The Value to Modern Iranians of a Deep Appreciation of Iranian Civilization
Defining Post Number II
Note: This is the second of three posts that explain the initial scope and purposes of the blog. Later visitors can, of course, develop new directions.
Iran has a long and sometimes glorious history. Visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae, as well as acquaintance with the Old Testament in the Jewish tradition or Herodotus in the Greek, certainly bring this to mind. German philosophers as different as Goethe or Nietzsche based major works on the Iranian heritage. One of the most admired English poems of the nineteenth century was essentially a translation from Omar Khayyam. Attempts to build on this history were made by the Sassanians when they created their empire during the Roman era and modeled it on the Achaemenid Empire that had existed hundreds of years before them. In quite a different manner, the poet Firdousi collected and put into verse in the 10th century of the Christian era the record of Iran up to his time. Ferdowsi’s Shahnama became an important text for later efforts to resuscitate the tradition. Ferdowsi and the courts that supported his work were able to create a fusion of Islam with pre-islamic Iranian culture, a fusion that resulted in many literary and artistic achievements. But underneath this fusion lay other elements, based on a wish to return to a more purified Iranism. The most recent attempt to achieve this goal was that of Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza. Imitating to a degree the nationalistic and scientific ideas then dominant in Europe, they tried to create an Iran in the 20th century that both harkened back to this great tradition and looked forward to a world in which religion would play a much smaller part in the life of Iranians than it had historically. For many and various reasons, many Iranians rejected this effort: the weakness of the hold it had over the people was illustrated by the relatively easy rise of Khomeini and the present Islamic regime.
The question arises as to how modern Iranians should view this record. A choice of many Iranians is to live in so far as they can in a modern technological world that rejects most of this tradition. This life may be lived in the West with ease. But even in Iran I suspect many Iranians choose this alternative, making their peace with the present politico-religious order as best they can. Another choice is to see Iran as an integral part of the Muslim world, with or without an emphasis on its special role as the leading Shi’ite state. Nationalism for these Iranians is expressed in large part through the identification of Shi’ism with Iran since the Safavids. But there are others who think that Iranian and surrounding peoples would be benefited by buying into the deeper tradition that once made the Iranian area a center of both scientific and religious creativity. In this way, people may be able to more easily develop positive relations within the region and to overcome the sense of cultural inferiority that historically afflicted many peoples who have encountered the Western Civilization that at least temporarily had leaped out ahead of the rest of the world.