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Qājār Dynasty

Nikki R. Keddie
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Qājār Dynasty

The last of a series of tribal (or tribally based) dynasties that ruled Iran since the tenth century, the Qājārs (1796–1925), like the Ṣafavids, ruled a territory roughly coterminous with contemporary Iran. Most historiography, both Western and Iranian, has stressed negatives about the Qājārs, 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 Qājārs 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, although some Qājār rulers contributed to it by shrewd manipulation of foreign powers.

The Initial Shahs 1896–1848.

The Qājār 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 Qājār leader castrated in boyhood, Āghā Muḥammad 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, Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh, who ruled until 1834. Qājār unification ended the civil strife of the eighteenth century.

Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh was brought into European diplomacy by the British and French, who at different points in the Napoleonic period dealt with Iran as an ally against Russia. Russia's rulers wanted Iranian-held territory in Georgia, Armenia, and North Azerbaijan, and in the first Russo-Iranian War (1804–1813), 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 ʿAbbās Mīrzā, 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 ʿAbbās Mīrzā's death in 1833. This death deprived the Qājārs 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 tradition, 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 ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) led to a second Russo-Iranian War (1826–1828). The Russian victory in 1828 was incorporated into the Treaty of Turkmanchai, 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 ʿulamāʿ-inspired crowd of the Russian envoy Aleksandr Griboyedov in 1829 has been variously interpreted, but clearly it involved a major antiforeign incident and showed independent power by the ʿulamāʿ. Under the reign of Muḥammad Shāh (1834–1848), Western influence grew; there was a revolt by the Ismāʿīlī, who left for India with their leader, the Aga Khan; and a more important heretical movement, the Bābīs, began in the 1840s.

Nās. īr al-Dīn Shāh 1848–1896.

The succeeding shah, the teenaged Nāṣir al-Dīn (1848–1897), brought with him from Tabriz his chief minister, Amīr Kabīr, Iran's main reforming leader. Amīr Kabīr led in suppressing Bābī uprisings after the death of Muḥammad Shāh, and the Bāb was executed in 1850. Amīr Kabīr, 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 Dār al-Funūn. 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 BāBISM AND ISMāʿīLīYAH.

Although some historians are now sympathetic to Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh, he did not reverse Iran's increasing dependence on Britain and Russia. His next reforming minister, Mīrzā Ḥusayn Khān Sipāhsālār, 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 Khān, 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 MALKOM KHāN. Returning from abroad, Sipāhsālār and the shah were greeted by an opposition group uniting the shah's favorite wife, some courtiers, and ʿulamāʿ, and Sipāhsālār was dismissed and the concession abrogated on a pretext. Concession-granting resumed in the 1888–1890 period, culminating in a mass movement led by ʿulamāʿ and merchants that forced the shah to cancel a monopoly tobacco concession to a British subject in 1892. Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh was assassinated by a follower of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī in 1896 and was succeeded by his sickly son Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh. Weakness without major reform encouraged revolt.

Change, Revolution, War, and the End of the Qājārs.

The Qājār period saw a growth of international trade, often under powerful Iranian merchants, with Iran exporting mainly agricultural products and, from about 1875, carpets. The period saw a growth in urbanization, a decline in nomadism, and an outlawing of the slave trade and a decline in slavery. Western Protestant and Catholic missionaries pioneered in health and education, but also aroused opposition by their attempts to convert Muslims despite governmental agreements against this. Oil was discovered in 1908 and the British government took over a majority of shares in the oil company and its concession in 1914.

Local merchants, ʿulamāʿ, and others felt threatened by foreign power and by misrule. The period also saw major economic dislocations, epidemics, and famines, especially in the 1870s, and government response was inadequate. Popular discontent grew, and new ideas, including nationalism, constitutionalism, pan-Islamism, and so-cialism, began to spread, especially in the north, where there was considerable contact with Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe.

This discontent, backed by many ʿulamāʿ, 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 constitution and a parliament (Majlis). The constitution included many of the rights found in other modern constitutions and equal treatment for most religious minorities. Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh died in 1907; his son, Muḥammad ʿAlī Shāh led a counterrevolutionary coup, but was deposed by the constitutionalists in 1909 and followed by the boy shah, Aḥmad, under a regent. The revolutionary years saw a growth of popular organizations, including many newly politicized groups such as women. They also saw the publication of a wide variety of political and social ideas, which continued to be influential in later years and included strong criticism of the traditional status of women and of aspects of religion that were considered irrational and harmful.

The revolution was suppressed with Russian and British military intervention. British and Russian troops occupied Iran during World War I, and the British remained after this point. Iran was a battleground for the Turks and its government had little freedom of action; the shah was essentially 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 (Rizā Khān), to lead a coup, supported by the pro-British journalist Sayyid Ẓiyā Ṭabāṭabāʿī 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 Qājār dynasty and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. Thus ended the century of the Qājārs, who, while hardly illustrious, did help maintain Iran's unity and accomplished some change, chiefly in the direction of gradual centralization and bureaucratization of the government and partial acceptance of constitutional reform. Before the Pahlavis, Iran remained less modernized than several other Middle Eastern countries, though it had experienced a more extensive and popular revolutionary movement leading to a more modern constitution, however briefly enforced, than had other Middle Eastern nations.



  • Afary, Janet. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism. New York, 1996.
  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906. Berkeley, Calif., 1969. The first book-length treatment of the ʿulamāʿ in Qājār 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 ʿulamāʿ–state relations to 1890.
  • Avery, Peter, et al., eds.The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic. Cambridge, U.K., 1991. Contains articles on the Qājār 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 Nasīr al-Dīn Shāh.
  • 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 R.Khans and Shahs: A Documentary Analysis of the Bakhtiari in Iran. New York and Cambridge, U.K., 1983. Rare tribal history, showing the political importance of the main tribal confederations in Qājār Iran.
  • Keddie, Nikki R.Qajar Iran and the Rise of Reza Khan 1796–1925. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1999.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S., ed.Qājār Persia: Eleven Studies. Austin, Tex., 1988.
  • Martin, Vanessa. The Qajar Pact: Bargaining, Protest and the State in 19th-Century Persia. London and New York, 2005.
  • Matthee, Rudi. The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500–1900. Princeton, N.J., 2005.
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