Persia Revisited [Full Text]
WITH REMARKS ON H.I.M. MOZUFFER-ED-DIN SHAH, AND THE PRESENT SITUATION IN PERSIA
On revisiting Tehran last autumn, I was struck with the evidence of progress and improvement in Persia, and on returning home I formed the idea of publishing a short account of my journey, with observations and opinions which are based on my previous experiences, and have reference also to what has been recorded by others. In carrying out this idea, I have made use of information given in the well-known books on Persia by Malcolm, Fraser, Watson and Curzon... -- May, 1896
Many of the Moullas, in their character as meddlers, are always ready to step forward in opposition to all matters and measures in which they have not been consulted and conciliated. So the Russian road from Resht was pronounced to be a subject for public agitation by the Tabriz Mujtahid, Mirza Javad Agha, who, since his successful contest over the Tobacco Régie, has claimed to be one of the most important personages in Persia. This priest is very rich, and is said to be personally interested in trade and 'wheat corners' at Tabriz, and as he saw that the new road was likely to draw away some of the Tabriz traffic, he set himself the task of stirring up the Moullas of Resht to resent, on religious grounds, the extended intrusion of Europeans into their town. The pretence of zeal in the cause was poor, because the Resht Moullas are themselves interested in local prosperity, and the agitation failed.
A change is coming over the country in regard to popular feeling towards priestly interference in personal and secular affairs. The claim to have control of the concerns of all men may now be said to be but the first flush of the fiery zeal of divinity students, fresh from the red-hot teachings of bigoted Moulla masters, who regret the loss of their old supremacy, and view with alarm the spread of Liberalism, which seems now to be establishing itself in Persia...
There are now signs of the people resenting the arrogant assumption or power by the Moullas, and freeing themselves from their thraldom. There has always been great liberty of opinion and speech in Persia, and six hundred years ago the poets Khayyam and Hafiz took full advantage of this in expressing their contempt for the 'meddling Moullas.' Not very long ago the donkey-boys in one of the great towns would on occasion reflect the popular feeling by the shout '_Br-r-r-o akhoond!_' (Go on, priest!) when they saw a Moulla pattering along on his riding donkey. _Biro_ is Persian for 'go on,' and, rolled and rattled out long and loud, is the cry when droves of load-carrying donkeys are driven. The donkey-boy in Persia is as quick with bold reply as he is in Egypt and elsewhere. There is a story that a high Persian official called out to a boy, whose gang of burden-bearing donkeys obstructed his carriage, 'Out of the way, ass, you driver of asses!' and was promptly answered, 'You are an ass yourself, though a driver of men!'...
After disposing of the Tobacco Régie, the triumphant Moullas desired to extend their prohibition to all foreign enterprise in Persia, and they pronounced against the English Bank, which was doing its work quietly, and without detriment to the business of others. But the Shah gave them clearly to understand that their pretensions would be permitted no further, and that they were to cease from troubling. They then made an attempt to establish the impression of their power in a visible sign on all men, by commanding discontinuance of the Persian fashion of shaving the chin, so that the beard should be worn in accordance with Mohammedan custom. Again they talked of organizing coercion gangs, to enforce the order on the barbers, under threat of wrecking their shops.
At this time a foreign diplomat, during an audience of the Shah, on being asked by his Majesty, according to his wont, what news there was in the European quarter of the town, mentioned this latest phase of Moulla agitation as tending to unsettle men's minds. The Shah passed his hand lightly over his shaven chin, and said, with a touch of humour and royal assurance: 'See, I shave; let them talk; they can do nothing.'
It is wrong to suppose that the people of Persia are dead to all desire for progress, and that their religion is a bar to such desire. It is not so. Many of the Moullas, it is true, are opposed to education and progress. One frankly said of the people in reference to education, 'They will read the Koran for themselves, and what will be left for us to do?' The country is advancing in general improvement, slowly, but yet moving forward; not standing still or sliding back, as some say.
The Moulla struggles in 1891-92 to gain the upper hand produced a feeling of unquiet, and the most was made of all grievances, so as to fan the flames of discontent. Pestilent priests paraded the country, and did their utmost to excite religious fanaticism against the Government. These agitators spoke so loudly and rashly that the ire of the old religious leaders, the higher Moullas, men of learning and tranquil temper, who had not joined the party of retrogression, was roused. The knowledge of this emboldened the sober-minded to speak out against the arrogance and conceit of the new self-elected leaders. Open expression of opinion led to the criticism, 'These priests will next desire to rule over us.'
The Nomads, who have always declined to be priest-ridden, also showed that they were ready to resist any attempts to establish a religious supremacy in temporal affairs; and then, by judicious management of rival jealousies and conflicting interests, the Shah succeeded in his policy of complete assertion of the royal power. It may be that the Moullas were made to understand that, just as the Chief Priest had risen at a great assembly before Nadir Shah, and advised him to confine himself to temporal affairs, and not to interfere in matters of religion, so similar sound advice in the reverse order was given for their guidance...
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