is Professor of History at the University of Delaware. He has published recently “ The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Simultant in Iranian History, 1500-1900”.
Our interview with Dr.Matthee is based on his book 1 and articles that he, kindly, made available for Washington Prism
.Interview was published in Farsi in WashingtonPrism.
You wrote in an article 2 that conspiracy theory, a very popular theory in Iran which speculates that foreigners are manipulating the country’s affairs, is a 20th century theory, and it did not exist in the 19th century in Iran. What were the reasons which gave rise to this theory in the early 20th century in Iran?
First of all, I think it is true that there was no such a theory until the late 19th or early 20th century, but I will say that the context of Iranian history and its social ambiance was a fertile breeding ground for such a theory. Iranians were suspicious about foreigners coming to Iran. If these foreigners claimed that they had come for curiosity or to learn about Iranian culture, Iranians would not have believed them. Rather, Iranian were convinced that such foreigners had hidden motives.
Another important element is the realisation that, Iranian culture is complex; it's actually built on ambiguity but it also has a tendency to see the world in stark dichotomies, everything is either black or white. In the pre-Islamic period, there was good and bad, but with Shi’ism it became Yasid/Imam Hussein, and then, in the contemporary period, the Shah/ Khomeini. But an influential event happened in the early 20th century: a secret accord was reached, an Anglo-Iranian agreement that would have given the British control over Iran. The agreement, of course, was suspended after the Majlis refused to ratify it when various forces mounted enormous opposition to it. In the early 20th century, Iranian students came back from Europe, especially Berlin, greatly influenced by anti-Britain propaganda in Germany. After World War I, Germany was present in Iran and spread anti-British propaganda there, too. I explained that these are some of the elements that explain the emergence of a conspiracy theory, but in order to understand more of the reasons, more research must be done. Ahmad Ashraf has done great work on this issue, and he also believes that a conspiracy theory is a 20th century creation.
During the Safavid dynasty, there were clerics who declared, during the absence of the Hidden imam, that they must guide the Moslem community, rather than the Shah. Can we say that Khomeini’s theocracy (Velayate Fagihe) has its roots in this idea?
The answer is both yes and no. There were clerics who said that Iran was a Shi’te country but that the Shah drank and his behaviour was not Islamic. For them, he could not be a good shepherd for a Moslem community. A few clerics wanted to be consulted more by the Shah regarding the country’s affairs. But the Shah’s authority was never questioned. At the end of the day, the Shah was there to lead country and Ulama Moslem’s spiritual life. I think Khomeini’s idea is a new one.
During the Qajar period, we saw clerics mobilize against tobacco consumption but never against opium. What are the reasons for this?
For the answer, we should look back before Qajar’s period. Opium was deeply integrated into Iranian social and daily life. People consumed opium each morning in order to be in a good mood to go to work. There was no mention of either opium or tobacco in the Koran or Hadith. Opium functioned in Iranian society the way that wine does in French society. Many French travellers noticed this, and observed that Iranians didn’t exaggerate their opium consumption. In the Qajar period, the Shah allowed an English company to have a monopoly on the production and distribution of tobacco. Suddenly, tobacco, which was a very important thing to people, was controlled by foreigners, unbelievers, and it came to be considered impure. Of course, the economic side of this affair was important, too.
During the Safavid period, wine was drunk by the elite, while the masses consumed opium. In the Qajar period, can we consider that, for some Iranians, wine consumption became a sign that they were accepting modernity and rejecting tradition? In other words, did wine take on a cultural value?
I believe that it did. In the Safavid period, wine was consumed by the elite, and the masses drank water, Doogh. During the Qajar period, the upper middle class started to drink wine and other alcohol. There are other groups, such as the Sufis, which existed centuries before the Qajar, but during that period they were much more prevalent. They were drinking wine to defy traditional clerics, and their ideas are well present in Iranian poems such as Hafez writings.
At the beginning of the Safavaid, clerics were greatly subordinate to the Shahs. Even they justified Shah Ismail’s drinking. At the end of the Safavid’s dynasty clerics became a far more influential force in the country. How can we explain this evolution?
It had to do with the evolution of the state and politics. The Safavid was tribal and semi-tribal at the beginning, with unIslamic behaviour such as heavy drinking. Then the Safavaid shahs came to power and become urbanised. Their main revenue came from agriculture and trade. They started to marginalise the tribal forces, like the Qizelbash. Moreover, they became dependent on clerics, and on Persian speakers who were bureaucrats and who knew how to run the country, as they sought a new legitimacy. The Ulama played an important role by teaching people about Shi’isme and legitimate dynasty.