Following the Iranian Revolution of 1978—79, public and scholarly interest in Iran have skyrocketed, with a plethora of attempts seeking to understand and explain the events which led up to that moment. However, navigating the terrain of Iran’s modern historical trajectory has proven to be a daunting task which has only intensified, given the muddled public discourse that tends to frame it within the paradigm of a perennial conflict between the “religious,” “traditional,” and “despotic” East versus the “secular,” “modern,” and “enlightened” West.
The emergent field of Iranian intellectual history has long sought to rectify and complicate this framing, and numerous prominent works have been published to that effect. With his provocative and timely addition to the field, Both Eastern and Western: An Intellectual History of Iranian Modernity
(Cambridge University Press, 2018), Professor Afshin Matin-Asgari
deftly punctuates his mark both as a constructive critic and as a contributor of those efforts.
Through a careful study and critical overview of the current historiography of Iranian intellectual history as it relates to the decades leading up to the Revolution, Matin-Asgari uncovers the intellectual “missing links” both within and without Iran concerning the formation of Iranian national identity. He highlights overlooked trends in contemporary Iranian historiography by drawing the reader’s attention to factors such as the Russian and Ottoman influence on Iranian constitutionalism, early twentieth-century German political culture’s impact on Iranian authoritarianism, and the understudied phenomenon of Islamic socialism. As a result, he concludes that the intellectual history of modern Iran is “both Eastern and Western.”
By framing the development of Iranian national identity in the twentieth century as a discursive project intimately tied to the contingencies of contemporaneous global currents, Matin-Asgari demonstrates that there was nothing inevitable about the dominance of particular streams of Iranian nationalism over others. This book will serve as a useful tool for students of modern Iran and for anyone interested in how to better understand modern global intellectual history as a whole.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.