The experience of compiling encyclopedias, a conversation with Kazem Musavi Bojnurdi

7/17/2022 09:37

The experience of compiling encyclopedias, a conversation with Kazem Musavi Bojnurdi

He came from a family of thinkers and scholars. His father was Ayatollah al-uzma Seyyed Hassan Musavi Bojnurdi, one of Najaf’s prominent marjaʻs for many years, and his maternal grandfather, Ayatollah al-uzma Seyyed Abu al-Hassan Esfahani, was the general marjaʻ of Shiites for a decade. With such a background and support, it was surprising if he had not started compiling encyclopedias at the age of forty-one.


I felt a duty to improve public wisdom.

Hamidreza Mohammadi: He came from a family of thinkers and scholars. His father was Ayatollah al-uzma Seyyed Hassan Musavi Bojnurdi, one of Najaf’s prominent marjaʻs for many years, and his maternal grandfather, Ayatollah al-uzma Seyyed Abu al-Hassan Esfahani, was the general marjaʻ of Shiites for a decade. With such a background and support, it was surprising if he had not started compiling encyclopedias at the age of forty-one.

Kazem Musavi Bojnurdi reached 80 on the 22nd of June. When he was twenty-two years old, he stepped into the path of armed struggle and became a political party member. But after nearly thirteen years, when he was released from prison, he diligently devoted his effort to research and scientific activities and put politics aside. He has been managing the Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia for thirty-eight years now. This institute locates in the hills of Darabad, where he was captured during an armed struggle in March 1966. I talked to him about his nearly four decades of extensive experience as an encyclopedist.

What motivated you during the years of prison that you started compiling encyclopedias only four years after your release?

There was nothing else to accomplish in the political prison but research, study, and talk. There were several hundred educated and opinionated people who discussed indefinitely. We recounted our own experiences and listened to the experiences of others. It was also a tradition in the political prison that anyone who specialized in a field would teach it to others. Briefly, everyone was studying, creating an engaging scientific atmosphere, which made the political prisoners find new horizons of thinking and change their views. The prison was an excellent place to study. There, I thought of compiling an encyclopedia and took a few steps, but naturally, it could not come to fruition, and I gave up on doing such work in prison.

Was it possible in prison to start such an extensive project?

No, but it was possible to do primitive research works; for instance, I took notes from the book “Al-milal wa al-Nihal” by Muhammad ibn Abd ul-Karim Shahrashtani to identify religions. I thought I would be in prison for years, so I started taking notes and study there.


So the book was available to you in prison?

Yes, we had the book and could buy any book we wanted. Maybe certain political books related to the criticism of the Pahlavi family and the government were banned, but in general, access to the books was free. We even had a purchasing officer, and we could order books, or visitors could bring them to prison.

You were released from prison on the eve of the victory of the Islamic revolution. Why did you establish the Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia in March 1984? What were the preparations? And how did you conclude to found an institution with such a purpose?

As I said, the basis of the idea was developed in prison, but I was unfamiliar with its various aspects. The unique experience in prison and my fighting spirit gave me enough courage to enter unknown fields and face new problems. Therefore, I was not frightened, but I knew that entering this field was not an easy task and required institutionalization. I used my experiences from party activities in my new career in science and culture because I had reasonably concluded that armed struggle is wrong. I felt compelled to compile an encyclopedia since I thought society required it. Even the People’s Mojahedin party sarcastically said that Bojnurdi no longer believes in armed struggle, and he has become a “democrat”. I accepted this good accusation because I had accepted from my heart that I had changed and became a democrat.

What did “democrat” mean to you?

No fundamental change will occur in society until public wisdom rises and changes happen in the thoughts. Therefore, the priority is to create a transformation in the ideas. It was necessary to establish such an institution to increase public wisdom. Fortunately, this happened, and the most prominent figures in science and literature were associated with the project. I have repeatedly acknowledged that this movement was based on three fundamental pillars: the distinguished professors and scientists who eagerly joined the project and institutionalized it; the vast library that was created and enabled us to access the sources and research in various fields; and the works we generated that sufficiently showed what kind of organization we are, what we do, and what we want to achieve. In this way, scholars and researchers attracted to, supported, and even directed the activities. With their support, talented and educated young people engaged in this incredible movement. All these contributing factors led to achieving the ambitious goals we could not have imagined in the first steps.

I read somewhere that when you wanted to establish the centre, you discussed it with the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. Is it true? At that time, were you in the parliament or Isfahan’s secretary of state?

Yes, I met Mr. Hashemi. When I commenced this career, I was a representative of the people of Tehran in the first Islamic Consultative Assembly. At that time, the parliament maintained an atmosphere that forced everyone to think because we should work on many unknown issues. Some conflicting opinions made the intellectual atmosphere challenging. It was in such circumstances that I thought about the encyclopedia project again. I informed Mr. Hashemi that I wanted to see you privately. I notified him that now, after the revolution, we should express our own culture. Needless to say, the efforts of the orientalists are significant, and we should use their achievements in our research works, but first, it is we who should discuss and research our own culture and history. He was very welcoming and agreed that there is a gap for such a thing. His confirmation strengthened my confidence and courage. He proposed that we get funding from the government, but I said: “I want this organization not to be dependent on government organizations. I merely want a protective shield. I prefer the revolutionary government to know what I am performing. Since I have a political and revolutionary background, anything I do can be misinterpreted. I require my work to be interpreted correctly; therefore, I want to step aside from political activities”, which he also confirmed.

Naturally, you did not know how to compile an encyclopedia then. In establishing this institution, did you learn it, or did the researchers you invited to cooperate help you?

Both. First, I was familiar with research because I had also worked in prison and knew that research without documents, books, and research tools is invalid. Still, I was unfamiliar with compiling the encyclopedia. I gradually became more acquainted with it when I stepped on this path. Since I had self-confidence, interest, and belief, I knew this work would increase public wisdom. Through it, we could properly introduce our culture, civilization, and history to the world and converse with the world in a common language.

Many of the most prominent researchers and scientists have collaborated with you over the years, but who were the first people who assisted you?

Mr. Sharafuddin Khorasani, Ahmad Tafazzoli, Abbas Zaryab Khoei, Abdul Hossein Zarrinkoub, Inayatullah Reza, Iraj Afshar, Jafar Sheʻar, Mohammad Hassan Ganji, and Javad Hadidi were the first members of the Supreme Scientific Council from whom we learned and benefited a lot.

The Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia Library is one of the most massive libraries in the Islamic world and contains more than one million volumes. How did you provide this extensive library?

The library was established with the efforts of Mr. Enayatullah Majidi. Primitively, I told him we wanted to write about all aspects of Iranian and Islamic culture and needed comprehensive research sources. Therefore, I asked him to plan for an extensive library of three million volumes. He was surprised when I asked for such a thing at the beginning of the work. Since that day, 38 years have passed, and now we maintain a library with one million and 250 thousand books. In addition, more than 160 personal libraries, including books, historical documents, notes, articles, and photos, have been donated here, which is unique in Iran. The library is developing day by day. Naturally, since our researchers and scholars seek recent sources, they will be purchased or copied. Moreover, comprehensive databases have been developed that are more accessible to our researchers, even searching the articles in various scientific journals from the past decades is possible now.

This institution retains a distinguished position in the world, and the entries of the encyclopedias attract attention. What is the cause?

The entries compiled here are regarding almost all the essential sources. Our researchers compare and refer to the most accurate works of the orientalists from tens or even hundreds of years ago. Hence, our work has been accepted by scholars all over the world. Not only do many orientalists appreciate this place, but Iranian academics, both inside and abroad, who work in the humanities know this place well and are eager to cooperate with us.

The publication of the Great Islamic Encyclopedia in three languages possibly has had an influential role in such favorable reception.

Indeed, it is. Our comprehensive encyclopedia is also published in Persian, Arabic, and English. The English version, “Encyclopaedia Islamica”, is published by Brill Publishers in the Netherlands, six volumes have been published, and the seventh volume will be released promptly. It is the first time that instead of us being the translators of orientalists’ works, they are the translators of Iranian works. It is a sign that exemplary work has been done, and Iranians should be proud of themselves for it.

But you have other encyclopedias besides this chief work, “The Great Islamic Encyclopaedia (Encyclopaedia Islamica)”.

Yes. We focused on our national culture, and today we are working on various programs in several aspects of national culture, which have conveyed worthy results. Although our chief work is compiling encyclopedias, many fields have been provided for further work; for instance, every two years, we arrange a conference of Iranian languages and dialects, whose proceedings have also been published regularly. We require an encyclopedia in the folklore field to properly recognize our nation’s cultural identity. Therefore, we are publishing “The Encyclopaedia of Iranian Folklore” in ten volumes, of which six have been published so far. The seventh volume will be published this year, and we hope the eighth will be finished this year or early next year. We are compiling “Encyclopaedia of Ancient Iran”, “Persian Gulf Encyclopaedia” and “Encyclopaedia of Iranian Law”, the first volumes of which will be published soon. Furthermore, “Encyclopaedia of Iran” is a general encyclopedia in thirty volumes, four of which have been published. Moreover, three volumes of “The Encyclopaedia of Great Tehran” have been published, which will continue in eight. “Index Iranicus” is another work that Iraj Afshar published its first six volumes, and Mrs. Iran’naz Kashiyan has edited the rest. Twelve volumes of “Index Iranicus” have been published, and volumes thirteen and fourteen are forthcoming. Here I should mention the late scholar, Iraj Afshar. When he joined the massive project of the encyclopedias, he generously donated his extensive library containing 25,000 books and tens of thousands of notes, documents, photos, and letters to this centre, which is now called Iraj Afshar’s Research Treasure. Another project is an index for the Persian Books, an enormous work whose purpose is to introduce all Persian books worldwide, up to the 13th century SH (Solar Hijri). This ambitious project was founded by the late Ahmad Monzavi, which is itself an encyclopedia and is a national effort to preserve the Persian language and its fertility. I think this index will reach 25 volumes.

In the field of Iranian ethnic groups, we are working on the encyclopedias “Kurd and Kurdistan, History and Culture” and “The History and Culture of Azerbaijan”. Moreover, at the beginning of the 2000s, we started two significant projects, “The Comprehensive History of Iran” and “The Comprehensive Geography of Iran”. After fourteen years and with the participation of 170 prominent scholars, “The Comprehensive History of Iran” was published in twenty volumes in 2015, and “The Comprehensive Geography of Iran” was also published in five volumes in 2020. We are currently working on the second edition of these two successful series. They are so extensive and include a broad scope; hence, it is natural to have some errors, but I am glad they have been reprinted several times. They are a valuable document of national identity and the record of the Iranian nation for thousands of years.

Therefore, it can be concluded that encyclopedia compiling is essentially a living and dynamic practice, and the works you publish will never get old.

That’s correct. We deal with the works compiled and edited in the Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia like living entities, and we eagerly seek to update them as much as possible. This is the nature of work and is why our library, regarding the research needs, is developing daily.

Even the most recent compiled entries are published on the centre’s website, showing that the institution is up-to-date.

Definitely! In the IT Department, we decided that all works be available online. What we previously had on the website represented merely the published entries, but arrangements are being made to upload the latest entries, which have not yet been printed yet. For instance, we are uploading the entries of the 25th volume of the Persian version of the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia. Another example is the entries of the English version, “Islamica”. We had to compile the entries of the letter “ع” to be translated in the first English volume under the letter “A”. Since we have not reached the letter “ع” in the Persian version, we had to put aside those 280 entries. They have been in the archives for several years, but since the beginning of this year, we have decided to publish them all online. Consequently, those who compile entries or are interested in reading them should no longer wait for the printed version.

Are you satisfied that you spent nearly forty years of your life compiling encyclopedias?

I am delighted, as I love this work and sincerely believe in it, recognizing what a constructive role it plays in society. The encyclopedia is the scientific and mental record of a society. It not only preserves and accurately recalls the cultural elements but also causes them to develop. For instance, in the entry of “Āyne-kāri” (Mirror-work) in the encyclopedia, all the experts in this field are also introduced. It causes this branch of national art to be preserved and recalled. Even I have invited our researchers to compile the Iranian art entries in such detail that if a branch will be forgotten in the future, these entries will remain the references for its revival.

Therefore, I consider the encyclopedia the cultural birth certificate of a nation or all the people of the world, as it is influential in mental fertility and the gradual spread of national wisdom. It inevitably creates a basis for a common language and dialogue with other civilizations worldwide.

Your cultural activities during these four successful decades are considered a national work.

Yes, all these are national projects, which is why the various governments have aided us. Today these aids have been almost stopped, mainly because of the prevailing situation. We also have tried to be independent, but we must be cautious that this independence does not reduce the scientific aspect of our work. Even though I am old, I still have energy and genuine enthusiasm for doing work since I am aware of its profound effects on society.

The Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia has experienced various crises in these years and has survived all. How do you predict the centre’s future and, subsequently, the future of Iran?

Undoubtedly, the Centre for the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia finds more roots and becomes stronger with every work it creates. Today, the foundation of this centre has been solidified. If government aid is cut in any way, we can temporarily stand on our feet with the help of the people. I think the future will be so. We are constantly busy creating new works and getting stronger daily because we believe our work is fundamental for raising Iran’s national power, strengthening the Iranian people’s culture, and developing public wisdom. It is not an exaggeration to say that our work, especially “The Great Islamic Encyclopaedia”, is a museum of the history of Iranian thought over thousands of years. The country’s most prominent scholars trusted in this work and eagerly participated in it, and following this trust building, many young researchers joined the project received training. Therefore, the institute flourished with the help of all those elders and their students.

So do you have an optimistic view of the future?

Definitely, I have.

What about the future of Iran?

I have such an optimistic view of Iran and its future. When you study “The Comprehensive History of Iran”, you will better understand the crises Iran has gone through, but it still stands firm and will remain so.

Source: “Tajrobeh” Monthly magazine, No. 8



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