(b. Dawlatābād. near Isfahan, 8 January 1863, d. Tehran, 26 October 1939), educator, political activist, and memoirist of the constitutional and postconstitutional periods.


DAWLATĀBĀDĪ, SAYYED YAḤYĀ (b. Daw-latābād near Isfahan, 17 Rajab 1279/8 January 1863, d. Tehran, 4 Ābān 1318 Š./26 October 1939), celebrated educator, political activist, and memoirist of the constitutional and postconstitutional periods. Yaḥyā was the second of the five sons of an affluent family of landowning ʿolamāʾ. His father, Ḥājj Sayyed Mīrzā Hādī Dawlatābādī, was an influential local mojtahed and leader of the clandestine Azalī branch of Babism in Persia. A haphazard education at traditional koranic schools (maktab) left a negative impression on young Yaḥyā, an impression further reinforced at the Ṣadr madrasa in Isfahan and later the Moʿtamad-al-Dawla madrasa in Najaf in Iraq, where he joined his father in 1290/1873. Residing in Najaf added to his distaste for the conservative clerical milieu and its suffocating conformity (Dawlatābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 11-18, 28-34).

After the family returned to Isfahan in 1294/1877 Yaḥyā witnessed his father’s involvement in an extremely complex struggle for control of the city, with some of the influential ʿolamāʾ, most notably Moḥammad-Bāqer Najafī Eṣfahānī and his son Moḥammad-Taqī, better known as Āqā Najafī, on one side and the powerful prince-governor of Isfahan, Masʿūd Mīrzā Ẓell-al-Solṭān, on the other (Daw-latābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 37-44). The ambitious Mīrzā Hādī, whose Babi affiliation was a stigma impossible to disguise by any measure of dissimulation (taqīya), was able to build a popular base in Isfahan, at first with the tacit backing of Ẓell-al-Solṭān, who hoped thus to weaken Najafī’s domination of the city. Soon, however, Hādī was denounced by Najafī as a heretic, which encouraged Ẓell-al-Solṭān to put into action his own covetous land-grabbing schemes at the expense of Yaḥyā’s father. Having become a pariah, Yaḥyā found his stay in Isfahan becoming increasingly hazardous, in spite of his attempts to distance himself from the rival Bahai faction among the Babis, whose exiled leadership he bedeviled consistently.

Yaḥyā, after a year and a half of self-imposed exile in Tehran and Mašhad, as a result of his denunciation (takfīr)by the ʿolamāʾ, returned to Isfahan in 1299/1882; there he frequented the local literati. An encounter with the ascetic Babi preacher Shaikh Moḥammad Manšādī Yazdī influenced him, as well as two other, later proponents of the Constitutional Revolution, Naṣr-Allāh Beheštī (later Malek-al-Motakallemīn) and Jamāl-al-Dīn Wāʿeẓ Eṣfahānī. Yaḥyā was also impressed by Mīrzā Āqā Khan Kermānī, then a refugee from his native province. Āqā Khan’s intellectual disposition and rhetoric, blending modernism and esoteric thought, served as a model for the receptive Yaḥyā (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 62-68).

After fresh denunciations, partly elicited by his repeated defiance of the ʿolamāʾ and Ẓell-al-Solṭān, Mīrzā Yaḥyā was banished from Isfahan a second time, between 1303/1886 and 1306/1888. He paid a short visit to Aleppo, then returned to the ʿAtabāt, where for a year he occasionally audited Mīrzā Ḥasan Šīrāzī’s lectures on jurisprudence before embarking on the Ḥajj (pilgrimage) via Alexandria and Cairo. He returned as far as Būšehr in 1304/1887, but news of fresh Babi persecutions in Isfahan forced him to retreat to the relative safety of the ʿAtabāt. He did finally return to Isfahan in 1306/1888 but was unable to stay there. By decree of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (1264-1313/1848-96) Yaḥyā and his father settled in the capital, where they found a protector in the person of the vizier Mīrzā ʿAlī-Aṣḡar Khan Amīn-al-Solṭān (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 69-90, 111-12, 118-19).

In Tehran Yaḥyā instructed members of the nobility in calligraphy. While attending the lectures of the celebrated jurist Mīrzā Ḥasan Āštīānī, presumably in order to stave off suspicion of Babi heresy, he also had an opportunity to observe at close quarters the growing power of the ʿolamāʾ in a time of political turmoil. He was present when an angry crowd briefly stormed the royal citadel during the protest against the monopolistic Tobacco Régie of 1309-11/1891-92. In the meantime interest in speculative thought brought him to Mīrzā Abu’l-Ḥasan Jelwa, the leading philosopher of his time. None of these activities was able to assuage the moral crisis that he was experiencing at that time, however, a crisis exacerbated by increasing harassment, confiscation of family property, and diminishing income (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 108-22).

The social quarantine imposed upon Yaḥyā because of his Babi associations finally came to an end only during the reign of Moẓaffar-al-Dīn Shah (1313-24/1896-1906). The reformist Mīrzā ʿAlī Khan Amīn-al-Dawla was appointed vizier in 1314/1897, which encouraged Yaḥyā to try to change his father’s course “according to the needs of the time and move in the direction of fundamental actions that could bring progress, development, and freedom of the country” (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 176-77). Although he remained a member of the ʿolamāʾ,establishing secular schools and furthering modern education became the focus of his attention for the next ten years, perhaps the most fruitful period of his career. As a founding member of the Council of education (Anjoman-e maʿāref), to which he was appointed by Amīn-al-Dawla in 1315/1898 (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, p. 188; Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana, pp. 322 ff.), he brought his considerable imagination and discretion to bear in working with the daring but abrasive aristocrat Maḥmūd Khan Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana, the determined and intransigent Mīrzā Ḥasan Rošdīya, and others. In his memoirs Dawlatābādī may have overstated his own achievements and criticized his rivals too harshly, yet he should be credited with his persistence in establishing new schools and preparing the earliest elementary textbooks and school curricula. Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana (p. 529) characterized him as an honest and dedicated colleague, who nevertheless suffered from “extreme selfishness and self-centeredness” (ḵod-ḵᵛāhī-e mofraṭ wa ḵod-pasandī-e bīandāza). In 1316/1899 Yaḥyā founded the Madrasa-ye motabarreka-ye sādāt, which was dedicated to teaching the children of the poor among the descendants of the Prophet Moḥammad (sādāt). By promoting modern schooling for this group he not only challenged arcane scholasticism but also attempted to shaped the students into a constituency that could compete with seminarians (ṭalaba) educated in traditional madrasas. He was also partly responsible for establishing at least three other schools, the Adab, Kamālīya, and Dāneš, but his involvement led to personal quarrels and drained his finances (Dawlatābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā I, pp. 178-204, 237-67).

The events leading up to the Constitutional Revolution (1924-29/1906-11) opened a new chapter in the lives of Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī and his younger brother ʿAlī-Moḥammad (q.v.). They were among the early members of a small but influential revolutionary circle of Azalī persuasion, which also included Jamāl-al-Dīn Eṣfahānī and Malek-al-Motakallemīn, among others. At the same time Yaḥyā established amicable ties with the proreform Ottoman ambassador Šams-al-Dīn Beg, whose sympathy he hoped to evoke for the cause of constitutionalism in Persia. During the crucial protest of the ʿolamāʾ in the shrine of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm, which ultimately led to the “constitutional decree,” in 1324/1906 (see CONSTITUTIONAL REVOLUTION ii), Yaḥyā acted as a political broker between the reformist faction led by Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbahānī and the government of ʿAyn-al-Dawla. According to his version of those events, he was the first to include in the list of otherwise mundane requests submitted by the ʿolamāʾ a general demand for “reform in all affairs,” which was soon articulated by himself and his collaborators as a demand for creation of a “justice bureau” (dīvān-e ʿadālat) and a “national house of consultation” (mašwarat-ḵāna-ye mellī) to execute the “law of equity” (qānūn-e mosāwāt) in all parts of Persia (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā II, pp. 22-24). Neither of these ideas was by any means novel in the dissident milieu of the time.

In spite of his ardent support for constitutionalism, Dawlatābādī’s public role was compromised by his Bābī background, for which he was almost ostracized from the circles around the leading proconstitutionalist ʿolamāʾ, Behbahānī and Sayyed Moḥammad Ṭabā-ṭabāʾī. Furthermore, his hopes of close collaboration with such members of the reformist nobility as Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana and Mahdīqolī Khan Moḵber-al-Salṭana, in order to combat opposition from the royalists, achieved limited results His stigma as a Babi may also have barred him and his cohorts from election as deputies to the first constitutional Majles. In an attempt to strengthen his political stand, Dawlatābādī even tried, with little success, to patch up old differences with Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī, Behbahānī’s bitter opponent and later the leader of the anticonstitutional ʿolamāʾ. These setbacks did little to diminish Dawlatābādī’s revolutionary zeal, however.

In 1325/1907, when the revolutionary activities of the anjomans were at a peak, Dawlatābādī helped to form the influential Anjoman-e markazī-e aṣnāf (Central association of guilds) in the Tehran bāzār, drawing on members who were loyal to his father. As the mentor and spokesman for this anjoman, he had by mid-1326/1908 become sufficiently committed to the radical (tondrow) constitutionalist wing to be singled out by Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah (1324-27/1907-09) as one of eight antimonarchist activists within the Majles and the anjomans. Dawlatābādī’s guilt was further confirmed in the eyes of the shah when he emerged as a prominent member of the Defense committee (Komīsīyūn-e modāfaʿa) responsible for recruiting the militia forces of the anjomans to defend the Majles. It was only his personal circumspection that saved him on the night preceding the coup of 23 Jomādā I 1326/23 June 1908, when the Majles was bombarded. He sought refuge in a safe house while some of his revolutionary friends were arrested and executed. Having received verbal assurance of his safety from the British embassy, he then moved to the British-protected village of Qolhak north of Tehran, where his father had a family retreat adjacent to the British summer residence. After some negotiation with the court he welcomed an offer of voluntary exile and left Persia shortly afterward.

He arrived in Istanbul during the period of ferment preceding the revolution of the Young Turks but was received unenthusiastically by the Anjoman-e saʿādat, which was dominated by exiled Azerbaijani constitutionalists suspicious of his background and motives. His acquaintance with political leaders of the Committee for union and progress (Etteḥād o taraqqī komītasī), including Prince Ṣalāḥ-al-Dīn, leader of the federalist Aḥrār party; Ṭalʿat Pasha, later a member of the Young Turk triumvirate; and Shaikh Jamāl-al-Dīn, šayḵ-al-Eslām (the highest religious official) of Istanbul, helped to boost Dawlatābādī’s morale, though these men offered little practical help in furthering the Persian cause.

Dawlatābādī returned to Tehran in October 1909, three months after the city had been retaken by constitutionalist forces in July. His hesitation proved well founded. Despite his personal acquaintance with most of the revolutionary leaders, his efforts to steer a middle course between the newly organized Eʿtedalīyūn (moderates) and the radicals of the Democratic party drove him farther into isolation. His condescending disposition to “advise” people in power marginalized him still further. Although he eventually tilted toward the Democrats, he never abandoned his self-appointed role as an “interparty mediator” (moṣleḥ-e ḏāt-al-bayn; Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā III, p. 121). His political views on the need for the separation of religious and secular authorities, expressed in his treatises Armaḡān-e Yaḥyā and Rāhnemā-ye enteḵābāt-e Majles-e šūrā-ye mellī, in which he called for election of nonclerical figures, did not enhance his stature among the ʿolamāʾ. His frustration at the outcome of the revolutionary process reached a new height when, after the parliamentary election in June 1911, his credentials as deputy from Kermān to the Second Majles were heatedly challenged by his clerical opponents. Accused of having “corrupt beliefs,” he was forced to present his resignation and to refrain temporarily from all political activity. Seeking a pretext to leave Persia, in July 1911 he went to Europe at the invitation of the organizers of the International Congress of the Races, a philanthropic gathering in London (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā III, pp. 144-52).

On the eve of World War I the domestic situation in Persia and fear of partition loomed large in the minds of patriots like Dawlatābādī. Soon after his return to Tehran he joined the nationalist “emigrants” (mohājerīn), who left the capital for Qom in November 1915, as a protest against the threat of Russian aggression. Subsequently he became a prominent member of the newly formed National defense committee (Komīta-ye defāʿ-e mellī) in Hamadān and then in Kermānšāh (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā III, pp. 300 ff.). The committee, set up with German backing, became a provisional government in charge of conducting the national resistance against the Anglo-Russian occupation. After several military defeats during 1334/1915 and 1335/1916 the nationalists retreated to Qaṣr-e Šīrīn, under the temporary protection of Sanjābī tribal chiefs, and soon after to Baghdad and then to Istanbul. Dawlatābādī arrived in Istanbul in early 1916 to find an atmosphere of gloom among the exiles, whose ranks were riddled with factionalism and personal animosities. The resourceful Dawlatābādī was able to renew his ties with the Young Turks, and it was perhaps at Ṭalʿat Pasha’s suggestion that he first traveled to Berlin and then to Stockholm (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā IV, pp. 32-40), at that time the center of intelligence gathering and espionage. On the pretext of participating in the International Socialist Congress, he appears to have engaged in some intelligence activities (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā IV, p. 53). Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the ensuing Russian withdrawal from the Caucasian and Antolian fronts, including Persian Azerbaijan, Dawlatābādī hastened back to Persia. Benefiting from generous German assistance, he apparently was entrusted with the task of organizing a pro-German nationalist resistance against imminent British advances in the north of Persia (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā IV, pp. 160-66), a resistance already apparent in Shaikh Moḥammad Ḵīābānī’s uprising in Tabrīz and the Jangalī movement in Gīlān (see COMMUNISM i).

The general armistice of October 1918, combined with the demise of the Young Turks and imperial Germany, put an end to this resistance. The formidable task of political reorientation prompted Dawlatābādī to turn for support to the victorious British. In Isfahan he managed to penetrate the clandestine Āhan committee (Komīta-ye āhan), which was apparently set up to create a unified pro-British front in chaotic postwar Persia (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā IV, pp. 114-15, 167 ff.). He was soon deprived of any meaningful role in this perfunctory organization, however, possibly because he was not trusted by other pro-British participants. The growing unpopularity of the 1919 Anglo-Persian agreement in Persia, moreover, dictated that Dawlatābādī should accentuate his differences with the prime minister Mīrzā Ḥasan Khan Woṯūq-al-Dawla and his allies. The Āhan committee was later transformed in Tehran into the Zarganda committee and became one of the groups supporting the coup d’etat of 1299 Š./1921. In the treacherous political climate of postwar Tehran Dawlatābādī’s advocacy of political harmony and austere patriotism, as expressed in his criticism of the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement and of the rigged election of the Fourth Majles only prolonged his political quarantine.

The rise of Reżā Khan Sardār-e Sepah (later Reżā Shah), especially after the collapse of the government of Sayyed Żīāʾ-al-Dīn Ṭabāṭabāʾī in June 1921, opened new prospects for Dawlatābādī. He soon managed to develop a close, though ephemeral, rapport with Reżā Khan, who was admired as a champion of security and national renewal by many frustrated constitutionalists like Dawlatābādī. Reżā Khan, on the other hand, detected in Dawlatābādī a clerical advocate of modernity willing to promote his cause in return for long-sought admission to the main political arena. As the opposition ʿolamāʾ were intimidated by the new military regime, in January-February 1923 Dawlatābādī was able to win election as deputy from Isfahan to the Fifth Majles, where he came to play a notable role as an early promoter of Reżā Khan. He was an influential member of a committee of eight liberal politicians (including Moḥammad Moṣaddeq and Ḥasan Taqīzāda) who for a while advised Reżā Khan on domestic and foreign affairs (Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā IV, p. 325).

In 1303 Š./1924 Dawlatābādī initially supported Reżā Khan’s call for republicanism, yet he later also entertained conspiratorial suspicions about the degree of British involvement in the affair. After the collapse of the republican trend Dawlatābādī and his liberal cohorts in the Majles were faced with the disagreeable choice of supporting the moribund Qajar dynasty or Reżā Khan’s demand for change in the monarchy. Despite understandable trepidation, Yaḥyā was one of four deputies who, on 9 Ābān 1304 Š./31 October 1925, spoke out and voted against abolition of the Qajar dynasty and investiture of Reżā Shah Pahlavī. This gesture of resistance, fortified by references to the Constitution of 1324/1906, sealed Dawlatābādī’s political fate, and he, along with other veteran politicians, was relegated to a political oblivion from which he never reemerged. After a three-year residence in Brussels, where he served as an informal cultural attaché, he retired to Tehran and completed his famous memoirs, Tārīḵ-e moʿāṣer yā ḥayat-e Yaḥyā. He died in 1318/1939 and was buried at his own summer home at Zarganda in Qolhak, which was later expanded to include a public library. His tomb was destroyed after the Revolution of 1357 Š./1979.

Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī best epitomized the spirit of modernism in the quarter-century between the assassination of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah in 1313/1896 and the accession of Reżā Shah Pahlavī in 1324 Š./1925, the crucial era in the shaping of modern Persia. Not only did he witness the major developments of his own time and record them for posterity, bu talso he himself helped to influence the emergence of modern education, the growth of constitutionalism, revolutionary and postrevolutionary events, and the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty. His primary themes were separation of clerical and political authority, the importance of education and later of economic planning, devotion to the Constitution, condemnation of political factionalism, and above all morality and patriotism, all rooted in the Western-inspired modernism of his generation, though his attraction to many of them also reflected his religious inclinations. Indeed, it was his persistence in preserving a private Babi identity while trying to assimilate to the liberal polity of his time that proved the greatest obstacle to his political success. Although he never referred to his Babi affiliation in the four volumes of his memoirs, his career demonstrated the formidable barriers the majority political culture placed in the way of reformers of nonorthodox background. In the eyes of the ʿolamāʾ no one better symbolized the heretical nature of modernism than Dawlatābādī, even though he attempted to preserve his Islamic garb all his life.

Dawlatābādī’s self-censorship and his self-righteous tone undermined the quality of the otherwise remarkable record of his life contained in his memoirs, among the best produced by men of his generation. He should be recognized for his successful blend of insight, thoroughness, organization, and relative impartiality in his account of the history of modern Persia. His literary style, though slightly marred by a constant use of the present tense in an effort to convey con-temporaneity, combined the erudition of a seasoned writer with the flexibility of a politician and the analysis of a historian. It was based on diaries and notes that he had kept over the years. He completed the first edition of the memoirs in 1314 Š./1935 and revised it in 1316 Š./1937, an exercise in which he at times sacrificed immediate impressions to hindsight.



Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Daw-latābādī, Ḵāṭerāt-e Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Dawlatābādī, ed. Ḥ. Dawlatābādī, Tehran, 1362 S./1983.

Mīrzā Maḥmūd Khan Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana, Ḵāṭerāt-e Eḥtešām-al-Salṭana, ed. M.-M. Mūsawī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1366 Š./1987, index.

M. Hedāyat, Ḵāṭerāt wa ḵaṭarāt, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965, index.

M. Moṣaddeq, Ḵāṭerāt wa taʾallomāt-e Moṣaddeq, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1365/1986, p. 83.

A.-ʿA. Mowarreḵ-al-Dawla Sepehr, Īrān dar jang-e bozorg, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957, pp. 237-76.

A. Nīkū-hemat, “Ḥājj Mīrzā Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī,” Waḥīd 12, 1353 Š./1974, pp. 927-31.

Ḥ. Saʿādat Nūrī, “Ḥājj Mīrzā Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī,” Armaḡān 36, 1345 Š./1966, pp. 336-45.

S. Ḥ. Taqīzāda, Zendagānī-e ṭūfānī. Ḵāṭerāt-e Sayyed Ḥasan Taqīzada, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1367 Š./1988, pp. 36, 59, 124, 198-203.

Tārīḵ-e bīdārī, ed. ʿA.-A. Saʿīdī Sīrjānī, index.

(Abbas Amanat)

Originally Published: December 15, 1994

Last Updated: November 18, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VII, Fasc. 2, pp. 143-146