Ali Dashti's Twenty Three Years

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Twenty Three Years:

A Study of the Prophetic Career of









Copyright @ 1985,1994 by F. R. C. Bagley





Note on the Author, by F. R. C. Bagley

Note on the Translation, by F. R. C. Bagley


His birth

His childhood

The problem of prophethood

His appointment

After his appointment


The setting


The miracle of the Qur’an

Mohammad's humanity


The emigration

The change in Mohammad's personality

The establishment of a sound economy

The advance to power

Prophethood and rulership

Women in Islam

Women and the Prophet


God in the Qur’an

Genies and magic

Cosmogony and chronology


The succession

The quest for booty

Chapter VI:




Note on the Author

by F. R. C. Bagley

The religion of Islam, founded by Mohammad in his prophetic career which began in 610 and ended with his death in 632, has helped to shape the cultures and lifestyles of many nations.

In the last hundred years, numerous scholarly books have been written about Mohammad, the Qur’an, and Islamic theology, laws, sects, and mystic movements. Foreign scholars have accomplished essential tasks of gathering and analysing data. Indigenous scholars have for the most part written expositions and apologia, and with exceptions such as the Egyptian Tam Hosayn, who lived from 1889 to 1973 and was blind, have not paid much attention to difficulties.

The book Bisl O Seh Sal (Twenty Three Years) by the Iranian scholar Ali Dashti (l89~1981-2) is valuable because it discusses both values and problems which Islam presents to modern Moslems.

Born in 1896 in a village in Dashtestan, a district adjoining the port of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, Ali Dashti was the son of Shaykh Abd ol-Hosayn Dashtestani. At a young age he was taken by his father to Karbala in Iraq, which then belonged to the Ottoman empire. Karbala, where the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hosayn was martyred in 680, and Najaf(about 70 km. or 43 m. to the south), where the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali was martyred in 661, are visited by Shi'ite Moslem pilgrims and have colleges (madrasas) where Shi'ite clergy Coloma) are trained and theological studies are pursued. Despite the unsettled conditions in the First World War, Ali Dashti received a full training in these madrasas and acquired a thorough knowledge of Islamic theology and history, logic, rhetoric, and Arabic and Persian grammar and classical literature.

After his return from Iraq to Iran in 1918, however, he decided against a clerical career. Having strong patriotic feelings and an awareness of world developments, he preferred to devote his fluent pen to journalism. Eventually he succeeded in establishing his own newspaper at Tehran, Shafaq-e Sorkh (Red Dawn), which lasted from 1 March 1922 unti1 18 March 1935. He was its editor until 1 March 1931, when Ma'el Tuyserkani took over. In 1919 Ali Dashti was imprisoned for a time after he had written articles criticizing the proposed Anglo-Iranian treaty of that year (which was later dropped), and in 1921 and subsequently he spent some more short spells in prison. He described his experiences and thoughts in articles which were collected in a book, Awam-e Mahbas (Prison Days). With its radical and modernizing tone, shrewd observations, pleasant humor, and fluent style, this book won immediate popularity and was several times reprinted in amplified editions. Shafaq-e Sorkh (Red Dawn) became noted for the high quality of its articles on social and literary subjects written by Ali Dashti and his then young collaborators, among whom were distinguished men such as the poet and literary historian Rashid Yasemi and the scholarly researchers Sa'id Nafisi, Abbas Eqbal, and Mohammad Mohit Tabataba'i.

During those years, Ali Dashti taught himself French and began to read widely in modern French literature and in English and Russian literature in French translations. He also read material in French on current affairs, music and painting (in which he was interested), and Islamic subjects. He was one of the few Iranians who took an interest in modern Arabic, particularly Egyptian, literature. At a time when most writers of Persian prose were still addicted to elaborate metaphors and complex sentences, he developed a fluent but elegant style which was widely admired and copied, the only adverse criticism being that he used too many borrowed French words. Not only his original writings gained popularity, but also his translations of Edmond Demolins's A quoi tient La superiorite des Anglo-Saxons and of an Arabic version of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help.

In 1927 Ali Dashti was invited to visit Russia for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, and he took the opportunity to extend his journey and see France and other Western European countries. He was elected to the Majles (Parliament) as deputy for Bushehr in 1928 and again in the next two parliaments, and won a reputation for forceful speaking. After the expiry of the Ninth Majles (Parliament) in 1935, however, he was again detained and kept under house arrest for fourteen months. In 1939 he was re-elected to the Majles as deputy for Damavand (near Tehran), and after the Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran he won the same seat in the elections of 1941 and 1943. He was the leading figure in the Adalat (Justice) party, a group favouring moderate and practicable social reforms. As a patriot he expressed alarm at the risks taken in 1946 by the then prime minister, Qavam os-Saltana, in admitting members of the Soviet-backed Tuda party into the cabinet and in negotiating on the Soviet demand for an oil concession. His outspokenness landed him in prison in April 1946. After his release six months later, he went to France and stayed there until the end of 1948, when he was appointed ambassador to Egypt and the Lebanon. He was briefly minister of foreign affairs in the cabinet of Hosayn Ala, which held office for a fortnight before Mohammad Mosaddeq's rise to the premiership on 2 April 1951.

In 1954 he was appointed a senator (half of the members of the Senate being elected and half appointed by the Shah). He remained in the Senate until the Islamic revolution of 11 February 1979 and won further esteem for his contributions to its debates, which often carried more weight than those of the Majles (Parliament).

In the literary world, Ali Dashti was best known during the early post-war years as an essayist and novelist. In Saya (1946), a collection of reprinted articles and sketches, his tone remains modernizing, but is less radical than in his previous writings.

During and after Reza Shah's reign, the social problem which was most discussed in Iran, or at least in upper and middle class circles, was the status of women. Iranian women had been compulsorily unveiled on 7 January 1936, but after the war women of the lower classes resumed the veil and women of the upper and middle classes came under strong pressure to do likewise. Ali Dashti sympathized with the desire of educated Iranian women for freedom to use their brains and express their personalities; but he does not present a very favourable picture of them in his collections of novelettes Fetna (1943 and 1949), Jadu (1951), and Hendu (1955). His heroines engage in flirtations and intrigues with no apparent motive except cold calculation. Nevertheless these stories are very readable, and they provide a vivid, and no doubt partly accurate, record of the social life of the upper classes and the psychological problems of the educated women in Tehran at the time. Ali Dashti's literary reputation, however, rests on his work as a scholar and critic of the Persian classics. The Iranians take legitimate pride in their heritage but have shown reluctance to discuss the difficulties which the classics present to their own younger generation, let alone to foreigners.

One difficulty is the archaic language of the classics, another is their medieval atmosphere, and another is their bulk. Sa'eb, the leading poet of the Safavid period, wrote 300,000 verses, most of which were probably not intended to be more than ephemeral {lasting a very short time}. In any case, nobody can read all the classics. Modern Iranian scholars have generally taken a classical author's greatness for granted and have concentrated their research on matters such as the influence of the author's training and career, and his forerunners and patrons, on the form and content of his work, and his own influence on successors. Ali Dashti, while not neglecting such points, tried to pick out and explain the elements in the works of certain classical poets which have continuing artistic and moral value for the modern reader. He also makes candid criticisms, mentioning for instance that Sa'di gives some very immoral pieces of advice in addition to ever popular maxims of common sense, good manners, and good humor. Although there is necessarily a measure of subjectivity in Ali Dashti's appraisals, his new approach met a widely felt need and helped to revive popular interest in the classics. His books in this field, which were several times reprinted, are as follows:

Naqshi az Hafez (1936), on the poet Hafez (ca. 1319-1390).

Sayri dar Divan-e Shams, on the lyric verse of the poet Mawlavi Jalal od-Din Rumi (1207-1273).

Dar Qalamraw-o Sa'di, on the poet and prose-writer Sa'di (1208?-1292).

Sha'eri dir-ashna (1961), on Khaqani (1121?-1l99), a particularly difficult but interesting poet.

Dami ba Khayyam (1965), on the quatrain-writer and mathematician Omar Khayyam (1048?-1131); translated by Laurence P.

Elwell Sutton, In Search of Omar Khayyam, London 1971.

Negahi be-Sa'eb (1974), on the poet Sa'eb (1601-1677).

Kakh-e ebda', andishaha-ye gunagun-e Hafez, on various ideas expressed by Hafez.

In his later years Ali Dashti returned to the study of Islam, for which he was well qualified by his madrasa training and his wide reading of modern Egyptian and European works. His approach was the same as in his literary studies, namely to emphasize elements of lasting value and to discuss problems frankly. His writings in this field are as follows:

Parda-ye pendar (1974 and twice reprinted), on Sufism (Islamic mysticism).

Jabr ya ekhtiyar (anonymous and undated, contents first published in the periodical Vahid in 1971), dialogues with a Sufi about predestination and free will.

Takht-e Pulad (anonymous and undated, contents first published in the periodical Khaterat in 1971-72), dialogues in the historic Takht-e Pulad cemetery of Esfahan with a learned 'alem who sticks to the letter of the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Oqala bar khelaf-e 'aql (1975 and twice reprinted, revised versions of articles first published in the periodicals Yaghma in 1972 and 1973, Vahid in 1973, and Rahnoma-ye Ketab in 1973, with two additional articles), on logical contradictions in arguments used by theologians, particularly Mohammad ol-Ghazzali (1058-1111).

Dar diyar-e Sufiyan (1975), on Sufism, a continuation of Parda-ye pendar.

Bist O Seh Sal (anonymous and without indication of place and date of publication, but evidently not later than 1974 and according to Ali Dashti's statement printed at Beirut), a study of the prophetic career of Mohammad.

The government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his prime minister from 1965 to 1977, Amir Abbas Hovayda, maintained a censorship which offended many Iranian intellectuals, though it seemed to foreigners to be less oppressive than the contemporary censorships in most other Middle Eastern countries.

The Iranian censorship was tightened after the start of terrorist attacks in 1971 and directed mainly against Marxist and Islamic revolutionary writings; but it was also used to prevent the printing of any sort of potentially trouble-causing matter. Publication of criticism of orthodox or popular religion was not allowed in Iran between 1971 and 1977. Ali Dashti was therefore obliged to have Bist O Seh Sal (Twenty Three Years), his major work in this field, printed abroad (at Beirut) and to issue it anonymously.

Only oral and scanty information about Ali Dashti's experiences after the Islamic revolution is available. He was arrested, and during an interrogation he received a beating and fell and broke his thigh. To what extent he recovered is not clear. After release he was not allowed to return to his home, a pleasant, small house with a garden at Zargandeh, a northern suburb of Tehran. It is unlikely that he saw his books and papers again. A notice in the Iranian periodical Ayanda reported his death in the month of Dey of the Iranian year 1360, i.e. between 22 December 1981 and 20 January 1982.

Note on the Translation

by F. R. C. Bagley

A mutual friend introduced me to Ali Dashti when I was staying in Tehran in the spring of 1975. I well remember his upright bearing and fine physique at a ripe age and the perspicacity {quick in noticing, understanding or judging things accurately}and wit of his conversation. It seemed likely that he would have several more years of vigorous and useful life ahead.

He presented a copy of Bist O Seh Sal (Twenty Three Years) to me and requested me to translate it but not to talk about it and not to publish the translation until after his death. He repeated these requests when I met him again at Tehran in September 1977, and when he telephoned and wrote to me from London during a short journey to Paris and London which he made in June 1978. I lost touch with him after the revolution, but remained bound by my promises to fulfil his requests.

I have tried to produce a readable translation while remaining faithful to Ali Dashti's text. In some places I have abbreviated slightly, and in others I have inserted explanations. In chapter VI have changed the positions of paragraphs obviously printed in wrong order in the Persian original. I found a small number of misprinted or erroneous dates and names, and have checked and corrected them. I have incorporated Ali Dashti's few footnotes into the text and added notes of my own to provide identifications and explanations which may be helpful to non-specialist readers.

Ali Dashti quotes passages from the Qur’an in the original Arabic, which would be understood by many of his readers, and then gives Persian renderings which are more often explanatory paraphrases than literal translations. I have translated the Qur’anic passages as literally as possible into modern English after consideration of Ali Dashti's renderings and English, French, and German versions. I preferred not to quote from the widely used English versions of Arthur J. Arberry and Marmaduke Pickthall because their strict literalism and archaic English often make comprehension difficult. Systems of Qur’anic verse-numbering differ, and I have not followed Ali Dashti in this respect, but have used the system of Gustav Flügel.

Although this is a translation of a Persian book, the subject matter requires a transliteration system reproducing Arabic rather than Persian pronunciations of names and words. The chosen system dispenses with diacritical points, which have to be used for identification of Arabic consonants, but distinguishes between long and short vowels as follows: long a (as in father), short a (like the vowel of cut rather than cat), long u (as in peruse), short o (like the vowel of put rather than pot), long i (as in prestige), short e (like the vowel of sit rather than set). The diphthongs are spelt ay and aw (though sometimes the former is pronounced as in my rather than may and the latter as in now or know rather than gnaw).

The guttural is transcribed as ' and the glottal stop as '; elision is indicated by '. Unless separated by a hyphen (e.g. s-h in Es-haq), th represents the initial consonant of thing, kh the final consonant of loch, dh the initial consonant of this, sh the consonant of shoe, and gh a consonant similar to the French r grasseye. In constructs with the Arabic article, the Arabic nominative case is used (e.g. Abdollah, not Abdallah). The article when preceding the socalled "sun letters" is transliterated as it is pronounced (e.g. Abd or-Rahman, not Abd oJ-Rahman as it is spelt).

Apologies are offered to Arabists and others accustomed to spellings such as Ibn Abbas instead of Ebn Abbas. Conventional English spellings, such as Islam, Iraq, are retained. Arabic names which have the definite article (e.g. ol-Madina, ot-Ta'ef, oJ-Basra, oJ-Hasan, ol-Hosayn) are, for convenience, given without it (e.g. Madina, Hosayn). The abbreviation b. stands for the Arabic ebn or ben (son of) and bent (daughter of). Banu (sons of) means tribe or clan.

Dates are given with the hejri lunar year preceding the Gregorian solar year (e.g. 10/632).

Below are some explanations of technical terms in the text:

Sura: Chapter of the Qur’an. The chapters are divided into verses which are called aya. Both words occur in the Qur’an, where sura appears to mean scripture (e.g. in sura 2, verse 21) and aya means sign (of God's existence, power, or bounty).

Companions (sahaba): early converts and other close associates of the Prophet Mohammad.

hejra: the emigration of the Prophet Mohammad and a number of Meccan converts to Madina in September 622. The Islamic era is called the hejri era, but its starting point is 16 July 622.

Mohajerun (emigrants): the Meccan converts who accompanied or followed the Prophet Mohammad to Madina.

Ansar (supporters): the members of the Madinan Khazraj and Aws tribes whose leaders invited Mohammad to Madina and who supported him there.

Hadith (news): reports of the Prophet Mohammad's sayings and actions attributed to his companions, his wives, men who knew or saw him, and men who knew his companions. The Shi'ite Islamic . Hadith, also called Akhbar (reports), includes sayings and examples of the Emams. The Hadith supplemented the Qur’an as a source of Islamic law and theology, and was written down in the 9th and following centuries in massive compilations which are thought by modern scholars to include material absorbed from many Eastern sources.

Sanna (custom): the custom of the Prophet Mohammad, as recorded in the Hadith, and of Moslems generally in the early centuries of Islam.

Sonnites: Moslems who believe that, after the Qur’an, the sonna and the consensus of the community are authoritative in religious and legal matters.

Caliph (Khalifa): Successor of Mohammad in his role as head of the Islamic state.

Emam (Leader): head of the Islamic religious community.

Shi'ites: Moslems who believe that the Prophet Mohammad designated Ali to be the next Emam and head of the state, and that only Emams descended from Ali, and each likewise designated by his predecessor, can give authoritative guidance. Shi'ite sects differed over the line of succession of the Emams and over matters of doctrine. The Twelver Shi'ites, who are the majority in Iran and numerous in Iraq, believe that the Twelfth Emam disappeared in 939 and that since then authoritative guidance is given by the most learned and pious 'olama acting as the Emam's representatives.

'olama (plural), 'alem (singular): scholars of the Islamic religion who fulfill the function of clergy and used also to act as lawyers.

Readers wishing to pursue the study of subjects treated in this book can find bibliographical guidance in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., Leiden, 1960- (up to Ma in 1984); the Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York, 1982- (up to Al in 1984); D. Grimwood-Jones,D. Hopwood,andJ. D. Pearson,ed.,Arabic- XVll

Islamic Bibliography, Hassocks, Sussex/Atlantic Highland, New Jersey, 1977; L. P. Elwell Sutton, ed., Bibliographical Guide to Iran, Hassocks, Sussex/Totowa, New Jersey, 1983; J. D. Pearson, ed., Index Islamicus (articles in periodicals etc. since 1906),Cambridge, 1958.




I search for the way, but not the way to the Ka'ba and the temple.
For I see in the former a troop of idolaters and in the latter a band of self-worshippers.

MawlaviJalal od-Din Rumi

At Mecca in 570 Amena b. Wahb gave birth to a child named Mohammad. His father Abdollah had died before he opened his eyes, and he lost his mother when he was five years old. A little later his influential and generous grandfather Abd ol-Mottaleb b. Hashem, who had been his sole protector and sustainer, also passed away. Thereafter this child, who had several quite wealthy paternal uncles, was brought up by the poorest but bravest of them, Abu Taleb. Ahead lay an astonishing career, perhaps unique in the world's record of self-mademen who have created history.

Thousands of books have been written about this extraordinary man's life, about the events of "the twenty three years of his mission, about everything that he did and said. Scholars and researchers actually have at their disposal more information about him than about any of the great men of history before him. Yet we still lack an objective and rationally acceptable book presenting a portrait of him unclouded by preconceptions, suppositions, and fanaticisms; or if such a book has been written, I have not seen it.

Moslems, as wellas others, have disregarded the historical facts. They have continually striven to turn this man into an imaginary superhuman being, a sort of God in human clothes, and have generally ignored the ample evidence of his humanity. They have been ready to set aside the law of cause and effect, which governs real life, and to present their fantasies as miracles.

About Mohammad's life up to 610, when he reached the age of forty, nothing of any importance is recorded. In the accounts of the period, and even in the biographies of the Prophet, there are no reports of anything remarkable or out of the ordinary. Yet by the end of the 3rd/9th century the great historian and Qur’an-commentator Tabaril in his exegesis of verse 21 of sura 2 (ol-Baqara), could insert an unsubstantiated statement about the Prophet's birth which shows how prone the people were in those days to create and repeat impossible myths, and how even a historian could not stick to history. The verse says, "If you are in doubt over what We have sent down to Our servant, bring a sura like it, and call your witnesses, other than God, if you are truthful!" The statement which Tabari adds to his explanation of the verse is as follows: "Before the Prophet's appointment, a rumor had spread in Mecca that a messenger from God with the name Mohammad would appear and that the east and the west of the world would fall under his sway. At that time forty women in Mecca were with child, and every one of them, after giving birth, named her son Mohammad in case he might be the expected messenger.”

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