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Reviewed by:
  • The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History
  • Rudi Matthee (bio)
The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History, ed. by Touraj Daryaee. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 414 pages. $150.

It is gratifying to see Iranian history included in the Oxford Handbook series, whose seemingly innumerable volumes mostly deal with topics like respiratory medicine, papyrology, Judaism, and economics.

The individual essays, written by well-known scholars in their respective fields, and organized according to dynasty, are generally competent and informative. Yet they mostly emphasize political history and underplay or completely ignore other aspects of life and society on the Iranian plateau. A glaring omission is economic history, which hardly receives any attention (with the exception of three pages in the chapter on the 18th century Afsharids and Zands). The same is true for the history of technology and for material history in general. Iran, especially Islamic Iran, in this volume remains a land where the mind at all times trumps the physicality of life. The chapter on the Safavids outdoes all other contributions in this regard: it is all dreamlike millenarianism, making Iran look a Sufi-inspired dispensation ruled by world-weary shahs.

While less than comprehensive in its coverage of Iranian society, the book also seems skewed in its chronological make-up. More than half of its pages are devoted to the Iran’s pre-Islamic history; the last 500 years, by contrast — the period from the rise of the Safavids until today — receives a mere 100 pages. One wonders about an excursus on the Ottomans in an essay on the Timurids which is otherwise mostly devoted to Sufism and pays no attention to rulers after the death of Timur Lang (Tamerlane) in 1405. Between the Timurids and the Safavids, we have a significant gap in the form of the Aq-qoyunlu and Qara-Qoyunlu dynasties, which are only mentioned in the list of Iranian rulers appended to the book.

More fundamentally, this volume raises the question of what a handbook should try to achieve. It cannot be yet another overall history of Iran, for we have several of those; and they are best written by a single author, not a collective. If it wants to be useful, a handbook should, in the words on the inside flap of the dust jacket of this one, be an “authoritative and state-of-the art survey of current thinking and research on a particular subject.”

According to those criteria, this volume falls short. Most contributors hardly raise the question of current thinking about their subjects, pay no attention to debates or burning questions to be resolved, make no mention of controversies in their fields, and fail to lay out a future research agenda; in sum, they make little attempt to move beyond the descriptive. One exception is the chapter on the Mongols by G. Lane, who points out — and belabors the issue — that in the last 15 years or so, scholars have begun to reevaluate the proverbial brutality of the (early) Mongols, who were more about cooptation than extermination. Even the crucial issue of what Iran constitutes, what Iranian identity is all about, has to wait until Neguin Yavari’s essay on medieval Iran, which discusses this issue in an engaging and reflective, albeit somewhat tautological manner.

A cursory glance at the Oxford Handbook of Early Modern History or the volume on German history in the series shows what an alternative, more reflective approach might have looked like.

There is, finally, little consistency in the bibliographical references. Some chapters come with copious footnotes — with the one on Avestan Society weighing in at 360! — and relatively extensive bibliographies; yet the essay on the Qajars has neither. In the chapters on pre-Islamic Persia, many entries (appropriately) refer to German-language works. All of the secondary sources listed [End Page 145] in the contributions on the Islamic period, by contrast, are in English. Where is Jürgen Paul’s important study on eastern Iran in the pre-Mongol period, Herrscher, Gemeinwesen, Vermittler (1996), in the essay on medieval Iran? Where is Denise Aigle’s edited volume, L’Iran Face à la Domination Mongole (1997) in the chapter on the Mongols? Why...


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