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19th century Iranian diplomat: French democratic principles found in the Koran

Neither technology, nor Pan-Islamism, but only the codification of law could prevent Iran from falling even further behind the Western world. So wrote the 19th century intellectual Mustashar ad-Dowla in his tract Yak Kaleme. The translation of this work was presented in Amsterdam on 8 December.

One word

Cover of "One Word - Yak Kaleme"

‘One word! One word!’ is what groups of Iranian protesters chanted when they rebelled against Ahmedinejad. Many of them, however, did not themselves know what the word in question was.

The Leiden Iran specialist Asghar Seyed-Gohrab does know what that word was: it was not ‘Away!’ or ‘Death!’, but ‘law book’. One word (in Persian: Yak Kaleme) is the title of a volume from the second half of the 19th century, written by a prominent Iranian intellectual who worked as a diplomat in Paris.


According to this Mustashar ad-Dowla, codification was the only way for Iran not to fall even further behind the Western world. Published many times, and as many times forbidden, the book has become a true dissident classic.

The Koran

In his treatise ‘One Word’, he exhorts Iranian political and religious thinkers to unite to write a law book. He argues that the principles of French codified law can all be found in the Koran and the tradition literature on the Prophet Mohammed: i.e. in the sources of Islamic legislation.

State structure in order

His solution was innovative, says Dr Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, who in collaboration with Sen McGlinn translated the book and wrote an introduction for it. ‘Many Iranian intellectuals from the second half of the 19th century were, just like their Ottoman and Egyptian colleagues, looking for a solution in technology, or in an anti-Western Pan-Islamism. Others were searching for a solution in the opposite direction, by rejecting anything related to the Islam or the Arabic world; they advocated a return to the old Persian pre-Islamic cultural roots. But Mustashar ad-Dawla thought: technology is at most secondary, the basis lies in having your state structure in order.’

Equality in the eyes of the law

As he’d said, the diplomat covered one by one nineteen principles of the French constitution, from equality in the eyes of the law to the right to primary education for poor children. For each of these principles, he produced corresponding verses from the Koran and traditions about the Prophet Mohammed.

Legal state

Seyed-Gohrab: ‘His message was: European law may seem very new, but everything can be traced back to the Koran and prophetic tradition literature. Of course, what he wanted was going too far; some basic assumptions could not be reconciled, for instance the equality of men and women. I think he saw that, but didn’t want to immediately present problems. This was a first step. I also wonder whether he was really such a religious person. He saw the Islamic sources as a means to sell his message. His warning to the rulers was: If you do not create a constitutional state, the people will use violence to create it themselves.’


Mustashar ad-Dowla completed his book in 1871. It is unclear when exactly it was published, but the volume was immediately forbidden, and travelled clandestinely from hand to hand. In the 1880s, the author spent some time in prison. ‘The call to democracy and political freedom was not agreeable to the rulers,’ says Seyed-Gohrab. ‘The story goes that in prison, he was hit on the head and in the face with his own book, by order of the Shah.’

Constitutional Revolution

In the period of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905-1911), Yak Kaleme was very popular and it has since become a dissident classic. In 1984, a second edition of the book was published, and immediately banned. In 2003 and 2007 it was published again.

Leiden University Press

One Word ( Yak Kaleme) forms part of the Iranian Studies Series of Leiden University Press (LUP). In this series, LUP publishes high-quality academic work on the many aspects of the Persian cultural area. On Wednesday 8 December, the series was presented at SPUI25 in Amsterdam. For more information, see the .

About Asgar Seyed-Gohrab

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
Asghar Seyed-Gohrab

Dr Asghar Seyed-Gohrab was awarded an NWO Vidi grant in 2009 for his research project Of Poetry and Politics: Classical Poetic Concepts in New Politics of Twentieth Century Iran. He studies such issues as the role of poetry in justifying violence, the war-loving cult of martyrdom as an icon of national identity, and Ayatollah Khomeini as a poet and mystic.


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