Iran: Religion, Politics and Society 
by Nikki Keddie.
Frank Cass, 243 pp., £13.50, October 1980, 0 7146 3150 7
Show More
Towards a Modern Iran 
edited by Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim.
Frank Cass, 262 pp., £14.50, October 1980, 0 7146 3145 0
Show More
Islam in the Modern World 
by Elie Kedourie.
Mansell, 332 pp., £10, December 1980, 0 7201 1570 1
Show More
Show More

For the past two and a half years scarcely a week has gone by without some new event in Iran capturing the newspaper headlines. The quickening pace of the Revolution from the late summer of 1978, the massacre at Jaleh Square, the Shah’s departure (‘thrown out like a dead mouse’), the euphoria of that first spring which was then shattered by the early signs of deep internal division, the relentless retribution of the revolutionary courts, the seizure of the American Embassy and its protracted resolution, the sudden Iraqi aggression across the Shatt in September 1980 … And so, week by week, the catalogue of crises is extended, until once again the cries of ‘God is great’ resound from Tehran roof-tops, with crowds in the streets below baying for Bani-Sadr’s blood. As Elie Kedourie remarks, ‘the world has stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed in astonishment.’ Where do we look for elucidation? What attempts have there been to explain this extraordinary succession of events? Where should the search begin for the deeper and more permanent characteristics of Iranian society beneath the hysteria of recent events?

Little should be expected from the apologia written by or on behalf of the late Shah, or from those first blow-by-blow accounts assembled by the international press corps, crowding into the Inter-Continental Hotel to witness the last days of the ancien régime. Glamorous titles, such as Iran: La Poudrière or Les Secrets de la Révolution Islamique, rarely bring any deeper analysis. The more solid, pre-Revolution studies of Graham and Halliday emphasise how even the best-informed and most astute journalists were overtaken by events. Academics, too, seem to have been unaware that they were studying a society on the eve of an enormous upheaval, but they have been more reticent or simply more fastidious in responding to the challenge of a reinterpretation of recent Iranian history. For the moment the general reader will have to make do with the collections of essays reviewed here, written for the most part before the Revolution but presented by enterprising publishers as providing some indication of the forces that contributed to it.

Despite a modest disclaimer of any such predictive capacity, Professor Keddie’s collection of essays throws considerably more light on the major movements of 19th and 20th-century Iranian history than any of the others. Over the last twenty years her research has concentrated on the reformers of the last century, and the first stirrings of a national movement against the Qajars in the 1890s, culminating in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. More recently, she has broadened her interests in two directions: first, towards general surveys of different aspects of modern Iranian history, whether economic, social, agrarian or bibliographical, and secondly (and somewhat surprisingly), towards Persian handicrafts and their place in society. Iran: Religion, Politics and Society represents both the earlier more scholarly essays, as well as the more recent endeavours at haute vulgarisation. Refreshingly unlike most historians of Iran, Professor Keddie is able to set her material against a wider intellectual background, always seeking instructive parallels, asking pertinent questions, assimilating new ideas and arguments into her overall framework. And yet reading these articles one after the other, especially those in the first section of the book, one is surprised how repetitive and generalised they seem. The basic ideas are lucidly expressed, adequately supported by the handful of standard Persian histories and the most accessible selection of the PRO files, but rarely elaborated, expanded or revised. It is perhaps this that explains the sad remark in the introduction on the rejection of her work by Iranian scholars. Personal and political differences aside, it would not be difficult for an Iranian historian to see the level of generalisation in so many of these essays as a disappointing response to the considerable advances in historical research that have taken place in Iran itself during the last two decades. The broad outlines of Professor Keddie’s work come from diplomatic archives: the great bulk of Persian primary and secondary materials is ignored. It is Iranian history written at a distance, detached, competent but slightly colourless.

Such criticisms might also be levelled at many of the essays in Towards a Modern Iran. The editors, Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim, raise expectations by promising ‘some light on the origins and character of the present crisis, and perhaps ... some guidance about its future unfolding’: but the heterogeneous nature of this volume does not quite live up to this pious hope. All the essays were written before the Revolution; they range in time and theme from the collapse of the silver standard in the later 19th century to the impact of the increased oil revenues in the mid-1970s, and vary strikingly in quality. Those that might more satisfactorily meet the editors’ promise are a useful, and ominous, study of the Tudeh (Communist) Party’s network within the Armed Forces in the early 1950s, and a brief introduction to the ideas of Ali Shariati (1933-77), the sociologist and religious thinker whose lectures and essays had such a compelling effect on the young during the Revolution.

In marked contrast is Elie Kedourie’s own elegant, highly readable collection of recent essays and reviews, Islam in the Modern World. No one has a better eye for the authentic quotation, the recondite source or remark which deserve to be rescued from oblivion; no one is more catholic in his reading or more skilled in conveying the contradictions and confusions that afflict the contemporary Muslim mind from Morocco to Central Asia. Yet, beneath the cool surface, there lurk his familiar prejudices: a nostalgic attachment to the old imperial nations – particularly England – whose cautious, sceptical outlook and sense of historical and political responsibilities once shored up that sprawling agglomeration of the Ottoman Empire, but then, in a lamentable failure of will and self-inflicted loss of control, capitulated in the face of the disruptive influence of nationalism, first in the aftermath of the First World War and, more spectacularly, at Suez and in the Algerian War. At times, the sarcasm overreaches itself, lashing out, a little hysterically, at favourite bêtes-noires, Nasser, de Gaulle, those holy humbugs Hammarskjöld and Gandhi, the United Nations – ‘the monstrous regiment of the 38th floor’ – or at the teeming multitudes of bien-pensants, the great and the good, who in their intellectual weakness and wan sentimentality are still naive enough to cling to aspirations above those of a crude empiricism. This bleak vision, in which the contemporary Islamic world is encompassed, provides scant hope for any clear understanding between Islamic and non-Islamic countries: on the contrary, the prediction is that they will become more opaque and unintelligible to each other, and that within the Arab world itself disjunction between the ideas and purposes of the rulers and those of the ruled will bring about even greater upheavals and catastrophe.

This sense of foreboding underlies Kedourie’s view of recent developments in Iran. In an essay that sets out to review Khomaini’s political ideas against a general survey of Shiism, he concludes that the ‘doctrine constitutes a radical departure from what, over the centuries, had been established as the outlook and ethos of Twelver Shiism’. This, he says, has been achieved, ‘not, of course, by jettisoning Shiite teachings, but by so systematically and rigorously interpreting them as to make them unrecognisable in their new uncompromising rigidity’. The central issue, for Khomaini as for any other Shii mujtahid (authoritative interpreter of the law), is the question of authority and who should administer the affairs of the community after the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam in the tenth century. The traditions assembled at about this time in the four great compendia of Shii legal sources have always, like passages from the Quran, been the object of conflicting exegesis. The exact extent of the mujtahids’ powers remained ambiguous, and the nature of the community’s relationship to secular government controversial. In his survey of Shiism, Kedourie concentrates on the view of those who limit the authority of the mujtahids to giving judgment in matters pertaining to the faith, and who would have them appointed and dismissed by the people at will. Similarly, he emphasises the tendency in Shiism to acquiesce with secular power: neither to surrender legitimacy, as the Sunnis did, nor to protest. It is this Shiism, in which the mystical and esoteric aspects predominate, that Kedourie takes to be the norm, and it is this passive, quietist tradition that Khomaini is said to have violated so unexpectedly.

A closer study of Shii history, however, might have balanced this view with others of equal importance and long standing. If Shaikh Tusi, one of the most authoritative of the early jurists, could, under special circumstances, allow obedience to the ‘just and rightful sultan’, there were many other prominent mujtahids who argued that they alone were the real successors of the Imam in every aspect of the community’s life. Even under the early Safavids, at the beginning of the 16th century, when Twelver Shiism became the official state religion, opposition to the secular power was unequivocably voiced by Shaikh Ibrahim Qatifi and Ahmad Ardabili. By the 17th century, even a Western traveller reported the explicit claim that ‘the supreme throne of the world belongs only to a mujtahid, a man possessed of sanctity and knowledge above the common rule of man. It is true that since the mujtahid is holy and by consequence peaceful, there must be a king to wield the sword to exercise justice, but this he must do only as the minister and subordinate of the former.’ In the 19th century, these arguments were propounded with greater vigour and consistency by Shaikh Jafar and Ahmad Naraqi, among others. Against this background, the interpretation that Khomaini gives to rule by the faqih (legal expert) might not appear quite so innovative. The novelty lies in his success and the unswerving manner in which these ideas have been implemented.

But Kedourie’s general view of Shiism, as well as his perspective on Shii history, is open to doubt. Shiism, unlike Sunnism, does not rest on an authoritative heritage which limits and circumscribes. Because ‘the gates of ijtihad’ have never closed, it is incumbent on the Imam’s successors to exercise their independent judgment, to adapt and elaborate the law according to contemporary circumstances. By the same token, it must be a living mujtahid to whom the faithful resort. This capacity for discussion and reinterpretation was enhanced with the victory of the usulis – the legal school which supported the position of the mujtahids – over the akhbaris – the traditionalists – in the late 18th century: a victory which brought greater flexibility. For example, instead of a wholesale rejection or acceptance of modern ideas, there were many skilful attempts at the time of the Constitutional Revolution to adapt new ideas and concepts to Shiism. Kedourie underestimates the ingenuity (and indeed the possibility) of this attempt to reconcile Quranic precepts and Western concepts, such as equality before the law or the sovereignty of the people.

Naini’s tract, curtly dismissed here as ‘broken-backed and flimsy’, was one among several, and though in time many of the religious groups turned against the Constitution which had resulted from this attempted reconciliation, its attraction as a via media has survived right down to the present – for example, among that small group of lay and religious reformers who were politically and socially active in the early 1960s: Mehdi Bazargan, Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani and, to some extent, Murteza Mutahhari, leaders of the front rank in the months immediately after the February 1979 Revolution. More recently, the criticisms levelled against Khomaini’s view of velayat-e faqih (rule by the legal expert) by such eminent religious leaders as Shariatmadari and Qummi suggest that this tradition still has some support. Both Khomaini’s fundamentalism and this more modernist school show how Shiism is continually changing, drawing on precedent but adapting it to new situations. In this sense, the dangers for Twelver Shiism that Kedourie sees in Khomaini’s position may be more apparent than real.

Another danger much spoken of by Western commentators is that of the imminent fragmentation of Iran. This prediction owes a great deal to the interpretation of late 19th and early 20th-century Iranian society by Ervand Abrahamian, whose essay on the Iranian historian and writer Ahmad Kasravi is republished in Towards a Modern Iran. This interpretation is an amalgam in part derived from Kasravi’s experiences, as recorded in his autobiography and numerous publications from the 1920s to the 1940s. But, in a later elaboration, it has received a tighter theoretical underpinning from Marx’s comments on ‘oriental despotism’: ‘the whole empire, not counting the few large towns,’ Marx said, was divided ‘into villages, which possessed a completely separate organisation and formed a little world in themselves.’ In Abrahamian’s view, Iran conforms to this stereotype of ‘locally-bound microcosms’ and ‘little republics’; of a country divided by ethnic, sectarian, tribal and linguistic differences that break up the socio-economic substructure, split the population into ‘a hot-bed of competing communities’ and create ‘a complicated mosaic where each inlay was small but of different shape, texture and colour’. It is a view that has now passed into the conventional wisdom about Iranian society, and it underestimates the degree of social integration and cultural unity, the combination of regional diversity with a common Iranian culture. It is this sense of cohesion, of iraniyyat, that has helped to keep the country physically intact during the last two years: without a grasp of its importance, it is hard to explain why the Arabs of Khuzistan have failed to welcome their fellow-Arab Iraqi ‘liberators’, or why the Azarbaijanis have not taken advantage of a weakened central government to fight for an independent state.

Both this underlying homogeneity and the inherent resilience of Shiism will be severely tested as the present crisis edges Iran closer towards civil war. Khomaini’s attempt to balance the fundamentalist and progressive elements within contemporary Shiism has been irrevocably abandoned, and the massive weight of his authority has come down on the side of the Islamic Republican Party, crushing erstwhile allies like Bazargan and Bani-Sadr beneath a torrent of frenzied vituperation. In this long power struggle, there could never have been any real doubt where his own sympathies lay, though he often intimated that there would be room to accommodate the modernists in his vision of the Islamic community. The extremity of the language directed against the modernists now suggests that he has realised how unpopular the fundamentalists are in the Armed Forces, among minorities and, above all, in the world of commerce.

Whilst he lives, there will probably be sufficient cohesion to keep the velayat-e faqih intact: after his death, no one man will have the same prestige, and the group of three currently being prepared for the succession will find it difficult to manipulate popular feeling, especially as, without Khomaini to protect them, they are more liable to be challenged by some of those religious leaders whom Khomaini has so humiliated and disparaged. Brute force and public hysteria may help the fundamentalists control the streets of Tehran for the moment, but further reverses, in the economy, or in the war with Iraq, could alter the situation quite suddenly. Both Bazargan and Bani-Sadr have tested the brittleness of the urban crowd’s allegiance, and no doubt both have also, belatedly, learnt, as did Doctor Mosaddeq’s National Front coalition, that without a proper party organisation the battle of the streets can never be won. The opportunity for establishing this kind of organisation has now been lost, but an alliance of progressive Shii thought and socialist policies may still be the most acceptable course for the majority of Iranians, once the Ayatollah’s present rage has been weathered.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences