A Short paper written on the role of religion in 20th century Iran during the two revolutionary periods.
“Religion is the opium of the people” – Karl Marx
Although the above quote may suggest the negative nature of religion, it presents a very interesting view on the powers of religion. For an abstract idea like religion to have such a drastic effect on the human being suggests the existence of a very powerful tool, one which is often used to promote an agenda. Consequently, religion has played a prominent role in the areas of politics and government throughout history. The country of Iran has had an interesting past involving not only one but two religions that played very strong roles in shaping the country’s government. Starting from the late 19th century and within a period of less than 100 years, the country faced two major revolutions, each having the aspect of religion playing a major or minor role. This paper will analyze how the role of religion, specifically Islam, influenced the politics of Iran in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and in the 1979 Revolution.
Islam and Shi’ism in Iran
The religion of Islam was born in Mecca when Muhammad, a local trader and businessman, was given a revelation from God through the Angel Gabriel. These revelations were written down and later codified into what is now called the Qur’an. This scripture of Islam contained many political and legal aspects. Through these aspects and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam became a religion that intertwined religion and politics.
Key events took place after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD that shaped many aspects of Muslim history to come. After Muhammad died, there was the question of who should become the new leader of the new community. The majority of people chose to elect a caliph, who had no power to shape the religion but to protect and spread Islam. The proponents of this idea were later known as Sunnis, or the followers of Muhammad’s Sunnah (traditions). The minority who disagreed felt that leadership should only be granted to those in the Prophet’s bloodline. Since Muhammad had no sons, this minority felt that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, should be the next leader. They became known as Shi’i, a term derived from the word Shi’a, or “party” of Ali.
Although currently Iran is predominantly a Shi’i nation, it initially started out with a large Sunni population. Shi’ism became the official religion of Iran in 1501 AD under the Safavid ruler Isma’il. Shi’a Islam under Isma’il took on a role more complex than just a religion. Isma’il mandated that the first three Sunni caliphs elected after the death of Muhammad should be publicly cursed by all preachers and religious authorities. Interestingly, this mandate occurred at the same time tensions between the Ottoman (Sunni) Empire and the Iranians were reaching new heights. According to Nikki Keddie, one reason for the public condemnation of the Sunni caliphs was to confirm and reinforce an identity for the Iranians, which would help to distinguish between the expanding Ottoman Empire and the Iranian nation. Here we can notice an early use of religion as a form of identity. In addition, this also serves a political purpose for Isma’il, who was trying to hold off the Sunni expansion.
It was under the Safavid rule that there was a clear line drawn between Sunni and Shi’ism. Pre-Isma’il shi’i and Sunnis mostly had political differences. However, the condemnation of the first three Sunni Caliphs and forced conversions for Iranian Sunnis led to a clear division between the two groups where each group condemning the other on the basis of heresy.
Safavid rule was very significant aside from this dividing factor. It was the first dynasty since the Sassanids in the 3rd century AD to establish a unified Iranian nation. In addition, under the Safavids, the Ulema became much stronger and more independent. One can argue that during this time, there was an increased emphasis on theology and ijtihad, or interpretation of Islamic Law. One can also argue that the Ulema helped the Safavids gain and secure their power. According to Keddie, some “extremist” elements such as divinity of rulers were not condemned or suppressed. Thus, Isma’il was able to claim himself divine and further assert his power.
It is evident that Shi’ism became a major player in Iran and Iranian politics during the Safavid dynasty. After the Safavids were weakened and overrun by the Afghan invaders in the 18th century, the next major dynasty to rule Iran was the Qajar dynasty. Under the Qajar dynasty, we notice once again the use of religion as a tool against outside influences. This time however, religion was used against the Shah’s wishes and desires.
Al-Afghani and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906
A man known as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, born in 1838, played a key role in the events that led up to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906. He was born to a religious family and having a strong traditional Shi’a upbringing. Al-Afghani studied Shi’a ideology in religious centers in Iraq and later began traveling to other Muslim countries in order to spread his anti-imperialist ideology. During the time of al-Afghani, western imperialist powers had become more involved in Muslim country affairs. Afghani developed his hatred towards the colonialist powers of the west during his stay in British occupied India in the 1850s. Throughout his speeches and writing, Afghani stresses his belief that Islamic solidarity is needed to effectively combat and deter the imperialist powers of the West. Al-Afghani demonstrates his belief in Islam as a weapon against Britain and imperialism in an essay titled “Materialists in India” where he states that “as long as the Qur’an was read among them [Muslim Mogul rulers and people], it would be impossible for them to be sincere in their submission to foreign rule [Britain].”3 Afghani goes on further to describe how Britain was able to dismantle the Mogul rulers by corrupting religious belief and diluting Islam with corrupted religious figures.
<span>It is important to discuss Afghani due to his influence in the events that led up to the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. The Shah at the end of the 19th century was Naser ad-Din Shah. Naser Shah made many deals with Britain regarding Iran’s economic and natural resources. As Iranian citizens noticed that their resources were being siphoned out, tensions were yet again heightening between the people and the Shah. Finally, the Shah committed to an agreement with the British that allowed them to exercise significant control over the tobacco industry in Iran. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry was one of Iran’s most fruitful industries. This caused a major uprising against the Shah.
Afghani was instrumental in influencing the unity between secularists and religious groups standing against the Shah’s dealings. Afghani arrived in Iran to try to convince the Shah that it was crucial to combine religious and non-religious forces against foreign advances into Iran. Much like his arguments against the British in India, Afghani was again promoting the unity of the people against the West by endorsing Islam. Since the Shah was a close ally with the British, he found Afghani’s remarks offensive and had him banned. Feeling that he was going to be exiled, Afghani took refuge in a shrine near Tehran. From this location, he sent out leaflets and secretly organized opposition to the Shah. In 1891, the lid blew over the cauldron and Naser Shah witnessed a major uprising and protest of the Iranian people for the first time.
The massive protest forced the Shah to end the Tobacco Concession. However, it also created the first large foreign debt for Iran. These debts multiplied after the Shah’s son, Mozafar ad-Din Shah took the throne. The extravagant spending of the new Shah led the country into massive debt and difficult economic times. This was coupled with even more deals with Western nations. After being inspired by outside events, most of the Iranian people were convinced that a constitution was the source of strength and that a representative body had to exist in order to curb the power of the Shah.
The Iranian constitution was approved in 1906 by the ailing Shah and later, a supplement to the Constitution was approved in 1907. The 1906 constitution outlined the creation of a National Assembly that represented the people of Iran. Although the monarchy was not completely removed, the Shah’s power was greatly reduced; no important decision could be carried out by the Shah without the approval of the Majles, or the members of the National Assembly. The creation of the National Assembly representing all Iranian people seems to be a product of secular progressive thought. One could argue that this was a victory for the secularists in the revolution. However, the Ulema were not completely excluded from the creation process of the constitution.
The role of Islam in the 1906/7 constitution was clearly presented in the Supplementary section added in 1907. Article 2 of the supplement states that Islamic sect of Shi’ism is the official religion of the state. In addition, it states that all laws are to be reviewed by a committee of five Mujtahids, or devout and well-versed Ulema, to confirm that all laws are not “at variance </span><span>with the sacred rules of Islam.</span><span>”4 This wording can be understood in different ways. One may argue that this means all laws must be Islamic, or be in accordance with Islamic rules. However, another view may suggest that this only prohibits laws from being against Islamic rules but do not necessarily have to be Islamic. If the latter argument was taken to be valid, one could easily identify the cooperation and collaboration taking place between secular and religious groups in order to achieve an equal representation of ideas. In both cases however, it is evident that there was at least some compromise and collaboration between the various groups that participated in the Revolution. This is not necessarily the same case in the 1979 Constitution of Iran.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution
Although some may refer to the 1979 revolution as an “Islamic revolution,” this is not valid because there were many groups with numerous ideologies that participated in the dismantling of the monarchy. Nevertheless, today we see that the government is called the Islamic Republic of Iran. This leads one to question how this sudden shift towards religion took place and what the fate of all the other revolutionary participants were.
One key reason religion received more emphasis was the actions of monarch at the time, Muhammad Reza Shah. After an attempt to remove the Shah by a prominent Prime Minister named Muhammad Mosaddeq, the Shah returned to power with an iron fist agenda. An American-backed coup in 1953 overthrew Prime Minister Mosaddeq and brought Mohammad Reza Shah back to power. However, the Shah did not take any risks and began a period referred to by Keddie as a “Royal Dictatorship.” Although this period witnessed many improvements, the costs began to severely outweigh the benefits. There was a widening gap between the bourgeoisie elite and the working class poor in Tehran. In addition, opposition to the Shah was quickly silenced through organizations such as SAVAK, which was an internal security agency supported by the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad.5 With the rise of inequalities and the suppression of freedom, some Iranians began looking towards Islam as a source of justice and a return to equality. Many thinkers from various backgrounds began voicing their thoughts. Within the Islamic circle, there were sub-groups forming due to disagreement and perceptions.
As mentioned above, the shift of focus to religion may have been due to the heightened in justice experienced throughout the country under the Shah. However, there were many different ideologies and thoughts from different religious thinkers in Iran. Some thinkers emphasized anti-Westernization through adherence to Shi’i principles. Others such as the famous Ayatollah Khomeini, focused on rule by the Ulema and the dismantling of monarchy.
Not all of the religious thinkers came from a traditional religious background. These non-traditional thinkers, or lay shi’i thinkers, contributed more original thought that wasn’t limited to the traditional guidelines. Mehdi Bazargan, a lay shi’i thinker, emphasized that religion should inspire politics. He states that “religion must set aims and principles of politics; the means are a human problem.”6 Essentially, Bazargan argues that Islam and democracy can co-exist and urges Ulema to take part in affairs such as welfare, culture, economics, and politics to lessen inequalities.
Probably one of the most prominent members of this Islamic circle was a man named Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. Born in 1902 to a religious family, Khomeini studied under an Ayatollah named Abdol Karim Ha’eri Yazdi and later became an esteemed mujtahid. Khomeini first became an outspoken critic against the Shah in a 1944 published letter in which he calls for unity of the Ulema against immorality seen in public life. This immorality was the result of the westernization attempts from the Shah.
Eventually, Khomeini’s rhetoric evolved into a call to remove monarchy and put in its place a government dominated by the mujtahids, or devout Ulema. Under this government, all laws would have to be in accordance with the Islamic legal rulings of the Ulema because according to Khomeini, all laws apart from God’s laws are null. However, these ideas were not the key aspect that bolstered up his popularity during the revolution.
It was Khomeini’s staunch opposition to the Pahlavi regime that drew the masses to his rhetoric. While the people were experiencing injustice, corruption, and inequalities, Khomeini deviated from his emphasis on Ulema rule and began focusing on equality, justice, and the rights of the Iranian people. Many people, including women, were drawn to this rhetoric. However, Khomeini did not reach the peak of his popularity until he was finally exiled by the Shah. After arriving in Paris, Khomeini became the center of western media. He was a symbol of Iran for people who did not know much about Iran. Consequently, his popularity grew in Iran and internationally as well.
After the Shah left Iran, not everyone in Iran supported an Islamic government as proposed by Khomeini. However, Khomeini and his followers were able to take control above all the other groups. One reason this may have happened was because the leftist groups during the revolution lacked unity. Some leftists supported Khomeini while others did not. In addition, leftists did not establish a connection with the Iranian people as Khomeini did. They seemed detached from the masses and clung on to anti-Imperialist rhetoric.8 Khomeini, on the other hand, managed to reach out to the Muslims masses largely composed of lower class citizens. His uncompromising demeanor and steadfastness appealed to many people living in poverty. Other religious leaders lost influence amongst the masses due to this defining characteristic of Khomeini.
The product of the 1979 Iranian Revolution was the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 1979 constitution stood in complete contrast to the 1906 constitution. The new constitution removed the monarchy and set up a three branch system comprised of a legislative assembly, executive office, and a Guardian council consisting of devout Ulema. As proposed by Khomeini, all laws must comply with Islamic shari’ah law and therefore, every law must be approved by the Guardian Council. 10However, one could argue that this new constitution seems a bit contradictory. On one hand, the constitution states that legislation is by the will of the people. On the other hand, all legislation has to be accepted by the Guardian Council. This leaves little room for secular and progressive legislation given the conservative nature of the Ulema supporting Khomeini’s rhetoric.
Khomeini’s government was further enforced by the events that followed the revolution such as the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis and the Iran/Iraq War. Religion was used to gain support of the government and to promote martyrdom in the name of Islam and country. Khomeini managed to destroy much of his competition through trials and executions. The role of religion played a massive role in Iran’s second revolution during the 20th century. As the negative effects of a strict religion-based government are now being witnessed by Iranians, religion may not be a major focus if the Iranian people choose to pursue change.
- Keddie, Nikki R. “The Materialists in India” Imperialism, Science, and Religion: Two Essays by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, 1883 and 1884. sitemaker.umich.edu/emes/sourcebook/da.data/82631/FileSource/1884_al-afghani.pdf
- Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. (Yale University Press 2006)
- Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. (Oneworld Publications, Glasgow. 2009)
- 1906 Constitution of Iran. “The Supplementary Fundamental Laws of October 7, 1907.” http://fis-iran.org/en/resources/legaldoc/iranconstitution
- Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Chapter 5, 7, 9.” http://www.iranchamber.com/government/laws/constitution.php