Iran: The Construction of a National Identity

Iran as Imagined Nation is a 1993 book by Mostafa Vaziri. A critical study of how Iranian nationalism, itself largely influenced by Orientalist scholarship first undertaken by the European Orientalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has shaped modern conceptions of Iran and Iranian identity, as well as narratives of Iranian history, leading to the adoption of a broad nationalist construction of identity to suit Iranian political and ideological circumstances. This book argues that such a broad-brushed approach and the term “Iranian” could not have applied to the large multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural populations in the vast territory of Iran over so many distinct historical periods.

Iran, originally the name for a geographical region, and its descriptor, Iranian, gradually came to represent, both in the work of the Orientalists and nationalist thinkers, a broad category that represented one unified people, language family, a culture, and eventually an imaginary nation which had seemingly perpetuated from antiquity onward — a rather arbitrary and discrepant approach. Such approach was based on the European study of languages and cultures of antiquity and linking them together as a way to conceive a national history for Iran. Racial and linguistic theories and sharply dissonant national political philosophies bolstered by a belief in the soundness of its scholarly methodology led Europe to create asymmetry and an image of itself distinct from the rest of the world.

European Orientalism chased down the residue of all historical documents in order to scrutinize them, then did so in a framework of projected racial and nationalistic ideas. The study of Iran was subjected to the same system of principles. Racism and nationalism promoted the glory of the Aryans, who constructed the Iranian nation from the Achaemenid period (550 BCE) until modern times. The pre-Islamic cultural heritage, race, and language were revitalized in the scholarship of the nineteenth century to impose a sense of Iranhood and its persistence in history. Did Iran as a nation exist during the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods? The Orientalist response, although anachronistic, has been affirmative. It is true that the name Iran was used for a geographical designation for an area between India and the Arab lands beginning in the third century CE, but this should not be mistaken for a proof that a homogeneous Iranian nation and people existed in that region.

Such a conception was conceived primarily in a linguistic-racial sense for pre-Islamic Iran and for most of the nationalist historiography of the Islamic period. In the twentieth century, Asian/Iranian nationalism, as a byproduct of European colonialism and other indigenous factors, boldly incorporated the constructed version of national history of Iran by the Orientalists into the nationalist ideology as a backbone.

In general terms, Persia was used as the name for the land by the West and eventually by the entire international community until Reza Shah (1921–1941), as the monarch of Iran, demanded that Iran be used instead of Persia. In fact, Reza Shah made it clear that any mail addressed to Persia instead of Iran would be returned to the sender. Europeans doubtless became familiar with the name Persia from the references in classical Greek sources to Persis (or Persepolis) in histories of the encounters of the Greeks with the Persians, particularly from the time of Alexander the Great. The Bible (in the books of Daniel and Esdras) also refers to Pars or Persia. Or perhaps the vast land within Persia known to the European world as Parthia was the source of Persia.

We know that in the Islamic period many historical/geographical sources referred to the land as Fars (Pars), the term that Europeans translating Islamic books into Latin during the Middle Ages, converted into Persia or Perse, although the usage of Persis by the classical Greeks may have become known in European geographical knowledge in later periods.

Modern scholarship has tried to link the present name of Pars to Parsa, from the period of Achaemenids. Such an assertion seems to be based on the idea expressed by Mostaufī in his Nodhat ul-Qulub and perhaps other earlier descriptions of Pars as the base of the ancient kings. However, using Parsa or Pars as the source of Western usage of the word Persia leaves unexplained how Fars was etymologically derived from the Parsa of ancient times. The evolution of the name Fars has been traditionally taken for granted without further arguments. But it is necessary for scholars to argue if we are to understand the philological transition from one culture or language to another. Another vague concept is the historical application of Parsa or Fars, given that it may be used only for the seat or capital of the ancient monarchs and not necessarily as the name for a vast land or the main plateau. During the Sasanian period (third century CE), according to Islamic geographical sources, the term Iranshahr was applied to the vast land, not Fars. It thus remains a question why the Europeans continuously used Persia and not Iran or Iranshahr. The flow of Europeans after the Middle Ages toward the Orient gradually made them aware of many historical changes of which they had only had a traditional knowledge.

For example, in the travel chronicles of Jean Baptiste Tavernier and Sir John Chardin (both seventeenth-century European travelers), reference is made to the name Iran, although in an insignificant manner, since they knew the land only by the name Perse or Persia. In the late eighteenth century, the term Iran is dealt with in a scholarly fashion by Silvestre de Sacy as a result of his reading of the Sasanian inscriptions. Gradually, after the nineteenth century, the term Iran came to be used interchangeably with Persia, although at times inaccurately, thus causing confusion by giving the impression that Iran was inside Persia or that Persia was inside Iran or that Persia was named after the Aryans, and so on. It was then safe to think that Iran, after its introduction to European intellectual circles, had been the name of the land since ancient times, as the statement by J. Malcolm in the nineteenth century confirms: “Iran has been from the most ancient times to the present day, the term by which the Persians call their country.” However, applying Iran in such a way that Persia was accommodated within it from the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural perspective was left to subsequent scholars.

The other misconception is rooted in the appellation Persian, derived from Persia. Often the term Persian has been used to characterize people and language as well as culture and tradition. The West, unaware of the complexity of the sociocultural components of what they called Persia, simply called everything in the region Persian; whereas this crude perception failed to distinguish the areas of culture, language, and ethnicity. Although Iran has been substituted for Persia and Iranian for Persian in recent times, the word Persian is still used for language and for certain cultural traditions to emphasize the continuity of Persian dominance. There are some problems posed by using Persian so loosely, however. To begin with, the inhabitants of so-called Persia were called Persians by the Europeans prior to the twentieth century (some still call them Persians), although these people did not have any linguistic correspondence with the inhabitants of Persia themselves. If we consider Fars synonymous with Persia, all the people of Persia could not have been called Fars or Farsis because Fars was only a region of the land (Iran/Persia).

Furthermore, there were other regions and linguistic communities such as the Baluchis, Kurds, and Turks that did not fit the Fars or Persian category. (Therefore, in subsequent scholarship they were given the designation Iranian rather than Persian.) Pietro della Valle, a traveler from Rome in the early seventeenth century interestingly describes inhabitants of Persia who are of several kinds and are the foreigners of different nations. He adds that the real Persians (veritables Persans) who continue to live on the land are only living in three or four cities, including Isfahan (the capital of the Safavid dynasty). Father Krusinski, a Jesuit priest, observed in the early eighteenth century: “There is hardly a country inhabited by so many different nations as Persia.” In the mid-nineteenth century, Eugene Flandin refers to Persians in general but then at times uses (for example) the Kurds in place of the Persians, as if the author is aware of its difference of identity and yet ambiguously puts both as part of one large entity (without using the general designation Iranian).

Thus, Persian was an obscure term that hardly explained the multiethnic population and did not correspond to anything in a general scale of identity that the local inhabitants would refer to. It should also be noted that, if Persian was borrowed from ancient sources just as Persia was, the change of the name to Iran simply ignored the changes of culture and languages and the constant new migrations, occupations, and transitions of intervening centuries. It would be far-fetched and anachronistic to believe that peoples of pre-Iran or Iran (pre-Islamic or Islamic) continuously viewed themselves as possessing one unique identity in various regions, whether it be a native Khurāsān, Kurdistan, or Fars. So one widely disseminated aspect of ‘Persian’ identity does not properly reflect the complex multilayered issue of identity that underlies it except for purposes of convenience. However, as time went by Persian gradually came to be used for the language designation and less for the ethnic.

In the early Islamic period, from the seventh to ninth centuries, the languages of the region underwent a sharp transition and synthesized new languages under Arabic alphabetical and stylistic auspices. Farsi, the language that developed in the post-Islamic period, is generally referred to as Persian. But the designation Persian for Farsi (the language) and for the people of Persia (who potentially speak Farsi) creates a confusion in designating a broad identity for the speakers of Farsi outside Persia proper such as people in regions of Transoxiana (Tajikistan, Afghanistan). Could these people be called Persians because they were (are) speakers of Farsi?

No technically satisfactory answer was provided until the modern concept of nationality and geographical identity took precedence over other vague cultural affiliations. The Persian designation for both the people and the language also raises questions as to how and why, if the Farsi language was formed between seventh and ninth centuries,15 the ancient term Persian (derived from Persis) was conveniently used for a much younger language? Furthermore, the ancient appellation Persian, at least in the European sources, indicated an ethnic designation, not necessarily a language. The uninformed use of Persian for the Farsi language by the Orientalists was based on nothing but an imagined continuity of the people and the language from ancient times, particularly from the Sasanian period. It was through this reasoning that the Farsi language (Persian) was seen in its third phase after having gone from ‘Old Persian’ of the Achaemenid to ‘Middle Persian’ of the Sasanian (as Browne states, this development is “quite analogous to the expressions ‘Old English,’ ‘Middle English,’ and ‘Modern English’”).

Again, the designation of ‘Old’ and ‘Middle’ for these languages has had at least two consequences. First, the philologists (e.g., Darmesteter) conclusively stated that due to borrowed words from various languages, modern Farsi differs structurally and grammatically from those ancient languages. Nonetheless, it was seen as an extension of them and not other regional languages, probably for mustering the conception of continuity from antiquity on, in a national context. Second, by having said this, the Orientalists established the necessary link between the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods — particularly in culture and language — although in fact these differed sharply from one another.

Still, the evident distance between the so-called Persians of the Achaemenid period of half a millennium BCE and the speakers of Farsi of, say, the fourteenth century CE as a widespread and continental (not national) grouping had to be bridged both in technical scholarship and in nationalistic historical thinking. It should be acknowledged that the Farsi language is a symbol of continuity for over a millennium (even from what has been borrowed from the common languages of the Sasanian period), but such continuity does not guarantee continuity for the culture or the ethnicity inside Iran proper. Thus the designation Persian for all the elements, including language, culture, and ethnicity, without considering the selective and discontinued aspects culture and ethnicity leads to seriously contradictory conclusions.

Subsequently, the broad ‘national’ term Persian, which has been used for the language and its speakers, technically excluded other ethnic populations of Iran whose mother tongue is other than Farsi (Persian). When the term Iran came to be substituted for the term Persia in Western literature, the concept Iranian was equally poised to replace Persian, but Iran became a broad historical category to nourish the nationalistic necessities of many groups of which Persians were only one.

Photo: Terhan, The Azadi Tower by Reza Tavakoli,

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