Is there an ultimate use for historians? Reflections on Safavid history and historiography
By: Roger M. Savory, Professor Emeritus University of Toronto, 16 March 1995
The Annual Noruz Lecture Series: 16 March 1995, Foundation for Iranian Studies Washington, D.C.
Browne's second complaint, that "it is only here and there incidentally that we find passages throwing light on the religious and social conditions of the time", has more validity, and is echoed by Farman-Farmaian: "After a careful study of all these wearisome documents about plunderings and bloodshed, the modern writer can sometimes, with great difficulty, cull a few facts from their pages which may possibly yield a vague and conjectural account of the social and political conditions of the country while these invasions and bloodshed were going on". The fact is that, for information on social conditions in Iran during the Safavid period, one has to turn to the works of Western travellers to Iran. Lord Curzon, in his work Persian and the Persian Question (1892), lists about seventy travellers who visited Iran between about 1500 and 1722. In the opinion of Adamiyat, "these travel accounts constitute one of the best sources for social history, and very few aspects of social conditions in Iran are not reflected in them".
Among these travellers, the French Huguenot Jean Chardin is pre-eminent, and his work Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l'Orient, published in 10 volums in Amsterdam in 1711, is a sine qua non for the study of Safavid history. As Minorsky has said: "His sure political judgement, his insight into the intricacies of Persian practices, and, above all, his broadminded and sympathetic attitude towards his subjects" - an attitude very different from the "national and confessional prejudices" of other travellers, make his work unique in its time". The most valuable parts of his work are his "Description du Gouvernement politique, militaire et civil des Persans", and the section "De la religion des Persans". This latter section was the most comprehensive and accurate account available to the West up to that time of the Ithna 'Ashari Shi'i rite of Islam, and Chardin was the first to draw attention to the problem of governance in a state in which this form is Islam is the official religion - a problem which has not been solved to this day.
It is pointless to blame historians who were contemporaries of the Safavids, whether they be Iranians or Europeans, because they did not belong to the currently fashionable social science school of history. "The history of princes and politics, of war and diplomacy", says G.R. Elton, "is often called dull and insufficient"; the question is asked, "why do we not hear more about `ordinary people', the lives of the poor, the whole of society?". This criticism, says Elton, would have validity only if the evidence for the study of such problems existed: "scientific investigations of family, class, occupations, mobility and all the rest happen to excite present-day interest and began systematically little more than a century ago; since before that time interest in them was rare and unscientific, it is useless to expect to find really exhaustive materials from which to satisfy it.
Every historian encounters immense difficulties as soon as he tries to collect worth while statistics for any problem before the year 1800 or so" ... "However desirable it may be that we should have knowledge of past vital statistics and demographic movements, it is simply the case that for the greater part of history we shall always know very little or nothing concerning such things". In other words, to criticize Safavid chroniclers for failing to describe the lives of the peasants is an exercise in prolepsis, the representation of something future as already existing.
The third and fourth charges laid against Safavid historians are really inter-related. These charges have to do with the style of writing, and the fact that historians of the Safavid period still regarded historiography as primarily a branch of literature, as an exercise in ensha', or literary composition. However, the style of the most celebrated English historian of the 17th century, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, author of History of the Rebellion, a history of the English civil war, belonged to the same genre of historical writing. His history "is composed in the grand style", and contains long digressions, lengthy sentences and numerous parentheses "which do not accord with modern taste and usage". Despite this, Clarendon "as a writer and historian, occupies a high place in English literature". For Gibbon, the celebrated 18th-century author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, style was everything. It was essentially oratorical, and it is interesting that one of his biographers has used the adjective "Asiatic" to describe it. Even Macaulay, whose famous History of England was written in the middle of the 19th century, wrote in a style characterized as not only "exuberant but excessive", and he had a "constant tendency to glaring colours, to strong effects". The fifth criticism of Safavid chroniclers, made not only of Safavid chroniclers, but of all Iranian historians writing between the 14th and 19th centuries, is that during that period "there was no weighing of history, no criticism or evaluation of sources, no drawing of historical conclusions. Events are presented without cause and effect".
As far as the criticism and evaluation of sources is concerned, the above statement is no more true of Eskandar Beg than it was true, as we saw earlier, of Bayhaqi. Eskandar Beg "repeatedly assures the reader that if he has not been an eye-witness himself of the events he describes, he has endeavoured to obtain reports from reliable sources ... When Eskandar Beg himself is dubious about the authenticity of a report, he tells us by using the formula "God knoweth best (the truth)", and no one can fail to be impressed by his important statement of principle that he will not embroider the facts to impress someone in authority or to further his career". When Adamiyat complains that Persian historians present events without cause and effect, he is correct in the sense that 16th and 17th-century Persian chroniclers did not write analytical history in the modern sense of the term, but once again he is guilty of prolepsis. As Elton reminds us, mediaeval chroniclers sometimes "rose above their annals to reflect and explicate" - Ibn Khaldun is an obvious example - but there was "no serious historical study" in the West until the 17th century. From then on, historians began to look for causes, but the "scientific, ordered, systematic study of history really began only in the 19th century". For this reason, he places such celebrated British historians as Clarendon, Gibbon, and even Macaulay (who wrote in the 19th century) in what he calls the "prehistoric age" Macaulay's mind lacked "that equitable balancing of evidence which is the primary function of the historian". In other words, the leading British historians of the 17th, 18th, and, in the case of Macaulay, the 19th, centuries, exhibit the same faults of which 20th-century historians, both Persian and Western, accuse Safavid historians. Historiography was still regarded, both in Iran and the West, as a branch of literature, and style, in general, took precedence over content.
According to Firuz Kazemzadeh, until about 1930 Persian histories were still written in the traditional style, that is to say, they were essentially chronicles. Historiography was still regarded primarily as a branch of literature. Since 1930, he says, Persian historical writing has been influenced by various ideologies imported from the West, such as nationalism, Marxism, and by forms of reasoning such as scientism and attitudes such as scepticism, also imported from the West. At the same time, he says, some Iranian historians have adopted Western methodology, including the acknowledgement of sources used, and the use of footnotes to refer to them, the inclusion in the text of documents, and so on, all of which have contributed to greater accuracy and reliability. Above all, Iranian historiography has become more analytical, as historians have sought the underlying causes of events.
The sixth, and final, criticism levelled at Safavid historians is that their writing was vitiated by the Shi'i-Sunni conflict between the Safavids and the Ottomans. At least one Western historian agrees. "Persian historiography", he says, "also suffered from the sectarian isolation of Persia itself". It is true that the geographical isolation of Persia from the West was made worse by Shah Isma'il's policy of making Persia a Shi'i state, because this policy made the Safavids the immediate enemies of the Ottoman empire, which lay astride the natural lines of communication between Persia and Europe. It is also true that the innate xenophobia of Ithna 'Ashari Shi'ism militated against the establishment of trade relations with the West until Shah 'Abbas I developed his policy of making Safavid Iran a multicultural state. We have, for example, the well-known story of the reception by Shah Tahmasp of the English merchant-adventurer Anthony Jenkinson, who reached Iran in 1562 bearing a letter from Queen Elizabeth I which proposed what we would call these days a "free trade agreement" between England and Persia. The Shah initially received Jenkinson in a friendly manner, but, when he was told that Jenkinson was not a Shi'i, exclaimed: "Oh thou unbeleever, we have no neede to have friendship with the unbeleevers". But I see no evidence that the Shi'i-Sunni conflict per se adversely affected Safavid historiography. Eskandar Beg, for example, shows no real animosity towards the Ottomans; on the contrary, it is the Ottoman chroniclers who express far greater religious antipathy towards the "scoundrelly qizilbash" (awbash-i-qizilbash). "The sovereignty exercised by Shah 'Abbas was essentially secular and Iranian", and Eskandar Beg's History reflects that. It was only under the last two Safavid shahs, Shah Sulayman and Shah Sultan Husayn, when the mujtahids appeared as a powerful political force, that the writing of history was overshadowed by sectarian concerns, and there was an outpouring of works on Shi'i theology, jurisprudence and hadith. M.B. Dickson noted that "there are surprisingly few full contemporary Persian sources for the period of Shah Sultan-Husayn", "for reasons as yet unclear". I suggest that the reason is quite clear. The reign of Shah Sultan Husayn, who was derisively dubbed "Mulla Husayn", was marked by the dominance of the religious classes and was, as a consequence, a period of military and political weakness. Deprived of royal patronage, historians ceased to embark on major historical works which might take them the best part of a lifetime to write, and the 'ulama were simply not interested in sponsoring such works.
What conclusions emerge from these reflections? The major conclusion to be drawn, it seems to me, is that mutual recriminations between Persian and Western historians are unproductive. Furthermore, as I have tried to indicate, I believe that many of the criticisms of past generations and indeed centuries of Safavid historians are either pointless or unjustified. Adamiyat is apparently so disgusted with the historiography of the past the he has washed his hands of it: "Do not expect that you will find the points we have discussed in the obsolete pages of Persian histories. It is for this reason that we have turned away from the tradition of historical writing" (intizar nadashta bashid an nukatra kih guftim dar awraq-i kuhna-yi tarikhha-yi farsi biyabid. Pas ma ham az sunnat-i tarikh-nivisi ruy bar tafta-im).
"Historians", it is said, "are naturally given to sharpness of tongue". However this may be, it seems to me that things have improved during the last fifty years or so. In recent years, for example, symposia have been organized in Paris and Cambridge specifically for specialists in Safavid history, and both Iranian and Western scholars have participated in these. Even Adamiyat concedes that, "amazing though it is" (ta'ajjub in ast), there have been some Persian historians during this period who have advanced the science of history: he mentions Mirza Hasan Khan Mushir al-Dawleh, Ahmad Kasravi, 'Abbas Iqbal, and Mahmud Mahmud.
A second conclusion to be drawn, perhaps, is that both Persian and Western historians ignored the Safavid period because for both groups 19th-century Iran was of greater interest than the period that preceded it. The traumatic defeats suffered by Iran at the hands of the Russians at the beginning of the 19th century, and the influx of Western political, social and economic theories, aroused Persian intellectuals to the fact that Iran had fallen behind the West in a number of significant ways. But this awareness, instead of stimulating them to do research on Persian history, concentrated their research rather on seeking the `secret' of Western superiority in technology and other areas. They therefore studied European history, particularly the lives of great European leaders such as Napoleon and Peter the Great, in their search for the key to this `secret'. Many years ago, Ehsan Naraghi pointed out the futility of this search by quoting a couplet of Hafez: "For years my heart sought from me the chalice of Jamshid, and what it itself possessed, it demanded from a stranger". According to Persian legend, the whole universe was reflected in the chalice of Jam or Jamshid.The English satirist Samuel Butler thought he perceived a divine purpose for historians. As he cynically said: "God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence".
Perhaps the greatest reward for the historian who immerses himself in the historical writings of a particular culture is the empathy he develops with the historical characters of the period he is studying. As the Chinese philosopher of the 5th century B.C., Mo-tzu, put it so beautifully in regard to the historical archives of his own culture: "It is not that I lived in their age or their times or heard their voices with my own ears or saw their faces; it is rather that by what they have written on bamboo and silk or engraved on metal and stone or carved in vessels to pass on to their descendants of later generations that I know them". To the extent that I have been permitted, through the study of history, to gain insights into a period of Persian history long past and until recently neglected, I am grateful.
Nukati chand, pp. 167-8.
Inhitat, p. 26.
Tadhkirat al-Muluk: A Manual of Safavid Administration (circa 1137/1725), translated and explained by V. Minorsky, London 1943 (E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Series, New Series XVI, p. 7 and footnote No. 5.
Elton, pp. 43-50.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Cambridge 1911, VI, p. 433.
G.M. Young, Gibbon, Short Biographies No. 22, Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1939, p. 85.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, XVII, p. 196.
Inhitat, p. 19.
Variorum, XII, p. 36.
Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-74), author of History of the Rebellion, a history of the English Civil War; Edward Gibbon, (1734-94), author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800-59), author of History of England.
Elton, p. 14.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, XVII, p. 196.
"Iranian Historiography", in HME, pp. 430-4.
H.A.R. Gibb, Ta'rikh, in Studies on the Civilization of Islam, (eds. Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk), Boston 1962, p. 134.
Early Voyages and Travels to Russia, Hakluyt Society, 1st Series, Nos. LXXII and LXXIIII, 2 vols., London 1886, Vol. I, p. 147.
Hafez F. Farmayan, The Beginnings of Modernization in Iran: Reforms of Shah 'Abbas I (1587-1687), Research Monograph No. 1, Middle East Center, University of Utah, 1969, p. 17.
Martin B. Dickson, review of The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, 1962, p. 503.
Père Tadeusz Juda Krusinski, History of the Revolutions of Persia, London 1728, p. 71.
Inhitat, p. 30.
Elton, p. 17.
Inhitat, p. 29.
Inhitat, p. 20.
Quoted in Ehsan Naraghi, Iran's Cultural Identity and the Present Day World, in Iran: Past, Present and Future (ed. Jane W. Jacqz), Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, New York 1976, pp. 421-32.
Erewhon Revisited, Everyman's Library, 1965, p. 293.
I am indebted to my friend and colleague Professor Wayne Schlepp for this quotation.