The Quintessential Iranian Intellectual: Ahmad Kasravi

This paper argues that one can find many similarities between Kasravi’s views on Iranian social and cultural problems and those of his contemporaries. However, Kasravi stood alone in his unorthodox and at times unpopular approach to the possible solutions to these problems. Thus, while most Iranian thinkers of early twentieth century opted for an unconditional adoption of the Western modern social concepts and political institutions, he advocated a cautious and eclectic pursuit of things European. He was particularly opposed to the Iranians’ increasing fascination with the “material” aspects of Western modernization and industrialization. At the same time, unlike many a prominent Iranian social critics or political leader, Kasravi believed that Iran’s chronic failure to catch up with the western civilization was due more to its innate cultural traditions than to the perceived interventionist and domineering policies of European great powers.

Indeed, Kasravi considered both Shi’ite religious tradition and Persian classical poetry as the main sources of Iran’s gradual descent from greatness. In his view, the spread of religious superstition and the corrupting influence of clergy had bereft Shi’ism of its original vigor and rationality. He also believed that at least parts of the poetry of many of Iran’s classical bards had renounced purposeful and worldly life and instead encouraged faith in fatalism and thus promoted a life of ease and indolence. According to Kasravi, therefore, the beliefs and behavior of successive generations of Iranians had been adversely influenced by the irrational or immoral pronouncements of such classical poets.

The teachings and practices of Iran’s Shi’ite clergy was also the target of Kasravi’s scathing criticism. Braving the increasing wrath of influential religious leaders, the widespread indignation of the literati and the public’s growing unease with his iconoclastic pronouncements, Kasravi continued his campaign of “enlightenment” until he was felled by the assassins’ bullets.

Asghar Fathi
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