God’s Medium

Sam Miller

  • The Mantle of the Prophet by Roy Mottahedeh
    Chatto, 416 pp, £12.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3035 0

Reza Khan, Iran’s penultimate Shah, was forced to abdicate in 1941. Among the many measures of social ‘reform’ which he had decreed was the abolition of the veil. In 1941, according to Ahmad, a sceptical university professor in Roy Mottahedeh’s book The Mantle of the Prophet, ‘women such as my aunt, who hadn’t left her house since Reza Shah’s forced unveiling of women, felt as if they had been released from prison, because they could appear in the streets in their chadors.’ In these words it is possible to read a warning addressed to those with an unambiguous image of Iran. Cultural and intellectual ambiguity in Iranian history is the thread that draws together Mottahedeh’s extraordinary book. It is extraordinary because it disobeys, in a very effective manner, the rules according to which most soi-disant historians guide their writings. The book is a tapestry of interwoven essays. It is a work of biography, of philosophy, of literary criticism, and of religious and educational history. Mottahedeh is attempting to set the revolution of 1979 in its historical context.

The West never thought well of the revolution and few Westerners have seriously tried to understand it. Its most immediately perceptible legacy for the West is probably the introduction of the word ‘ayatollah’ into common use. The use is pejorative: it evokes an old, turbaned, bearded man, sitting in judgment, looking like a crow and ordering the execution of the impure. One-third of Mottahedeh’s book describes the life and education of an acquaintance of his, Ali Hashemi, who has become an ayatollah. He tells us that this is a real person, though he has altered the name and certain identifying characteristics. Mottahedeh gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Hashemi and lets Hashemi speak for himself. As mullahs go, Hashemi is a liberal. He likes some Western music and has attended a secular university. His early education, however, was uncompromisingly traditional. Mottahedeh writes: ‘I realised that my friend and a handful of similarly educated people were the last true scholastics alive on earth.’ They had studied the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and logic – deemed trivial today in the West, though it represented the foundation of the academic curriculum in late Medieval Europe. This is the educational system that produced both Aquinas and Torquemada, the saintly and the bloodthirsty.

Mottahedeh is not an apologist for the revolution. He recognises that this portrait of a mullah may satisfy neither its opponents nor its supporters.

Some Iranians will feel that the account of the mullah who stands at the centre of this book’s personal narrative is not reverential enough; he has experienced doubts and shifts of attitude that they will think atypical of Shiah men of religion. Others will think the portrait altogether too reverent ... To some degree both parties will be right. But I am not giving an account of an archetypal mullah. I could not do so in good conscience. In preparing this book I talked with real Iranians, not archetypes and the book reflects what they have said.

Furthermore, it would not help the Western reader if Mottahedeh had translated into English the words of some mullah with whom we had no chance of sharing a mutually intelligible discourse. We can begin to enter Hashemi’s world through the doubts he expresses, and the ambiguities which it expresses to him. And we also need the other characters of Mottahedeh’s book, such as Isa Sadiq, the modernising, Westernising educationalist, and Al-e Ahmad, a doubting peripatetic intellectual who translates Camus and Sartre, as well as Mottahedeh himself, in their roles as uncertain intermediaries. Through their eyes and not through the eyes of some ‘impartial’ political analyst, open-minded Westerners can begin to comprehend and confront the reality of the Iranian revolution – which has given the West a new generation of bogeymen.

The West is not a monolith, and Roy Mottahedeh was born in New York. His surname is Persian and he is Professor of Medieval Middle-Eastern History at Princeton. Such a scholar is in a strong position to say something useful to us about the revolution, and amid reams of fact and fancy have come excellent books by two other American-Iranian academics: Shaul Bakhash’s The Reign of the Ayatollahs and Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran between Two Revolutions.[*] The three books are very different from one another and have different ostensible areas of study, but they are grappling with similar problems of communication between and within cultures. Mottahedeh is more self-conscious about his role as an interpreter than the other two, whose aims are more traditional, objectivist and discipline-based. Bakhash breaks his cover, though, in dedicating his book ‘to Roy [Mottahedeh?] ... and to my Iranian friends who loved the revolution, not knowing it would not love them back’.

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[*] The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution by Shaul Bakhash, Tauris, £14.95, 1985, 1 85043 003 9. Iran between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian, Princeton, 1983, 0 691 10134 5.