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Past, Present, Future

The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. Edited by Touraj Daryaee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 414 pp. $150.00.

Touraj Daryaee, Howard C. Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World and Associate Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies & Culture at the University of California, Irvine, edits, The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History, a compilation of articles penned by contemporary writers to form a general history of Iran. Divided into sixteen chapters with relative equal length given to each historical period, the work is intended for English speaking educated readers not trained in Iranian studies. The piece’s goal is to present Iranian history as multifaceted and developed over time.

Not to understand Iranian history, Daryaee writes, is not to understand the Iranian people (11-12). Iranian history plays a significant role in how Iranians see themselves and their environment. The main strength of The Oxford Handbook is that it is a simple, general history of Iran that incorporates Iranian diversity into one volume. Readers can see that: 1) religion or some form of ideology seems to have been integrated into Iranian society since its inception; 2) because of foreign interference, nationalism, protectionism, and mistrust have become part of the Iranian psyche; and 3) Iranians have been able to incorporate change into the fabric of their culture without losing their uniqueness as a civilization. Within the sphere of religion, in some cases tolerance was more the norm, as in the Achaemenid Period (the biblical period of Darius and Cyrus), while other times, devotion toward one faith seemed prevalent, as in certain Muslim eras. Depending on the time, different ideologies were promoted, but throughout its history faith or ideologically based beliefs seemed to have been the norm. With regard to the Iranian way of thinking, it makes sense that Iranians want to protect themselves and their culture since invaders have tried to impose their will on Iran. One should be able to see why Iranians desire nuclear independence. Trusting others who have abused trust in the past cannot easily be transformed in a short period of time. With reference to Iranian culture, through different wars, religions, and governments, the writers show a cohesiveness of civilization that allows for adaptation in sometimes a paradoxical and complex manner. Particularly for Americans whose country is less than 250 years old and Postmodern Westerners who focus on the narrative as it is today, The Oxford Handbook allows people to see how the development and overall flow of thousands of years of Iranian history makes Iranian culture special and unique.

While the work is helpful in these regards, there are a couple areas where The Oxford Handbookseems a bit incomplete. Most important of these is the rise of Christianity in Iran. Christians have been in Iran long before Iran became a predominately Muslim nation, and the work does a fair job in addressing much of the ethnic and historic Christian communities. However, the rise of Christianity since the Islamic Revolution is not mentioned. By all accounts there has been a significant increase of Christianity in Iran during the last 30 years. Seeing the importance of religion in Iran, adding a chapter about this phenomenon and discussing the Western Christian missionary movement in Iran that started with Henry Martyn in the Qajar era would have been a valuable contribution. Also, while not necessarily a flaw in itself, readers should know that the vast majority of the authors have been trained or have taught in institutions in America or Europe. In some ways, this flows into the general goal of the work as a history of Iran for Westerners, but in other ways, this leads to a particular interpretation of Iranian history. Having additional Iranian scholars trained and teaching in Iran write accompanying articles could have strengthened the piece.

The Oxford Handbook is a book intended to familiarize Westerners with Iran. Written on a university level with scholars from each period of Iranian history, the work aids those interested in gaining a basic understanding of Iran. It is a fine text for a course on the Introduction to Iranian History. It also makes a nice addition to university libraries and helps those who desire to gain rudimentary knowledge on a country and people largely misunderstood in today’s world.

Philip O Hopkins, PhD

Managing Director, ACT