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’.

This is not to say that only American-Iranian academics can write good books about the revolution. But they do seem more likely to be able to set the terms for a discussion which does not suppress the simultaneous consideration of what may appear to be mutually exclusive or antithetical viewpoints. Linguistic considerations are paramount here. When you hear the word ‘ayatollah’, does your flesh creep, or do your eyes gleam? Do you like to call the Iranian revolution a ‘revolution’, or an upheaval, a catastrophe, a crusade? Revolutions are normally the property of the Left, as a self-defining political and intellectual group. Did the gradual exclusion of the secular Left from political power, and from the revolution, prove that there never was a revolution – only a transfer of power between traditional elites? All these questions expose failures in communication, of which we can make ourselves aware without becoming evasive and unproductive, and recognition of ambiguity may give a student the insight needed for a breakthrough in understanding. The concept vilayet-e faqih, for example, is constantly mentioned as part of the doctrinal basis for the power which the Ayatollah Khomeini possesses in modern Iran. It is an ambiguous phrase, which has been variously translated as ‘rule of the theologian’, ‘guardianship of the jurist’ and ‘vice-regency of the religious jurisconsult’ – or it has been left in the Persian original to be explained in the text or the glossary. It might mean no power at all. It might mean absolute power. It is similarly unspecific about the identity or number of power-holders. Such ambiguity has probably strengthened the force of the doctrine, and the success of Khomeini, the man most closely associated with it. Mottahedeh translates vilayet-e faqih as ‘guardianship of the jurist’, while recognising that Khomeini has tried to emphasise the connotation of ‘rule’. Mottahedeh’s translation carries little of the religious sense of the Persian. Islam and law are much more ultimately bound up with one another than are Christianity and law.

The beauty of his book is in his ability to explain sophisticated ideas and difficult subjects in a way which is widely accessible and yet not insulting to a specialist. What he says about Medieval Persian poetry, for instance, is of great general interest.

Persian poetry came to be the emotional home in which the ambiguity that was at the heart of Iranian culture lived most freely and openly. What Persian poetry expressed was not an enigma to be solved but an enigma that was unsolvable. In Persian poetry of any worth nothing was merely something else; the inner space of the spirit in which Persian poetry underwent its thousand transformations was ultimately a place where this ambiguous language reached a private emotional value that had to remain private, because to decode it as mere allegory, to re-express it in any form of explanatory paraphrase, would be to place it back in the public domain and, therefore, in the realm in which it was intended to remain ambiguous.

The mystery of the Iranian revolution, for many Westerners, lies in its seemingly paradoxical conflation of pre-modern, religious and secular, nationalist revolutionary traditions. It also damages many of the presuppositions and models of modern political scientists. For Ervand Abrahamian: ‘At first glance, the Iranian revolution seems to debunk the notion that modernisation brings secularisation and that urbanisation strengthens the modern classes at the expense of the traditional ones.’ Iran had seemed to have undergone forms of bourgeois revolutions in the 1900s and the 1940s, and the main instrument of the revolutionaries in the years leading up to the fall of the Shah was not the gun, or the bomb, or even the written word, but the cassette. This product of the electronic age gave them previously unimagined powers of communication in the most anti-Western and, at times, anti-modern of revolutions. With reference to the hay’ats, or semi-religious associations which sprang up during the 1970s, particularly in slum areas, among migrants from the countryside, Mottahedeh writes:

Given the opportunity to choose between hundreds of sermons, Iranians became discriminating connoisseurs of preaching, especially as a cassette cost about three dollars, the equivalent of a day’s worth of meals for an Iranian of the lower middle class. But the cassettes were worth it; they not only gave you control of the music and the sermons you heard, they also offered you the chance to thumb your nose at the government as you listened in private to sermons obliquely critical of it, or even to those of Khomeini (smuggled from Iraq), which were directly critical. You wanted a live preacher at your hay’at, but thanks to the cassette, you could also afford to listen to the best preaching around and many hay’ats chose to listen to both a live and a taped preacher in one session ... Popular preachers, critical of the government, no longer felt their exclusion from the state-controlled radio so keenly. God had given them a new medium.

Mottahedeh’s description of the revolution is brief, two pages out of four hundred. His account of the short-term causes seems to be drawn mainly from Abrahamian’s book and Farhad Kazemi’s Poverty and Revolution in Iran. These matters are not strictly his concern. But his study of the spiritual malaise from which the revolution sprang is superb. In Iran ministers of religion and of government have often seen themselves as intellectuals, and most of the intellectuals who belong to neither category have close connections with one or the other. There has not been, in Iran, a self-defining intelligentsia distinct from the government and religious classes. With better reasons than most, Mottahadeh is yet another intellectual who accords a highly significant historical role to the intellectual. Seen from a Western standpoint, however, these are intellectuals with a difference. Their lives and work are manifestations and paradigms of social change and spiritual malaise, but they are more than that. Just as the illiterate might know some Medieval Persian poetry, so the semi-educated could absorb the ideas of distracted, angry writers, and everyone could participate in the passion play. Literature, philosophy and religious thinking were never solely the property of the higher social classes. Intellectuals in the West, herded into universities or living as hermits, rarely develop a discourse which is accessible to the masses. This is not so in Iran.

Jalal Al-e Ahmad was the son of a mullah. He came under the influence of Ahmad Kasravi, the most effective Iranian secular nationalist thinker of the 20th century: this is ‘the mullah turned inside out’ whom we meet early in Mottahedeh’s book. Al-e Ahmad joined the Iranian Communist Party and then in the Fifties and Sixties drifted from politics into writing and from scientific certainty into religious musing. For Mottahedeh, ‘he said aloud so much that was felt inwardly by so many different Iranians that in the end he seemed intellectually to be a hopelessly confused and self-contradictory man. But whatever he felt he said so well and with such evident fearlessness and honesty that nearly everyone loved to listen.’ In 1962 Al-e Ahmad wrote a book which has been translated into English as Euromania. The Persian title is Gharbzadegi. Gharbzadegi is a species of cultural illness. According to Mottahadeh, Al-e Ahmad seized on the newly coined word, and he made this word a rallying cry for Iranians from the Sixties to the present. The word translated literally, piece by piece, is ‘West-stricken-ness’, but even this clumsy translation fails to convey the sense of the Persian original. ‘I say that gharbzadegi is like cholera [or] frostbite. But no. it’s at least as bad as sawflies in the wheatfields. Have you ever seen how they infest wheat? From within. There’s a healthy skin in places, but it’s only a skin, just like the shell of a cicada on a tree.’ To be ‘stricken’ in Persian means not only to be afflicted with a disease or to be stung by an insect but also to be infatuated and bedazzled. ‘West-stricken-ness’, therefore, has sometimes been translated as ‘Westoxication’. For Al-e Ahmad, one of the characteristics of the Euromaniac is that he regarded Western Orientalists as the only good sources for understanding himself.

Al-e Ahmad was never parochial in his outlook. At the Harvard International Summer Seminar of 1965, directed by Henry Kissinger, he told Ralph Ellison: ‘I believe that the problem of American blacks comes from the two refuges they have constructed for themselves: Christianity and jazz.’ But he became more and more apolitical and pessimistic. Despite his return to religion, he never grappled with the possibility of combining his negative crittique with a regenerative infusion of traditional cultural values. In many ways, Ali Shari’ati picked up where Al-e Ahmad left off – it is not entirely coincidental that Shari’ati translated Fanon while Al-e Ahmad translated Camus.

Sadly, Roy Mottahedeh writes little about Shari’ati, the seminal intellectual figure of the revolution itself. Shari’ati died in London in 1977, aged 44. What Shari’ati did was to combine a cultural commitment to Shi’a Islam with a demand for economic justice. ‘It is not enough to say that you advocate an Islam that is “concerned” about the poor. The caliphs said the same. Islam ... struggles for the elimination of poverty.’ In his use of the word mustaza’fin Khomeini was to symbolise the identification of Islam with socio-economic justice. Mustaza’fin is usually translated as ‘the deprived’ or ‘the disinherited’ – in French, as les misérables or les damnés. Khomeini had borrowed the word from both the Koran and from Shari’ati, for it was not in ordinary use before the revolution (Shari’ati had used it in his translation of Fanon’s Damnés de la Terre). This was a word which could make the invoker of salvation seem both pious and revolutionary

We do not know whether the last Shah of Iran, or his advisers, recognised the extent to which there was a threatening cultural malaise in Iran or whether he was just concerned with his own glorification, but by the 1970s there was a fully-developed cult of the monarchy, affording a parallel with the ‘invention’ in the 19th century of fixed rituals, regalia and court procedure for the British monarchy. Examples of regicide were excluded from the school text of Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings. Every third baby seemed to be called Cyrus. Two thousand five hundred years of Persian monarchy were celebrated at the festival of Persepolis in 1971, when the Shah, son of an illiterate soldier, was host to Hirohito, Haile Selassie, Prince Philip, Podgorny, Spiro Agnew and Tito. ‘The Alka-Seltzer,’ Mottahedeh tells us, ‘were wrapped by Fauchon of Paris.’ Some Iranians were horrified by the Persepolis celebrations: ‘the stinking blossom on the plant that Al-e Ahmad had identified as “the mania for showing off in front of foreigners, for competing in boasting vaingloriously and stupidly of Cyrus and Darius”’. Ali Shari’ati’s view of the cult of the monarchy and of Persia’s Aryan roots (‘Aryan’ is cognate with ‘Iran’) is no less damning. In Return to Ourselves he writes:

some of you may conclude that we Iranians must return to our racial roots. I categorically reject this conclusion. I oppose all racism, fascism and all reactionary returns. Moreover, Islamic civilisation has worked like scissors and has cut us off completely from our pre-Islamic past.

Mottahedeh knows that Shari’ati is being slightly extravagant. Islam is different in different countries – something which is by no means just a consequence of the Sunni/Shi’a split. ‘Islamic civilisation’ is itself a problematic concept, and Iranian kingship has an ambiguous history. In the old days, before and after the Prophet, kings were more malleable than the late Shah. In the fourth century of the Christian era Azorpat told King Bahram: ‘O King, know that the composition of poetry is one of the gravest faults of kings and the vilest habits of sovereigns.’ Bahram changed his ways. Six centuries later the philosopher and doctor Avicenna arrived in central Iran

just in time to treat the king of Rayy, a great city that lies very close to the site of modern Tehran. This king was suffering from the delusion that he had been transformed into a cow, and ‘All the day he would cry out to this one and that, “Kill me, so that a good stew may be prepared from my flesh.” ’ Meanwhile as the king-cow refused to eat, he was wasting away (and hence was diagnosed as ‘melancholic’). The royal physicians, in despair, called Avicenna in on the case. He immediately sent a message to the king: ‘Give good tidings to the patient, and say, “The butcher is coming to kill you,” ’ at which news the deluded king is supposed to have rejoiced. Then Avicenna, knife in hand, came to the king and ordered two men to bring ‘the cow’ to the middle of the room, to bind him hand and foot, and throw him down. On hearing this the patient cheerfully threw himself down and was bound. Avicenna sat next to him and ‘placed his hand on the patient’s ribs as is the custom of butchers. “Oh, what a lean cow!” said he. “It is not fit to be killed; give it fodder until it grows fat.” ’ Avicenna ordered them to unbind him and set food before him. And from this time on, whenever they gave the king the draughts and drugs Avicenna prescribed, the royal physician said, ‘Eat well, for this is a fine fattener for cows.’ A month of this treatment cured the king completely.

Mottahedeh is a writer who can be both amusing and percipient about complicated matters. He does not feel bound by the artificial constraints demanded by the disciplines which appropriate for themselves the study of such complex phenomena as the Iranian revolution. Moreover he does not feel too concerned if he can’t resolve the problems he has set himself. He shows the way ahead to an understanding and assimilation of the Iranian revolution, and demonstrates, accessibly, methods of interpretation which could be useful in many fields. This is a book which leaves you asking questions. Did the aunt of Ahmad, the sceptical university professor, really feel more free when Reza Khan was deposed and she could wear her chador in the street again? We have only learnt what Ahmad thought she felt. What did Ali Hashemi’s tree-pruner, Hamid, feel when he heard of Khomeini’s return from exile? We learn what Hashemi felt, as he worked in the garden with Hamid. The voices of Hamid and of Ahmad’s unnamed aunt are unheard: and such voices might not, as yet, express a discourse that we would find intelligible.

[*] 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.