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Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy 1831-1896, by Abbas Amanat:
Review

by Sholeh A. Quinn

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 8
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1998
Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831-1896
Author: Abbas Amanat
Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997, 536 pages
Review by: Sholeh A. Quinn


Abbas Amanat's Pivot of the Universe is a biography of the first phase (1848-1871) of Nasir al-Din Shah's reign. Despite the recent tremendous interest in Qajar studies and the publication of numerous specialised monographs and even more scholarly articles over the past decade or so, the field is still in great need of full-length biographies on the Qajar kings. Amanat's study goes a long way in addressing this deficiency. Drawing on a wide range of published and unpublished primary sources, including newspapers, British foreign office records, Persian chronicles and, Qajar documents, Amanat places the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah within the context of the centuries-old tradition of Persian monarchy. Although there exists a significant corpus of literature addressing the institution of Persian kingship, most of that has focused on the pre-modern period of Iranian history. The Qajar period, though, raises some of the most interesting questions about kingship. What happened to this institution with the onset of western influence in Iran? How were its traditional elements modified as a result of modern international and domestic challenges? These are the questions that Amanat sets out to answer in his study.

Writing biography requires a historian to use the full range of available methodological approaches, and in his attempt to understand Nasir al-Din Shah, Amanat writes political, intellectual, social, and psychological history. The introductory chapters of the book cover Nasir al-Din's childhood upbringing and his youth. Here, Amanat focuses on his early relationships with various members of his family, in particular the problematic relationship with his father, and his ties with other individuals attached to the royal household, such as servants. He also describes the circumstances under which Nasir al-Din became heir-apparent, and explores what might have been some likely early intellectual influences on Nasir al-Din's life, such as various works of the "mirrors for princes" or "advice for the prince" genre, and geographical treatises.

In each of the chapters focusing on Nasir al-Din's life as king, the primary themes include (1) the relationship between the king and each of his prime ministers, Amir Nizam and Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri, (2) the two foreign powers who have a strong presence and influence in Iran, the British and the Russians, and (3) the influence of the royal household, in particular the king's mother, Mahd Ulya, and, later, his favourite wife, Jayran. The main question posed throughout is how did the kingship survive through old tensions, as exemplified by the problems between king and minister, and the new challenges posed by the European presence in Iran?

Nasir al-Din Shah had problematic relationships with both of his prime ministers. The first, his "atabak" Amir Kabir, was executed on the king's order in 1852, and the second, Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri, was exiled in 1858. In addition to providing a great deal of information on both of these individuals, which results in some new assessments about their premierships, Amanat explains their often difficult relationships with the king in the context of Nasir al-Din Shah's attempts to rule independently and absolutely as he matured, and also in connection with the British and Russian representatives in Iran in the Nasirean period.

This book certainly drives home the point that both the British and the Russians had a very strong presence in Iran throughout the period in question, and Amanat carefully describes the extent and nature of this European presence. Nasir al-Din Shah navigated these troubled waters by attempting to set one power against the other; he also made overtures to France, partly because of his life-long fascination with Napoleon I, and when there was war in the Persian Gulf with the British, he tried to promote a "royal cult of 'Ali" in an attempt to boost his own legitimacy.

Amanat does not neglect to explain yet another important locus of power during Nasir al-Din Shah's reign: the harem. Mahd Ulya not only had influence on her son, but she also was involved in various sorts of alliances, usually against each of the prime ministers, in a contest of power. In his fascinating account of these intricate and shifting allegiances, it would have been interesting for Amanat to have drawn comparisons with Ottoman royal women - the sultan's mother, favourite wives, and concubines - in light of Leslie P. Peirce's study, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire.(1)

Whether describing the shah's relationship with his prime ministers, European representatives, or members of the royal household, Amanat does so in terms of four dimensions in Nasir al-Din Shah's kingship: pre-Islamic, Islamic-Shi'i, nomadic, and modern/western. I would have been interested in knowing more about how the nomadic or Turko-Mongol element played itself out in Nasir al-Din's kingship. The fact that Nasir al-Din might have been modelling some aspects of his reign on Nadir Shah, who belonged to the Afshars, one of the Qizilbash tribes originally associated with the Safavids (along with the Qajars and others), suggests that the model of king as "world conqueror" in terms of Turko-Mongol legitimising principles had survived into the period of Nasir al-Din Shah. It is interesting to note while Nadir Shah might have been a model for Nasir al-Din Shah, Nadir Shah in turn modelled his kingship on a still earlier ruler of Iran, Timur (Tamerlane).

Although readers interested in Bábí studies should read Amanat's earlier ground-breaking study, Resurrection and Renewal, which is entirely devoted to the study of the rise of the Bábí movement, Pivot of the Universe also contains information on the Bábís and describes various Bábí events in connection with Nasir al-Din's life. In Pivot of the Universe, Amanat discusses the major episodes that involved Nasir al-Din and the Bábís both before and after he became king. These include his presence at the Báb's public trial in Tabriz in 1848, the 1852 assassination attempt on the king's life by a group of Bábís and the psychological impact this event had on the king, and the subsequent backlash against the Bábí community. In this regard, Amanat outlines the prime minister's involvement in the backlash, describing Aqa Khan Nuri's "collective frenzy of killings" as "spectacular even by Qajar standards" (212) and explaining how the entire Qajar ruling elite became involved in attempting to eradicate the Bábís. According to Amanat, this persecution made the Báb's teachings even more popular. As for Amir Kabir and his role in the political defeat of the Bábís, Amanat states that "an indigenous movement of change ceased to exist for decades to come." By suppressing the Bábís, "Amir Kabir inadvertently cleared the way for the consolidation of the high 'ulama for the rest of the century and beyond" (168).

Pivot of the Universe is essential reading for everyone interested in Bábí and Bahá'í studies, Iranian history, and kingship studies. The transliteration scheme employed throughout this monograph, which eliminates dots, underlines, and macrons, is highly refreshing. Indeed, this style thankfully appears to have become a standard alternative when choosing transliteration systems. Although this study would have benefited from a glossary and timeline for those not familiar with the topic, the map, genealogies, and illustrations are extremely useful additions to this highly readable book, and Amanat is to be commended for taking the reader so carefully and clearly through the complex events he describes. One hopes that this volume will inaugurate an entire series of much-needed biographies on each of the Qajar kings.


End Note

  1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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