Iran’s Islamic revolution: three paradoxes

Abbas Milani
9 February 2009

The Islamic revolution of 1979 is an event defined as much by its ironies and paradoxes as by its novelties and cruelties.

It was, by near-consensus among scholars and experts, the most "popular revolution" in modern times: almost 11% of the population participated in it, compared to the estimated proportionate of citizens who took part in the French (7%) and Russian (9%) revolutions.

Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, where he is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is the two-volume Eminent Persians: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (Syracuse University Press, 2008)

Also by Abbas Milani in openDemocracy:
"Iran's conservative triumph"
(27 June 2005) - part of a post-election symposium with contributions by Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, Nader Entessar, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Bahman Kalbasi, Trita Parsi, Bahram Rajaee, and Hamid Zanganeh

As a concept, revolution is itself a child of modernity, in that it centres on the idea that legitimate power can emanate only from a social contract consecrated by the general will of a sovereign people. Before the rise of modernity and the idea of the natural rights of human beings, "revolution" as a word had no political connotation and simply referred to the movement of celestial bodies. The word took on its new political meaning - the sudden, often violent, structural change in the nature and distribution of power and privilege - when the idea of a citizenry (imbued with natural rights, including the right to decide who rules over them) replaced the medieval idea of "subjects" (a passive populace, bereft of rights, deemed needful of the guardianship of an aristocracy or royalty).

In Iran, despite the requisite popular agency of a revolution, events in 1979 paradoxically gave rise to a regime whose founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denigrated popular sovereignty as a colonial construct, created to undermine the Islamic concept of umma (spiritual community). In Ayatollah Khomeini's treatise on Islamic government, the will of the people is subservient to the dictates of the divine, as articulated by the supreme leader.

In this sense, his concept of an Islamic revolution is an oxymoron and its concomitant idea of Islamic government (velayat-e faqih, or rule of the jurist) is irreconcilable with the modern democratic ideal of popular sovereignty. In opposition to the latter, velayat-e faqih posits a population in need of a guardian, much as minors need guardians. The people are, in other words, "subjects", not citizens.

At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini called the same populace to a revolution - historically, the defiant act of a citizenry cognisant of its ability and right - to demand a new social contract. The most popular of all "modern revolutions" then led to the creation of a state whose constitution places absolute power in the hand of an unelected, unimpeachable man, and whose basic political philosophy posits people as subjects and pliable tools of the faqih (jurist).

The claim to power

If this constitutes the first, philosophical paradox of the Islamic revolution, there is a second and stark historic paradox evident in its evolution. 

The Islamic revolution was in a sense a replay of Iran's first attempt at a democratic constitutional government, one that took place in the course of the "constitutional revolution" of 1905-07. At that time, a coalition of secular intellectuals, enlightened Shi‘a clergy, bazaar merchants, the rudiments of a working class, and even some members of the landed gentry came together to topple the "oriental despotism" of the Qajar kings and replace it with a monarchy whose power was limited by a constitution (mashruteh).

Indeed, the new constitution emulated one of the European models of a liberal-democratic polity - one that allowed for elections and separation of powers, yet had a monarch as the head of the state. In those years, the most ideologically cohesive and powerful opposition to this new democratic paradigm was spearheaded by Ayatollah Nouri - a Shi‘a zealot who dismissed modern, democratically formulated constitutions as the faulty and feeble concoctions of "syphilitic men".

Among openDemocracy's articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday,
"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil,
"Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi,
"Iran: after the dawn"
(2 February 2009)

Instead, he suggested relying on what he considered the divine infinite wisdom of God, manifest in sharia (mashrua). So powerful were the advocates of the constitutional form of democracy that Nouri became the only ayatollah in Iran's modern history to be executed on the fatwa (order) of fellow ayatollahs. For decades, in Iran's modern political discourse, Nouri's name was synonymous with the reactionary political creed of despots who sought their legitimacy in Shi‘a sharia.

In a profoundly paradoxical twist of politics, almost seventy years later, the same coalition of forces that created the constitutional movement coalesced once again, this time to topple the Shah's authoritarian rule. Each of the social classes constituting that coalition had, by the 1970s, become stronger and more politically experienced.

Nevertheless, they chose as their leader Ayatollah Khomeini, a man who espoused an even more radical version of sharia-based politics than the one proposed by Ayatollah Nouri. While Nouri had simply talked of a government based on sharia (mashrua), Khomeini now advocated the absolute rule of a man whose essential claim to power rested in his mastery of sharia, and for whom sharia was not the end but a means of power.

In the decade before the revolution, some secular Iranian intellectuals like al-Ahmad - imbued with the false certitudes of a peculiar brand of radical anti-colonial politics - paved the way for this kind of clerical regime by "rehabilitating" Nouri and offering a revisionist view of Iranian history wherein the clergy emerged as leaders of the all-important, over-determined anti-colonial struggle. It mattered little to these intellectuals that some forms of anti-colonialism - like that of Nouri and his later cohorts - were rooted in pious xenophobia and not progressive nationalism.

The next tide

The third, temporal paradox of the Islamic revolution and the ultimate creation of clerical absolutism instead of a democratic polity relates to the fact that it took place in the 1970s, when the third and fourth waves of democracy around the world had begun.

The late 19th century witnessed the first democratic wave, and the years after the second world war and the collapse of the British empire ushered in the second wave. The gradual decline of authoritarian regimes like those of Spain and Portugal, and the dissolution of Soviet totalitarianism embodied the third and fourth waves.

Some of these large trends promised the "end of history", or at least the end of ideology, while others celebrated the claim that the age of liberal democracy was inevitably and irrevocably at hand. But Ayatollah Khomeini fought against this tide of history and erected a pseudo-totalitarian state founded on the divine edicts of God and the absolute wisdom of the faqih. This third and still lasting paradox of the Islamic revolution will also bring about its end. The century-old coalition for democracy still awaits the realisation of its dream.

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