Between 1978 and 1979, while the Iranian revolution was growing in strength and numbers, Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, published some articles on the Italian newspaper Il Corriere Della
Sera, regarding the revolution and it’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Foucault remained fascinated by the idea of an Islamic republic and described it as “the first postmodern revolution of our times”.
But the movement which was bound to take down the 2500 years old monarchy of Iran, was much more complex than what it looked like to the philosopher. It was not composed only of Muslim
extremists and believers, there was also a strong liberal and leftist branch in the revolution. The modernization process which the Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi tried to impose upon the nation in the
previous decades did have some effects, many citizens in Iran now held western living standards, and they were fighting to be able to afford those liberal standards, not to build a new Regime, which
many reports say was at least as brutal and regardless of human rights as the previous one. Yet the importance of the Islamic revolution in Iran is undeniable, it had a global outreach and even
Eric Hobsbawm in his book The Age of Extremes briefly describes this revolution as one of the most pivotal and authentic revolutions of the century. To understand how this great revolution has
happened and why it took the shape which survived until now, to study only the discontent caused by the Shah’s post-war economic policies is not enough. Iran’s complex history, it’s religion and
how these elements interacted are the basics to start a path of understanding how the modern Islamic Republic of Iran came to be. Still, when talking of Iran a foreigner (moreover a westerner)
can only “Approach the national character with great hesitation”, for such a complex culture is noteasily understood without experiencing it.
Before the Storm.
It’s 13th of October 1971, the Shah of Iran gave a speech in front of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, Emperor and founder of the first ancient Persian Empire, amidst the ruins of Persepolis he affirmed
that the flag of Iran flayed as triumphantly in those years as in the times of Cyrus. The occasion was the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, of which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi has been
the last exponent. But to a closer look, the regime was not as solid as he intended to show. The Shah organized an event of mesmerizing dimensions, a show of opulence and strength, yet it
was met once again which huge criticism by his opposition over the fact that many of his people were in dire economical conditions also due to his modernization program for the country. The
program had started in 1963, and so far between social and economical reforms it did not manage to give the expected outcomes, instead, it was perceived as an attempt to implant western habits in
In 1971 the influence of Ayatollah Khomeini was rising steadily. Khomeini was a respected and revered member of the ulama (community of those who study and interpret the divine law).
Khomeini had been fighting against the secularization of Iran since the first Pahlavi regime (the father of Reza Shah) and in 1963 had been found worthy of the title of Marija al-Taqlid, a
universally recognized example for the whole community. He had been exiled from Iran in 1963 when his plots against the regime of the Shah were discovered. From abroad he was able to grow in
influence through the distribution of cassettes where he recorded his anti-regime ideals. Yet, in 1971 the Shah still held the power and was feared by most of the population through the
activity of the SAVAK, the regime’s brutal secret services. His ever closer ties with the USA and the western powers made him look like a servant of the west and not a leader of the country.
The conflict between the ulama and the secular power was not new to Iran, that duality had been alive for centuries since the birth and affirmation of the Shia clergy. What will be analyzed in the next paragraphs is how this idea of the revolution took form in the country’s history and which elements of the culture helped the uprising.
The roots dig deep.
Since Iran has been invaded by the Arab armies in the 7th century Iranians have mostly abandoned their original Zoroastrian religion for Islam, but the testimonies of the past have always been
extremely important for Iran, even as different cultures came in the centuries to govern and invade the territory. The archaeological heritage itself is a constant proof of a past as a center of culture and power, it is not only Reza Shah who felt a strong link to the imperial past of the nation. Talin Gregor, an American professor in Islamic architecture, states the importance of the Persian
archaeological heritage as essential in the conception of Iran as rightfully having place amongst the modern and civilized nation. The Persian heritage plays a role also as a consolidating element in
the building of a national character. In this struggle for unity, Shi’ia Islam had a role to play.
After the Arab invasion wars over the borders with neighbouring caliphates and other foreign invasions have been a big part of the country’s history. It is while the Arab world was under the
dominion the Ottoman empire that Iran regained it’s status as a unified and autonomous country, under the rule of the Safavids dynasty. During their reign which lasted from 1501-1736, the country
met a golden age of cultural development, but most importantly the Twelver Imams Shi’ia Islam was made the state religion. This particular branch of Islam is founded upon the belief that all
authority on earth derives from the last of the twelve Imams, the Hidden Imam, which has not died nor abandoned earth, he is now in occultation, and the true believer must wait for his return whence
universal justice will be established. The Safavids reform of Shi’ism as a state religion changed the conception of Shia forever, as a researcher underlined the reform gave life to “Something like an
official clergy, exclusively concerned to legality and jurisprudence to the point that original Shi’ism, in its essence gnostic and theosophic, has, so to speak, to hide.”
The Ulama of the Twelvers.
The occultation of the Twelfth imam implicitly contains the nature of the conflict between the secular state and this new ulama. Because a state cannot be legitimized by God if the authority on
earth is only that of the Hidden Imam. Many in the ulama have since the occultation in the 9th century A.D. advanced the theory of the Guardianship of the Jurist, meaning that whatever authority
might be exercised on earth should be in accordance with the interpretation of the Quran, the sacred law, and so with those who study it. This conflictual relationship with the state is summarised by the recorded existence of two different laws during the Safavids period: One was the Shar, the Islamic law administered by the ulama and the mujtahids (experts in taqlid, the justice of the Quran), and the other was the Urf, the law of the state. There are not many records of how the state law was administered experts are practically sure
that even If it was on the model of the English common law it was some kind of “arbitrary law”. Even if during these periods there was a demarcation of fields of interest, the two law systems often
crossed paths, and in that eventuality, the lack of a mean for ulama to enforce its law made the difference between faith and concrete power. What came to life during the Safavids reign is also the
system through which the ulama managed to maintain economical and political relevance and to survive that period of the monopoly of secular power. The vaqf lands, which were lands adjacent to
shrines and mosques administered by the ulama, were the main source of income, but even so, they did not constitute a satisfying means to sustain the relevance of the clergy, consequently many of the ulama engaged in less honorable activities or petty trade. The state owned most of the vaqf lands, and the only means for mujtahids to be relevant were their role as leaders in morality and
respected members of the society. The hierarchy of Shi’i clergy is not codified, the only mean to reach the title of Marija al-taqlid is to
gain support by enough members of the ulama so to arise to the title. With time, the social influence of mujtahids and the number of personal followers who were allowed to act on behalf of the imams
grew, and with this increase, the political power of the ulama overcame the economical difficulties. In particular, after the fall of the Safavids dynasty, the state power of Iran weakened, In the Qajar period, which lasted from 1796 until 1925, some mujtahids were recorded to have gathered small personal armies, theoretically, the only ones allowed to act on behalf of the mujtahids should be
mullas11, educated individuals which decide to follow an imam, but without external control, these groups of follower grew unchecked.
During the Qajar monarchies, which succeeded the fall of the Safavids in 1736, corruption and political instability rampaged the country, many of the clergies took part in that corruption and
many others criticized the central government and begun to take part into politics more actively.It is in that century while western imperialist countries were conquering and colonizing the world
that the modern struggle for independence of Iran begun.
Cracks in the system.
Economic instability is always a forth-bringer of social and political instability, Iran, like many other countries, has suffered for long times that disease and stronger countries with more important
economies took advantage of that. It is since the discovery of the American continents in the 15th century and the beginning of the colonization that all those countries which depended on the Silk Road begun to lose their main source of income, and with that their centrality. Iran is among those countries, even during the Safavids period the country had problems to sustain its economy, and so further on, at the dawn of the 20th century, Iran was not a strong nation. Iran approached the century with weak central institutions and a semi-colonized economy, strongly dependent on the west, in particular from Britain and Russia. Iranian people always opposed this subordination to foreign powers, the 1979 revolution against the Shah was not the first that the
country had seen. Already in 1906 the popular movements called “freedom fighters” managed to force Mozaferedin Shah to concede a constitution, limiting the royal power and creating a parliamentary system. This system was called the Majles, National Consultative Assembly. Towards the end of the Persian Monarchy. The last years of Qajar monarchy, which were the first twenty years o the 20th century, were a
period of extreme political turmoil in Iran, the Majles institution was not strong enough to govern the country, and the monarchy looked uninterested to do so, with many of the Qajar dynasty spending most of their time abroad or serving western interests. In those years the power of the ulama over society was strongly reduced, after the constitutional revolution the Shia clergy lost much of its temporal power. In those years the influence of foreign nations was the main element in the country’s policies. Iran was invaded twice, disregarding the country’s announced neutrality, by Russia during the first world war and then during the second world war by Russia and Britain, because of the sympathizing of Reza Khan Pahlavi Shah with nazi Germany.
The ulama hoped to recover some of it’s lost influence through the support they gave to Reza Khan during his escalate to power, and finally his coronation as Shah of Iran in 1925. This was not the
case, Reza Khan began the most restless project of modernization of Iran. The roles traditionally covered by the ulama, in education and law were replaced by secular professionals, the Shah with
the support and advice of western governments activated a process of secularization no only of the institutions but of society itself. This forced process broke the duality between secular power and
religious one which was established through centuries of history. Ayatollah Khomeini himself had opposed Reza Khan Shah modernization reforms until it was forced to hide from retaliation.
The resistance Khomeini posed to the second Pahlavi regime was not a new factor, it had historical roots embedded in the country’s history, once he managed to link the ulama struggle to retrieve it’s
lost identity as “conscience of the nation” to the nationalistic and popular movement of autonomy from western influence, what had been called “the unthinkable revolution”12 could begin to unravel.
“The absolute Guardianship of the Jurist.”
In the 20th century the ulama was put under great stress, along with the Muslim community of Iran. Iran’s national culture was not being taken into account during the modernization project of the
Pahlavi Shas, old social classes were not given a new role to but there had been an attempt to marginalize a social class as the ulama13, in a country which was built upon the mediation between
imams and God’s will. The Shah in 1971 in the event which was recorded by the New York Times as one of history’s biggest parties, then he hoped to establish a connection between the country’s
past and his action, a continuity which was to be found in the monarchy. But he did not manage to confirm that with his action in the eyes of his people.
These attempts backfired, and so the revolutionary ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini found fertile ground in post-war Iran. In 1970, while in exile in the Iraqi sacred shrine of Najaf Ayatollah
Khomeini gave several speeches describing the task of the Jurist15, the destiny of the ulama was to follow the example of the prophet and apply his teaching as a national government16. These
statements, amongst many others, are not only as some have described them as a nationalistic and conservative reaction to modernity, but neither it is as simple as Foucault had seen it, opposing the
Faith in Islam to modernity17. The idea of an Islamic government is historically rooted in Iran’s past and heritage, it is clear when reading Khomeini speeches, the future leader of Iran does not only
talk about the present, he discussed how his world should have been as a consequence of his past.