Tobacco Protest, Iran

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Tobacco Protest, Iran

The Tobacco protest of 1891–1892 was the first mass nationwide popular movement in Iran and was directed both against a tobacco concession given to a British subject in 1890 and, implicitly, against the shah, Nasir al-Dīn, who granted it, and several other concessions, especially to the British and Russians. Great Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century were the main foreign powers with political and economic interests in Iran, which neither of them could conquer due to the opposition of the other. Russia had been gaining ground after the mid-nineteenth century, especially with the creation in 1879 of the Russian-officered Cossack Brigade, the only modern military force in Iran. From 1888 to 1890 the aggressive British minister to Iran, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, tried to further British power via a series of concessions. These included one for the new Imperial Bank of Persia, giving it exclusive rights to issue banknotes, opening up the Karun River to navigation, and a concession in March 1990 to a friend of Wolff's, Major G. F. Talbot, for the purchase, sale, and export of all tobacco products. Because tobacco was a major domestic and export crop, the latter concession aroused both merchants whose economic interests would be harmed and the ulama (religious scholars), who objected (partly at the urging of merchants) to foreigners controlling such an important item. At this time Sayyid Jamal al-Dīn al-Afghānī was in Iran, and his followers distributed leaflets against the shah's concession-granting, which led to Afghānī's expulsion to Iraq in January 1891.

Mass protests against the concession in several major cities began in the spring of 1891, when tobacco company representatives began to arrive and post six-month deadlines for the sale of all local tobacco to them. Demonstrations began first in Shiraz, from which a leader of the ulama was exiled as a result, and then spread to Tabriz, where demonstrations were so widespread and threatening that the shah suspended the concession there. The Russians aided some of the protests. From his Iraqi exile, Afghānī wrote to Mirza Hasan Shirazi, the top religious leader in the Shi'i shrine cities of Iraq, asking him to lead a protest. Several Iranian Ulama also asked Shirazi to act, and Shirazi telegraphed the shah to condemn foreign interference and the killing of people in the recent protests, and called for an end to concessions to foreigners.

In the fall the movement spread to Isfahan and Mashhad. In December the protest reached its culmination in the nationwide boycott of the use and sale of tobacco, ordered by a fatwa attributed to Shirazi that, at least in public, was universally observed, even by non-Muslims. The universality of observance amazed observers, and it was reliably reported that even the shah's wives and servants refused to smoke. The shah was forced to cancel the internal concession, but further disorders ensued, and in January in Tehran troops fired on a growing crowd of male and female demonstrators and killed seven or more people. This event brought the definitive end of the whole concession, which the shah was forced to cancel. The local head of the tobacco company agreed to cancellation and to a cessation of operations, although Iran was forced to pay exaggerated compensation for company expenses.

Although the shah was now able to sow division in the ulama via threats and favors, the oppositional role of the groups allied in the anti-concession movement—merchants, ulama, and reformers—was to reappear in greater force in the constitutional revolution of 1905 to 1911 and afterward. More immediately, Iran was saddled with a large debt as a result of the concession's cancellation, and Drummond Wolff's project lay in ruins as Russian influence increased. This example of a successful mass movement against internal and foreign exploitation helped spark later oppositional movements in Iran. Iran indeed has had, beginning with the Tobacco Movement, more nationwide and multi-city rebellions and revolutions than any other Muslim country, which may in part be due to the ulama-merchant alliance and to the fact that merchants in Iran, unlike in many other countries, were overwhelmingly locally born Muslims who had close family and business ties to the ulama. Several reformers who, before the Tobacco Movement, had attacked the ulama and institutional Islam as reactionary now came to see them as potential allies against governmental and foreign oppression and exploitation.

see also Afghänï, Jamal ad-Dïn al-.


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

Lambton, Ann K. S. "The Tobacco Regie: Prelude to Revolution." Studia Islamica 22 (1965): 119-157 and 23 (1965): 71-90.