An Historical Analysis
(From the Early 19th Century to the Early 1950s)

Farzin Yazdanfar

Sattar Khan & Fadaiyan in Tabriz

Sattar Khan & Fadaiyan in Tabriz

Nineteenth century Iran evidenced the advent of a new era of political re-thinking in the form of religious revolts. These religious revolts were, in fact, attempts to re-formulate aspects of the Shi'i dogma and, more importantly, to question both existing religious and temporal patterns of leadership. That these revolts were intended to challenge both the religious leadership of the `ulama and the secular leadership of the Qajars was due to the fact that the rise of the Qajar dynasty in the early nineteenth century coincided with a re-assertion of Shi'i theological technique, and this re-assertion had placed heavy emphasis on the functions and duties of the `ulama. As a result, the `ulama (as socio-religious leaders) had become as powerful and influential as the secular Qajar leaders.

Qajar monarch

Although the first Qajar monarch was busy fighting the external and internal enemies of Iran and, therefore, the condition of the country was still too unsettled to permit any widespread manifestation of clerical influence, the second Qajar monarch, Fath Ali Shah, created a relative calmness, and this relative order and security provided by Qajar administration established the environment in which the `ulama were to fulfill their role. The `ulama's influence grew as they took control over educational and judicial systems. While the `ulama imposed their religious policies and required strict adherence to the law, Shi'i intellectuals continually offered alternative doctrinal views to those of the `ulamas. However, they failed to curb the `ulama's influence as long as Fath Ali Shah was alive. With the rise of his son, Muhammad Shah, to power, the tension between clerical and secular authorities became more explicit due to the fact that Muhammad Shah made no attempt to secure any kind of working relationship with the `ulama. Muhammad Shah's inability to implement his father's policies to restrain the `ulama's hostility to the state provided the Shi'i intellectual dissidents with a golden opportunity to exploit the difference between the `ulama and the state. As a result, important religious movements and revolts began in these years.

One of these movements which was important for Iran from the mid-nineteenth century on was the messianic movement known as Babism. The Babi movement, which developed into open socio-religious messianic revolt, can, in part, be understood as one of several mass religio-political messianic movements that appeared under the initial impact of the industrialized West in the Third World. During the reign of Muhammad Shah, the strength of foreign powers grew and as a result Iran became subject to trade fluctuations; its agriculture was restructured to the detriment of some and its handicrafts were undermined. The Babi movement occurred possibly due to dislocations in Iranian life brought on by foreign encroachment because the ideological content of this movement supports the idea that it is not simply a traditional messianic revolt, but is, in addition, linked to new conditions brought by the Western presence.(1)

Babism was founded by Sayyid Ali Muhammad, later called the Bab (gate to the 12th Imam). He was a follower of a movement within Shi'ism named the Shaikhi movement. Shaikhi ideas included elements both more philosophical and more mystical than those of most orthodox Shi'is. However, what impressed Sayyid Ali Muhammad was the most important feature of Shaikhism which suggested that there was always a man in the world capable of interpreting the will of the Hidden Imam. Sayyid Ali Muhammad was so impressed by this idea that he proclaimed himself ‘Bab’ (the door to the Hidden Imam). Later on, after he was condemned by the `ulama as a heretic, he sometimes called himself the Hidden Imam himself, returned as was predicted to institute perfection on earth.

Although it is argued that "the contradiction between `ulama and state remained largely unchanged in spite of the rise of Babism and, in fact, Babism was ultimately no more than a side issue in the Qajar dynasty,"(2) the consequences of the rise of Babism should not be totally ignored. It is true that the Babis promised neither a new order nor an end to trade with foreign firms (although the movement was probably a reaction to growing foreign influence in Iran), however, the new doctrine fulfilled the desires and hopes of individuals who had traditionally shown dissatisfaction with prevailing institutionalized values and systems, whether religio-mystical or socio-political. Such late-nineteenth-century Iranian intellectuals as Mirza Agha Khan Kermani focused on what in the Babi teachings could be presumed to have some validity beyond the spiritual values of the religious movement. Even after Kermani's death, the next generation of advanced modernists, including free-thinking preacher Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani and the editor of the leading newspaper, Mirza Jahangir Khan who played a dominant role in the Constitutional Revolution, championed the Babi Azali sect because it had still kept up the spirit of revolt against the established socio-religious and political order.(3)


Qajar attire

As mentioned earlier, Babism never achieved its aims, however, it left an important legacy to the late-nineteenth-century Iranian thinkers: the idea that the relation of man to the conditions of his existence was complex and subject to change and development and, therefore, change was conceived as something not to be feared but to be welcomed. However, contrary to the Bab, these thinkers attempted to adopt Islam to the social change they thought necessary for late-nineteenth-century Iran and focused on those aspects of Shi'i Islam that could be adjusted to their new ideas. In order to avoid alienating the `ulama, they decided to put their heterodox religious ideas in the background and sought to accommodate their Western ideas to Islam.

With the exception of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who attempted to restate the old concept of the Islamic community as a socio-political entity, this group of Iranian intellectuals spoke more of Iran as a nation than of Islam. Although they wished to see religious reform, their message was nationalist. They made use of Islam, which was actually identified with a nationalist movement of change and revolution. However, they did not believe in Islam. Some of them, like Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, even condemned Islam as the cause for national decadence and found in Islam a convenient scapegoat for the tarnished world image of their country. While condemning Islam, they sought to restore the pre-Islamic cultural legacy and attribute to it due credit for past grandeur. However, around 1890, these secular Westernized thinkers had to ally themselves with the `ulama, whom they had earlier regarded in writing as reactionaries and foes to progress. The reason for the tactic of alliance with the religious leaders and making use of the `ulama was due to the fact that they had lost hope in tentative attempts at reform undertaken by such top governmental men as Amir Kabir, Mirza Husayn Khan Sepahsalar and others. They were living in an age of mediocrity when there was cultural sterility and social stagnation, when Iran had been humiliated at the hands of foreign enemies. In order to change the situation and save Iran from further Western conquests, they had to ally themselves with the `ulama because they saw the religious nature of much of the mass reaction against foreign incursions which they opposed on other grounds, and hoped to make use of this reaction in order to halt the government's sale of natural resources to foreigners.

The `ulama's ability to mobilize both the resentments and the religious feelings of the masses impressed the late-nineteenth-century Iranian reformists so immensely that even the leading reformist intellectual of this era, Malkum Khan, began to appeal mostly in religious terminology to non-official religious personages. Malkum, whose Islam was surely nominal, used Islam as a vehicle for introducing European inspired reforms because he was convinced that the only way he could make these reforms acceptable to the masses was to present them in an Islamic guise.

Another intellectual of this era, who is far more important than Malkum Khan, is Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who, like Malkum, wished to present the ideas of reform in an Islamic guise in accord with the growing Islamic reaction against Western incursions. Because of his belief that the West was an aggressive conqueror and oppressor and that Westernizers were bent on undermining the Muslim sense of identity by turning their conquered subjects away from their own proud traditions, he hoped that Islam would be reformed from above without splitting the community of Muslims and be used as a vehicle for strengthening the Islamic world and defeating imperialism. He wanted to reinforce pride in Islam and to use existing Islamic sentiment as an ideological weapon in fighting the Christian Western oppressors.

Although al-Afghani ignored the developing nationalism that ultimately made his Pan-Islamism abortive and although he never suggested a consistent and definitive reform program for creating an idealized picture of the age of the prophet and the first four caliphs, his tactic of allying with the `ulama was successful. By the late 1880s and the early 1890s, he had succeeded in winning most of the political and religious radicals over to his tactic of attacking the government's concession-granting policy, especially on religious grounds. The government's granting the British a monopoly concession on all dealings in tobacco in the early 1890s provided Afghani and his groups with an ideal occasion because a large number of Iranians could be aroused due to the fact that they were involved in the growing, sale, and the smoking of tobacco which was to be handled by infidels. It could be argued that such a monopoly was against Shi'i law and that the government was selling the abode of Islam to unbelievers. Therefore, the tobacco users could be asked not to use tobacco on religious grounds. They responded to the `ulama's call and refused to use tobacco. Also, the merchants whose profits and independence would be cut by such a monopoly were asked to participate in the movement. Their participation in the movement gave it rebellious proportions which finally led to the cancellation of the monopoly concession. Therefore, Afghani's tactic of allying with the religious radicals in the Tobacco movement was a success and this success impressed the political and intellectual radicals so immensely that, after the movement, they tried continually to join with the leading `ulama.

However, the `ulama's participation in the oppositional activity against the government was not just because of the non-religious and unorthodox political radicals' need for their help in mobilizing the resentments and religious feelings of the masses. The `ulama had their own motives for opposition to the tyrannical rule of the Qajar monarchs. There are, in fact, grounds for discerning a stance(4) of opposition to tyranny as one of the fundamental characteristics of the Twelver Shi'i Islam (Ithna 'Ashari Shi'i Islam). According to the political theory of the Twelver Shi'i Islam, which is part of its overall definition of the Imamate, Imams are the true leaders of the Muslim community and to them belongs all legitimate rule. According to this theory, the possibility of the legitimate exercise of power disappeared from the world when the Twelfth Imam, Al-Mahdi, went into major occultation in 874. Since this occultation still endures, all secular states are usurpatory and all secular rulers are usurpers. The Twelfth Imam's will is supposed to be interpreted by a leading religious authority (mujtahed) who is to guide the community. He, in his capacity as marja', is also liable to dispense guidance on political matters in a sense opposed to the will of the state and to become a leader of opposition.

The political theory of the Twelver Shi'i also reveals the revolutionary nature of this branch of Islam. According to this theory, Al-Mahdi is "the invisible ruler of the universe. Before the end of time, he will appear again on earth to bring equity and justice to fill it with peace after it has been torn by war and injustice."(5) Therefore, according to Twelver Shi'i Muslims, the return of the Twelfth Imam is to bring about the elevation of the oppressed and the aspiration for his return is, in fact, an aspiration for social justice and the relief of the downtrodden.

In addition to the ideological factor, there were other casual factors for the `ulama's inclination to ally themselves with the political radicals. The Western economic incursions of the late nineteenth century had put the merchants under pressure and since the `ulama had strong family and traditional ties to the craft guilds and other business groups which had felt the pinch of rising taxes and growing foreign competition, they were appealed to to voice these grievances because they were the only ones who could voice popular grievances with relative impunity. Furthermore, the increasing Western influence and governmental concession-granting to Westerners was seen by the `ulama as a threat both to Islam and to their prerogatives. These casual factors made the `ulama participate in the oppositional activities which resulted in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1906.

The `ulama had a dual target for their opposition: first of all, they were against foreign domination. Secondly, they were against domestic tyranny. They bequeathed this duality of concern to the Constitutionalists. The Constitutionalist Reformers, who had found allies from among clerical dissidents whom they had converted to their secular cause, had to present their plans of governmental change as sanctioned by Islam. In other words, they had to soften the bluntness of their secular and nationalist goals and speak the language of Islam. However, they wished to see Islam adapt itself to the reality of new social and cultural conditions. They wished to use Islam as a vehicle for change and thus attempted to accommodate foreign concepts to the traditional system. They put mashru`iyat equal to mashrutiyat. They wished to form a government according to the law of Islam, justice and equality, or according to science and civilization. However, some of the `ulama, including the most prominent mujtahed of Tehran (Shaykh Fazl Allah Nuri) who had accepted this equation at the beginning of the Revolution, realized that the non-religious reformers had begun to speak more freely on the meaning of Western constitution and now had faced the idea of a committee of five mujtaheds for approving the proposed laws (in addition to Sharia), so they passed into active opposition. Therefore, it can be concluded that the essential differences between Sharia and the Constitution had been recognized by the `ulama long before the movement started, thus the `ulama’s participation in the movement was not the result simply of circumstantial pressure and confusion created by secularist's stratagems and, in fact, there was continuity between the `ulama's policies before and after the Revolution.(6)

The secularists, who knew that the defection of the `ulama would endanger their goals, continued to seek the `ulama's help and, even in their speeches, they continued to cite the Quran. However, many of the upper `ulama, who could see clearly where things were heading, withdrew their support for the secularists and defected from the movement.

Although the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 - dividing Iran into two spheres of influence - prolonged the fragile alliance between the religious and non-religious radicals, the defection of Shaykh Fazl Allah Nuri concomitant with the revival of Russian power and the Anglo-Russian toppling of the Revolutionary Government in 1911 caused the Revolution to fail. However, the Revolution failed when the secularists and their allies, the clerical dissidents, had already called for religious reforms and had already transformed their calls into demands for the secularization of important social institutions controlled by the `ulama. In fact, many of the `ulama participated in the revolution without having perceived the nature of what was being demanded and its implications for themselves and Iran.(7) They agreed on the compatibility of Western concepts with Islam without having perceived that these Western concepts and modern social forces would achieve for official Shi'i Islam what the traditional leadership had continually frowned upon, that is, direct participation in temporal affairs. Therefore, although the Revolution failed mainly due to the fact that some of the leading `ulama had defected, the Constitutionalists gained more through secularizing important social institutions which were under the control of the `ulama.

The secularists' success was also caused by "the inability of the `ulama to provide any real answer to political, social, and economic problems facing Iran in the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, the `ulama lacked an accurate comprehension of problems deriving from Western impact partly because of the scholastic nature of their learning that was the basis of their entire function, and partly because of the essential lack of hierarchic organization that would have been an obstacle to any active re-shaping of the political structure. Also, ideologically, the continued occultation of the Twelfth Imam which meant the absence of all legitimized authority from worldly affairs would have prevented the `ulama from re-shaping the norms of political life and the bases of the state.(8) Therefore, the attitude of the `ulama was only quietism or opposition while they could have used the genuine potentialities of ijtihad, much wanted by a few reformers, instead of using it in a strictly legalistic sense."(9)


Mirza Muhammad Akkasbashi (Shiraz)

As mentioned earlier, although the Constitution was attained, the rifts between some of the leading `ulama and the Constitutionalists appeared as the Revolution developed. It was also mentioned that these rifts, together with such other causes as the Anglo-Russian toppling of the Revolutionary Government in 1911, eventually led to the ultimate failure of the movement.(10) The failure of the Constitutional movement and the failure of all major socio-political forces to establish order and stability, as well as the impact of World War I on the political community, gave rise to the political decay of Iran. This situation set the stage for anti-revolutionary military revolts and the restoration of the strong central government. In 1921, through a coup d’état which was planned and stage-managed by British power, Reza Shah came to power. The emergence of Reza Shah was, in fact, a response to the internal situation and the course of domestic events after the Constitutional Revolution.

Although the attainment of the Constitution had reduced the power of the clerical classes, they still had some influence on politics and society. However, the rise of Reza Shah to power was detrimental to the religious strata. He confined the activities of the religious strata to religious affairs and prevented them from exercising any influence upon the political authority. Removal of general education from the control of the religious strata, the replacement of religious laws by Westernized codes, and the secularization of social life were all detrimental to these strata.

In this period, several attempts were made to introduce modernization and social reforms. These social reforms won the approval of some of the intellectuals, including Kasravi. Although Kasravi and his co-thinkers approved Reza Shah's anti-religious measures, especially the expulsion of the mullas from public life, they praised Islam, in its original form, as a genuine ideology (din) which was able to solidify tribes, towns, regions, and peoples into a broad Muslim empire with one omnipotent God. By din, or a genuine ideology, they meant something more than the usual meaning religion. By ‘din’ they meant an ideology that effectively integrated the individual into a nation, instilling in him social consciousness, cultural ethos, and values oriented toward the public good. As Kasravi himself put it, “My use of the term ‘din’ is different from those of others. I use it to describe an ideology that teaches people the true meaning of life and gives them a practical code of ethics . . . when groups and individuals have a code of ethics, they are able to live in harmony, and living in harmony, they are able to achieve the cooperation necessary to wage the all-important struggle for national progress.”(11) Therefore, according to his definition, the `ulama's Islam was no longer a true Muslim ideology because it had lost its internal cohesiveness and had been divided into numerous competing factions.

Kasravi, who had lived through the turmoil before and after the Constitutional Revolution and had faced the divisions splintering Iran, came to believe that factionalism and disunity among the masses was the chief reason for underdevelopment in Iran. He believed factionalism was caused by religious sectarianism and criticized all of the existing religious sects in Iran on theological and metaphysical grounds. Among these sects, he criticized Shi'ism the most and called it "a perversion whose origin lay neither in ethics nor in theological issues, but in a sordid struggle for dynastic power."(12) He exposed what he considered to be the fallacies in Shi'ite Islam. He criticized Shi'ism for fostering anti-state attitudes and for differentiating sharply between the government and the people. He called the political theory of Ithna `Ashari Shi'i Islam an anti-democratic political theory, claiming that sovereignty resided in the Imams not in the people. As he himself put it, “Shi'ism and democracy are two contradictory forces. According to the former, the authority to rule resides in the Imam and his `ulama. But according to the latter, it rests with the people and their representatives. Some Shi'i theologians, however, try to brush away this contradiction by arguing that democracy really means the rule of the majority and that the majority in Iran desire the guidance of the `ulama. But this line of argument has two main fallacies. First, it ignores a fundamental principle in democracy - that no group, such as mullas, can claim special privileges. Second, it confuses true democracy, which is representative government, with majority rule, forgetting that if democracy meant the rule of the majority, then Iran should have not obtained a constitution, since at the time of the Revolution the bulk of the population - especially the peasantry and the lower classes - wanted Royal Despotism.” (13)

Although Kasravi alienated the `ulama and antagonized the faithful with his militant anti-clericalism, his influence on the national intelligentsia was so strong that he attracted a number of disciples. The chief reason for the attractiveness of Kasravi's secularist ideas was Reza Shah's measures for the secularization of social life. However, after the abdication of Reza Shah, a certain freedom of expression and controversy sprang up, of which a segment of the `ulama made use. In order to curb the influence of the Tudeh Communist Party, an alliance was made between the government elite and the religious elite, at a time when the former was seeking the support of the latter. Therefore, the second half of the 1940s witnessed a re-awakening of the `ulama's interest in political activity.

By the early 1950s, the `ulama had become actively involved in politics. Mosaddeq's premiership provided the clerics with a golden opportunity. The majority of the `ulama and clerics who were connected with the Bazaar communities joined the nationalitarian movement under the leadership of Mosaddeq. The religious strata, who were attracted to the movement partly due to its anti-colonial, anti-communist, and anti-dictatorial orientations, supported Mosaddeq at the beginning of the movement. However, as soon as they saw the militant irreligiosity that had increasingly shown itself during the last days of Mossedeq's rule, they defected from the movement and, when the Royalist Coup d’état occurred in August 1953, they lent it their support. With this coup d’état, the political activity of the `ulama in this period ended and they passed into quietism.

Tekyeh Dawlat (c. 1894)

Tekyeh Dawlat (c. 1894)

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