Shi'a

Modern Iran

The Eighteenth Century

   After Iran was conquered by Afghanistan, it looked to Shi'i Muslims that an indepedent Shi'i state was ending. Russia, which had begun expanding in the sixteenth century and accelerated this expansion in the eighteenth, saw its opportunity and invaded Iran from its northern border. The Ottomans, ever eager to seize territory, invaded from the west. The Ottomans justified invading Islamic countries under the pretext of rooting out heresy and heterodoxy; there were no greater heretics in the Islamic world than the Iranians. However, in 1726, Nadir Khan, and Afghani, went over to the Shi'ite cause and, under his leadership, drove the Turks from Iran. Long before this, the Afghanis had split into Iranian and Afghani spheres of influence, and the Russians ceased to expand after the death of Peter the Great. Nadir Khan had himself crowned Shah of Iran and he promptly converted to Sunni Islam, or orthodox Islam, and declared Iran to be a Sunni country. This was done in part to appease the Ottomans, but it appears that he was serious about converting the country. He made several efforts to impose Sunnism on the country, but Shi'ism was too rooted in the character of the country to give in.

   Nadir Shah promptly went on a series of wars of invasion, and in the 1730's he captured Dehli in India, as well as seizing Bokhara and Khiva on the eastern border of Iran. He tried invade the Caucusus to the north, but got nowhere, and managed to defeat the Turks again in a massive campaign. Soon, however, his rule fell into a series of executions and massacres. In 1747, he was assassinated by two court officials he had condemned to death.

   Iran fell into political chaos, until the monarchy came under the control of Karim Khan for the next thirty years. By the end of the century, infighting and civil produced a new dynasty, the Qajar dynasty, in 1796.

   The most important effect of the reign of Nadir Shah was the severance of the ulama from state control. Since Nadir Shah was Sunni and the ulama were Shi'ite, Nadir Shah took little or no interest in them. As a result, the ulama developed a high level of independence and power. This independence would be crucial in the history of Iran in this century.

   In India, a new Shi'ite kingdom was established in the eighteenth century, the kingdom of Oudh or Awadh. The first leader of Oudh, Sa'adat Khan, traced his ancestry back to the seventh Imam Musa. In addition, he and his predecessors served as ministers to the Mughal Emperor, who had originally appointed Sa'adat Khan. The Mughal court itself had become terribly divided between Shi'ites and Sunnis and the two factions were constantly at war with one another. At the beginnning of the nineteenth century, the kingdom of Oudh became independent of the Mughals, but in 1856, the British forced the Oudh king to abdicate and annexed the territory. Only Iran remained as the sole Shi'ite state in the world.

The Qajars

   When the Safavids came to power, the Qajars were a Turcoman tribe that were instrumental in the Safavid conquest. The Qajars had always been the most significant tribe in Iran since the Safavids had rewarded them with extensive land grants. In 1796, Agha Muhammad, the leader of the Qajars, became Shah of Iran and though he ruled only one year, he managed to firmly establish the Qajars as rulers of Iran. In that short year, he recaptured Georgia from the Russians, lost when the Afghanis invaded Iran. However, in the reign of his successor, Iran lost all of its Caucasian territories.

   It was his nephew and successor, Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834), that deferred heavily to the Shi'ite ulama . This continued the process of the steadily rising power and independence of the ulama in state and regional politics in Iran. In relationship to the ulama , the Qajars ceded one half of the Safavid title, "Shadow of God on earth and representative of the Hidden Imam," by declaring the ulama , "Representative of the Hidden Imam." To this day, the ulama of Iran claim this title which gives them tremendous authority over Shi'ite life in Iran.

   In the nineteenth century, the Qajars moved the capital from Isfahan to Tehran, where it would remain up to the present day. Fath Ali Shah and his successors endowed a number of colleges in an attempt to lure the most prominent ulama to Tehran, but the Qajars never really established a center of learning in Tehran equal to Isfahan in its most splendid days.

   The nineteenth also saw the growth a major schismatic religious movement under the leadership of Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad (1819-1850), who took the title, "The Gate," or Bab . In 1848, he declared himself to be the Twelfth Imam and that both the Qur'an and the Shari'ah had now been replaced by a new relgious message, a new holy book, and a new Shari'ah . The Gate himself was executed in front of a firing squad in 1850.

   The Babi movement inspired a second schismatic movement, the Baha'is. Mirza Husayn 'Ali (1817-1892), who called himself Baha'u'lllah, or "Glory of God," claimed in 1868 to be the messiah that had been foretold by Bab. Baha'u'llah, however, set his eyes on a global messianism and claimed to the Messiah of the Christians, the Jews, and the Zoroastrians. After his death, his religion spread quickly to Europe, India, Asia, and North America and the Baha'i faith is now, for all practical purposes, a world religion completely independent of Islam.

   The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the first attempts in Iran to modernize and Westernize aspects of the economy and society. The whole last half of the nineteenth century is dominated by Nasiru 'd-Din Shah, who ruled from 1848 to 1896. He granted several economic concessions to European powers, the most controversial of which was granting a tobacco monopoly to England. Islam, in the last half of the nineteenth century, was in ferment. The nationalist movement in Europe had spread to Islamic countries, and Iran was no exception as Iranians met each concession to Europe with indignation. In addition, the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the growth of the Pan-Islamic Movement, which agitated for a unified Islamic world. Nasiru 'd-Din Shah was assassinated in 1896 by a member of this movement.

   The latter half of the nineteenth century also saw the growth a new position among the mujtahid , or judges, of the ulama : the marja at-taqlid . The following discussion may seem a bit too specific for a world history textbook, but this new office would have a far-reaching effect on Iranian history. In Islamic jurisprudential theory, every mujtahid must arrive at a decision independently of all the other mujtahid . They were not allowed to follow (taqlid ) anyone else in their judgement. In Iran, however, there soon developed in the higher class of ulama , called the maraji' , the idea that one of the maraji' was so learned that all others should follow him. He was given marja at-taqlid , or the maraji' to follow. This institution concentrated an enormous amount of power into a single individual, since the ulama essentially co-ruled the Iranian state. In addition, all the zakat , or alms-giving taxes, were directly under the control of the ulama , which meant that the marja' at-taqlid controlled a staggering amount of wealth. The ulama was now ruled by an individual office, and that individual office would become the single most influential force in Iranian history in the modern period.

The Constitutional Movement

   The beginning decades of the twentieth century saw the growth of the Constitutional Movement which aimed to produce an Iranian constituion that would provide for a parliamentary government along European lines. The ulama participated very energetically in the Constitutional Movement, and Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah granted the constitution in 1907, it looked like Iran would become a constitutional monarchy. Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah, however, died in 1907 and his successor tried to undo the Constitution, but the Constitutionalists raised a rebellion and marched on Tehran and forced the Shah to abdicate in 1909.

   The Constitution declared Twelver Shi'ism as the state religion of Iran, set up a National Assembly that was parliamentary in nature, but also set up a committee of five mujtahids in order to ensure that legislation conformed to the Sharia'ah. However, in 1911, the Russians invaded and forced the Constitutionalists out of power and restored the Shah.

The Pahlavi Dynasty

   In 1923, Reza Khan seized power over Iran and forced the Shah of Iran to abdicate. Reza Khan was caught up in the new republicanism of Turkey. In 1922, Turkey became a parliamentary republic and forced the Sultan to abdicate. It began Westernizing with a vengeance, throwing the Arabic script, the Arabic call to prayer, and replacing the Shari'ah with a code of law founded on European laws. The mujtahid of Iran were deeply disturbed by these developments, and although passions ran high for declaring Iran a republic, Reza Khan gave in to the mujtahid and became Reza Shah Pahlavi, founding a new dynasty.

   Reza Shah Pahlavi, however, spent the rest of his reign trying to decrease the power of the ulama . From 1925 to 1928, he introduced a secular code of laws built off of European civil codes that overrode the Sharia'ah , and he built a secular judicial system that was meant to displace the Sharia'ah courts. In the late 1920's, he required all ulama to be recognized by a government certification, and the Ministry of Education took over the colleges. In addition, he founded an entirely new college, the University of Tehran, which offered a degree in Theology that allowed the Shah to control the curriculum. In 1931, he declared that the ulama courts only had jurisdiction over personal matters, such as divorce. The ulama were divided over these policies. A liberal group supported the Shah and strove to liberalize the ulama itself. An opposition group, however, was soon quelled. The most powerful opposition to the Shah came from Sayyid Hasan Muddaris, who was imprisoned in 1929 and executed eight years later. By the time he abdicated in 1941, Reza Shah had dramatically reduced the power of the ulama .

   Reza Shah Pahlavi, though he gave in to the ulama in the matter of retaining the monarchy, was determined to modernize and Westernize Iranian society. In 1932, he replaced the Muslim calendar with the European calendar and in 1936, he declared the wearing of veils by women to be illegal. He tried to do away with many aspects of Shi'ite popular religion but never really met with success.

   In 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi abdicated and was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, who ruled until his abdication in 1979. Muhammad Reza Shah continued the central policies of his father: suppression of the ulama and dramatic modernization and Westernization of Iranian government and society. His initial decade, however, was marked by general powerlessness, for he had joined his father in exile. The British had forced Reza Shah to abdicate, and demanded that the ulama be given more power—this was the British effort to ensure that Iran did not become a communist country. This period saw the rise in power of the Ayatollah Kashani, who led a group of religious delegates in the National Assembly called the Mujahidin-i Islam. He was vastly popular, particularly among the middle classes, and espoused a government whose only law was the Shari'ah and which was administered by the ulama alone. Although Kashani never succeeded in bringing this about, these ideas would become the foundation of the political theory developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khumayni, ideas that would drive the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970's. Kashani, however, became increasingly distressed at the growing liberalism of the Iranian assembly and, when the Shah returned to Iran in 1953, he and other ulama welcomed him enthusiastically.

   Muhammad Reza Shah returned to Iran in 1953 and instantly set up a dictatorial government with the blessings and help of the United States and Great Britain. Within a few years he dismantled all the democratic institutions of Iran, and brutally suppressed the most extreme parties. The ulama supported the Shah, but took no active role in the new Iranian government. In 1955, he signed a treaty of alliance with Great Britain and the United States, but both of these countries were bitterly hated by the Iranians. In many ways, the close ties of the Shah's government with both America and Britain was primarily responsible for much of the hatred towards the Shah in his later years, and the brutal tactics he used to suppress dissent led to a passionate hatred of America and Britain for providing the Shah the means to stay in power. This anti-British and anti-American feeling is still an integral part of the Iranian world view.

   In 1961, the Shah began his "White Revolution." He disbanded the National Assembly and suspended all future elections—this action effectively cancelled the Constitution and made Iran a dictatorship. He began a series of sweeping land reforms, a national education campaign called the Literacy Corps, and in 1970, he created a Religious Corps to compete directly with the mullas in winning over the general population. This alternative Shi'ism came to be called Din-i Dawlat , or Government Religion, which was meant to win the masses from the influence of the ulama . The Din-i Dawlat had its own hierarchy and its own mosques, and the Shah began to call himself the "Representative of the Hidden Imam": by doing this, he was declaring the Din-i Dawlat to be the only true Shi'ite religion. The White Revolution, though it increased Iranian prosperity and literacy, was pretty much a failure. Iranians stayed away in droves from the new government religion, and the ulama , staging periodic demonstrations from 1961 onwards became more and more popular in Iran.

   The Shah's unpopularity had a lot to do with the brutality of his government. In order to enforce conformity, the Shah built a vast network of secret police called SAVAK. Although originally intended as an internal intelligence gathering apparatus, SAVAK soon became an interrogative unit, torturing thousands of people using methods it learned from the French and Americans. It also engaged in secret executions, and the increasing number of these tortures and executions increased the hostility of Iranians toward their government and its European and American supporters.

   The Shah exiled his most prominent critic, the marja-at taqlid Ayatollah Ruhollah Khumayni, who became immensely popular in radio broadcasts from neighboring Iraq. In these broadcasts, Khumayni declared the Shah's government to be illegitimate, and outlined his own theory of government, velayat-i faqih , or rule by jurisprudence. The law of the land would be the Shari'ah , and the ulama would be responsible for all administrative and judicial aspects of the state. Legislation would be in the hands of a democratic assembly, but this assembly would ideally consist of ulama .

   In 1977, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, abruptly shifted American policy towards foreign allies and enemies by insisting on human rights as one of the primary categories of American foreign policy. This was a brand new invention, largely derived from the Civil Rights movement in America in the 1950's and 1960's, and was completely untried as a means of carrying out foreign policy. The policy was completely abandoned as unworkable a few years later by Ronald Reagan and later George Bush, but Carter was passionate about it. This new policy, however, spelled the end of the Shah's government. Under pressure from Carter, the Shah relaxed censorship laws and a veritable flood of grievances rushed over Iran. Khumayni's texts began to actively circulate all about Iran. Demonstrations were called at the drop of a hat to protest some new rise in prices, injustice, or new atrocity by SAVAK. The fire was started; all it would take was one spark to fan it aflame.

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The Iranian Revolution


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97