Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran
By: Abbas Milani
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.
Some twenty-five hundred years ago, when Herodotus was writing his Histories, Iran, or Persia as it was called then, was the Wests 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 Irans 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 modernitythe first commencing long before the Renaissance in Europeand 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 discourseone that is in dialogue with Irans 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 Iranand 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 Dostoyevskys The Possessed and Turgenevs 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 Irans culture wars. A number of other writers discussed in this volumeparticularly Ebrahim Golestan and Houshang Golshirihave also criticized this Eurocentric vision, and offered different views of Irans 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 Marxs description of European historical development, and by insisting that his historical schemata4 is universallyand uniformlyvalid, 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 clericsfrom Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri and Ayatollah Khomeini to Jalal Al Ahmad and Noureddin Kianouri6have all denigrated democracy and modernity as a Western ruse, a veritable Trojan Horse used by "colonialists" to undermine Irans "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
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