The Forgotten History of Iranian Nationalism

An interview with Professor Afshin Marashi*

by Mahtab Divsalar 27 June 2020

The origin of Iranian nationalism remains a matter of debate. Many argue that it starts with Cyrus the Great in 500 BC, but alternative views give weight to the Pahlavi Dynasty in the twentieth century. The Concept of “Iranianness” most likely has roots across several historical eras. One of the most notable periods in this discussion dates back to the time of the Mughal Empire in India and the court of Akbar Shah (1542–1605). During his 49-year reign, Akbar Shah brought Persian cultural influence to its zenith in India. He sponsored the translations of numerous texts into Persian, which continued after his demise.

Later, in the nineteenth century, the Parsis community created another turning point in Iranian nationalism when they reconnected to the homeland of Iran. Parsis, a Zoroastrian ethnoreligious group had fled Iran in the seventh century and after the Muslim conquest of Persia to avoid religious persecution, they migrated and found refuge in the Indian sub-continent. Over centuries Parsis increased their influence in their adopted home and became a wealthy community in India. The relationship between the Parsis in India and Iranians in Iran and their influences on modern Iran are less known to the Iranian general public.

Afshin Marashi, Iranian scholar whose research focus is Iranian nationalism and the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Iranian nationalism, has recently published a book titled “Exile and the Nation: The Parsis Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran.” This book explores the Zoroastrian diaspora living in India and its role in using antiquity to bolster twentieth-century Iranian nationalism.

As Marashi says, the discovery of their attachment to Iran, and a desire to reconnect and possibly return to their ancient homeland only took shape for the Parsis in the 19th and early 20th century. The Parsis showed Iranians that it was possible to be both modern and culturally connected to the homeland.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Iranians who have left Iran after the revolution of 1979 are in many ways similar to the Parsis of fourteen centuries ago:

“Just as the Parsis left Iran after a major cultural and political turning point in Iran’s history, so too today we have Iranians who have left Iran and are now living in major cities across the world. Unlike during the medieval period, Iranian exiles no longer move to Bombay, but we live in Los Angeles, London, Toronto, Tel Aviv, and maybe Amsterdam. By learning the history of the Parsis, I think it helps us to learn about our own experience as expatriate Iranians today,” Marashi said.

Read Zamaneh Media’s full interview with Afshin Marashi on Iranian Nationalism:

ZamanehYour research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Iranian nationalism. In your opinion, when did the idea of modern Iranian political nationalism begin? Would you say that it started during the Akbar Shah court (the Gurkani Mughal Empire in India)?

Afshin Marashi

Afshin Marashi — The question of the origins of Iranian nationalism is an important one. However, I would hesitate to locate a specific time or location for its beginning. This is one of the habits in our thinking as Iranians, we assume that Iranian nationalism and Iranian identity is a singular, unified, and unchanging thing that can be clearly defined and which has a clear beginning and a coherent evolution. I have a different approach. Iranian identity has many different elements and has taken many different forms over many centuries. Some might look to ancient Iran and Cyrus the Great, others to Ferdowsi, others might point to the Safavid state, or the role of Qajar intellectuals and the influence of European ideas about history and race, still others might look to the 20th century and Reza Shah’s efforts to build a unified Iranian state. All of these are elements that we can point too, but I think it’s incorrect to say they are all part of a single process. You mentioned Akbar Shah and the Mughal era in India. Yes, in Mughal India there was a very important period of cultural development for the Persian language and literature. Akbar was a very enlightened monarch who encouraged a great deal of cultural experimentation. One of the cultural elements that he encouraged was a mixture of cultural and religious ideas that included Zoroastrianism. This was one among many different expressions of Iran’s cultural history, but I don’t think we can point to any one source, origin, or location.

In the mid 16th century, there was Akbar Shah in the east (on the Indian sub-continent) while in the west (in Iran), there was the Safavid Dynasty under Shah Tahmasb and Ismail II. On the west of the Safavid borders, the Iranian Shia was rising, and on the east, we witnessed the Iranian Archaism. How different are these two approaches related to the presence of the Parsis?

– The Safavid dynasty and the Mughal dynasty have a great deal in common with each other. The same is true for the Ottoman dynasty. Today, another of our habits is to think of these three empires as being an early stage of what becomes the three different nation-states of “Iran,” “India,” and “Turkey,” but this is largely an error. It shows how we often use current definitions of politics to think about the past. In the 16th-19th centuries all three of these empires had many things in common. All three empires also derived from Turkic nomads descended from Changiz Khan. Historians of call these empires “Persianate” societies, which means that in addition to their Turkic background they combined elements of the Persian language and literature with other ingredients relating to religion and government to produce a common synthesis. So they had more in common with each other than there are differences. The Safavids clearly emphasized Shi’ism, but they were also great patrons of the Shahnameh. The Ottomans had a Sunni elite, but knowledge of the Persian literary tradition was a prerequisite for government employment. The same was true in Mughal India where Persian literature flourished. We often forget that until just two centuries ago more people in India used Persian as a literary language than anywhere else, including in Iran. The role of the Parsis in the 16th-18th century is difficult to judge. They were a very small minority community in India, and they were very well integrated into the multiculturalism of Mughal society. They had an awareness of having come to India from Iran, but India had become their home. It’s true that there were small Zoroastrian communities in India that began to experiment with new ideas relating to ancient Iran during the Mughal period in India, such as the sect of Azar Kayvan. For the most part, however, the Parsi discovery of their attachment to Iran, and a desire to reconnect and possibly return to their ancient homeland only took shape in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What happened in the 20th century that led to the connection between the Iranian of Iran and the Parsis of India? What circumstances led to bolstering twentieth-century Iranian nationalism?

– This is a very good question. If we want to understand the renewed connection between the Parsis and Iranians, we have to look at important changes that took place in the last 150 years. There are several important developments during this period. First, the idea of a nation-state defined by a territorial homeland became more universal during this period. To have a modern identity came to mean having a unified, singular, and “pure” culture that is associated with a clearly defined territory. This is not an idea that has always existed. It is only an idea that became common during the last two centuries. As Parsis adopted this idea, they began to see Iran as the original homeland of the Zoroastrian religion, and the association between Zoroastrianism and the land of Iran became more important for how they understood their identity. India increasingly became seen by many Parsis as a place of exile and diaspora, and Iran was their true homeland. Second, it is during the 19th and 20th centuries that the technology of travel in the Indian Ocean enabled people to travel between societies much more easily. Steam-ships allowed Parsis to travel to Iran, and many Iranians, both Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian, began traveling to India. This ability to travel allowed for new cultural exchanges that had an important effect on how Parsis and Iranians saw each other. Third, the Parsi community also became very wealthy by the 19th and 20th centuries. They had benefited from the British empire in India and had become great merchants and industrialists in the global economy. This meant that they had great wealth to distribute for philanthropy. By the mid-19th century, the Parsi community in India began reaching out to the remaining Zoroastrian communities in Iran and helped them to build schools, hospitals, and orphanages in Kerman and Yazd, where the few remaining Iranian Zoroastrians lived. This philanthropy also helped to build bonds of connection between the Parsis and Iran. This is a history that only goes back to the middle of the Qajar era. It is from this era that the contact between Parsis and Iranians becomes important. Finally, the movement for India’s independence from Britain made many Parsis nervous. The Parsis had prospered during the period of the British empire in India, and it was unclear if they would continue to prosper post-independence. This political context led some Parsis to consider finding a new home, and a return to Iran was one of the possibilities that they considered. All of these factors worked to increase the contact between Parsis and Iranian during the first few decades of the 20th century.

What was the role of the Parsis in the building (founding) of Modern Iran?

– The Parsis played a number of very important roles in building modern Iran. Perhaps their most important role was to serve as a reminder to 20th century Iranians of what Iran’s ancient heritage looked like. Of course, the Parsis had changed dramatically in India after being there for over one thousand years. However, when Iranians came to learn about and interact with the Parsis of India, Iranians came to see the Parsis as a living connection to ancient Iran. What made this encounter even more meaningful was that the Parsis had become very prosperous, educated, and modernized in India. The Parsi community in Bombay had a wealthy and educated elite, and a prosperous and thriving middle class. For Iranians who were trying to find a way to reform Iran, and to make Iran more progressive, prosperous, and modernized during the early 20th century, seeing the great prosperity of the Parsis in India made some Iranians see the Parsis as an attractive model to emulate. Additionally, for many Iranians, reviving the culture of Zoroastrianism was seen as a way of modernizing Iranian culture while also retaining, or returning to, and original national identity. The Parsis showed Iranians that it was possible to be both modern and culturally authentic.

In 2012 you traveled to India. How did you find the sate of “nationalism” and “national identity” among the 21st century Parsis of India?

– I did travel to India in 2012/13 to attend a conference and to visit some libraries there. I also had the opportunity to spend some time with members of the Parsi community. I think in the 21st century the cultural and political context has once again changed for the Parsis. While Parsis still look to Iran with some fondness, and as their place of origin, they are today much more globalized than they ever were. Today Parsis live in many major cities throughout the world, as well as in Bombay and western India. Parsis are very comfortable in the globalized world, and are not longing to return to their ancient homeland. The politics of contemporary Iran is of course also very different today. During the Pahlavi period, the culture of Iranian nationalism had strong connections with the culture of Zoroastrianism and the Parsis were encouraged to reconnect and return to Iran. Both Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah actively encouraged Parsis to return to Iran to invest and help Iran’s economic development. Many came to visit, but ultimately very few returned permanently. Since 1979, Parsis have become even more cosmopolitan and globalized, and the current government of Iran has a mixed record of promoting relations with the Parsis. India and the great cosmopolitan cities of the world are the places that Parsis today call home, not the Islamic Republic.

One kind of nationalism in Iran is a reaction to the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, many of the nationalistic concepts, including the new concept of “nation” or “Mellat,” has been borrowed from the Turks. It appears like Iranians looked more to the “West” and “North,” but you emphasize the importance of the “East” and the events on the Indian sub-continent. Which one is the central view? Are these two views different? Or do they complement each other?

– One of the reasons why I’m emphasizing the connection with India is because we have become accustomed to thinking that Iran’s culture of modernization during the last two centuries has only had a European origin. It’s true that the Ottoman Empire, and a city like Istanbul, played an important role in Iran’s modern history, in the same way that London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg have. We Iranians place too much emphasize on the exclusive role of these European or Western locations for tracing the origins of Iran’s modern culture. What I’ve tried to do with this new book is to demonstrate that Iran’s modern history was also interconnected with many other sources of influence as well, and that India and the cultures of the Indian Ocean world also played an important role in shaping Iranian modernity and nationalism. The Parsi community in Bombay, in particular, is one of the forgotten histories that explains the development of modern Iran.

Let’s go back to the 20th century, which is the subject of your research. Where is the arsenal of discourse and dialogue around nationalism located? How did the cultural nationalism of elites find its political weight?

– Modern Iranian nationalism began to develop during the Qajar period. Already during that era, there were Iranian elites who had access to European sources of knowledge, especially as it related to history and anthropology. These ideas came to shape the ideological outlook of many elite Iranians during the nineteenth century and the constitutional revolution. The Parsi role was also important during this era. The Parsis of Bombay sent an official emissary, Manakji Limji Hataria, to Iran in the 1850s. Part of Manakji’s job was to promote the well-being of the Zoroastrian communities of Iran. He built schools, hospitals, and orphanages with money sent from Parsis in Bombay. Manakji lived in Iran for almost 40 years and was very close to many political and intellectual elites of the Qajar era. In addition to his charity work among Iranian Zoroastrians, Manakji also encouraged many Iranian elites to learn about their ancient history. Manakji’s successor as an emissary from the Parsis, Ardeshir Reporter, also lived in Iran for almost 40 years, and he also was very involved in promoting the idea of ancient Iran and the Zoroastrian heritage among Iranian intellectuals and political elites. The two Parsis who lived in Iran are very important because prior to the work of Manakji and Ardeshir, many Iranians knew little about Iran’s ancient history, and many had prejudiced misconceptions of Zoroastrianism. These two figures played a very important role in shaping the discourse and the way of thinking about ancient Iran among the political and intellectual elites of the time.

When and where does this discourse show itself in the partisan politics of political parties? When did it enter Iranian public society?

– The idea of ancient Iran and the Zoroastrian heritage increasingly gained public attention by the Reza Shah period. Certainly the government of Reza Shah was eager to encourage Iranians to learn about their ancient history. But this never took the form of a political organization or party. This is the opposite of what took place in neighboring Turkey, where a political party, the Republican People’s Party, led the process of nationalization under Ataturk’s leadership. In the case of Iran, the institution of nation-building was the monarchy itself rather than a political party. One way that his was carried out in Iran was through the publication of books about Iran’s ancient history. Some of these books were published by the Iranian government, and taught in schools, for example Hasan Pirniya’s Tarikh-e Iran-e Bastan was the basis of a school textbook. Many other books were published by the Parsi community in India and exported to Iran. Inside Iran, literacy rates were growing by the Reza Shah period, because of the expansion of public schools, especially in the larger cities. As literacy rates increased, more books were produced, and books about ancient Iran that were written, sponsored, or exported to Iran by Parsis in Bombay became more and more influential. The most important example of this, is the translation of the Gathas by Ibrahim Purdavud in 1927. The Gathas had been previously unavailable to Iranians, because they were written in a language, Avestan, that ordinary Iranians could not read. It was the Parsis that sponsored Ibrahim Purdavud’s project of translating the Gathas into Persian and making the Zoroastrian holy book available for Iranians to read for the first time. Purdavud’s Presian translation of the Gatha was published by the Parsis in Bombay, and exported to Iran. The translation became very influential in reviving awareness of Zoroastrianism among Iranians. This is just one example, but there are many other examples of the popularization of Iran’s Zoroastrian heritage through increasingly available popular books, many of which were sponsored by the Parsis.

In your recent book “Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran,” you note that the legacies of twentieth-century nationalism can be found today in new global metropolises such as Los Angeles, London, Toronto, and Tel Aviv. Do you really think that the discourse is being made in these cities? What is the specification of these discourses?

– One of the interesting things to learn from the history of the Parsis, is that the Iranians who have left Iran after the revolution of 1979 are in many ways like the Parsis of 14 centuries ago. Just as the Parsis left Iran after a major cultural and political turning point in Iran’s history, so too today we have Iranians who have left Iran and are now living in major cities in the world. Unlike the medieval period, we Iranian exiles do not live in Bombay, but we live in Los Angeles, London, Toronto, Tel Aviv, and maybe Amsterdam. By learning the history of the Parsis, I think it helps us to learn about our own experience as expatriate Iranians today. One thing that I think it teaches us is that Iranian culture among the Iranian communities outside of Iran has continued to change. When the Parsis left Iran in the medieval period, they kept an awareness of their connection to Iran, but they also continued to evolve and become part of the cultures and societies where they were living. The Parsis, for example, became remarkably prosperous in India, and have become very much a part of Indian society. The same is true for Iranian communities that today live the major cities of Europe, North America, and elsewhere. We have a cultural heritage that connects us to Iran, through family, history, language, literature, art, film, food, and cultural festivals. In all of the cities in the world where Iranian exiles live, these expressions of Iranian identity are very much alive. At the same time, however, our identities as expatriate Iranians are also shaped as much, and perhaps more, by the places where we now live. I don’t think that makes us less Iranian, but it changes how we identify as Iranians. For fourteen centuries the Parsis have demonstrated to us how to live as Iranians outside of our place of origin. They were able to preserve a sense of their Iranianness, while also assimilating into the culture of India. I think we Iranians of today can learn a great deal from that.

How do you compare the nationalism inside and outside of Iran? Do you think Islamism and nationalism are confronting each other? Or do you think that “Islamism” in the style of the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini is some kind of transformed nationalism? Do you see any similarities between the two?

– I think the Islamic Republic is making many of the same mistakes that the Pahlavi dynasty made. The revolution of 1979 was in many ways a cultural conflict about Iranian identity, and a rejection of what the Pahlavi dynasty had tried to create during it’s five and half decades of rule. Part of that mistake was to impose a rigid definition of Iranianness. I think the Islamic Republic is making the same mistake today. It is a mistake to think of “Iran” and “Islam” as opposing and opposed forms of identity. In the 21st century, this kind of ideological thinking is no longer relevant. If we want to define Iranian identity today, we must learn from the mistakes of the 20th century, and create a new form of Iranian identity that is open, accepting, pluralistic, inclusive, and welcoming to many different ways of expressing Iranianness. Unfortunately, neither the Pahlavi dynasty nor the Islamic Republic were able to promote that vision of Iranian identity. I’m optimistic that by learning our history we can find a new alternative that will be relevant for this century.


*Afshin Marashi is the Farzaneh Family Chair in Modern Iranian History at the University of Oklahoma, and the founding director of the university’s Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies. He has also served on the editorial board of the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) and on the council of the Association for Iranian Studies (AIS). Dr. Marashi’s research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Iranian nationalism, in its comparative, transnational, and global contexts. He is author of Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870–1940 (University of Washington Press, 2008), Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran (University of Texas Press, 2020) and a co-editor with Kamran Aghaie of Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity (University of Texas Press, 2014).

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