Discussing Avicenna, Roy Mottahedeh refers to the “tradition of so many premodern writers who saw intellectual modesty as appropriate only for the intellectually modest.” Had he himself belonged to that tradition he might well have described his own work as an attempt to do for Iran’s Islamic revolution what Edmund Wilson did in To The Finland Station for the Bolshevik revolution: to trace its intellectual pedigree, and to do so in a way that makes it not only accessible but exciting for the general reader.

Such a project is inherently more ambitious than Wilson’s because the Bolshevik revolution, frightening and alien as it may seem in its consequences, had its intellectual origins within Western Christian and post-Christian culture. Lenin’s mentors spoke and wrote in an idiom with which Wilson could expect his readers to be familiar. The mental landscape of the Iranian mullah is much more remote from that of the English-speaking public to whom Mottahedeh’s book is addressed. To get inside the heads of such people is a feat to which most Western intellectuals do not even aspire—partly because of its inherent difficulty and partly, no doubt, for fear of seeming to excuse the inexcusable: the violations of human rights committed in the name of Islam in Iran and elsewhere. “Tout comprendre, ce serait tout pardonner,” wrote Mme. de Staël. One is reluctant to “understand” Khomeini in this sense, as one is reluctant to “understand” Hitler.

In the case of Hitler, however, the more serious-minded Western intellectuals have overcome their reluctance, recognizing that the Staëlian dictum implies an abdication either of reason or of moral judgment, whereas the Western intellectual tradition is founded on the belief that the two must go hand in hand. We need to understand Hitler without ceasing to condemn him, and most of us believe that it is in principle possible to do so, whether or not we believe that understanding has actually been achieved.

Our need to understand Khomeini is perhaps not so great. Since he is the product of a different culture, it is less plausible to say that we must be on the lookout for the roots of Khomeinism in our own society. Nor has he so far damaged the world, or at least our world, on the scale that Hitler did. On the other hand it is not at all implausible to say that the Khomeini phenomenon results, in part at least, from the effect on Iranian Islamic society of its encounter with the West over the last 100 to 150 years; so that an understanding of it might help us to avoid mistakes in our future dealings, not only with Iran but with other Islamic and non-Western societies. And even if the damage done so far falls well short of the standard set by world war and holocaust, it is surely more than enough to justify a post-mortem, leaving aside the very real possibility that the worst is yet to come.

It would be a pity, therefore, if any reader were to turn aside from Mottahedeh’s book simply out of distaste for the notion of achieving any kind of empathy with Khomeini and his like. It is something worth trying to do. There remains the difficulty of actually doing it. It would be wrong to make out that Mottahedeh, an American of Iranian parentage and now a professor of Middle Eastern history at Princeton, succeeds in removing all the obstacles. But he does make an extraordinarily impressive start, and his technique is highly original.

An Iranian friend of mine, whom I asked for his opinion of the book, believed it to be a novel. He clearly had not read beyond the first few pages, but about those pages, and some others later in the book, he was right. Mottahedeh presents us with two books in one, rather loosely interwoven so that the two strands remain clearly distinct. There is the historical and analytical exposition of various interacting currents of thought that came together in the revolution, which is more or less conventional in form although ambitious and often original in content; and there is the narrative of the life of a particular twentieth-century mullah (born in 1943), which in these days of Shindler’s List can easily qualify as a novel even though the author assures us that the central character

is a real person whose wish to remain anonymous I have scrupulously respected. All the events in the narrative of Ali Hashemi and his friends are based on the lives of Iranians as described to me by Iranians. I believe in the good faith of my informants, and have often found evidence external to their accounts that confirms what they said.

This “novel” fills only 136 of the 380 pages of text. If one treats it as primary, the book as a whole could be taken as one of those scholarly editions of a literary work, in which the exegetic footnotes occupy nearly twice as much space as the text, with the peculiarity that author and editor are in this case the same person. Alternatively one could treat the historical-analytical sections as primary, in which case the “novel” (never so described by its author) has to be seen as a kind of sweetener, used to seduce a wider reading public than would normally swallow a treatise on Iranian history and Islamic thought. Since Mottahedeh is known as a scholar rather than as a novelist, the latter interpretation is more likely to be correct as an account of how the book came to take the form it does. Yet the device is so successful that for a reviewer to treat the narrative passages purely as packaging would be to do both book and author a grave injustice. (Has he, one wonders, perhaps another life as a novelist, concealed under a pseudonym?) These passages undoubtedly form the most interesting and original part of the book; and they would just about stand by themselves, though one’s reading of them is greatly enriched by the passages in between.


Reading the story of “Ali Hashemi,” one can indeed believe that one is getting an inkling of what it actually feels like to be an Iranian mullah. But is he a typical Iranian mullah? Mottahedeh anticipates the objection, and disarmingly concedes it:

Some Iranians will feel that the account of the mullah…is not reverential enough; he has experienced doubts and shifts of attitude that they will think atypical of Shiah men of religion. Others will think the portrait altogether too reverential; they will protest that a mullah who has attended a secular university and who is so broad in his interests and so liberal in his views is no typical mullah. To some degree both parties will be right…. I talked with real Iranians, not archetypes, and the book reflects what they said.

Perhaps he should not get away with it quite so easily. Certainly the latter objection is one which will not occur only to Iranian readers. If the purpose of the book is to help us understand the Khomeini phenomenon, it may seem to be cheating when it presents us with a mullah who is in important respects rather unlike Khomeini. He is roughly the equivalent (reverting for a moment to the Hitler analogy) of the nice Nazi officer played by Marlon Brando in The Young Lions. The Brando character admired Hitler, and Ali Hashemi admires Khomeini, but they do not admire them for the things that we find detestable about them. They admire them for other things, which we too might find admirable in another context—qualities of leadership, courage, determination to restore national self-respect, effectiveness.

But unlike Brando’s Nazi, Ali Hashemi is presented as a highly sophisticated and reflective character. “Ali, unlike must mullahs, did not disapprove of some forms of popular music.” He is embarrassed by the superstition of a pious merchant who wants him to “take an omen for him by opening his Koran and interpreting the first verse that his eye fell on,” and even more so by the fact that the verse turns out to be “O you who believe: Do not take the Jews and Christians as friends,” because he knows that this will be taken literally whereas he himself feels that it refers only to “the specific circumstances in which it was revealed.” He thanks God that he has “the talent to remain in a life of learning, since he clearly lacked the courage—he was tempted to say audacity—to tell other people how to live their lives.”

Ali is happy to attend lectures on Mohammed’s view of Aristotle given by a secular academic of the Bahai faith, but does not defend him publicly when he is attacked by fundamentalist students, instead sending a message through a mutual friend that “I departed for the common good.” After the revolution he is described as being “painfully unsure…of the direction in which the change is going,” and while holding “no particular brief for the Baha’is…he considers the vendetta of some of the mullahs against them…a breach of the honor one owes to one’s fellow Iranians.” He feels “a strong distaste for violence,” which separates him from “the mullahs who have thrown themselves…into politics and into other people’s business.”

Are not the latter—the activist bloodthirsty mullahs—the ones we need to understand, rather than the Ali Hashemis of this world, who, left to themselves, would cause us no particular problem? It is a fair question, but not, I think, a mortal one for the validity of Mottahedeh’s enterprise. Our sympathy may be reserved for Ali Hashemi, as opposed to his fellow mullahs; but we are still much closer to understanding them when we see them through his eyes, as Mottahedeh makes us feel that we do. And surely it is also of some value if we learn to believe that there are at least some mullahs like him. It is a fact, well known to those who have studied it, that Islam—even the Shi’a Islam of Iran, let alone the great majority of Muslims who are neither Iranian nor Shi’a—is a house of many mansions, containing many different types of piety and many different approaches to political and social issues. But that is the sort of fact that easily gets lost sight of when national anger and self-righteousness, reflecting in part perhaps a certain cultural insecurity felt by the Westerner confronted with the hostile vigor of a non-Western tradition, are aroused. If Mottahedeh’s “novel” helps to save us from regarding Iranian Islam as uniformly bad, helps us to see Iranian Muslims as redeemable—as Germans have proved to be (though, one must hope, not only through the route of apocalyptic defeat and unconditional surrender)—then it will have done a great service.


If the remoteness of the mullahs’ mental world from that of Western intellectuals is the book’s raison d’être, its starting point is the fact that the distance is not infinite. If one goes back far enough in time—and Mottahedeh’s field of expertise is early medieval Islamic history and theology—one can find common roots. What inspired him to write this book, he tells us, was the discovery that the basic education of a mullah in the religious schools in the holy city of Qom starts with the three subjects of the classical trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—which were also the foundation of the scholastic curriculum in medieval and Renaissance Europe. “I realized…that my friend and a handful of similarly educated people were the last true scholastics alive on earth, people who had experienced the education to which Princeton’s patrons and planners felt they should pay tribute through their…architectural reminiscences of the medieval and Tudor buildings of Oxford and Cambridge.”

Aristotle, it turns out, is as important in the history of Islamic philosophy as Avicenna is in that of Western medicine. Indeed, Avicenna himself seems to have been more interested in Aristotelian philosophy than in medicine, but “found that people in the eleventh century—as in the twentieth century—paid far more for medical than for philosophic advice.” Mottahedeh has an enviable lightness of touch even when writing on the heaviest of subjects. Playing merrily on his panpipes, he leads us deep into the thickets of medieval scholastic philosophy and on into the even thicker jungles of Sufi mysticism. But he also reminds us that, unlike Khomeini and his contemporaries, the mullah of more recent vintage, born after the reforms of Reza Shah, will have spent eight years sitting on the hard benches of a secular state school before he is allowed to sit cross-legged on the floor of the madreseh in Qom and start learning his trivium; and so, before we get to Aristotle and Avicenna, we learn about Isa Sadiq—an early product of modern, Western-derived education in Iran who became its leading historian, theorist, practitioner, and propagator.

He reminds us, too, that even in the madreseh the young mullahs would quote Persian poetry at each other as well as commentaries on commentaries on textbooks of Islamic law; and that they were not impervious to events in the outside world. A newspaper article about French atrocities against Muslims in Algeria during the 1950s leads the students to ask why Iran is doing less to help the Algerians than Nasser’s Egypt; and they go on to engage in a heated argument about the merits and demerits of Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister who had been deposed, after losing the support of the most influential mullahs, in the British- and American- backed coup d’état of 1953.

And so the book turns into a series of essays on Iranian and Islamic history, thinly disguised and loosely connected by being hung on episodes or phases in Ali Hashemi’s life. We start gently with two short pieces on Qom and one on the connection between the bazaar, the mosque, and the constitutional revolution of 1905–1906. Then comes Isa Sadiq and the development of secular education in Iran. But it is when Ali enters the madreseh that Mottahedeh gets on to his home ground as a scholar, tracing the history of classical Islamic education from the days of itinerant teachers like Avicenna, through the establishment of madresehs in the late eleventh century and the inculcation of Shi’ism as the state religion of Iran under the Safavids (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) down to the effect that a madreseh training had on Iran’s leading twentieth-century anticlerical, Ahmad Kasravi.

Next, Ali’s awakening to politics provides the pretext for a short biography of Mossadegh, but soon his developing interest in mysticism allows Mottahedeh to escape back to the Middle Ages and expose, with dazzling erudition, the subterranean Sufi and poetic heritage lying just below the surface of Khomeini’s seemingly granitelike orthodoxy.

That sets the stage for Ali’s encounter with Khomeini himself. He has a walk-on part in Khomeini’s first great clash with the Shah’s government, in June 1963, and later attends his lectures in exile in the holy city of Najaf, in Iraq. But there he also meets another ayatollah who admits to him that there is no conclusive proof of the existence of God, and hints that it is primarily for the sake of moral order in society that religious appearances have to be kept up. This is the cue for Mottahedeh to unfold the historic role of the Shi’a “jurisconsults” (his word for the Arabic mujtahid, meaning literally “interpreter” of the divine law) in guarding the traditional order of Iranian society against a succession of despotic and often foreign-inspired rulers.

Soon Ali goes to prison for asserting in an article that some of Che Guevara’s ideas “agree” with Islam. There he meets up again with his leftist school friend Parviz, who turns out to have rediscovered his Islamic identity through feelings of estrangement while living as a student in Paris. That occasions another long essay, this time on a twentieth-century subject: the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who led the reaction of Iranian intellectuals against Westernization that took them into alliance with the mullahs.

After this, Mottahedeh seems in a hurry to finish. Ali’s embarrassing experiences with the pious merchant introduce a short essay on the religiosity of the new urban classes, freshly migrated from the country into the squalor and anomie of the unplanned cities, who were to provide the rank and file of the revolution; and his poignant discussion with a secularized academic friend at the university (prompted by the episode of the Bahai lecturer) leads only to a highly condensed, almost banal, account of the events of the revolution itself.

In the epilogue, the order of business is reversed. Mottahedeh gives his own somewhat inconclusive conclusions about the revolution first, in order to leave the last word to Ali who, disillusioned with politics, looks for an innovator who will demonstrate “the flexibility and humanity of the law,” and so save the jurisconsults and their intellectual tradition from being swept away in the coming storm. That is as it should be, for it is the mind and the life of Ali Hashemi that raise this book from being a collection of thoughtful and informative essays on Iranian and Islamic history, somewhat loosely strung together, into what it is: a masterpiece of imaginative interpretation, bridging a chasm between two cultures whose currently most audible voices are those of deep mutual antipathy.

This Issue

January 30, 1986