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Tobacco Revolt


A popular rebellion (18911892) in Iran that defeated a tobacco monopoly granted to British interests.

One of the most controversial concessions that Iran's Qajar monarchy granted to foreign nationals in exchange for monetary compensation was a complete monopoly on the production, domestic sales, and export of tobacco. This was granted to Major G. F. Talbot of Britain and was registered in March 1890 as the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia. Talbot agreed to pay 25,000 pounds immediately for the concession and to provide an annual payment of 15,000 pounds to the Imperial Treasury. This payment was to be accompanied by a 25 percent share of the net profits after deduction of a 5 percent shareholder's dividend. The arrangement was to be maintained for a period of fifty years.

Beginning in the spring of 1891 the implications of the monopoly became apparent to merchants and the Iranian population at large, the majority of whom consumed some form of tobacco on a daily basis, arousing nationalistic fervor. The void in leadership prompted the politicization of the intellectuals and the clergy. As the events of 1891 unfolded, the ulama (the clergy) successfully mobilized crowds against the government and its foreign policies. Under the leading ulama, protests began in Shiraz and Tabriz, principal market centers for domestic tobacco production, and then spread throughout the rest of the country. In Isfahan two leading ulama, Aqa Najafi and his brother Shaykh Muhammad Ali, pronounced the use of tobacco unclean as their followers took to the streets and broke all visible water pipes in the bazaars. In December the most prominent mujtahid (expert on Shiʿite Islamic law), Mirza Muhammad Hasan Shirazi, who resided in Ottoman Iraq, issued a fatwa (legal opinion) forbidding all forms of smoking until the tobacco concession was abolished. Shops throughout the bazaars closed and smoking was completely abandoned, even in the shah's own palace.

The value of the shares paid to the Imperial Bank was reduced by 50 percent. On Christmas Day, placards were hung throughout the Isfahan bazaar threatening a jihad against Europeans. Three days later, the shah announced the conditional withdrawal of the tobacco concession and requested that the population resume smoking. The suspicious crowds awaited word from Shirazi that the fatwa had been rescinded, but it did not arrive. The agitated shah, Naser al-Din, sent a personal letter to Tehran's leading mujtahid, Mirza Hasan Ashtiani, demanding that he immediately resume smoking or leave the country. As the news of the shah's message spread through the capital, the enraged crowds occupied the streets surrounding the shah's palace. Fearing for the safety of the shah, the government's troops opened fire on the rioters, killing seven people, including the sayyid who originally had led the crowds. With the help of the merchants, Ashtiani and other ulama sent a strong message to Naser alDin Shah and his prime minister, Amin al-Soltan. Realizing the severity of the situation, the shah in January 1892 abolished the concession completely, agreed to pay compensation to the families of those killed, and pardoned all leaders of the revolt. Shirazi telegraphed a few days later to say that Muslims could resume smoking.

see also shirazi, mirza hasan.


Browne, Edward G. The Persian Revolution of 19051909. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1910.

Keddie, Nikki. Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 18911892. London: Frank Cass, 1966.

Keddie, Nikki. Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Lambton, Ann K. S. "The Tobacco Regie: Prelude to Revolution." Studia Islamica 23 (1965): 7190; 119157.

roshanak malek
updated by eric hooglund

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