During the 19th and early 20th century, the current territories of Iran and Iraq were controlled by the Qajar Persian/Iranian dynasty with regard to the former, and the Ottoman Empire with regard to the latter. Between these two geopolitical powers, who shared clearly shared borders, there was a natural tension for regional dominance, especially with regards to the question of Iraq. However, the simple demarcation of Qajar Persia on the one hand, and the Ottoman Empire on the other, fails to capture the complexity of this time period, with the multiple factions inside both of these empires operating with their own agendas.
Thus, as Abdul-Hadi Hari recounts in his article, “Why did the Ulama Participate in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909?”, a significant political force within Qajar Persia was that of the ulama, a term denoting a grouping of various scholars of Islam. The group of ulama which Hari discusses is a Shia group of scholars, which extended beyond the boundaries of Shia Persia into areas within Iraq. Hari highlights in his piece the hostile nature of the ulama to the Qajar authorities and their attempts over a period of decades to depose this regime and replace it with an Islamic political government that was more in line with the specific interpretations of the faith espoused by the ulama. It is precisely the presence of such a group which exerted significant influence without regards to the fault line of Qajar Persia and the Ottoman empire, which demonstrates the complexity of this geopolitical situation. For example, the ulama, in their efforts to change the Qajarian establishment, made close contacts with the Ottoman sultan, using the traditional rivalry between the Ottomans and Persia so as to undermine the latter. Despite the Shia faith of the ulama, and the Sunni faith of the Ottoman Sultan, Hari notes that this traditional obstacle was ignored by the ulama, who evoked a Pan-Islamic claims, despite sectarian divides. Rather, as Hari tells us, the protection of the Islamic faith and a resistance to what was construed as the oppressive and unjust rule of the Qaraj inspired by the ulama’s attempts to change politics in Iran, even if this meant contact with entities such as the Ottoman.
The reading “Ottoman Centralization and Reform in 19th Century Iraq” intersects with Hari’s article, although now discussing the internal politics of the Ottoman Empire, especially with regards to Iraq. As the reading states, one of the key features of direct Ottoman rule in the region meant that a new competition was initiated with Qajar Persia for the territories of Iraq. However, Ottoman interests in Iraq were further complicated by internal resistance in Iraq, above all by Shia groups. This is a clear contrast with the reading of Hari, where the ulama as Shia representatives appealed to the Ottomans against the Qajar. Here, therefore, one gleans from these two readings together the common point that there was not a unified Shia stance towards the geopolitics of Iraq shaped by Qajari rule on the one side and Ottoman rule on the other side. What becomes apparent from the two readings is the sense in which a complex number of self-interests did in fact exist, with different factions taking different political positions. This further explains, for example, the importance of approaches such as Tanzimat in Iraq, which were applied both in Iran and in the Ottoman Empire. Tanzimat, a type of reorganization, in both political entities was largely centered on the military, as the latter reading informs us. This highlights the underlying instability in the region on multiple levels, which is explained in both regions. Thus, reducing Iranian and Iraqi history to a conflict between the Ottomans on one side and the Qajar Persians on the other overlooks the multiple fault lines which coexisted within these borders during this era.