Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Iranian Revolution

Steve Muhlberger

One of the most important events of post-World War II Islamic history was the Iranian Revolution of 1979-80.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a zealous attachment to Islam was usually seen -- even by Muslims -- as a conservative force.   Reformist and radical Muslims often saw existing Muslim instituions as a hindrance to progress.   Such people looked to nationalism and socialism -- which they'd learned from Europe -- for inspiration.   The salvation that dissatisfied Muslims looked to was national salvation and the progress national progress.   These goals might require the modernization of Islam.

After the Iranian revolution, however, an alternative scheme of "Islamism," "political Islam," or "Islamic fundamentalism" has proved attractive.   Islamists believe a just society can only be achieved by adherence to a pure Islam, defined by the Sharia.  Existing Islamic traditions are often criticized not for being "old-fashioned," but for not being "old-fashioned" enough -- for being a diversion from the pure Islam of old.   An Islamic society will not be a more just "modern" society, but entirely different from "modern" society.

This attitude has emerged and become popular in many quarters in large part because of disillusion with previous, failed efforts at modernization or "catching up with the West."

The Iranian revolution is significant because it took place in a country where a government had pursued modernization with great  energy and great resources, but had only succeeded in alienating the great majority of the population.   Opposition to the Shah in the name of Islam quickly became the most widely popular and most easily organized form of opposition.   This allowed a radical group of religious scholars to seize power in one of the richest and most powerful Muslim countries.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has provided inspiration and support for a form of revolutionary action ever since.

The Background to the 1960s

In 1953, the United States intervened to depose the nationalist prime minister of Iran, Mossadeq, after he defied British oil interests.    Constitutional government was replaced by royal dictatorship, under Shah Muhammed Reza, who enjoyed significant US aid and support to 1979.

After 1960, an economic downturn and rural dissatisfaction with landlords began to create unrest.   Leading elements wanted real elections.   In 1963 he appointed a prime minister, Amini, who was determined to do something about land reform.   But he did not want elections either, perhaps because he felt the rich would dominate the legislature and block his reforms.

The issue of land and the lack of elections created liberal, socialist, and conservative resistance to the Shah's government.   The ulama were often wealthy landowners, and so lined up with the conservative forces.   Religious leaders also disliked the shah for other reasons:  he tended to appeal more to ancient Persian and Iranian symbols than Islamic ones, and he was allied with Israel.   His modernist stance to the position of women was unwelcome.

The ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini first became an oppositionist in the early 1960s, when the Shah announced his White Revolution of modernism (including land reform).    Khomeini was loud enough to get in trouble with the secret police, the SAVAK, and eventually he went in exile in Iraq, where the chief Shiite holy cities are.

Khomeini's revolutionary theories

In Iraq he formulated a revolutionary theory quite different from the standard Shiite view of politics.   The standard view was that, in the absence of an Imam of Ali's line, there are no visible holders of ultimate political and religious authority.   The well-developed Shiite hierarchy of scholars are custodians of religious traditions, and critics of earthly power.

Many investigators believe that Khomeini turned away from this view in Iraq. In his book Islamic Government he argued that monarchy was a form of government that had been abolished by the Prophet; true Islamic government must be a government by jurists (scholars of Islamic law).   Supreme authority would rest with a "single learned and just religious leader."  Khomeini would eventually assume this office and have it written into the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Thus Khomeini had become a revolutionary, who believed that Islam called for a basic change in the government of his own country.

The Shah and the White Revolution

This program was one of modernization without liberalization:   modernization under his strict control.  He was determined to turn Iran into a "Great Civilization," a country as developed in all fields as any country in the West.   He imported agricultural and industrial technology as quickly as possible, emancipated women from Islamic custom, and pursued large-scale miltiarization.

There was a substantial downside, especially in agriculture where ecologically unsound policies were heavily subsidizd.

Such success as the WR had depended on:

There was tremendous dissatisfaction, especially concerning the growing gap between rich and poor.   Likewise Westernization and Americans (formerly reasonably popular) became disliked.   The Shah's rejection of Islam in a variety of ways also rankled.

Resistance and Revolution

When resistance began to grow, it took on a variety of forms:   ethnic, communist, pro-democratic.   But in most of the population it had an Islamic flavor.    One reason for this:   in Iran there was a well-organized "clerical" hierarchy, which was allied to the traditional urban merchant class (the bazaaris), and looked up to by displaced peasants who had just come to the cities.

Islamic resistance did not mean necessarily support for Khomeini -- there were other leaders and some Islamic dissidents were leftists.

From 1977, pressure began to grow on the regime:

The shah both promised concessions and practiced repression, and in 1978, religiously-led demonstrations were turning out hundreds of thousands of Iranians out into the streets.

One reason religious leadership was so important is that the Shah and SAVAK had destroyed most other political movements.  Islam could not be outlawed, and the easiest way to express opposition was through preaching and religious demonstrations.  Public memorials services for those killed by the Shah's government were very effective.

By the end of 1978, they had inspired strikes in the oil industry.   The appointment of a moderate reforming PM, Shapour Bakhtiar, did nothing to stop the protests.

In January of 1979, the very ill Shah tried to save the dynasty by abdicating in favor of his son and left the country.   Khomeini returned and was able to fire Bakhtiar and appoint his own PM.

Liberals and modernists had thought they would be in charge of the new regime, but were quickly outflanked.   Khomeini's supporters organized a referendum that gave Iranians a clear choice between monarchy and an Islamic republic.   Liberals tried to get references to democracy into the question, but Khomeini had no need to compromise with them.   His alternative won an overwhelming approval, and within months the new regime was able to write a constitution that included a leading role for the "just and pious jurist who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age."


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.