A framework for conceptualizing the history of Iran. The case of Javad Tabatabai


A framework for conceptualizing the history of Iran:

The case of Javad Tabatabai 


Mansooreh Khalilizand


 30. Oktober 2023


Iran is the central issue in Javad Tabatabai’s thought. In his work, he attempts to understand the history of Iran in order to explain the current state of the country and to provide an answer to the question: “what conditions made modernity possible in Europe and led to its abandonment in Iran?“[1] According to Tabatabai, his project is philosophical rather than historical, as he considers factual historical events to be the concrete realization of abstract ideas.[2] Apparently inspired by Hegel, he attempts to figure out the movement of reason and its path in the context of Iran’s history. For this purpose, he aims at elucidating the history of ideas in Iranian political thought and believes that by understanding this history and their dialectical relation, the meaning of history in its concrete dimension will be clarified as well.

In what follows I intent to briefly outline how Tabatabai carries out this project. To do so, I rely mainly on six of his monographs. These works study Iran’s history by primarily dividing it into two major periods. The first period is discussed in three parts and spans the nine centuries between the beginning of the Islamic period and the first stage of the Safavid Dynasty.[3] Tabatabai designates these centuries as the early and the middle period of Iran. He further studies the modern period of the history of Iran, which comprises roughly six centuries, in three further parts.[4] The modern period of Iran’s history is in turn divided into three stages. The first of these stages, which he calls the transitional stage, spans three centuries, ending with Iran’s defeat against Russia and its dissolution in the first half of the nineteenth century.[5] At this point the stage that he designates as the Tabriz School begins. This period is marked by a series of reforms, especially in the military, implemented by the crown prince of Iran at the time, Abbas Mirza, and thus the stage is named for Tabriz, the city which he resided. This second stage ends with the victory of the Constitutional Revolution.[6] Subsequently, the third stage of the modern period of the history of Iran begins, which consists of the years between the Constitutional Revolution and the Revolution of 1979.

Tabatabai commences his reading of the history of thought in Iran with the idea of iranshahri. This, in his opinion, was a political structure based on the idea of shahanshahi, i.e. the king of kings. He argues that in antiquity, the shahanshahi system, contrary to the understanding of the Greek historians, was not a state founded on despotism, but rather a state formed of states, a unity consisting of diverse nations and peoples.[7] It is in this context that on the one hand the encounter with Greek thought takes place and on the other, the Arab conquest and Islamization of Iran results in the absorption of new elements. As the result of these encounters and the integration of various elements of Islam and Greek thought, the political idea of iranshahri brings about new syntheses and continues in new forms.[8] Tabatabai considers this era as the golden age of Iran’s history that lasts until the thirteenth century, when the Iranian middle period begins.[9]

Tabatabai argues that in the transition period, the theory of iranshahri was understood as despotism and that this perception of it was far from its original meaning. By gradually blending rationality with religious law (Sharia), Tabatabai states, a degenerative movement in Iran’s history began, a movement that he terms a decline.

For Tabatabai, this decline begins precisely when the balance between reason and religious law is disturbed. In the first stage, religious law merged with reason, and in the second stage religious law eliminated reason from the realm of thought.[10] Due to the absence of rationality, events came to be accounted for by religious and mythological ideas, rather than through analysis of their causes and effects.[11] The decline reached its peak when religion became the fundamental element. This path of degeneration results in a decadence in which any possibility of a revival and renaissance of the tradition inevitably dies and the tradition therefore ossifies. At this point, the tradition no longer constitutes a past as such, which can be used to understand the present and plan the future, but rather becomes a past that repeats itself, grows incapable of understanding itself and incapable of explaining new events.[12]

Three concepts constitute the framework of Tabatabai’s reading of the history of political thought in Iran. 1) Decline, which designates the process of the loss of the independence of reason. 2) Decadence, which designates the state in which it becomes in principle impossible to think in a historical and political dimension. 3) The ossification of tradition, which designates the incapacity to revive tradition.

The modern period of Iran’s history starts with the transitional stage, which is distinguished by the encounter with Europe. In this stage, according to Tabatabai, Iran establishes relationships with several European countries, which inevitably lead it to experience the other. In contrast to the otherness of neighboring cultures that resemble Iran in many religious and historical aspects, Tabatabai stresses, the otherness of the Europe is radical. It represents an essentially different rationality and another world with different values and structures. However, as he goes on to argue, as a result of the absence of rationality and the fundamental decline of thought, the experience of radical otherness could never be formulated into an explicit question. Hence, Tabatabai stresses, only a few thinkers achieved a sort of instinctive awareness of the radical novelty of the facts and relations which arose in this stage.[13] Iran’s transitional stage was not only a stage of decadence of political thought and radical ossification of tradition but this decadence manifested itself in the historical dissolution of Iran, which occurred in the aftermath of the battle with Russia, where Iran permanently lost parts of its territory. For the first time, as a result of these defeats, some small signs of consciousness of the crisis emerge, although due to the ossification of the tradition, decline of political thought and the absence of rationality in Iranian historiography, this consciousness did not suffice to result in the formulation of the theory of decadence. According to Tabatabai, the main problem in the transitional stage is the discord between traditional thought and modern rationality. The tradition was, due to historical reasons, incapable of understanding itself and thus understanding its relationship with the new dominant logic in the world.

According to Tabatabai, it is first in the Tabriz School that the consciousness of the decadence manifests itself vividly and leads to questions about Iran’s decadence. However, we should note that this consciousness did not arise out of the tradition alone but was rather the result of confrontation with the other, i.e. modern Europe, from which new conceptions of law and state were taken. These arose neither from the Iranian Islamic tradition nor do they have a coherent and harmonious relation with it; indeed, they could not be sufficiently understood through the concepts native to the Iranian tradition. Therefore, for Tabatabi, the Iranian tradition distorted the meaning of these concepts instead of coming to an appropriate understanding of them, precisely because its ossification prevented it from productive engagement with foreign ideas. As a consequence, these concepts borrowed from the West were misunderstood and the Constitutional Revolution failed.

Tabatabai explains that the stage beginning after the Constitutional Revolution and continuing up to the present day, Iranian intellectuals have continued to walk the same path. His evaluation of the endeavors of the Iranian intellectuals during the third modern stage is completely negative, in that he claims that they have been able to understand neither their own tradition nor modernity properly. The intellectual tradition in Iran, in his opinion, is still ossified and thus unable to engage in productive exchanges with the intellectual traditions of other cultures. He consistently emphasizes that the intellectual projects proposed in recent decades have failed to solve any problem concerning the decadence of thought in Iran and are indeed rather part of the trend of degeneration. The reason for this, he claims, is that they themselves have been produced within Iran’s historical context, which is nothing more than the gradual decline of reason. According to his reading of the history of thought in Iran and his analysis of the gradual disappearance of reason in this realm, it appears as if an escape from the course of this history is in principle impossible and the attempts of Iranian intellectuals and thinkers are necessarily doomed to fail. In this respect, one might criticize Tabatabi’s approach in that he does not suggest any way out of the process of decline. His reading of Iran’s history becomes especially dramatic in his discussion of “double decadence”— a condition in which not only reason has been eliminated but also “the mystics (Sufis) turn into the thinkers of the people and degenerate mystical thought becomes the only conceptual system of consciousness and the national self-consciousness of the Iranians”.[14] However if the decadence of Iranian rationality in history is so comprehensive that Iranian intellectuals themselves are trapped within this decline, the question arises of where in this process Tabatabai himself and his thought stand. Is he alone in having understood the true meaning of history, while all others have unknowingly contributed to the decline of the history of Iran? If so, how has he gained this privileged viewpoint? If Iranian tradition moves continuously towards decline, ossification and dissolution, how does he as an Iranian intellectual stand outside of this process, where he, immune to its forces, can observe and interpret the movement of the disappearance of reason?

The decline of which Tabatabai speaks is fundamentally nothing other than the degeneration of the independence of reason. In his understanding, at the beginning of this history, especially after the encounter with Greek thought, reason evolved in such a way that it took upon itself the task of explaining and justifying religion. The invasion of the Mongols, in his view, constitutes the point at which the balanced order between reason and religion begins to break down. As Iran advances through its history, religion comes more and more to dominate reason. The loss of the independency of rationality, he claims, manifests itself concretely in the disappearance of independent institutions for philosophy, even banning philosophy from seminaries.[15] The absence of reason results in a historiography in which events are merely reported without reflection on their causes and effects, which results in the thorough abandonment of historical consciousness and political thought.[16]

Tabatabai attempts to explain the process of decline in the history of Iran by analyzing the prevailing ideas and concepts in the history of Iranian political thought. By tracing the direction of these ideas he tries to clarify the meaning of historical events. He brings the central concepts in each historical period to light, and on this basis, tries to define the place of each respective period in the overall process of decline. Through this procedure he justifies his periodization of the history of Iran.

To sum up, according to Tabatabai the direction of Iran’s history is a movement of decay, which, contrary to what he sees as Europe’s historical progression towards the realization of wisdom and self-consciousness in modernity, moves towards the gradual elimination of wisdom. At this point it should be noted that the central concept of decadence in Tabatabai’s thought has no normative connotation. It is rather, he stresses, a necessary concept in order to conceptualize the history of Iran. Further, the absence of this concept in Iranian political thought is a testament to this very decadence.[17]

For an assessment of Tabatabai’s thought, it should be mentioned that his analysis of the political structure in pre-Islamic Iran and his interpretation of certain central concepts such as iranshahri and shahanshahi attempt nothing less than the restoration of the very modern and democratic ideas in that period of Iran’s history. Furthermore, he isolates the history of Iran from the ongoing exchanges with other neighboring cultures. According to his reading of the fate of the rational side of Iranian thought, even though it has received and absorbed foreign elements throughout its history, its historical realization is grounded in its necessary and immanent historical logic, which ends in its rejecting itself.

Tabatabai claims that in his work he tries to clarify the historical discontinuities in Iranian thought and consciousness in order to criticize the theory of continuity of Iranian identity.[18] In this attempt, however, he in fact essentializes and generalizes the history of Iranian thought. Moreover, although he tries to construct a history of ideas inspired by Hegelian method, he is unable to show the dialectical relation between the concepts he sees as paradigmatic for each period. With his proposal of the idea of decline and decadence he introduces a paradigm under which we can understand the course of Iran’s history as a unity, yet this paradigm he proposes is static, constant and homogeneous: a continuous repetition of decadence and decline.

Despite the mentioned shortcomings and inconsistencies between some of his ideas, Tabatabai’s reading of Iran’s history represents an original approach to the history of Iran, insofar as he tries to reveal a unitary meaning of the unfolding of Iranian history. This search led him to return to some of the classical sources of political thought in Iran and to revive them for today’s Iranian thinkers.


[1] Shomali, Alireza and Mehrzad Boroujerdi. “The Unfolding of Unreason: Javad Tabatabai’s Idea of Political Decline in Iran.” Iranian Studies 48, 6 (2015): 949-966, p. 950.

[2] For example, see the preface in: Javad Tabatabai, Zaval-e andishe-ye siyasi dar Iran, Tehran 2004, p. 13 and also p. 355.

[3] Javad Tabatabai, Daramadi falsafi bar tarikh-e andishe-ye siyasi dar Iran [A philosophical introduction to the history of political thought in Iran], Tehran 1998; Javad Tabatabai, Zaval-e andishe-ye siyasi dar Iran [Decline of political thought in Iran], Tehran 1994; Javad Tabatabai, Khajeh Nezam al-Molk [Nizam al-Mulk (Tusi)], Tehran 1996.

[4]  Javad Tabatabai, Dibache-i bar nazariye-ye enhetat-e Iran [An introduction to the theory of Iranian decadence], Tehran 2001; Javad Tabatabai, Nazariye-ye hukumat-e qanun dar Iran [The theory of rule of law in Iran], two volumes: (1) Maktab-e Tabriz va mabani-ye tajaddud-khahi [The school of Tabriz and the foundations of the quest for modernity], Tabriz 2005; (2) Mabani nazariye-ye Mashruteh-khahi [the foundations of the quest of constitutionalism], Tabriz 2007.

[5] See: Javad Tabatabai, Dibache-i bar nazariye-ye enhetat-e Iran, Tehran 2001, p. 520.

[6] See: ibid., p. 521.

[7] see: ibid., p. 466.

[8] See: ibid., p. 495 ff.; Javad Tabatabai, Daramadi falsafi bar tarikh-e andishe-ye siyasi dar Iran, Tehran 2005, p. 227 ff.

[9] See: Javad Tabatabai, Dibache-i bar nazariye-ye enhetat-e Iran, Tehran 2001, p. 280 ff.

[10] Javad Tabatabai, Ibn Khaldun va ulum-e ejtemaʿi: vazʿiyyat-e ulum-e ejtemaʿi dar tamaddun-e Islami [Ibn Khaldun and social sciences: the state of social sciences in Islamic civilization], Tehran 1995, p. 362.

[11] See: Javad Tabatabai, Dibache-i bar nazariye-ye enhetat-e Iran, Tehran 2001, p. 297.

[12] See: ibid., p. 399 ff.

[13] See: ibid., p. 411 ff.

[14] Ibid., p. 521; see also: Javad Tabatabai, Zaval-e andishe-ye siyasi dar Iran, Tehran 2004, p. 296 and 362.

[15] See: ibid., p. 146 ff.

[16] see: ibid., p. 353 ff.

[17] See: Javad Tabatabai, Dibache-i bar nazariye-ye enhetat-e Iran, Tehran 2001, p. 433.

[18] See: ibid., P. 410 ff.

Mansooreh Khalilizand ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin (PostDoc) am Institut für Philosophie der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.

Vorgeschlagene Zitierweise: Mansooreh Khalilizand, „A framework for conceptualizing the history of Iran. The case of Javad Tabataba,” Denkanstöße – Reflections, 30.10.2023, a-framework-for-conceptualizing-the-history-of-iran-the-case-of-javad-tabatabai/, ISSN 2941-0347.