Political Ethic in Early Qajar Era

  October 03, 2021   Read time 2 min
Political Ethic in Early Qajar Era
The early Qajar period (1785–1848) is important for the development of a distinct theory of the two powers which differed from late Safavid political thought in that it reflected a new constellation of hierocratic and temporal power.

There is both continuity and change in this period. While there is continuity with the late Safavid treatment of political ethics and statecraft as a branch of practical philosophy, there is also a break with both traditions of Shiite jurisprudence and statecraft. This break is marked by the emergence, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, of a new genre of critical political writing out of the statecraft literature which can be considered the beginning of modern political thought.

The first Qajar monarchs sought to relate themselves to the Safavids and to continue their tradition of Shiite monarchy from the very beginning. Before long, however, they turned for legitimation to the Shiite hierocracy whose power and independence had grown imperceptibly but tremendously during the intervening decades of civil strife. Some important Shiite jurists responded favourably, and Fath Ali Shah showed his gratitude to the clerical support for the new dynasty with deference, stating, ‘our rulership is on behalf of the mujtahids of the Age’. It is therefore understandable that the critical studies of early Qajar political thought by Lambton and Hairi mainly concentrate on the Shiite jurists. Similarly, I presented an extensive summary of what I called ‘the theory of the two powers’, as found in the Tufat al-mulk, written by Sayyid Jafar Kashfi in 1818, as a consistently Shiite political theory because it removed the anomalous Safavid claim to be the descendants and lieutenants of the Immaculate Imams. Kashfi's theory reconciles the ethos of patrimonial kingship and the political ethic of Twelver Shiism. I argued that ‘because it adequately reflected the institutional division of authority between the state and the hierocracy, Kashfi’s political theory can be taken to represent the unified normative order that governed the relations of authority in the Qajar body politic’.

However, as Hairi has pointed out in his fairly comprehensive survey, there is another important genre of political writing – works on statecraft and political ethic, typically but not exclusively by the bureaucratic class – which has not received adequate attention. In addition, Ådamiyyat and Natiq have drawn our attention to the appearance of yet a third genre: a new critical genre which grew out of the statecraft literature in the aftermath of Iran’s final defeat in the Perso-Russian wars in 1244/1829.8 To these genres should be added quite a different source, which has not been studied systematically either – namely, the decrees of kings and governors. We can call these decrees ‘public law’ in the strict sense, with the proviso that in this period, public law became less ‘public’, as the Qajar rulers did not revive the Safavid practice of inscribing royal decrees in prominent public places for the communities affected by them to read. It should be pointed out, however, that in our period, as in the pre-modern era generally, the law is rarely codified and barely stands out from its ethico-normative context. The notion of ‘political ethic’, which refers to the content of the writings on statecraft and kingship that purported to regulate the political sphere, can therefore be seen as merging with this enforceable public law.

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