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Book Review


Richard Foltz, Iran in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. ix + 151. Index. $19.95 (paper).

     This text is a new addition to Oxford University Press series: New Oxford World History.  The series has three divisions: Chronological Volumes (such as The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE and The World in the Twentieth Century), Thematic and Topical Volumes (for example, The City: A World History to Democracy: A World History) and Geographical Volumes (including The Atlantic in World History and Russia in World History).  Richard Foltz's text is of course the newest addition to the last group, Geographical Volumes.

     Foltz is a scholar of Iranian history with a particular focus on religion. He is Professor of Religion and founding director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.   In fact, several of his previous books address religion in Iran and on the Silk Road.  Two other important areas of interest for >Professor Foltz are animal rights and the environment, and these interests are reflected in several of his other works.

     While the chapters are arranged chronologically, they generally connect the time period to a particular group or civilization that was important to Iranian history at the time.  For example, Chapter Two covers the time period 550 – 247 BCE during which Iran and the Greeks were in contact.  As Foltz notes, "For centuries to come, large numbers of Greeks and other ethnic groups would spend long periods as Persian subjects, especially in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, fostering considerable interaction and mutual influence between the two civilizations" (21).  Chapter Seven explores the rise of Reza Khan1 and the Western impact on the modernization of Iran from 1925 to 1979.  As Foltz explains, Reza Khan was able to accomplish modernization by using fierce power to crush the tribal influence, suppressing the Shi'ite clergy and installing Western institutions like "schools, hospitals, law courts, banks, factories, and communications systems" (97).  All these innovations led to profound changes, especially for Iranian women.  

     Foltz begins his discussion of Iran with a chapter on the land and the language of the Iranian people from 3500550 BCE.  Iranians are the blend of East Asian Aryans (similar peoples moved into Greece and India), a nomadic – warrior people.  The indigenous people of Persia at the time of encounter were an agricultural people.  The two developed an uneasy relationship.  An important development during this formative period in Iranian history was the rise of Zoroastrianism – an early religion of the Persian people.  It is believed to be the first monotheistic religion and was influential in shaping some aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  

     Chapter Three explores the Roman encounter with several of the Central Asian steppes peoples, exceptional and innovative warriors who used the horse, the chariot and the bow in new ways.  Foltz again makes note of another important religio-cultural exchange in the spread of the Persian cult of Mithras (a deity associated with warriors) from the Parthians to the Roman army.  The cult became wide-spread throughout the Roman Empire.  During this period from 247 BCE to 651 CE a millennium-long era of geopolitical balance between the Greco-Roman world and that of various Iranian civilizations was established. 

     As its title suggests and Foltz clearly demonstrates, Chapter Four, "The Iranization of Islam," is packed with examples of Iranian cultural and religious influence upon the conquering Arab Muslims.  One is the Book of Righteous Viraz, which is believed to have inspired the story of Muhammad's "Night Journey" (Mi'raj) and is not found in the Qur'an.  Another example is Sharia, Islamic law that was actually developed by scholars of the Iranian world.  The growth of Sufism, Islamic mysticism, was nurtured in eastern Iran by Iranian spiritual masters.  Finally, Iranian literary works were translated into Arabic, not because Arabic was thought to be superior, but to ensure the spread of Iranian literature throughout the caliphate. 

     Occupation and foreign rule of the Persian Empire are the foci of Chapters Five and Six.  Chapter Five recounts the story of Turkic slave soldiers under the leadership of Mahmud of Ghazna who were the first to dominate Persia.  Many of these Turks, whose origins were in Central Asia, were in fact half-Persian, their fathers having married Persian women.  Thus they were likewise at least marginally Muslim.  Foltz compares the Turk-Persian coalition to that of the earlier Romans and Greeks, Turks being the militarily skilled and the Persians possessing the superior culture.  Ultimately each had a need of the other. 

     The Turkic people expanded into South Asia before being replaced by a new group of Central Asians: the Seljuks.  The Seljuks continued the expansion of the Persian Empire westward into Christian territories in Anatolia and beyond.  The Seljuks were eventually replaced by Genghis Khan's Mongol tribes.  Although the overall result of the Mongol invasions was a so-called "Pax Mongolica," bringing "free" trade to the region and the Silk Road, the Mongols showed little respect for Persian cultural artifacts, bringing destruction to many Persian cultural centers.  Ultimately Persian culture and civilization was restored by the invasion of the Central Asian Uzbeks.  Even today Turkic speaking peoples play important roles in Iran.  

     Chapter Six shifts the focus of foreign intervention in Persian affairs to the West.  European nations were somewhat late in coming to the Middle-East, but with the advent of the modern era two European powers focused on Iran: Russia and Great Britain.  These two used military power, money (loans to the Iranian rulers), and Christian missionaries to "conquer" Iran.  Military force was the least necessary of the three tools used by Europeans.  With the rise of Naser od-din to power in the late nineteenth century (his rule lasted forty-nine years) Europeans found they were welcome in the region at least by the power elites.  With carrot and stick (financial loans and threats of military force) both Russia and Great Britain soon divided up the pie that was Iran.  European Christian missionaries made inroads by constructing medical facilities and schools.  Following the assassination of Nasar internal movements to modernize Iran gained support as a means to reject European efforts.  The early years of the twentieth century witnessed the formation of a parliament and the writing of a constitution.  However all of these changes merely set the stage for the rise of Reza Kahn and a return to dictatorship.  

     Foltz closes his history of Iran appropriately with the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the fall of the Shah in 1979.  It is a detailed retelling of recent and important history that profoundly affects the world we all live in today. 

     For all its many good points the book is lacking in at least one particularly irritating (for the academic at least) short-coming: the absence of ample notes.  Foltz and or the editors leave the reader wanting more information in support of various claims made.  For instance, in Chapter Three, Foltz evinces that within the Parthian Empire religious tolerance abounded.  Foltz gives as an example "the idea of an impending apocalypse, which first appeared as a Judeo-Greek text claiming to be an ancient Persian prophecy" (31): the Oracles of Hystaspes.  Although, Foltz notes that the vision presented in Hystaspes was known to John of Patmos, the Christian author of the Christian Book of Revelation, and used it as the basis of his apocalyptic vision2 he does not give us the sources of his very interesting information.

     This wonderful, slim volume is clear, detailed, and well-written. Foltz argues persuasively throughout the text that Iran's importance, not only today, but for over twenty-five centuries makes it an important region for study.  The text is a brief yet highly comprehensive history of Iran and its environs.  Because of this, it is well situated within the discipline of world history and more particularly the history of the Middle East.  The book also explores the diverse influences on Iran, culturally, politically, and economically. However, I do not believe it fits well in a World History survey course due to its narrow scope – covering only one region.  For a specific course on Iran it seems too general to serve.  That said it would fit best in a history of the Middle East.  Moreover, sections of the text could serve well in a history of ancient and/or modern empires course. 

Terry D. Goddard is recently retired from Northwest Vista College, San Antonio, Texas, where he taught World History and World Religions.  He can be reached at



1 Foltz's introduces the first Shah as noted above as Reza Khan.  Once Reza Khan becomes head of state he takes the "dynastic name Pahlavi" (96).  Thereafter Foltz uses the more common title of Reza Shah. 

2 I was able to access information about the Oracles and its use by John of Patmos at the following website.




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