Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Modern Nationalism in Iran

  March 03, 2021   Read time 2 min
Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Modern Nationalism in Iran
In his writings, he advocates for political, social, and religious reform characteristic of his generation of intellectuals whose reformist ideas and engagement with sociopolitical themes set the stage for the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, and the political and literary changes that were to follow.

The odd union of Malkom and Afghani, prophets of Western modernity and pan-Islamism, anticipated the ideological tension that later riddled the Constitutional Revolution. The ideological link between these figures and a new generation of Iranian activists at the turn of the twentieth century was maintained through the likes of Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1854–1897). An original thinker with some zest, he indigenized Malkom’s positivist reformism and borrowed from Afghani his anti-imperialist stance. What he contributed to this admixture of nineteenth-century Iranian dissent was an ideology of conscious nationalism rooted in the idealized narrative of the ancient Iranian past and set against the gloomy realities of its present. Kermani’s nationalism, with its anti-Arab and even anti-Islamic outbursts, underscored a collective destiny and called for the overhaul of Iran’s waning moral resolve and cultural orientation. His writings, mostly unpublished, nevertheless came to be an important feature of the constitutional and the post-constitutional intellectual landscape. Kermani’s personal makeup contributed to the fluidity of his ideas, but also to his many flaws and his vacillating political orientation. Born in 1856 to an old but impoverished Sufi family with Zoroastrian ties in the religiously diverse city of Kerman, in the remote heart of southeastern Iran, he was an early example of a modern intellectual dissident. His birthplace, a venue of Sufi Ne‘matollahi, Shaykhi, Usuli, Zoroastrian, Babi, and Baha’i loyalties, not only helped shape Kermani but also produced numerous dissidents in the constitutional period. Kermani gravitated toward Babi thought through his philosophy teacher, who also taught him the rudiments of Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. His short career as a tax collector came to an abrupt end following a quarrel with the provincial governor, who forced him into exile. The young Kermani eventually landed in Istanbul, where he worked the rest of his short life as a freelance journalist, translator, political activist, and private tutor. Writing for a while under a pseudonym for the Persian popular weekly Akhtar, published out of Istanbul, Kermani’s articles addressed current affairs, economy, politics, education, and culture from a critical perspective but in a veiled language acceptable to the newspaper’s readership. By underscoring Iran’s sociopolitical ills, he hoped to reach wider audiences. Displaying symptoms typical of an angry intellectual in exile grappling with an identity crisis, he conceived of a national identity enthralled with the glories of the ancient past, which he had discovered mostly through the Shahnameh but also through Greek and Roman texts available in French and the emerging European scholarship on the subject. In contrast, in his later years he portrayed Arabo-Islamic influence as alien, backward, and responsible for Iran’s presumed degeneration and decline. Only by casting aside this dark legacy of prejudice and pollution, Kermani argued, could the Iranians recover their lost purity and once more rejuvenate their country.

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