How (not) to defibrillate a language

Two examples from the 19th century: Persian and Hebrew revival movements


In the 19th century, two prominent figures, Manekji Limji Hataria and Eliezer Ben Yehuda led two language revival movements. They both belonged to ethno-religious minority in their general societies and desired to return to their ancestral lands: Palestine in the case of Ben Yehuda and Iran in the case of Manekji. Ben Yehuda was committed to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language and emphasized the importance of Palestine as the land of Jews while Manekji, as a Zoroastrian leader attempted to revive pre-Islamic Persian language and stressed the standing of Iran as the ancestral land of Zoroastrians. They both devoted their lives to form new national identity. In the case of Ben Yehuda, despite all the challenges, he met his dream coming true, while Manekji enjoyed much less success. These two stories illustrate the growth of linguistic nationalism in the cases of Hebrew and Persian and demonstrate why two movements with similar roots would ultimately have very different fates. The study compares the two movements in the examination of Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism.

This document offers a historical comparative perspective of the revival movements of Hebrew and modern Persian in the 19th century through the lens of two prominent individuals, Eliezer Ben Yehuda and Manekji Limji Hataria. Both men were committed to using language to form new national identities, and they forged new tools for doing so both at the intellectual level and through the formation of community-level groups. In the case of Ben Yehuda, however, these efforts were challenging but ultimately highly influential, while Manekji enjoyed much less success. These two stories illustrate the growth of linguistic nationalism in the cases of Hebrew and Persian and demonstrate why two movements with similar roots would ultimately have very different fates.

The overview consists of four parts. The first section introduces Benedict Anderson’s theory on the role of language and religion in nationalism. The second reviews the revival of Hebrew and the role of Ben Yehuda, while the third discusses the revival of Persian under the leadership of Manekji. Finally, the fourth part examines the role of language and religion in response to Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism.

1. Benedict Anderson’s Theory of Nation: Imagined Community

In 1983, Benedict Anderson (1936—2015), a political scientist and historian, coined the term “Imagined Community” as part of his study on the emergence of nations. Anderson claims that nations are imagined political communities, because the people of any given nation do not know most of the other members, but there is a certain idea in their mind that they have some commonalities which they share Benedict R. O’G Anderson, Imagined Communities (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 6. . Anderson also explains how nations are imagined, falling into categories of limited, sovereign, and community. He expands each of these points as follows:

  1. 1) Limited, not universal, because each nation is finite. Each nation has boundaries that separate its people from others.
  2. 2) Sovereign, because the first nations wanted to be free from the legitimacy of the divinely- ordained hierarchical dynastic realm.
  3. 3) Community, because there is a deep horizontal comradeship and fraternity that makes it possible that millions of people would, not so much kill, but willingly die for their imagined community Nicole Pepperell, “Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities,” Youtube, April 3, 2014, .

Anderson discusses this strong emotional attachment and loyalty to the community, such as the willingness to die, in terms of religious roots. Although religion was in decline at the advent of the Enlightenment, nationalism employed the religious meaning of death and appeared as a “secular transformation of fatality to continuity.” Anderson argues that not only death, but also the unification and binding of people in nationalism are inspired by religion Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities 9—36. .

Anderson believes that the key in creating these imaginations is a shared language or vernacular. However, if the printing press had not arrived, and more importantly, if capitalism had not backed the printing press, mass consciousness and mass imagination of nationhood would not have occurred. The printing press and widespread access to written materials allowed governments to formalize languages. The formalization of language led to the solidification of particular vernaculars which retained some unique cultural dimensions. These vernaculars then formed different groups or communal identities, which later in turn formed different nationsIbid, 37—46. .

Karl W. Deutsch, the political scientist, has stated that “[t]he communicative facilities of a society include a socially standardized system of symbols which is a language, and any number of auxiliary codes.” According to him, if an ethnic group designs a technology that raises the level of social communication and brings all the members of that society into contact, that society transforms into a nationKarl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality (New York: The MIT Press and John Wiley & Sons, 1953). . Benedict Anderson had a similar position. He theorized:

What, in a positive sense, made the new communities imaginable was a half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and production relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity … The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification. Yet this mutual incomprehensibility was historically of only slight importance until capitalism and print created monoglot mass reading publicsAnderson, 42—43. .

To Anderson, the overlap of capitalism, print technology, and diversity of languages brings about new nations. To support his theory, he gives the example of the Ottoman Empire, saying “the seeds of Turkish nationalism are easily detectable in the appearance of a lively vernacular press in Istanbul [sic] in the 1870sIbid. 75. .”

In the 19th century, nationalists stressed the importance of language as a tool to demarcate the borders of their nations. In some cases, language went further than defining political ties and replaced the older notions of kinship and blood, because national language was perceived as a more concrete way to define the members of a nationCarl Darling Buck, “Language and the Sentiment of Nationality,” The American Political Science Review, Vol: 10 (1910), 46—47. . Accordingly, reviving and reforming vernacular languages have been a marked characteristic of national consciousness in both Europe and AsiaElie Kedourie, Nationalism, 4th ed., (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 56—68; Joshua A. Fishman, Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers, 1973); Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992); Mary Anne Perkins, Nation and Word, 1770—1850: Religious and Metaphysical Language in European National Consciousness (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999); Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael, eds., Language and Nationalism in Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). . As the 19th century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder argues, the spirit of a nation lies in its language, and language is what secures the uniqueness or individuality of nationsF. M. Barnard, Herder’s Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism, rev. ed., (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967); F. M. Barnard, “National Culture and Political Legitimacy: Herder and Rousseau,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol: 44 (1983), 231—253. .

2. The Revival of Hebrew

The advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century stressed the equality of humankind regardless of gender, religion, and raceLiah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). . Both the Enlightenment and Europe’s burgeoning nationalism impacted the status of Jews and heightened their debates about identity. As part of these debates, the concept of Haskalah, or “education,” made its first appearance. As Shmuel Feiner indicates, Haskalah was an intellectual trend that sought to reshape a new Jewish community to assimilate and merge with EuropeShmuel Feiner, “Towards a Historical Definition of the Haskalah,” in New Perspectives on the Haskalah, Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin, eds., (London and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001), 218. .

Through Haskalah, a group of Jewish youths emerged who already had gained a traditional Jewish education and intended to receive Enlightenment education as well. This group, called Maskilim (enlightened ones), eventually shaped a secular Jewish intelligentsia that saw Judaism in parallel with the broader culture.

What played a significant role in the evolution and dissemination of Haskalahwas Hebrew. As an ancestral language and later a crucial factor in Jewish nationalism, Hebrew was an essential component of Jewish identity. However, Maskilim were divided into two incompatible groups with different linguistic goals: German Maskilim and Hebrew Maskilim. While the former saw Hebrew as a barrier between Jews and the general society, the latter intended to strengthen and revive Hebrew as the secular language of the Jewish traditionIsaac E. Barzilay, “National and Anti-national Trends in the Berlin Haskalah,” Jewish Social Studies, Vol: 21 (1959), 172—174. . This divide between the Maskilim mirrored debates about language in Europe at large. Initially, according to the Enlightenment, language reflected reason and only a pure, perfect language would reveal a perfect mind. In the last decade of 18th century, this individualist aspect began to fade, and was replaced with collective concerns. Figures like Johann Gottfried Herder discovered new metaphors and uses for language. Instead of being a universal medium, language was a living organismMária Tsiapera, “Organic Metaphor in Early 19th Century Linguistics,” in Papers from the Fourth International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences, Hans-Josef Niederehe and Konrad Koerner, eds., (Amsterdam) and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990), 577—587; Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, 4th ed., (Oxford and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1993), 56—67. . It was not something that could be imitated but was what the identity, customs and history of an ethnic group are based onIsaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, ed. Henry Hardy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.44. .

In the early 19th century, the concept of Hebrew as the Jewish national language continued to gain traction. Leib Ben Zeev, for instance, argued for the use of the Hebrew language for non-religious purposes and stated that an independent Jewish nation needed to be founded in Eretz IsraelSefer talmud lashon ‘ivri (Breslau: n.p., 1796); Sefer ’otzar ha-shorashim (Vienna: Anton Schmid, 1806- 1808); Sefer mesilat ha-limud (Vienna: Knöpflmacher & Figlii, 1865). . Later in that century, Peretz Ben Moshe Smolenskin (1842—1885) argued that the key to nationhood was monolingualism and that such monolingualism could be secured only through territoryHa-to‘eh be-darkei ha-hayim (Vienna: n.p., 1871). . He believed that Hebrew would not only raise Jews’ awareness of their glorious past, but also would provide them with self-respect. He also founded Ha- Shahar, The journal that later Eliezer Ben Yehuda published his controversial article on A Great Question (נכבדה שאלה) to promote the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. a journal that was “to expand the glory of the Hebrew language and to increase the number of its supporters.” Peretz Smolenskin, “Petah davar,” Ha-shahar, Vol: 1 (1868), III. .

These thinkers laid the groundwork for the idea of Hebrew as a tool for political unification. However, despite his support for Hebrew, Smolenskin never envisaged Hebrew as the language of everyday life. In fact, he believed that “the Hebrew language is a dead language for the purposes of all fields of knowledge and sciences that were born after it” By “It”, Smolenskin means the Hebrew Language. and Jews “will not be able to make the Hebrew language a living language“She’elat ha-yehudim—she’elat ha-hayim,” in Peretz Ben Moshe Smolenskin: Ma’amarim, Vol: 3, 13. .” It was in response to these statements of Smolenskin that Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote his controversial article on the Great Question (נכבדה שאלה) to defend the potential of Hebrew as a modern or spoken language and initiated a lifelong journey towards the fulfillment of his ideas.

Ben Yehuda’s early history is tightly connected with Belarus. He was born in 1858 in the Belarusian village of Lužki (Bel. Лужкі), to a Yiddish speaking family.

Although his family name was Perlman, he kept Eliezer Elianov as his name in official documents until the 1880s, when he gave up his Russian citizenship. Like many other Eastern European Jews, he gained a profound religious education as a youth and by the age of thirteen became highly skilled in Hebrew and AramaicBen-Yehuda, A Dream Come True, 16. . He was sent to the city of Polotsk (Bel. Полацк) to receive a traditional education in Yeshiva and was trained by Rabbi Yosef Bloicker, who became his spiritual father. As a secret Maskil, Rabbi Bloicker taught Ben Yehuda mid-19th century ideas about politicsBen-Yehuda, A Dream Come True, 19—20 and 34. .

Later, Ben Yehuda moved to the town of Hlybokaje (Bel. Глыбокае) in Belarus, where he met Shlomo Naftali Hertz Yonas, who agreed to support Ben Yehuda with his future education. As Ben Yehuda was gaining his education in a secular Russian school, he was assisted by Devorah Yonas, Shlomo Yonas’ daughter and his future wife. Devorah helped Ben Yehuda with Russian, French, and German in his philological pursuits. In 1874, during his enrollment in the gymnasium in the city of Dünaburg (Bel. Дзвінск), Ben Yehuda became involved in Russian nationalismGeorge Mandel, Who Was Ben-Yehuda with in Boulevard Montmartre? (Oxford: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, 1984), 1—2. and felt Russified enough to move to Moscow to study medicine in order to save the lives of RussiansBen-Yehuda, A Dream Come True, 21—25. . His passion for Russian nationalism did not stop him from also loving Hebrew and Ha-Shahar, the journal promoting Hebrew languageIbid., 24. .

When he graduated from the Moscow gymnasium, Ben Yehuda left for Paris. It was in Paris that he read George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. Ben Yehuda felt connected with the main protagonist of the story which moved him to equip himself for his future life in Eretz IsraelBen-Yehuda, Ha-halom ve-shivro. . As an intellectual youth, Ben Yehuda saw himself as having high responsibilities and expectations in life.

One of the most significant aspects of Ben Yehuda’s work was solving the problem of “the incompatibility of the Jewish identity with modernityİlker Aytürk, “Language and Nationalism: A Comparative Study of Language Revival and Reform in Hebrew and Turkish” (PhD diss., Brandies University), 77. .” The arrival of Jewish nationalism provided the conception of Jewishness as united with modernity for the first time. Unlike the case with Maskilim, Ben Yehuda’s strong commitment to nationalism as an offshoot of modernity had little to do with the surrounding anti-Semitism, but rather was a result of his desire to remove the dichotomy between being a faithful Jew and a modern man.

His article, She’elah Nikhbadah (The Great Question), published in Peretz Smolenskin’s journal Ha-Shahar, was the result of his unusual nationalist ideologyThe original title of the article was “She’elah lohetah” (A Burning Question) after the French adage question brulante that called for the establishment of a “national” foundation in Eretz Israel, “a kind of heart from which the blood will flow into the arteries of the national body and give it lifeSilberschlag, ed., EliezerBen-Yehuda: A Symposium, 8. .” It is noteworthy that despite common perceptions about She’elah Nikhbadah, Ben Yehuda did not address language/Hebrew as a prerequisite of a nation.

At this point, Ben Yehuda did not believe that common language or national territory could define nationhood, but reflecting the civic/French model of nationalismHans Kohn, Prelude to Nation-States: The French and German Experience, 1789—1815 (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1967); and Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 1—17. , “the inner awareness which arises in the hearts of a certain number of people and fosters the desires to live together, however large or small their number, serves as a justification for them to live a national life of their own, and it is a duty to grant them that rightSilberschlag, ed. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, 5. .” He believed that four factors would give Jews a nation: national faith, national feeling, history, and the collective aspiration to return to Zion33 Ibid., 6. .

In 1881, soon after his marriage with Devorah Yonas, he moved to Jerusalem. There, he attempted to get his family to speak Hebrew and worked for Dov Frumkin, the owner of the Hebrew newspaper Havatzelet, as an assistant. To promote the speaking of Hebrew, as Jack Fellman has illustrated, Ben Yehuda outlined seven stages:

  1. 1) The first Hebrew speaking family
  2. 2) The call to the Diaspora as well as to the local population
  3. 3) Hebrew-speaking societies
  4. 4) Teaching Hebrew in school
  5. 5) Hebrew-language newspapers
  6. 6) The Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Ancient and Modern
  7. 7) The Language CouncilJack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue; Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language. (Hague: Mouton, 1973), 36. .

The following lines discuss each stage and their effectiveness in the revival of Hebrew.

1. The First Hebrew Speaking Family

Ben Yehuda used to speak Hebrew when he was in the diaspora. When he moved to Palestine, he decided to adopt Hebrew with Palestinian elements as a vehicle for the Hebraic renaissance. He ran into difficulty because Hebrew lacked many basic words, and Ben Yehuda would often have to resort to pointing to things to communicate with his household. In this stage, there was only little success, because only four other families adopted Hebrew as their spoken languageJack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue. .

2. The Call to the Diaspora and to the Local Population

Ben Yehuda began to disseminate the “revival” among Jews living nearby as well as those back in Europe. His newspaper, Ha-Havatzelet played two roles: it was a leading newspaper at a local level and formed the main system of communication with the diasporaIbid, 44—47. . Networking with the broader Jewish community would serve his purposes in the long term.

3. Hebrew Speaking Societies

With the support of Yehiel Mikhal Pines, the foremost Enlightenment Jew in Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda could establish the society called “the revival of Israel.” Its aims included a) the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, b) an agreement not to speak any language other than Hebrew, c) an extended scope of the revival among the local population, and d) additional Hebrew teachers. This society was not entirely successful because it had to hold the meetings secretly, but it did influence future movements, and other gatherings related to the revival used to follow the principles of this societyIbid, 48—55. .

4. Teaching Hebrew in School

With the limited success of the previous steps, Ben Yehuda suggested having Hebrew used as a spoken language between teachers and students at school. He himself became the first Hebrew teacher, and used to teach 6 to 8 hours a day. He impressed other teachers who later continued his method in teaching Hebrew. This stage was highly successful because Ben Yehuda could determine that, if children could speak Hebrew sufficiently at a certain age, they could not only compel their parents to speak Hebrew but also could become fluent in the language when they grew upIbid, 55—70. .

5. Hebrew-Language Newspaper

One of the measures to help promote the revival was the publication of Ben Yehuda’s personal newspaper, Ha-Zevi. Ben Yehuda began editing it in 1884, and devoted the content of the newspaper to human interest stories. Its language was based on Biblical Hebrew, as well as post-Biblical Hebrew. This way he portrayed Hebrew as one historical progression. It only had one problem: it had no readers in Palestine.

6. The Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Ancient and Modern

Ben Yehuda designed his dictionary as a manual for people who had some background in Hebrew. His philological innovations and lexicographical work reveal that he attempted to unify all the periods and stages as a single continuously developing language. However, he did not plan the writing of the dictionary in an orderly way and, not surprisingly, his work was formatted more like an encyclopediaIbid, 70—80. .

7. The Language Council

The dictionary work was not a task to be done singlehandedly. Besides, Ben Yehuda did not want to be the sole decision maker on the selection of the words. In one of his newspapers in 1889, he notes, “we are not able to say… ‘accept my judgment.’ Only a group of scholars together, who know the spirit of the language and all its …facets…, only they are able to form creations in this wayHa-Zevi 3 (1889), 12. . In 1890, he founded a Literature Council that later became Va’ad Ha-Lashon. The Council played a key role in promoting the revival of Hebrew. Its main objectives were a) filling the gaps in the language and b) the creation of new words. The council’s efforts began to affect local society in the early 20th century, especially after 1917Jack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue, 80—93. .”

Despite the recent revisionist outlooks, in which Ben Yehuda earns little credit, it is impossible to ignore his contributions to the revival of Hebrew. De Hass, one of the foremost American Zionists of the early 20th century, in a letter of condolence to Ben Yehuda’s son, Itamar Ben-Avi, spoke of the significance of Ben Yehuda and his contribution to Zionism,

If the news of death can afford any kind of satisfaction, I did read with satisfaction, that 30,000 Jews turned out to your Father’s funeral,— for the generation in which we live is apt to be critical of all our works, and that his own generation should have done him reverence is not so much a tribute to Ben Yehuda as a tribute to the generation itself…Since the death of Herzl, Jewry has suffered no equal loss to that of Ben Yehuda…The comparison strikes me because of the grim determination to see it through; the aggressiveness which overcame so many obstacles and before which characteristic Jewish pacivity [sic] gradually yieldedJacob de Haas, New York, to Itamar Ben Avi, Tel Aviv, 19 December 1922, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, (hereafter CZA), A43/169. .

3. The Revival of Persian

As the scholar of Iranian Studies Reza Zia Ebrahimi discusses, Iranian nationalism developed during the rule of the Qajar dynasty, chiefly in the 19th century. The first flourishing occurred during the wars with Russia in 1804—1813 and 1826—1828. He notes,

Iranian nationalism is intimately and organically intertwined with the intellectuals’ fear of, and infatuation with, things and ideas European, and their anxiety to bring Iran to the same level of advancement as soon as possibleReza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 18. .

He says, “modernist thinkers became aware of the necessity for deeper and more far-reaching reformIbid, 26. .” Among these elites were Jalal al-Din Mirza Qajar, the prince, Fath Ali Akhundzadeh, known as Akhundov (1812—1878), Mirza Malkum Khan (1833—1908), and Hassan Taqizadeh (1878—1970). The latter posed a new form of nationalism that depended on romantic ideas of community. The prominent scholar, Afshin Marashi comments,

This model was premised on an organic understanding of culture, an idealized construction of a ‘golden age’ of authenticity, and a rigidly historicized conception of time in which the nation acts as the subject of history and, in the words of Benedict Anderson, ‘loom[s] out of an immemorial past…and glide[s] into a limitless future.’ Like its late imperial predecessors, this organic conception of political community became an increasingly ubiquitous model by the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether in Europe or across Asia, the elevated status of antiquity and the scientific study of culture seemed to provide the blueprint for constructing modern national identitiesAfshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870—1940. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 54. .

Like many generations of intellectuals and nationalists across Europe and Asia that engaged in the project of recovery to fill the cultural gap with the past, such as the Germans, French, British, and GreeksAnderson, Imagined Communities, 72. , Iranian intellectual elites emphasized the recovery of Iran’s antiquity, the pre-Islamic period of the Persian empiresMarashi, Nationalizing Iran, 55. . This ideology would serve in multiple ways:

  1. 1) It would provide “the national myth,” the period when the nation-subject existed in its unsullied form.
  2. 2) It would allow for development and “creative anachronism.” Like the Hellenistic period, the classical period was imagined as embodying modern and scientific characteristics and this way the cultural break between the past and the present would be eliminated.
  3. 3) The recovery of antiquity would fit the project of reform and modernization of Iran. Refashioning Iran produced a new historical consciousness, a glorious past in contrast to the backward present.

Like the case of India, the politicization of nationalism in Iran is embedded in the 19th centuryPartha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993), 37. . The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, devoted itself to the reconciliation between traditional and modern style of thoughts and so laid the foundation for Indian political nationalism. Likewise, the new generation of Iranian nationalists arose “from a complex interplay between traditional Iranian myth narrative and new European styles of thoughtMarashi, Nationalizing Iran, 57. .”

The development of national literature and its readership by the mid-19th century influenced Iranian modernists. Consequently, promotion of the Shahnameh, the national epic poem of Greater Iran by Ferdowsi (940 CE-1020 CE), gained importance for many Iranian modernists and nationalists. Another growing myth narrative was Sharestan, written by neo- Zoroastrians in Akbar’s India in the 17th century. Sharestan was a combination of Zoroastrian cosmology, Hindu philosophy and Islamic Sufism. Not only did Iranian modernist elites like Jalal al-din Mirza, a 19th century Qajar prince, historian, and free thinker (1827—1872) encourage the reading of Shahnameh and Sharestan, but also the technology of printing press extended the scale of readership of national literature in an unprecedented wayIbid, 60. .

One of the most central nationalist figures, who devoted his entire life to the production of pre-Islamic revivalist narratives, was Manekji Limji Hataria. Manekji (1813—1890) was a prominent Parsee and Zoroastrian emissary who was sent by the Parsee philanthropists of India to Iran in 1854 with the intention of improving the condition of the Zoroastrians there. His original ameliorative purposes quickly merged with the goal of reforming the Iranian Zoroastrian community, and consequently he forged links with Iranian reformists, aiming to revise Zoroastrians’ legal status under Islamic ruleMonica Ringer, “Reform Transplanted: Parsi Agents of Change amongst Zoroastrians in Nineteenth Century Iran,” International Society of Iranian Studies 42, no. 4 (September, 2009): 549—560 .

Approving Zoroastrians’ citizenship was important because, since the Islamization of Iran in the 7th century, Persian Zoroastrians – along with other religious minorities in Iran such as Jews and Christians – had experienced discrimination for belonging to a non-Islamic tradition.

The prejudices and intolerance of Muslims towards Zoroastrians led to a mass migration to India between the 7th and 9th centuries CE. This migration shaped a diasporic Zoroastrian community, known as ParseesJamsheed K. Choksy, a distinguished professor of Religious Studies narrates that for the remaining Zoroastrians, the persecutions in Iran increased over centuries until it culminated under the rule of Qajar monarchies. Some of the discriminations included Zoroastrians’ second class citizenship, forced conversion to Islam, demolishment of funerary towers and temples, forced relocation and labor work, the outlawing of intermarriage between Muslims and Zoroastrians, restrictions on socio-economic relations with them, the jezya “poll tax”, and public humiliation. “From around the year, 750 onward, Zoroastrians were required to wear yellow colored caps, shawls, belts and badges so that Muslims could easily identify members of that religious minority.” The persecution of Zoroastrians drove them to become reformers and make common cause with members of the new movements in 19th century Iran. See Jamsheed K. Choksy, “ZOROASTRIANISM ii. Historical Review: from the Arab Conquest to Modern Times.” . The persecution of Zoroastrians drove them to become reformers and make common cause with members of other 19th century Iran socio-political movements.

Over three decades, under the sponsorship of the Parsee-sponsored Amelioration Society, a society of prominent Parsee reformists, Manekji traveled to different parts of Iran and founded schools, restored Zoroastrian houses of worship, built hospitals and orphanages, organized many circles for the removal of segregation and impoverishment of Zoroastrians, and most significantly established the right for Zoroastrians to build, travel, and get education. He played a major role in finally abolishing the jezya poll tax on non-Muslims in 1882. Talinn Grigor, the professor of art history, narrates,

For Zoroastrians, this was a historical moment that promised nothing less than modernity, for the edict granted them the privileges and the responsibilities of modern citizenship. Co-opting the colonial system of the protectorate, Parsis became the custodians of Zoroastrians in the Qajar EmpireTalinn Grigor, “Parsi Patronage of the Urheimate,” Getty Research Journal, no. 2 (2010): 56 .

Spending his second half of life in Tehran, Manekji corresponded with prominent Iranian modernists such as prince Jalal al-Din Mirza and Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh. In Tehran, his major mission became publishing books on Zoroastrianism, Persian oriented myth-histories, and the cultural identity of Zoroastrians. Although both Akhundzadeh and Jalal al-Din Mirza, like their contemporaries, followed the anti-religious tendencies of European nationalists, they supported Manekji in his mission to rebuild the religious infrastructure of Zoroastrians, to restore pre- Islamic language and culture. They both considered Manekji as “an emissary of the Golden Age, sent by God to provide them with knowledge about Iran’s glorious past, to unlock the mystery that would in turn allow them to extirpate Iranians from their ‘neglectful somnolenceReza Zia-Ebrahimi, “An Emissary of the Golden Age: Manekji Limji Hataria and the Charisma of the Archaic in Pre-Nationalist Iran.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism10, no. 3 (2010): 385. .’”

Manekji’s writings, especially Nameh-ye Khosravan, a narrative by Qajar prince Jalal al- Din Mirza, were heavily influenced by the ideas of Western orientalists. Among them was the French diplomat and orientalist, Arthur Comte De Gobineau, who believed that only a pure civilization could become a great one. When races mixed with each other, it would result in degeneration of that civilizationReza Zia Ebrahimi, “The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism,” interview by, interview by John Ghazvinian,, April 15, 2018 nationalism-race-and-the- politics-of-dislocation-columbia-up-2016/. . Grigor found such a superiority in Parsees:

As the century progressed, they began to cling to the idea of being true, yet displaced, Persians: a diasporic community that found its home in the ancient land of Iran and the grandeur of the Achaemenid civilization. The long and illustrious history of their ancestors provided them a unique status in the uninterrupted history of (white) man. It also endowed Parsis with racial superiority. Persepolis, which had for centuries captured the Muslim and European imaginations, now became a well of tasteful accoutrementsTalinn Grigor, “Parsi Patronage of the Urheimate,” 61. .

Elites like Jalal al-Din Mirza, Akhundzadeh and Manekji himself similarly described a highly- elevated civilization of Zoroastrian Iran that ended with the invasion of Arabs in the 7th century. The Arab invasion Islamicized Iran. Thus, the Islamic elements in Persian language and culture were blamed as factors of impurity and backwardness. According to this ideology, Arabs and Islam disrupted the continuity of Iran’s integrated existence. This anti-Arabic ideology would provide Iran with the assertion that Iran had a national essence and had remained pure until the present.

Not only the contents of Iranian national literature, but also the language of this literature, reflected the idea of the elevation of pre-Islamic Iranian culture. It was in promotion of this ideology that Manekji began writing in “pure Persian,” a literary style that avoided Arabic and non-Indo-European words. Marashi notes,

The effects of global standards of culture and politics in regard to language are also seen in the literary style of the Nameh-ye Khosravan. Jalal al-Din Mirza wrote in a simple, austere style, in contrast to the flowery and ornate Persian panegyrics that were still the norm in the late Qajar period. He may have been following the examples of Malkom Khan and Mirza Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh, with both of whom he was associated and intermittently corresponded… As part of their proposed reform, the two had also advocated a general simplification of the literary style to make the language more amenable to modern, scientific concepts and modes of thought…Thus the problem of language, like much else, was situated between the recovery of an archaic subjectivity and the transformation of traditional cultural forms to cohere with new, modern standards of progressMarashi, Nationalizing Iran, 65. .

Finding nationalism in parallel with approving Zoroastrian citizenship, Manekji devoted his entire life to nationalist goals. He either authored or sponsored the publication of many historical, linguistic, apocryphal, legal, and commentary writingsEncyclopædia Iranica, “HATARIA, MANEKJI LIMJI.” . As Daniel Sheffield reports, “Manekji’s imagination of ancient Iran had lasting effect on Iranian nationalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of whom drew inspiration from [his] worksDaniel Sheffield, “Iran, the Mark of Paradise or the Land of Ruin” in On the Wonders of Land and Sea. ed. Roberta Micallef and Sunil Sharma (Boston: Trustees for Harvard University, 2013), 37. .” Sheffield comments,

He dedicated much of his life to bettering the lives of Zoroastrians in Iran. He corresponded with such figures as the Qajar prince Jalal al-Din Mirza, for whose Nama-ye Khusrawan he composed a history of the Parsis …He commissioned a mytho-historical narrative of ancient Iranian history to be written by Mirza Ismail Tusirkani, governor of Yazd…He sponsored the early archaeological activities of Muhammad Nasir Fursat Shirazi, resulting in the publication of Athar-I ‘Ajam (1894). In addition to his interest in ancient history, Manekji was an early advocate for the use of pure Persian (pārsī-yi sara), that is Persian purged of most of the Arabic element, and he commissioned a grammar of pure Persian…He also corresponded extensively with Baha’u’llah urging him to write in pure Persian, to which Baha’u’llah complied in his response (now canonized by the Baha’i community as the Lawḥ-i Mānikjī Ṣāḥib)Ibid, 32. .

Sheffield adds,

Manekji’s role in instigating social reform for the Zoroastrians of Iran is well known, and his participation along with other prominent figures in reshaping Iranian national identity through increased awareness of its ancient past has now been investigated by Mohammad Tavakoli- Targhi and more recently Afshin MarashiIbid. .

Despite his efforts for the revival of Persian along with the restoration of ancient Iran and the supports of many his contemporaries, Manekji did not meet his linguistic objectives. Here a comparison of the revival of Hebrew led by Eliezer Ben Yehuda with that of Persian by Manekji Limji Hataria provides the possible reasons for the failure of Manekji’s cause in the revival of pre-Islamic Persian.

4. The Comparison of Ben Yehuda and Manekji’s Role in the Language Revival

Comparative study of the Hebrew and Persian revivals as emerging trends within Jewish and Iranian nationalism shows that language is a significant factor in nationalism. Although theorists like Benedict Anderson find the creation of nations impossible without the capitalist world economy, this paper has provided two examples of linguistic nationalist movements that downplay the role of capitalism. In this comparative study of language revival through nationalism, there are four aspects that became the key to the success of Ben Yehuda and the failure of Manekji in their leadership of language revival.

First, Ben Yehuda’s and Manekji’s endeavors for the revival of Hebrew and Persian had different goals. In the case of Manekji, the revival was the purification of Persian language, casting out Arabic elements, and the proliferation of ancient Persian literature. In contrast, Ben Yehuda was largely responsible for innovating words as well as importing concepts and to a minor extent purifying Hebrew of its non-Semitic elements. Each of these revival projects had its own challenges, too. Ben Yehuda not only had to persuade people to speak Hebrew for non- religious purposes but also had to convince Jews to use words that never existed. As for Manekji, although Persian was already a spoken language, struggling with the forces of the many deep- rooted Arabic elements in the language was a huge obstacle in reviving ancient Persian.

The second aspect concerns possible steps towards revival. Ben Yehuda experimented with a variety of strategies to acculturate Palestinian and diasporic Jews with Hebrew as a modern or spoken language. He and his household were the first modern Hebrew speakers and he brought the experience of speaking modern Hebrew to other houses, schools, and daily life, while Manekji’s language-purposed endeavors were not as developed or concentrated as Ben Yehuda’s. For instance, Maneckji could not speak Persian himself and only dealt with Persian through texts. Although in a report to the Bombay community in 1865 he called on Parsees to

fulfill the mission of reviving ancient Iran and “the recovery of pre-Islamic literatureHe wrote that he had handed over his collection (up to then) of “ancient manuscripts” and printed books in diverse languages, as well as coins, other artifacts, and photographs, to the Zoroastrian Anjoman, plus money to initiate their preservation, “with instructions to preserve them in a fitting place.” See Encyclopædia Iranica, “HATARIA, MANEKJI LIMJI.,” his calling and correspondences with the diasporic community were not as frequent as Ben Yehuda’s newspaper publications. Nor did he lay emphasis on the oral practice of pure Persian.

Manekji also encouraged Iranian Zoroastrians to organize associations (anjomans) in different communities to supervise the religious trusts for the different Zoroastrian recovery projects, including Persian literary revival. Unlike the society of “the revival of Israel,” established by Ben Yehuda, the literary revival objectives of these anjomans were broad, highlighting the writing of pure Persian rather than the speaking of it.

Next to the abolishment of the jezya “poll tax,” one of the most significant accomplishments of Manekji and the most important goal of the Parsee Amelioration society was enabling Iranian Zoroastrians to access education. Manekji, revived Zoroastrians’ civil rights, built many schools in Tehran and other cities, and provided Zoroastrian boys and girls with Western-style education. Manekji’s appreciation of Persian language, ancient history, and the cultural heritage of Iran influenced the teaching criteria in these schools. However, because of the lack of people with knowledge of classical Persian, Manekji could not train his students in speaking or writing in classical Persian.

In contrast, Ben Yehuda could convince the school administration to teach in Hebrew. Furthermore, he trained two other teachers who continued his work in his absence and spread the culture of speaking modern Hebrew. Interestingly, although Ben Yehuda did not gain much success from the other steps he took, he attained huge achievement in the most crucial stage. Teaching in modern Hebrew raised the number of speakers and, more significantly, let the language enter homes and streets of Palestine. As these children grew up, they started to become fluent in Hebrew and shape their own Hebrew-speaking families.

Like Ben Yehuda, Manekji considered writing a dictionary He supported Rezaqoli Khan Hedayat, the Persian literary historian, administrator, and poet of the Qajar dynasty, in writing the Persian-Language dictionary for the revived Persian writers and speakersEncyclopædia Iranica, “HEDĀYAT, REŻĀQOLI KHAN.. Efforts to revive ancient Persian were already underway: the Persian Language Council, also called anjoman, had had a history since the 18th century in Iran. However, because of the political climate of 19th century Iran, the members of these councils had to hold their gatherings in secret until the early 20th century. Consequently, Manekji did not have the advantage of being able to openly advocate for the recovery of ancient Persian, while the council and Hebrew schools in Palestine played a huge role in helping Ben Yehuda promote the revival of Hebrew.

Third, Ben Yehuda, unlike his conservative contemporaries, realized that language cannot exist without dynamic usage. Adding words from a variety of non-Biblical sources, despite all the opposition from the rabbis and other members of the community, was a crucial linguistic strategy that he employed successfully, while Manekji insisted inflexibly on the purification of ArabiPersian.. On the other hand, because 19th century Iran was strongly intertwined with Islam, avoiding Arabic terms either in writing or speaking would have sounded very awkward. In other words, since it was a function of neo-Zoroastrianism, the revival of ancient Persian in 19th century Iran was ambitious. Of course, Ben Yehuda also experienced opposition, but the arrival of the second Aliya in early 20th century supported his objectives considerably.

Fourth, the nature of Hebrew and Persian revivals was different due to the distinctive concepts of Persian and Jewish nationhood. Although Ben Yehuda and Manekji both belonged to an ethno-religious diasporic community, their affiliation to their holy lands was different. In the 19th century, there was no land under Jewish control and the emergence of Hebrew as a spoken language was seen as a vernacular that would pave the way for Jewish nationalism. However, the Qajar dynasty was already considered an Iranian government and a Muslim one. Manekji was not attempting to establish a brand-new government, but like his contemporary modernist intellectuals, Jalal al-Din Mirza and Akhundzadeh, he aimed at purifying the existing regime by removing its Islamic components.

In sum, Benedict Anderson’s ideology of nationalism as the result of the overlap between decline of religion, the advent of printing press, and the popularity of vernaculars is not comprehensive. Although Ben Yehuda’s projects of Hebrew writing through magazines and speaking in schools played a role in shaping an imagined community in the minds of Palestinian Jews, it is important to remember that Hebrew was not a vernacular when he started out. A community that spoke Hebrew did not exist. In fact, the rejection of Ben Yehuda’s ideas arose precisely because there was no such community. The language and the consciousness of the community were growing in parallel, while in the case of European vernaculars used in British, French, German, and Greek nationalism, the languages were spoken already. Perhaps Ben Yehuda could be grateful for the fact that he began his project with youths rather than adults. Because a youth’s worldviews are not framed in the same way as those of adults, it would be easier to shape their mindset. This was a large part of how Ben Yehuda was able to realize his dreamBenjamin Harshav, “Three Factors in The Revival of The Language,” in Language in Time of Revolution. .

For Persian, despite Iranian modernists’ and nationalists’ high insistence on the restoration of pre-Islamic literature through the elimination of Arabic components, the printing press did not serve to spread this ideology. Persian has preserved its Arabic elements until today and the idea of return to the ancient literature did not have practicality in Iran.

Regarding the decline of religion or tradition in parallel with the rise of nationalism, although Ben Yehuda’s nationalist concerns were language oriented while Manekji’s were more religious, both Ben Yehuda and Manekji embraced the idea of return to antiquity because of its ties with their ancestral religion or tradition. In their writings, they recollected their holy land.

They remembered Iran and Palestine as the land of their fathers. Traditional roots mattered to them. A comparative study of Hebrew and Persian revival movements reveals that ethno-cultural minorities in different parts of the world, while being disconnected from each other, in their reactions to nationalism went beyond the dichotomy between tradition and modernity.


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