Iran and Islam

Juan Cole
  • Iran is a theocracy that mixes religion and state more thoroughly than any other country in the world.
  • Shiite Islam gives a special place to its clerics and demands blind obedience to their rulings on religious law.
  • The commemoration of the martyrdom of holy figures is central to Shiite religious sensibilities and plays out in Iran’s populist politics.
  • Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has imposed a strongly patriarchal order, but pious women have found ways to assert themselves in society and education.
  • The contemporary Shiite revival has given Iran influence in the Muslim world and especially among other Shiite communities in the Arab world and South Asia, challenging the Sunni secular nationalists and traditional monarchies.
The 1979 revolution unseated the last dynasty to rule Iran from the Peacock Throne. But it also represented a revolution within Shiism, which had traditionally shunned direct clerical involvement in politics. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced the idea of clerical supervision of a modern republican state that has all three standard branches of government—the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Iran is today the world’s only clerically-ruled government. Shiite Islam is not just the religion of state, but also forms the framework for a theocracy. As such, religion and politics are inseparable. The starting point for debates in Iran is not secular law and civil rights, but the tradition of Muslim jurisprudence and practice called the Sharia. Lively debates center on issues such as the nature of a just government, women’s rights in Islam, economic justice and the extent of limits on personal liberty. Since the mid-1990s, the Iranian political divide has also played out over the balance of power between the republican and religious nature of the state.
Shiite history
Only 10 percent of the world’s Muslims belong to the Shiite branch of Islam; most of the rest are Sunnis. The initial split between Islam’s two main branches followed the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 AD. It was triggered by a dispute over leadership of Islam. Shiites believed that the Prophet should have been succeeded by the relatives or descendants most familiar with his thinking and practices. In contrast, the group that later evolved into the Sunnis believed that the early Muslim community had the right to select elders from the noble tribe of Mecca, even if they had no blood ties to the Prophet. 
Many Shiite traditions—which heavily influence practices and policies in Iran today—emerged during that early schism. Shiites hold that the Prophet’s son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, should have been his immediate successor. Shiite is the short form of Shi‘atu ‘Ali, or followers of Ali.Ali did become the fourth caliph for five years, but was murdered in 661 AD. The new Umayyad Dynasty then assumed leadership of the young Islamic empire. Ali’s son Hussein and his followers decided to fight against harsh governance, knowing that they were likely to be massacred. But they believed it was better to die fighting for justice than to live with injustice—a concept that today defines Shiite beliefs. Hussein was killed in the battle of Karbala. His tomb is one of Shiism’s two holiest shrines and Shiites annually mourn his death in reenactment passion plays. His martyrdom also defines contemporary Shiite beliefs.
Clergy’s powers
Twelver Shiites, the branch to which most Iranians belong, hold that the twelfth imam, or divinely-appointed successor of the Prophet, disappeared as a child in 874 AD and will one day become visible again in this world to restore it to justice as the Mahdi, or the promised one. In the absence of the Mahdi, Twelver Shiites believe that clerics trained in seminaries can substitute for his authority on some issues. So clerics in Shiism are powerful in interpreting God’s word for their followers. And the faithful are obliged to give blind obedience to cleric’s religious rulings. Khomeini transferred this religious power to Iran’s new theocracy after the revolution.
At the core of Shiite belief and history is a basic contradiction. Shiites believe in the need for divine authority in this world. But the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in the ninth century left the community rudderless. Over time, Shiites have tried to answer this power vacuum in their faith in several contradictory ways. They came to hold that, in general, seminary-trained clergymen could substitute themselves for the absent Imam. Thus, they could authorize the state to collect and distribute the poor tax. They could authorize the appointment of Friday prayer leaders. But the trained clergymen only solved half the problem posed by the absence of the Imam, since no one alleged that they had the prerogative actually to rule, as the Imam did. Instead, they uneasily co-existed with lay monarchs, who exercised authority on a customary, common-law, not an Islamic-law, basis. 
Sunni clergymen do not have the same prerogatives or powers as Shiite ayatollahs; they are more pastors than priests. The Sunni faithful do not owe blind obedience to their sheikhs. As a result, most Sunni Muslims are today organized, like Europeans, on the basis of the nation-state, and many have chosen a relatively secular national framework. The Sunni world is thus dominated by nationalist republics and by conservative monarchies. As a result, many Sunni governments, whether secular nationalists or monarchs, view Shiite Iran as a dire threat because it offers an alternative vision of the state based on religion and clerical authority. Sunnis are also concerned by the appeal of Khomeini-ism among Shiite communities outside Iran, especially in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon, part of the so-called “Shiite crescent.”
Khomeini’s reform of Shiism proclaimed that there is no place for the monarchy in Islam. He described secular nationalism as a tool of the devil. Under Khomeini-ism, only clerical rule in accordance with Shiite law can create just government in the absence of the Prophet and the imams. But the Islamic Republic he founded in 1979 represented a unique blend, since the supreme cleric or leader presided over a government formed by parliamentary and presidential elections that implied popular sovereignty.  
During the revolution’s first decade, many popular Shiite themes melded with regime goals. This was the height of Khomeini-ism—and the last decade of his life. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, young men who died at the front fighting the secular Arab nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein were commemorated as martyrs. Fountains spewing red water—symbolizing blood—were set up in Tehran’s main cemetery. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was founded as a sort of Shiite national guard to defend theocratic rule. Imbued with the passions of popular religion, it often competed with the regular army for preeminence—and won. Khomeini brought Friday prayer preachers from all over the Muslim world to Iran in hopes of influencing even Sunnis with his theocratic ideals. 
The balance between religion and republicanism shifted from the late 1990s during the reform era. President Mohammad Khatami, who served two terms between 1997 and 2005, emphasized popular sovereignty over the clerical authority of the supreme leader. He sought to increase the scope of personal liberties and freedom of speech. Shiite philosophers began debating ideas about Islamic democracy. By the time Khatami left office, however, this second political tendency was crushed by clerical hardliners. 
A third tendency emerged after the 2005 election of populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. He led the so-called “principlists,” a faction named for adhering to the strictest interpretation of the revolution. The principlists attacked both the wealthy upper echelon of clergymen as fat cats preying on the people, and the Khatami liberals as traitors to the ideals of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad often invoked the Twelfth Imam and predicted that he would soon return. 
The reform tendency reemerged in 2009, when Muslim liberals launched the Green Movement to protest what they saw as the stealing of the presidential election by Ahmadinejad and his clerical allies. They too employed the symbols of Islam to prove legitimacy. Green is associated with the descendants of the Prophet and is considered the color of Islam. And their rallying cry was Allahu Akbar, or “God is great.” The Green Movement leaders sought less stringent controls on personal liberties and speech. But they insisted their mission was to defend the ideals of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, even though they emphasized the sovereignty of the Shiite populace over high clerical authority. The regime effectively curbed this movement, reasserting the joint control of the high clergy and the principlist populists.
Shiism and women
The 1979 Islamic Revolution proved a turning point for women in Iran and in the Muslim world generally. Khomeini, the theocrat-in-chief, and the new regime, imposed veiling on women and forbade them from serving as judges. The regime insisted on segregating beaches, sporting events and universities, on gender lines. Yet the populist character of Iran’s revolution also led to the establishment of many new provincial schools and resulted in impressive advances in female literacy.
The Iran-Iraq War also drew large numbers of women into the work force for the first time, so that practical developments often offset patriarchal law-making, and unexpectedly gave women a prominent place in Iranian society. The strongly patriarchal Islamic Republic has paradoxically created an active, literate and idealistic class of women who will increasingly shape its society, to the dismay of many male ayatollahs.  
  • Iran was largely a Sunni area until the 1500s, when the Safavid dynasty began imposing Shiite Islam on the population as the state religion. This era also saw international competition between the Safavids and the Sunni Ottoman Empire.  
  • The most important religious holiday for Shiites is Ashoura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, who Shiites believe was unjustly killed in 680 AD. Shiites recite elegiac poetry, tearfully tell the tales of Hussein and his family and companions, and march in processions with banners. Some practice flagellation, whipping themselves with chains or cutting themselves with knives—folk rituals frowned upon by the educated clergy.
  • Twelver Shiite-majority countries include Bahrain, Iraq and Azerbaijan, along with Iran (though Azerbaijanis are mostly secular in outlook). Countries with Shiite minorities include Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 
Notable players
  • The International Center for Islamic Studies is in the theological center of Qom, Iran. This non-governmental institute, backed by Shiite religious authorities, teaches Shiism to non-Iranian students and prepares them to become teachers, sermonizers, researchers, jurisprudents and translators. It seeks to spread worldwide the teachings, sayings and practices of the Twelve Imams, which are studied by Shiite scholars but not by most Sunnis. It has students from 101 countries.
  • As an alternative to orthodox Shiism, Sufism has experienced a fresh wave of popularity in Iran in the early twenty-first century, especially among youth. Nur-Ali Tabandeh is a leader of the mystical Nimatullahi Sufi order based in Gunabad, northeastern Iran. Sufis believe in a quest for a mystical union with God and organize themselves in orders or tariqehs. Their ecstatic chanting, love of poetry, and tendency to believe that God is present in all things makes them hated by orthodox Shiites. Tabandeh has been accused by the regime of a political alliance with the reformists. He was briefly arrested in 2007. In 2010, he was accused of meeting with leaders of the reformist Green Movement, which seeks greater personal liberties.
  • Zahra Rahnavard represents the new Islamic feminists. A political scientist and sculptor, she became prominent as an anti-shah Muslim activist in the 1970s. During the monarchy, she argued that attempts to abolish the veil or headscarf were an imperialist imposition of foreign ways on Muslim Iran. But after the revolution, she also became the first female chancellor of Alzahra University. She is from a conservative religious family, but she has emerged as a leading political activist, as wife of Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Through her essays and books she argues for an Islamic feminism that does not challenge the principles of the Khomeini-ist state, but makes a place in Muslim society for dynamic, educated women.
  • The central political conflict in the Khomeini-ist system is between clerical authoritarianism and populist aspirations for liberty. This seems likely to play out with potentially momentous consequences in coming years.
  • The ideological underpinnings of the clerical state may be undermined in the next generation by either a lack of interest in religion or an enthusiasm for unorthodox forms of Islam such as Sufism, which is now widespread among Iran’s youth.
  • Iran has influence in the Arab world, but its theocratic form of rule has limited appeal. It has largely been rejected by Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites. And it seems inappropriate for minorities in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Most Sunni activists are hostile to the Islamic Republic. 
  • Iran is a regional player, but the monolithic Shiite crescent feared by some Sunnis has not materialized.
Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan and runs the Informed Comment weblog. His latest book is, “Engaging the Muslim World” (2010).