Book Review: Exile and the Nation – The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran

By Katja Rieck

Rethinking (Iranian) Nationalism from a Transnational and South-South Perspective

In his most recent monograph, Exile and the Nation – The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran (2020), Afshin Marashi provides a new perspective on Iranian nationalism. Dissatisfied with approaches that “have tended to focus more on the role of the cultural and intellectual encounter with European thought in shaping debates within Persian-language modernist texts of the 19th and 20th centuries” that “draw on diffusionist models of modernity based on the assumption that modernization is intimately linked to westernization and rooted in the dissemination of ideas from a European place of origin outward to the various colonial and semi-colonial regions of Asia and Africa” (12-13). It is a critique Marashi insists is applicable to both classical scholarly accounts of nationalism as well as to post-colonial paradigms. This study focusses attention on the role of non-Western intellectuals and South-South exchanges in the shaping of Iranian modernity and nationalism. Central to this process, Marashi insists, is the continuing legacy of the “Persianate zone” or “Persianate cosmopolis” that historically linked cultures and societies from Belgrad to Bengal from roughly the late 7th century. Taking inspiration from scholars like Kathryn Bayaban, Mana Kia, Daniel Sheffield, and Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, as well as Nile Green and Monica Ringer, he seeks to move beyond historiographical approaches limited by disciplinary divides of periodization (early modern vs. modern) and regional specialization (Middle East vs. South Asia).

At the center of his account lies the cultural and intellectual engagement between Bombay Parsis and Iranian Zoroastrians, particularly at the close of the 19th century up until World War II. This engagement, as Marashi insists, drew on pre-existing, early modern strands of the Persianate historical legacy from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. However, the shifting contexts of their respective political situations in the 19th and early 20th centuries “produced different historical outcomes for strands of culture emerging from the Persianate cultural landscape” (16). Hence a recurring theme throughout the book’s five chapters is the implicit and explicit tensions between differing understandings of Zoroastrianism and a shared classical Persianate heritage. Hence, Bombay Parsis looked on their religious and cultural heritage from the perspective of a favored minority community under multicultural colonial rule and so tended to articulate liberal, cosmopolitan and ecumenical readings of Zoroastrianism and Indo-Iranian classical heritage. Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian Iranian intellectuals, on the other hand, looked to this classical heritage and Zoroastrianism as “a cultural blueprint to serve as the basis for a radical project of compensatory transformation characteristic of defensive nation-building projects” (16). The resulting interpretations were culturally assertive and exclusionary (particularly towards Iran’s Arab-Islamicate heritage). By looking at the contrasting trajectories that resulted from Iranian-Parsi exchanges, Marashi aims to explore how to conceptualize networks of connection that were made possible in the Indian Ocean world due to steam and print technologies. While it is generally assumed that the resulting increased density and intensity of exchange networks would create an ethos of cosmopolitanism, the story of Parsi-Iranian exchange shows the picture to be far more complicated: “A close reading of the Parsi-Iranian exchange will therefore detail a fuller range of cultural, emotional, and philosophical complexities emerging from one such encounter in the Indian Ocean ecumene, as well as the concomitant cultural and political outcomes that those encounters produced” (19).

Combining a Focus on Biographies and Actor Networks with Analysis of Seminal Texts

Marashi’s study analyses developments in emergent Iranian nationalism by examining the intellectual biographies and networks of key actors in the Zoroastrian revival and Iranian nationalism and the discursive structures of their most influential works. Chapter 1, entitled “To Bombay and Back – Arbab Kaykhosrow Shahrok and the Reinvention of Iranian Zoroastrianism”, focuses on the contradiction between liberal Parsi and Iranian nationalist readings of Iran’s Zoroastrian heritage as played out in a family drama between Kaykhosow Sharokh, the liberal Zoroastrian reformer, longtime Majles Deputy, and Persian cultural activist and his son Shah-Bahram Shahrokh. The chapter details Kaykhosow Shahrokh’s political activities, not least his seminal role in anchoring a definition of Iranian citizenship that institutionalized the legal equality of non-Muslim minorities as “Iranian subjects” in the emergent Iranian nation-state as well as his efforts towards promoting Zoroastrian life in Teheran. His lasting influence, however, can also be attributed to two important works he penned following a stay among the Parsi community in Bombay, the A’ineh-ya A’in-e Mazdayasna (1907) and the Fourugh-e Mazdayasna (1909). In these works, he formulated the doctrines of a modernist and reformed interpretation of Zoroastrianism for schoolchildren and lay Zoroastrian readers, but also for an audience of non-Zoroastrian Iranian readers exploring Iran’s (pre-Islamic) cultural, religious, and political heritage. While both texts play a seminal role in “authenticating modernity” in a Zoroastrian/Persian context (39), Marashi also shows how Shahrokh’s openness to re-evaluating Zoroastrian thought in light of contemporary intellectual developments did not preclude problematic tendencies to integrate ideas concerning language, race (particularly Aryan race theory), cultural purity, and exclusionary understandings of the nation that were in tension with his liberal, democratic, and politically pluralist politics. This discursive ambivalence, Marashi argues, is reflective of the same conditions of possibility that fostered some Iranians’ sympathies to Nazi ideology and the Nazi regime in Germany, reflected in the activities of Shahrokh’s own son Bahram, who became head of Nazi-Germany’s Persian-language programming on Radio Berlin. This tension between cosmopolitan and ecumenical readings of a progressive Zoroastrianism and exclusionary assertions of the authenticity and cultural/racial purity as foundations of Iranian national heritage is a theme that is revisited in all chapters that follow.

Chapter 2, “Patron and Patriot – Dinsha J. Irani, Parsi Philanthropy, and the Revival of Indo-Iranian Culture”, turns to the life and work of Dinshah Irani, a civic leader among Bombay Zoroastrians and co-founder of the Iran League and the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjoman as well as a prolific author of books on Zoroastrianism intended for export to Iran. It highlights the important role the Bombay Parsi community played in the rediscovery of Iran’s pre-Islamic/Zoroastrian cultural heritage that would come to shape the refashioning of an Iranian national culture commensurate with the demands of modernity. As Bombay Parsis became increasingly concerned and engaged with their ancestral place of origin to bolster their revivalist efforts to bring Zoroastrianism in line with the demands of modern life, they became aware that their brethren in Iran were not so well situated. This sparked a flow of philanthropic interventions from South Asia back to Iran, targeted at their Zoroastrian brethren but available to all, that also included opportunities for educational and economic advancement. Book publishing was part of this project of upliftment, to which Dinshah Irani also actively contributed as an author. His works aimed not only to educate Zoroastrian youth and lay readers on modernist understandings of the Zoroastrian religion (as formulated by the Parsi community in South Asia), but also served to promote the Zoroastrian historical and cultural heritage vis-à-vis non-Zoroastrian Iranians. Ultimately, Irani, and other members of the South Asian Zoroastrian revival, sought to foster a dialog between Zoroastrians and Muslim Iranian society to bring Zoroastrianism more fully into the center of emerging notions of Iranian national identity, thereby uplifting the place of Zoroastrian brethren in Iranian society. Aryan race theory, again, provided a means of generating a shared (racial) genealogy that linked ancient and modern Zoroastrians to contemporary (Muslim) Iranians by casting them as their ancestral predecessors. The language of Iranian gnostic Sufism (‘erfān) had already in Safavid Iran and Mughal South Asia intermingled with Zoroastrianism and so provided Irani and other Zoroastrian activists an additional discursive tradition on which to draw to communicate the message of Zoroastrianism in an ecumenical context and to reconcile Iran’s Zoroastrian with its Islamic heritage. Irani’s texts thus show how a place was carved out for Zoroastrianism to become part of a liberal, pluralistic Iranian national identity. Noteworthy with regard to the role of circulating texts and emergent conceptions of Iranian nationalism is that while classical works on nationalism have focused on the role of local print capitalism in the formation of imagined national communities (Anderson [1983]1991), Marashi shows that it was rather a transnational print philanthropy that enabled the circulation of texts between Bombay and the Zoroastrian communities in Iran and contributed to the formation of modern Iranian national identity.

Chapter 3, “Imagining Hafez – Rabindranath Tagore in Iran”, examines Tagore’s month-long visit to Iran in 1932 that ultimately served to bolster the moral and intellectual authority of Indo-Iranian civilization in the Iranian nation-state as it was being institutionalized under Reza Shah Pahlavi. A closer study of this event, however, shows that its organization and execution involved numerous actors, each with their own agendas. For the Indian poet, artist, and cultural activist Tagore, Iran was an important site for his pan-Asian anti-colonial project of cultural revival as it represented a greater Indo-Iranian civilization with its own unique moral and aesthetic spirit that was counterposed to that of ‘the West’ with its Greco-Roman roots. Much like Dinshah Irani, Tagore’s vision of Indo-Iranian classical heritage, valued not only in the culture and civilizational achievements of pre-Islamic (Zoroastrian) Iran but also mystical Islam and the poetic legacy of Sa‘di and Hafez that had long linked Central and South Asia via religious, literary and artistic contacts sustained not only through the flow of texts but also through migration and travel. For Tagore’s Iranian hosts, not least the Pahlavi regime, their honored guest represented the embodiment of a lost Iranian cultural authenticity defined by deep Indo-Aryan roots. Hence, the visit was seen as a symbolic return and cultural assertion of a (non-Muslim) cultural authenticity. So, while for Tagore the poetry of Sa‘di and Hafez were part of Indo-Iranian civilization by virtue of a shared spiritual essence that had its roots in earliest times of the pre-Islamic period that connected Zoroastrianism and Islam by a shared civilizational essence, for Reza Shah and other members of the emergent nationalist project in Iran this poetic legacy was a symbol of how Indo-Iranian Aryan civilization had resisted Islamic cultural hegemony. The chapter closes with a discussion of the voices critical of Tagore’s visit (of which there were rather few). The Muslim-Indian poet Muhammad Iqbal, the Parsi scholar G.K. Nariman, and the Iranian-Tajiki Persian poet and socialist activist Abolqasem Lahuti expressed their concerns about how Tagore’s visit and his vision of an inclusive liberal Indo-Iranian civilization played into political projects that united Hindu nationalists, Parsis, and Iranian nationalists in a shared anti-Muslim project while also tacitly giving support to the oppressive authoritarianism of the Pahlavi state. These critiques again highlight how contemporaries were quite aware of how formulations of Iranian national identity that drew on a “classical” Zoroastrian heritage were also feeding authoritarianism and exclusionism.

The life and work of Ebrahim Purdavud is the focus of chapter five “Ebrahim Purdavud and His Interlocutors – Parsi Patronage and the Making of the Vernacular Avesta”. As Marashi argues, Purdavud, himself from a pious Shi’ite family in Northwestern Iran and not a member of the Zoroastrian community, made the most significant contribution to Parsi-Iranian exchanges. The chapter traces Ebrahim Purdavud’s physical travels and intellectual development from poet and activist to independent scholar of pre-Islamic Iran whose commented translations of key Zoroastrian texts into lyrical modern Persian were seminal to linking Persian identity with a pre-Islamic “classical golden era” among a broader (non-Zoroastrian readership), making it available as the foundation of modern Persian nationalist thought. In so doing, the chapter highlights the importance of the complex networks of exchange between Iranian expatriates living in Europe or other parts of the Middle East, European Orientalists, and the German Foreign Ministry, each in pursuit of their own multiple political projects and interests, in the formulation and propagation of Iranian nationalist thought. It also discusses the continued role again played by Bombay Parsi individuals and philanthropic institutions not only in facilitating and financing the production of works, like those of Purdavud, that would become key to the formulation of modern nationalist Persian identity, but also in shaping the knowledge on which these works were based by acting as cultural mediators, gatekeepers, and experts. As Marashi argues, it is ultimately the multiple agendas at play that overdetermine the project of excavating an Indo-Iranian classical heritage. The cosmopolitan and inclusive interpretations of this heritage, such as those paradigmatically propagated by members of the Bombay Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian communities, existed alongside exclusivist interpretations shaped by projects to salvage an Aryan authenticity by breaking with Central and South Asia’s Arab-Turkic-Islamicate past, as would become the case with Reza Shah’s cultural policy and was implicitly the case in Purdavud’s scholarly engagement. As Marashi notes, “… the Zoroastrian revival was always more about distinguishing the real and authentic Iranian culture from the layers of inauthentic cultural accretions that Iran’s national heritage had acquired over the long duration of its history” (185). The non-classical elements of this history, most notably the Arab, Turkic and Muslim ones, came to be decried as foreign impositions from which the nation must liberate itself. However, during the interwar period, the tension between Iranian Zoroastrian and Bombay Parsi inclusionary interpretations of Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage and the tendentially more exclusionary understandings of Iranian nationalists like Purdavud remained implicit and did not lead to conflict. However, with the shifting political climate in the context of the rise on Nazi ideology and the approach of the Second World War this would change.

The effects of this shift in political climate are taken up in chapter five “Sword of Freedom – Abdulrahman Saif Azad and the Interwar Iranian Nationalism”. By tracing the biographical trajectory of Abdulrahman Saif Azad tensions between the contrasting interpretations of Zoroastrianism and Iran’s classical heritage become explicit, leading to a break with the Bombay Parsi community. The chapter recounts the activities of Abdulrahman Saif Azad, an anti-colonial activist and by the 1930s also a Nazi sympathizer. Saif Azad sought out Parsi financial support to publish Iran-e Bastan (“Ancient Iran”) a Tehran newspaper that appeared between 1933 and 1935. Initially promoting liberal and cosmopolitan interpretations of Iran’s Zoroastrian and Persianate heritage, in line with the agenda of his Parsi benefactors, Saif Azad began to change the newspaper’s focus and ideological orientation as he became increasingly supportive of the Nazi cause and found new supporters in the Nazi government’s propaganda bureau. As a result, the Parsis withdrew their support of Saif Azad’s enterprise, and the newspaper ceased publication by 1935. Saif Azad, however, continued his anti-imperial, anti-British, pro-Nazi politics by starting a new English-Persian paper, Salar-e Hend, that put the focus on topics of economic and social autonomy and portrayed local Indian Rajas as worthy leaders of an (independent) India, including Nazi symbols and references along the way. Marashi’s account of Saif Azad’s political trajectory illustrates the conflicts in interwar Iranian nationalist politics that were shaped by transnationally circulating conceptions of Iranian nationalism, and the cultural heritage in which it was ostensibly rooted, as well as by the larger political contexts in which anti-imperialism, post-colonial nationalism, and Nazi fascism intermingled.

Marashi’s Take-Away Lessons from the Indo-Iranian Exchange

The book’s conclusion is brief and returns to the point that in the formative decades of Iranian nationalism from the early 20th century until the end of World War II numerous ideological strands existed side by side: liberal pluralistic and democratic versions as well as exclusionary ones that advocated policies of cultural authenticity and purification and aligned themselves with fascist movements. These strands provided the conditions of possibility for subsequent developments in Iranian nationalism, most notably the conservative politics of official Pahlavi nationalism of the late 1960s. Further, Marashi returns to the importance of giving greater attention to South-South exchanges, like the ones between Bombay Parsis and Iranian Zoroastrians and nationalists portrayed in this account that have been integral to the formation and development of nationalist movements outside of Europe. Such exchanges highlight the lasting legacies of historical entanglements, such as those of the Persianate world, without which the culture of Neo-Zoroastrianism or conceptions of an (Indo-)Iranian classical heritage would not have been possible. Less convincing is his final assessment that conceptions of Iranian neoclassicism have greater relevance to Iranians in the diaspora than in Iran proper. This overlooks developments in the past few decades during which Iranians have been critically reassessing the state of their nation, and in so doing have once again looked to their pre-Islamic heritage for inspiration and orientation (Abdolmohamadi 2015, Fozi 2016). Marashi’s account thus also shows itself to be relevant for contextualizing contemporary developments in cultural and political discourse in Iran itself, and not just in its diaspora communities, which like the actors in this book are linked by manifold exchanges and flows.

So, Was It Worth the Read?

Definitely. The account is extremely complex, linking the Parsi community in Bombay with Iranian nationalists in Iran, and with Iranian and Parsi expatriates in France, Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and the United States. The perspective in this study is truly transnational, and its approach offers methodological as well as substantive inspiration for future studies. For example, a number of personalities make cameo appearances in this account and would warrant further attention, not least someone like Madam Bhikaiji Rustom Cama, a leading anti-colonial activist residing in London and Paris whose activities not only highlight the interconnections between anti-colonial and nationalist movements in the global South, but also the role of women in these networks. Also important is the explicit attention to South-South exchanges in the shaping of nationalisms, and on the role of philanthropic networks in that process that in this case overshadow the capitalist interconnections (that are, however, not discussed). In this sense the monograph is valuable reading for all scholars of nationalism. That said, the complexity of the narrative means that the author cannot explicate regionally specific background information for those without previous knowledge of Iran or the Persianate world. Hence, some of the nuances of the account are lost on non-specialist readers, particularly the references to elements of the early modern Persianate legacy, which are referred to but not presented in detail. One can also find oneself a bit lost with regard to dating developments in the account, as the narrative is structured around five key actors and does not follow a strictly linear timeline. However, because Marashi focusses on biography and interpersonal networks, a non-specialist reader interested in cultural revivalism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, and transnational approaches to historiography will still find the account an intellectually provocative and engaging read.


Bibliography:

Anderson, Benedict ([1983]1991): Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Abdolmohamadi, Pejman (2015): The Revival of Nationalism and Secularism in Modern Iran. LSE Middle East Centre Papers, 11.

Fozi, Navid (2016): “Neo-Iranian Nationalism: Pre-Islamic Grandeur and Shi’i Eschatology in President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s Rhetoric”, Middle East Journal, 70(2): 227-248.

Kia, Mana and Afshin Marashi (2016): “Introduction: After the Persianate”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 36(3), 379-383


Citation: Katja Rieck, Book Review: Exile and the Nation – The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.02.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26466.


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