Early Signs of Discontent: Shaking Foothold of Nasir Al Din Shah

  May 23, 2021   Read time 3 min
Early Signs of Discontent: Shaking Foothold of Nasir Al Din Shah
By 1905, an increasing number of clandestine publications and makeshift posters on the gates of mosques and the walls of government buildings held the shah and his government responsible for a deteriorating economy, rising prices, and mistreatment of the people of Iran.

In response, the government of the Qajar prince ‘Ayn al-Dowleh, who came to power to restore order and stabilize prices, resorted to draconian measures. As a symbolic gesture, the governor of Tehran ordered the arrest and bastinado of four merchants on the charge of cornering the sugar market and hiking prices. The public humiliation of reputable merchants had the adverse effect of bringing crowds to the Friday Mosque in sympathy with the leaders of the bazaar. Yet there was still visible change from the time of the Tobacco Protest. The voices of dissent were more articulate in their critique of the state and, to a limited extent, in their vision for change. Already in 1900, Jamal al-Din Isfahani had published a tract in Shiraz titled Libas al-Taqwa (An attire of virtue), calling on the Iranian public to wear domestic clothing and avoid imported European fabrics. He pleaded with Iranian merchants to join forces against European competition by consolidating their capital in commercial companies and urged them to manufacture fabrics domestically. Engaging in such activities, rather than entering into war with guns and rifles, was the true jihad and citizens’ patriotic duty. Earlier Jamal al-Din, in collaboration with his Babi associates in Isfahan, had organized the Progress Society (Anjoman-i Tarraqi), one of the earliest prerevolutionary secret circles. The society was instrumental in persuading Isfahani merchants to establish a public company, known as the Islamic Company (Sherekat-e Eslamiyeh), to issue stocks, and to raise the necessary resources to set up mills and manufacture clothing for domestic consumption. Creation of commercial companies (known as kompani and later sherekat) with shareholders was a novel concept that was accepted only gradually at the turn of the twentieth century. Traditionally Islamic law recognized only individuals, not shared entities, as legitimate legal personalities. The formation of new companies and the higher volume of investment in them no doubt added to merchants’ economic power, but it also exposed more of them to the vagaries of the market, commitment to larger loans from modern banks, and vacillations in international trade. In due course this budding commercial bourgeoisie placed new demands on the state and contributed to the growing public discontent. Later, Jamal al-Din directed his criticism toward both the Qajar elite and the clerical establishments, whom he held to be exploitative, corrupt, and tyrannical masters of the country. In 1903 he and Nasrollah Beheshti, better known as Malek al-Motekallemin, another crypto-Babi cleric in the Isfahan circle and later a celebrated preacher of the Constitutional Revolution, anonymously published the tract Roya-ye Sadeqeh (A truthful dream), a satirical reproof of the mojtaheds of Isfahan, especially Aqa Najafi, as well as the powerful prince-governor of Isfahan, Zell al-Soltan. Here, the mojtaheds of the city were depicted as a bunch of greedy, arrogant, and poorly trained mullahs who swindled people’s land and property to accumulate enormous wealth for themselves and their families, and who accepted bribes and favors from the rich and the powerful to issue partial, even conflicting, rulings. He accused them of collaborating with the oppressive and violent government to squash the weak and suppress alternative voices by wielding their weapon of takfir (excommunication) to kill, plunder, and appropriate property.