Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran

By: Abbas Milani

Book Description

In the essays collected here, Abbas Milani uses an impressive array of cross-disciplinary Western and Iranian theories and texts to investigate the crucial question of modernity in Iran today. He offers a wealth of new insights into the thousand-year-old conflict in Iran between the search for modernity and the forces of religious obscurantism. The essays trace the roots of Shiite Islamic fundamentalism and offer illuminating accounts of the work of Iranian intellectuals—both men and women—and their artistic movements as they struggle to find a new path toward a genuine modernity in Iran that is congruent with Iran’s rich cultural heritage.

Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran challenges the hitherto accepted theory that modernity and its related concepts of democracy and freedom are Western in essence. It also demonstrates that Iran and the West have more that brings them together than separates them in their search for such modern ideals as rationalism, the rule of law, and democracy.

These essays will reward the scholar and the general reader alike, and will go far toward explaining the enigma that is Iran today.


Excerpted from Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran by Abbas Milani.
Modernity In the Land of the Sophy

Some twenty-five hundred years ago, when Herodotus was writing his Histories, Iran, or Persia as it was called then, was the West’s ultimate "other." Today, that otherness has once again reared its divisive head. A central theme of the essays in this collection is that Iran and the West have more in common than in difference. The crucial link of their unity is their common, albeit historically disparate, quest for human ideals like democracy and freedom.

The other connective thread of the articles is a radical reappraisal of Iran’s experience with modernity. I propose that we heed Descartes’ call to skepticism, and doubt much of what has been accepted as gospel in the nature and historiography of modernity in general, and of Iranian modernity in particular. Such a reading will, I suggest, demonstrate that Iran has had three crucial encounters with modernity—the first commencing long before the Renaissance in Europe—and each has been thwarted by a small, radical group using religious obscurantism and Islamic fundamentalism to frustrate the evolution of modern ideas like rationalism and the rule of law. Developments in Iran today are only the most recent examples of this historic pattern.

I offer the essays collected here as elements of a new discourse—one that is in dialogue with Iran’s past, present, and future, woven with the warp of local history and the woof of universal knowledge and global developments.1 Such a discourse is essential if we are to understand the fateful question of modernity in Iran—and by extension, in other Islamic countries. This new kind of vision is also indispensable if Iran is to succeed in its thousand-year-old struggle toward a genuine modernity.

It has been a common belief of scholars that modernity began in the West, and is by its philosophical nature, economic underpinning, and cultural exigencies a uniquely Western phenomenon. All "other" cultures, those who have lived on the "darker side of the Renaissance,"2 must emulate the Western experience, if they want to be modern. From Max Weber to Milan Kundera,3 many Western scholars and writers have argued that everything from representative democracy and rational thought to the art of the novel and the essay are not only Western in origin but also uniquely suited to its culture, and native to its temperate climes.

In Iran, an interesting confluence of conflicting ideologies have joined forces to foster the same Eurocentric idea. Some intellectuals, awed and inspired by the West, became advocates of this Eurocentric vision. Their social perspectives, even their personal demeanors, had much in common with the Russian "Westophil" intellectuals so brilliantly described in nineteenth-century novels like Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The essay on Shadman in this collection describes the morphology and consequences of this viewpoint and offers a critique of the role it has played in Iran’s culture wars. A number of other writers discussed in this volume—particularly Ebrahim Golestan and Houshang Golshiri—have also criticized this Eurocentric vision, and offered different views of Iran’s history.

With a few individual exceptions Iranian Marxists have been the second group advocating this self-deprecating view of modernity. By mechanically and uncritically applying to Iran Marx’s description of European historical development, and by insisting that his historical schemata4 is universally—and uniformly—valid, they too have helped sustain the myth that modernity is European in nature, and came to Iran only with colonialism.

The third group to champion the idea of Western modernity has in fact been the enemies of modernity in Iran. Religious forces bent on halting the march of secular humanism have systematically tried to equate modernity with unsavory colonial and Western influences. They helped develop a "nativist"5 response to modernity that hides its inherently anti-democratic sentiments in the garb of a fuzzy and eclectic anti-colonial rhetoric. It was precisely this beguiling rhetoric that convinced many secular democrats, in Iran and the West, that Ayatollah Khomeini was a "progressive" critic of modernity and colonialism. The essay on Kafi in this book offers a glimpse into the textual sources of a fundamentalist religious response to modernity.

The power and prevalence of this Eurocentric vision has meant that in the last hundred years Iranian advocates of modernity have had to fight the charge of being conscious, or inadvertent, tools of Western domination. A surprisingly wide array of secular writers and Islamist clerics—from Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri and Ayatollah Khomeini to Jalal Al Ahmad and Noureddin Kianouri6—have all denigrated democracy and modernity as a Western ruse, a veritable Trojan Horse used by "colonialists" to undermine Iran’s "genuine" cultural or political nature. But these pundits and ideologues misunderstand or misrepresent what is culturally specific about Iran, and historically universal about modernity.

Persia, later renamed Iran, has more than two thousand years of recorded history. Though in recent times, its politics have caused it to be often maligned in the Western media, a new impartial, albeit critical, look at its history will, I submit, show not just its impressively rich and varied cultural legacy, but its formative, now forgotten, role in shaping Western consciousness itself...--This text refers to the Hardcover edition


From the Publisher

"Milani shows that long before the European Renaissance generated the radical ideas that eventually reshaped Europe and the United States, Persian statesmen, artists, and intellectuals had formulated ideas that strikingly anticipate those of modernity.… Lost Wisdom is not only a powerful work of historical analysis; it is also a moving and eloquent account of a series of remarkable individuals, depicted with rare sensitivity and precision."—Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Abbas Milani is currently a visiting professor of political science at Stanford University and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. he has been Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Notre Dame de Namur University since 1987. He has written and published extensively on Iran’s encounter with modernity. His books include The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution, Tales of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir, and a translation of King of the Benighted, a novella by Houshang Golshiri.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.