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  • Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran by Afshin Marashi
  • Rudi Matthee
Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran, by Afshin Marashi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. 328 pages. $55.

This well-written, clearly argued study examines the formation of Iranian nationalism from an unusual angle: rather than looking for Western origins or influence, it assesses the debt modern Iranian identity owes to the Parsis of Bombay (now Mumbai), descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians who migrated to India following the seventh century onslaught of Islamic forces. By the turn of the 20th century, a world separated this well-educated and successful exile community from the Zoroastrians who had never left their country, a bedraggled people relatively ignorant of their own traditions who were obliged to wear garments of a dull yellow until the late 1920s as a token of their ritual impurity.1 By reconnecting with their lost coreligionists, Iran's Zoroastrians rediscovered their classical past or at least an interpretation of their classical past.

Afshin Marashi casts this encounter and the contribution it made to Iranian nationalism's pre-Islamic orientation as a dialogue. A dialogue it was, but not necessarily one just within the Persianate cultural sphere, between two Eastern peoples, as the author portrays it. The Parsis of 19th and early 20th century India, after all, had deeply drunk from the British well. The dialogue thus was mediated by colonial modernity—the new interpretation of the faith arrived in Iran via a British-Indian detour deeply imbued with Victorian and Edwardian notions and with unmistakably paternalistic overtones on the part of those who took it upon themselves to reacquaint their lost Iranian brethren with their "true" faith and its traditions.

Five key participants in the dialogue are profiled here in as many chapters. The first, Arbab Keykhosrow Shahrokh (1864–1939), was a poor boy from Kerman who went to Bombay around 1890 to pursue an education among the local Parsis. Upon his return he became the founding father of modern Zoroastrianism as a call to community and civic participation. He served as a parliamentarian and was also instrumental in the creation of the Parliamentary Library of Iran and its press. From this position of influence, [End Page 166] Shahrokh promoted a new, modernist understanding of the faith as a monotheistic and progressive movement. He helped design the burial moment for the 10th/11th century poet Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi in Tus, had a hand in Iran's switch to the solar calendar in 1925, and contributed to the sanitization of Zoroastrian burial rituals, presenting the changes as a return to origins.

Dinshah J. Irani (1881–1938) was another avatar in the reformulation of Zoroastrianism along liberal modernist lines. Born in Bombay and educated at the city's Elphinstone College (now part of Dr. Homi Bhabha State University), he became the president of the local Iranian Zoroastrian Society, a romantic movement that, pending its envisioned return to Iran, engaged in charitable support for a community it thought needed its social and cultural status raised to modern levels. Like Shahrokh, he couched his modernist agenda as a call to return to the pre-Islamic past. The inevitable result was ambivalence and ambiguity: on the one hand Irani, like Shahrokh, stood for democratic pluralism as represented by the Iranian Constitutional Movement of 1905–11; on the other hand, his glorification of the primordial nation built not on a common faith but on shared ethnicity or race opened the door to the protofascist ideology that stalked the world in the 1930s.

Views based more on feeling than facts were also espoused by the Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, the world's first non-European Nobel laureate, who visited Iran in 1932 on a month-long trip sponsored by the Parsis of Bombay. His tour of the country, culminating in a visit to the shrines of the respective 13th and 14th century poets Sa'di and Hafez in Shiraz, was a triumph. Subscribing to the notion that Western nationalism, self-interested and cold-hearted, stood in sharp contrast to Eastern identity, warm and spirited, Tagore...


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