Persian Language & Literature

Ali Akbar Dehkhoda


Ali Akbar Dehkhoda
Mirza Ali Akbar Ghazvini, known as Dehkhoda, the Persian literary scholar, poet, author, and a political and social critic, was born in Tehran circa 1879. He came from a traditional land-owning family in Ghazvin, but his father, Khan Baba Khan Ghazvini, had moved the family to Tehran not long before Dehkhoda was born and died when the boy was only nine years old.

Dehkhoda studied theology and Islamic law and literature under the tutelage of Shaykh Gholam-Hossain Borujerdi, but was also influenced by the liberal attitude and teachings of his neighbor, Shaykh Hadi Najmabadi. On December, 1899, Dehkhoda enrolled in the School of Political Science (Madreseh Olumeh Siasi) which had just been established primarily to educate the sons of aristocracy for later careers in the government. According to Dehkhoda's classmate and friend, Abdollah Mostofi, the initial enrollment was 16 students though apparently more enrolled later, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moshir-al-doleh and his secretary Moshir-al-Molk lectured at the school. After completing his studies, Dehkhoda was retained as a secretary by the Ghajar dignitary and ambassador to Balkan countries, Mo'aven-al-doleh Ghafari ( later Ahmad Shah's Foreign Minister in 1915), a man of substantial means. Around 1903, Dehkhoda accompanied Ghafari on a mission to Europe where he traveled and studied for the next two years, primarily in Vienna, Austria.

During this period, Dehkhoda continued studying French which he had first seriously pursued under Dr Morrel while a student in Iran. As a quite observant student and traveler, Dehkhoda also became familiar with the modern European society which was undergoing a major technological and social transformation at the time. He also became familiar with the liberal democratic ideas which had taken roots in parts of Europe and possibly German and East European social democratic ideas given the fact that Vienna was home to many exiles and itself among the centers of social democratic movement.

These observations combined with his steadfast and ceaseless love for the Persian language, which lasted throughout his life, motivated him to seek change and progressive reforms upon his return to Iran. This is manifested by his support for educational reforms; land distribution; establishment of a modern literary style in Persian writing; his monumental Persian Encyclopedia, Loghat-nameh, and above all, his prominent role in the Constitutional Movement which aimed to end the Ghajar despotism and establish democratic institutions in Iran.

Dehkhoda's return to Iran, in 1905, coincided with the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (Enghelab-e Mashroteh) and he soon became an important participant in that movement. His literary and commentary work began with his collaboration with Sur-Esrafil newspaper founded by Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi, known as Sur-Esrafil, and Ghassem Khan Tabrizi. Dehkhoda wrote a satirical political column titled Charand o Parand (Nonsense ) under the name Dakho which became quite popular and controversial.

During this period, Sur Esrafil, founded in 1907, played an important role in the political scene by supporting the Constitutional Movement and the paper ran many articles which were aimed at exposing the despotism, dependency, and corruption of the monarchy and the traditional views of the reactionary clergy. The paper was among the first to use ordinary language of the common people in place of the traditional didactic and flowery literary approach popular at the time among the literary circles and men of erudition. It identified with the masses and it could be understood by them and in this sense, it did not only play an important political role but also one of literary significance by establishing a new and modern style of writing and journalism in Iran. Sur Esrafil was popular newspaper among the people and was the first of its kind to be sold in busy street corners by children and petty city vendors and peddlers."

Dehkhoda's satirical column and his humorous but vitriolic commentaries was one of the reasons for the paper's popularity. According to Mostofi the paper had a circulation of about 20,000. In general Dehkhoda's commentaries dealt with socio-economic and political issues often deriding the Royal Court and the reactionary Shi'a clergy while exposing their tyranny, dependency, and corruption. For this reason, both Sur-Esrafil and Dehkhoda provoked the wrath of the Court and the clergy for which Sur-Esrafil eventually paid with his life.

Dehkhoda's reform minded ideas soon made him a target of the reactionary clergy. Among these were his support for educational reforms and land distribution, both of which threatened the clergy as major landowners and the main influence and players in an anachronistic system of education. At the time, the reformists were just beginning to demand and institute changes in the system of education which was essentially based on private schooling, often taught by a clergy, with the skills of writing and reading learned through Quranic readings, advancing to studying Islam, Islamic jurisprudence (Figh-h) accompanied with limited instruction in math, history and literature.

These reforms were led by Mirza Hassan Roshdieh with the first modern schools (Dabestans or Madreseh in Arabic), using blackboards, instruction books and maps, opening in Tabriz (circa 1887 or 1267HS) and Tehran (circa1898 or 1276HS), and later serving as model schools for the establishment of modern education in Iran. The clergy considered these schools as undermining Islam and they were routinely attacked by thugs dispatched by the clergy burning and destroying the books and supplies and shutting down the school.

Both the clergy and the monarchy had vested interests in preserving the status quo. They both controlled vast amounts of fertile land under a feudal system of production and management; exercised a considerable power and control over the Iranian society mired in corruption and frequent manipulation by foreign interests, particularly Britain and Russia; and they both demanded blind obedience. For this reason, a good portion of the clergy sided with the Monarchy, resisting change and considered reforms as heretical measures instigated by BAbis (Baha'is) and Western stooges. Among these was the powerful Mollah, Shaykh Fazalah Nori, who preached publicly that modern education and educating women was BAbi (alluding to Baha'is) conspiracy realizing well that it would undermine the clergy's power and income. Although there were some pro-Constitution clergy, the majority of the clergy considered the Constitution as a western idea in conflict with Shari'at, and Nori's views were also supported by the leading clergy in Najaf, the Shi'a holy city in present Iraq. Dehkhoda's satirical pieces ridiculing these views and attacks on Nori and his ideas led to the temporary banning of the newspaper Sur-Esrafil. The outright attack on the reactionary and manipulative clergy appeared in the fourth issue in a piece titled: "New Apocalypse" (Zohor-e Jadid) where Dehkhoda characterizes these clergy as "false Prophets and fake Imams" and then writes:

"The blessing land of Iran, sees each hour a new Prophet, a new Imam... What is the cause? Whatever the cause [intention] of the instigating claimants, the reception by the public and Iranian people and the cause of its acceptance are: ignorance and the habit of obedience..."

With the bombardment of the Iranian Parliament ( Majlis ) by Mohammad Ali Shah, and the temporary setback in the Constitutional Movement, Dehkhoda was forced into exile while his friend and collaborator, Sur Esrafil was executed by the order of the Shah in Bagh-e Shah. Other major leaders of the movement killed or executed by the Shah's order were Malek-al-Motekalemin, Judge Ardaghi Ghazvini and Seyed Jamal-aldin, the father of Jamalzadeh.

While in exile, first in Paris and then to Switzerland, Dekhoda with the aid of other Iranian exiles in Paris such as Abolhassan Pirniya and Mo'azed al-Saltaneh published three additional issues of Sur-Esrafil in Yverdon, Switzerland, which according to Mostofi were sent to and circulated in Iran. But poverty and lack of financial means to support himself, not to mention the paper and his political and literary activities, prompted him to eventually go to Istanbul, Turkey. While in the Ottoman Istanbul where many Iranian exiles had gathered, Dehkhoda with the aid of several, such as Mirza Yahya Dolatabadi and Hossain Danesh, launched the newspaper Soroush. With an apparent financial support from several Iranian merchants, approximately fifteen issues of the Soroush were published and sent to Iran, but with the revolutionaries' march on Tehran and the final defeat of Mohammad Ali Shah in 1910, Dehkhoda was asked to return to Iran, having been nominated and elected as a Majlis deputy by the people of Tehran and Kerman. Interestingly, the people of Kerman had never seen Dehkhoda but held him in high steam because of his writings and his taunting of the deputy governor, Nosrat-al-doleh, who was an eighteen year old political appointee despised by the people of Kerman. As a Majlis deputy he was a member of the E'tedali (moderate) wing opposed to the Democrats.

During WWI, Dehkhoda took sanctuary among the Bakhtiaris in the Chahar Mahal area and upon the conclusion of the war returned to Tehran. But with the rise of Reza Khan which led to the dethroning of the Ghajar King, Ahmad Shah, and the establishment of Reza Khan's dictatorship and atmosphere of censorship, Dehkhoda withdrew from public and political life and immersed himself in literary and scholarly work. It was during this period that he undertook the monumental task of writing his Persian Encyclopedia, Loghat-nameh as well as producing other literary and scholarly works on Persian literature and language among which his four volume work, Amssal o Kokm, was well received and saw several editions. He also served as the President of the School of Law and Political Sciences, his alma mater, in 1920s.

After WWII and during the nationalist and democratic movement led by Dr Mossadegh, Dehkhoda briefly returned to the political scene by supporting Mossadegh and was for sometime the member of the Pro-Peace Society (Anjoman-e Havadaran-e Sohl). But with the CIA engineered coup of 1953 which overthrew Mosaddegh's democratic government and re-established Mohammad Reza Shah, followed by decades of repression and sever censorship, Dehkhoda returned to strictly literary endeavors which continued for the rest of his life.

Aside from several hundred literary pieces, including poems which deliberately used pure Persian words in Ferdowsi tradition, Dehkhoda's major contribution is his monumental Persian Encyclopedic-Dictionary, "Loghat-Nameh Dehkhoda". Established at his home located on Tehran's Iranshahr avenue, Dehkhoda attracted a significant number of progressive scholars and linguists to collaborate in the writing of his Loghat-nameh. In those days, Iranshahr was located on the outskirts of the city away from hustle and bustle of the city and mixed noise of automobile and doroshkeh traffic, but Dehkhoda's home was busy with scholarly and intellectual activities. A significant library was built and each person was assigned a special letter of the Persian alphabet or other tasks. By the time of his death in 1st March 1956, the work had surpassed 80 volumes.

In 1945 Dehkhoda's home was designated as the Dehkhoda Institute. After Dehkhoda's death the Institute was transferred to the Parliament which assumed its responsibility and the administrative duties of Loghat nameh was assigned to Dr. Mohammad Mo'in, one of his assistants and collaborators since 1945, by the Majlis in accordance to Dehkhoda's wishes enunciated in his Will. In 1958, the responsibility of Loghat nameh was transferred to the Tehran University's Literature Department and Dr. Mo'in was appointed as the head of the Dehkhoda Institute. Later, Dr. Mo'in's , an outstanding scholar in his own right, was replaced due to his illness, by Dr. Seyed Jaffar Shahidi as the head of the Dehkhoda Institute. Dr Shahidi had once collaborated with the group with the task of translating Arabic terms into Persian and was also responsible for supervising the publication of Mo'in's own work, Farhang-e Farsi, in 1972. It still continues as a branch of the Tehran University located on Vali Asr Avenue in Shimran.

The establishment of the Islamic Republic brought about a temporary erosion in the Persian consciousness with Arabic words supplanting the Persian terms in both official print and speeches as well as in the media, accompanied by attempts to revise the system of lower education and purges in the academic institutions. But Dehkhoda's Loghat-nameh shall serve many future generations of Iranians and be considered as part of their Iranian (Persian) heritage. May he be remembered by Iranians as a patriot, a scholar, a democrat, a noble Iranian and a man of peace.