- The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran
Homa Katouzian’s The Persians is a comprehensive, analytic, critical, interpretive, and dense account that combines the cultural and literary history of Persians with their political history. It begins with legendary history according to the Shahnameh. [End Page 484] The earlier chapters summarize the premodern history of Iran and contain select bibliographies. Footnotes start with chapter seven on reform and modernization under Naser al-Din Shah. Fully one-half of this book is about Iran in the 20th century. For the modern period, Katouzian provides the details of political intrigue and maneuvering up to mid-2009. He makes effective use of documents, memoirs, letters, speeches, and even the Internet to record the range of views and differences of opinion among Iranians with regard to most issues. There is a good account of the tug-of-war among conservative, reformist, and radical Islamist factions during the most recent two decades of the Islamic Republic.
As useful as this information is, the real importance of this book lies in Katouzian’s arguments about the nature of Iranian society and its history. There is no long-term continuity in Iranian history but rather a series of consecutive short-term successes. This is partly due to insecurity but mostly due to the lack of independent, continuous, long-standing classes and institutions in Persian history (p. 9). Iranian society is both short-term and arbitrary. For Katouzian, the “state” is an actor, and the arbitrary nature of power leads to confrontations between the state and society (for the pre-modern period one might prefer to speak of confrontations between rulers and subjects). What binds Iranian history together from beginning to end is the repeating pattern of arbitrary rule (estabdad) alternating with chaos (harj-o-marj). This is a view that represents Iranian history as homeostatic and abounds with teleology.
Katouzian makes a point of distinguishing arbitrary from absolutist government, the latter having some kind of legitimizing theory, while the former is only given ad hoc legitimacy by success and by rendering justice. Justice has been associated with Iranian monarchy since at least the time of Cyrus and Darius, but for Katouzian, in an Iranian context, the “just ruler” is an arbitrary ruler who, nevertheless, provides stability, peace, prosperity, and security, and does not allow his officials to act unjustly by exceeding the power and authority he gave them. This list should have included equity and the appointment of fair and efficient subordinates.
There are some odd mistakes and inaccuracies. The use of “orthodox” is inappropriate in an Islamic context. “Muluk al- Tawa’if” is translated as “Kings of Tribes” (p. 42), when “kings of the factions” would be more accurate. A couple of the maps are inaccurate as well. The map of the Parthian Empire (p. 45) includes eastern Arabia while the map of the Sasanian Empire (p. 46) does not. It was the other way around. Dinars are called silver coins, and drachmas (dirhams) are called gold coins (p. 103); that was the other way around, too. Barack Obama’s election as US President is given as November, 2009 (p. 391), not November, 2008.
Katouzian’s explanations of the nature of Iranian history are likely to prove controversial. It is questionable how useful the arbitrary exercise of power and the alternation of order and chaos are as explanations or how unique these are to Iran (e.g. Iraq under and after Saddam Husayn).