Persia Adopts a Constitution

Persia’s Fundamental Law and Supplementary Fundamental Law instituted a very short-lived constitutional monarchy. Based on the Belgian constitution, the Persian documents attempted to give the people a voice in government. They also guaranteed individual religious freedom and allocated parliamentary seats to religious minorities, but they forbade non-Muslims from holding cabinet posts.

Summary of Event

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Persia became increasingly enmeshed in international politics. The Russian Empire was expanding to the southeast, while the British in India were moving toward the northwest. Persia was the unwilling buffer between those two imperial giants. Persia’s population at that period was approaching ten million people. More than one-third of that number, however, were nomadic or seminomadic tribal peoples. The rest of the country’s inhabitants were scattered over the countryside in villages and hamlets. Fundamental Law (Persia)
Supplementary Fundamental Law (Persia)
[kw]Persia Adopts a Constitution (Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907)
[kw]Constitution, Persia Adopts a (Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907)
Fundamental Law (Persia)
Supplementary Fundamental Law (Persia)
[g]Iran;Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907: Persia Adopts a Constitution[01710]
[c]Government and politics;Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907: Persia Adopts a Constitution[01710]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907: Persia Adopts a Constitution[01710]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct., 1906-Oct., 1907: Persia Adopts a Constitution[01710]
Moẓaffar od-Dīn Shāh
Moḥammad ՙAlī Shāh
Malkam Khan, Mirza
Nūrī, Fazlullah
Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-

Under the Ṣafavid Dynasty (ca. 1500-1727), Persia had been a major force in the Middle East, but the fall of the Ṣafavids was followed by seventy years of civil war and political chaos. The Qājār Dynasty, which claimed the throne in 1796, never enjoyed the prestige of the Ṣafavids. The Qājārs exerted real authority only in their capital, Tehran, and in a few other cities. To govern the rest of the country, the Qājārs depended on an intricate series of alliances with tribal chiefs and local landlords.

The weakness of the Qājār government meant that the dynasty was comparatively poor. Their extortionate policies were much resented, but the Qājārs were never able to gain sufficient wealth to sustain their imperial pretensions. Their poverty made them an easy mark for European entrepreneurs eager to gain a commercial advantage in exchange for a comparatively small contribution to the royal purse. In this way, Europeans began to exert more control over Persia’s economy. Persia’s merchant class (the bāzāris) was especially hurt by the influx of relatively cheap European goods. Traditional patterns of production and distribution were disrupted.

Europe’s influence was further emphasized in March, 1890, when the Qājār shah granted the British a monopoly over the production, processing, and sale of tobacco in Persia. Persians were avid smokers, and the crop was widely grown. Farmers, petty manufacturers, and shopkeepers all faced the prospect of losing control over this valuable cash crop. All classes of Persian society therefore protested the granting of the tobacco concession. A few individuals who had been educated in Europe or in Persia’s few European-style schools led the way by complaining that the Qājārs were selling out to British imperialists. They carried on their protest through pamphlets and newspapers printed in England or Russia and smuggled into Persia.

At the same time, the community of religious scholars, or ulema, also began to involve itself in the controversy. The ulema, educated in the Islamic religious sciences, far outnumbered those trained in modern schools. Also, the ulema of the Imami branch of Shiism, which the Ṣafavid emperors had made the majority sect in Persia, enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the masses, especially the merchants. Many scholars came from mercantile families and found their most devoted followers in that group. Although they were contemptuous of the Qājārs, they did not trust those educated in European schools. To the ulema, the liberals seemed to be as bad as the imperialists.

As the tobacco controversy heated up, some of the liberals approached Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, a Pan-Islamist who was on an extended visit to Persia. Al-Afghānī convinced the liberals that they had to express their opposition to the Qājārs in Islamic terms. Only then would the ulema and the bāzāris join them. The liberals followed his advice, and al-Afghānī began writing to the scholars, arguing that they and the liberals both wanted the same Islamic reforms. Religious scholars had greater access to the masses than did the liberals. Many of them were preachers in mosques, and soon their sermons were filled with attacks on the Qājārs.

The protest grew so strong that Shah Moẓaffar od-Dīn Shāh was forced to withdraw the tobacco concession. He expelled al-Afghānī for his participation in the controversy. Al-Afghānī’s work in bringing the liberals and religious scholars together, however, set the stage for more serious political change. Throughout his reign as shah, Moẓaffar dragged Persia further into foreign debt. Moẓaffar was a sickly man, and he made several trips to famous European spas. In order to finance those expeditions, Moẓaffar floated a number of large loans from the Russians. Scattered protests continued.

The Persian Revolution began in December of 1905. The governor of Tehran had several prominent merchants publicly beaten for refusing to cooperate with his economic policies. In protest, a crowd of bāzāris and ulemas (the community is the collective plural “ulema,” but several individuals are “ulemas”) went to the Royal Mosque. In turn, a government minister hired a mob to drive them out. Several merchants and scholars were roughed up. The throng then proceeded to a shrine outside the city, where they claimed religious sanctuary. They issued a number of demands to the shah, but these were not specifically formulated. Moẓaffar fired the governor of Tehran, and revolutionary fervor abated temporarily.

By the end of the summer of 1906, the protests had reached dramatic proportions. Several thousand prominent citizens left Tehran for the city of Qom, a famous religious center. Another fourteen or fifteen thousand people took refuge on the grounds of the British embassy. Life in Tehran came to a standstill. This time the protesters demanded an elected parliament (majlis). The shah was forced to concede. The first majlis met in October of 1906, and one of its committees set about drafting a constitution, known as the Fundamental Law. In the throes of his final illness, Moẓaffar signed the document in December of 1906. The Fundamental Law was a fairly brief document, much of it patterned on the constitution of Belgium. Unlike Great Britain, Belgium was not a threat to Persia, so the framers of the law thought a constitution based on the Belgian one would not inspire much opposition.

In October, 1907, a much larger document, the Supplementary Fundamental Law, was reluctantly approved by the new shah, Moḥammad ՙAlī Shāh. This second portion of the constitution reflected some of the tensions that had emerged between the liberals and the religious scholars. After the initial success of the constitutional revolution, some members of the ulema began to suspect that they and the modernizers did not mean quite the same thing when speaking of Islam. One of the prominent scholars, Sheikh Fazlullah Nūrī, said, “What is the use of a constitution cooked in a British stew pot?” The question of the rights of religious minorities was a case in point.

Although the Ṣafavids had made Imami Shiism the dominant religion of Persia, large numbers of Sunnis (who formed the majority in the Islamic world outside Persia) remained in the country. Sunnism was particularly strong among the tribal groups. No one considered banning Sunni participation in government, because Sunnis’ minority status made it unlikely that any Sunnis would find their way to high office. Christians of several sects, Jews, and Zoroastrians also lived in Persia, mostly in the cities. During the nineteenth century, European missionary and benevolent organizations began working with the Jewish and Christian groups. They built schools and hospitals that generally improved the social and economic position of the minorities. That development, however, raised the suspicion that Jews and Christians were agents of European imperialists.

In the majlis, religious minorities had reserved seats. Their representatives were supposed to take care of the needs of their communities. The liberal constitutionalists wanted to ensure absolute equality among all Persians, but the ulema opposed that measure on several grounds. Having non-Muslims ruling over Muslims was to them a doctrinal and practical impossibility; moreover, they suspected Jews and Christians of having imperialist sympathies. As a compromise, the liberals conceded the principle that only Muslims could hold high government office and agreed to ban any missionary attempts to convert Muslims. As the missionaries had never been successful in attracting converts from Islam, this did not amount to a serious denial of rights. The constitution did, however, guarantee personal religious freedom. Jews and Christians continued to practice their faiths without government interference. The constitution’s ban on non-Muslims in the cabinet did not rouse any significant opposition among the religious minorities, perhaps because these groups had never had much influence in any of Persia’s previous governments. Indeed, the prevalence of monarchy meant that even Shiites had not had much say in the way they were governed. The revolution of 1905 and the constitution were attempts to give ordinary Persians some influence on the policies of the state.


Persia’s constitutional experiment ultimately failed. Moḥammad ՙAlī Shāh was driven into exile in 1909. He had tried twice to overthrow the parliament and on the second attempt succeeded, but after his ouster a coalition of landlords even more reactionary than the shah took control in Tehran. A few constitutionalists, including the prominent religious scholar Sheikh Fazlullah Nūrī, held out in Tabriz, but eventually the Russians took the city and turned them over to the government. Many, like Nūrī, were given the briefest of trials and hanged.

During World War I, Persia was occupied by British and Russian troops. Although the latter withdrew following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Great Britain retained a considerable amount of influence after the war. The British were not interested in reinstating the constitution. Their policy focused on keeping Persia stable so that the British could control Persia’s expanding oil industry.

Persia had never had a strong military tradition. Before the late nineteenth century, kings had relied on tribal levies when they needed an armed force. In 1879, a Cossack brigade was established. The troopers were Persians, and the officers were Russians. Their primary duty was to protect the shah. In 1917, the Russian officers withdrew, and their Persian subordinates succeeded them as the unit’s commanders. One of these, Reza Khan, staged a military coup in 1921. Although Reza was anti-British, he accepted British help in taking over the government. In 1928, Reza declared himself shāhan shāh (shah of shahs, or king of kings) and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty Pahlavi Dynasty
Iran;Pahlavi Dynasty as Reza Shah Pahlavi. Reza Shah Pahlavi It was during Reza’s rule, in 1935, that the name of Persia was officially changed to Iran. He and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, were to be its only monarchs. Throughout the rule of the Pahlavis, the constitution of 1906-1907 was, in theory, the law of the land, but the Pahlavis observed it only when it served their political purposes.

When the revolution of 1978-1979 began, an alliance of Western-educated liberals and religious scholars emerged, similar to that formed in 1890. Both sides looked back to the tobacco protest and the constitutional movement for heroic models. The names of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Fazlullah Nūrī were invoked constantly. Although the new constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was built more thoroughly on Islamic principles than that of 1906-1907, it still guaranteed religious toleration for Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Like the earlier document, the new constitution did not allow religious minorities to hold high government office.

The revolutionaries of 1978-1979 were also fearful of foreign interference. They looked on Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as a puppet of the British and Americans. They believed that both Great Britain and the United States would attempt to crush them. Once again, Jews and Christians in Iran were suspected of harboring antirevolutionary sentiments. In the years after 1980, however, that suspicion diminished. Many Jews and Christians fought in the war with Iraq. Those who died were given martyr status alongside that accorded Iranian Muslims killed in the war.

In many ways, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 was a continuation of the one that began in 1905. It resolved some of the tensions between liberals and ulema in favor of the latter. The ulema still appeared to command the loyalty of the Iranian masses as well as that of the bāzāris. Fundamental Law (Persia)
Supplementary Fundamental Law (Persia)

Further Reading

  • Afary, Janet. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. A detailed, scholarly account of the formation of the first Persian constitution and of the Persian constitutional revolution. Includes a chronology, glossary, and bibliography.
  • Arjomand, Saïd Amir, ed. Authority and Political Culture in Shīՙism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. A collection of articles covering every aspect of Shiism’s relationship to politics. Some concern the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were crucial in the formation of Persian Shiism. Also contains translations of texts, including two tracts on the 1906-1907 constitution.
  • Keddie, Nikki. Iran: Religion, Politics, and Society. Totowa, N.J.: Frank Cass, 1980. Keddie is one of the most prominent among a comparatively small number of Euro-American scholars who really seem to understand Iranian history. In part, this is a result of Keddie’s extensive use of Persian sources. This collection of some of her shorter articles covers a number of aspects of the 1905 revolution and its aftermath.
  • _______. Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. This work is a genuine tour de force. Keddie manages to make sense of Iran’s history from the nineteenth century through the revolution of 1978-1979. Covers the period between the tobacco protest and the revolution very well.
  • Nashat, Guity. The Origins of Modern Reform in Iran, 1870-1880. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. Although the works of Keddie and Arjomand cited in this bibliography cover the backgrounds of the ulema, Nashat’s book pays attention to the liberal constitutionalists, giving them due credit for their contribution to modern Iran.
  • Schirazi, Asghar. The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic. Translated by John O’Kane. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997. Detailed examination of the formation and evolution of the Persian constitution. Includes useful bibliography.
  • Wilber, Donald N. Iran Past and Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Although some of Wilber’s views now appear dated, this book remains a handy single-volume introduction to the long and complex history of Iran. Places the first constitution of Iran in the context of the many events that led to it and that have flowed from it.

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