Rethinking History: Nader Sohrabi

When and Where

Thursday, May 16, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Online via Zoom


Nader Sohrabi, Senior Researcher, Freie Universität Berlin


Of Petitions, Taxes and Democratization: Constitutionalism and the Public in Iran

The Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies, University of Toronto, and the Invisible East Programme, the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford jointly present "Of Petitions, Taxes and Democratization: Constitutionalism and the Public in Iran" on Thursday, May 16, 2024, 12 pm Toronto/5 pm UK.

Was the constitutional movement in Iran a massive tax revolt? If so, would this challenge its image as the harbinger of a new democratic era as judged by the appearance of globally familiar features like a representative assembly, written constitution, voting, political parties, and a modern public sphere with Enlightenment-inspired quest for freedom and rights entrenched in the law? An entirely new picture emerges when the constitutional movement is approached through the lens of petitions. Regardless of location, petitions of this period show astonishing uniformity about the public wants, reveal why the public was in a perpetual state of revolt throughout Iran, or why it had set its hopes on the Assembly in Tehran. The onerous local taxes (tafavut-i `amal) appear here as the main source of public dissatisfaction, as well as the administrators who enforced them, starting from the governor to the tax procurator (pishkar), the overseers (mubashir or mustufi), down to the collectors. Surprisingly though, if the public refused the local taxes, it considered the central ones as entirely legitimate and remitted them upon demand. Through petitioning the Assembly that functioned as a sympathetic intermediary, the public obliged the central and local governments to enter unprecedented negotiations that resulted in small and large victories like dismissal of high officials, and moderated taxes. Also transformed was the culture of politics that now began to speak in the language of rights. The associations (anjuman) played key roles in mobilizing the public. With the monarchy’s defeat and ascendance of the Assembly in the second constitutional period, petitions changed again. Provinces with powerful associations like Azerbaijan, Gilan, Khorasan, and perhaps others, now laid claim to the central taxes and demanded expenditure of the entire tax receipts in the locality. Their new demand, beyond creating a rift with the Assembly and the central government, prepared the ground for the emergence of the later decentralist movements such as Jangal, Khiyabani, and others, which showed tremendous continuity with the rhetoric and membership of the local associations of this period. By shifting the focus to actors from the ground up, this study suggests that bargaining over taxes was the dominant democratizing thrust of this movement. With collective petitioning and information flow through the associations and their independent presses, this period also witnessed the emergence of an alternative public sphere.


Nader Sohrabi holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago. As a historical sociologist, he studies early twentieth century transformations in the Middle East primarily in the Ottoman Empire, but also in Iran. He has taught at various US universities, including Columbia University, and was recently a member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (School of Historical Studies, 2014-2015). His book Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. He is currently at work on a book project, provisionally titled “Reluctant Nationalists, Imperial Nation State and Neo-Ottomanism: Antinomies of the End of Empire.” Here, he comparatively investigates the development of ethnic nationalism within the Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire particularly among the Turks, Albanians and Arabs in relation to one another and in dynamic interaction with the Balkan Wars and the First World War.

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