The Elite Households of Kirman, 1858-1914


A review of Opium, Carpets, and Constitutionalists: A Social History of the Elite Households of Kirman, 1859-1914, by James M. Gustafson.

James Gustafson’s dissertation examines how elite households in Kirman, Iran, consolidated their political, socio-economic and cultural authority during a period of globalization and revolution. By shifting our attention from the Qajar center to the Qajar periphery, he broadens our understanding of the significant continuities and changes that have shaped modern Iran. The central institution of this study, the elite household, is familiar to students of earlier periods of Islamic history. Recalling Marshall Hodgson’s “a‘yan-amir system” and Albert Hourani’s “politics of notables,” Gustafson demonstrates that Iranian elite households not only survived into the nineteenth-century but also flourished, maintaining control over land, local administration and religious institutions. Following recent scholarship by Vanessa Martin and Reza Sheikholeslami, he explains that Qajar rule in the provinces depended on cooperation from local notables. As such, they were well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities attending the growth of global trade and to shape emerging constitutionalist discourses. In so doing, these traditional elites played a critical role in forging Iranian modernity.

Having outlined the importance of the elite household in his introductory chapter, Gustafson then locates them in space (Chapter 2) and in time (Chapter 3). Separated from Tehran by the great central deserts while connected to the global economy via the Persian Gulf, Kirman and its environs afford a good vantage point from which to survey the significance of local elites in Qajar Iran. The third chapter describes how the notables reestablished their influence in Kirman after the destruction of the city by Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar in 1794. One of the early Qajar governors, Ibrahim Khan Zahir al-Dawla, soon built up a local power base for himself and his family, who came to be known as the Ibrahimis. In seeking to expand their local connections, the Ibrahimis became the leaders of Kirman’s Shaykhi community. Shaykhis combined elements of Sufi and Shi‘i Islam, using mysticism as a means of attaining esoteric knowledge of the Imam. Household competition thus took on a sectarian dimension as the Ibrahimis and their Shaykhi adherents were confronted by families, such as the Vakilis and the Ahmadis, who represented the more orthodox mutashar‘i community in Kirman. In this context, Gustafson argues that subsequent Shaykhi-mutashar‘i violence in nineteenth-century Kirman was, in fact, more a manifestation of elite rivalry than of sectarian antagonism.

The ascendancy of the Vakili family between 1859 and 1878 is the subject of Chapter 4. Muhammad Isma‘il Khan Vakil al-Mulk I served as governor of Kirman from 1859 to 1868, whereupon he was succeeded by his son, Murtaza Quli Khan Vakil al-Mulk II, who held the office for another decade. These two men were instrumental in integrating Kirman into the burgeoning global economy. They subdued tribal marauders, built roads and caravanserais, and repaired irrigation works. During their tenure, British shipping in the Persian Gulf increased dramatically, and access to world markets encouraged elite households to shift agricultural production to cash crops, notably cotton, opium and dyes. The Vakilis themselves held a monopoly of the lucrative trade in Kirmani wool, kurk, the profits from which they used not only to improve the local economic infrastructure, but also to proclaim their religious and cultural leadership through the construction of mosques, bathhouses and gardens.

Chapter 5 further elaborates the notables’ role in transforming Kirman’s economy in the late nineteenth century by focusing on their increasing control of cultivable land and continuing extension of commercial agriculture. Here, Gustafson revises Paul Ward English’s thesis that the urban, agricultural and pastoral sectors of the Kirmani economy had been integrated since antiquity by arguing that this process was instead a consequence of nineteenth-century globalization. This development, moreover, paralleled events occurring in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The profits attending the production of cotton and opium for overseas markets encouraged elite households like the Ibrahimis and Vakilis to invest in land, especially the khalisa, or crown lands, which were put up for sale in the 1890s. They thereby displaced lesser village and tribal notables and established an urban domination of the rural hinterland that would persist until the land reforms of the 1960s.

Gustafson then shifts his attention in Chapter 6 to the military elites of Bam and the Baluchistan frontier. He points out that while many accounts of the Great Game emphasize Russian and British imperial competition, it should be remembered that the Qajars too harbored territorial ambitions. By the 1870s, a military officer named Ibrahim Khan Sa‘d al-Dawla had subjected the Baluch to Qajar rule and then secured the ascendancy of his family, the Bihzadis, in Bam on a foundation of military prestige and access to land and tax revenues. Geopolitics has loomed large in Qajar historiography, and Gustafson here demonstrates that elite households were often key players in the making and maintenance of Iran’s frontiers.

The final two chapters of this dissertation draw together the socio-economic and political importance of elite households in explaining the origins of the Constitutional Revolution in Kirman. In Chapter 7, Gustafson describes the rise of large-scale carpet manufacturing in the city in the late 1890s. It was elite urban households, again responding to foreign demand, which led this initiative, not foreign capitalists, as Paul English and Robert Dillon had earlier claimed. The emergence of commercial carpet weaving in Kirman had profound socio-economic consequences for the city and its inhabitants. Already commanding land and capital (including the wool cut), elite households extended their control over labor, transforming handicraft artisans into skilled wage workers and concentrating them in substantial urban manufactories. The result was rapid population growth, and the development of an urban proletariat, working for low wages in poor conditions. The carpet boom of the 1890s undoubtedly produced large profits for the notables, but by swelling the city with large numbers of poor workers dependent on volatile foreign markets, it also created considerable socio-economic instability in Kirman, which contributed mightily to the outbreak of the Constitutional Revolution in 1905-1906.

Chapter 8 analyzes the connection between household and revolutionary politics. Gustafson begins by detailing the close relationships between the Ahmadi family and famous constitutionalists like Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani and Nazim al-Islam Kirmani. Such relationships provided these men educational opportunities as well as protection against prosecution. The elite household was an important site for the development of political radicalism in Qajar Iran. The key moment in bringing together these various factional, political and socio-economic tensions was a series of Shaykhi-mutashar‘i disturbances in 1905. The prince-governor, Rukn al-Dawla, precipitated the crisis by selling local offices to the Ibrahimis in order to recoup his own substantial outlay for his post. This decision provoked the factional opposition of the Ahmadis and Vakilis, who accused Rukn al-Dawla of sponsoring a heretical, Shaykhi administration. They exhorted crowds of young men, recently thrown out of work by a depression in the carpet trade, to attack Shaykhi mosques in town. Rukn al-Dawla was soon replaced by Zafar al-Saltanah, who after continued violence in the town, decided to arrest and bastinado Mirza Muhammad Riza, a mutashar‘i mujtahid and an Ahmadi. For many, this incident was proof positive of Qajar tyranny, and justice for Mirza Muhammad Riza became a prominent constitutionalist demand both in Kirman and Tehran. Kirman’s elites were subsequently well represented in the first majlis, which afforded them a new venue in which to play the “politics of notables.”

The constitutionalism of elite households like the Vakilis and the Ahmadis, however, had definite limits. While they were willing to use this ideology to curb Qajar authority, they had no intention of allowing it to circumscribe their own. They were particularly concerned to thwart challenges from below represented by Aqa Husayn Nazim al-Tujjar who had gained control of the provincial anjuman with wide popular support. Anjumans were local assemblies and societies that served various functions during the Constitutional Revolution, including managing majlis elections, exercising oversight of local officers, and representing local groups, such as merchants, carpet weavers and women. At first, the notables dominated these institutions, but they gradually lost control of them amidst growing popular demands for change. In response, the Vakilis and the Ahmadis allied themselves with the Qajar prince-governor, Nusrat al-Dawla Farman Farma, to cripple the provincial anjumans and stifle popular aspirations for a greater voice in local government.

James Gustafson’s research makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of both Qajar Iran and modern globalization. As a local history of Kirman, it joins a growing literature about provincial Iran during this period and helps us to better appreciate the complex, bilateral relationships between Qajar center and periphery. As a history of elite households, this study invites further comparisons with the role of urban notables elsewhere in Qajar Iran, in the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps farther afield. As a history of modern globalization, finally, this project provides additional confirmation that much of that drama lies in its truly cosmopolitan cast of characters.

H. Lyman Stebbins
History Department
La Salle University

Primary Sources

Diplomatic and Consular Reports, Parliamentary Papers, Chadwyck-Healey
Foreign Office papers, National Archives, United Kingdom
Jughrafiya-yi Kirman
Musafaratnama-yi Kirman va Baluchistan
Tarikh-i Kirman

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2010. 307 pp. Primary Advisor: Florian Schwarz.


Image: “Ruins of Fortresses Outside Kirman” from Percy Sykes, Ten Thousand Miles in Persia, or Eight Years in Iran (1902). Public domain image.

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