Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980).

Michael M. J. Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).

“Iran” must be one of the most emotive words in contemporary Western political discourse. In the 1960s and early 1970s it was presented as a benchmark of Third World industrialization and modernization. A powerful set of state apparatuses, an open door to Western capital, a large army and air force with massive arms purchases to guarantee supremacy in a crucial strategic and economic zone, huge oil revenues — all seemed to combine in the nearest thing to the perfect ally that the dependent world could offer: an intelligible, transparent, rational order. Could other countries in the region — Egypt, for example — follow the path of the Shah’s kingdom? Would there be, could there be, other Irans?

“Iran” now typifies an incomprehensible, opaque and irrational disorder to those who so recently found it unproblematic. “Will there be another Iran?” is a different question in the days of the Islamic Republic. It has been given a more frantic urgency by the events of this past October. There is, in the mind’s eye, the indelible image of an army truck halting before a reviewing stand as jets howl overhead… a figure in Ruritanian uniform rises to acknowledge what he seems to take for a spontaneous tribute, a salute by his devoted but impetuous solders….

The panic and disorder of American policymakers after Sadat’s assassination, and the appeals to an alleged threat by Libya’s Qaddafi against Sudan and Egypt to justify yet more arms shipments, highlight the irrationality of their understanding and politics. Indeed, it seems a topsy-turvy world. Having apparently eliminated the power of the religious institution, the Shah falls to a revolution whose public icons are precisely les vieux turbans. Having complacently used the right-wing Muslim associations against the Nasserists and the left, and allowed the Muslim Brothers back into prominence, Sadat dies at the hands of young fanatics for whom he is an unbeliever. Islam is taken to be at the heart of the mystery, in abstract counterpoise to the pseudo-concreteness of figures such as Qaddafi, Khomeini or Sadat. An obsession with dark forces on the one hand, and with the heroic or demonic individual on the other, produces a political nightmare.

The abstractness and mystery come partly from the reification of Islam as a unitary object or force which produces, or more usually reacts to, other equally reified forces. Two sentences from Shahrough Akhavi’s preface signal a common enough baseline for intellectual operations: “The focus of the research seminar was the impact of social change upon Islam…. Apart from Iran, specialists were appointed to investigate religious adaption and response in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia.” These key words are closely linked to the conception of sociocultural forms subjected to the demands made by undifferentiated processes of “social change” or “modernization.” Islam has long been conceptualized in this way, as having to confront “change” and as coming up with more or less inadequate answers to the problems it brings in its train.

Something rather vaguely called secularization was seen in common sense terms, as a necessary element in modernization. They went together in a linear and presumably irreversible process. As the law, property and education passed more and more into the hands of the state, the “adaptation and response” school presumed that secularization was occurring at both the institutional and the cultural-ideological levels. Such a dangerous conflation went unquestioned.

This complex of meanings and confused notions compounded the import of an essentially passive characterization of religion. Islam became, so it was often felt, a phenomenon of the private realm. Research was directed toward the rather deceivingly visible terrain of organizations and institutions. What went on outside could be safely ignored. In this version, Islam was going down a cultural cul-de-sac. It might still have something to say, in a negative explanatory fashion, about the mentality which presumably prevented a given people from showing an appropriate entrepreneurial spirit or otherwise achieving “take off.” Otherwise, there were more important things to study. (The left has been as much at fault here as any, since a category labeled “religion” is often naively taken to be somehow more ideological and mystifying than any other kind of ideology or mystification. Theories of culture and ideology are still extremely in adequate in much Marxist and neo-Marxist writing.)

This mixture of common-sense ideas separates on contact with the reality of contemporary Iran. Secularization was not what it seemed. A crisis exploded, and out came all the demons and genies that had been relegated in researchers’ minds to the margins of social life. Should we talk of desecularization now? Sanctification? More importantly, there was the nasty suspicion that religious forces, whatever they might be, had been there all the time, under our noses but unseen. Or was there some new power and articulation of symbolic and social elements emerging? The Shah was not the only one who was surprised by religion.

Akhavi and Michael Fischer both work ultimately within a kind of modernization framework. In fact, both the works under review were part of the Islam and Social Change project at the University of Chicago, under the direction of Leonard Binder and Fazlur Rahman. In explaining the importance of Islam for the revolution, they share the argument that it was crucial: By the late 1970s there was, as it were, nothing else left. “Under such circumstances, because the religious institution had remained the only element in society that the regime had failed to coopt,” Akhavi writes, “it became the central force of revolutionary activity.” In Fischer’s words, “the relative success of the state in suppressing overt political opposition and critical discussion made religion the primary idiom of political protest.”

Many problems arise here. One is that neither writer locates religion within the context of Iranian social relations in general. The focus on the clergy and education produces invaluable material on changing links between the ‘ulama’, in the schools, and with the state. But the foundations of the various and conflicting relations that made religion, in different forms, so powerful in a specific set of circumstances remains obscure. Such critically important topics as the changing nature of Iranian nationalism, or the various opposition groupings with or without a religious coloring, receive very little treatment. This is particularly a problem with Akhavi’s book, all the more so because, in discussing clergy-state relations, there is no clear conception of how the state is to be understood. One half of the equation is missing, save as sketches of phases through which he sees institutional relations of the monarchy with the mullahs passing. References to “the Bureaucratic State” do not take us very far. Fischer’s “modernizing, non-democratic state” is no improvement, though it might have evoked a wintry smile from the Shah.

What does emerge is the degree of division and differentiation within the religious institution. The clergy might broadly be defined at almost any modern period as “anti-left,” and the foreign devils have always been a rallying point. But there was little unity around other social issues, and even less of a reading of Iranian society as a whole. There were often more reasons for alliance with the state than for opposition. Ferocious hostility to the Baha’is, and an obsessive concern to restrict the position of women mobilized more energies than a shah’s oppressions. There were those such as the Ayatollah Taleqani (frequently spelled Talinqani in Akhavi’s book — the proofreading is sloppy) who tried to desanctify the landlord-peasant relationship. He suggested that the landless could take over “dead lands,” though without any suggestion as to how this should be accomplished. One has the general impression of factions of the clergy being pushed into politics in a piecemeal and uncoordinated way.

The lack of analytical rigor does not diminish the value of the material Akhavi makes available on programs of study in the madrasas, the rise of Qom to prominence, and the fluctuations of dealings with the Shah. There are moments when we get near to the highly illuminating day-to-day details of what vaqf could be in the hands of an enterprising administrator:

In this manner, Manuchehr Azmun, Director of the Endowments Organization in the seventies, had made the following grants of land from properties under the jurisdiction of his institution: 1) an undeterminate amount of property in the exclusive Shimiran suburbs to the north of Tehran to the singer, Hayadah; 2) 1,417 square meters of property, also in Shimiran, to another singer, Giti; 3) 10,000 square meters to Iraj Gulsurkhi, a musician, in the Karaj district — a town to the west of Tehran; 4) some 5,000 square meters, to as yet unnamed artists.

This generosity to the arts was matched by equal consideration to the private office of the empress, the Lions Club, an army commander, a couple of generals and the wives of important men.

We have to turn to Fischer for a more developed sense of what the religious institutions meant in cultural terms. The core of his book consists of three chapters on Qom and the significance of its madrasa system for religion and ideology in Iran. Fischer’s great strength is that he clearly relishes the disputations, the logical puzzles, the meetings in the Majles, the sermons, and all the apparatus of the clerics in action. Student biographies, examination questions, course content, styles of discourse and the subtleties of discussion on intention (niyyat) crowd these pages and give a powerful impression of the texture of culture in society. There is, at last, the smell of reality and of the elusive but vital relations that underpin the position of the mullahs, just as much as vaqf and the law. Fischer’s own philosophical and theological concerns add to the feeling of engagement. It has to be said, however, that an intellectualist stance introduces a kind of highly sophisticated naivete from time to time:

To any Westerner conversant with post-Hegelian theology, the most striking thing about Shiite theological debate surely must be the refusal to deal with theological discourse as itself a social and linguistic phenomenon in a wider sense than the rhetoric and hermeneutics internal to Islamic belief…. One does not abolish truth by adding a new consciousness with a metalanguage tool; on the contrary.

To get to post-Hegelian theology, first change your social structures.

There is a good but not sufficiently developed account of major complexes of cultural and social meaning, as in the pages on darvish and luti. Here Fischer touches on perhaps the crucial issue, to which he might well have devoted his remaining chapters. These read, unsatisfactorily, very much for what they are: pieces glued on later to the sections on Qom. “Religion” is too clumsy a category, at once too general and too restrictive, to serve as a frame of analysis. What Fischer is well placed to move toward is a more searching inquiry into the concepts, symbols and practices of order and disorder, purity and pollution, forms of inclusion and exclusion, cosmology, and all the “naturalized” practical meanings in all their transformations that make up the ideocultural order.

Studies of the clerics are important. So are institutional arrangements. But they only touch the surface of these other underlying relations and logics, of which formal “religion” may or may not be an important part. Until this kind of work is done, I suspect that we will understand very little of some central questions — the obsessive concern with the control of women in society, for example. We have to know how sex and gender are constructed and reproduced in Iranian societies if we are to grasp the force of practices which are experienced by many women themselves as “natural.” The capillaries of power, as Foucault puts it, travel through the social body. We are still a very long way from tracing them out.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "Approaching the Islamic Revolution," Middle East Report 102 ( ).
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