In the early 1990s, carpet-producing merchants in the holy city of Qum, a pilgrimage destination and Iran’s center for Shi’i knowledge and learning, enjoyed unprecedented autonomy within the Islamic Republic of Iran. By creating a professional association, called the ittiḥādīyih, the merchants developed a reputation for honesty and fairness. While the ittiḥādīyih, as an organizational body, functioned primarily to resolve commercial disputes among carpet merchants, it had transitioned slowly into a space for airing grievances and a means to subvert local authority and achieve justice through mercantile acumen. Instead of appealing to the local police, courts or clerics, the merchants sought justice and resolution to their everyday problems at the ittiḥādīyih. At these meetings religious clerics who held judicial positions as well as members of law enforcement were invited to opine on the given matter, but only as an extension of the merchant community. This represented a partial circumvention of state laws. The presence of local authorities at these meetings signaled a legitimization of this tactical maneuvering by the merchants. At the ittiḥādīyih there was an open mistrust of state laws, their ineffectiveness in delivering judicious order and their potential involvement of outsiders in what were deemed community matters. My work demonstrates processual actions taken by the merchants to extend the role of the ittiḥādīyih by fortifying their community’s distinctiveness.
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Yale University
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