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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 22.1-2 (2002) 119-126

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The Provincial Politics of Heresy and Reform in Qajar Iran:

Shaykh al-Rais in Shiraz, 1895-1902

Abu al-Hasan Mirza, known as Shaykh al-Rais (1848-1920), has been called the poet laureate of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911). A prince, a cleric, a poet, and a heretic, he played an important role in agitating for a constitution and parliament, and he served as speaker of the house briefly once it had been established.1 His activities in Tehran from 1902 have a prologue, however, in his involvement in politics in Shiraz 1895-1902. For the first time, in Shiraz, Shaykh al-Rais managed to acquire and keep as patrons powerful nobles such as Rukn al-Dawlih and Shua al-Saltanih, two Qajar governors to whom he was close. Even his ultimate eviction from the city, which depended on local notables' skillful use of crowd politics and public opinion, offered him key lessons as a budding revolutionary. In Shiraz, his secret commitment to the Bahai religion gradually became common knowledge and ultimately proved fatal to his attempts to remain in the city as part of the political elite. Yet he would have been justified in concluding that when he could garner enough support from elite patrons and other quarters, his enemies among the Shiite clergy could not touch him. Only when his own patron proved weak was he finally expelled.

Shaykh al-Rais was born in Tabriz, where his father was under house arrest for having opposed the ascension to the throne of Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848). His father, Husam al-Saltanih, was a son of Fath Ali Shah but backed the wrong brother as his successor and so was politically undesirable. At length the family was allowed to move to Tehran, where Shaykh al-Rais received his early schooling. He was sent to the military academy, which he found tedious. His father died in 1862. . He convinced his mother to take him with her when she went to live in Mashhad to be near the tomb of the Eighth Imam, where he entered seminary and became a Shiite cleric. His mother is said to have been a secret Babi, and he retained heterodox tendencies, becoming a Bahai in the 1870s under the influence of some secret members of the new religion in the provincial elite of Khurasan.2 In the early 1880s he studied with Mirza Hasan Shirazi in Samarra and became a full mujtahid (jurist). He also blossomed as a poet and prose writer of some distinction.

On his return to Mashhad he came at length into conflict with a new governor appointed by Nasir al-Din Shah and was forced to leave the city. Ultimately he settled in Istanbul briefly before being summoned back to Iran by the shah. In the Ottoman capital he made contact with Sultan Abdulhamid II and offered to cooperate in the latter's project of pan-Islam. His return to Khurasan ended unhappily when he was arrested in September of 1890, apparently for participating in a public protest, and immured at the Qalat-i Nadiri fortress. In 1892 he returned to Istanbul and began work on the pan-Islamic project in concert with Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and others, but had to leave again. He made a pilgrimage to see the Bahai leader Abdul-Baha in Akka, after which he went to Bombay, where he was a guest of the Aqa Khan (the young man, only eleven, was probably hosting him on behalf of his mother, an Iranian princess and granddaughter of Fath Ali Shah, and thus the cousin of Shaykh al-Rais). In late 1894 Shaykh al-Rais left India for Iraq.3 Shaykh al-Rais lived there according to Fadil Mazandarani "for a year," though in actuality his stay there was much shorter.4 At that point he...


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