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  • Iran between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism: The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 by Vanessa Martin
  • Nader Sohrabi
Iran between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism: The Constitutional Revolution of 1906, by Vanessa Martin. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 288 pages. $90.

Iran between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism joins the sophisticated recent studies of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and explores an entirely new aspect of this event. Conceived as a comparative study of four provincial cities, it seeks to break from the Tehran-centered or at best the Tehran-Tabriz myopia of other studies, and to broaden the outlook beyond the loudest locations.

Vanessa Martin’s first study of the constitutional movement in Iran had identified the conflict between the secular, man-made law and shari‘a as the central contradiction of this revolution, and the struggle between their advocates its driving force. She now follows the fate of this contradiction into the provinces. Here she finds that in contrast to Tehran, where the conflict between the advocates of popular will and divine law was intense, the regions beyond the capital were more accommodating toward religion. In her view, neither the public nor the clerics were interested in, or even cognizant of the theoretical contradiction of the two conceptions of the law, but acted in a conciliatory fashion. Iranian publics, the readers are reminded throughout the book, were deeply religious, content with shari‘a and sought in the Iranian Majlis a means to revive both religion and Iran as a modern sovereign entity (hence Islamic Nationalism in the title of the book). In Martin’s assessment, Hajj Mohammad Hoseyn Mirza Na’ini’s work disseminated from ‘Atabat had shown the way out of the seeming contradiction: if all worldly governments were illegitimate according to Shi‘i doctrine, then the conditional, constitutional form of government was a lesser evil preferable to monarchical absolutism. This view, directly or indirectly, Martin holds, prevailed among the Shi‘a clerical establishment in the provinces, and prevented doctrinal clash.

Her study of four regions still includes the boisterous city of Tabriz to highlight the radical pole of the movement in the [End Page 144] provinces. Here, she documents the dominance of city life by the radical popular and later provincial council that carried on class struggle in a religious voice. This was manifested in the sharp division between the ordinary public and their popular preachers who lined up against the more established, landowning higher clerics. The militancy of Tabriz and its stronger secular outlook is attributed to its proximity to Russia and the spillover from the revolution there. Yet, still, Martin reminds us, the secular/religious differences did not escalate to the level of doctrinal clash or translate into irreconcilable differences; a more practical, religious outlook took hold in Tabriz. Bushehr exemplifies the other extreme. More part of the Persian Gulf littoral than the central Iranian plateau, the city’s commerce-oriented public showed at first some enthusiasm for a religiously legitimated constitution. Yet, their tempered excitement soon gave way to apathy when the revolution precipitated disorder that interfered with commerce; at the end, even bombardment of the Majlis was met with indifference. Isfahan and Shiraz constitute the in-between cases, but still with major differences. In Shiraz, where the clashes raged with and within the prominent Qavam family, Martin (echoing the British consular reports) concludes the disputes were of a purely local nature, without connection to the larger disturbances throughout Iran. In Isfahan, the most religious context, the division that developed was between the conservative supportive of Governor Mas‘ud Mirza (known as Zell os-Soltan) clerics and the more populist lower-ranking clerics. Hence, the movement remained under the tight grip of clerics, with a view toward Islamic nationalism and statehood that had influence on subsequent Iranian politics.

Revolutions are messy, multi-actor affairs with multiple voices. Martin skillfully adds to that complexity by contrasting differences in various geographic locations but also brings focus by concentrating on the theme of religion and secularism. Some readers, however, may not be entirely convinced by postulating the clash between religion and secularism was the central narrative of this revolution, especially when the author herself does not find...


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pp. 144-146
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