• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Iranian Revolution

Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution

by Michael M.J. Fischer
Harvard University Press, 303 pp., $17.50

The Rise and Fall of the Shah

by Amin Saikal
Princeton University Press, 279 pp., $14.50

The Fall of the Shah

by Fereydoun Hoveyda, translated by Roger Liddell
Wyndham Books, 221 pp., $9.95


The history of the Iranian revolution has been a history of misperceptions. The Shah was thought to run a tightly controlled autocracy and to command the most powerful military machine in the Persian Gulf region. Yet it required no more than thirteen months of largely peaceful demonstrations, Xeroxed leaflets, and crudely reproduced tapes to bring his regime down. His vaunted 400,000-man army collapsed in just two fateful days in February 1979.

Liberal and left-wing groups who joined with Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah believed, as did much of the European press, that the revolution would give birth to a liberal democracy. Instead, they have watched Khomeini’s followers create an Islamic theocracy. The most glaring misperception of all has been the failure to grasp the part that Islam would play in mobilizing the revolutionary opposition to the Shah and in shaping post-revolution Iranian society.

The misperception prevailed in Tehran and Washington and among both the Shah’s supporters and his critics. It was shared, surprisingly, even by the secular opposition groups that worked for revolution. Liberal and left-wing dissidents woke up late to the central part of religion in mobilizing the masses. Even after the “Black Friday” massacre on September 8, 1978, when it became evident that leadership of the movement had passed to Ayatollah Khomeini, the tendency remained strong to underrate religion and the implications of Khomeini’s Islamic ideology.

Khomeini had elaborated his concept of an Islamic state in a series of lectures delivered as early as 1970 during his exile in Iraq. These lectures were published, in both Arabic and Persian, under the title of Islamic Government. Khomeini made it unequivocally clear in these lectures that he intended to set up an Islamic state, one based on the Koran and modeled on the first Islamic community under the Prophet Mohammad in seventh-century Arabia. This government, he said, must be founded on Islamic law; and the leadership of the community must therefore fall to the clerical class, as experts in Islamic law and heirs to the mantle of the Prophet. Velayat-e Faqih, the Persian title of the book, means government by the faqih, the Islamic jurist.1

Yet the parties of the center left—Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom of Iran Movement, for example—chose to ignore both Khomeini’s published writings and his public pronouncements. Some believed that such views could not provide a serious program for government. Others, Khomeini’s explicitly stated intentions notwithstanding, assumed that the Ayatollah would retire from active involvement in political affairs, or could fairly quickly be shunted aside once victory had been achieved. A similar misreading of Khomeini and of the temper of the revolution was current among some academics and journalists abroad.

In Iran, the center-left parties underrated the appeal of Khomeini’s form of fundamentalist Islam possibly because they were themselves cut off from their traditional Islamic roots. Many subscribed to notions of a “reformed” Islam which presupposed a secular state and secularization of large parts of public life. They assumed all too easily that the masses in the streets shared their own political goals and aspirations. Many assumed that the revolution would recapture the prize denied them in 1953, when the Nationalist movement led by Mohammad Mossadeq almost overthrew the Shah, before being frustrated by a CIA-assisted coup.

Today with their remaining power rapidly slipping from their grasp, the parties of the center not surprisingly feel that the Islamic groups were able to “seize” the revolution by some accident of history. Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic (whose “resignation” Islamic militants arranged last November), told Oriana Fallaci in an interview in October:

There were sudden, unforeseeable developments, and the mullas rapidly succeeded in establishing control over the country…. We were so involved in difficulties and problems that we did not realize that the train had left the station, and that we had missed it.

One virtue of Michael Fischer’s Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution is that it directs our attention precisely to the religious “underpinnings” of the revolution. An American anthropologist who worked in Iran, Fischer describes the shrine city of Qum and its system of madrasas, or theological seminaries, focusing on Qum because it has served as the center both for conserving Shi’ite religious tradition and for training the students who keep this tradition alive, and because it has been the scene of conflict between the religious institutions and the Pahlavi dynasty. He concentrates on the seminaries because he believes all Iranians derive their religious attitudes from a common religious tradition for whose understanding, he writes, “the learning of the religious students is pivotal.”

Fischer also wants to show that despite such a shared tradition, the perception of Islam among different classes of Iranians varies considerably, that whether we speak of poor workers or middle-class professionals or bazaar people, we will find that striking reformulations of Islamic concepts have taken place within each class, each with political implications for understanding the revolution. Thus among the common people the theme of martyrdom was infused with new meaning and became a powerful instrument for sending young people against the Shah’s troops. Among the middle class the injunction of the Koran “to consult the people in affairs” was interpreted as underscoring the democratic character of Islam’s message and therefore its system of government.

Fischer has difficulty combining so many different themes. His prose is uneven and often careless;2 and the last chapter, on the revolution between 1977 and 1979, is merely a catalogue of events called from newspapers, lacking analysis and poorly integrated with the rest of the book. But he usefully poses a central problem—whether, as a result of the revolution, “the promise of progressive Islam can be fulfilled…a liberal civil order can be established.” He finds the heart of this problem in a debate currently taking place within the Islamic community itself, between the exponents of different and competing versions of Shi’ite ideology.

During the last two decades attempts have been made both within and outside religious institutions to redefine Shi’ite concepts so as to give Islam a sharper political edge, a more direct appeal to modern believers. Within the mosques and seminaries reformers, as Fischer shows, have called on the religious leaders to show that Islam is actively committed to social and political justice. While teaching in Paris during the 1970s, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr conceived an “Islamic economics” which sought to show that socialist and even Marxist ideas about property, wealth distribution, and economic justice could be derived from traditional Islamic ideas, while avoiding the unattractive features of Soviet state socialism. And the leftist religious reformer Ali Shari’ati, who died in London during the 1970s, had called for an Islamic protestantism that would bring together Islam and ideas of “third world” socialism; he taught his followers that the intelligentsia have a special responsibility to dedicate their lives to a struggle for the rights of the masses. During the 1970s the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a left-wing Islamic guerrilla organization espousing the ideas of Shari’ati, advocated armed uprising against the Shah and used Islamic ideas to develop a populist economic and political program under which wealth would be radically redistributed and power would be turned over to peoples’ councils.

Fischer gives a detailed account of the ideas of such people as Shari’ati. They were important because they helped to persuade a generation of Iranians that they could find in their own religious tradition ideologies that could accommodate characteristically modern needs for “development” and participation. These currents also helped to soften the anti-clericalism that has been common in Iran not only among the Western intelligentsia but in the higher ranks of bureaucracy and among the professional groups and the upper middle class generally.

Relations between such Westernized groups and the traditional and religious classes are complex, for, as Fischer points out, there is no simple division between religious and secular, traditional and modern. Many of the fiercest secularizers rose from the clerical class, as did for example the historian Ahmad Kasravi, to whose criticism of traditional religion, Fischer tells us, Khomeini made a vigorous reply during the 1940s. The religious milieu continued to provide the intelligentsia with some of its most prominent writers, such as Sayyid Muhammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, whose reflective essays and modern Persian short stories started to appear in the 1920s. Throughout the century there have been coalitions of the religious leaders, the merchants, and the elite professionals to achieve political goals, for example to force the cancellation of a monopoly over the tobacco trade granted to a British firm in 1890-1891, or to back the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, or to promote the movement to nationalize oil under Mohammad Mossadeq between 1951 and 1953.

Equally striking however is the way such cooperation between religious classes and the more Westernized secular groups has often broken down—as it has been breaking down during the last year. After the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, for example, a split took place between the advocates of a secular state and supporters of Islamic government. As one might expect, the intelligentsia and the more modern-minded members of the middle class tended to regard Moslem clerics as anti-intellectual, opposed to social reform and to nearly every sign of secularization.

When the members of the two groups opposed the Pahlavi dynasty they often did so for different reasons. The modern elites drawn from the bureaucracy and such professions as law frequently approved of policies that the religious classes strongly opposed. Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, denied the clerical classes their long-standing monopoly over education and judicial administration. He attacked their privileges and diminished their influence. He opened the schools and Tehran University to women and when he abolished the veil he ordered the police to enforce his ruling. In 1936, when the worshippers at the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad took part in a religious protest meeting, he sent in troops who violated the sanctity of the shrine and gunned the protesters down. The struggle against Reza Shah, as Fischer points out, was built into the history and memory of Qum.

Reza Shah left deep scars on the religious community. Khomeini’s speeches often refer to the humiliation suffered during his reign, whether in the form of personal insults to Shi’ite leaders or general restrictions on religious activity. In May, when Sadeq Khalkhali, the Islamic judge who has recently been responsible for numerous executions, led a battalion of militants to smash Reza Shah’s mausoleum near Tehran, he was explicitly taking revenge for this humiliation.

Mohammad Reza Shah was also a secularizer. Like his father, he was also able to call on the services of the elite professionals—Fischer calls them “potential opponents and unwilling accomplices”—until, again like his father, he alienated them by arbitrary rule, corruption, and his dictatorial style.

The alliance that came together against the Shah was thus composed of many disparate forces. The ideas of the Islamic reformers such as Shari’ati and Bani-Sadr were quite different from Khomeini’s more strictly fundamentalist vision. But Khomeini, with his intense and simply expressed appeals to the urban crowds, became the symbol of relentless opposition to the Shah. His prestige was immense. He too was preaching the mission of a militant, activist Islam, and he used the language of justice and freedom. Differences of goals and ideology were thus submerged in a coalition under Khomeini whose one aim was to overthrow the Shah; it is this coalition that is now falling apart.

  1. 1

    This book has now been made available along with some other writings by Khomeini in a paperback edition in English published by Manor Books. The translation of Khomeini’s text on Islamic government is usable but not always precise. The publishers, however, chose to market the book as “Khomeini’s Mein Kampf” and see fit to preface it with this declaration: “Understanding the intentions and tactics of an enemy is the first defense against him. In that spirit we offer this volume.” An “analysis” appended to the volume relies on vilification (among the epithets used to describe Khomeini are: “maniacal,” “fanatic,” “vile,” and “vapid”) and seeks to score cheap points rather than to understand. The “analysis” is also full of errors. The author imagines that Khomeini is an Arab, that Islam was founded in the fifth century BC, and that the father of the ex-Shah was already in power in Iran twenty years before he executed his coup d’état. Another paperback, Sayings of the Ayatollah Khomeini (Bantam, $2.25), contains brief selections from Khomeini’s Islamic Government and also from two other books bearing on questions of worship and religious ritual. Unfortunately the publishers fail to supply the background that would enable readers to place these matters in perspective.

  2. 2

    Fischer, for example, confuses the events surrounding Khomeini’s arrest in 1963 and his exile in 1964. There was never a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Iran. The Sharif-Emami government did not lower the exit tax. Matin-Daftari was not detained by the authorities in September 1978. Kalam does not mean “theological casuistry” and rak’at does not mean “recitation.” The acronym of the new security organization is SAVAMA, not SAVAMI.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print