The constitutional revolution of 1905 in Tehran: a visible manifestation of the consequences of imperial modernisation in Qajar Iran?

In 1905 the constitutional revolution in Qajar Iran ushered in the first constitutional period of 1906-08. Although this was a countrywide phenomenon, the scope of this article is on events that developed in Tehran, in order to provide an in-depth investigation of the developments there. Due to the multifaceted nature of the constitutional movement, three key aspects will be addressed; the role of the bazaar, the worsening of economic conditions that plagued the country, and lastly the heavy foreign influences in Iran, mainly in the form of economic domination.. These three aspects of the revolution were clear manifestations of the consequences of various attempts by the Qajar government to pursue a range of unsuccessful political and economic reformation programmes, throughout the nineteenth century. The bazaar and the bazaaris form a recurring theme for analysis throughout this article, as they, and their reactions to Iran’s ongoing problems, appear crucial in articulating public dissatisfaction and resistance to government policy. This seems not so much a reaction against modernisation per se, but a reaction to the manner in which the Qajar modernisation programme was put together and its consequences, both intentional and unforeseen.

The bazaar in Tehran was to play a crucial role in the constitutional revolution. Urban life revolved around the bazaar. It was a major location of commerce and manufacturing, and it also acted as a religious and educational centre for urban society.i Therefore, the crowd – which was to play a big part in the revolution – largely constituted of merchants, the ulama (religious clerics) and their students, as well as the growing number of unskilled labourers, who had migrated from the increasingly neglected Iranian countryside.ii Furthermore, the bazaar was strictly organized into different guilds (asnaf), based on occupation, trade, and craft.iii These guilds provided the bazaar with great potential for political mobilisation as the influence of the Qajar government over the guilds grew weaker in the later decades of the nineteenth century. The guilds could thereby elect their own heads, and because of their close links with the mujtahids, they were able to act independently and challenge the political establishment.iv Moreover, the guilds joined forces to form the Anjuman-i Asnaf, the association of guilds in the Tehran bazaar, which led the protests of the revolution and made demands for a constitution and a House of Parliament.v This was a response to the unsuccessful attempts by the Qajar government to centralise the heretofore decentralised political establishment from the provinces, after the government had introduced European-influenced law codes and constitutions. The Qajar government was, furthermore, unable to detach the now stagnant political establishment from the ruling dynasty of the Shah.vi

This sentiment gained momentum with the help of the ulama, whose powerful position in society was maintained. This was a consequence of an unsuccessful reform that intended to weaken their position as influential mediators between the government and society.vii Along with the merchants, the ulama were able to politically mobilise themselves in the form of basts (by seeking sanctuary in holy places), demonstrations, strikes and boycotts, which certainly had repercussions when practised on a large scale.viii Examples of such actions include the events of July and December 1905. In July, the bazaariha closed their shops in response to the arrest of an anti-court preacher, and the leading ulama sought sanctuary in the ‘Abd al-‘Azim mosque, demanding the resignation of the Chief Minister and the introduction of political reform.ix The events of the 12th December were a response to the physical punishment of merchants accused of attempting to charge inflated prices of sugar. The ulama protested first in Masjid Shah Mosque, later taking sanctuary once again in ‘Abd al-‘Azim mosque, asking for a ‘House of Justice’, coincidentally sparking the constitutional revolution in Qajar Iran. Although the Shah agreed to grant a House of Justice in January 1906, the summer of 1906 saw the exodus of approximately 15,000 people from Tehran seeking bast in the garden of the British Legation.x Here, the bazaar further developed and articulated their demands, refusing to return to work until a written constitution and House of Parliament had been granted. Unable to deploy the ill-equipped Persian Cossack Army against them, the Shah was forced to grant a constitution on 6 August 1906.xi

Another demand articulated by the bazaar was that of economic reform. By the dawn of the revolution in 1906, the Iranian economy had suffered a deep and wide-ranging financial crisis.xii Subsequently, businesses and merchants were unable to provide their customers – the urban population – with basic products. Evidently, the urban population was heavily reliant on them. Figures between the years of 1880 and 1900 reveal that the price of a basket of basic commodities rose by 5.5 times, with price rises being greater in the northern cities of Qajar Iran, significantly affecting cities like Tehran.xiii Furthermore, the inhabitants of Tehran experienced a rise in taxes during the government of ‘Ain al-Daula, further aggravating the economic conditions there.xiv The Calcutta-based Persian-language newspaper Habl al-Matin reported that, as a consequence of the inflation that struck the economy in 1905, the price of wheat increased by 90%, and the price of sugar increased by 33%.xv Additionally, bureaucrats attempted to manipulate grain prices in 1903 resulting in bread riots in Tehran.xvi With high unemployment rates, a sharp depreciation of currency, and a surge in the urban population of Tehran from rural areas, these developments caused great resentment toward the Qajar government among the public. Moreover, as consequence of the inflation, revenues from the silk trade decreased.xvii Silk production constituted the main cash crop and source of income in Qajar Iran; it continued to diminish in relation to national income, and showed a decline in real terms in the late nineteenth century.xviii

Another long-term economic issue facing Qajar Iran was the exorbitant cost of maintaining the state bureaucracy. Qajar Iran operated a decentralised administration system, with a weak central administration in Tehran and relatively powerful administrative councils in the provinces, which were ruled by the members of the ruling dynasty.xix The provincial leaders consistently resisted attempts by the Tehran government to centralise the administration, tighten control over decision-making at a provincial level and to create a more efficient bureaucracy that aimed at enabling the initiation processes of economic and institutional change and development, as well as the mobilization of such resources necessary for the change and development to take place.xx Thus, the Qajar government lacked the appropriate financial means to invest in local industries in hope of expanding their potential into larger and competitive industries, which theoretically would promote industrialization and an economic and technological advancement of Iranian society. These developments (or the lack thereof), combined with the grandiose expenditure of the court, deep provincial corruption, and a growing number of pensioners, resulted in the long-term institutional, economic, and social stagnation, which were of major concerns for the public, in particular for the bazaar.xxi Therefore, the introduction of the ideology of constitutionalism by the bazaar as one that promises progress, predominantly in terms of economic advancement and a modern political state possessing a representative legal-rational order was a clear manifestation of the attempted imperial modernisations, since these reforms signalled a break away from the traditional agricultural economy, and an inefficient and decaying political establishment.xxii

Despite its systematic discrepancies, the government attempted to respond to its economic difficulties in a variety of ways, however, many of which served to exacerbate the existing problems. As a consequence of low tax revenues, the government had to look for alternative means to balance the books, by initiating the sale of the crown lands and the various provincial offices to the highest bidders between the 1880s and 1907, and turning toward loans and concessions from European creditors.xxiii These unsuccessful attempts highlighted a number of internal and external problems within the administration. The internal problems stressed the increased number of independent decision-making domains as an outcome of the selling of provincial offices to private owners: the latter placed a heavy tax burden on the already impoverished peasants.xxiv The external problems confirmed the turn toward loans and concessions, which proved to be very unpopular with the public, since these initiatives led to the implementation of monopolies of foreign companies in the economy. Nevertheless, when taking into account the heightened insecurity, corruption, inflation, unemployment, and the government’s budget deficits at the turn of the century, the Qajar government was effectively forced to turn to foreign loans in a desperate attempt to manage the country’s worsening economic problems.

The third aspect that concerned the bazaar was the growing influence of foreign investors, who had begun to dominate the economic sphere. Between 1800 and 1914, foreign trade increased by about twelve times in real terms, with British trade increasing from £1.7 million to £4.5 million, whilst trade with Russia increased from circa £1 million to £9.4 million in the same time period.xxv In the later decades of the Qajar dynasty, an estimated 80% of Iranian imports and exports were destined to or originated from either Britain or Russia.xxvi In the attempt to achieve an overhaul of the existing tax system in 1897-8, the Minister of Finance, Abu’l Qasim Khan, and Nasir al-Mulk brought Belgian advisers into the country in 1898 to manage their progress. Together with the Belgian administrators, their main aim was to examine the customs collection system, which acted as another vital source of government revenue aside from the silk production. Monsieur Joseph Naus developed comprehensive plans for the economic reform, and indirectly assumed the position of Minister of Finance, which effectively meant that Naus was granted complete control over the economic activities in Qajar Iran.xxvii

In a move that was fiercely opposed by the bazaar merchants, Naus introduced a new tariff in 1903, which went into operation in 1905. The new tariff entailed the enforcement of a levy of 20% on exports and a 5% VAT, which would have serious consequences for the value and profitability of trade and commerce. This had two serious implications, firstly, merchants were unable to cover high transportation costs, due to the state’s poor railway system, and were forced to largely rely on expensive animal transportation.xxviii Secondly, the regulation of the new trade tariff proved too complicated for merchants to follow, and therefore they fully favoured imported goods from Russia.xxix Consequently, by 1900, Russia accepted 59% of Iran’s exports and supplied Iran 38% of its exports.xxx Discontent and objection against the trade tariff and foreign loans manifested itself into an orderly procession in April 1905, led by moneylenders from the bazaar. Demands included the repayment of the loans the bazaar’s moneylenders had lent the government two years prior (which the government had yet to begin to repay), the reversal of the trade policies of 1905 which essentially favoured Russian goods, together with the immediate resignation of Naus. A witness of the procession quoted in Habl al-Matin claimed, ‘the government must encourage home industries, even if their products are not as good as foreign manufacturers. Otherwise, the present policy of helping Russian traders will inevitably lead to the utter destruction of our industry and commerce’.xxxi These points, as described by the witness, were under scrutiny since the Oajar government was evidently inept in defending its domestic economy vis-à-vis cheap foreign imports, which exacerbated the existing problems. Domestic goods became increasingly expensive, as consequence of rising production and transport costs, whilst the foreign goods enjoyed the opposite effect – such was the nature of the inverse relationship in Oajar trade and economics.

The Qajar government was unable to defend its domestic industries – which at this point were either no longer existent or struggling to continue with manufacturing – from imports of cheaply manufactured goods. Therefore, the government had lost its position as the protector of the people, and was perceived to be a corrupt regime that had participated in the plundering and destruction of the country, which is an example of what Abrahamson called, ‘Oriental Despots’ in his analysis.xxxii Nevertheless, by the coming of the revolution, the Iranian economy still had numerous characteristics of a traditional and agricultural economy. Like many states that had come to be economically dominated by Europeans, Qajar Iran was unable to integrate itself into the global economy as a competitive economy. Their intention was to expand domestic industries, but the balance of trade, ironically, fell in favour of Russian traders.

As mentioned earlier, in order to address the growing deficit whilst trying to find solutions to their economic problems, the Qajar government turned toward loans and concessions from Britain and Russia. In 1900, a £2 million loan was taken from Russia, with another £1 million borrowed in 1902.xxxiii The money was used to finance the repayment plans of other loans, thus disappearing quickly. With the sharp depreciation of currency, inflation and continued poor influx of tax revenue, the government found it difficult to keep up with the loans repayments, whilst attempting to resolve domestic economic problems.

In regards to concessions, it became increasingly common for the Qajar government to grant concessions to foreign companies, providing them with permission to obtain market monopolies. The moves toward such concessions were likely to be highly unpopular with the public, whose jobs and standard of living were at stake. The starkest reaction against concessions was the selling of the Imperial Tobacco Company to the British creditor Major B. F. Talbot, which was granted by Nasir al-Din Shah in 1890.xxxiv The terms of the concessions provided Major Talbot with complete monopoly over production, sales, and exports of the commodity for fifty years. In return, he would pay the Shah a sum of £15,000 on an annual basis, as well as a fourth of the Company’s annual profits and a dividend of 5% on the capital.xxxv This placed the Qajar government in a precarious position, since the tobacco industry employed over 200,000 people, and would risk the livelihoods of the merchants and farmers who were involved in the tobacco industry. In addition to tobacco being a staple product in the domestic market, it was considered an important export product for foreign markets, as a certain variety of tobacco was exclusively cultivated in Iran.xxxvi Once the tobacco monopoly was established, it subsequently obliged all producers and owners of tobacco to sell their goods to the monopoly, which then resold the tobacco at a price agreed between the Imperial Tobacco Company and the tobacco sellers.xxxvii Tobacco sellers and producers were now required to seek permits from the monopoly, in addition to informing the concessionaries of the amount of tobacco that was being produced. Among the consequences of these developments, the job security of a substantial portion of the public was threatened.

Once the news of the Tobacco Concession reached the public early in 1891, the bazaar was quick to display discontent. Merchants, believing their income and livelihood were at risk, wrote letters of disapproval to high members of the government. Leading merchants, such as Hajj Mohammed Malek al-Tojjar played a central role in organizing mass protests in the spring of 1891 against the monopoly, as well as appealing to well-known mujtahids for additional support,xxxviii with placards displaying the continuously mounting public anger toward the government’s granting of concessions to foreign investors.xxxix Key religious leaders of the ulama proved to be highly useful in this movement, as, for instance, on December 1891 they issued a fatwa, which encouraged the boycott of the consumption of tobacco produced and sold by the monopoly, deeming it to be against national interests. The ulama considered the increased foreign domination of the domestic economic sphere, especially by non-Muslim foreigners, to be a threat against the national-religious community that had been under their leadership for centuries.xl Moreover, the ulama held an interest in tobacco production since large proportions of it was cultivated on the waqf land, which many of them administered.xli

The inhabitants of Tehran refused to smoke tobacco altogether, and this collective action spread across to other provinces in the country.xlii The boycott continued to grow, resulting in merchants having to close their shops in the bazaars across the country. Nasir al-Din Shah and Prime Minister Amin al-Sultan were powerless in preventing the countrywide popular movement because the army was too weak to be deployed against them,xliii and they moreover feared Russian intervention in the possible event of an outbreak of civil war.xliv With tobacco being a staple crop for many Iranians, the boycott was felt in the economy, which resulted with a sharp fall in revenues for both the government and the Company. As the British government reconsidered their support for the Tobacco Concession, the Qajar government was forced to cancel the concession in January 1892, providing the Tobacco Company with a compensation sum of £500,000.xlv By 26 January 1892, another fatwa was issued to negate the initial one in order to authorize tobacco consumption, thereby permitting Iranians to smoke again.

The events regarding the Tobacco Concession clearly conveyed that Iranians, once mobilised, were able to hinder the interference of foreign powers into the political and economic spheres, whilst challenging the position and decisions of the Shah and the remainder of the political establishment. Such a frame of mind was to exercise influence upon the articulation of the bazaar’s demands leading up to the Constitutional Revolution, and over the articulations of the aims after the establishment of the parliament (majlis) in Tehran. More importantly, the Tobacco Concession allowed for the crucial alliance between the ulama and the merchants of the bazaar. The aftermath of the tobacco movement firmly established both the religious and political legitimacy of the ulama that would later enable them to become agents of change, by bringing about a completely new political system together with the cooperation of the merchants.

On 5 August 1906, the Shah finally agreed to grant a constitution, however he attempted to stall the final draft of the new constitution.xlvi The bazaar remained on strike until the Fundamental Law, which enabled a legitimate and independent constitution to be signed, was passed. The strike lasted a month, until Muzaffar al-Din Shah ratified the constitution on his death-bed in December 1906.xlvii The newly formed constitution of 1907 was largely modelled on the Belgian constitution and mainly consisted of the bazaar members from Tehran, which was coincidentally unrepresentative of the revolutionary movement’s broader membership across other provinces. Nevertheless, the consequences of the revolution became evident as they devoted their first concerns with ridding the country of any needs of foreign loans. This was to be done by limiting the court’s extravagant spending, including preventing expensive visits to Europe, and redirecting a larger share of tax revenue away from the government and towards the state treasury. The establishment of a national bank, furthermore, would provide loans from within the country in order to resolve the immediate financial difficulties the Shah had previously brought on the country.xlviii

Further concerns related to the reduction of the Shah’s political power, which was aimed at setting the foundations for a system of governance where the people were considered sovereign, hence the introduction of a code of laws and a legal court system that would be in charge of administering its proceedings, thereby replacing the role of the Shah and his governors.xlix Additionally, there were attempts by the constitution to limit foreign interference in the country, and not only in the economic sphere, where such interference would serve to hamper Iranian society’s development. For instance, Russia had placed a veto vote against plans of expanding of the Iranian railway system, and by vetoing the plans of such expansion and development, Russian intervention had simultaneously prevented Iran from developing other means of communication and transport, effectively obstructing further attempts to stimulate domestic industries and market development. Consequently, foreigners were, as seen by the masses, more than often blamed for hampering their society’s development, which was perceived to be a consequence of imperial rivalries and interests in the region. Therefore, constitutionalism provided the Iranians with an ideology, the aspirations and the solution for achieving political, economic and social modernity and development. Unfortunately, this sentiment failed to materialize immediately as splits emerged between members of the constitutionalists regarding decision-making and the future of the country, which allowed for other political agents to attain control over the course of the revolution.

In sum, it was imperial modernisation during the nineteenth century in Qajar Iran, particularly governmental economic failures and foreign domination, that spurred the Tehrani bazaari and ulama into protest and direct action, constituting a very visible manifestation of dissatisfaction with the direction and consequences of this ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’. It was in fact the failure of the Qajar government to implement reforms in the political, legislative and economic spheres that prevented much needed changes from taking place. This led to ineffective political institutions and an ailing economy, which increasingly became vulnerable to foreign interference and interests. The subsequent foreign domination of the Iranian economic sphere, with the complete control of the economy by Naus and the oversaturation of imported Russian goods in the domestic market, either destroyed or severely hindered local industries. Local merchants could no longer compete with the economic advances gained by European merchants in the Iranian market, and with their livelihoods at risk, the bazaar mobilized against the Shah – largely discredited as having little concern for the welfare of the public – and foreign investors, in order to make their grievances heard. The people now wanted a representative political system in which they would be able to elect and dismiss ministers, whose jobs would include voting on budgets and managing political decisions on behalf of the public. The hope was that the constitution would become the basis of the development of Iran’s society.

i Ervand Abrahamson, ‘The Crowd in the Persian Revolution’, Iranian Studies, 2/4 (1969), 128-150, 129.

ii Ibid., 128-150.

iii Ibid., 128-150.

iv Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 129.

v Ibid., 133.

vi Nader Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, (Cambridge, 2011), 323-327.

vii Ibid., 323.

viii Ibid., 323.

ix Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 133.

x Malcolm Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792-1923, (Routledge, 2014), 249.

xi Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 134.

xii Vanessa Martin, Islam and Modernism: the Iranian Revolution of 1906, (Syracuse, 1989), 44

xiii Ibid., 43.

xiv Ibid., 63.

xv Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 130.

xvi Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East 1792-1923, 250.

xvii Ibid., 166.

xviii Ibid., 166.

xix Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, 326.

xx Ibid., 326; Hassan Hakimian, ’Economy viii. In the Qajar Period’, Iranica Online, 8/2, (1997), 138-143.

xxi Nader Sohrabi, N, ’Historicizing Revolutions’, American Journal of Sociology, 10/, 6, (1995), pp.1383-1447, p. 1397.

xxii Ibid., 1383-1447, 1397.

xxiii Hakimian, ’Economy viii. In the Qajar Period’, passim.

xxiv Ibid., passim.

xxv Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East 1792-1923, 165.

xxvi Hakimian, ’Economy viii. In the Qajar Period’, passim.

xxvii Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East 1792-1923, 210.

xxviii Ibid., 165.

xxix Martin, Islam and Modernism: the Iranian Revolution of 1906, 47.

xxx Ibid., 44.

xxxi Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 131.

xxxii Ibid., 130.

xxxiii Martin, Islam and Modernism: the Iranian Revolution of 1906, 46.

xxxiv Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792-1923, 249.

xxxv Stephen Poulson, Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran, (Lexington, 2005), 86.

xxxvi Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, (Oneword, 2000), p. 215.

xxxvii Ibid, p. 215.

xxxviii Poulson, Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran, p. 87.

xxxix Poulson, Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran, 87.Nikki Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-92, (Frank Cass, 1966), 55.

xl Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906, (University of California, 1969), 208.

xli Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-92, p. 62.

xlii Martin, Islam and Modernism: the Iranian Revolution of 1906, 44; Ann Lambton, Qajar Persia, (University of Texas Press, 1983), 248.

xliii Ibid., p. 44.

xliv Ibid., 44; Ann Lambton, Qajar Persia, (University of Texas Press, 1983), 248.

xlv Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, 218; Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-92, 125.

xlvi Abrahamson, The Crowd in the Persian Revolution, 134.

xlvii Ibid., 135.

xlviii Marshall Hodgson. ‘Iran and the Russian Empire: the Dream of Revolution’ in The Venture of Islam, vol. 3, 303-332, 312.

xlix Hodgson. ‘Iran and the Russian Empire: the Dream of Revolution’, 312.

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