The title of this article is an exact quote from Ahmad Kasravi, mid 20th century Iranian intellectual. Some scholars have turned this famous quotation around and suggesting that it should be read, “The mullahs always demanded a government from Iran”. Having studied religion to become a mullah himself, Kasravi changed direction of his life and became an ardent critic of the faith and the off shoots of Islam in Iran.
For this challenge, Kasravi was stabbed to death by Islamist extremists in 1946. Social revolts in Iran, he maintained, have almost always come packaged in religion or, at least, heavily sanctioned by the clergy. Within a culture engraved with martyrdom and laced with distrust of secular authority the Iranians have historically looked to their religious leaders for spiritual guidance and the promise of justice. In the past two centuries, every major revolt against the central government in Tehran has been initially supported by the clergy. When the shah’s authority was weakened and nationalists and secular groups tried to implement democratic reforms, the mainstream clergy abandoned the movement.
For a movement to really make a change within the existing power structure three social factors will have to first exist; no justice, no honor and no identity. A corrupt and unjust king usually fuels the first factor. National humiliation and the intervention of foreigners in the internal affairs of the nation complete “the triangle”. Add a strong and authoritative leader to this combination, symbolizing the patriarchic aspect of Iranians culture, and there you have the potential for change.
In 1844 a young mullah named Mirza Ali Mohammad declared himself, at least initially, to be “Bab” or “ The Gate” to the long awaited Mehdi. The movement had been clearly rooted in the dissatisfied mullahs who wanted a way out of the prevalent social and national decadence. Repeating the pattern of Islamic movements of heresy and revolt, provoked by a sense of injustice from those who ruled, many Iranian mullahs formed a segment of the early converts to this movement within Shiism called Babism . The new sect was a symptom of widespread dissatisfaction spreading through Iran. It fed on a series of disastrous wars the Qajars fought against Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century. These wars flared from a combination of geography and imperialism.
Under Qajars, Iran was humiliated over and over by these losses, losing a chunk of its territory in the north in 1813, more provinces in 1828 wars against Russia and losing Afghanistan to the British in 1838. (Iranians, however, conveniently forget that these lost northern territories were conquered by Agha Mohammad Khan only a dozen years before.) It was in this environment of national humiliation, loss of identity (foreign intervention) and corruption at the top (injustice) that the Babi movement spread like wildfire, mostly in northern Iran, gaining converts in large numbers. Initially, the movement was even tolerated by the ailing king Mohammad Shah.
The crown prince, 17-year-old Nassereddin Shah, was crowned in 1848 under the premiership of Amir Kabir, who soon realized that the Babi movement was a looming threat to Iran’s stability. He had to make a choice between supporting his young king or embracing the new and modern ideology of Babism. He soon made his choice. He decided to stick with the duality of power between king and Shiia clergy. Government troops were dispatched to Babi forts and the resistance was shattered. In 1850 the mainstream clergy, attached to the royal court, declared the Babis heretics, which paved the way for the execution of the movement’s leader in Tabriz on July 7,1850. A year later Amir Kabir himself fell from grace and was killed by the king’s order with the encouragement of the king’s mother and tacit approval of both Britain and Russia.
Amir Kabir is a heroic nationalist destroyed by domestic conspiracy and foreign intervention. In the early 1950’s, a new Amir Kabir came to life again in the collective Iranian psyche when Doctor Mosaddeq rose to challenge the forces of national impotence and foreign intervention.
The Babi movement was unique in that, initially at least and like the 1906 Revolution, it pitted one segment of the clergy class against the other . The rest of the “contributions” of the clergy have always been targeting the ruling shah. The mullahs joining the Babi movement were provoked by a sense of injustice from those who ruled and saw in Bab a chance to move Iran from the Dark Ages to modern times. Initially the movement was seen as a mere social revolution against injustice. It even had supporters in the royal court.
The new movement, for the first time in modern Iran’s history, stressed equality of sexes, universal education, pacifism in establishing world peace and the need to improve society through the pursuit of purity, thus pulling away from Shiism and developing their own religious themes. Bab was seen as Mani of its time; a threat to the existing order. When Baha’ism, the upshot of Babism, challenged Shiia’s very core ideology, the mainstream clergy rallied around the Shah, encouraging him to uproot the “heretics”.
The rejection of Islam, from within the faith, has inflicted on the Bahais a level of mullahs’ resentment never applied to other religious minorities in Iran. In his famous book, “Seh Maktoob” Mirza Agha Khan Kermani describes vividly how the Bahais were savagely massacred by common people in the streets of Iranian cities by the orders of the mullahs. Although the leaders were executed and the revolt was defeated, the modern and maverick ideology of the Babi movement remained alive. The other uniqueness of Babism was that the religious leaders who supported the revolt never abandoned the movement and stayed with it through the end, many of them losing their lives in the process. It should also be mentioned that the most charismatic leader of this movement was a woman, Ghorratol Ain, who at one point boldly discarded her “hejab”.
Iran had lived in isolation, particularly from the West. Much of the reason resided with the Ottoman Empire, with whom the Iranians had been repeatedly fighting since the early 16th century, controlling a physical, cultural and intellectual barrier between Iran and emerging Europe. So as Europe embarked on the industrial revolution, Iran stayed mired in the learning and traditions of its medieval history.
More and more, Iranian dissidents and intellectuals traveled to Russia or Turkey for higher education and research. Nassereddin Shah, to his credit, also began to nudge Iran out of its isolation, albeit at some great expense. In 1873,1878 and 1889 the shah toured Europe with a large entourage including some of his wives and concubines. He returned home and initiated a superficial modernization of Iran. He also borrowed more money from England and Russia to finance his expensive travels to Europe. In return for his debt to the foreign forces he gave away concessions of customs department, tobacco sale, sugar import, Caspian Sea fishery and much more.
Despite all the injustices, the shah stayed in power because he ruled a population fragmented into small units—families, tribes, villages and sectors within the cities. In a society where the vast majority of the population consisted of illiterate peasants, tribesmen and urban laborers, the movement to reform and strengthen Iran was composed primarily of intellectuals, merchants, and clerics. Each of these groups demanded that the influence of foreigners in Iran be reduced, social reforms inaugurated and an institutional check placed on the tyranny of the royal court. In December of 1891, Sheikh Shirazi introduced a new factor in the political arena. Enraged by the concession of tobacco given to an English company, he issued a “fatwa” calling for a boycott of tobacco usage. With the help of western technology (the telegraph), his message was sent to every city in Iran. In response to this “fatwa” Iranians, including the wives of Nassereddin Shah in the harem, put down their water pipes. The boycott received massive support throughout the country and the shah relented and cancelled the concession.
The new factor of power, the fatwa, gave more leverage to the clergy to protest concessions to foreign companies which greatly hurt the local economy. But the shah, who had been caught off guard in the tobacco concession, was ready for future “fatwas”. When the bazaari merchants protested against sugar cube concession given to Belgium a clergy gave a fatwa declaring the Belgian sugar cube as “haram”. The royal court swiftly had another mullah issue a rebuttal fatwa declaring that because the Iranian tea was pure and “halal”, all Iranians had to do was to dip the sugar cube into the tea and purify it before drinking the tea. To this very day some Iranians do this ritual, many of them not knowing why they do it. On another occasion a mullah issued a “fatwa” declaring goods from Russia to be “haram”. Again the shah approached another mullah who declared that, since the Russian goods were sent to Iran by ships and the Caspian Sea was an Iranian body of water the Russian goods would be “cleansed” by passing over the Iranian sea . Again, to this very day, some Iranians say the expression “az ab gozashteh” when bringing presents to friends.
On May 1,1896, three days before the grand celebration of his ascension to the throne was to begin, Nassereddin Shah was assassinated and the shot echoed in the minds of many Iranians who wanted a new beginning. At the start of the twentieth century, people abused by their king and dishonored as a nation rose up to demand a voice in the government. Between 1905 and 1911, Iran rumbled with popular revolt. What became known as the Constitutional Revolution targeted two things; political oppression and national sovereignty. The forces of modernization, traditionalism, nationalism and authority collided in Iran’s first 20th Century revolution. Revolutionaries wanted to return to the era of the righteous king and the Islamic tradition of justice. By establishing a parliament a new source of authority was defined in Iran for the first time – power of the people.
But what the revolution meant in the specific nature of government took different forms for different groups. For the secular intellectuals, it translated into the adoption of economic redress. For the reformist clerics, it converted into strength for Shia state. For the traditionalist mullahs and their followers, it stood for reestablishing the Koran as the legal, political, social and cultural model for the society.
On January 12,1906, mostly with the supervision of the clergy, the demonstrations resulted in the new king Mozaffareddin Shah acquiescing to the demands of the revolt. It was at that point that political minds realized that only the clergy, from their position of religious authority and relative impunity to royal wrath, could mobilize the masses, perhaps 60 per cent of the population. The merchants and trades people possessed material resources but lacked respect and prestige. Those who looked to the liberal West for political ideals stood on the opposite side of a gulf of understanding with the peasant and the laborer. The intellectuals might provide the movement with a new ideology, but that ideology could only be grasped by the masses in terms of Islam. Although the intellectuals revolted against absolute Qajar rule and the bazaar financed it, the clergy ultimately determined the revolution’s course. It was the clergy that mobilized the masses in the name of justice. And it was the clergy, driven by both the grand issues of theology and petty rivalries of men, that called a halt to it.
Three clerics holding different theological views, possessing divergent personalities and ambitions, and representing competing factions within the clergy fought , won and finally “castrated” the Constitutional Revolution. These men were Tabatabaei, Behbahani and Noori. Of these three, Fazlollah Noori was more responsible for the derailing of the movement. He insisted that the constitution contradicted the Sharia, the divine blueprint for a just order. Sovereignty belonged to God, the Prophet and his family and in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, to the clergy. Noori, adamant in his effort to ensure the supremacy of Islamic law, proposed an addition to the constitution to ensure just that. He won concession from the other clergy to ask for an amendment to the constitution, a supplementary law that all legislation passed by the Majlis be reviewed by a council of mullahs. But the provision never went into effect because the Constitutionalists refused to concede so much power to their clerical rivals in the Majlis, who lacked the unity to force the issue. It was not until the constitution for the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 that the clerics won veto power over legislation.
The major splitting factor between these spiritual figures was the issue of the proposal to guarantee equal rights under the law to non-Shia religions. Realistically looking at a population that was over 90 per cent Shia, Tabatabaei saw no danger to the Shia state from non-Shia. But for Behbahani, liberalism which recognized Zoroastrian, Christian, and Sunni as equal to Shia went too far. On this issue, the master of clerical politics swung over to Noori’s argument that the Constitutionalists intended to destroy the exalted position of the Sharia and the prerogatives of the clergy. Behbahani and some of the clerics, without whom the revolution could not have succeeded, had come to understand just what the Constitutionalists’ stress on secularism meant to the Shia state and to themselves. With the approval, and in the pay, of a new shah Mohammad Ali Shah, Fazlollah Noori kept up his attack accusing reformists who, according to him, “wanted to divert government money from religious pilgrimage sites to construct roads, factories, railroads and schools for women”. Now it was time for the revolutionaries to split. In a culture which demands a charismatic leader, the constitutional movement had failed to produce one magnetic personality capable of sustaining reform. The coup de grace to the Constitutionalists was administered by the British who abandoned the reformists and by the Russian troops who intervened on the side of the shah.
On June 23,1908 the Iranian Parliament and Sepahsalar Mosque were targets of Russian Army’s cannon shelling. Many were killed and dozens were arrested including Behbahani and Tabatabaei. Tabriz stood alone in the defense of the constitution. Their heroic resistance ended on April 29,1909 when Russian troops placed the city under siege. Help for the surviving Constitutionalist arrived from an unexpected source – the sacred Shia Religious center at Najaf, in Iraq. Despite the attacks by Noori and the other conservative clerics, three of most respected scholars of Shia gave religious sanction to the constitution as a religiously acceptable means to check the tyranny of the shah. Facing the support of Najaf for the revolutionaries, Russia withdrew its support from Mohammad Ali Shah who was forced to abdicate in favor of his 12-year old obese son Ahmad. Fazlollah Noori was put on trial and put to death as a traitor to the constitution. The second Majlis lasted until 1911 when, supported by twelve thousand Russian troops, the abdicated shah’s cabinet orchestrated another coup.
The Constitutionalists lost the revolution because the traditionalist clergy refused to allow Iranians to adopt ideas and methods that could help address the monumental problems that stood between Iran and the twentieth century. At the other extreme, the modernizers who so enthusiastically embraced Western ideas failed to recognize that modernization in an exclusively Western mode demanded the same values and attitudes that underlay Western culture and advancement. In the Iran of Persia and Islam these did not exist. Thus, in trying to impose on Iran an alien culture, the modernizers unwittingly robbed Iranians both of their sense of identity and their chance to build a new social order from their own traditions. Despite all of these shortcomings the concept of a Majlis, representing the authority of people, survived.
The ever present underpinnings of the Middle East’s triangle of causes for revolution – no justice (corrupt rulers), no identity (foreign interventions) and no honor (national humiliation) – plus a strong leader, finally coalesced to end the Qajars’ hated rule in 1925. The power of the clergy took a steep downturn when the Pahlavi Dynasty came to power in 1926 under a populist military officer called Reza Shah. He began a task of building a nation to his personal specifications, a revitalized Iran free from the rapacious hands of foreign powers. Committed to becoming a role model of modernization structured on Western education and technology, he judged Shia Islam to be a major obstacle to his vision. As a result, the institutions and symbols of Shia Islam, the second element in Iranians’ dual identity, underwent the onslaught of the Pahlavi king. He succeeded in delivering Iran from near extinction. But, in doing so, he violated core values in both the traditions of Iran and Islam.
Reza Shah decided to bypass Islam by connecting the notion of modern Iran to a glorified image of ancient Persia. To this end he summoned the impotent nation once more to the great days of Iranian history. This recall of memory ended before Safavi kings because they belonged to Shia Islam. Unfortunately, in his resurrection of pre-Islamic Iran, Reza Shah fertilized the deeply planted idea that the Arabs humiliated Iran in the seventh century and plowed up images of ignorant camel herders compelling the highly civilized Iranians to accept a new religion. Furthermore, influenced by the politics of Germany at the time, he copied and then injected the notion of Iranians being of the great Aryan race. He cut the knot between church and state tied by Shah Esmaeil in 1503. He stripped the state judicial system of most of its clerics when he required that all judges presiding over government courts hold law degrees from the secular Tehran University Faculty of Law or a foreign university. Gone was the clergy’s right to interpret the law totally under the percepts of the Koran and Islamic tradition. He next targeted the wealth of the cleric. The revenues from all shrines, including the huge one in Mashhad, were appropriated by the state to be used for infrastructure. As a consequence, the clergy connected to these shrines not only lost their independence but a potent means of influencing the masses. The final blow to the clergy came when Reza Shah decreed that every mullah was liable for two years of military service. He tore the emotional heart from Shia when he banned rituals and passion plays and commemoration of Imam Hossein’s death.
The clergy licked its wounds and grumbled. When in 1935 Reza Shah banned the veil and angry clerics turned the main courtyard of the sacred shrine in Mashhad into a platform from which to denounce the shah’s assaults against Shia, the king’s orders were telegraphed to the governor: “restore order even if you have to level the shrine”. A massacre ensued and the king’s soldiers machine-gunned the demonstrators, within the most holy site in Iran, and everything was then quiet. While educated women rejoiced in the removal of veil (which was premature ), the majority of women felt disgraced and stained with sin. Those who refused to abandon the chador retreated into their houses, never leaving for fear of being attacked by the shah’s police. Women of Rasht , who were among the most modern, liberal and educated women in Iran because of their proximity to Soviet Union, received an eternal label of “whores”, bestowed upon them by the Iranian clergy when these women enthusiastically discarded their chadors. Bloodied and bruised, the clergy essentially retreated from politics. There is no explanation of why the mullahs stayed largely quiescent as Reza Shah picked apart the institutions and traditions of Shia Islam. He succeeded in removing Shiism as co-partner in the state largely because no authority figure existed capable of summoning the faithful to resistance. The regeneration of Iran under the leadership of Reza Shah is another striking fact that proves that only great men have been able to lead Iran toward its destiny.
Nationalist kings , using fear and ecstasy factors , concentrated on the independence of their countries rather than on the freedom of their people, requiring their compatriots to be proud of their fatherland rather than of their liberties. Reza Shah relentlessly pursued his supreme goal, a modern, and powerful Iran grounded in secular society and fashioned on Western models. In June of 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and, according to his closest confidant, Reza Shah began crying when he heard the news. He had worked very hard to protect the territorial integrity of Iran by balancing the foreign powers against each other. But alliance of Russians and the British was an ominous sign to the continuation of his reign. On August 25,1941 the British and Russians invaded and occupied Iran. Reza Shah was forced into exile in Africa. The British first looked around to reinstate their favorite Qajars. But embarrassingly, the chosen European-educated Qajar prince could not speak Farsi. So Reza Shah’s timid son Mohammad Reza was crowned as the second Pahlavi King.
The next time the clergy class was able to flex its muscles was during the oil nationalization movement in 1951. The clergy played a major role in realizing the pinnacle of the Iranian people’s national aspiration and ambition; the nationalization of Iranian oil as well as the reinstatement of the Shah to his throne when CIA and British Intelligence Service concocted a coup to topple Dr. Mosaddeq. It was Ayatollah Kashani, with his anti-British fervor, who stood by Dr. Mosaddeq for a few years. However, in early 1953, he distanced himself from the popular prime minister because Dr. Mosaddeq insisted on secular system of ruling and Kashani demanded the restoration of Islamic law as the core of Iranian government. The same story all over again.
It was Kashani’s hoodlums who, a few days before the coup, poured into the streets of Tehran, rioting and looting shops yelling pro Mosaddeq’s chants. A few days later, on August 19,1953, it was the same crowd who came out with pro-Shah chants attacking Mosaddeq’s house. It was Ayatollah Kashani who quietly inflicted Shiism’s mortal wound on Mosaddeq. When the Shah triumphantly returned from Rome, Ayatollah Kashani told him “you saved the testicles of Islam”
Like the Constitutional Revolution. the movement failed when it was unable to connect with the soul of the Iranians; Shiism (in addition to nationalism). In the end, the 1951-1953 movement, by engaging the United States in Iran, exhausting the middle of the political spectrum, and largely destroying the left, bequeathed to Shiism the emotional issue of nationalism and the leadership of the opposition against absolute monarchy.
Testing the political scene, the clergy flexed its muscles once more in 1963 unsuccessfully. When the Shah broke the revolt he forced all the opposition in the clergy to surrender to his will either by imprisoning, bribing or exiling them. The clergy again pulled back and acquiesced to the will of Mohammad Reza Shah. Only one cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini , remained adamant and would not bend. When he was sent to his 15 year exile, Bijan Jazani, one of the most famous persons on the left, predicted in his book that Ayatollah Khomeini would be the next leader of Iran simply because he was the only opponent who had not been tainted with making peace with the Shah. The 1963 uprising demonstrated to the Iranian revolutionaries that their nationalist leaders, i.e. Nationalist Front Party, were incapable of handling the Shah and it was the mosques, with relative freedom of congregation and activity, that could rally the people. The left started building bridges to Islam, hence Mujahedin e Khalq. The secular intellectuals built crucial bridges to Islam, too, hence Al-e Ahmad to Ali Shariati. Members of National Front Party also moved toward Islam, hence Mehdi Bazargan. But it was the clerical leaders, masters of the art of rhetoric, who disseminated a revolutionary ideology that placed the spiritual at the center of the political stage and produced the masses that drove the revolution.
In 1979 with their national and religious identity threatened by the western influence, heavy handed intervention by the US in the internal affairs of Iran, hand in hand with corruption and dictatorship, all the nation needed was a charismatic leader. All levels of the society participated in the culmination of the revolution; secular, religious , leftist ,feminists and communists. Many diverse and conflicting voices were heard in opposition to the Shah. Khomeini’s voice, by far, was the loudest. The ayatollah possessed a very unique position both in the political and religious arenas. Because he lived in exile, he was both absent and present- the paradox in which the Shia collective memory remembers its last figure of cosmic authority-the Hidden Imam, an ethereal figure who was absent but present, persecuted but powerful. Throughout his exile he was able to pour his venom on the Shah from his sanctuary in Najaf and later from Paris. He had been able to stay alive in the mass consciousness because he possessed a charisma not seen in Iran since Shah Esmaeil rode out of Gilan in early 16th century and Dr. Mossaddeq strode over the Khoozestan oil fields in 1951. When the last Shah gave speeches on TV he spoke is a high form of Farsi reserved for educated people. But Khomeini could also speak with the tongue of a village mullah reaching deep into the collective consciousness of his followers to grasp their pain and alienation.
For Pahlavi kings, especially the first one, the normal laws of evolution did not apply. Change that should have evolved slowly was crowded into a few years. As a consequence, life resembled a madly eclectic time machine that shocked the Iranians into a deep confusion about their values and identity. The clergy just waited and waited. The shah, the ultimate nationalist, never came to grips with how deeply Shiism is ingrained in the Iranian national character and to what degree. He was so much removed from the facts and realities that he went as far as changing the Islamic calendar to a pre-Islamic one. How stupid could this act be? When the 1979 Revolution broke out in Iran it was the clergy’s turn to take their revenge on all the middle and upper class who had humiliated and denigrated the lower classes’ way of life under the two Pahlavi Shahs. This time the women were forced to wear the hejab, men were encouraged to grow beards and wearing of Western clothing (like neck ties) was discouraged. A one hundred and eighty degree turn in social change was now upon the people of Iran. Yes, thirty three years after he said the quotation, Kasravi’s apocalyptic prediction came true, with vengeance.
The principal book used for this compilation is The Iranians by Sandra Mackey.