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Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran Hardcover – Illustrated, 1 Feb 2008
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'The best available single-volume introduction to Iran's history.' --New Statesman
'Very well-informed and characterized by common sense. . . . deserves a wide readership.' --Times Literary Supplement
'Consistently intelligent, notably up to date and lucidly written, Empire of the Mind's account of Iran today and the challenges it faces is worth a thousand documentaries and newspaper briefing articles.' --Prospect
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'A concise yet comprehensive historical narrative which is both a pleasure to read and intellectually stimulating.' -- Professor Ali Ansari, St Andrews UniversitySee all Product description
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But it is an excellent essay for those wishing to expand their knowledfge of Iran whose place in the first decades of the 21st century seems well assured.
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(I) Please be advised that Iran has a very long history. Prof. Axworthy is correct to point out the ambiguities in defining "Iran," since we can speak of a Greater Iran that has, at times, included Mughul India, much of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even parts of Ancient Greece. Conversely, influences from the Arab world and North America have flowed into Iran. So one needs to decide what one hopes for in a history of Iran: I would humbly submit that, as a primer for concerned citizens, the book becomes useful after p.123, at the earliest (1). After all, this is a short book on a gigantic subject; the single most important judgment is what is left out.
An important concern for Prof. Axworthy is introducing Iran as a cultural entity, which requires attention to the 1200 years before Qadisiyyah, plus a brief description of Zoroastrianism (2). This is a pretty easy decision to defend, since Zoroastrianism does cast a long shadow over the history of Iran (and the Western world, too). However, translating the ultra-condensed textbook account of the period 576 BCE-636 CE into any sort of shadow is a big challenge. Axworthy handles this tolerably well, but without much originality.
(II) This book is directly comparable to Alessandro Bausani's The Persians (1962), with a modest addendum for events since 1953. Bausani, writing when the Pahlavi Shah Muhammad Reza seemed quite secure, assumed that figues like Jal'lu'd-Din al-Afgh'ni were merely "odd figures" (Bausani, p.169), and accords him barely a sentence. Axworthy gives him almost two pages: the rise of militant Islam since then has taught everyone a thing or two.
Rereading Bausani and Axworthy side by side, one sees that Axworthy is telling about the same story but with more of an sense of narrative arc. Bausani's book is a chronicle; he can't omit huge epochs like Axworthy does (the Seljuq period 1040-1194, for instance, and the Il-Khanids 1256-1353 are only mentioned as time periods-3). Axworthy wants to get us to 1979, and then to 2005; the events prior are only to contextualize 1979 and 2005. Even recent events, such as the 1953 ouster of PM Muhammad Mussadegh (an obsession with many reviewers, less so with actual historians of the region) and the period 1987-2005 are brushed past.
(III) As a history this is unsatisfactory, since there is so much left out--the period from the creation of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad (750) to the Safavid Dynasty (1501) is just a backdrop to the development of Farsi poetry. After Qadisiyyah, the narrative is confined to the modern area of Iran (except for battles that involve Iranian rulers, like Nadir Shah's campaigns in India and Iraq). Yes, Axworthy mentions the fact that the Mughal Court was heavily influenced by Persian culture, and later mentions some connection between the Sep'h-e P'sd'd'n and Lebanon's Hizbullah, but nothing about SCIRI/ISCR (Badr Brigades) in Iraq.
One could point out that this is not really a history, but a collection of informal essays that happen to be by Axworthy and happen to be about Iran. Hence, the sometimes puzzling change of focus, which occasionally includes mention of the local art, sometimes the economic conditions revealing, and sometimes the dynastic arrangements. But in that case, the culmination of the book ought to introduce readers to the current situation, and this book really doesn't.
(IV) The book is quite readable and tries to bring a fresh approach to the well-trodden path of the "book-length history of Iran" genre. I personally believe it's a little too dependent on older books rather than recent scholarship (for instance, I don't think much of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a source), and unable to find a good niche. But there are no serious errors that I could find.
(1) Chapter 4: "Shi'ism and the Safavids." This chapter includes a very brief introduction to the conflict within Islam that led to Shi'ism and Sunnism. Theology is not a major topic of this book; Axworthy has a lot of material to race through, and the details of the conflict are perhaps too recondite.
(2) Qadisiyyah (636 CE), battle fought between Arab-Muslim and Sassanid forces that led to the Muslim conquest of the Persian Empire. 1200 years before means the time of Cyrus the Great, which is approximately when the parts of Persia were unified. Zoroastrianism is the pre-Islamic religion of Iran and the one expert I can recommend is Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period, E.J. Brill (1989).
(3) For those interested: the Oghuz Turks were a tribal confederation, members of which ruled over most of Iran and its neighbors between the 11th and 20th centuries. In 1041, of their constituents captured western Iran; in 1926, the last Oghuz Turk ruler (Ahmad Shah) was superseded by Reza Khan. In the intervening years, there were gaps, such as the Borjigin Mongol tribe (1250-1335), the Barlas Mongols (1335-1405), and the Luristani Zand Dynasty (1750-1794). See David Durand-Guédy, Turko-Mongol Rulers, Cities and City Life, Brill (2013)--part of a series, _Brill's Inner Asian Library_, vol. 31.