A Familial State: The Divan and the Formation of Qajar Iran

By Assef Ashraf
Submitted to Session P4974 (State Consolidation and Contestation in Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The early nineteenth century was a transitional moment in Iranian history. In explaining how and why the Qajar state formed, most historians have concentrated on Qajar tribal conquests, on the creation of administrative offices, or on the political culture and religious thought that shaped the Qajar polity. This paper shifts the frame of analysis to the families that served in the early Qajar state. It does so by drawing on the abundant primary sources from the Qajar period, including biographical dictionaries (tazkirah), family histories, histories of political offices—like Sadr al-Tavarikh—and chronicles. Based on these sources, the paper makes two interventions.

First, the paper traces the lineages of the chief ministers, court historians, and financial auditors (mustawfi) of the early Qajar period. Many of these individuals had ancestors who served key bureaucratic and administrative roles in the Zand, Afsharid, and in some cases, Safavid periods. Others were newly recruited by the Qajars. In other words, focusing on who filled bureaucratic positions in the nascent Qajar state provides an important perspective on continuity and change between Safavid, Afsharid, Zand, and Qajar rule. Moreover, such a perspective challenges the prevailing depiction of Iran’s eighteenth century as a period that witnessed a “decline in the bureaucracy,” by highlighting the endurance of bureaucratic families through decades of political turmoil.

Second, the paper considers the politics of marriage between ministerial officeholders and the Qajar household, and sheds light on the rise of new elite families in nineteenth-century Iran. Families like the Farahanis, Nuris, and Ashtiyanis married Qajar princes and princesses, consolidating their political and economic interests. Their descendants remained politically influential not just in the Qajar period, but well into the twentieth century. In that sense, the story of modern Iran is a story of the legacy of early Qajar marital practices.

Ultimately the paper suggests that our understanding of how states form must take into account the individuals and families that served the state. The paper therefore contributes to the growing historical and sociological scholarship that has drawn attention to the role families play in the production and reproduction of political and economic power.