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R E L I G I O N
Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
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Encyclopedia Iranica
Partition

THE PAHLAVI PERIOD

The reign of the first Pahlavi, Reza Shah (1925-41), was characterized by a cult of nationalism that glorified the pre-Islamic past of Persia and was accompanied by measures aimed at circumscribing the influence and standing of the ulema. This agenda was inspired in part by the program of virulent secularization then underway in neighboring Turkey. Initially, however, relations between Reza Shah and the leading scholars of the day were relatively cordial. In 1924, while his formal position was still only that of minister of war, Sheikh ʿAbd-al-Karim Ḥāʾeri and others met with the future Reza Shah in Qom and and asked him to quell rumors of the impending institution of a republic under his auspices, republicanism then being regarded with abhorrence because of the association with irreligion it had acquired in Turkey. He was happy to oblige and gave assurances of his devotion to Shiʿite Islam, with the result that in October of the same year, Mirzā Moḥammad Nāʾini and Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahāni signed a fatwā proclaiming obedience to Reza Shah to be a religious duty. The only scholar of note to oppose the foundation of the Pahlavi dynasty was Sayyed Ḥasan Modarres, put to death in 1937 after a lengthy period of imprisonment (Hamadāni, pp. 195-219).

In May 1925, a law was passed arrogating to the state the right to examine religious students with a view to their exemption from military service, and three years later a Civil Code was promulgated, greatly circumscribing the judicial functions of the ulema; this was made explicit in November 1931, when the competence of the šariʿa courts was limited to matters of marriage and divorce. In March 1932 came the termination of all notarial functions exercised by the ulema, reducing many of them to penury. Society as a whole was more directly impacted by the proscription of the ḥejāb (a veil to conceal women’s hair from public view) in 1936 and the banning of the Moḥarram ceremonies that since Safavid times had been at the heart of the religious culture of Persia (Akhavi, pp. 37-40).

A number of religiously inspired uprisings against Reza Shah took place, most notably at Mashad in 1935, but the most important response to his policies, in effect although not in intention, was the renewal and development of the ḥawza (religious teaching establishment) in Qom by Sheikh ʿAbd-al-Karim Ḥāʾeri. Its long-term consequences for relations between religion and state in the Pahlavi period were comparable to the significance of the triumph of the Oṣulis over the Aḵbāris at the beginning of the Qajar period. Purely a center of religious learning in the 1920s and 1930s, Qom was destined to become a center of religio-political guidance from the 1960s onward. Born near Yazd in 1276/1859, Ḥāʾeri had studied with the major scholars of the day in the shrine cities of Iraq before returning to Persia in 1913. After nine uneventful years in Arāk, he settled in Qom in 1922 and set about reviving the scholarly traditions of the city: he restored a number of its madrasas, brought a measure of order to the curriculum, and arranged for students to receive fixed monthly stipends. By the time of his death in 1356/1937, the ḥawza numbered roughly 1,000 students, a remarkable figure considering the unfavorable political circumstances of the time. Among them was Ruhollah Khomeini (Ruḥ-Allāh Ḵomayni), then thirty-five years of age (Algar, 1988, pp. 267-68).

The deposition of Reza Shah by the Allies in September 1941 and his replacement by Mohammad-Reza Shah inaugurated a period of relatively free political competition, in which leftist and nationalist groups addressed such issues as limiting the powers of the monarchy and warding off interference by foreign states, especially Britain. Generally speaking, the ḥawza stayed aloof from these developments. After the death of Ḥāʾeri, it had been administered by a triumvirate of senior ulema until the assumption of its leadership in 1944 by Ayatollah Ḥosayn Borujerdi (q.v.). Like Ḥāʾeri before him, Borujerdi was quietist in policy and temperament, and he did his best to proscribe all political activity in Qom, while at the same time consolidating the administrative achievements of his predecessor. Outside the ḥawza and acting independently of it, a number of religious scholars did, however, concern themselves with the prime political issues of the day. Most important among them was Ayatollah Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšāni, whose activism had begun in Iraq during World War I. He allied himself at differing times both with Mo-ḥammad Moṣaddeq of the National Front and with the Fedāʾiān-e Eslām (q.v.), the movement founded in 1945 by Sayyed Mojtabā Mirlawḥi, better known as Nawwāb Ṣafawi. Both alliances fell apart, first that with the Fedāʾiān and then that with Moṣaddeq, not long before his overthrow by the coup d’etat of August 1953 that was orchestrated by the British and American intelligence services. Kāšāni lived on until 1962 to protest matters such as the renewal of diplomatic ties with Britain, the conclusion of an agreement with an international oil consortium, and the rigging of elections to the Majles, but his voice was not widely heard. Never a mass movement, the Fedāʾiān was thoroughly dispersed after the coup and its founder was executed in January 1956; its example served, however, to inspire the Islamically-oriented guerilla movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

The death of Borujerdi in 1961 prompted, not only the customary search for a successor to his position as marjaʿ-e taqlid, but also a reexamination of the function of the marjaʿ and, more broadly, of the role of religion in society. Many felt that Borujerdi had failed to provide the comprehensive guidance that was needed at the time; that the ḥawza ought to be more rigorously organized and its curriculum broadened and modernized; and that a collective marjaʿiyat might be advisable (see the collective volume, Baḥṯi dar bāra-ye Marjaʿiyat va Ruḥāniyat, first published in 1962). Indeed no single successor to Borujerdi emerged, and Persians, together with other Shiʿites, divided their taqlid among a variety of scholars in Najaf, and Ayatollahs Marʿaši Najafi, Golpāyagāni, Šariʿatmadāri, and Khomeini in Qom. Even after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution that he led, the last-named never functioned as the sole marjaʿ-e taqlid, but the role that he was about to play in the history of Persia and of Shiʿite Islam transcended by far that of a marjaʿ, in acknowledgment whereof he became known among his partisans and officially after the Revolution as “Imam.”

Born in the southwestern city of Ḵomayn in 1320/1902 to a father who was murdered during the first year of his life, Khomeini joined the circle of Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Karim Ḥāʾeri in Arāk at the age of nineteen and followed him to Qom when he moved there soon after. Khomeini first excelled in ʿerfān, a discipline then viewed in the ḥawza with suspicion, the first of many indications that he would not restrict himself to the traditional technical concerns of the jurist. Loyalty to the leadership first of Ḥāʾeri and then of Borujerdi imposed on him a large measure of silence on political issues, but in 1944 he published a book, Kašf al-asrār, that was in the first place the refutation of an anti-religious tract but also afforded an opportunity for political comment. It was in this work that he first adumbrated the theory of welāyat-e faqih (the governance of the jurist) that thirty-five years later was to become the main constitutional principle of the Islamic Republic. Some allowance is made for the institution of monarchy, providing the monarch is chosen by an assembly of properly qualified mojtaheds and adheres to Islamic law, but even that arrangement is provisional and should obtain only “as long as no better system (neẓām) can be established” (Kašf al-asrār, p. 186).

Khomeini’s struggle against the Pahlavi state began in the fall of 1962 with a successful campaign for the repeal of new laws governing elections to local and provincial councils. More significant clashes came early the next year, when a package of measures officially dubbed the White Revolution was approved by a referendum widely seen as fraudulent; the measures themselves were perceived by many, including Khomeini, as reinforcing the powers of the monarchy and American hegemony in Persia. He therefore began criticizing the regime with rising vehemence, denouncing also the unofficial but important links then being forged with Israel. On 22 March 1963, paratroopers attacked the Fayżiya madrasa in Qom, the site of his classes and preaching, and two and a half months later, on the occasion of ʿĀšurāʾ, he denounced the regime as “fundamentally opposed to Islam” and allied to Israel and the United States in hostility to the Qurʾan. He was thereupon arrested, and an insurrection broke out in several cities across the country (Algar, 1991b, pp. 753-54). The uprising, known by the date in Persian solar calendar on which it began as “the movement of Ḵordād 15,” was a turning point in the modern history of Persia; it brought Khomeini to the fore as the most important and radical adversary of the Pahlavi regime and foreshadowed the revolution of 1978-79.

Khomeini was released in August 1963, but rearrested in October of the same year, this time being held until May 1964. Once free again, he resumed his denunciations of the regime, and in October 1964 condemned with great vehemence a recently concluded agreement on the status of American personnel in Persia. Arrested once more, he was sent into exile in Turkey, remaining there until he was permitted to proceed to Najaf on 5 September 1965. This was to remain his residence until the Iraqi government, at the behest of the shah’s regime, ordered him to leave in October 1978; he then made his way to Neauphle-le-Château, a hamlet near Paris, whence he returned in triumph to Tehran on 31 January 1979 (Algar, 1991b, pp. 760-61).

During almost fifteen years of exile, Khomeini maintained unbroken contact with Persia, and his declarations and pronouncements reached the country by various clandestine means. Most significant, perhaps, was the transcript of a series of lectures he delivered in Najaf early in 1970 on the subject of Islamic government, in which he developed more fully the doctrine of welāyat-e faqih, supporting it with scriptural proofs and laying out a general plan for its practical implementation. In addition, a variety of individuals and organizations within the country were also influential in maintaining and fostering a specifically Islamic aspiration for radical change. Foremost among them was ʿAli Šariʿati, in many ways the antithesis of Khomeini, for he viewed the generality of the ulema with a degree of suspicion, calling for an “Islam minus the āḵund,” and contrastingly exalted the role of the “religious intellectual” (rawšanfekr-e maḏhabi) as the true agent of revolutionary change (Sachedina, pp. 205-10). His lectures and writings were widely influential among the secularly educated young, and, although he died in exile in England in June 1977, about six months before the beginning of the revolution, he must be accounted one of its ideological architects.

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