Constitutional Revolution

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movement in opposition to the shah's rule that led to the convening of the majles.

Iran's Constitutional Revolution began in April 1905 when a group of merchants from Tehran sought sanctuary in the Abd al-Azim shrine south of the capital to protest against foreign control of the country's customs administration, the govern-ment's economic policies, and the repressive political regulations of the Qajar monarch Mozaffar al-Din Qajar (ruled 18961906). The merchants who led this demonstration belonged to a secret society that had formed several weeks earlier to oppose oppression and seek the establishment of a house of justice. Their protesteffectively a business strikeattracted the support of other secret societies with similar grievances. The demonstration was defused after two weeks when the shah agreed to discuss the complaints of the protesters, but he soon left for a prescheduled private tour of Europe and forgot about his promises. The secret society of merchants, as well as other clandestine political groups in Tehran and in Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan province and the official residence of the crown prince, circulated pamphlets calling for fulfillment of the shah's promises and the implementation of other reforms. By December 1905, when the shah had returned to the country and it seemed obvious that he would not honor his commitments, a much larger group of two thousand merchants, joined by two of the city's leading clergy and their theology students, again took sanctuary in the Abd al-Azim shrine and demanded, in addition to action on their earlier requests, that the government create a house of justice.

The second protest had been sparked by the arbitrary arrest and beating of two respected sugar merchants, whom the government tried to blame for the inflationary rise in sugar prices. Popular indignation over this incident was widespread. In addition to the merchants who sought sanctuary, artisans and laborers in the capital went on strike to register their sympathy with the merchants demanding justice. Unable to force an end to the general strike in Tehran, the shah agreed in January 1906 to dismiss the Belgian national who was director of customs and to establish a house of justice. In subsequent months, however, Mozaffar al-Din Qajar again failed to fulfill his promises, thus prompting a third round of demonstrations during the summer of 1906.

The demonstrations of 1906 were ignited by the arrest of a fiery Shiʿite preacher who had denounced the shah's government during religious ceremonies and the arrest of several other critics of the regime. A crowd gathered outside the police station to demand their release; in the ensuing confrontation, the police killed a protester. A huge crowd attended the funeral the next day, and demonstrators clashed with the Russian-officered Cossack Brigade; twenty-two persons were killed and more than one hundred injured. The incident transformed the antigovernment protests into a mass movement. In July 1906, most of Tehran's Shiʿite clergy demonstrated its disapproval of the government by departing in a group for Qom, a shrine city about 90 miles (145 km) south of the capital, thereby leaving Tehran without spiritual direction. In addition, more than ten thousand merchants took sanctuary in the British embassy's summer property in the mountains a few miles north of the city.

By mid-July 1906, most of the capital was on strike; even women organized demonstrations in front of the shah's palace. The growing opposition movement spread to several provincial centers, including Iran's second most important city, Tabriz; committees sent telegrams from all over the country to express sympathy with the protesters and their demands. The main intellectual ferment and negotiations took place among the ten thousand protesters who had camped out for three weeks in the British legation. Their most important decision was to change the former request for a house of justice to a new demand for an elected, constitutional assembly, or majles. The crisis forced the shah to accede to the popular demands, and on 5 August 1906 he signed a decree convening a constituent assembly.

The constituent assembly met immediately, drew up an electoral law, divided the country into electoral districts, and scheduled elections. The country's first elected majles met in October 1906. It drafted a fundamental law, based on the Belgian constitution, which provided for a parliamentary form of government. Special features that were incorporated into the constitution included articles authorizing the establishment of provincial assemblies and the creation of a body of senior Shiʿite clergymen to judge the conformity of legislation with Islamic law; these two provisions, however, were never implemented. Since the constitution limited the powers of the monarch, Mozaffar al-Din Shah indicated his opposition to the document by denouncing its main architects as religious heretics. His ploy not only failed, but, instead, incited mass demonstrations in favor of the constitution in the capital and several other cities, including Isfahan, Kermanshah, Mashhad, Rasht, Shiraz, and Tabriz. The disturbances climaxed with the assassination of the shah's prime minister, the public suicide of the assassin in front of the majles building, and a mass funeral procession for the assassin. Deeply distressed by these developments, the shah reluctantly signed the fundamental law in December 1906, a few days before his death. A supplementary fundamental law was signed by his son and successor, Mohammad Ali Qajar, in 1907. These two documents made up the Iranian constitution, which remained in force until 1979, when it was replaced by a new constitution.

To some historians, the Constitutional Revolution refers only to the events of 1905 to 1907, but other historians also view the struggles over the constitution during 1907 to 1909 as part of the Constitutional Revolution. Although Mohammad Ali (ruled 19061909) disliked the limits the constitution placed on his authority, the united opposition to the court within the majles initially forced him to abide by the new constraints. Factions of conservatives, moderates, liberals, and radicals soon emerged in the majles, however, and their differences over policies throughout 1907 provided the opportunity for the shah and his supporters to make political alliances with the conservatives and some moderates. By June 1908, the shah, feeling strong enough to mount a coup against the majles, ordered the Russian colonel of the Cossack Brigade to attack the volunteer militia defending the majles building and to arrest the deputies who had not escaped. After the bombardment, in which more than 250 persons lost their lives, the shah dissolved the majles and suspended the constitution.

Mohammad Ali's coup effectively put the capital under his control, but not the rest of the country. In Isfahan, Rasht, Tabriz, and other cities, volunteers took up arms to defend the constitution. For a year, constitutionalists and royalists waged a civil war for control of Iran's provincial centers, with the constitutionalists gradually gaining the upper hand. Constitutional forces finally advanced on Tehran from Rasht in the north and from Isfahan in the south. A mass uprising against the government opened the city to the constitutionalists in July 1909. Mohammad Ali, who had fled to the Russian embassy, was deposed; his twelve-year-old son, Ahmad (ruled 19091925), was installed as the new shah; the constitution was reinstated; and elections for a new majles were scheduled.

see also ahmad qajar; mohammad ali shah qajar; mozaffar al-din qajar.


Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Bayat, Mangol. Iran's First Revolution: Shiʿism and the Constitutional Revolution of 19051909. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lambton, Ann K. S. Qajar Persia: Eleven Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Eric Hooglund

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Constitutional Revolution