Analysis of the political evolution of Iran’s Shi’ite clergy from the late 19th century to their seizure of state power in the February 1979 revolution, looking specifically at how they were able to sustain themselves in politics for so long and why, in the latter half of the 1970s, they experienced a militant revival.
What is the Shi’i clergy as such doing in Iranian politics? Apart from the more widely-discussed question of why and how they became leaders of national politics and later holders of state power, the question remains as to what the motivation and goals of the clergy itself, as a distinct social grouping, have been throughout its prolonged involvement in contemporary Iranian politics.
The history of this involvement can be marked off with the prominent role they played in the nineteenth-century protests against economic and political concessions made to non-Iranian nationals, particularly with their leading role in the Tobacco Protest of 1891-92. But already with the constitutional movement (1906-1911) it seemed that they were bypassed as leaders of national politics by modern parliamentarian nationalists. Later, in Reza Shah’s period (1925-41), the drive towards consolidation of a modern bourgeois centralised state further reduced their social significance and political weight. In the turbulent years of 1941-53, the clergy seemed to simply move in the shadow of Mosaddeq’s National Front.
It was only in the aftermath of the 1953 defeat and the eclipse of the National Front that theological circles in Tehran and Qum showed signs of new life. Starting in the early 1960s, new discussions, a reorganisation and a more centralised hierarchy of the clergy began to take shape. Later the emergence of Islamic thinkers such as Shari’ati and the increasing prominence of Khomeini and his supporters within the clergy gave a new impetus to and indication of revival of the clergy’s independent role in oppositional politics, leading to their eventual seizure of power in February 1979.
How can we understand this sustained political involvement of the clergy over the past century, its initial prominence, its subsequent ebb and marginalisation, and its modern militant revival?
Shi’ism in Iran
Contrary to contemporary nationalist and anti-Arab mythologies, Iran has not always been a Shi’i society since the early centuries of Islam.
Indeed, prior to the rise of the Safavids in the sixteenth century, religious power in Iran was divided between several competing Islamic currents. Although the Shi’is had scattered citadels of control (especially Qum) as well as congregations in most cities, the four Sunni schools were more prevalent and practically all the famous Iranian theologians-Ghazali, for example-were Sunnis.1 It was only in the course of the consolidation of Safavid hegemony in the sixteenth century that Shi’ism was forcibly imposed as a monolithic national religion.
The creation of the elaborate Shi’i clerical apparatus with its differentiated hierarchy and specific judicial and administrative strata was an integral part of the construction of the centralised Safavid state. Moreover, the pre-eminent role of the Shi’i clergy gave the Safavid polity a structural and ideological profile distinct from its Ottoman rival.2 According to contemporary sources, quoted by Ravandi, clerical and state power had become so intertwined that it was customary for Safavid shahs to marry the daughters of the supreme Shi’i clergy (although male offspring were killed at birth to eliminate potential threats to the lineage).3 However, in the post-Safavid period, particularly during the reign of Nader Shah (1736-1747), the Shi’i clergy lost its position of power within the state and Shi ‘ism was demoted to the status of a fifth Islamic school alongside the four Sunni schools. Prominent Shi’is were persecuted and many of the clergy fled to Najaf and other sancturaries in Iraq.
Yet at the same time the general weakening of centralised state authority throughout the eighteenth century allowed the local clergy ‘to assume the role of the local governors, arbitrators of disputes, executors at law and so forth’.4 Meanwhile the settlement of a long divisive theological dispute within Shi’ism prepared the way for the clergy’s resurgence in the nineteenth century: the Akhbaris, who had contested the clerical prerogative of ijtihad (independent judgement), were definitively defeated by the superior organisation and armed might of the Usulis.
The Usuli victory had important political consequences. During the decades of persecution the Akhbaris had gained a broad following based on the fear of social and political involvement that the power of ijtihad implied. Had they continued to be the dominant current within Shi’ism, the legitimacy of the clergy’s political role would have been drastically undermined, and it is doubtful whether an organised clerical hierarchy would have survived. Their defeat, on the other hand, helped to precipitate a militant revival of the social and political leadership of the clergy.5
The return of relative political stability under the long reign of the Qajars (1795 onwards) stimulated economic growth and expansion. In particular, the increase in trade with Europe gave an unprecedented impetus to commercial activities and urbanisation. With the offical support of the Qajar shahs, the revitalised Shi’i clergy greatly extended its spheres of influence and range of administrative power. It reestablished control over the courts, waqflands and innumerable other social and political functions. Each mujtahid (independent legist) was distinguished by his own retinue of mullahs and gangs: the former transmitted the mujtahid’s influence to the local population, while the latter, representing his executive power, were charged with collection of religious taxes (khums and zakat) as well as the administration of religious punishments. Only the death sentence remained subject to ratification by the shah.6
There was, however, an important difference between this revival of clerical power under the Qajars and the earlier role of the Shi’i hierarchy in the Safavid state. Although the nineteenth-century clergy enjoyed great power and influence derived from their control over many functions ordinarily associated with state administration, they were not aformalpart of the state executive as they had been in the time of the Safavids.
The semi-autonomous position of the Shi’i administrative and judicial institutions was perhaps more advantageous to the conquest of an organic social hegemony than their officially incorporated status under the Safavids. For instance, discontented social layers could now turn to the Shi’i clergy for assistance, and the homes of the clergy became famous as sanctuaries for such diverse proscribed groups as persecuted grain merchants or bandits. On the other hand, the clergy could deploy its popular base and its ability to manage social discontent as potent bargaining counters against the court and the secular state bureaucracy. Repeatedly during the nineteenth century it mobilised the masses to thwart the state’s attempts to undermine or restrict its power.
After 1850 the areas of conflict between clergy and state began to widen considerably, as the religious hierarchy opposed all initiatives to modernise and strengthen the Qajar government (secular courts, modern schools, a new army, etc). Clerical resistance to reforms in the state apparatus that might threaten their own prerogatives was also linked to the struggle against economic concessions to foreign non-Muslims. In this manner the traditional social interlocking of the clergy and the native merchant community acquired a new socio-political expression in the form of a clerically-led movement against western penetration in any form – whether as administrative rationalisation, economic competition or simply the diffusion of non-Muslim ideas.7 The clergy, however, did not enjoy a monopoly of influence over popular unrest. Increasingly their leadership role was contested by a new generation of reformers and modernisers.
While sharing most of the clergy’s apprehension about the increasing subordination of the Iranian economy to world market forces, as well as militantly opposing the Qajars’ concessions to European imperialism, the young Iranian reformers (like their counterparts in Japan, Egypt and Turkey) believed that national cultural and political sovereignty could only be preserved by the adoption of European technology and forms of government.8 They opposed the old regime from an opposite point of view to that of the clergy, seeking radical reforms at all levels to modernise the state structure and establish a constitutional government. After the failure of a series of half-hearted state reforms, this modernist component of the opposition abandoned any hope in the reformation of the Qajar monarchy or in progress through existing organs of power. Although eventually the reformers and the clergy were driven into joint opposition against the Qajars, their alliance within the constitutional movement remained uneasy and full of conflict. Before examining more closely the respective roles of reformers and clergy in the mass struggles that eventually overthrew the Qajar dynasty, it is first necessary to survey the socio-economic forces that gave rise to this new political phenomenon of a modernising reformism in Iran.
The social and economic background to the constitutional movement As already mentioned, the accession of the Qajars coincided with a reversal of the long decline and economic stagnation that had followed the collapse of the Safavids. Like other Middle-Eastern countries, Iran was profoundly affected by the vast expansion of international trade associated with the Industrial Revolution. Yet, the Iranian case differed from that of other Middle-Eastern countries because Iran’s strategic geographical location made it a principal terrain for the collision of British and Russian empire-building. It was never formally colonised by either, and Anglo-Russian rivalry had paradoxical consequences for the subsequent development of the country.
On the one hand, it was deprived of some of the ‘positive’ effects of colonialism, such as the development of railroads and foreign capital investment in mines and agriculture. The central government was barred from seeking relations with capitalist third parties or private enterpreneurs by a series of symmetrically restrictive treaties extorted by Russia and Britain which gave the two rival imperialisms veto-power over Iran’s economic relationships.
On the other hand, the relative ‘neglect’ of the country by foreign capital allowed the native merchants more space for growth than in certain other parts of the region. This led to the emergence of a considerable layer of wealthy merchants, engaged in wholesale trade and banking, with their own international networks. By the end of the nineteenth century, Iranian commercial colonies existed in Istanbul, Baghdad, Baku, Tiflis, Calcutta, Bombay, Marseílles, London and Manchester.
The dimensions of some of these trading operations can be gauged by the estimated wealth of the Amin al-Zarb family, put at 25 míllion tumans (1 tuman equalled about 10 francs at mid-nineteenth-century exchange rates). This figure should be compared with the total annual government revenues of the same period – about 50 míllion francs.9 This dramatic expansion of Iranian commerce persisted until the middle of the century, when it was constrained by an acute fiscal crisis as the cash needs of the central government rocketed while its real income stagnated or fell. A major source of the difficulty was the exigency of mílítary modernisation. Two wars with Tsarist Russia (1813 and 1828) had not only cost Iran some of its richest northern provinces and forced it to yield humílíating economic concessions, but also compelled the government to seek foreign equipment and advisers.
Both could only be obtained at very high cost, including further economic concessions. Moreover, expanded economic relations with Europe took the Qajar shahs and their entourages on repeated visits abroad which drained the meagre treasury of further foreign reserves.
The financial crisis of 1866 and the decline of the price of silver relative to gold greatly aggravated the government’s desperate plight. Painfully the exchange value of the Iranian silver qeran fell from 1 franc in 1864 to 0.5 franc by 1900 with corresponding losses for the entire national economy.
In response, the central government tried to avoid financial disaster by a combination of two strategems: first, the sale of state-owned land to private parties (the early Qajar shahs had succeeded in re-establishing governmental control over most of the agricultural provinces) and the increase in the price of state offices (local governorships were auctioned to the highest bidder who would, in turn, mercilessly tax the peasantry);10 and secondly, through loans from Russia and Britain procured by massive political and economic concessions (thus, customs revenues of the northern borders were granted to Russia, those of the Gulf ports to Britain). These measures had a deleterious impact on Iranian merchants and traders. They now had to pay import taxes to the Russian and British concessionaries, as well as new road tolls to the government.
They were also deprived of their customary function of being the exclusive money-lenders to the central government (which also rebuffed their proposals for the establishment of a joint bank). The preferential tax status of foreign concessionaries and the dumping practices supported by Russian and British banks increased the competitive advantages of foreign manufacturers, while several attempts at the establishment of local factories by Iranian merchants ended up in bankruptcies. As early as 1844 native merchants had formed a League for the Prohibition of European Merchandise, which demanded that the government prohibit such imports ‘principally because of the ruin to which Persian manufacturers are reduced by the constant and immense importation of foreign goods’. Not surprisingly this petition and other subsequent appeals fell upon the deaf ears of a Qajar regime which had already mortgaged national economic autonomy for the sake of treaties with Britain and Russia. Thus began the long period of growing tension between the merchant community and the Qajar shahs whom the former blamed for allowing a foreign fetter to be put on the development of Iranian commerce and manufacturing.
Emergence of political opposition to the Qajars
Expanded relations with Europe brought more than Russian matches and English textiles; it also opened up Iran to the influx of new ideologies. rrom the early nineteenth century, government officials, merchants and other members of the upper circles of society began to send their sons and nephews to Europe to learn more about the secrets of ‘civilisation and modernisation’.11 Naturally they seized upon those institutions that seemed most intimately connected to European economic superiority: modern systems of scientific education, chambers of commerce, and the like. But nothing impressed them so much, nor seemed to be so quintessential to European success, as the existence of a constitution and a parliamentary system.
The specific world-view of these modernising strata is vividly revealed in a remarkable article in Habl aI-Malin (a Persian paper published in Calcutta in the early twentieth century), addressed to ‘Honourable Merchants’:
‘Today the world of commerce is linked together like a chain and is like a single factory. If you do not carryon your trade according to contemporary practices and if you continue with the habits and customs of the tent dwellers of a thousand years ago, the supervisor of the trading machine – whose esteemed name is Science – will replace you. . . Today the world is rotating on the pivot of science. In Europe there are schools for every position, high and low. Let us leave aside commerce – even for coachmen and cart-drivers there are schools. . . How much more regrettable, then, that you merchants do not yet have a school of commerce! . . . You have not as yet established a chamber of commerce in Tehran and are not aware of its benefits. It is owing to the lack of a chamber of commerce that you are steadily regressing. In Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and other cities European businessmen are constantly setting up shops, obtaining concessions and opening bank branchesand trade is slipping from your hands. ‘
The writer then details a long list of all the damage which Iranian merchants suffered as Europeans made increasing inroads, and then concludes:
‘Passengers between England and America during their six-day cruise can talk by wireless to their people whenever they want. Why is it that the honoured post office of the eminent government of Iran is still conveyed by asses and camels as it was centuries ago? Because we lack knowledge and a chamber of commerce.’12
Other writers gave priority to the reformation of the state bureaucracy. In 1886 an important government functionary and close confidant of Nasir ai-Din Shah submitted a secret report warning that to preserve its independence Iran must emulate the example of Prussia, whose rationalised bureaucratism had elevated it from poverty and crisis to one of the major world powers. The shah was further advised that he should not hesitate to import foreign experts if learned Iranians could not be found.13 Despite a flood of manifestos and reform proposals, the Qajars’ attempts at internal modernisation never got very far. The combination of Iran’s semi-colonial subservience to Anglo-Russian imperialism and the vehement opposition of the Shi’i clergy to ‘antiIslamic’ innovations severely restricted the possibilities for reform from the top down. Thus the main intellectual and material impetus for change was shaped outside and in opposition to the government, in the merchant colonies of Istanbul and Calcutta, and nourished by Iranian students and intellectuals in London and Paris.
Their strategy for reform revolved around a near-obsession with constitutionalism, and a vast body of literature developed about this ‘secret’ of European civilisation. This was not so surprising, considering the economic and political dilemma of the Iranian elite which progressively saw the growth of its wealth and power impeded by the capitulations of the Qajar dynasty to its Russian and British rivals. Moreover, they faced an autocratic government with no effective way of changing its policies – an arbitrary government whose decisions often seemed to reflect only the irrational whims of the shah. Against this despotic and sclerotic regime, they posed the alternative of a parliamentary government inspired by a resolute nationalism.
The earliest Iranian account of a European parliamentary system was probably the detailed account of the British Parliament in the memoirs of Mirza Salih, who had spent four years in England at the end of the Napoleonic wars studying languages, natural philosophy and printing.14 A half-century later, another dignitary, Mustashar al-Dawlah, on his return from Europe wrote an essay, One Word (Yak Kalimah) that perfectly encapsulated the vision of subsequent generations of reformers:
‘During this period [1866-67] I observed that progress in France and England was a hundred times more advanced than in Russia. . . What could have been the reason behind such an unbelievable achievement ? The secret lies in one word [yak kalimah], the law. .. In France and other civilised countries, the citizens debate justice and injustice through their representatives; there will thus be no opposition to the law, because it is they themselves who rule and have made the law. The will of the people and their approval are the basis of all governmental policies; this comprehensive principle is of paramount importance, the truthfulness of which cannot be questioned by any wise man.’15
In another famous travelogue, an Iranian merchant from Istanbul attempted to summarise the problems of Iran. There are two maxims, he wrote, for running the country: one, according to the old Iranian saying that the kings know what is good for the country; another, that the people know what is good for the country. If a country is run according to the first maxim, there follows the state of affairs as in Ghaznayn, Maragheh, Isfahan, and Qazin (different Iranian provinces), while the second maxim produces the modernity of London, Paris, Washington and Berlin. In a particularly interesting passage, he drew attention to the case of Japan:
‘The Japanese alphabet [sic] is a thousand times more difficult than ours. Yet this nation, with these educational obstacles, in a brief time has surpassed others in scientific education, industries, statesmanship and the progress of civilisation.’ In contrast to the massive efforts of the Japanese to industrialise, he bitterly complained that the Persian rich refused to form banks or corporations, preferring to bury their gold in safes. They attempted to get rich quickly through fraudulent trading methods, while foreigners monopolised the development of Iran’s resources. They speculated in land, instead of building factories. At the root of these problems he identified the ‘negligence of the state and the laziness of the nation’. ‘A country can be considered civilised only if the state and the nation are not at conflict. National and state affairs can only be put into order i fthe opinion of the nation is put into practice.
He then traced the history of European political traditions from Greek democracy to the establishment of the English Parliament – ‘thanks to this Parliament, the wealth and welfare of that country has increased constantly’. Finally he returned to the example of Japan, whose constitution was enacted in 1868. Before that time, Japan ‘like Iran, was an autocracy, an ignorant, unscientific nation without concern for sciences of civilisation and humanities. But now, thanks to a constitutional regime, it has reached the highest levels, as any ignorant idiot knows.’16
The Japanese case was indeed a recurrent and popular theme in Iranian constitutional literature. Japan’s stunning defeat of Tsarist Russia in 1904 was interpreted by Iranian reformers as decisive proof of the superiority and strength of a constitutional regime. As Nikkie Keddie has noted: ‘Not only was Asian pride, hitherto battered by a continuous stream of western conquests, bolstered by this victory, but the fact that the only Asian constitutional power defeated the only major western non-constitutional power strengthened the fight for constitutional government as the panacea for internal ills and the “secret” of western strength.’17
The different currents of Iranian constitutionalism were primarily distinguished by how they located their newly acquired notions of modern politics in relation to the old and still predominant role of Islam. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the Shi’i clergy were courted by all sides. Their power was based on their institutional influence as well as their sociological links with the urban classes. On the one hand, the ‘ulama’ (doctors of religion) were still the religious and traditional cultural leaders of society, and the entire educational system was still based on clergy-run schools (maktab khaneh) of the classical type. On the other hand, most ‘ulama’ were connected through intimate family ties with the mercantile and artisanal strata who turned to them for leadership. As Gallagher has observed, ‘to the extent that the clergy as shi ‘a symbolised a vital aspect of Iranian national consciousness, they inevitably suffered from the spread of foreign influence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all the more because the urban bazaar classes on which they relied for a counterweight to the political power were hard hit by western commercial intrusion.’18 The leading role of the’ ulama’ in the successful protest movement against the Tobacco Concession in 1891-92 greatly increased their influence and prestige. They were thus a central force, which had to be allied with, manipulated or combated, but never ignored.
There were two kinds of constitutionalist responses to the role of the clergy. First there were the ‘nationalists of a modern type, with ideas still found in Iranian nationalism – rejection of Islam, anti-clericalism, agnosticism, westernism, anti-imperialism, glorification of the preIslamic past, and hatred of modern Iranian actuality.’19 The most prominent of these early secular nationalists were Akhund Zadeh, Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, and Talibov. They glorified a pre-Islamic Iranian past which was identified with national splendour and power.
Akhund Zadeh, for example – although personally opposed to all religions – wrote ‘to his Zoroastrian friend that this religion should be preserved and protected, and conscious efforts should be made not to let any Zoroastrian be converted to Islam.’20 Similarly, Kermani blamed Islam for the decline of the Persians, and anti-Arab, anti-Islam chauvinism coloured all his major writings.21 Talibov also shared these anti-Islamic beliefs and advocated the complete secularisation of law.
Nonetheless the pressure of Islamic conformity was so strong that even these fervent anti-clerical nationalists had to make concessions and adapt their discourse to popular piety.22 Talibov, for instance, was once forced to cloak his secular convictions in the following formula: ‘Whatever is against civilisation is perpetually forbidden in our noble religion which will be the basis of law in Iran. Any Muslim, including the writer of these lines, whose heart and tongue do not approve this fact is an infidel. Neither are they Muslims who do not consider the law a supplement to religion and a guardian for the enforcement of the religious law.’23 Even the militant Kermani resigned himself to a utilitarian attitude towards the clergy: ‘Since philosophy has no strength amongst the Iranian people, and because they are all oppressed and in need of fanaticism. . . one must resort to certain means to reform their situation. . . If we ask for very limited assistance from this halfalive horde of mullahs, maybe we shall reach our aims faster.’24 Some anti-clerical nationalists were completely utilitarian in this regard and refrained from any overt attack against Islam or the ‘ulama’. Malkam Khan, himself an Armenian by origin, openly affirmed that it was not possible to contest religion. ‘One should make allowance for the fanatic people of the country; for success in reformation, the intelligent young man must learn religious science as well as French law.’25
A second, smaller group of nationalist thinkers, however, genuinely tried to reconcile their religious beliefs with nationalism and constitutionalism. Mustashar al-Dawlah, for example, attempted a synthesis of Islamic and modern juridical principles by painstakingly dividing all laws into religious and non-religious, and advocating the equality of all citizens, regardless of faith, within the boundaries of non-religious law.26 This second category of nationalist ideologues also shared many common objectives with the pro-reform wing of the clergy who were attempting to find theoretical Shi’i justifications for constitutional government.
Shi’i theory of government and constitutionalism
The rise of the constitutionalist movement posed a particularly complex challenge to the Shi’i clergy. Prominently involved in the protests against the Tobacco Concession, they had also been influenced (like their Sunni counterparts) by the general anti-foreign agitation of Jamal ai-Din Afghani and kindred figures. But the flourishing of constitutionalist ideology presented a problem of a different order; it forced them to take a stand toward an overall political project that was rapidly gaining popular currency.27 At stake was no longer the struggle about a particular reform, this or that concession or unjust act, but the very structure of power in Iranian society. Initially, the response of the clergy was ambiguous and ambivalent. On the one hand, they had their own grievances against the Qajar regime as well as being sensitive to the generally rebellious and oppositional mood throughout the country.
On the other hand, they were highly suspicious, if not openly inimical, to the diffusion of the ‘new foreign ideas’. These contradictory pressures eventually culminated in a split between pro-constitutional and anti-constitutional wings of the clergy.
It is important to appreciate the specific ideological framework in which these political tensions within the clergy were articulated. Traditional Shi’i theories of government, for example, had always divided history into two distinct epochs: the period before AD 874, when the imams (the apostolic successors of the Prophet) were present on earth, and therefore no governmental problems existed since the judgement of the imams was presumed infallible; and the period following the ‘occultation’ (disappearance into hiding) of the Twelfth Imam when the questions of governmental structure and legitimacy of authority became controversial. It was this very problem of the ‘absent imam’ that allowed the pro-constitutionalist clergy to advocate what basically amounted to a semi-secularisation of Islam. The essence of their argument was that, in the absence of an infallible imam, a completely just Islamic government was in any case impossible, so believers had to seek the least imperfect state form. In their view, the clearly superior government was one that maximised the participation of the entire Shi’i community: since no one is infallible, wider participation lessened the dangers of error.
The most famous of these attempts to use traditional Shi’i theology to ground an organic critique of absolutism was Na’ini’s treatise, The Admonition and Refinement of the People (Tanbih al-Ummahwa-Tanzih al-Millah). The book was published in the spring of 1909; the period in Iranian history known as the ‘Brief Tyranny’ (June 1908 to July 1909) when Muhammad’ Ali Shah had dissolved the first parliament, and the constitutionalist armies were still fighting their way from Tabriz, Gilan and Isfahan towards Tehran. It was in this period that the anti-constitutionalist clergy, led by Shaykh Fadl-Allah Nuri, increased their agitation for the establishment of an Islamic parliament based on the shari ‘a (Islamic canonical law). Nuri referred to the Constitutional Revolution as the ‘great sedition’, which ‘consisted of three stages-l discourse and presentation; 2 writing and declaration; 3 practice and test. The call for the first stage was favourably received by all, literate and illiterate, because it was presented in a pleasant way. The second stage involved the writing of the Constitution and freedom of press; such freedom gives sanction that one may write freely against religion, religious people and the ‘ulama’. In the third stage, the constitutionalists began to practice whatever oppression they could.’ He further argued that ‘the most important problem of all is the drafting of a constitution. This matter involves three innovations, all of which are against Islam and are forbidden: 1 writing a law contrary to Islamic law; 2 forcing subjects to obey a law which is not presented by the shari’a; and 3 punishing subjects for their failure to obey the written law.’28
Na’ini’s text was a response to this critique. He argued that ‘there remains no room to doubt the necessity of changing a despotic regime into a constitutional one. This is true, because the former consists of three sets of usurpations and oppressions: 1 it is a usurpation of the authority of God and injustice to Him; 2 it is a usurpation of the imam’s authority and an oppression of the imam; and 3 it is also an oppression of the people. In contrast, a constitutional system only oppresses the imam, since his authority is usurped. Thus, a constitutional regime reduces three sets of oppression to merely one; consequently it is necessary to adopt it.’29
Na’ini also attacked the clergy’s attempt to make the constitutional government religiously unlawful, pointing out in rebuttal that both Shi’i and Sunni theology actually recognised the legitimacy of a parliamentary state. ‘It is permissible in the Sunni tradition because the system of election of parliamentary representatives corresponds to the doctrine concerning the authority of the “people of loosening and binding” (ahl ai-hail wa-I- ‘aqd). As for the regime’s legitimacy among the Shi’a, during the Great Occultation the mujtahids are responsible for the Muslims’ affairs. If a number of mujtahids or their envoys give their approval to parliamentary decisions, the constitutional system would also become lawful according to the Shi’a.’30 Thus Na’ini was calling upon the Shi’i mujtahids to issue afatwa (verdict) making the constitution and the parliamentary system religiously lawful. Against Nuri ‘s accusation that the writing of a constitution represented an antireligious innovation, he replied that ‘legislation would be an innovation (bid’at) and consequently against Islam only if one stipulates a nonIslamic clause as a provision of the shari ‘a and then puts it into effect.
But if one does not associate the non-Islamic provision with the shari ‘a then there would be no innovation.’31
Finally, Na’ini attempted to seal his argument with a further invocation of Islamic tradition: ‘since the interference of the people, that is to say, their participation in the elections, prevents the tyrant from exercising oppression, the people’s right to, and their responsibility for, state affairs are established under the principle of nahy-i az munkar [ban on atrocity] which is an obligatory duty of every individual and can be realised through the institution of popular elections.’32 With the military victory of the constitutionalists in July 1909 and the election of a second parliament, these rather esoteric debates receded into obscurity. The subsequent decade in Iran, however, was marked by a weak, incompetent government as well as by gradual but deepening disillusionment with the utopian promise of constitutionalism. The pro-constitutionalist clergy, in particular, was doubly disillusioned since the changes that did occur were at the expense of their traditional functions. It began to seem that, after all, the ‘secret’ of European civilisation was not actually the panacea for the problems of Iran. This evolving climate of social disintegration and political demoralisation paved the way for the emergence of Reza Khan’s power and the establishment in 1921 of a centralised military-based state.33
Reza Shah’s reforms and the conflict with the clergy
Reza Shah’s reign (1921-1941) was built on a dual foundation of massive repression and limited reform. He brutally crushed several local popular uprisings, generally eliminated all political opposition (from communists to liberal democrats to protesting clergy), and launched a series of administrative and economic reforms. Ironically, many of these reforms – the establishment of a modern educational system, the creation of a conscripted regular army, the founding of a secular judicial system, and so on – were precisely reforms which the most radical proponents of constitutionalism had long fought for. For this reason, many former constitutionalists and parliamentarians came to lend disgruntled support to Reza Shah. On the other hand, those who remained in opposition to his dictatorial rule and gangster-like methods tended merely to quibble with details of his reforms. Constitutionalist opposition was therefore partly disarmed by the shah’s theft of some of its programme. (A not dissimilar situation arose in the early 1960s in relation to the National Front’s attitude to the reforms of Muhammad Reza Shah.)
The clergy’s dissatisfaction with Reza Shah, however, was more substantive and irreconcilable, since practically every area of the regime’s innovation in administration and state policy directly intruded upon the traditional prerogatives of the ‘ulama’. Modern schools and universities were organised on a’ national scale, destroying the ancient monopoly of the clergy and devaluing the role of the old madrasa system. Top state bureaucrats were now recruited, not from the madrasa, but directly from the university or from among those who had been sent abroad on government scholarships. From 1926 onwards, the jurisdiction of religious courts was systematically delimited and finally abolished altogether (although the lower clergy were still employed by the state in notary and registry functions). The establishment of a Ministry of Endowments curtailed the discretion of the clergy in administering waqJ properties, while the rationalisation of the tax system, which imposed new fiscal levies upon consumer goods like tea and sugar, forced the clergy in many areas to give religious sanction to counting state tax payments as part of khums and zakat. Even in the arena of social services, the construction of new hospitals, public baths, libraries, orphanages, and so on, represented a serious encroachment upon a crucial sphere of traditional clerical hegemony. Finally, in 1936 the state directly attacked certain religious practices – ordering the compulsory unveiling of women in public ceremonies and public places, and banning certain traditional Shi’i rituals like the cutting of one’s forehead during ‘Ashura’ ceremonies.34
Except for certain figures such as Modarres, however, the clerical response to this expansion of state authority was largely an unhappy silence. The clergy was chastened not only by the regime’s exemplary repressiveness, but also by its awareness that there was broad popular support for many of these modernist reforms. In fact the first systematic formulation of the positions of the clerical opposition was delayed until 1944, three years after the abdication of Reza Shah. Khomeini’s book, The Discovery of Secrets (Kashf al-Asrar), was a reply to the writings of Kasravj35 and his followers, who had condemned the clerical opposition to Reza Shah as a reactionary mixture of fanaticism, superstition and even corruption. Khomeini utili sed a variety of polemical devices to refute these charges and to clarify the reasons for clerical resistance to the regime. Since Kasravi was assassinated in 1945 by the Feda’iyan-e Islam, the debate was never continued, and Khomeini’s book remained relatively unknown until its re-publication in 1979. Its retrospective significance, of course, consists of the insights that it provides into the political evolution of Khomeini’s thinking. The first half of the book is rather tediously devoted to theological exegesis, but the second half presents the first programmatic assertion of the clergy’s political role to have been advanced since the days of the original constitutional movement. It also contains many of the political ideas that Khomeini would elaborate almost thirty years later (1971) in his Velayat-e Faqih (often translated as The Islamic Government). A synopsis of the passages of Kashf al-Asrar that deal with governmental reform will aid in establishing the general outline of modern Shi’i political ideology in its Khomeinist version.
The first principle of Islamic government, according to Khomeini, is that the only acceptable legislator is God. ‘No one but God has the right to govern over anyone or to legislate, and reason suggests that God himself must form a government for people and must legislate. The laws are but the laws of Islam.’ (p184).36 Furthermore, ‘this law that legislates everything, from the most general problems of all countries to the specifics of a man’s family, from the social life of all of humanity to the personal life of a man living alone in a cave, and from before man’s conception in the womb to after his placement in the tomb – this law is nothing but God’s religion: Islam. We shall later provide incontrovertible proof that Islamic law relating to government, taxation, legal and criminal codes – on everything concerning the administration of a country from the formation of an army to the formation of ministrieslacks nothing. It is you who are ignorant of this, and all our misfortunes stem from the fact that a country which, in fact, possesses such laws, has extended a begging hand to alien countries and has implemented their forged laws, conceived from the poisonous minds of selfish men.’
Khomeini’s second principle is that a true Muslim should only ‘obey God, His Prophet, and those in authority among you’ (Qur’an, 4,62).
‘Who are these people of authority and what kind of people should they be? Some say that they are kings and rulers, and that God has ordered people to obey and follow their kings and sultans. Thus they would say that God has enjoined obedience to Mustafa Kamal Pasha as president of Turkey or to Reza Khan as shah of Iran. Further the Sunni would consider all the caliphs of Islam, including Mu’awiya bin abi Sufyan, Yazid Ibn Mu’awiya and other Ummayyid and Abbasid rulers as divinely-sanctioned authorities. . . Now we ask our God-given reason for judgement: God sent the Prophet of Islam with thousands of heavenly laws and established his government on the belief in the uniqueness of God and Justice. . . Would this same God order men to obey [Mustafa Kamal] Ataturk, who has disestablished state religion, persecuted believers, oppressed the people, sanctioned moral corruption, and in general opposed the religion of God? Moreover, would he order us to obey [Reza Khan] Pahlavi, who, as we all know, did all that he could to uproot Islam? . . . We must conclude that people of authority cannot be kings and rulers. And a glance at the record of the caliphs, even according to the Hadith and the Sunni histories, would support the same conclusion.’ (pp109-110)
After reiterating the orthodox Shi’i doctrine that the imams were the legitimate authorities from Muhammad’s death to AD 874, Khomeini argues that in the contemporary world the most legitimate authority should be vested in the mujtahids, the faqihs, those most knowledgeable in the laws of Islam. In his later 1971 book he specifically calls upon thefaqihs to assume directly the leadership of government, but in 1944 he was not yet prepared to go so far. ‘When we say that government [hokumat and velayat] in our time belongs to thefaqihs we do not mean to say that the shah, the ministers, the soldiers, and the dust men should all befaqihs. But we do propose the following: According to the same procedure by which a constituent assembly is formed, and this assembly then chooses a new ruler. . . we can form such an assembly, but composed of pious mujtahids who are wise in divine law, just, free of temptation and ambition and desiring nothing but the welfare of the people and the implementation of God’s laws. These religious men would then elect a just sultan who would not disobey divine law nor practice oppression nor transgress against people’s property, Ii fe and honour. . . Similarly for the Majlis, why should it not be composed of pious faqihs or be placed under their supervision?’ (p185)37 ‘Clearly, even the mujtahids do not have the right to allow anyone to rule. Even the Prophet and the imams were not allowed by God to do this. They can only confer authority upon someone who does not violate God’s laws – these being founded on reason and justice – and who accepts the formal law of the country to be the divine laws of heaven, and not European laws or worse.’ (p 189)
Khomeini also discusses at length the clergy’s view of the ‘harmful’ changes wrought by Reza Shah’s reforms and administrative initiatives. His critique comprises the following five salient elements.
1 He is rather obsessed with the pervasive moral corruption and cultural decadence which he sees as resulting from these policies. ‘The clergy insist that this shameful unveiling [of women], this “Movement of Bayonets,”38 has wreacked both spiritual and material damage upon our country in gross violation of the laws of God and His Prophet. The clergy insist that this melon-shaped hat, a foreign left-over, is a disgrace to the nation of Islam, forbidden by God and damaging to our independence. The clergy insist that these co-educational schools, mixing young girls and lustful young boys, destroy chastity and manliness. . . They insist that these shops selling wine and these factories making alcoholic drinks erode the minds of our youth, debasing reason, health, chastity and courage amongst the people – by God’s decree the drinking and selling of wine are forbidden, and these places should be shut down. They also insist that music creates a mood of fornication and lust, undermining chastity, manliness and courage – it is forbidden by religious law and should not be taught in schools lest it promote vice.’ (pp213-214)
2 Khomeini condemns the principle of universal conscription introduced by Reza Shah on the grounds that it coerces youth, exposes it to corruption and prostitution, and ultimately only trains it in the arts of thuggery and robbery. Instead he proposes the adoption of an Islamic approach to national defence, which in peace time would be based on a volunteer army inspired by religious motivation that would be deepened by Islamic education. In wartime, compulsory service woule be founded on the universal obligation of jihad which Islam imposes upon every able-bodied Muslim man. (pp242-245) Again the key to the mobilisation of the nation would be religious propaganda, and he proposes the establishment of a special ministry for this specific purpose. It would seek not only to inspire each citizen, but also to train them to proselytise others. (pp246- 248)
3 Khomeini surveys the various traditional taxes levied in Islam (see pp225-258), and proposes a new tax system based on traditional religious principles. In particular, he condemns import taxes as damaging to commercial interests, although he accepts the idea of limited tariffs on foreign goods provided they do not unjustly penalise domestic merchants and traders. (pp226-267)
4 Not surprisingly he opposes the existing Ministry of Justice and its judicial procedures. In his opinion, the restoration of judges trained according to Islamic law would simplify trial procedures and eliminate costly lawyers’ fees and parasitic judicial personnel. (pp296-301) Moreover, he claims that the full implementation of the Islamic penal code would eliminate injustice, theft and corruption within a year. ‘If you want to eradicate theft from the world, you must cut the hands off thieves, otherwise your prison sentences will only help thieves and perpetuate theft. Human life can only be made secure through the guarantee of punishment, and only the death penalty ensures society’s survival, since prison sentences do not solve any problem. If adulterous men and women were promptly given a hundred lashes each, venereal disease would disappear in this country.’ (pp274-275)
5 Khomeini expresses his deep scepticism about the utility of ‘modern medicine and European surgery’, glorifying traditional methods and practices instead. (pp279-281) Furthermore, he ridicules the Ministry of Culture and national media, which he saw as transmitting and teaching only moral corruption. (pp282-283)
In conclusion, Khomeini emphasises that it is because of the very completeness and integrity of Islam as a legal, cultural and political order, that the European powers, conspiring to defeat and colonise the Muslim countries, aim above all to uproot its institutions and to substitute alien laws and customs.
As I have already argued, the appearance of Khomeini’s book, despite its obscurity at the time, marked a certain watershed in the development of Shi’i political consciousness. Whereas the clergy had for decades been reacting instinctively and in piecemeal fashion to the transformation of Iranian society, Khomeini recognised with some perspicacity that the accumulation of changes was resulting in a new social and political structure. He was the first amongst the clergy of his rank to attempt systematically to understand the implications of the conflicts between an emerging bourgeois state and the old Islamic institutional order. Yet his ideas had little immediate impact, and he remained an isolated figure even amongst the clergy for several decades. The majority of the Shi’i hierarchy continued to remain aloof from national politics, while in the turbulent period following the second world war nationalist politics were dominated by the more or less secular forces of the Tudeh
- 1. Michael Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, Cambridge (Mass.), 1980, p28.
- 2. For a detailed description of the Safavid state apparatus, see MiltOrsky, Tadhkirat al-Muluk, London 1943.
- 3. Ravandi, Tarikh-e Ijtima’i-e Iran (A Social History of Iran), Tehran, 1978, vol. 3, p. 481.
- 4. Hamid Algar, ‘Iran and Shi’ism’, in Kalim Siddiqui (ed.), The Islamic Revolution in Iran, London, 1980, p5.
- 5. For a fuller discussion of the theological issues involved in the dispute between the Usulis and the Akhbaris, see Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785 -1906: The Role of the Ulema in the Qajar Period, Berkeley, 1969, pp33-36.
- 6. For an intricate description of the social and administrative powers of the clergy under the Qajars see, ibid, pp 11- 21, 60-72; also Ravandi, pp491-527.
- 7. Algar, Religion and State, ppI31-36, 169-83,224.
- 8. For a very instructive review of the intellectual changes in this period, see F. Adamiyat, Andishe-y Taraqqi va hokumat-e ganun (The Thought of Progress and Rule of Law), Tehran, 1972, esp. chapters I-IV.
- 9. See Charles Issawi (ed.), The Economic History of Iran: 1800-1914, Chicago, 1971, pp43-48.
- 10. Ibid, p76. A consequence of these futile attempts at stopping foreign competition and stimulating local manufacturing was the movement of the vast accumulated wealth of merchants into land speculation. The government’s desire to sell all state land to obtain instant cash met with eager buyers, as merchants found it profitable to buy large plots ofland to plant such export crops as rice, cotton, fruits and tobacco. This combination of large landed estates with urban-based commercial interests emerged in that period and remained a prominent feature of agrarian relations in Iran until the land reforms in the early 1960s.
- 11. Tamaddon and tajaddod became watchwords symbolising Europe to the yearning Iranian mind. It became a point of honour to be in favour of tamaddon and tajaddod. Those against them were looked upon as enemies of the nation, of progress and development. It is a tragic irony of present-day Iran that these same two words have now become derogatory labels hurled at intellectuals and anyone opposing the rule of the clergy. Today they have become equated with unforgivable adaptation to the ‘West.’
- 12. A fuller version of this article is quoted in Issawi, op cit, pp67 -68.
- 13. Fereydoon Adamiyat, Ideology of the Iranian Constitutional Movement (Persian), Tehran, 1976, p17.
- 14. Abdul-Hadi Hairi, Shi’ism and Constitutionalism in Iran, Leiden, 1977, p.13.
- 15. Quoted ibid, pp31-33.
- 16. Adamiyat, pp92-99. The expression translated as ‘any ignorant idiot’ is in Persian literally ‘my aunt’ – a common derogatory way of speaking(!)
- 17. Nikkie Keddie, ‘Religion and Irreligion in Early Iranian Nationalism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, IV (April 1962), pp265-95.
- 18. Charles Gallagher, ‘Contemporary Islam: The Plateau of Particularism, Problems of Religion and Nationalism in Iran’, American Universities Field Staff Reports, New York, 1966, p14.
- 19. Keddie, pp287-88.
- 20. Hairi, p. 27.
- 21. See Philip Bayat Mangol, ‘The Concepts of Religion and Government in the Thought of Mirza Aga Khan Kirmani, a Nineteenth-Century Persian Revolutionary’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, V (1974), pp381-400.
- 22. See Algar, Religion and State, pp76-77.
- 23. Quoted in Hairi, p47.
- 24. Quoted in Adamiyat, p30.
- 25. Quoted in Hairi, p40. This utilitarian adaptation to Islam was not limited to nationalists. The tiny nucleus of social democrats included a legal faction which called itself ‘The Defenders of Islam Faction of Iranian Social Democracy’. Here are excerpts from a leaflet they issued on the occasion of the declaration of the constitution in 1906: ‘Toilers of the world unite! We, Social Democrats, the true defenders of Islam, send our congratulations to the freedom lovers of the world on this day of declaration of the Iranian constitution. We salute all the clergy and the merchants who support the people, and all the Islamic Mujahedeen in Tehran, who have all sacrificed their wealth and lives to reach their sacred goals. . . We, the Islamic Mujahedeen, who are the men of God, cannot stop at the gains made so far. We must hoist the red banner of liberty. . . ‘ (Quoted in Pavlovich, Teria and Iranski, Three Essays on the Constitutional Revolution of Iran (Persian translation), Tehran, 1978, p38.)
- 26. Hairi, p32.
- 27. Many clergymen, of course, did not concern themselves with this problem and simply went along with the constitutionalists. Sayyed Tabataba’i, for example, one of the two most famous clergymen involved in the constitutional movement, once said: ‘We ourselves had not seen a constitutional regime. But we had heard about it, and those who had seen the constitutional countries had tòld us that a constitutional regime will bring security and prosperity to the country. This created an urge and enthusiasm in us, so we strove to establish a constitutional regime in this country.’ (Quoted in Adamiyat, p226.) Afterwards, when conflicts broke out between the clergy and the constitutionalists over many articles of the constitution (in which the latter almost always outmanoeuvred the former), and when over severe objections of the clergy a secular judiciary was voted into the constitution, the same Tabataba’i – clearly feeling betrayed by his secular allies is quoted as saying: ‘with the establishment of these judicial courts, what else is there left for the clergy to do?’ (Ibid, p419).
- 28. Hairi, p199.
- 29. Ibid, pp193-4.
- 30. Ibid, pp296-97.
- 31. Ibid, p199.
- 32. Ibid, p206.
- 33. It has become commonly accepted that Reza Khan was a British stooge and that his 1921 coup was planned and aided by the British. It is true that following the Russian Revolution British policy in Iran changed from supporting a weak Qajar shah to desiring a strong centralised state as a bastion against the Bolshevik ‘threat’ to the Indian sub-continent. It is also true that it was General Ironside who, impressed by Reza Khan’s military performance in suppressing local uprisings, laid the groundwork for the 1921 seizure of power. (See Richard Ullman, Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921, vol 3, Princeton, 1966, pp354-69, 383-389.) However, it is essential to take into account how the political disillusionment and demoralisation following the constitutional regime allowed Reza Khan to win support from many former leaders of the Constitutional Revolution. This also partially explains why he faced very little resistance in the central provinces, although it took fierce fighting and ruthless repression to crush the powerful autonomist forces in Kurdistan, Azarbaijan, and other outlying regions.
- 34. See, Fischer, pp95-120.
- 35. Kasravi was one of the most important and prolific historians of Iran. Although not an atheist, he opposed all existing religions and organised a circle of followers in search of the ‘true religion’ .
- 36. All references are to the 1979 Persian edition of Kashf al-Asrar.
- 37. The constituent assembly and majlis described in this 1944 work are strikingly similar to the Assembly of Experts convened in the summer of 1979 and the current Islamic Assembly. When Khomeini first announced his scheme for the Assembly of Experts, many of his bourgeois-nationalist allies felt betrayed while much of the left felt disillusioned. But, as a study of his earliest writings so clearly sho ,vs, it was not Khomeini who had reneged on promises or disguised his schemes; the fault was the wishful thinking and ignorance of his nationalist and left-wing collaborators.
- 38. Soldiers were ordered to tear apart women’s veils on the street with their bayonets.
- 39. From an early pamphlet issued by the Freedom Movement to explain its aims, and recently quoted by Bazargan in one of his election pamphlets in order to bolster his claim that it was leaders like himself who had dragged the clergy from their mosques into politics, which they were now ungratefully forcing him out of.
- 40. Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, Albany, 1980, ppI 19-20.
- 41. Algar, ‘Iran and Shi’ism’, p12.
- 42. Akhavi, p91.
- 43. A full account of these events appears in Sayyed Hamid Rouhani, An Analysis of the Movement of Imam Khomeini, (in Persian), Qum 1977. This 960-page book contains an invaluable complete compilation of Khomeini’s statements and lectures from this period; otherwise its primary distinction is its revolting anti-Jewish, anti-Baha’i bigotry.
- 44. Ibid, pp177-78.
- 45. Ibid, pp197-205.
- 46. For a fuller discussion of these points see M. Ja ‘far and A. Tabari, ‘Iran: Islam and the Struggle for Socialism’, Khamsin 8.
- 47. First published in 1971, it is a transcript of a series of lectures given by Khomeini. All quotations are from the Persian third edition.
- 48. Algar, ‘Iran and Shi’ism’, pp47, 49.