Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Learning and Power in Modern Iran (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1985).

Donne Raffat, The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi: A Literary Odyssey (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985).

Haleh Afshar, editor, Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985).

Barry M. Rosen, editor, Iran Since the Revolution: Internal Dynamics, Regional Conflict and the Superpowers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

Iran is a country with three faces, three aspects at once cultural and political that appear with varying degrees of prominence and precision. Their shifting profiles as perceived abroad reflect deep and as yet unresolved conflicts within this large and complex land. In the case of a country it is even more misleading than it is in the case of an individual to presume that there is one “true” object. There is no genuine, “authentic” nation embodying traditions and national values and protecting them against alien distortions. Such distortions there may be, products of colonial rule or modern cultural hegemonies. But even within the country, cultures, regions and social forces compete with each other; and external influences may in any case be beneficial and enriching. That each competing force tries to discredit the other by labeling it as the product of outside forces and itself as the true “national” representative is part of the battle, but not a key to an understanding of it.

Iran has never been colonized. Like China and Ethiopia, it embodies one of the older and more continuous cultural traditions of the Third World. But the face that it presented to the outside world for some decades up to 1979 was that of assertive modernity. Whether in the White Revolution of the shah, a bombastic but not wholly ineffective endeavor, or in the liberal nationalism of Dr. Mossadeq in the early 1950s, or in the voices of the Iranian left, inheritors of the oldest socialist tradition in Asia, Iran appeared to be a country that wished to learn from the industrialized West in order to preserve its independence.

Against this modernity, which in all its variations was secular, there emerged the second face, that of the turbaned and bearded Ayatollah Khomeini, scowling across the bowed backs of his supporters and rejecting, as no successful revolutionary since the 18th century has done, ideas of democracy, equality and material progress. Islam was “in danger,” as he put it, and he was going to restore it. Khomeini proclaimed, and many inside and outside Iran appear to have believed him, that he represented the true Iran, one obscured by the shah and his fawning courtiers and by years of indirect but oppressive foreign domination. It was not the Iran of modern north Tehran but the Iran of the southern Tehran slums, of long isolated provincial towns around the rim of the central desert, and, above all, of the “true” Islam.

Between these two images, and skeptical of both, there is a third Iran, one that has not been in power but which reflects the values of many of its people. It is Islamic, in the sense of accepting the main articles of the Muslim faith and being influenced by its texts. But it is not particularly clerical, and has a deep distrust, often expressed in the form of ribald anecdotes, about what mullahs are really like. Its cultural points of reference are not so much the holy texts of the 7th century so beloved of Khomeini, as the Persian poets Hafez, Saadi, Moulavi, Ferdousi, Khayyam and others, whose elaborate and elliptical verses provide a large reservoir of wisdom and quotation for educated Iranians. It is prepared to laugh at rulers in their crowned or turbaned form, but it is also adept at dissimulation as an essential way of surviving. One day someone will publish the current Iranian Khomeini jokes and anecdotes: they will tell a very different story from that told by the bearded militants so dominant today.

It is one of the great virtues of Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet that it tries to convey the rich and interwoven pattern of Iranian cultural life as distinct from the clamor and immediacy of the revolution and its aftermath. This is a discursive work, combining discussion of the writings of modern Iranian politicians and novelists with summaries of Iranian history and the reconstruction of symptomatic biographies. The central figure is a mildly fictionalized cleric, Ali Hashemi, now in his late thirties, and Mottahedeh traces his childhood and education in the holy city of Qom, through the madrese (religious school) to the confusions and challenges of recent Iranian history.

Mottahedeh is concerned above all with the issue of education and of the clash between the traditional religious schooling, with its study of grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the “new education” introduced by the state, on Western models, in the 20th century. At times the book appears to suffer from what one might term scholocentrism — the idea that the history of a country can be written through a study of its educational processes. But in his final pages Mottahedeh criticizes this very temptation, and his earlier analyses rest upon a justified belief that education and transmission of a religious tradition through it formed an essential part of established clerical power. Khomeini himself made his reputation and trained his followers through his work as a teacher in Qom. The cadre of Khomeini’s revolution were his talabeh, his religious students. The influence of Qom in Iran has been as much due to its seminaries as to its shrines.

In the course of his explorations, Mottahedeh takes us through many of the areas of Iranian culture that the modern face obscured. He has a sharp feeling for the sensuous aspects of the traditional Iranian town — the texture of bricks and tiles, the movement of breezes, the sounds of the side alley, the precious burst of greenery and of trees. He takes us inside the Iranian home, which is itself inward-looking, focusing on the courtyard. He is equally good at picking out the details of life in the modern city that young migrants from the provinces would have remarked on, details — such as the cinema hoardings of fantasy and passion — which would have both bemused and antagonized them. His is very much the Iran of the third face, a confident and ironic view founded on a long literary tradition, that tries to explain the other two faces to the outside world, to take a Western reader into the mind-set of those who won and those who lost in the Iranian revolution.

Two central issues recur in his story. One is the growth and triumph within Islamic thinking of a radical political approach — radical in its critique of existing society and government, and political in its insistence that it is possible for Muslims to fight for an Islamic government on this earth and in this day. Khomeini emerges as the culmination of a long tradition of interpretation and ijtihad, or individual judgement by the learned mullahs, through which he produced his theory of Islamic government. This theory provided a goal for the revolution of 1978-79 and has legitimated the regime that the Ayatollah has since built.

The other issue is that of social change in Iran itself. In the 1970s an explosive set of conditions prevailed: urban migrants, as in the Britain of the industrial revolution, became more assertively religious in Iranian cities; religion provided values and organization in a new and hostile environment and the result was the mass mobilization which toppled the shah.

Khomeini’s victory is less absolute than it may appear. The third face survives, epitomized in the recent poem quoted by Mottahedeh which praises the pre-Islamic and specifically Iranian Zoroaster as a prophet who “never killed and never ordered anyone to be killed.” The Mantle of the Prophet ends with the fear that the Islamic tradition of the madreses and the learned will itself be threatened as the Islamic Republic develops.

Mottahedeh’s study is erudite, lucid and engaging; it builds a delicately crafted bridge between Iranian cultures and the Western world. And it is here that some problems arise. It is all too sanitized, too rahat, as the Persians say, too calm. It is not only a matter of schools and theological interpretations, of sensitive observers and nuances. The book fails to convey the coarseness, the vulgarity, the harsh authoritarianism that have marked Khomeini’s rule and approach. We do not hear the ayatollah saying he should have put a gallows on every street corner the moment he returned to the country. We do not read about the traditional involvement of the clergy in the profitable business of sighe, temporary marriage, a form of religiously sanctioned prostitution. The baneful dogmatism of the clerical mind is screened by an at times indulgent interest in its vagaries. The bigotry towards modern ideas, women, Jews and the Baha‘i faith is smoothed away too easily. There is too little here to offend the well-disposed American East Coast reader. Given that this is a book about Iranian culture, there is also too little humor: James Morier’s early 19th century picaresque novel, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan captures more of Iranian thinking, with its fantastic exaggerations and bombast, precisely because it gives greater scope to this dimension. The tall story is as central to Iran as the cult of martyrdom.

Mottahedeh does portray the variety of Iranian cultures, secular and religious, and some of his most interesting pages are about writers such as Ali Ahmad, an overrated exponent of cultural nationalism, and Kasravi, the most committed anti-clerical writer, as well as about divisions within the clergy. But the focus is still a little too restricted. There is almost no recognition of the degree to which the Persian is but one strand within Iran — half the population do not have Persian as their first language, and it has been one of the goals of all modern rulers, shah and ayatollah alike, to impose a false uniformity on this multinational country. We hear almost nothing about its women. Their entry into, and later expulsion from, education has been one of the more dramatic themes in modern history. Furuk Faroukhzad’s poems portray an anger and passion of universal relevance: we could have heard more about people like her. In the discussion of the modern sector and its mores, there is not enough about the specific institutions through which the shah established his authority; the army, the main support of the modern state, hardly appears at all.

A very different, more individualistic, portrait of Iran is provided in Donne Raffat’s study of the novelist Bozorg Alavi, a communist who was imprisoned in the late 1930s with a group of other Marxist intellectuals and who has lived in exile in East Germany since the 1950s. The core of Raffat’s book is a set of five short stories written by Alavi around the themes of his imprisonment — his relations with other prisoners, the humiliations by warders, the dreams of escape. Around these stories Raffat has written a literary travelogue, describing his visits to Alavi, their discussions about Iranian literature, and in particular Alavi’s relation to Sadegh Hedayat, author of The Blind Owl, buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris after his suicide in 1951.

Raffat’s story ends on an uncertain note, with Alavi returning to Iran on two occasions after the revolution to receive widespread acclaim from a new generation of Iranian writers, those who had grown up after the 1953 coup and who had experienced prison and exile in the 1960s and 1970s. Alavi expresses the hope that, while continuing to live in Berlin, he will be able to return to his friends in Iran for one month every year: but it was not to be. Within two years of his victory in 1979, Khomeini turned against his liberal and left opponents and consigned the opposition intelligentsia to a new, even tougher, round of suppression and exile. Some, such as the playwright Said Sultanpur, were shot in prison. Others like the novelist Gholamhussein Saedi, died in exile. Many remain in Iran trapped or determined on staying, their solaces the traditional ones of despair, opium, dissimulation and patience.

Their voices are, for the moment, silent: their belief, pioneered by Alavi and Hedayat, that Iranian literary culture can be fused creatively and critically with that of the West, finds no favor with Khomeini, who wants to stamp on both cultures in the name of a new barren orthodoxy. He has banned most music and denounced secular writing. The angry cultural nationalism of Ali Ahmad, who influenced so many Iranians in the 1960s and 1970s, has been used by Khomeini himself to legitimize the destruction not only of what are seen as external cultural influences but also of the indigenous culture of the third face. The ayatollah’s cultural revolution, like that of Mao, has destroyed much of his own country’s literary and artistic life. A sardonic evocation of Khomeini’s impact on the intelligentsia can be found in Ismail Fassih’s recently translated novel, Sorraya in a Coma.

If it is simplistic to see Khomeini’s victory as the triumph of some “genuine” Iran over alien forces, it is also mistaken to assume that the regime itself is unstable and unable to maintain its power in the longer run. Ever since Khomeini came to power it has been fashionable to predict that his state cannot last more than a few months, for reasons which range from internal opposition to the war with Iraq to economic difficulties. Iranians like to tell the story of the man from Mars who arrives in Tehran 200 years from now to be greeted by excited citizens who say that the mullahs will be out “in two months' time.” The anti-Khomeini opposition has never been as weak as it is today, and despite economic problems the Islamic republic still has great reserves of support and economic potential on which to draw.

The outstanding study of post-revolutionary Iran is Shaul Bakhash’s The Reign of the Ayatollahs, but Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil, edited by Haleh Afshar, and Iran since the Revolution, edited by Barry Rosen, highlight some important dimensions of recent social and political history. Afshar’s book reprints the brilliant and prophetic essay by Ervand Abrahamian, first published in Past and Present, on the crowd in modern Iranian history. Following Rude, Abrahamian tries to decipher the origins and intent of those perceived by others as a mob. He underlines the enduring importance of traditional religious and financial institutions in the bazaar as a focus for organizing opposition to the state. He also recalls the strength of secular and communist forces in the 1940s and 1950s — something else that Khomeini would like us to forget. Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil also contains a further essay by Abrahamian, on the social origins of guerrillas who resisted the shah in the 1970s, as well as good studies of economic development by Mohammad Pesaran and of post-revolutionary petroleum policy by Fereidun Fesharaki. Afshar herself contributes an illuminating chapter on the Iranian army. The book is perhaps less convincing in some of the balder assertions of how near the regime is to collapse, and is marred by some careless errors of detail — a billion is not one hundred million on either side of the Atlantic, the revolution occurred not in 1977 but 1979, and the president’s name is Ali Khamenei rather than Ali Mousavi.

Rosen, a former Peace Corps worker in Iran and later one of the American diplomat-hostages, covers both the development of the Islamic revolution and its international relations. There is little in Iran Since the Revolution to justify the promise of “internal dynamics” contained in the subtitle but there are three excellent essays, by Shahrough Akhavi, Nikki Keddie and Mangol Bayat on the ideological aspects of the revolution and how Khomeini’s particular version of Shi‘ism emerged.


Editors’ Note: This review is excerpted from an article which first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (London), June 13, 1986. It is reprinted here by permission.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Images of Iran," Middle East Report 143 (November/December 1986).

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