Saturday, July 27, 2013

It's the economy, stupid! Reconsidering the fall of the Safavids

In the last couple of decades the study of Safavid Iran has progressed seriously and rapidly, partly encouraged by the series of Safavid roundtables held from Paris to Edinburgh, and partly by the rising interest in the period expressed by Iranian historians – in fact this autumn there will be a major conference on Safavid history in Tehran. Critical (or at the least reliable) editions of historical works, biographical dictionaries, literary and theological texts, as well as the major contributions of Iranian scholars such as Rasūl Jaʿfarīyān and Manūchihr Pārsādūst (mostly in the area of narrative history) have all produced a conducive environment for the flourishing of Safavid studies. 

Rudi Matthee has contributed to this development in serious engaged scholarship through his studies of the political economy of the late Safavid period and his absorbing study of the culture of pleasure at the Safavid court. In the book under review, Matthee tackles one of the key points of historiographical contention relating to the why and how of the fall of the Safavid dynasty and the ‘decline’ of eighteenth century Iran. Safavid studies suffer often in comparison with the other ‘gunpowder empires’. Iran had neither the wealth of India or the Ottoman Empire, nor did it have the administrative structures and resources. Similarly, historians of Safavid Iran had a wealth of narrative and discursive sources at their disposal but in comparison to Ottomanists and specialists of Mughal India lack the extensive archival and documentary sources necessary for the understanding of political and imperial history. Matthee turns back to an area famously studied by Lockhart earlier in the twentieth century. An earlier generation of scholars blamed cultural reasons for the fall of the Safavids – the feeble nature of a harem-besotted and intoxicated series of Shahs, the intolerance of the Shiʿi clerics given ever greater power to discriminate against Jewish and Christian minorities (especially merchants) and Sunni notables (especially tribal levies in the military) and an inability to control over-mighty subjects (alongside the inability to create a strong and centralised state often in contrast to the supposedly centralised Mughal empire) are seen as key reasons for the Afghan sack of Isfahan in 1722 and the occupation of Iran. However, Matthee argues that the fall of the Safavids was not just due to moral degeneracy – rather the real structural reasons lay in political mismanagement, weakening of the military (and the failure of the new Safavid form of the devsirme to establish an independent force loyal to the Shah), the breakdown of communications and control between the court and the provinces, disastrous economic and monetary policies, and the inability to establish authority. His analysis shifts us back to the real problems in the political economy of Iran from the death of Shah ʿAbbas onwards. The language of decline is not entirely discarded but the teleology of it challenged.

The structure of the book broadly follows a chronological approach – and demonstrates where the significant shifts occurred. He starts with a foregrounding chapter on patterns in late Safavid Iran. The key point in this chapter is to argue both against the notion of an arbitrary centralised state as well as the idea that state power was legitimate, established and abstract. Safavid power was thus a series of negotiated connections between differing forces, exigencies, and interests that needed to be balanced. The realities of Iran posed challenges: the lack of homogeneity within a terrain that was relatively poor compared to its neighbours did not provide the bases for stable and strong governance. In a sense the suggestion is not why did the state collapse so quickly in the 1720s but why did it manage to survive for over two centuries given the wide-ranging tensions? Chapters two and three examine the court and the process of the weakening of the Shah due to the rise of court intrigue and over-mighty subjects. Chapter four moves onto the devaluation of the coinage and the monetary weakness of the state and its mints. Chapter five examines the shifts in the military, connected to an increasingly gulf in authority and control between Isfahan and the provinces examined in chapter six. Following the treaty of Zuhab in 1639 one would have expected the military to regroup and consolidate but the shift to conflict with the Mughals and on the northern borders did not allow for the possibility, and the alienation of tribal levies was a key feature in formenting rebellion. Only then does Matthee deal with the question of religion in chapter seven to examine the treatment of religious minorities. The final chapter deals with the turmoil that led to 1722. The state did not fall because it was dominated by eunuchs, clerics and the harem – but rather their dominance was symptomatic of the systemic political and economic weaknesses of the empire that had become ever greater over the course of the seventeenth century. The Safavid state had always been ‘in crisis’ and exemplified the paradigm of the rise and fall of polities articulated by Ibn Khaldūn. In this sense, it was actually the reign of ʿAbbas I that was exceptional because he was exceptional.

In the current sectarian politics of the Middle East where Safavi has become a term of abuse for the Shia and especially for those who are sympathetic to Iran, no doubt there will be some who will look to this book to see how to bring down the republic, partly demonstrating their inability to understand how history works. On the flip side one wonders why, despite the actions of the Ottomans that were equally politically expedient - and sectarianism arises out of political problems and opportunities and is not the logical conclusion of theological difference - they have not been stigmatised and the actions of current Sunni anti-Shiʿi bigots are not called ʿUthmānī. Iranians also need to understand as he states correctly the difference between historical realities and perceptions of the Safavid period that continue to inform and distort notions of nation and identity in the present. Much of the impact of history is determined by the ways in which we try to imagine our collective memory and identity over time and project ourselves upon our ancestors. 

But if Matthee’s work has implications for the contemporary – and I have never understand history to provides lessons in such simplistic terms as contexts and times change – it is that a sectarian mindset that reduces the political to religious difference will fail to discern the real structural and political-economic problems and challenges that arise in states. Following the awards that the book has won including from MESA and the ISIS, no doubt it will attract the attention of non-specialists and even policymakers. And it deserves to be read widely as it is the best work on the Safavid period to have emerged in recent years and provides a wide scope to understand the nature of the empire. But ultimately, Matthee’s book is a modified version of that modern political slogan – it’s the economy, stupid! In this sense, Marx lives and remains of relevance to the study of the contemporary Middle East. 

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