Dawlatábádí, Sayyed Yahyá
by Abbas Amanatpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 7
New York: Columbia University, 1996
DAWLATĀBĀDĪ, SAYYED YAḤYĀ (b. Daw-latābād near Isfahan, 17 Rajab 1279/8 January 1863, d. Tehran, 4 Ābān 1318 Š./26 October 1939), celebrated educator, political activist, and memoirist of the constitutional and postconstitutional periods. Yaḥyā was the second of the five sons of an affluent family of landowning ʿolamāʾ. His father, Ḥājj Sayyed Mīrzā Hādī Dawlatābādī, was an influential local mojtahed and leader of the clandestine Azalī branch of Babism in Persia. A haphazard education at traditional koranic schools (maktab) left a negative impression on young Yaḥyā, an impression further reinforced at the Ṣadr madrasa in Isfahan and later the Moʿtamad-al-Dawla madrasa in Najaf in Iraq, where he joined his father in 1290/1873. Residing in Najaf added to his distaste for the conservative clerical milieu and its suffocating conformity (Dawlatābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 11-18, 28-34).
After the family returned to Isfahan in 1294/1877 Yaḥyā witnessed his father’s involvement in an extremely complex struggle for control of the city, with some of the influential ʿolamāʾ, most notably Moḥammad-Bāqer Najafī Eṣfahānī and his son Moḥammad-Taqī, better known as Āqā Najafī, on one side and the powerful prince-governor of Isfahan, Masʿūd Mīrzā Ẓell-al-Solṭān, on the other (Daw-latābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 37-44). The ambitious Mīrzā Hādī, whose Babi affiliation was a stigma impossible to disguise by any measure of dissimulation (taqīya), was able to build a popular base in Isfahan, at first with the tacit backing of Ẓell-al-Solṭān, who hoped thus to weaken Najafī’s domination of the city. Soon, however, Hādī was denounced by Najafī as a heretic, which encouraged Ẓell-al-Solṭān to put into action his own covetous land-grabbing schemes at the expense of Yaḥyā’s father. Having become a pariah, Yaḥyā found his stay in Isfahan becoming increasingly hazardous, in spite of his attempts to distance himself from the rival Bahai faction among the Babis, whose exiled leadership he bedeviled consistently.
Yaḥyā, after a year and a half of self-imposed exile in Tehran and Mašhad, as a result of his denunciation (takfīr)by the ʿolamāʾ, returned to Isfahan in 1299/1882; there he frequented the local literati. An encounter with the ascetic Babi preacher Shaikh Moḥammad Manšādī Yazdī influenced him, as well as two other, later proponents of the Constitutional Revolution, Naṣr-Allāh Beheštī (later Malek-al-Motakallemīn) and Jamāl-al-Dīn Wāʿeẓ Eṣfahānī. Yaḥyā was also impressed by Mīrzā Āqā Khan Kermānī, then a refugee from his native province. Āqā Khan’s intellectual disposition and rhetoric, blending modernism and esoteric thought, served as a model for the receptive Yaḥyā (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 62-68).
After fresh denunciations, partly elicited by his repeated defiance of the ʿolamāʾ and Ẓell-al-Solṭān, Mīrzā Yaḥyā was banished from Isfahan a second time, between 1303/1886 and 1306/1888. He paid a short visit to Aleppo, then returned to the ʿAtabāt, where for a year he occasionally audited Mīrzā Ḥasan Šīrāzī’s lectures on jurisprudence before embarking on the Ḥajj (pilgrimage) via Alexandria and Cairo. He returned as far as Būšehr in 1304/1887, but news of fresh Babi persecutions in Isfahan forced him to retreat to the relative safety of the ʿAtabāt. He did finally return to Isfahan in 1306/1888 but was unable to stay there. By decree of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (1264-1313/1848-96) Yaḥyā and his father settled in the capital, where they found a protector in the person of the vizier Mīrzā ʿAlī-Aṣḡar Khan Amīn-al-Solṭān (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 69-90, 111-12, 118-19).
In Tehran Yaḥyā instructed members of the nobility in calligraphy. While attending the lectures of the celebrated jurist Mīrzā Ḥasan Āštīānī, presumably in order to stave off suspicion of Babi heresy, he also had an opportunity to observe at close quarters the growing power of the ʿolamāʾ in a time of political turmoil. He was present when an angry crowd briefly stormed the royal citadel during the protest against the monopolistic Tobacco Régie of 1309-11/1891-92. In the meantime interest in speculative thought brought him to Mīrzā Abu’l-Ḥasan Jelwa, the leading philosopher of his time. None of these activities was able to assuage the moral crisis that he was experiencing at that time, however, a crisis exacerbated by increasing harassment, confiscation of family property, and diminishing income (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 108-22).
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