Epistemological Frameworks of Iranian Civilization

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Seyed Reza Alavi

To know a civilization, we must first determine frameworks within which it should be known. Otherwise, we will not succeed to totally recognize all aspects of that civilization and, even worse, we may consider our incomplete knowledge as faultless. A great number of anthropologists have made this mistake because they have ignored necessary frameworks.

The model presented here will try to study the Iranian civilization, to pave the way for better recognition of the Iranian civilization, and offer more real frameworks than what has been presented before.

Some of those frameworks include: geography, settlement, communication culture, language, epistemological culture, religion, and government. Iranian plateau is a region with many mountain ranges. Iranians had settled on mountain slopes and only came to plains when they felt secure from political, military, and economic viewpoints. When security was at risk, they went back to mountains.

Iran is a country which is quite diversified in terms of development, population and ethnicities, climatic conditions, radical distribution, culture and customs. For example, you can see people of Russian, Turkish, Mogul, and Arab stocks. Considering presence of different races, it would follow that the current Iranian generation is a mixture of several ethnic groups.

History of Iran has been characterized by peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups in a geographical unit. Mana people in Kordestan, Caucasians, Assyrians in Iraq and Elam, and other peoples living in Lorestan, all get along under a peaceful atmosphere. The rule of Median people was an amalgam of Medians, Manas and Caucasian people. It was due to this ethnic diversity that Moguls were easily assimilated after their invasion of Iran and they could not break up the independent system of the country.

Obviously, a communication system among different peoples is needed to maintain stability of the system. For example, we can point to the important role of road construction at the time of Achaemenids and under the Islamic government. Iranian peoples lived around water sources because a large part of the Iranian plateau is arid. Therefore, most Iranians lived in villages. In this process, villages achieve cultural autonomy and every village will be a cultural center which will interact with other centers and, together, they ensure stability of the Iranian culture. Therefore, one of the issues that should be taken into consideration by anthropological circles is the culture of the Iranian villages.

In addition to water, land was also another pillar of Iran’s economy and they are two main indexes of economic, political, and cultural system of Iran. A historical analysis of Iran would be incomplete without due attention to these indexes and will sometimes lead to contradictory results. Land and water are foundations for a central ruling system which has given shape to Iranian governments. Iranian villagers, therefore, have undergone many historical developments.

Summertime and wintertime immigration has been a major component of the Iranian culture which has covered all forms of life, including urban and rural. Therefore, Iranians were used to some kind of nomadic life. The spirit of Iranian nomads will give rise to an epistemological current. This geographical politics boosts epistemological aspect of the Iranian culture. Iranians have always tried to acquire Eastern knowledge from India and China and to get Western sciences from Rome and Greece. They then combine that knowledge with their own worldview and give birth to major philosophical and mystical schools. Epistemological history of Iranian culture is full of such events. Of course, epistemological fluidity in Iran occurs when security of the whole plateau, from east to west and from north to south, has been guaranteed because security is crucial for growth of Iranian culture and civilization.

Iran is located in Eurasia through which Asia is connected to Europe. However, it should be noted that Turkey is not part of that road because the connecting road between East and West comes to Iran from Central Asia before going on to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The Silk Road is not the vital road which has kept Iranian culture alive. It is a colonial road which has been built by Western colonialists who made Iranians toil. Evidence to this fact is the time when the road was built. It was built during raids of Alexander and Moguls. Even now, the Silk Road is highlighted when globalization centered on Western countries is propagated which also aims to get Iranians serve the interests of East and West.

Cultural geography of Iran includes Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, northwestern part of India, as well as the current countries of Iran and Iraq. It is very important to study this cultural domain. Fars, Isfahan, Shiraz, Khorasan and Azarbaijan have been gravitational centers for the Iranian culture. Just in the same way that production of meaning always starts under an imaginative and epic atmosphere, one can consider Fars the main center giving meaning to Iran. After being generated under epical and mystic atmosphere of Fars, the meanings are carried to Isfahan which is the center of theoretical wisdom. It is there that meanings produced in Kazeroun and Shiraz turned into philosophical systems. In that area, even jurists were philosophers and availed of theoretical wisdom.

Yazd was another branch of epistemological culture of Isfahan and perhaps due to its desert nature, it was ruled by practical wisdom. Practical wisdom of Yazd turned practical wisdom of Isfahan into applied sciences. Combination of practical wisdoms of Isfahan and Yazd gave birth to an epistemological body which, in turn, created a new experimentalist epistemological domain in Rey. Realism was a major aspect of experimentalist epistemological domain of Rey. Perhaps, it is due to the said realism that Rey became a meeting point for two other epistemological domains; that is, Khorasan and Azarbaijan. Maybe it was for that reason that Rey was the capital of Iran for more than three centuries. Zakriya Razi was a typical example of scholars who lived in Rey. Epistemological domain of Khorasan was more interested in comments and analysis and, therefore, it was a center for literature, as well as philosophy and arts. Ferdowsi and Molla Hadi Sabzevari were among major scholars who lived in that domain. Azarbaijan was epistemological domain in west of Iran where emotions turned into philosophical and literary systems. Sheikh Eshraq is the most important founder of emotional philosophy of Iranians.

Persian language was another framework of the Iranian culture. Language of every culture is, in fact, heart of that culture and Persian language can be considered the heart of the Iranian culture. Iran is a multiethnic country with Persian language as the sole language which has brought different ethnicities together at different times. Its commonalities with the language of peoples of Elam, Assyria, Arabic and Latin caused it to thrive more. Persian language is a balanced language; the language of poetry, imagination, and emotions. It has become the language of mysticism and constitutes spiritualist worldview of Iranians.

From the viewpoint of religion, Iranians were among the first people to accept a monotheistic religion and were also the first nation who believed in the rise of savior (within framework of their Zoroastrian beliefs), thus changing the whole history of religions. Present day Iranians, who are Shiites, are also looking forward to seeing their savior and stand at a top epistemological level. Therefore, monotheism and believing in savior have been two major axes of Iranian beliefs and their combination have given birth to new meanings which have been manifested in Iranian mysticism; a school of mysticism which has presented the highest number of epistemological frameworks to the world.

Both Zoroastrianism and Islam put great emphasis on epics and honesty, which are also the main elements of Iranian cultural identity. Within a political framework, justice has been an overarching theory in the whole history of Iran. Iranians considered God above the government and since the single God is just, then the ruler should be just and do justice to people. Justice originates from God and comes down to people.

Clerics in Iran have been intermediary between people and government and have protected people against injustice. In this way, the clergy has always worked to stabilize the country because they prevented injustice, on the one hand, and encouraged people to be just, on the other hand. History has shown that when the clergy worked to justify acts of rulers, people have been under the worst injustice. Also, when governments have been indifferent to the clergy, they have finally collapsed.

Iranian governments have gone through three major periods:

1.    A period of establishment by a great and epic character;
2.    A period of stabilization during which goals of founders were realized. However, when the founder died, his successors wandered away from the original course and decline of the royal court usually started by doing injustice to the clergy.
3.    A period of decline which was characterized by insufficiency of rulers and indifference of people. In this period, usually a domestic uprising for foreign invasion put an end to that government.

Geographical expanse of Iran facilitated invasion by foreign forces, examples of which were Alexander and Moguls. The former attack took place under Achaemenid civilization, while the latter took place under the Islamic civilization. Therefore, security in Iran is closely related to communications, which has always been a focus of attention by Iranians. When the central power is weakened and different ethnic groups act independently, a foreign invasion was the last straw which did away with that central power on the background of domestic instability. Invasion of Iran in the time of Safavids by Mahmoud the Afghan was an example of such incidents. When the central government submitted to foreigners, Iranian dignitaries tried to reach a compromise with invaders to have a share of power, as had happened before during invasion of Iran by Alexander and Moguls.

Iranian culture gradually picks up and overcomes the invading culture through a final synthesis to introduce a new phase of the Iranian culture which usually gives birth to a new civilization.


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