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In 680, the Shias of Kufa in Iraq called for the rule of Ali's son, Husain. Even though the caliph, Yazid, quashed this uprising, Husain set out for Iraq with a small band of relatives, convinced that the spectacle of the Prophet's family, marching to confront the caliph, would remind the regime of its social responsibility. But Yazid dispatched his army, which slaughtered Husain and his followers on the plain of Kerbala. Husain was the last to die, holding his infant son in his arms.

For Shias the tragedy is a symbol of the chronic injustice that pervades human life. To this day, Shias can feel as spiritually violated by cruel or despotic rule as a Christian who hears the Bible insulted or sees the Eucharistic host profaned. This passion informed the Iranian revolution, which many experienced as a re-enactment of Kerbala--with the shah cast as a latter-day Yazid--as well as the Iraqi arba'in to Kerbala.

Shi'ism has always had revolutionary potential, but the Kerbala paradigm also inspired what one might call a religiously motivated secularism. Long before western philosophers called for the separation of church and state, Shias had privatised faith, convinced that it was impossible to integrate the religious imperative with the grim world of politics that seemed murderously antagonistic to it. This insight was borne out by the tragic fate of all the Shia imams, the descendants of Ali: every single one was imprisoned, exiled, or executed by the caliphs, who could not tolerate this principled challenge to their rule. By the eighth century, most Shias held aloof from politics, concentrated on the mystical interpretation of scripture, and regarded any government--even one that was avowedly Islamic--as illegitimate.

The separation of religion and politics remains deeply embedded in the Shia psyche.
    Faith and Freedom (Karen Armstrong, May 8, 2003, The Guardian)

This book is a distinctive blend of personal biography and national history that manages to provide a wide perspective on how the Islamic Revolution came to and succeeded in Iran and a narrow perspective of what that Revolution meant to individuals. Mr. Mottahedeh presents a life of a pseudonymous mullah of Qom, who he refers to as Ali Hashemi. He follows Ali Hashemi from childhood through seminary on to Najaf in Iraq, where he studied under Ayatollah Khomeini, and through the religious and political ferment of the Shah's Tehran, even into prison, until the tale culminates in the fall of the Shah (January 16, 1979) and the return to Iran of Khomeini, on February 1, 1979.

Along the way though, he goes off on long discursive digressions about: the Persian language; Zoroastrianism; the rise of Islam; the splintering off of Shia Islam; Sufism; Baha'i; poetry; the philosophy of Avicenna; the educational system; the oil industry; the influence of Russia, Britain, and finally America on Iran's development; enthusiams engendered by the Algerian revolution and Nasser's pan-Arabism; etc.. This is all fascinating, but by the end a few main themes converge: first, the degree to which Shi'a practices and view of history--which include the idea of a "hidden Imam", the celebration of martyrdom, marches after Friday prayers and the like--provided an ideal environment for revolt; second, what appears to be the most hopeful long term episode of Iran's history, the enduring legacy of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution; and, third, the Shah's attempts to modernize Iran, and the resistance of clergy and some intellectuals to this "Westoxication" or "Euromania" (a concept coined by Jalal Al-e Ahmad).

These factors combined disastrously in 1971, when the Shah determined to celebrate 2500 years of Iranian empire, dating (at least in theory) from its founding by Cyrus. People were alienated by the opulence of the celebrations, the extent to which the Shah catered to the West during them, and, maybe most of all, the degree to which this looking back to Cyrus tended to marginalize the importance and authority of Islam (even to the point of redating the Iranian calendar so that the year was calculated not according to the Islamic era but the era of the "King of Kings"). Alienation led to greater social unrest which led to reaction which led to resistance in that familiar cycle which so often leads to revolution, as it did here.

Though there's an enormous amount of information to process along the way, Mr. Mottahedeh presents it clearly and in a context that helps us to make sense of it. Through the life of Ali Hashemi we see how even ancient influences played out in modern Iran and through his aspirations we come to have a stake in the Revolution. But this last is obviously a problem, because it is not all certain that the Revolution was a good thing, either in conception or as it has played out. The author expressed his own ambivalence most clearly in a Preface to later editions of the book:
Some reviewers, and many readers, have asked me to provide for the new edition of this book an assessment of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. I can give no better answer than to refer to some sentences written by the great Macaulay in 1835. Macaulay, torn between his sympathies with the progressive aspirations of the French Revolution of 1789 and his horror at its periods of unhesitatingly bloody sacrifice, wrote of the difficulty for a fair observer to give judgment on an event so complex and still, at his time, so unsettled:

"A traveller falls in with a berry which he has never before seen. He tastes it, and finds it sweet and refreshing. He praises it, and resolves to introduce it into his own country. But in a few minutes he is taken violently sick; he is convulsed; he is at the point of death. He of course changes his opinion, denounces this delicious food a poison, blames his own folly in tasting it, and cautions his friends against it. After a long and. violent struggle he recovers, and finds himself much exhausted by his sufferings, but free from some chronic complaints which had been the torment of his life. He then changes his opinion again, and pronounces this fruit a very powerful remedy, which ought to be employed only in extreme cases and with great caution, but which ought not to be absolutely excluded from the Pharmacopoeia."

This simply won't do. Regardless of the tortured emotions of folks like Mr. Macaulay, objectively we must judge the French Revolution a murderous, society-destroying disaster that disrupted rather than aided the natural progress of reform. Likewise, Mr. Mottahedeh, with great fairness, presents the Shah as a genuine reformer, if too brutal a one and one who made some serious missteps--especially in not consulting sufficiently with a population whose Shi'a beliefs emphasize such consultations and in not recognizing the central place of Shi'a in Iranian life generally. Indeed, what Mr. Mottahedeh's book does more than anything else is to convince us of the extraordinary complexity of the Iranian mind and soul, of the many contradictory impulses contained therein, and of the real danger inherent in disregarding any of the various influences that have contributed to this mutli-layered richness. But how then can we greet with anything but regret the takeover of Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts, whose smallmindedness and the disastrous prospects for whose reign was foretold in the Ayatollah's own writings:
The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to God Almighty. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator. It is for this reason that in an Islamic government, a simple planning body takes the place of the legislative assembly that is one of the three branches of government. This body draws up programs for the different ministries in the light of the ordinances of Islam and thereby determines how public services are to be provided across the country.
   Islamic Government (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini)
Though we have the benefit of hindsight, we hardly need it to know that a Revolution proceeding from such totalitarian roots was destined to failure, and the swapping of one form of tyranny for another is not to be celebrated just because the first is gone--this is not "progress". Fortunately for Iran itself, it now appears that the fundamentalist Revolution will prove to be a short-lived detour, and that genuine democratic reform may come, hopefully peacefully, within the next couple of years. That will be a berry well worth awaiting the ripeness of and one whose flavor and effects we may all savor.


Grade: (B)


Roy Mottahedeh Links:

    -Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History (Harvard)
-ESSAY: Islam: A Primer (Roy Mottahedeh)
    -ESSAY: Islam and the Opposition to Terrorism (Roy Mottahedeh, September 30, 2001, NY Times)
    -DISCUSSION: Madrasahs (Religion & Ethics, PBS)
    -DISCUSSION: Islam: A Primer -- A Conversation with Roy Mottahedeh and Jay Tolson (Michael Cromartie, January 2002, Orthodoxy Today)
    -Webliography for Professor Roy Mottahedeh's Arabic 144: Sources for the Study of Islamic History (A webliography for students in Professor Roy Mottahedeh's Arabic 144: Sources for the Study of Islamic History)
    -Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review
    -REVIEW : of Mantle of the Prophet (Catherine Willford, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs)
    -REVIEW : of Mantle of the Prophet (Lauran Walker, written as a university assignment. University of Toronto)
    -REVIEW : of Mantle of the Prophet (
    -REVIEW : of Mantle of the Prophet (Edward Mortimer, NY Review of Books)

    -ESSAY: The Shu'ubiyah Controversy and the Social History of Early Islamic Iran (Roy P. Mottahedeh, April 1976, International Journal of Middle East Studies)
    -REVIEW: of The Mantle of the Prophet (David M. Hart, Bulletin: British Society for Middle Eastern Studies)
    -REVIEW: of The Mantle of the Prophet (A. K. S. Lambton, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 51, No. 2. (1988), pp. 348-350.
    -REVIEW: of The Mantle of the Prophet (Fred Halliday, MERIP Middle East Report)
    -ESSAY: The Legitimation of the Clergy's Right to Rule in the Iranian Constitution of 1979 (Said Saffari, 1993, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies)
    -ESSAY: The Crisis of Secular Politics and the Rise of Political Islam in Iran (Ali Mirsepassi-Ashtiani, Spring 1994, Social Text)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Iran (CIA World Factbook)
    -ETEXT: Islamic Government (Hukumat-i Islami) (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini)
    -The Iranian Times
    -American Iranian Council
    -Encyclop┬żdia Iranica (a Columbia University project and is prepared by its Center for Iranian Studies)
    -Shi'a : The Iranian Revolution (Richard Hooker)
    -ESSAY: Iran Expects: Will Iraq's liberation help free its neighbor too? (Fouad Ajami, February 13, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
    REGIME CHANGE IN IRAN: A REASSESSMENT: A quarter-century ago, Iran underwent a regime change, which became one of the main factors shaping the Middle East's subsequent history. What does this case study show us about regime changes in general and the nature of Iran's revolution itself? (Barry Rubin, June 2003, Middle East Review of International Affairs)
    -PROFILE: Daughter of Iran Revolution Struggles Against the Veil (ELAINE SCIOLINO, April 2, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Challenge Between Tradition and Modernity in Iran (Seyed Asadollah Athary Maryan , Iranian Quarterly, Fall 2000)
    -REVIEW : of THE LAST GREAT REVOLUTION: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran By Robin Wright (STANLEY REED , Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of Ervand Abrahamian,Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Robert Blecher, Stanford Humanities Review)

   The Shi'ites and the Future of Iraq (Yitzhak Nakash, July/August 2003, Foreign Affairs)
Unlike Sunnis, who in theory are expected to obey their rulers and even tolerate a tyrant in order to avoid civil strife and preserve the cohesion of the Muslim community, observant Shi'ites recognize no authority on earth except that of the imam. The twelfth imam is believed to be hidden from view and is expected to return one day as a messianic figure, the Mahdi. In his absence, there can be no human sovereign who is fully legitimate. This ambivalence toward worldly power has resulted in different interpretations within Shi'ite Islam regarding government accountability and the role of the clerics in state affairs. Khomeini's concept of the rule of the jurist is only one among several competing views.

The collapse of Saddam's regime has given Shi'ite debates on the meaning of a just government in the Iraqi context a greater urgency. There are constituencies, including some elements of the Daawa Party and its offshoots, that advocate an Islamic government in Iraq. They have conflicting visions, however, of what an Islamic government should be, ranging from Khomeini-style rule of the jurist to an Islamic government run primarily by laymen -- a form generally more in tune with the modern experience of Sunni Islamists. Some members of these groups are prepared to pursue their goals through violence.

Nevertheless, the large majority of Iraqi Shi'ites probably have no desire to mimic the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are aware of the situation there and do not want to move from a secular totalitarian system to an overbearing theocracy. Iraq's political culture and social makeup, moreover, are very different from those of Iran. Quite apart from the existence of Sunnis, Kurds, Chaldeans, and Turkmen in the country, the Iraqi Shi'ite community is itself diverse. There are secularists (including liberals and communists) and various religious groups, urban and rural dwellers, rich and poor, Shi'ites who have never left Iraq and those who have spent decades in exile. There is no single leader who can speak for all Iraqi Shi'ites, let alone oversee the transformation of postwar Iraq into an Iranian-style Islamic republic.

That said, defining the relationship between religion and politics in Iraq will be a major challenge facing Shi'ite religious groups.

    -MSA News : The Parthian Empire
    -SYPOSIUM : Cultures In the 21st Century: Conflicts & Convergences : A Symposium Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of The Colorado College
    -The Islamic World (Sylayman Nyang)
    -Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law
    -REVIEW : of Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. By R. Stephen Humphreys (Daniel Pipes, First Things)
    -ESSAY : Teaching the politics of Islamic fundamentalism (Masoud Kazemzadeh, PS: Political Science & Politics, March, 1998
    -ESSAY : Islam and Public Law : Introduction: On Islam and Democracy (Chibli Mallat)