History & Literature

Imagine Iran; Think About Yourself

There is something very alluring about studying a country such as Iran. Of course, there are aesthetics and high culture in abundance; a national narrative that is imagined and invented with a lot of civilisational stamina. The siren song of Persia chimes with the poetry of Khayyam, Hafez and Rumi and the imagination of imperial grandeur that has animated Iranian nationalists since the ancient empire of Cyrus. Iran tells us a rather romantic, and at times tragic story about ourselves.

Persia staged as an opera would have a strong cast of heroes and villains. Many Iranians would nominate Rostam as the ultimate champion. He is a central character from the epic book of Kings (Shahnameh) written by Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 CE. Others would opt for Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad whose killing at the battle of Karbala in 680 CE sustains Iran’s Shi’a imagery. This idea of Iran was embedded into the national narrative by the Safavids in the 16th century. The cast of villains would be equally competitive: the forces of evil embodied by the Zoroastrian ‘spirit of destruction’, Ahriman or the ‘forces of arrogance’ (mostakbaran) represented by Yazid in the aforementioned killing of Hossein. For many Iranians, the stage for this opera would have to be adorned with props that resemble the architectural splendour of Isfahan, Persepolis, and Shiraz.

Iran, undoubtedly, is a highly prized and competitive subject matter, not least because as an idea, the country has been imagined since antiquity. Nations are not primordial; they do not simply exist beyond inventions of the mind and the pen. An opera about Iran is exactly that – it stages an idea about Iran, in the same way as governments and their interlocutors do. For instance, from the perspective of European Orientalists, Iran was routinely represented as an exotic place, a prized colonial trophy, the epitome of Scheherazade’s dream of 1,001 nights or more recently simply a convenient supplier of oil. There was a reason why Orientalists did not bother with questions of philosophy, theory, and method. Either Iran had to be narrated to imperialists, oil companies, and colonial functionaries or it was an indulgence, an exciting theme park to be desired. There was no room for philosophy or critical analysis in this constellation. What we may call ‘traditional’ Iranian studies suffered from comparable theoretical amnesia. Iran was narrowed down to philological platitudes, cultural simplifications or geopolitical descriptions: Persian as an Indo-European language, Iranians as semi-Aryan racial brethren, Iran as a nodal point for Western imperialism. But what Iran ‘is’ is entirely dependent on who speaks for it. For many Iranians today, Iran is all about Shi’a Islam. For many others, the true Iranian spirit can only be found in the archives of the country’s pre-Islamic history. Traditional Iranian studies does not address the question of authorship, which is central to such battles over ‘identity.’ Rather, it contributes to contracting the meaning of Iran. There are dozens of histories of Iran out there, but only a handful address how and by whom those histories were written. History is always also for someone. The passion play of Hossein serves a Shi’a identity that entered Iran (then a majority Sunni country) through the Turkic, Safavid dynasty. Ferdowsi was dependent on the whims of Iran’s Ghaznavid rulers and the patrimony of the court and its under-belly.

The point is that identities are invented in accordance with context, and they change their meanings almost immediately after their invention. Traditional Iranian studies does not challenge such issues. Yet demystifying ‘origins’ is essential to understanding and explaining a country whose historical imagination spans several millennia of human history. Without such deconstruction, we end up in an unscholarly battle over identity, which confuses the audience: the opera of Rostam is staged in one room and the passion play of Hossein in the other. Yet, it is the task of ‘critical Iranian studies’ to interrogate the directors and producers of both plays in order to find out how the two stages could be merged into one. This would be as giant a production as the ancient idea of the meaning of Iran merits. And ultimately, this colossal performance would be closer to appreciating the complex historiography of the country: Iran as an open parenthesis, Iran as a global idea, Iran in the middle of the crossroads of identities; a central focal point in a common human experience. In sum, it will go beyond the tired ‘nationalism vs. religion’ dichotomy of the older generation and view Iran as a global idea that cannot be confined to confessional or nationalistic narratives. Our increasingly influential MA in Iranian Studies embraces this multidisciplinary approach that is characteristic of the SOAS brand in the social sciences. The 13th-century mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi understood the perils of self-confining identities. In many ways, he was the Michel Foucault of his age: ‘What can I do, Muslims?’ he asked audaciously. ‘I do not know myself. I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Magian nor Muslim; I am not from East or West. My place is placeless my trace is traceless.’ Rumi returned from where the guardians of identity are heading. He exorcised the myth of origins and primordial existence from his mind. For many nations (and individuals) this is a perilous task. It is literally unsettling. But once we pull the self (national or individual) together and start the process of picking up the pieces, they will appear clearer to us; we will be able to analyse and comprehend them more easily and reconfigure them within a wider frame than before. And so it is that we can attain a multicultural consciousness without committing any pagan betrayal of our own mosaic composition. At that stage of our intellectual journey, we are not only closer to the truth – we appear truly liberated. And isn’t this what poetry, art, and philosophy should be about?

About the author

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London and Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the London Middle East Institute. Educated at the Universities of Hamburg, American (Washington DC) and Cambridge, where he received his MPhil and PhD as a multiple scholarship student, he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow in International Relations and Peace Studies at St. Edmund Hall and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. At Cambridge University, he was elected Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge European Trust Society which was based at Trinity College under the auspices of His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh. His maternal family descends from Karim Khan-e Zand, the dynastic King of Iran who reunified Persia in the 18th century. His most recent work “Psychonationalism: Global Thought, Iranian imagination” will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

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