Iranian Tobacco Protest Movement

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Iranian Tobacco Protest Movement

The Iranian Tobacco Protest of 1890–1892, directed at the monopoly on tobacco declared by the state in 1890, occurred against the background of an insolvent Qajar government, a population suffering from hard economic times and angry at rulers who were largely unresponsive to their plight, and a religious leadership that was deeply distrustful of the growing role Westerners had come to play in the country's economy. The movement, which brought together disparate groups with divergent motives and interests, has been called the first successful alliance between Iran's religious leaders, its modernizing reformers, and its discontented populace—an alliance that was to come to fruition in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911.

The cultivation and sale of tobacco in Iran was a private affair until the late nineteenth century. The popularity of smoking made tobacco a lucrative business and thus a logical target for state efforts to increase revenue. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah began to sell off national resources as concessions to foreign firms and nationals. In the 1870s and 1880s the country's telegraph and mail systems, its fisheries, and many of its mines were thus sold to Western, mostly British, interests. In March 1890 the shah granted a monopoly for the sale of Iran's tobacco and control over its production for a period of fifty years to Major Gerald F. Talbot, a British subject, with the understanding that, in return, Iran's Imperial Treasury would receive an annual sum of £15,000 in addition to a quarter of the net profit. Russia, Britain's main competitor in Iran and a force of great influence in the country, protested immediately, arguing that this concession violated the Treaty of Turkomanchay, which the Russians had imposed on Iran in 1828 after defeating its army and which gave Russian merchants the right to engage in trade in Iran. Several government officials, especially the enemies of Amin al-Sultan, the shah's chief minister and main advocate of the concession, also worked hard to oppose the concession in order to discredit him.

Russian opposition persisted throughout the episode, and some of the anti-concession agitation was clearly instigated by Russian officials in Iran, but neither this nor the intrigues of Qajar officials was enough to thwart the concession. Much more decisive was the popular reaction against it. The driving force behind this reaction was the opposition by Iranian merchants and shopkeepers who anticipated higher prices and feared being marginalized if the tobacco trade would pass into the hands of foreigners. Their resentment was given an ideological voice by the country's clerics, the ulama. Many, though by no means all, ulama supported the resistance, in part out of fear that the growing presence and influence of non-Muslim foreigners, people they considered not just unbelievers but ritually impure, would increase immorality in the form of prostitution and drinking and estrange people from Islam. Some also supported the opposition because tobacco grew on property they owned privately or on land that had been endowed as religious property, so that they stood to lose income from foreign control over its sale and export. Articulated as a struggle in defense of Islam against foreign intrusion, the movement quickly became a popular one, involving an estimated 2.5 million smokers out of a total population of perhaps 8 million.

The movement first flared up in Shiraz, the center of Iran's main tobacco-growing region. Faced with the initial protests, the central government reacted by exiling the leading cleric in Shiraz, Ali Akbar Fal-Asiri. This action, however, merely caused a public outcry and further popular opposition, besides allowing the cleric to make contact with prominent Iranian ulama residing in the Shi'i shrine cities of Iraq.

The city of Tabriz, in the northwest, became the next major center of opposition. Russian influence was particularly strong in Tabriz, and the province of Azerbaijan, in which Tabriz is located, was at the time the most politically conscious and sophisticated in the country. Isfahan and Mashhad, too, soon erupted in popular clergy-led agitation.

The protest movement culminated when the ulama declared tobacco itself unclean and smoking religiously impermissible. Isfahan took the lead in this escalation in late 1891, but the move received a stamp of authority when the chief cleric (mujtahid) of Isfahan, Hajji Mirza Muhammad Shirazi, who resided in Iraq, issued a religiously binding decree (fatwa ) that banned smoking. Outside Iran, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, a radical reformer and professional agitator of Iranian background, fanned the flames by calling the concession a grave threat to Islam. Ordinary Iranians, frustrated at the mismanagement and misery prevalent in the country, massively heeded the call. People throughout the country, but especially in the capital, abandoned their water pipes. Even the women in the shah's own harem gave up smoking. Not just coffeehouses but the entire bazaar closed in protest, and several ulama issued calls for jihad.

Realizing that his own authority was at stake and that the stability of the country was in danger, Nasir al-Din Shah first tried to persuade the opponents that the boycott was to the detriment of the country's stability and well-being. When that failed and the opposition remained adamant in its demand that foreigners' involvement in Iran's tobacco trade end, the shah in January 1892 rescinded the concession. Smoking resumed shortly thereafter, even though many ulama long continued to agitate against tobacco. Forced to compensate the Tobacco Company for its losses, the Qajar government had to take out a £500,000 loan.

The Tobacco Revolt remains one of the landmark events in Iran's modern history. It is often seen as the first episode in which common people showed an awareness of a collective identity and its success in mobilizing disparate groups around a common cause was to be repeated a number of times in the twentieth century, most recently in the Islamic Revolution of 1978–1979. The precise role of the ulama in the movement remains contested. Some argue that, far from simply acting as the protectors of the people, those ulama who opposed the concession did so in large part from economic self-interest. Historians working in the Islamic Republic, on the other hand, have tended to elevate them to the status of popular heroes fighting tirelessly and selflessly for the sake of the people and the nation.

See Also Islam; Middle East.



Keddie, Nikki R. Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891–1892. London: Cass, 1966.

——. Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn "al-Afghāni": A Political Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Lambton, Ann K.S. "The Tobacco Régie: A Prelude to Revolution." In Qājār Persia: Eleven Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. Pp. 223–276.

concession a grant of land, usually by a government, to produce and market certain commodities or perform certain services for profit. Agricultural concessions were sometimes offered by European governments to encourage immigration.

marginalization the act of shunning or ignoring certain ideas or behavior that results in its being pushed outside the mainstream of the peer group.

fatwa a ruling by an Islamic cleric upon a religious issue. Many Islamic clerics have declared cigarette smoking a sin and forbidden Muslims to sell cigarettes.

water pipe also called a hookah, a tobacco pipe in which smoke is filtered through a bowl of water. The smoker inhales through a mouthpiece connected to the pipe by a flexible tube. Water pipes are traditional in Asia.