Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences


The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was one of the seminal events of our time. It inaugurated more than thirty years of war in the Middle East and fostered an Islamic radicalism that shapes foreign policy in the United States and Europe to this day.

Drawing on his lifetime of engagement with Iran, James Buchan explains the history that gave rise to the Revolution, in which Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters displaced the Shah with little diffi­culty. Mystifyingly to ...

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Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences

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The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was one of the seminal events of our time. It inaugurated more than thirty years of war in the Middle East and fostered an Islamic radicalism that shapes foreign policy in the United States and Europe to this day.

Drawing on his lifetime of engagement with Iran, James Buchan explains the history that gave rise to the Revolution, in which Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters displaced the Shah with little diffi­culty. Mystifyingly to outsiders, the people of Iran turned their backs on a successful Westernized government for an amateurish religious regime. Buchan dispels myths about the Iranian Revolution and instead assesses the historical forces to which it responded. He puts the extremism of the Islamic regime in perspective: a truly radical revolution, it can be compared to the French or Russian Revolu­tions. Using recently declassified diplomatic papers and Persian-language news reports, diaries, memoirs, interviews, and theological tracts, Buchan illumi­nates both Khomeini and the Shah. His writing is always clear, dispassionate, and informative.

The Iranian Revolution was a turning point in modern history, and James Buchan’s Days of God is, as London’s Independent put it, “a compelling, beautifully written history” of that event.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British novelist and journalist Buchan traveled to Iran as an undergraduate in the 1970s. Shocked by its dissipated modernity, he says, “I thought I had come too late to see what I had come to see, forgetting an ancient lesson: that in a year or two even this, also, would be obliterated.” His deep connection to the country serves him well in this sweeping panorama of the Shah’s Iran and its rejuvenation, occlusion, and disintegration under Khomeini. Buchan’s dry wit suffuses the poetic and philosophical—if not always straightforward—text; characters appear in major episodes before they have been properly introduced, events are mentioned in passing before they unfold. He devotes equal space to critical yet sympathetic portraits of the Rezas and to Khomeini. Of the first Pahlavi Shah, he says, “In introducing the notion of a powerful state, Reza was the most influential Iranian of the last century, more influential even than Ruhollah Khomeini.” The Ayatollah, pensive and closed to the world, drowned his religion and his country in a ruthless obscurantism: “It is said that once in Isfahan, the great Safavid divine Majlisi gave an apple to a Jew.... No such stories are told of Ruhollah Khomeini.” Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary Agency. (Oct. 15)
The Independent - Leyla Sanai
“This is a compelling, beautifully written history of a country which has produced great literature, art and a warm people whose lives have been manipulated by other countries with ulterior motives and by their own autocratic and theocratic dictators.”
Financial Times - Tony Barber
“A soundly argued account of the causes, course and consequences of the revolution . . . Buchan, a Persian scholar and former Financial Times foreign correspondent, puts his first-hand experience of Iran to perceptive use.”
The Spectator - Jonathan Rugman
“A wonderfully detailed and authoritative account of the Shah’s final days and the murder and mayhem that followed.”
Mail on Sunday Books of the Year - Simon Sebag Montefiore
“A superb and original history of the Iranian Revolution. It’s essential reading.”
Sunday Times
“An outstanding analysis of the legacy of Iran’s revolution.”
The Economist
"[Buchan] mines the literature in Persian and English to better effect than any historian so far....[a] fine, elegantly written book."
National Review - David Pryce-Jones
"A well-informed account of revolutionary Iran."
The Christian Science Monitor - Graeme Wood
“May be the best single general-audience book on the Iranian Revolution. . . . Days of God is a balanced portrait of an unbalanced time, and one of the most distinguished books about a revolution that has still not reached its conclusion.”
The Wall Street Journal - Roya Hakakian
“The author's grasp of Persian literature and the Persian language allows him to treat Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution with rare insight and compassion.”
Foreign Affairs - Laura Secor
“Magisterial. . . . James Buchan’s Days of God, a survey of the Pahlavi years, with spectacular detail on the revolution itself, includes some deft portraiture and notes of literary grace. Buchan, who lived in Iran in the late 1970s, writes with an irreverence and confidence born of long familiarity, and the Iran of his history feels vibrantly present.”
Kirkus Reviews
British novelist and journalist Buchan (The Authentic Adam Smith, 2006, etc.) revisits the Iranian revolution for a clarification of the historical record. A plethora of recent works on Iraq and Afghanistan have given way to a deluge of interest in Iran and what makes this enigmatic empire tick. Buchan, a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, provides a helpful primer about the rise and fall of the Pahlavi state, fleshing out in particular the personalities of the autocratic father, Reza, a "former stable lad" who "crowned himself King of Kings" in 1926, and coddled son, Mohammed Reza, who rose to power in 1941 and was hounded into exile by the revolution in 1979. A country deeply embedded in ancient customs and privileges, Iran had known long-running dynasties of Safavids and Qajars, while the Pahlavis, in comparison, would be a flash in the pan, though they galvanized the country to hasty European-inspired modernity. A political lightweight on the world stage, Mohammed Reza was nonetheless tolerated by the British and Americans after World War II as offering "stability" to their oil interests in the region and left in power after the CIA-engineered coup of 1953. Meanwhile, the brilliant seminary student Ruhollah Khomeini swung into political action, challenging the shah's reforms and ending up in exile in 1963. The shah grew increasingly isolated from real events, spending lavishly on the buildup of his armed forces, and he was emboldened by the death of his chief rival, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eventually, the revolutionary and religious elements could not be contained by the shah's forces, and Khomeini became the movement's spiritual leader. In sprightly prose, Buchan delineates the events that took on a mind of their own and left Iran doomed by its very "intransigence." A solid, accessible look at the making of modern Iran.
Library Journal
Buchan, who was studying in Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution, draws on Iranian records, memoirs, and newspaper reports to explain the revolution's causes and consequences. Expect vivid characterization from Buchan, an award-winning novelist as well as a journalist. With a 40,000-copy first printing.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Of all the heady rumors to swirl around the Iranian Revolution as it happened, without a doubt the most electrifying was that the Ayatollah Khomeini's first act on taking power would be to announce the end of the world. As promises from politicians go, this would have been a doozy. Devout Iranian Shia believe that their tenth-century spiritual leader, Muhammad al-Mahdi, vanished into a cave in Iraq at the age of five. He remains on earth, living but refusing to reveal himself, and his eventual return will herald divine judgment and the end of time. Could Khomeini be that Hidden Imam in disguise, playing his cards close to his robes until the right moment? No one could remember seeing photos of him as a youngster.

Khomeini's death in 1989 finally killed off the rumor. But his followers' willingness to speculate on his quasi-divinity tells us something important about how this revolution differed from other, more secular regime changes. The most memorable books about the Iranian Revolution have tended to illuminate either the revolution's theology and eschatology (Roy Mottahedeh's The Mantle of the Prophet) or its worldly politics (Nikki Keddie's The Roots of Revolution). James Buchan's Days of God, first published in 2012 in the United Kingdom, approaches both sides of this tragic tale, starting in the early twentieth century and leading to their inevitable collision, "like Titanic and iceberg," in 1979. It may be the best single general-audience book on the Iranian Revolution.

Buchan's book shows both Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Khomeini as terrifically flawed individuals, each empowered by external forces in ways that made their clash more violent and its aftermath even worse. The shah's great flaw — an odd one for an autocrat — is his inability to wield power firmly. Khomeini's great flaw — an odd one for a scholar — is his dull mind, inflexible and willfully uncreative, to the point of malice.

Most Westerners remember the shah as a military potentate, resplendent with self-bestowed medals and armed with every piece of conventional weaponry the Pentagon could think to send him. Yet for all of the might at his disposal, his regime was starved for competent politicians and managers, and the shah himself had low tolerance for blood on the streets. In Buchan's telling, he seems more at home at a ski chalet than on the review stand at a military parade. And when his forces faced their first challengers — domestic Islamic revolutionaries — they soon refused to fight and instead begged their enemies to treat them as neutral. Ryszard Kapuscinski's Shah of Shahs depicts the shah's security service, SAVAK, as torture-happy and fascistic, which it certainly was. But Buchan points out that its victims were few, relative to other autocratic regimes, such as Khomeini's, which achieved "an absolutism of which the Pahlavis could not have dreamed."

About Khomeini himself, Buchan is withering. Born in 1902, Khomeini impressed his teachers early and by the 1950s already occupied a clerical perch in Qom (Iran's Vatican) that officially made him marja, or "source of emulation," for the whole restive set of shah-hating Iranian clergy. The shah had secularized the country, banning headscarves and imprisoning religious dissidents. Tapping religious fervor, Khomeini called for immediate Islamic government. At the same time he drew on nationalist sentiment by accusing the shah of imitating the West and scorning his own Persian heritage. Buchan makes a good case that this latter charge is deserved: the Pahlavis spent a great deal of embarrassing time romancing various minor Eurotrash royals, the better to link the Peacock Throne to the ruling houses of Greece and England.

But even when right, Khomeini approached the world with Olympian disdain — and not only for secular figures like the shah, Buchan says, but also for the very religious traditions of which he was a part. Buchan quotes Khomeini's letter condemning the 1971 bash thrown by the shah at Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian kingship. "It is a typical Khomeini piece from that time, uncompromising in its argument, pungent in its argument, credulous of hearsay, mistaken in matters of fact." Khomeini claims that Shiite clergy have always opposed kings, when in fact Shiite clergy had long put themselves at the service of Safavid and Qajar kings, to mutual benefit. Journalist Peter Jennings buttonholes Khomeini on his triumphant flight to Tehran in 1979 and asks him what he feels on returning to his home country as its leader. The Imam responds with one word: "Nothing." This impassive reply reminds one of Orwell's great line about Gandhi, that some who aspire to be holy have never been tempted to be human.

The character who comes across as most human in this story is Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini's prize student and anointed successor but ultimately loathed by his former teacher and placed under house arrest. Unlike Khomeini, Montazeri is a man of earthly temptations (mostly for sohan, the saffron- infused pistachio brittle that is a Qom specialty and perhaps the most addictive candy known to man) and evolving views. He helped lead the revolution but later rebuked Khomeini publicly for the latter's summary executions and indifference to justice. Montazeri died in 2009, after what one Qom cleric told me was a long period of shunning by the city's hard-liners. Buchan clearly views him as a minor hero.

This book breezes through the last twenty-five years, since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, in just a few pages. A sequel may be in order. For now, though, Days of God is a balanced portrait of an unbalanced time, and one of the most distinguished books about a revolution that has still not reached its conclusion.

Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Good magazine, andThe American.

Reviewer: Graeme Wood

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416597773
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 582,204
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

James Buchan holds a degree in Persian studies from Oxford University. He worked for twelve years as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. He has written three works of nonfiction and six novels, including Heart’s Journey in Winter, which won the Guardian Fiction Award, and A Good Place to Die, which was a New York Times Notable Book. He lives on a farm in eastern England.

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Read an Excerpt

Days of God

  • I first came to Iran in 1974, the year the price of crude oil rose fourfold and Europe switched off its power stations. After the darkness of the autobahns, I found the city of Tabriz illuminated as if for a perpetual wedding. On my first day in Tehran, the capital, I was taken on by a school teaching the English language to cadets of the Imperial Iranian Air Force. The rows of desks receded out of sight. It was Ramazan, when Muslims fast the daylight hours, and the pupils dozed on their pen-cases or glared at the wrapped sandwiches they had brought in to eat at sundown. Among those Turkoman boys, there must have been the makings of at least one military aviator, and it was I who was going to make the start on him. I was the smallest component in one of the greatest military expansions ever undertaken. The owner of the school was a brigadier general and I used to see him, in uniform in the afternoons, striking the male secretaries. At payday, the cashier, an old man with stubble on his chin, who was the general’s father, took half an hour to sign my check. An Indian colleague whispered that a tip was expected. I quit.

I moved to Isfahan, the famous old city in the heart of the country. I found a job in a morning, teaching schoolgirls. I was a bad teacher, but I was an Oxford sophomore and nineteen years old. The class doubled in size and halved in fluency. My pupils cultivated feeling to a pitch, and sighed over adjectives. They made fun of me, as if I had been a bashful seminary student.

Bred up in the medieval Persian of Oxford University, I was baffled by Iranian modernity. In this famous town, with its palaces so flimsy you could blow them over with a sigh, there were military instructors from Grumman Corp. and Bell Helicopter International, with their Asian women and a screw loose from Vietnam, sobbing in hotel lobbies. I thought I had come too late to see what I had come to see, forgetting an ancient lesson: that in a year or two even this, also, would be obliterated.

I did not know, as I know now, that nations salvage what they can from the wreck of history, and the warriors of the national poet Ferdowsi were the tough guys or lutis (“buggers”) of the bazaar, and the lyrics of Hafez were the songs on the car radio: Black-eyed, tall and slender, Oh to win Leila! The Isfahan women rose early, buying their food from the grocery fresh each day, a clay bowl of yoghurt which they smashed after use, or those bundles of green herbs that Khomeini liked to eat, all to cook the daily lunch. For an Englishman, standing in line to buy cigarettes, it was tempting enough to stay and settle down with one of these angels, and pass his life in inconsequential fantasies. The grocer wore a double-breasted suit of wide 1930s cut, a tribal cap, and the rag-soled cotton slippers known as giveh. It was as if he had thrown off a tyrannical dress code, but only at its up and down extremities. It seemed to me that the Shah had run a blunt saw across the very grain of Iranianness.

In the cool vaults of the Isfahan bazaar, where I supplemented my wages by dealing in bad antiques, a lane would end in a chaos of smashed brick and a blinding highway, as if Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was trying to abolish something other than medieval masonry: an entire and traditional way of life, with its procession from shop to mosque to bath to shop to mosque and its interminable religious ceremonies.

Somebody, presumably the Russians, had given the Iranians a taste for assassination and vodka. Somebody else, no doubt the Americans, had given them Pepsi and ice cream. A third, perhaps the British, had taught them to love opium. Laid across that beautiful town was some personality that expressed itself in straight roads crossing at right angles, mosques turned into mere works of art, and all the frowstiness of an overtaken modernity. It was uneducated or even illiterate, violent, avaricious, in a hurry to get somewhere it never arrived. I know now that that personality was the Shah’s father, Reza. Over that was another impression, not at all forceful, but cynical, melancholy, pleasure-loving, distrustful, also in a hurry. I supposed that was Mohammed Reza. I did not understand why those kings were in such a hurry but I knew that haste, as the Iranians say, is the devil’s work. I could see that Iran was going to hell but could not for the life of me descry what kind of hell.

James Buchan

England, 2013

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