ESSAY – Iran’s revolutions and and the historical conflict between Islamic and secular political agendas

The history of 20th century Iran was marked by political and social upheavals. Numerous revolts and rebellions erupted both during the Qajar and the Pahlavi dynasties and culminated in two revolutions: the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In both cases, the political agendas of the secular and Islamic movements were at some point allied against a common enemy to be defeated for the survival of the country as a sovereign nation and to contain the absolute power of the Shahs. However, they finally struggled to reach an enduring compromise that could combine the ideological differences at their base. In this respect, the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 Islamic Revolution were the most evident and visible manifestations of the conflict between secularism and Islamism in terms of political goals and ideological foundations. The purpose of this paper will be the analysis of the two revolutions in a broader context that characterised Iranian politics and social life in 20th Century Iran: the conflicting interactions between religion, secular institutions and the existence of a civil society as political actors for the stabilisation of the country.

As Lapidus pointed out, for 200 years, the history of Iran was characterised by the struggle between the ulama and the state, which materialized in the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, led by a coalition of merchants, artisans, ulama and intellectuals and later in the Revolution of 1979, a nationwide resistance against the regime led by the clergy in the name of Islam.[1] During the late Qajar period, the social and economic tensions that caused the eruption of the revolution, created an unusual alliance between religious figures and secular forces. The coalition was possible because the main goal of the different groups was the same: limit the power of the Shah by the introduction of a parliament and preserve the sovereignty of Iran. However, this common opposition to the government was articulated and accompanied by diverse values and motives. On one side, the ulama was worried about the growing power of the Qajars as a threat to their supremacy on religious institutions and practices as well as the inability of the state to limit European economic intervention and cultural influence. On the other side, the liberals were moved by the hope that a constitution could change society by giving more powers to individuals and their freedom.[2] Furthermore, merchants and artisans were exasperated by the regime’s inability to promote and safeguard the local economy against Europe’s intrusion and concessions. Clearly, even if the principal goal was the same, the religious and secular forces that composed the coalition, ultimately conceptualised the possible changes brought by the constitution in divergent ways.

The revolts against the Tobacco concession of 1890-1, which gave the British the monopoly over the sale, export and production of tobacco, represented the first occasion in which different groups and classes were united against the Shah and the malfunctioning of the government.[3]As a matter of fact, the growth of bureaucracy as an attempt to centralize the state, created economic difficulties for many Iranians.[4]The movement became the first successful mass protest in modern Iran and combined modernists, liberals, ulama, merchants and ordinary people against a government’s policy.[5] The alliance was mainly led by the Iranian ulama, which deserves here attention in order to understand their role and goals throughout the 1905 Revolution and the rest of the 20th century. The power of the Iranian Shi’i ulama extended beyond religion;[6] they were responsible for the collection of some taxes, owned personal properties and were Iran’s primary educators.[7] In other words, the ulama worked for the state[8]. For the Qajars, that was a means to control some areas (lack of centralization), but at the same time this made the clergy an almost independent and powerful institution that controlled many aspects of people’s life. In this respect, they played a central role in the revolution both because of their power “on the ground”: they were inclined to accept and mobilise Iranians for the implementation of  a constitution modelled on the western ones – that could potentially impact traditional values – to maintain their power and protect Iran from more intrusive external interventions. Modernists and liberals represented the secular forces that joined the ulama. Among the more representative was the secular journal Sur-i-Israfil run by Malik al-Mutikallimin, who promoted local industries and the boycott of foreign textiles as a way to restore the power or Iranians in their own land, also stressing the importance of Islam, not its conservative and “close form”,[9] but at the same time promoting secular and liberal reforms.[10]

The intent of the 1905 Revolution was to institute a constitutional monarchy based on the principles that important matters should be approved by the parliament (maijles) and that would guarantee equality, freedom and personal rights to all the subjects.[11] In other words, Muslims and non-Muslims would have the same rights; this will ultimately cause protests by some members of the ulama that could not accept that the minorities would enjoy the equal status of those who practiced the state religion[12], showing the discrepancies inside the alliance of 1905. Having asserted the powerful role of the ulama in Iran is clear that modernity brought by the constitution would question their traditional authority. As a matter of fact, for some members of the ulama, constitutionalism represented a threat to their clerical and political role. Namely, Shaikh Fazlallah, a powerful religious figure who supported the constitutional movement, was suspicious about innovations that could change the existing system in terms of faith and education (secular schools)[13] and soon after the revolution started opposing secular and democratic reforms. At this point, after the coalition successfully obtained the implementation of the constitution in 1906[14], the differences between religious and secularist agendas began clear and irreconcilable, representing the first rupture between the two factions. The collapse of the coalition became particularly evident when the process of ratifying new reforms continued after 1906, especially in terms of judiciary reforms, which were opposed by many clerics who were intended to unify them with the shari’at laws.[15] In essence, mainly due to the opposition of the clergy, the Majlis members were unable to establish an independent parliament that could overlap the ecclesiastical order and create a compromise between the monarchy, the ulama and the growing aspirations of the social movements.[16]

Similarly to what happened in the late Qajar period, internal tensions rapidly grew from the mid 1970s onward, creating a fertile ground for another revolution to succeed. The Shah’s despotic and repressive measures to modernize[17] the country failed to incorporate Islam, which was a fundamental part of the people and the community. These factors, paired with the economic difficulties and the growing presence of the West (alliances and mutual treaties with Britain, Soviet Union and United States)[18] created a spiral of discontent and sense of non-belonging in which most Iranians, once again, saw themselves united against a common enemy. These various forms of malaise merged “ in two main ideological strains that already existed in embryo in the revolution of 1905-11: the liberal or leftist desire for Westernization (here used to indicate democratic institutions), and the fundamentalist wish to return to a ‘pure’ Islam, particularly as interpreted by Ayatollah Khomeini and those around him”.[19] At the state level, the government of the last Shah, aimed to secularize the state through an authoritarian government that repressed free speech, political opposition and made use of violence (secret police, SAVAK)[20] : this premise was the starting point for the success of movements that generated a concrete and radical alternative to the dynastic regime and finally culminated in the revolution.

During the Revolution, many Iranians were not fighting for what they obtained.[21] This concept is crucial for the understanding of the event itself and the conflict between Islamism and secularism. On one side, Khomeini and the orthodox clergy were theoretically fighting and guiding the masses for the establishment of an Islamic Republic, which would end the intrusion of the west, “the loss of values” that the Shah initiated for the creation of a European style military power and the economic struggle of many. On the other hand, many liberals, students and non-Islamic forces were joining the crowd against the repression of the Shah and the oppressiveness of his regime. They saw a possible “return to the past” as a way to confront the lack of freedom and materialization of the period, but were not fighting for another authoritarian regime led in the name of Islam. In this sense, in the Islamic Revolution the leadership came from the conservative clergy who proposed a return to fundamentalism[22] and was welcomed by many Iranians as a valid alternative. In regard to the religious but “populist” character of the movement led by the clergy, what is astonishing about it, is probably its power to defeat a modernized regime in the name of Islam[23] but that was able to include leftist and revolutionary, in its proper sense, motives. On this aspect, Abrahamian argued:

“This Revolution is the last of the leftist, “third-worldist” and anti-imperialist revolutions, although it has been carried out under an Islamic cloak. One of the reasons for its success was the combination of this leftist and populist trend with a recurrent traditional search for an Islamic (Shi’i) order, which attracted a large part of the clergy and traditional circles (such as Bazaar). In the process of politicization, this traditional Shi’i Islam has been recast into a modern revolutionary millenarist terminology.”[24]

Abrahamian, in his description of the 1979 Revolution as a mass movement with a leftist and populist character would probably refer to the events that led to the overthrown of the Shah and the end of the Pahlavi rule themselves, as they included the majority of the population and represented a revolution in its whole meaning. Specifically, the major political forces of the country, including the secular ones, such as the Communist Party and the Islamic Modernists helped to legitimize the rise to power of what later became a fundamentalist Islamic Republic, sharing the emphasis of Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers’ agenda on tradition and religion. Naturally, the oppositional forces at the time, did not realize what their alliance with the Ayatollah will specifically mean in terms of his political and practical plans. As a matter of fact, when the Shah agreed to hold free elections, many liberals and other secular forces celebrated the realization of the Revolution as the turning point for the democratization of Iran.[25]Furthermore, the “euphoric environment” in which these events took place also saw Karim Sanjabi (National Front, secular nationalist party) visiting Khomeini (still exiled in Paris) to emerge with a joint declaration in which Islam and democracy were proclaimed the leading principles of the Revolution.[26] However, when the Revolution was officially won, Khomeini “refused to put the same word, democracy, into either the title of the Republic of its constitution – a position consistent with his view that democracy was a Western import and Islam sufficed”.[27] This could probably be considered as the final rupture between Islamic and secularist agendas, which, in the decade previous to 1979, even until Khomeini permanence in France, seemed perfectly aligned and ready to collaborate in post dynastic Iran.

During the 20th Century, the history of Iran was transformed by two major revolutions and the impacts they had on politics, religion and social life. These two major processes and their aftermaths were shaped by the historical conflict between Islamism and secularism. The 1906 Constitutional Revolution marked the beginning of a fragile alliance between religious and secular forces that were united in an anti-imperialist battle against the absolute power of the Shah and his inability to control the intrusion of the West. The coalition, which successfully led to the implementation of a constitution and the creation of a parliament reached a point of rupture when the liberal and democratic hopes of its secular political actors clearly started to collide with the ulama’s boundaries in terms of political role of Islam, their will to maintain their traditional power and the reforms to secularize the state. Similarly, the environment in which the 1979 Revolution took place, created the fertile ground for another coalition of secular and religious forces, which finally and ultimately drastically collapsed when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power and implemented the Islamic Republic, which successfully overthrown the authoritarian Pahlavi government but left no space for democracy, making it clear that the extraordinary mass “third-worldist” revolution that the Iranians carried out, was not meant to find a balance between religion, state and a free civil society.

[1] Ira M. Lapidus, A Hsitory of Islamic Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.469.

[2] M.E. Yapp, The Making of the Modern Middle East, (Pearson Education Limited, 1987), p.248

[3] Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution: an Interpretative History of Modern Iran, (Yale University Press, 1981), p.66.

[4] Vanessa Martin, Islam and Modernism: the Iranian Revolution of 1906, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ldt, 1989), p.42.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] Martin, Islam and Modernism, p.35.

[7] Nikki R. Keddie, “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective”, in The Modern Middle East: a Reader, ed. by A. Hourani, P. khoury and M. Wilson, (I.BB Tauris & Co Ltd, 2004), p.619.

[8] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, p.470.

[9] Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911, (Columbia University Press, 1996), p.253.

[10] Mangol Bayat, “The Cultural implications of the Constitutional Revolution”, in Qajar Iran: political, social and cultural change 1800-1925, ed. by E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), p.71.

[11]Keddie, Roots of Revolution, p.74.

[12] Ibid., p.74.

[13] Martin, Islam and Modernism, p.60.

[14]Ibid., p.274.

[15] Afary, The Iranian Consitutional Revolution, p.264

[16] Ibid., p.264.

[17] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, p.476.

[18] Ibid., p.476.

[19] Keddie, “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective”, p.628.

[20] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, p.477; William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004), p.418.

[21] Keddie, “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective”, p.633.

[22] Ibid., p.615.

[23] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, p.485

[24] Oliver Ray, “The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran”, in The Modern Middle East: a Reader, ed. by A. Hourani, P. Khoury and M. Wilson, (I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2004), p.642.

[25] Keddie, Roots of Revolution, p.248.

[26] Ibid., p.252.

[27] Ibid., p.252.


  • Afary, Janet. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911: Grassroots, Democracy, Social Democracy, and the origins of Feminism. Columbia University Press, 1996.
  • Bayat, Mangol. “The Cultural Implications of the Constitutional Revolution”, in E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand (eds) Qajar Iran: Political, Social and Cultural change 1800-1925. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983.
  • Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Keddie, Nikki R. “Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective, in A. Hourani, P. Khoury and M. Wilson (eds) The Modern Middle East: a Reader, 2nd edition. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2004.
  • Keddie, Nikki R. Roots of Revolution: An Interpretative History of Modern Iran. Yale University Press, 1981.
  • Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Martin, Vanessa. Islam and Modernism: The Iranian Revolution of 1906. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1989.
  • Roy, Oliver. “ The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran” in A. Hourani, P. Khoury and M. Wilson (eds) The Modern Middle East: a Reader, 2nd edition. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2004.
  • Yapp, M. E. The Making of the Modern Near East: 1792-1923. Pearson Education Limited, 1987.

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