranchisement, led to the formation of the first parliament in October 1906.

The parliament had some success in reducing the power of the monarchy, controlling the state budget and challenging the heretofore unquestioned authority of British and Russian imperialism.  However,  it encountered the strongest barriers when attempting to reduce the powers of the clerical order.   The social democratic deputies were determined to replace the binary legal system of Iran (Islamic sharia law and common law),  with a modern secular structure.    They also intended to reform Iran’s semi feudal  land system in a way that would help peasants.

Toward those aims, the liberal and radical constitutionalists did have  support from many provincial anjomans (councils)  which had become local administrative units and involved  multi-ethnic participation in the northern councils.  Some of these anjomans collected taxes, published newpapers, established modern elementary schools, had their volunteer militias and even expelled anti-constitutional clerics.   There were also women’s anjomans  and peasant anjomans (the latter not officially recognized).   In fact,  Dehkhoda maintained that the greatest guarantors of the Majlis [parliament] were the anjomans and not the constitution.   (p. 16)

This can explain why by  1907,  many clerics ,  turned against the new constitutional order and joined hands with the incensed new monarch,  Mohammad Ali Shah.   They had realized that the constitutional revolution intended to revamp both the sharia and the common Law legal systems and overturn cultural and religious hierarchies.   They opposed the efforts of radical constitutionalists such as  Hassan Taqizadeh to pass a bill of rights  that would enforce freedom of the press,  freedom of assembly,  grant greater powers to the parliament and to the provincial anjumans,  and recognize all men as citizens regardless of their religion or ethnicity.  (p. 35)

Ultimately,  the clerical establishment,  under the leadership of Shaykh Fazlallah Nuri, succeeded in revising the bill of rights and making these rights contingent upon adherence to sharia law.  They also set up a Council of Clerics with veto powers over the deliberations of the parliament.   Thus they blocked the constitutional process which would have ended the binary legal system.

Clerics also joined hands with the monarch and wealthy landowners  in  strongly opposing the changes made in land revenue collection.   Unlike the past when land grants (tiyul) were given to members of the nobility, officers and clerics in return for services to the country, the parliament gave them a fixed annual amount to be paid by the government.  It centralized the state and put the government in charge of taxing peasants directly, in order to increase state revenue.  This did not benefit peasants but it antagonized the landed elite and the clerical establishment who drew the bulk of  their substantial income from taxing peasants.   They did not want their share of those taxes to be limited to a monthly government stipend.

On June 14, 1908, the alliance of the king,  wealthy landowners and clergy all backed by British and Russian imperialism carried out a successful coup  in which Russian Cossacks bombarded the parliament and many constitutionalists were executed or driven into exile.

Soon, however,  Azeri and Armenian revolutionaries in Tabriz,  some of whom were  social democrats, began a resistance movement that led to a civil war in Azerbaijan.  By July 1909,  an army of revolutionaries from northern Gilan province joined by Bakhtiari tribesmen from Isfahan province from the south,  reconquered the capital city of Tehran and restored the constitutional system.  A prominent cleric,  Shaykh Fazlallah Nuri who had  prevented the passage of the 1907 bill of rights,  and who backed the kings’s efforts to overthrow the new constitutional order,  was publicly hanged in Tehran in July 1909.

Nevertheless,  the Constitutional Revolution began to unravel due to both internal contradictions  and the external pressures of British and Russian imperialism.    By December 24, 1911, after the arrival of Russian army units on the borders of Tehran and their threat to invade the parliament and shut it down, ministers closed the parliament and ended the constitutional revolution.

Who Was Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and How Did He Get Involved in the Constitutional Revolution?

Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda (1879-1956) was a diplomat, a  lexicographer, an intellectual with a clerical and Shi’a education, a journalist and a poet.    According to Afary and Perry,  “In 1906,  Dehkhoda was one of the most gifted and sophisticated young intellectuals” of Iran and of the region.    Fluent in Turkish and French,  with a degree from the newly established School of Political Science,  and several years of experience as a junior diplomat in Vienna and Bucharest,  he was acquainted with  the tenets of liberalism and social democracy.   As a child and teenager,  he had studied Arabic,  Islamic jurisprudence and theoloy with Shaykh Qolam Hossein Borujerdi, and had attended the seminars of  Haj Shaykh Hadi Najmabadi,  a cleric known for his religious tolerance and a freethinker with Azali Babi sympathies. [The Babi religion was developed in the 1860s as an offshoot of Shi’ism and subsequently split into two branches:   Baha’is and Azali Babis.   To this day,  Babis and Baha’is are considered apostates by the Islamic Republic of Iran and are denied the right to attend public schools or hold public jobs.]  Dehkhoda attributed his accomplishments to his exceptionally courageous mother as well as the above mentioned teachers.  (p. 27)

When the Constitutional Revolution began,  Dehkhoda joined a Tehran branch of  Ferqeh-ye Ejtemaiyun-e Amiyun,  a radical democratic party with close ties to the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party in Baku( modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan).  This organization also embodied a mixture of European socialism, Shi’a Iranian ideals, liberalism and nationalism.     It demanded the redistribution of land to peasants, reforms in child labor, modern schools and curricula for boys and girls, an eight-hour workday for factory workers and other similar social democratic measures.

In the Spring of 1906,  Dehkhoda was approached by Mirza Jahnagir Khan, an early  Azali Babi sympathizer and  founder and editor of Sur-e Esrafil who had gravitated toward social democracy.  Mirza Jahangir Khan invited him  to join the editorial board of the  soon to be published newspaper.  Hassan Taqizadeh,  the best known social democratic deputy of the parliament remained a strong backer of the newspaper.

Dehkhoda soon became the editor of Sur-e Esrafil which continued publishing until just three days before the  June 23, 1908 royalist coup.   Following the coup and the execution of Mirza Jahangir Khan by the order of the king,    Dehkhoda was forced to  flee Iran.  He lived in exile in Paris, Yverdon(Switzerland), and Istanbul for over a year,  and published three more issues of Sur-e Esrafil while in exile in Switzerland.  However,  the newspaper permanently folded in March 1909.

After the re-establishment  of the constitutional order by revolutionary forces in July 1909,  Dehkhoda returned to Iran where he was elected to the second parliament as a representative from Tehran and Kerman.  Soon,  he became disappointed with the feuds between the “Democrat Party” and the  “Moderate Party” ,  and the paralyzing influence of the imperialist powers,  Britain and Russia,   and  withdrew from active engagement in politics.

Dehkhoda devoted the rest of his life to literary and scholarly pursuits,  notably the compilation of the  first Persian Encyclopedic Dictionary or Loghatnameh.  He also became a professor at Tehran University.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s Dehkhoda became a strong backer of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq who nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951.  There was a rumor at the time, that if the Shah left and Iran became a republic,  Dehkhoda would become its first president.

After the 1953 U.S. sponsored coup against Mosaddeq,  Dehkhoda  was arrested and mishandled by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s security forces, and subsequently released.  As a result,  he suffered a major decline in his health.  Nevertheless,  he continued to work on the Persian Encyclopedic Dictionary until his death in 1956.

Highlights of Dehkhoda’s Satirical Columns,  Charand-o Parand (1907-1909)

In addition to enjoying hearty laughs,  readers will find that Janet Afary and John Perry’s introduction has singled out several important categories in the Charand-o Parand columns that allow for a much deeper appreciation of their significance.

These columns challenged blind faith and superstition,  exposed the abuses promoted by the clerical establishment, the monarchy, and imperialist powers.  Dehkhoda  encouraged rational interfaith dialogues, exposed pederasty,  sexual abuse and the subjugation of women,  opposed capitalism and imperialism.

A good example of Dehkhoda’s courageous spirit can be seen in  a column entitled “Religion for the Elite, Religion for the Masses,”  in which he reports on how the office of Sur-e Esrafil was attacked by seminary students because it had published an editorial advocating human reason.  He mocks the clergy and likens them to the Pharaohs of Egypt  for saying that reason should only be a subject for the elite and not for the common people.  (p. 153)

Furthermore,  in various columns, he exposes the clergy’s sexual abuse of women, girls and young boys.  In satirical ways,  he shows how they took advantage of the privacy of their office and the trust of the community to engage in sexual relations with helpless clients and students of various ages.

In a heart-wrenching column, entitled,  “Distrust of Vakils[trustee or legal representative]”, he expresses a deep understanding of the suffering of women in Iranian society.   He speaks as a male character who recollects  why his mother so deeply hated  his father.  The fictional mother says:

‘I was forced to marry your father against my will . . . Somehow or other this no-good obtained power of attorney over me and a week later informed me that he’d drawn up a marriage contact between us!  However much I yelled and cried,  jumped up and down, beat my breast and raged,  he said it was all settled and I was his wife.  In short, after a whole year of petitions and countersuits, he cast me into a hellfire that there’s no escape from.  By God, may he end in hell, be disgraced before the Prophet–may his livelihood pass him by on horseback while he limps after it—may he never have a happy day in his life—may the executioner pluck out his baleful green eyes!’ And she burst into a torrent of bitter tears.  (p. 217)

Dehkhoda  also opposed  both capitalism and Iran’s pre-capitalist economic system:  Of capitalism, he wrote:  “Neither Nero of Roman history nor Zahak of Iranian mythology nor any priest of the Inquisition had as much power as the present capitalists of civilized Europe.  Nor did they commit  as much murder.” (p. 59).   However,  in a comical way, he emphasized that Iran had not entered the capitalist stage.  In a column entitled “Political Economy”,  he attempted  to instruct Adam Smith that Iran’s feudal economy  could not be defined by the categories of labor and capital.  (p. 306)

Afary and Perry argue that Dehkhoda was indirectly responding to debates among social democrats at the time,  and promoting the view that Iran could bypass the capitalist stage and move instead toward a more egalitarian society.

What rings through these columns is mostly Dehkhoda’s deep anger at the collusion between the monarchy, the clergy and imperialist powers to destroy the constitutionalists.  In a   “Letter to the Russian Diplomat Shapshal Khan” he writes:  “Am I a blockhead for writing that the reason why the quota of parliamentary deputies has not yet been filled is a fear that four honest persons without private agendas might somehow enter the Majlis and an actual ‘disinterested party’ gain power?    Do I have so little sense of shame as to dare to write that the preachers at the Shrine of Fatima Ma’sum on orders from the chief superintendent, cry from the minbar [pulpit]:  Do not associate with the constitutionalists!” (p. 186)

Drawing Lessons from Dehkhoda for Today

Perhaps one of the most important threads in Dehkhoda’s work is his critique of Shi’a Islam and his effort to view Islam from  a rationalist vantage point.  In their introduction, Afary and Perry,  emphasize that Dehkhoda challenged “the three pillars of Shi’ism”:  The concepts of  Khatamiyat, Shafa’at and Mahdaviyat.  He questioned the view that the word of the prophet Mohammad was the last word.  He rejected the idea that the masses needed the clergy as an intermediary  to relate to God.  He also rejected the idea that a 12th Imam or Mahdi or Messiah would come and save humanity.

Sur-e Esrafil  had a great deal of sympathy for Iran’s religious minorities,  Jews and Christians.  The newspaper had to be more careful in addressing the persecution of Babis or Baha’is,  and rarely mentioned them,  because the editors had been repeatedly accused of  being “apostates.”   Before the royalist coup which ordered the execution of the newspaper’s  founder and managing editor, Mirza Jahangir Khan, the lives of the editors had been threatened on several occasions.

Dehkhoda’s columns are  inspirational because his  “various references to the recognized religious minorities of Iran were always full of compassion as he insisted on legal equality for non-Muslims.”  (p. 64)   The entirety of Charand-o Parand does not contain any anti-semitic  or anti-Christian or anti-Bahai lines.   He was also respectful of Iran’s national minorities and praised those who fought and died to defend the Constitutional Revolution.

What truly stands out is his deep sympathy for the plight of Iranian working-class women, and his anger at the suffering which they endured at the hands of their husbands, fathers, the clergy and the state.   He strongly believed in women’s right to an education that would free them from religious superstition.

In 1907-1909,  Dehkhoda was a revolutionary who simultaneously opposed the monarchy, the clergy,  the imperialist powers and the capitalist system which they represented.  He defended the rights of women and oppressed minorities and advocated free thought based on rationalism.

Unlike those  Iranian socialists who in 1979 supported Ayatollah Khomeini as an “anti-imperialist,”  Dehkhoda challenged both foreign imperialist powers and the internal contradictions and injustices of Iranian society.

Today, one hundred years after the Constitutional Revolution,  the Islamic Republic  is facing nationwide popular protests which demand its overthrow.   Iran might be on the verge of another revolution.   Although much has changed since the time when Dehkhoda was writing the Charand-o Parand columns,   his effort to address the internal contradictions of Iranian society through a dialogue with the masses,  can be an inspiration for a new generation of revolutionaries.

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