A Brief Note
on the Life of Ahmad Kasravi

Iraj Bashiri
Copyright, Bashiri, 2000

Ahmad Kasravi was born on September 29, 1890 into a religious family of the village of Hamkavar, near the city of Tabriz, Iran. The formative period of his life in Tabriz coincided with the 1906 Constitutional Revolution in Iran. In 1910, at the age of twenty, he entered the theological profession only to realize that in the tradition-bound profession there was little room for liberal ideas and modernistic tendencies. Frustrated, he left the profession in 1919 for the Ministry of Justice. There, too, he did not last long. His verdicts in favor of the poor and the down trodden were continuously frowned upon by his employers. In one case he ruled against the wishes of Reza Shah in favor of a group of peasants. Needless to say that verdict caused him to be dismissal from the Ministry of Justice in 1929. Next he chose education as a career and taught at Tehran University. There, too, his singular and uncompromising stand on academic issues provided grounds for his dismissal in 1934.

Kasravi's forte was linguistics. Although his native language was Azeri Turkish, he knew Persian very well and taught the Arabic language for a number of years. In fact, some of his early writings are in Arabic. In addition, he knew English and Armenian not to mention the ancient languages of Iran which formed the base of most of his linguistic studies of Persian.

A historian and linguist, Kasravi questioned some of the well-established ideas governing the ideological, cultural, and political life of the country. His volumes on history, language, and linguistics alone indicate a solid understanding of the issues, a keen eye for recognizing shortcomings, and a zeal for forging ahead with devising and implementing solutions. Unfortunately, there was a gap in knowledge and to a great degree wisdom between him and his compatriots, especially those at helm. Solutions that were easy were, as Kasravi aptly puts it, subjected to the rules of logic and philosophy until they became incredibly obscure, mysterious, and undoable.

In general, Kasravi was against Islam, especially Shi'ism as practiced in Iran of his time as well as Sufism, Bahaism, tribalism, westernization, the monarchy, and many more issues. And generally he was for an integrated society, compulsory education, a single language for education, and women's rights in select professions. But in neither case was he advocating absolute solutions. In each case, as the partial list of his works provided below indicates, he took pains to analyze issues and arrive at cause and effect. Only then did he venture with preliminary solutions.

In his reforms, Kasravi did not claim to be a prophet although, in practice, he came very close to be one, for a select group of Iranian intelligentsia for sure. Considering himself a pak-din, he recognized his creed as a rah (road) based on the conflict between rawan (source of altruism) and jan (source of egoism). With the assistance of khirad (faculty that distinguishes right from wrong), he believed, individuals could free their rawan from their jan and live prosperous lives.

For the 1940's Iran, Kasravi's ideas were radical indeed. He was opposed vehemently by the clergy, the court, and the intelligentsia. Indeed, few people fathomed the depth of his perception and still fewer were willing to disregard societal norms to support his case. Looking at his era after almost sixty years, we find him a forlorn prophet in a cultural wasteland seeking understanding where none existed and requesting assistance from those who dared not extend it.

According to Kasravi, in present-day Islamic societies two diametrically different Islams coexist. One is Islam that was brought by the Prophet Muhammad and which was practiced during Muhammad's leadership of the Ummah. That was a pure and unadulterated faith based on the principles of unity, loyalty to the cause of Islam, and defense for the faith or jihad. The zeal for truth and justice that had unified the disparate Arab tribes and propelled them into conquests in the name of truth and justice, Kasravi argued, has vanished. It vanished, according to Kasravi, soon after the death of the Prophet.

The other Islam is the one that is practiced today; an Islam created by the mullahs, mujtahids, and ayatullahs. Disunited, he said, present-day Islam is plagued by factional strife among Sunnis, Shi'is, Zaidis, Isma'ilis, Shaykhis, Ali Allahis, and many other factions on the one hand and burdened by regionalism, nationalism, and tribalism on the other hand. Once a unified ummah during the time of the Prophet, the community is now divided into Iranian Shi'ites, Iraqi Sunnites, Saudi Wahhabis, and the like. The unity has gone the way of the purity with which the faith had graced the world at its birth.

Kasravi's main goal was to understand the reasons for Iran's decadence and to offer a solution to arrest and, eventually, remedy the malaise. After studying the problem and understanding its dimensions, he offered a multi-faceted solution in the form of books and pamphlets that he produced at his own expense. Reform of education rested at the heart of his efforts. Tarnished by superstitious beliefs, decadent rituals, and regressive dicta, Kasravi felt, Iranian culture sends the wrong signals to the children and youth of the country. He further felt that a direct path needs to be opened to the heart and mind of the new generation, a path that would cut through centuries of sophistry.

Among the many culprits--the intelligentsia, the ulema, and the court--he singled out the medieval Persian poets as the wellspring of confusion in society. When expressing ideas, content over form and simplicity over embellishment must become common practice. Poets, by necessity, deviate from this basic rule.

Kasravi argued that Iranian youths need not be exposed to the works of incurable flatterers like Unsuri and Manuchehri. Those poets, he argued, praised the wealthy and the powerful, irrespective of their cruelty, lack of justice, and moral corruption. Should beasts like the Mongol Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane be praised lavishly?, he asked. Does not this very act promote double corruption whereby tyrants are encouraged to excel in their misdeeds while the populace is advised to accept the status quo?

Confused, deluded, and prone to hallucination were the attributes with which Kasravi distinguished Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi. If there is no good, no evil, and no salvation, according to Rumi, why should people educate their children, build societies, and harbor hope for the future?, he asked. The negative sentiments that permeate contemporary Iranian society, Kasravi argued, were originally spread by those who had corrupted Islam and subsequently by those who promoted Sufi practices; practices that, he thought, were "deleterious to society."

The brunt of Kasravi's attacks on poets, however, was carried by Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz. Kasravi found Hafiz to be an intriguing individual. Although acquainted with the Qur'an and the interpretation of the holy book, as well as with Sufism, tavernism, Greek philosophy, astrology, and nihilism, Hafiz does not seem to be able to distinguish the limits of each or able to choose the correct path from among the many. Consequently, confused, he uses this wealth of knowledge to embellish themes and to compose confusing and contradictory ghazals. Hafiz's addiction to alcohol, Kasravi believes, intensifies his inability to think straight and speak coherently. But that is not all. Kasravi distinguishes Hafiz to be a beggarly person, a fatalist, and an individual boldly blasphemous, and haughtily scornful of the rationalists.

As for Hafiz's poetry, Kasravi regarded it to be an assortment of meaningless words and foolish prattle; in other words, a stream of muddled, incoherent nonsense. Among Hafiz scholars, the poet is often praised for his dexterity in using symbolism and for his ability to create multi-faceted forms with well-organized terrestrial, spiritual, and philosophical levels. Kasravi saw none of that. Rather, he saw a uni-level composer who was a drunkard, a parasite, a flatterer, and a homosexual. All in all, he recognized Hafiz to be the worst of all Persian poets. Worst of all because he spent all his life on nothing but composition of poetry, just to satisfy his own vanity.

Poets like Omar Khayyam gave Kasravi pause. After all, Khayyam had been a first-rate mathematician and a competent astronomer with lasting contributions to Iranian culture. For this Kasravi praised Khayyam. But otherwise, he viewed the poet of Nishapur as a kharabati or a nihilist haunter of taverns, and a promoter of toperism and tavernerism. Kasravi objected vehemently to Khayyam's well-known "seize the moment" philosophy in which he saw a major stumbling block in the way of human progress.

Along with mathematician Omar Khayyam, Kasravi approved the works of Firdowsi and Parvin E'tesami. The former he praised for patriotic zeal, contribution to positive thinking, and revival of the Persian language; the latter he praised for her attempt at social and moral improvement, insight into human nature, intellectual honesty, and courageous exposition of evil.

It is obvious that a figure like Kasravi could not have lived but among enemies. His friends, although dedicated to his cause, were comparatively few and scattered all over the country. He was attacked vehemently by the Shi'ite clergy for his liberal ideas and by the court for his anti-monarchical statements. And he defended himself admirably where the law and the courts were involved. Towards the end, however, the rules of the game changed. There were two attempts on his life. The first, in April 1945, the year during which he had published his most scathing works, was unsuccessful. But the second attempt the next year by the Fida'iyan-i Islam was successful. It took place in the court chamber where Kasravi was defending himself against anti-Islamic charges.

      Brief Chronology

      Select Bibliography

Between 1932 when he began his writing career and 1946, Kasravi published some one hundred books and essays. His writings usually appeared first either in "Payman," a journal that he published for seven consecutive years, or in "Parcham," a daily that he published for a year. Often, his friends and associates collected and published his essays in book form. Consequently, presentation of a comprehensive chronology of Kasravi's publishing activities falls outside the purview of this brief note on his life.

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