Religious discourse in Persian literature

The development of Iranian journalism brought about a change in Persian literary communication. Journalists expressed themselves in novel forms. Literary themes of the past were insufficient for contemporary concerns. Modernists sought to ‘replace flowery language, irrelevant fantasy, and crude humour with noble and useful themes’.116

Since Reza Khan was aware of the importance of religion and the immense social importance of the Shi‘i clerics, during his premiership he undertook many efforts to demonstrate his affinity to Shi‘i Islam and the Iranian people. He organized official religious congregations and personally led various processions in the annual mourning for the martyrs of Karbala. The religious establishment sent him gifts, which were publicly and ceremoniously delivered to him. The clerics did not oppose his bid to become Shah and establish his own dynasty.117

Soon after rising to power he broke with many members of the political elite and modern intelligentsia. The national policy of Reza Shah to unify Iran began with the suppression of separatist movements and revolts in the provinces. His moves against the Bakhtiyari and the other tribes did not consist of a frontal attack but a series of military, economic and administrative manoeuvres extended over a period of time. The clerics who were involved in the protests were arrested or exiled.

The assassination of the American diplomat and photographer Major Robert W. Imbrie during a religious ceremony in 1924 led to the beginning of a strong censorship of the press. This forced political opposition to confine their communication, as prohibitions and restrictions increasingly limited traditional practices and the popular religious entertainments in particular. The press had a tendency to report only results or final outcomes without ever detailing or commenting on the background of an incident, its accompanying circumstances and its significance. The short report about the Mashhad riot in the Gowharshad Mosque in 1935 by the newspaper Ettela‘at, for instance, which was described as an expression of resistance by a group of clerics who avoided the new European headgear,118 demonstrated the rigorous state control of the flow of information and the absence of an intact traditional communication network between the clerics of Mashhad and the Iranian people.119 The riot at the anniversary of the destruction of the Shrine by Russian troops ended with violence. It seems that contemporaries who did not take part in this event had no further information than that of the newspaper.120

Social relations changed in particular during the Reza Shah period: women appeared in public, a growing number of state-educated urban people had access to different kinds of public communication forms, whereas traditional communication modes preferred by Shi‘i clerics still existed, but were of decreasing importance. Most of them confined themselves to their quietist and apolitical traditional role. Many intellectual writers left the political arena and addressed new fields of interest. Traditional performances like ta‘ziyeh were forbidden as they were thought to cause trouble. Arguing with Bell, ritual performances constitute a set of activities that construct particular types of meaning and values in specific ways that imply dynamics beyond official state control because they construct relationships of (religious) authority and submission and are therefore a central arena for cultural mediation between e.g. meaning and needs of the masses.121 The cultural policy of Reza Shah, in contrast, was not only defined by western values, it also addressed only the elite. Modern theatre performances, for instance, which were promoted by the Shah, included primarily foreign pieces and were presented in foreign languages. This and the cost of tickets made it available and comprehensible to a minority of the literate urban elite only and not to the common people.

Despite the traditional communication that still existed under Reza Shah’s rule the press played an increasing role in the expression of new ideas referring to the nation-state and modernism as well as to religious aspects. It was not only a medium of entertainment and propaganda for the growing number of literate citizens. It also became a medium for the discourse of scholars, new intellectuals, writers and poets of the time with different social, religious and educational background.

Literature should here be considered as a medium for the formation and transmission of social discourses. Text and discourse interact with each other, which makes historical reality and literature dependent on each other. This also applies to directives of the government. When Kubikova argues that the strict censorship of Reza Shah led to the decline of creative workers, who turned their attention to formal problems connected with their art, it is only one reaction to censorship from a literary studies perspective. Together with a growing literacy and the complete lack of criticism, these developments might have induced intellectuals to focus more strongly on the study of Iranian culture, religion and language, as Ebrahim Pur-e Davud (1885-1969) and Sadeq Hedayat (1903-51) did, or on collecting regional customs, proverbs and languages like Dehkhoda and Hedayat (a collection of proverbs, published in 1931, and an edition of a dictionary, the famous Farhang-e Dehkhoda), or in literary criticism.

The technical superiority and the economic and political interference of the West caused intellectuals and writers to search for a new self-awareness based on a common cultural heritage that united the various religious and ethnic groups and tribes, in contrast to the West and to other Islamic countries, so as to define a common national culture and territorial integrity.122

A significant example of these new developments is the perception and use of pre-Islamic Iranian heritage, which was one of the numerous forms of nationalist sentiments and expression of unsatisfied expectations and violated dreams of many nationalist politicians and writers, such as Mohammad Taqi Bahar (1886-1951), Mohammad Reza Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi, Mirza Ashraf al-Din Gilani, Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946) and Mirza Abu al-Qasem ‘Aref Qazvini (1882-1934).123

Interest in the Iranian pre-Islamic past had already begun in the nineteenth century with the rediscovery of the Persian epic Shah-nameh. It was used as political legitimization of the ruling Qajar elite on the one hand and as a romantic escape from political reality by Persian poets and writers on the other hand. Already during the Constitutional Movement, nationalist reformers like Mirza Fath-‘ali Akhundzadeh (1812-78), Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Mirza ‘Abd al-Rahim Tabrizi (Talebof) rejected Islam, westernism and imperialism. At the same time they glorified Iran’s pre-Islamic past and the Zoroastrian religion, which they thought to be related to national power.124

The period between 1909 and 1921 was a time of political chaos, disillusionment and despair, especially for the new intellectuals who stressed the glorious past of Iran and the positive aspects of Islam, in contrast to the present. The works between 1909 and 1921 were apolitical and artificial, and used legendary subjects. They criticized the public and private morals of their day through popular ideas known from the Shah-nameh.125 A romantic view and a didactic purpose dominated their writings at the expense of historical truth.126 A prominent author in this respect was ‘Abd al-Hoseyn San‘atizadeh (1895-1973), who glorified the Zoroastrian religion as the national religion of Iran and as a symbol for socio-religious action against tyranny and corruption, but his writings were of less literary quality.127

Bahar’s notion of an ideal national constellation for Iran is based on the revival of ancient Iranian splendour, based on the Shah-nameh and the potential of early Islam.128 For Bahar, the Islamic tradition is as important as Iranian nationalism. They do not contradict each other. Like Amiri Farahani’s (1860-1918) interest in ancient Iranian culture he also did not have an antiIslamic flavour.129 Ancestral heroism is important for Bahar, but he does not refer to pre-Islamic religion. Ashraf Gilani’s poems also defended the cause of Islam and glorified the grandeur of ancient Iran. He remained an ardent Muslim, hoping that the emergence of the Hidden Imam would solve all national and social problems. Not only in his faith, but also in his language and literary style, as well as in the selection of daily issues he remained close to Iranian people.130

Persian writers generally portrayed pre-Islamic culture not only in an idealistic manner, but also as a means for criticising the situation after the Constitutional Movement: for instance, when the nationalist and strong supporter of the Constitutional Movement, Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi, who edited the journal Qarn-e bistom, saw that the movement did not meet with success, and that the way for another autocratic monarchy was open, he wrote against it with firm conviction. Finally, he paid with his life for his criticism. In his stage play Rastakhiz-e Shahryaran-e (salatin-e) Iran (The resurrection of the kings of Iran) ‘Eshqi, as a Muslim, did not hesitate to write about non-Islamic religious aspects. He makes Zoroaster a moral instance and messenger to the Iranian people, to enlighten them as to the rich Iranian culture that stands in opposition to the culture of recent days. With the help of the ancient culture ‘Eshqi clarifies the Iranian political situation for the Iranian people and instructs them. The pre-Islamic God and his prophet Zoroaster stand in contrast with the more recent Islam. The references in ‘Eshqi’s writing are still confined to the historical personages and myths of the Shah-nameh.

The very popular tasnifs of ‘Aref Qazvini were also concerned with preIslamic subjects, especially in the last years of his life131 when his poems glorified the Zoroastrian faith as national religion.132 As already mentioned, his communicative methods were very popular. He was an outstanding entertainer, educated as a professional rowzeh-khvan. Browne describes him as “a man of dervish-like disposition” who often sang ‘his poems to the accompaniment of music at public and patriotic meetings.’133 His pan-Islamic persuasion changed to anti-Arab sentiments and extreme nationalism that favoured the ‘pure Zoroastrian Iranians’ and their ancient faith.134 Whereas ‘Eshqi became a great critic of Reza Shah, Qazvini refused to collaborate with him when he wanted the use his tasnifs for propaganda issues.

Other writers, like Ebrahim Pur-e Davud and later Sadeq Hedayat, also used references to ancient Iranian culture in their literary work. Pur-e Davud surrendered to a romantic patriotism like ‘Eshqi, but he was the first who widened and deepened the knowledge of ancient Iranian culture and preIslamic religion through scholarly research in Germany and translations of religious middle Persian texts. In his introduction to the translation of the Gathas (published in 1924), the oldest written source of Zoroastrianism, Pur-e Davud calls it ‘the oldest national tradition’ (qadimtarin asar-e melli) written in the ‘greatest Iranian language’ (zaban-e bozorgtarin-e Irani). His emphasis on the need for the exact words of Zoroaster’s messages reminds us of the Islamic hadith tradition, with which he, as a former student of Islamic studies, was familiar.135 His aim was to serve the Iranian Zoroastrians and to enlighten Iranian Muslims about their cultural heritage for the salvation of Iran. He therefore referred to Zoroastrian messianic figures and embraced the ancestral faith, and posed it against Islam.136

Before Sadeq Hedayat turned to ancient Iranian culture, he analyzed the poems of ‘Omar Khayyam, where he saw his own opinion and that of his contemporaries reflected:

The reader will never doubt that the composer of the quatrains is mocking all religious dependencies, belittling the clergy who carry on about subjects of which they are completely ignorant. The quatrains demonstrate the revolt of the Aryan spirit against the Semitic beliefs, and Khayyam’s retaliation against the debasing and fanatical principles of his people. It is obvious that a meticulous and liberated thinker such as Khayyam could not have blindly adhered to dogmatic, arbitrary, fabricated and irrational injunctions of the clerical institution, and to have had respect for their silly, deceptive stories.137

Further he writes:

Perhaps Khayyam could be put next to other anti-Arab Iranians ... .He certainly employs a mournful tone when recounting the old glories of the ancient courts and magnificent kings. And perhaps Ferdousi’s Shahnameh invokes in him such patriotic passions, for in his poems he endlessly laments the Iranian glory trampled to the ground, and the palaces in which bats and foxes now reside.138

In the 1930s, Hedayat’s most creative years, he not only specialized in folklore and regional and social dialects, he also published collections of popular songs and short stories like Zendeh be gur. In one of these stories, “Atashparast” (The fire-worshipper), Hedayat demonstrates to the Iranian reader how fascinating the experience of the ancient Iranian religion can be for an individual and even for a foreign ‘unbeliever’.

As Gheissari notes:

To reconcile the discrepancy between his constitutionally sanctioned title of monarch and his actual autocratic leadership, Riza Shah distanced himself from the traditional sources of legitimacy, i.e., religion and tribe, and turned instead to a carefully crafted version of nationalism that celebrated Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. This source of legitimacy could be promoted as being older than Islam and broader than any single tribe. By stressing the institution of kingship and the panorama of Iranian history and culture, Riza Shah generated a deluge of nationalistic rhetoric and sentiment. He named the new dynasty Pahlavi, a reference to the ancient language of the pre-Islamic Sassanids. Heroes of the past were honoured; ancient names and symbols were given to many public places and people began to give their children old Persian names. The Iranian academy, Farhangestan, was founded to purify the languages of foreign loanwords. Emphasizing patriotic sentiments was a measure by which the Pahlavi state expected to curb foreign influence and reduce ethnic prejudices and religious obscurantism in the country.139

The efforts of the intellectuals to make the discourse of nation and patriotism part of the thoughts of the common people changed under the dictatorship of Reza Shah. Under his reign the cultivation of the pre-Islamic heritage continued for state propaganda and political legitimization through the new media, mainly the press, or by great public events such as the Ferdowsi festival. The traditional communication modes and the influence of the clerics were confined as far as possible. The literary activities in the early Pahlavi period were limited to western-educated nationalist intellectuals who had a particular interest in ancient Iranian history as a national heritage that distinguishes Iranian culture from the rest of the Muslim world. Religious aspects were discussed in relation to an idealization of the Iranian past. The acquisition of knowledge and the reform of the Persian language superseded questions with Islamic concerns. The religious rhetoric was replaced in favour of nationalistic terms. Even though religious networking and reform evolved since the 1940s, references to Islamic themes in Iranian public communication were still rare until the 1960s and the publication of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s (1923-69) Gharbzadegi. If we find religious subjects in public discourse during the reign of Reza Shah, these were often related to pre-Islamic issues, whereas traditional orthodox Islam was generally avoided as being backward, and Sufi orders adapted to the government policy.

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