Read an ExcerptModern Iran
Roots and Results of Revolution
By Nikki R. Keddie
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.
Religion and Society to 1800 Background The 1978-79 Revolution and its aftermath awakened for the first time in twenty-five years widespread public interest in Iran-and, to a large degree, bafflement and incomprehension. This revolution did not fit the patterns and expectations of even the relatively well informed. Where before had one seen a leader of an established religion emerge as the widely popular, charismatic head of a revolution against a royal ruler who stressed his own legitimacy, his ties to the national past, and his reformist plans? And where before had one seen a state bristling with armaments worth billions of dollars, armed forces, secret and open police, all supposedly ready for use, crumble in the face of periodic, rising, peaceful mass demonstrations and strikes? Scholars in the field of Middle Eastern studies are now accustomed to being asked: Was this revolution religious, political, social, economic,-or what? The only good answer seems to be that it was all of these; as will be discussed in this study, economic, social, and political discontents had developed over the decades and coalesced in the late 1970s, while added to the central Islamic identity felt by the majority of the popular classes were new interpretations of religion that justified revolutionary ideas and became widespread in society.
Several long-term factors in Iranian history have contributed to political and social development down to the present. Among these are geographical characteristics that, as in much of the Middle East, favored the early development of settled agriculture (as the clearing of massive forests and use of the heavy plow so vital in Europe were not necessary). On the other hand, as in much of the Middle East, irrigation led to salination of the soil and deforestation to erosion, so that agricultural difficulties and aridity almost surely increased over the centuries, which encouraged a pastoral nomadic adaptation to arid conditions. Economic fluctuations based in part on geographic conditions also gave rise to rebellions, and in recent times inappropriate imitation of Western agricultural methods led to further ecological deterioration.
Iran's location has for centuries been important to international trade and strategy. It borders on Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north, Iraq and Turkey to the west, the Persian Gulf to the south, and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east. Iran encompasses about 628,000 square miles, a far larger area than that of any Western European country, but much of this is now desert, including the two huge eastern deserts, the Dasht-e Lut and the Dasht-e Kavir. Most of Iran is a high plateau strewn with mountains, the two major ranges being the Alborz in the north and the Zagros from the northwest toward the southeast. Seasonal extremes of hot and cold prevail throughout most of the country, and Iran is predominantly dry. The regions touching the Caspian Sea in the north, however, have high rainfall; the province of Gilan has among the highest in the world. This allows for a dense and organized peasant population, which encourages a more rebellious peasantry than where peasant population is sparse and scattered.
Since very ancient times, many different peoples have lived in Iran. The word "Iran" is a cognate of "Aryan"; these words were used by that branch of the Indo-European peoples who migrated southeast before 1000 B.C., the Iranians staying in Iran and the Aryans going on to India. (Persia was the Greek name for Iran, taken from the southwestern province of Fars; Reza Shah did not change the name of the country in the 1930s; rather he asked foreigners to use the indigenous name.) Iran had an important history and culture before the rise of Islam, with two major dynasties, the Achemenian, 559-330 B.C., and the Sasanian, A.D. 224-651, the latter lasting until Iran's conquest by the Muslim Arabs from A.D. 637 to 651. (In this book "Iran" denotes a land with about Iran's current boundaries; after the Muslim conquest, only the Mongols, the Safavids (1501-1722), and rulers since 1796 united this territory as one kingdom.)
Pre-Islamic Iran was fruitful in the development of religions, some of whose ideas and social content continued into Islamic times. The complex and varied religion called Zoroastrianism was characterized by a dualistic struggle between a good deity and an evil power in which the good was to win; and it also encompassed beliefs about rewards and punishments in the afterlife and interceding angels. Many scholars think Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Another type of dualism, viewing matter as evil and spirit as good and praising renunciation of this world, characterized Manichaeism founded in Iraq (then an Iranian culture area) by the third century A.D. prophet Mani. The negative Manichaean attitude toward this world has been seen by some scholars as reflecting economic decline and inequities and the growth of a rigid class system. Manichaeans both before and after the rise of Islam were considered dangerous heretics and were often persecuted by rulers. A more radical Iranian offshoot of Manichaeism in the fifth and sixth centuries was founded by Mazdak, who is said to have preached communism of goods and, along with his large body of followers, revolted against the class rigidities, poverty, wars, and economic decline that characterized his period (and ultimately rendered the Muslim conquest of Iran relatively easy).
Themes of righteous battles between the forces of good and justice and those of evil and oppression, of the economically oppressed and their oppressors, thus go far back into pre-Islamic as well as Islamic times, as does emulation of martyr figures, who are found in the great pre-Islamic Iranian religions. Because of the nature of the documents that have survived, and also of the doctrinal interests of scholars, we know much more about religious doctrines than about the details of socioeconomic life in the past. Even religious documents carefully studied, however, can tell a great deal about the injustices and inequalities that sometimes aroused people centuries ago, much as they do today, to risk their lives for a better world. In the early Islamic centuries several social revolts combined pre-Islamic with Islamic ideas in Iran.
In some ways Iran's recent "Islamic Revival" is very new, with ideas never voiced before. In other ways it follows a long tradition in both Iran and in the Muslim world of expressing socioeconomic and cultural grievances in the only way familiar to most people-a religious idiom arraying the forces of good against the forces of evil and promising to bring justice to the oppressed.
Islam and Society
In Iran as elsewhere, the so-called Islamic Revival does not mean that most people are more religious than they used to be: for the majority the degree of religiosity shows no sign of significant change. Rather, it means that Islam is reentering politics and government in a stronger and more militant way than it had in most areas for many decades. Within this general trend, however, Iran is, to date, a special case, in having rule by a leader of the regular Islamic ulama (a word that in Twelver Shi'ism can be rendered by "clergy" as all believers must follow the rulings of one of their leaders). This difference between Iran's religiopolitical movement and that of other Muslim countries is based in part on the contrast between the way the two main divisions in Islam, the Shi'is of Iran and the Sunnis who rule most of the rest of the Muslim world, have developed. We speak here of development because there has been much more change and development in both Sunni and Shi'i theory and practice than is usually realized, and specifically because many points often made about Shi'ism are really only, or mainly, true during the past century or two. Although not nearly enough research has been done to allow any scholar to give a complete history of the relations between religion and politics in either Shi'ism or Sunnism, enough has been done to allow a general outline that suggests the directions of change in Sunnism and in Shi'ism. Some elements in recent Shi'i politics hark back to the earliest period of Islam, and so some understanding of that period, as well as of later Shi'i history, is necessary to the understanding of more recent events.
The intertwining of religion and politics, found in several religions, began in Islam with the Prophet Mohammad himself. Among his revelations, later gathered together in the Quran, were a large number that would generally be called political and/or legal. Particularly after the Prophet's migration from his home city of Mecca, where he met opposition, at the invitation of notables of the nearby Arabian city of Medina, which he increasingly ruled, Mohammad received governmental and legal revelations. He led his community politically as well as religiously. After his death in A.D. 632, most of his adherents followed the rule of the first three caliphs, or successors, who had in theory no power to alter the revealed religion. A minority felt that succession belonged to Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali (Mohammad having had no living sons), and this originally political claim within a few generations took on religious content. The group who recognized elected caliphs but without granting them religious powers beyond the protection and spreading of Islam came to be called Sunnis (followers of the practice or sunna of the Prophet). The party or "Shi'a" of Ali insisted on the charismatic leadership of the male descendants of Ali and were called the Shi'is (adjective) or Shi'a (noun) and developed a variety of doctrines. At first the split was not as clear-cut as it was later made to seem. Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, and is still revered by the Sunnis, but he succumbed, through battle, arbitration, and assassination, to the founder of the Umayyad caliphate (661-749). This was the first Sunni caliphate to adopt, in practice, hereditary succession, and was castigated by many pious Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'i, as an illegitimate despotism.
Behind these and later doctrinal developments were sociopolitical changes discussed by recent scholars. The most plausible theory regarding the seventh-century rise of Islam notes that Mecca and Medina, as relatively advanced trading and agricultural cities outside the direct sphere of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, were at the point of state formation and needed an ideology to help unify the urban populace and the nomadic tribes around them into a state. Within Mecca and Medina class divisions were replacing tribal solidarity and tribes no longer provided for their weak members. In Mecca the rise and fall of merchant fortunes and the development of a complex, class-divided economy demanded the creation of a legal and welfare system. A full explanation would be more complex, but these factors help explain the rise of Islam and its rapid conquest or winning over of Arabian tribes. In addition, the weakening of both Byzantine and Persian Empires through exacerbated class divisions, persecution of religions considered heretical, and frequent mutual warfare left Arab areas unusually free of their influence. Once Arab tribes adopted Islam they were bound no longer to engage in the raids that had kept population down and helped support many tribes. Tribes were still equipped for warfare and sought to make up what they had lost in raids. Mohammad's spreading of his religion and rule through wars against nearby tribes and the Meccans gave Islam a warlike precedent and theory, suggested by the word jihad or holy war. Contrary to what many believe, jihad was not meant to force conversion, and it appears that the concept of non-Arab Muslims did not occur to the earliest Muslims. Rather jihad aimed at extending the territory ruled by Muslims, while allowing inhabitants who were "People of the Book" (monotheists with a scripture) to keep their own religion in return for a special tax. This policy allowed the Arab Muslim armies to offer religious freedom to large Christian groups in greater Syria and Egypt treated as heretics by the Byzantine rulers, and hence to attain peaceful surrender from many Near Eastern cities. This, along with the internal conflicts and problems in the great empires, and the tactical superiority and enthusiasm of Arab armies, helps explain the expansion of these armies in a few decades as far as Spain in the west and Pakistan in the east.
The Arab armies' camp cities soon attracted local populations, whether Iranian, Egyptian, Iraqi, or other, and among them the demand arose for conversion to Islam. Along with conversion and contact there entered into some Muslim groups ideas with Iranian, Christian, Jewish, Manichaean, or other provenance. The Shi'is, who originally had few doctrinal differences with the Sunnis, were, as an oppositional group, more open to outside influences.
After the death of Ali and the resignation of a claim to rule by his first son, Hasan, Ali's second son, Hosain, put forth claims to leadership, but, with a small band of followers was massacred by an armed force under the orders of the Umayyad caliph Yazid in A.D. 680. This event, occurring on the tenth day (Ashura) of the first month (Moharram) of the Muslim year, became the great day of mourning and commemoration of the martyrdom of Hosain, with the previous nine days building up to it. One of Hosain's sons who survived was able to carry on the line of Shi'i leaders (imams), who were increasingly regarded by their followers as infallible.
Under the Umayyads began the religiopolitically sectarian character of Shi'ism. Various groups paid allegiance to different branches of Ali's descendants, or to men who invoked their name in leading revolts, often against the Umayyad caliphs. Certain ideas entered into Shi'ism more than Sunnism that Sunnis and moderate Shi'is labeled as "extremist," such as the incarnation of divinity in the imams, transmigration, and especially messianism. The Mahdi or "rightly guided one," who is not found in the Quran, entered particularly into Shi'ism, and Sunnism to a lesser degree, as the figure who will come at the end of time "to fill the world with justice and equity as it is now filled with injustice and oppression." This tag line suggests the social base of messianism: it appealed especially to the uprooted masses and lower middle classes who longed for the equity promised by the Quran but not realized under imperfect governments ruling for one or another social elite. A series of small Shi'i and semi-Shi'i revolts was crushed but Shi'i ideals remained.
The growing unpopularity of the Umayyads, who were closely tied to an early Arab aristocratic group and did not meet the needs of either the middle or the popular classes, led to an underground anti-Umayyad (Abbasid) movement in the first half of the eighth century that included Shi'i elements. Its propaganda was carried out so as to make Shi's believe that Ali's descendants would come to power if the movement succeeded, but when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in A.D. 749, the new caliphs were not in any Shi'i line and many Shi'i movements were suppressed.
Under the Abbasids (749-1256) the three different lines of Shi'ism that are considered its main divisions took shape. The smallest, moderate group, today predominant only in North Yemen, are the Zaidis or "Fivers," who revere their Fifth Imam. They follow a legal system similar to the Sunnis' and do not claim infallibility for their imams, which could bring conflict with the Sunni caliphs. The larger groups are the "Seveners" or Isma'ilis, and the "Twelvers" or Imamis. These two lines reflect a split in opinion over the legitimate successor to the great Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadeq. The Isma'ilis, who opted for one son, Isma'il, do not believe that he was the last imam, but rather have a continuous line of living imams (although there are disagreements about which is the true line); and in one large group of Isma'ilis the line is alive in the person of the Agha Khan. In the early centuries the Isma'ilis were often radical, especially the Carmathian group of Isma'ilis who had a semicommunist ideology that served for a time as the basis of a state. Another Isma'ili group set up the Fatimid caliphate, which conquered Egypt in 969 and became a rival of the Abbasids. Emerging from the Fatimids was a group known in Europe under the pejorative nickname of "Assassins," although their attempts to reshape Muslim society in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries went beyond the idea of killings as a way to gain power. They lost much power after they were suppressed by the Mongols after the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions.
Excerpted from Modern Iran by Nikki R. Keddie Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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