Anthropologizing Europe: Late 18th and Early 19th Century Indo-Persian Accounts of “Native” Europeans
Modern Europe was a topic of intense interest to Indo-Persianate travellers. They saw Europe's rise to prominence in the world as a recent historical development, and they sought through study to uncover the mechanisms of social change which made it possible. Writing in the late 1810s, Mirza Salih Shirazi, for instance, argued that up to 1500 the people of England had been “wicked reprobates and blood-shedders” (sharirah mufsid va khunriz). Riza Quli Mirza believed that “in earlier times Europeans, particularly the English, were like wild beasts and animals and lacked industry.” Due to what these intellectuals saw as social disorder and extreme oppression, Europeans who had been deprived of tranquility left the continent for the New World. Writing in the 1830s, he Reza Quli argued that a new order in England had emerged only about 1600 and viewed the country's recent wealth as based solely on commerce and industrial invention.
To elucidate the type of anthropological and sociological insight embedded in early nineteenth-century Persian travelogues, this paper focuses particularly on the writings of Mirza Abu Talib Lacknawi. It looks at his evaluation of the “modern age” characteristics of the English and analyzes a section of his travel report devoted to the “Virtues and Vices of the English” (zikr-i fazayil va razayil-i Inglish), written following the conclusion of his European journey in 1802. Using the taxonomy of philosophical ethics, Mirza Abu Talib divided his observations into broad categories of virtues (fazayil) and vices (razayil). He viewed these as modern or “new age” (jadid al-‘ahd) characteristics, which had varying impact on the social groupings of “the elite” (akabir), “the intermediates” (mutavvasitin), “the subalterns” (kaminah-ha), and the peasants “whose diet consists solely of potatoes” (khurak-i ishan munhasir bah potatoes ast). Conscious of increased class “revenge and animosity” (bughz va ‘idavat) due to the “extravagance” (ta‘ayyush) of some and “hardship” (ta‘ab) of others, he forewarned of a great uprising to come, such as the French Revolution. Mirza Abu Talib and his Persianate contemporaries did not feel that they were observing an advanced culture. By contrast, endowed as they were with a critical “double-consciousness,” the Indo-Persian anthropologists of modern Europe provide a critical outsider's perspective on an emerging social ethos of “the modern.” Their perspectives on Europe offer alternative sources for the study of modern European social norms and sense of self-identity.
Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi is Professor of History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. He has served as President of the International Society for Iranian Studies (2008-10), was the Founding Chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto-Mississauga (2004-07), and was the Editor-in-Chief of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2001-12), a Duke University Press journal. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Iran Nameh and is coeditor with Homa Katoouzian of the Iranian Studies book series, published by Routledge. Tavakoli’s areas of specialization encompass Middle Eastern history, modernity, nationalism, gender studies, spatial govern mentality, Orientalism, and Occidentalism. In addition to numerous articles, he is the author of two books: Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (Palgrave, 2001) and Tajaddud-i Bumi [Vernacular Modernity] (Nashr-i Tarikh, 2003).
This is part of the LSA theme semester India in the World.