A discussion of how, in the last sixty years, there has been in Iran a transition from Shi’ite traditionalism to an indigenous religious and Marxist ideology capable of mobilising the masses up to the Revolution of 1979

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A discussion of how, in the last sixty years, there has been in Iran a transition from Shi’ite traditionalism to an indigenous religious and Marxist ideology capable of mobilising the masses up to the Revolution of 1979. And how, almost by reaction to the Islamisation imposed from above, a reformist discourse with particular traits has been generated, one that is “puritanist” and minimalist in regards to the role of religion in the public sphere, and decisively based on a new theology.


Although the course of modernization and its impacts on religion has been more or less the same throughout Muslim societies, nowhere has the transformation of religious discourse been so visibly consequential within the last sixty years or so as in Iran. Two distinctive phases of religious discourse are discernible in Iran since the 1960s. These transformative phases which correspond to the pre- and post- revolution eras will be referred to respectively as "ideological/revolutionary” and “post-ideological/reformist” discourses.

In this short essay I will explain these religious changes without going into a very detailed accounts. First, a very brief context within which the very modern shift from traditionalism to ideological/political discourse took place will be provided. Then, I will present some of the main features of the two types of Islamic discourse. The focus will be on the approach of each discourse to the role of religion and the clergy in politics and government; modernity and modernization; the West; women; religious texts and the sharia.

Prior to the revolutionary phase, the prevalent religious discourse belonged to traditional Shi’i ulama and scholars. After going through decades of top-down secularization and modernization by the state under the Pahlavis from early twentieth century onwards, institutional differentiation of sacred and profane was close to complete. Religion had receded from the public sphere into seminaries and mosques and private life of the people. The only public manifestation of Islam, other than lusterless congregational prayers, was the popular upholding of Muharram ceremonies that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet who was killed for the cause of justice and righteousness. Westernization and secularization were rampant in society and religion was thought to be irrelevant to modern progress, or at best, to be a purely private matter. In light of the cold war era and the intensified rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West, Iran, then ally of the West and the stronghold of US presence in the region, had its intellectual and political elite divided along these lines.


Between Marx and the Bazar

The dominant vanguard critique of this process of rapid westernization belonged to the Marxist socialist intelligentsia propagating their ideologies against capitalism, liberalism and western imperialism, mostly in universities and workers’ unions. However, the two deeply religious sectors, i.e., the masses and the Bazar, the economic heart of Iran, could not relate to these alien and atheist languages and notions. Even if these population were against the secular policies of the Pahlavi regime, they were neither organized nor did they have any alternative ideology to combat it. Their allegiance to the top ranking Shi’i ulama (maraje’: sources of emulation) continued. The maraje’ were politically aloof and busy with their scholastic teachings. The exception among them, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had led a popular uprising (1963) against the Shah’s policies, was sent into exile in Iraq. A few other clerical followers of him were also either imprisoned or sent to exile. It was against this backdrop that from outside of the traditional clerical fold a few religiously minded intellectuals emerged, voicing discontent with both the religious and socio-political status quo.[1] Since then, this new group of religious intellectuals, although few in number, have been exercising tremendous influence in shaping and reshaping religious thought and discourse in Iran. Two prominent figures of the pre-revolutionary time were Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shari‘ati.

Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995), the French educated professor of engineering at Tehran University who later on was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini as the first Prime Minister of the Provisional government of the Islamic regime, is considered to be the father of religious intellectualism in Iran. He set himself the task of showing the educated youth that Islam is compatible with science and progress and that there is therefore no need for them to abandon their faith to become modern. Presenting traditional teachings of the Qur’an in a modern and quasi-scientific language that the rising educated class could relate to, he was joined in this effort by a few open-minded and socially conscious clerics like Sayed Mahmoud Taliqani and Mortaza Mottahari. Their revivalism aimed at strengthening a religion that had become fairly dysfunctional in both the private and public life of modern Iran. Although politically active and critical of the authoritarian rule of the Shah, they did not promote revolution or any religious platform for a new political order. Rather, under the ideological spell of the time, they acknowledged the need for a native and familiar “ideology” as the engine of change, and that would, of course, be fulfilled by Islam. Bazargan held a positive attitude toward West. For him, scientific advancement and material progress of the West along with the rule of law, freedom of thought, discipline, and the hard work of its responsible citizens were compatible with the teachings of Islam. Bazargan’s religious modernism was a very measured one. While inspiring the educated youth, it was not of a revolutionary nature. A religiosity of personal piety, highly ethical in relation to others, extremely responsible, and committed to social duties and political participation constituted his ideals. His emphasis on political freedom as an Islamic norm exemplified by the Qur’anic notion of shûrâ (consultation) engaged him in founding the Freedom Movement of Iran, the very first religiously oriented nationalist political party.[2]



The Third Way of Shari‘ati

The revival of Islam took a more radical turn with the rise of Ali Shari‘ati (1965-1977), known to be the architect of the ideological discourse of revolutionary political Islam in Iran. Shari‘ati, a generation younger than Bazargan and a graduate from Sorbonne, was a professor of history and literature with extensive studies in sociology. In France, he became acquainted with the Algerian Liberation Movement and organized Marxist groups. He belonged to a generation of educated young Iranians, whose political hopes for saving the democratic and nationalist government of Mossadiq was dashed by a US-engineered coup d’état (1953) that reinstalled and supported the authoritarian Shah with an ever-increasing US presence in Iran during the cold war era. As a reaction to the status quo, the Marxist socialist groups had become the most, if not the only, active and prestigious recruiter of this frustrated generation. The rising influence of the Marxist ideology and its guerilla organizations were very alarming to sensitive thinkers like Shari‘ati. Finding the traditional clergy and their discourse incapable of standing against the tide of secular westernization of the state on the one hand and the emerging popularity of Marxism on the other, he began to create a third alternative: Islamic Ideology.[3]


Activism to martyrdom

Aiming to revive what he believed to be the “real” message of Islam, he did not shy away from borrowing from outside of the religion to empower it in its challenge with its competitors. Shari‘ati borrowed and copied ideological structure and categories of Marxism filling them with Shi’ite idioms and symbols to create an Islamic ideology. His ideological preaching proved to be successful on account of the power his revolutionary discourse demonstrated in mass mobilization during the revolution. Activism, self-sacrifice for the common good, resistance, and martyrdom constituted some of major themes of this ideological and revolutionary discourse. In comparison to the pacifist traditionalism, it rested on a selective and literal reading of the Qur’anic text with some arbitrary and unorthodox interpretations. In other words, this action-oriented reading of Islam faced scripture and tradition with an instrumental rationality aimed at agitating, mobilizing, and breaking down the establishment, whether religious or secular. In view of his ideological objectives, the Qur’anic world view and Islamic history fall into the dualism of black and white, true and false, and towhidi (monotheism) versus taqouti (material idolatry). The history of Shi’ism with its rich symbolism of martyrdom provided the best means for Shari‘ati to maneuver the “truth” of Shi’ism through the life of the Imams, showing that “true” belief and “true” religiosity amount to more than personal piety and ritual observation. A pacifistic and quietistic Shi’ism focusing on the hereafter was condemned and the “Red” Shi’ism of active resistance and revolution right here and in this world was praised. He vehemently criticised the canonical collections of Hadîth for promoting apathy towards socio-political activism.

With regard to West, Shari‘ati reserved his strongest criticism for its political and cultural hegemony on the mostaz’afin of the earth (a Qur’anic term meaning the downtrodden) who have been deprived of their human dignity and all kinds of progress because their wealth, in the form of natural and human resources, have been squandered by Western colonialism and imperialism. This destructive face of imperialism and capitalism was only one side of the coin of modern Western culture which domestically belittles its own people by enslaving them to what he called machinism; a process of human alienation from the true self, at the service of materialism and consumerism, without the chance to ponder one’s situation. He criticised modern humanism for depriving humankind of the yearning to cultivate a relationship with the transcendental aspect of himself by which he could fulfill his responsibility on earth as God’s vicegerent[4].


More Than Solely Pious Women

The pre-revolutionary ideological discourse granted a voice and role to women beyond the traditional one of being pious mothers and wives. Shari‘ati’s narrative of the lives of Fatima and Zaynab, daughter and granddaughter of the Prophet and wife and daughter of Ali, the first Imam, provided the necessary role models for young girls and women, whose public support and involvement in the revolutionary process proved to be a crucial force. In Shari‘ati’s reading of early Islamic history, motherhood did not prevent women from taking part in the social and political affairs of their society. After her father’s death, Fatima vigorously defended her husband, Ali’s rights vis-à-vis the political conspiracies working to usurp the religious and political privileges of the ahl-ul bayt (the Prophet’s family). Zaynab, the heroin of Karbala, not only stood with her brother Hossein in the battle with the illegitimate and oppressive Umayyad Caliph, she became the messenger of Hossein’s revolution, carrying the message of his martyrdom. Therefore, a responsible and conscious faithful woman should not be sitting idle in the face of all sorts of cultural hegemonies from the West that turns her into a fanciful object of materialism, sexism, and consumerism in the name of modernism. Nor should she be allowed to be stupefied by being demoted in the name of tradition and religion.

The success of the 1979 Revolution should not, of course, be attributed only to this shift in religious discourse. It is, however, undeniable that the popularity of this nativist religious ideology paved the way for unprecedented mobilization of the masses and the quick assumption of the leadership of the Revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini.


Jurisprudential Discourse

Leaving behind the revolutionary years of socio-political turmoil, the Islamic state consolidated its foundations by establishing its own institutions and promoting an official interpretation of Shi’i Islam which continues to be the dominant official religio-political language of power in Iran. This official religious discourse simultaneously presents traditionalism, militant conservatism, and populism, with some revolutionary pedigree. It relies exclusively on conservative interpretations of the Qur’an and hadîth without any critical and historical evaluation of them. This discourse may be called the jurisprudential discourse, as its most commanding feature relates to interpretation and implementation of the sharia. As such, the role and presence of the jurist-clergy pervades the public sphere. The official jurisprudential Islamic discourse remains highly political. It not only does not separate religion and state, it contends that the sharia has the answer and solution to all sorts of mundane questions and problems. It promotes maximum presence of religion in politics by claiming that the sharia laws provide a comprehensive political platform and that the Islamic state enjoys divine sovereignty and divine legitimacy that is vastly superior to popular sovereignty and popular legitimacy. Vilayat-e Faqih (the rule of the jurist consult), the official form of government, grants absolute religious and political power to the Supreme Leader, who is a jurist in whom the sacred and the profane are united in one office. It demands absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader not just in politics, but also in religious, cultural, and social matters ranging from gender roles, aesthetics, and artistic manifestations, to matters of foreign policy, etc. This official Islamic discourse has faithfully maintained the anti-imperialist, anti-secularist and anti-liberalist slogans of the revolutionary era in its effort to champion the cause of the downtrodden. It does this especially through employing the messianic language of the Shi’i doctrine of Mahdism, i.e., the return of the awaited Imam whose reign will bring universal peace and justice.


Post-ideological Discourse

As the revolutionary ideological Islamic discourse was a reaction to the top-down secularization of Iran before the revolution, the reform discourse has been a reaction to top-down Islamization. The reformist trend became known to the world by the ascendancy of moderate clergyman, Mohammad Khatami, to the presidency (1997-2005). But, the inauguration of the political reforms emphasizing public sovereignty and socio-political freedoms were preceded by a religious intellectual movement already at work about a decade earlier. The religious reformist discourse that began in the late 1980s has shaped a religious and a social movement that together challenge the intellectual foundations of the ruling religious ideological discourse.[5] This subversive religious discourse promotes critical evaluation of the official reading of Islam and has been popularized by lay (non-clerical) religious minded intellectuals who for some time enjoyed limited and relative freedom of speech. Religious intellectuals such as Abdolkarim Soroush, a philosopher, and Mohamamad Mojtahed Shabestari, a former clergyman and a theologian, spearheaded the new epistemological and hermeneutical debates around topics such as the multiplicity of interpretation of sacred texts, religion and science, religion and modern rationalism, religious pluralism and democracy. Their ideas first appeared in the monthly cultural magazine Kiyan (1990-2001) that became the outstanding circle and forum of religious reformers.

Abdolkarim Soroush began criticizing the ideologization of religion by Ali Shari‘ati. His numerous lectures and publications elaborating on why and how religion as faith should be disentangled from ideology and politics set in motion a new trend of Islamic discourse in post-revolutionary and post-war Iran. However, this reformist discourse does not promote apathy toward political and social situations. Rather, it emphasizes public participation in the process of decision making at all levels of social, political and economic governance through democratic means. It considers engagement in public affairs to be the “right” of citizens exercised by their own free will and discretion and not out of religious “duty,” as required in a religious ideological political system.[6] The reformist discourse has a “minimalist” approach to the role of religion in the public sphere. In that sense, it takes a puritanist tendency to eliminate the unduly augmentations added to religious faith as a result of its politicization. Yet, it remains a revivalist discourse as well.


Not ritualism, but rather a spiritual experience

Unlike the previous phase of Islamic discourse, that revived the political functions of Islam, this discourse aims to revive the ethical aspect of Islam that has been neglected and marginalized within the ideological sharia-based system. It asserts that sharia and jurisprudence are not and should not become the totality of religion at the cost of its ethical and spiritual dimensions. The post-revolutionary reformist intellectuals emphatically place “religious experience” or inward faith (imân) at the core of any definition of religion. For them, religiosity is more about spiritual experiences of the divine than it is about ritualism or outward practices (‘amal) promoted by juridico-political rule. The reformist rhetoric depicts God as the compassionate and loving God of mystics rather than the fear-inspiring God of jurists or the combative God of ideological militants. God is a source of persuasion not of coercion. As such, observing religious commandments and rituals would happen out of love for God rather than in blind obedience out of fear of punishment in the hereafter or because of the fear of failing to perform their ideological duties.

Emphasizing religious experience, prophecy and prophethood are valued as its most exalted form, and revelation as a by-product of this uniquely “prophetic” experience.[7] The sacred text of the Qur’an is not a book of law, as the jurists present it. First and foremost, it is an expression of the Prophet’s experience of encountering the Divine, presented within the limitations of human language and the socio-historical context of the time.

Since religious experience is pluralistic by nature, this reformist discourse endorses diversity as opposed to uniformity of religious expressions. Indeed, diversity pertains, practically speaking, to understanding and interpretations of religion, and thus demands flexibility and tolerance rather than exclusivist rigidity.


The Need for a New Theology

In their treatment of sacred texts, Qur’an and hadîth, reformist intellectuals adopt a critical historical and epistemological approach. In the beginning, multiplicity of interpretations of religion was emphasized. Then in their theories about revelation and the Qur’an, Soroush and Shabestari took a rather unorthodox position by emphasizing the role of the human agency of Prophet Mohammad and his cultural context without negating the sacredness of his revelatory experience. This is a very significant step toward their primary goal of introducing a new theology as the systemic foundation of reform in Islamic thought.[8] They maintain that any sustainable reform requires a revaluation and reformulation of theological principles as a prerequisite to jurisprudential reform, since it is at this level that the divine-human relationship is defined. Jurisprudential and sporadic legal reforms, though welcomed, provide only piecemeal remedies. This is also reflected in their position regarding the role of the clergy. The multi- dimensional nature of religion and its multiple interpretations imply no “a priori” rights for the jurists, whether in matters of religion or in politics.

With regard to modernity and the West, the reformist discourse holds a non-rejectionist, non-antagonistic, but critical approach. Since the reformist movement is also a new type of religious modernism, it welcomes examined, but not blind, borrowing from human intellectual achievements of post-enlightenment modernity, while not recognizing it as the sole form of modernity. In other words, it is creating its own form of modernity among multiple modernities. Soroush separates philosophical secularism (that negates transcendental matter) and political secularism (institutional separation of religion and state). While endorsing the latter, it promotes a kind of secularization that recognizes the spiritual dimension of human existence and allows for its flourishing. It grants primacy to human reason and rationality, but does not consider it to be the sole source or force, particularly in guiding human beings to progress and human dignity. The reformist discourse criticizes equally religious despotism and radical militant secularism as well as the political hegemony of the West.

As for women, thanks to intellectual elaborations and debates on different aspects of religious texts, authorities, and laws and practices, Iranian reformist women have been able to join the secular voices of women’s rights by developing their own discourse, organizations, and journals to voice concerns. They have succeeded in gaining a certain recognition, albeit, against the restrictions and resistance of the official jurists. Even though their concrete gains might be small, their fundamental awareness is very promising and will eventually bring about more substantive changes.[9]

As this synoptic overview reveals, Islamic thought in Iran has not been stagnant. While its dynamism has seen many ebbs and flows, it continues moving forward with time.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Fourough Jahanbakhsh, “The Emergence and Development of Religious Intellectualism in Iran,” Historical Reflections, Vol. 30, no. 3, (2004), pp. 469-490.

[2] Forough Jahanbakhsh, Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran: From Bazargan to Soroush (Brill, Leiden, 2001).

[3] Ali Rahnema, Islamic Utopian: a Political Biography of Ali Shari‘ati (I.B, Tauris, London, 2000).

[4] Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1996); Farhang Rajaee, Islamism and Modernism: The Changing Discourse in Iran (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007).

[5] Forough Jahanbakhsh, “Religious and Political Discourse in Iran: Moving Toward Post-Fundamentalism,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 9, no. 2 (2003), pp. 243-354.

[6] Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000).

[7] Abdolkarim Soroush, The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays in Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion (Brill, Leiden, 2009).

[8] Jahanbakhsh, Forough. “A Neo-Rationalist Approach to Islam,” in Abdolkarim Soroush, The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays in Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion (Brill, Leiden, 2009), pp. x-xlviii.

[9] Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford University Press, Redwood City, 2007).


To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Forough Jahanbakhsh, “Something New from Tehran”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 42-51.

Online version:
Text by Forough Jahanbakhsh, “Something New from Tehran”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/something-new-tehran.