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QAJAR  DYNASTY. The last of a series of tribal (or tribally based) dynasties that ruled Iran since the tenth century, the Qajars (1796-1925), like the Safavids, ruled a territory roughly coterminus with contemporary Iran. Most historiography, both Western and Iranian, has stressed negatives about the Qajars, saying, with much justice, that they accomplished little reform or modernization and did little to hold off British and Russian incursions. Some recent historiography has been more positive, stressing the overwhelming obstacles facing the dynasty and its attempts to overcome some of them. The Qajars did succeed in recreating a centralized state and quelling separatist revolts. Its avoidance of colonial conquest, however, was more a result of the Anglo-Russian rivalry than its own strength.

The Qajar dynasty began as a tribal federation in northwest Iran that engaged in a rivalry for power with another federation under the southwestern Zand rulers. A Qajar leader castrated in boyhood, Agha Muhammad Khan, was captured and kept under house arrest by the Zands, but on the death of a Zand ruler, he returned to lead his tribal forces, taking most of Iran by 1790. Becoming shah in 1796, he was known for cruelty and was assassinated in 1797. He was succeeded by a nephew, Fath `Ali Shah, who ruled until 1834. Qajar unification ended the civil strife of the eighteenth century.

Fath `Ali was brought into European diplomacy by the British and French, who at different points in the Napoleonic period wanted Iran as an ally against Russia. Russia wanted Iranian-held territory in Georgia, Armenia, and North Azerbaijan, and in the first RussoIranian War (18o4-1813), it took much of this territory. The Treaty of Gulistan (1813) ratified Iran’s losses to the Russians.

European presence and the Russian war led Crown Prince `Abbas Mirza, who ruled in Azerbaijan, to try Western training of his forces, and he sent students abroad to improve the military. His chief minister continued reform efforts when he joined the central government after `Abbas Mirza’s death in 1833. This death deprived the Qajars of their last devoted reformer. Reform was harder in Iran than in, say, Egypt or Turkey, owing to size and difficulty of communications, the heavy presence of nomadic tribal groups tied to old ways, and the much smaller presence of Europeans and European trade, given Iran’s distance from the West.

Disagreements over interpretation of the Treaty of Gulistan and agitation by some `ulama’. (religious scholars) led to a second Russo-Iranian War (1826-1828). The Russian victory in 1828 was incorporated into the Treaty of Turkomanchai, which gave Russia more territory, a cash indemnity, extraterritorial rights, and a 5 percent limit on import tariffs, with no internal duties allowed. These provisions, similar to those exacted in the nineteenth century by Western powers on other undeveloped countries, put Iranian merchants, who had to pay internal duties, at a disadvantage. In later decades these provisions were extended to the other European powers by “most favored nation” clauses in treaties.

The killing by an `ulama’-inspired crowd of the Russian envoy Griboyedov in 1829 has been variously interpreted, but clearly it involved a major antiforeign incident and showed independent power by the `ulama’. Under the reign of Muhammad Shah (1834-1848), Western influence grew; there was a revolt by the Isma`ilis, who left for India with their leader, the Aga Khan; and a more important heretical movement, the Babis, began in the 1840s. The succeeding shah, the teenaged Nasir al-Din (1848-1897), brought with him from Tabriz his chief minister, Amir Kabir, Iran’s main reforming leader. Amir Kabir led in suppressing Babi uprisings after the death of Muhammad Shah, and the Bab was executed in 185o. Amir Kabir, also initiated major reforms, such as creating a defense industry to support the military, strengthening the Western training of troops, and forming the first Western-style advanced school for the training of military and governmental figures, the Dar al-Funun. He also cut sinecures and pensions. He made enemies among vested interests, including the powerful queen mother. His enemies convinced the shah to have him removed from office in 1851 and to have him killed in 1852. Most of his reforms were reversed, and the few later reformers were also largely unsuccessful. [See Ismd’lliyah; Babism.]

Although some historians are now sympathetic to Nasir al-Din Shah, he did not reverse Iran’s increasing dependence on Britain and Russia. His next reforming minister, Mirza Husayn Khan Sipahsalar, in the early 1870s, tried to reorganize ministries and the military but foundered on his belief that foreigners must develop the Iranian economy. He was, along with another reformer, Malkom Khan, one of those who convinced the shah to accept the all-encompassing Reuter Concession of 1872, giving control of most of Iran’s assets to a British subject. [See the biography of Malkom Khdn.] Returning from abroad, Sipahsalar and the shah were greeted by an opposition group uniting the shah’s favorite wife, some courtiers, and `ulama’. and Sipahsalar was dismissed and the concession abrogated on a pretext. Concession granting resumed in the 1888-1890 period, culminating in a mass movement led by `ulama’. and merchants that forced the shah to cancel a monopoly tobacco concession to a British subject in 1892. Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated by a follower of Jamal alDin al-Afghani in 1897 and was succeeded by his sickly son Muzaffar al-Din Shah. Weakness without major reform encouraged revolt.

Popular discontent, backed by the `ulama’. merchants, and a growing group of progressive intellectuals, spread in the early twentieth century and culminated in the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), which resulted in a written constitutional and a parliament (Majlis). Muzaffar al-Din Shah died in 1907; his counterrevolutionary son, Muhammad ‘Ali Shah, was deposed by the constitutionalists in 1909 and followed by the boy shah, Ahmad, under a regent.

A Zoroastrian Family Tehran 1910

With British and Russian troops occupying Iran during World War I, and the British after, and Iran being a battleground for the Turks, Iran’s government had little freedom of action, and the shah was a cipher. In 1919, the British negotiated a treaty with three ministers amounting to protectorate status for Iran, but the Majlis never ratified it. Facing a government stalemate, the head of the British troops in Iran encouraged an eager colonel in the Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan (Riza Khan), to lead a coup, supported by the pro-British journalist, Sayyid Z iya al-Din Tabataba’i. The latter was soon forced out by Reza, who, after an abortive attempt at a republic on the Turkish model, got the Majlis to approve the ending of the Qajar dynasty and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. Thus ended the century of the Qajars, who, while hardly illustrious, did help keep Iran together and accomplished some change, chiefly in the direction of gradual centralization and bureaucratization of the government and partial acceptance of constitutional reform.


Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906. Berkeley, 1969. The first book-length treatment of the `ulama’. in Qajar times, which takes an optimistic view of their influence and motivation. Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago and London, 1984. Revisionist scholarly view of `ulama’-state relations from the beginning to 1890.

Avery, Peter, et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic. Cambridge, 1991. Contains articles on the Qajar period by Gavin Hambly, Nikki R. Keddie and Mehrdad Amanat, Stanford J. Shaw, F. Kazemzadeh, Rose Greaves, Ann K. S. Lambton, Richard Tapper, Charles Issawi, Hamid Algar, Peter Chelkowski, and Peter Avery.

Bakhash, Shaul. Iran: Monarchy, Bureaucracy, and Reform under the Qajars, 1858-1896. London, 1978. Analytic study of the efforts at governmental reform under Nasir al-Din Shah.

Bayat, Mangol. Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran. Syracuse, N.Y., 1982. The only serious Western-language study of nineteenth-century thinkers, stressing their roots in older Iranian thought as well as in new Western ideas.

Bosworth, C. E., and Carole Hillenbrand, eds. Qajar Iran: Political, Social, and Cultural Change, 1800-1925. Edinburgh, 1983. Festschrift for the late L. P. Elwell-Sutton, with far more internal consistency and substance than many such volumes.

Garthwaite, Gene. Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiari in Iran. New York and Cambridge, 1983. Rare tribal history, showing the political importance of the main tribal confederations in Qajar Iran.

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/qajar-dynasty/

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