Reform: Iran

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The reform and reconstruction of Islamic doctrine in Iran, aimed at striking a stable balance with contemporary requirements, exhibits important and at times idiosyncratic characteristics. Iran is the largest non-Arab Islamic country where the greater majority of the population adheres to Shi˓ite principles. Unlike most Islamic countries, throughout Western colonial and imperialist expansions Iran has enjoyed unbroken, if at times fragile, native sovereignty, and this has led to a peculiar dynamic of perception and interaction with the West. The outbreak of the Islamic Revolution (1979), in a rapidly but unevenly modernizing nation-state, together with the turbulent evolution of the Iranian society ever since, further mark the Iranian experience as unique.

The roots of Islamist reform in Iran are commonly traced back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1908. However, for at least two generations prior to that turning point in modern Iranian history, emerging social and intellectual forces had grappled with new questions regarding Islamic, Iranian, and "progressive" identities. The enigmatic reformist Jamal al-Din Afghani (1838–1897), for example, had won a sizable following in Iran, one among whom ended up assassinating the Qajar sovereign, Naser al-Din Shah, in 1896.

Beginning in the years prior to the Constitutional Revolution, and continuing throughout the twentieth century, groups of clerics, teachers, journalists, government officials, and lay professionals attempted to flesh out a "progressive" discourse by way of molding such modern concepts as the nation (mellat), or a representative assembly (majlis shura), into historically more familiar native contexts.The discourse of Islamic reform in Iran is best understood by demarcating its pre- and postrevolutionary phases, with reference to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In its prerevolutionary phase, the reformist discourse tended to be nativist-apologetic, maximalist, utopian, and "progressive." It also embraced, or at least condoned, militant violence as a legitimate means. Prerevolutionary reformists in Iran further called for universal Islamic union or integration, in the face of non-Muslim adversaries. The burgeoning postrevolutionary discourse, in contrast, while maintaining its "progressive" stance, exhibits eclectic-critical, minimalist, pragmatic, and pluralistic tendencies and it increasingly downplays the purported efficacy of violent tactics.

Prerevolutionary Islamic reform proceeded from the fundamental premise that Islam, as a comprehensive system, should aptly offer answers to every conceivable question of human concern, at individual and societal levels, as well as in both temporal and spiritual spheres. The discourse was maximalist in its aiming to bring an ever-expansive domain under an Islamic umbrella. Reformists, from the 1920s onward, unflinchingly formulated "nativist" Islamic solutions for issues raised by the secularizing government agenda, as well as for those put forward by Marxist activists in Iran. Reformists took on the daunting task of spelling out the proper Islamic ways for approaching a plethora of issues, from such mundane matters as personal hygiene and dietary practice to the intricate workings of the economy and international diplomacy. Pamphlets and books with formulaic titles such as "Islam and . . .," and ". . . in Islam," proliferated. As a result of its maximalist-nativist character, reformist discourse was prone to indulge in apologetics. In an effort to present a view of the Islamic tradition that was in tune with the manners of the time, reformists did not hesitate to denounce portions of it as "superstitious." Some, like the cleric Shari˓at-Shangelaji (1890/2–1943), had to face ostracism, perhaps for jettisoning too much. In general, a collective penchant developed among reformists for doing away with what they deemed spurious, and for restoring the unadulterated, primordial Islam (eslam rastin) that transcended the vicissitudes of history. This tendency in Iran bore close kinship to the salafiyya movement in Egypt.

˓Ali Shari˓ati (1933–1977), a prolific intellectual of an unfathomable range of influence, best exemplified the utopian tendency. He not only shared in the maximalist outlook, but consciously hailed the transformation of the dormant Islamic culture into a potent ideology imparting clear-cut instructions for political struggle, as a most urgent and significant accomplishment.

The maximalist-utopian ideal, culminating in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, provided the exponents of Islamist reform, such as Mehdi Bazargan (1902–1994), Sayyed Mahmud Taleqani (d. 1979), and Morteza Mutahhari (1919–1979), with an opportunity to put into practice what they had preached for decades. The radical doctrine of "Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist" (vilayat motlaqe faqih), expounded by Ayatollah Khomeini, rendered absolute discretion into the hands of the religious elite, and boosted the maximalist program. A full-blown, yet ostensibly inadequate, juridical (feqahati) approach toward complex issues of the state alienated among others surviving pioneers of Islamist reform, such as Bazargan, who had throughout their careers vouched for a humanely tolerant view of Islam and had foreseen more inclusive methods of governance.

Beginning in 1988, the publication of a sequence of critical essays sparked new debate and led Islamist reform in Iran toward a turning point. ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush (b. 1945), an academic thinker with impeccable prorevolutionary credentials, contended that Islamic doctrine lies inevitably subject to historic expansion and contraction. The body of knowledge standing outside the proper domain of "Islam," according to Sorush, inexorably influences the way questions are framed and solutions formulated within it. The recognition of a set of inalienable rights for human beings irrespective of religious affiliation, for example, should lead to a reconsideration of the primarily "duty-bound" conception of man hitherto propounded in Islamic texts. Religious texts, Sorosh contends, should be interpreted in light of the broader extrareligious context. Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari (b. 1936), an articulate reformist cleric, further elaborates on this hermeneutic approach, making room for alternative yet rational interpretations or "readings" of Islam. Mojtahed-Shabestari urges that true religious faith thrives on social liberty, and he earnestly criticizes the officially enforced interpretation of Islam advocated by the state in Iran.

The new discourse of Islamic reform, exemplified in the work of Soroush, and manifested in the writings of Mojtahed-Shabestari and a few others, defined a nascent group of religious intellectuals (rowshanfekran dini), retrospectively including in its ancestry such thinkers as Bazargan and Shari˓ati. During the 1990s, a group of these religious intellectuals, sometimes referred to as the Kiyan Circle (halqe Kiyan), expressed their views in the important periodical Kiyan (officially closed down by court decree in 2000). This forum raised crucial questions with regard to Islamic reform, including issues of democratic governance, Islamic law, and faith, and probed into the fields of epistemology and ethics.

The election of Mohammad Khatami as the president of the Islamic Republic in 1997 signaled a potential triumph for postrevolutionary Islamic reformism. An advocate of religious intellectualism himself, Khatami incorporated key elements of the burgeoning discourse in his campaign slogans and called for increased social pluralism and a move toward civil society. In practice, however, theoretical as well as functional shortcomings seem to have stifled this particular promise. Nevertheless, Islamic reformism persists as an ongoing and evolving project in contemporary Iran.

Iranian reformers, more often than not, have formulated ideological or doctrinal questions in purely epistemic terms, and have shown conspicuously less concern for sociohistorical processes constituting religion in general and Islam in particular.

See also˓Abd al-Karim Sorush ; Afghani, Jamal al-Din ; Bazargan, Mehdi ; Khomeini, Ruhollah ; Mojtahed-Shabestari, Muhammad ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Reform: Muslim Communities of the Russian Empire ; Reform: South Asia ; Shari˓ati, ˓Ali .


Boroujerdi, Mehrzad. Iranian Intellectuals and the West. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Jahanbakhsh, Forouq. Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953–2000: From Bazargan to Soroush. Boston: E. J. Brill, 2001.

Soroush, Abdol Karim. Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Taleqani, Seyed Mahmud. Islam and Property Ownership. Lexington, Ky.: Mazda Publishers, 1983.

Hossein Kamaly

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Reform: Iran

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