Iraj Afshar, Six Years after His Death

OPINION 13.03.2017
Serhan Afacan Executive Editor

Six years ago, in March 2011, we lost the renowned bibliographer Iraj Asfhar at the age of 86, who undoubtedly was one of the greatest prolific scholars of modern times and a true doyen of Iranian studies. Dr. Afshar was born in 1925 as the son of Dr. Mahmud Afshar, the son of a wealthy Yazdi merchant family and an influential intellectual. In 1949, Dr. Afshar graduated from the Law Faculty at Tehran University and briefly embarked on a career in law but he then dedicated his life to editing and research. From 1951, when Iraj Afshar published, as the first step of a long and industrious scholarly career, Mahmoud B. Othman’s Ferdows al-Morshediyya fi Asarār al-Samadiya, until the end of his life, he contributed immensely to our knowledge of Iran. He published about 300 books, numerous catalogues and thousands of articles on various aspects of Iran’s history and literature. Further, at the time of his death, an additional five were in press and several others awaited his final proof-reading. His sons published a bibliography of his books in 1999 and a supplement of recent publications was published in 2004. A mere list of his publications amounts to a book of 161 pages. In 1951 until 1960, he was appointed a librarian at the Law Faculty Library at Tehran University. During this period, he spent a year at UNESCO in Paris on a library training scheme. He was only thirty-seven when he was appointed to the headship of the National Library of Iran. He was appointed, by the strong support of Jahanshah Saleh, the Chancellor of Tehran University, as the head of the Central Library of the university where he remained from 1965 to 1979. Thanks to his tireless efforts multitudes of memories and reams of manuscripts were brought to daylight. Due to his love for his ancestral town, he paid special emphasis to Yazd and recorded its monuments in his three-volume Yadegar-haye Yazd (Monuments of Yazd).

Dr. Afshar also managed and edited various journals, such as Jehan-e Now (1946-1955), Mehr (1952-1953), Shokhan (1954-1956), Farhang-e Irānzamin (1952-2011), Rahnama-ye Ketab (1958-1979) and Ayendeh (1979-1993) which was originally founded by his father and revived by Dr. Afshar with the same style and content of Rahname-ye Ketab. He also published a copious listing of all the articles concerning Iranian Studies published in Persian. His contribution to Iranian studies was well appreciated and he acted as a consulting editor of Encyclopaedia Iranica at Columbia University, the chief bibliographer of Persian books at Harvard University as he was also on the advisory council of the Iranian Studies Journal and on the editorial board of the Journal of Persianate Studies; additionally, a full professor emeritus of the University of Tehran. He also was one of the founding members of the Iranian Society of Philosophy and Human Sciences affiliated with UNESCO as he also held membership of several scientific institutions throughout his life and had given lectures in several countries.

An analysis of Iraj Afshar’s scholarly corpus falls outside the scope of the present writing and there is a considerable amount written on this subject. Suffice it to say that there was a well-architected framework underlying his effort. Iraj Afshar was a successor of the old-school, now almost extinct, scholarship based on digging in the archives and libraries and relentlessly producing new primary material. For this, he was occasionally criticized by more theoretically-oriented younger scholars some of whom tend to rather easily cast sweeping generalizations from which Dr. Afshar carefully refrained. In his love for manuscripts, his tenures at several major libraries in Iran played a great role. Iraj Afshar’s work was mainly based on providing essential parts for a narrative rather than presenting ready-made deductions. His scholarship was delicate which required a prodigious energy and a well-disciplined character. Along with his academic work, Dr. Afshar was also a curious traveller and he visited almost every corner of his country, the fruits of which were published in Golgasht dar Vatan (Travels in the Homeland) and Safar-namcheh (Little Travelogue).

Once he defined himself as a servant of Iranian studies, or Iranshinasi and indeed few persons could match him in serving the field. He travelled east and west and received several awards for his contribution to the study of Iran. He was also an ardent supporter of younger generations of Iranologists. His house in northern Tehran was full of books and documents and it was often visited by researchers from Iran and abroad. I met Dr. Afshar at Leiden University in 2008 as a graduate student and then a few months before his death I had the chance to visit him in his house in 2010 and enjoyed the opportunity to solicit his ideas and advice on my research. He was a man with a simple dress, a pleasant face, inquisitive eyes and he was an attentive listener. As a welcoming and generous host, he carefully listened and reacted to my questions. He was simultaneously encouraging and critical.

Finally, a few words are in place regarding the age that made Iraj Afshar who he was. He was born at the very end of the Qajar era and on the eve of the Pahlavi rule. His childhood coincides with the Pahlavi modernization policies when ambitious efforts were made to create a national identity. He was a teenager when his country was occupied by the Allied forces in 1941 and when a liberalization of Iran’s intellectual and political atmosphere unfolded. Dr. Afshar was a young intellectual when Muhammad Mosaddeq, the elected Prime Minister of the time, was toppled by a coup d’état in 1953 about which he later published significant material. He was raised with a strong Iranian identity, in line with his family training as well as his age, and this identity has always remained dearer to him than anything else. For him, this identity was shaped around the Persian language and the land of Iran or Iranzamin and it was first and foremost a cultural issue. His close relationship with such prominent nationalist figures as Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, who was possibly the utmost significant of Dr. Afshar’s mentors, played a great role on his ideas. Originally coming from a Tabrizi family, Taqizadeh entered Iran’s political life as a deputy to the First Parliament in 1906 and always remained a major political and intellectual figure until his death. Iraj Afshar published Taqizadeh’s articles in over ten volumes as well as his autobiography titled Zandage-ye Tufani (A Turbulent Life). After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, he chose to stay in the country and continued his scholarly work. Obviously, his corpus substantially enriched our access to the various dimensions of Iranian history and literature. As a final note, it can be useful to add that he donated his invaluable library of some 20,000 books along with photographs, documents and letters to the Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia in Tehran and these collections await researchers from all around the world. 

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