The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
In the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ayatollah
Khomeini argued that in the absence of the Hidden Imam the clerics should
effectively exercise power on his behalf. This was a radical break with the
tradition of de facto separation between religion and state.
A cliché of Iran's revolutionary rhetoric
is that the United States is the Great Satan bent on destroying the Islamic
Republic. Such frenzied antagonism owes more to
Zoroastrian dualism than mainstream Quranic theology. During the early Islamic centuries, Iranian Shiism
absorbed the Zoroastrian view of a world divided between pure believers and
In a patriarchal social order, it is women who
bear the brunt. As in other patrilineal societies, the
woman is the door of entry to the group. Improper behavior on her part can
expose her community and family to all sorts of hidden dangers. The
sexual double standard was effectively institutionalized in all the
mainstream Islamic traditions: men were permitted up to four legal wives and
the right of divorce by repudiation. In pre-modern Iran, male prerogatives
were enhanced by the practice of temporary marriage and by the availability of concubines.
Gender segregation contributed to the prevalence of boy concubinage and
pedophilia. Although sodomy is condemned in the Quran, homosexual
relationships between older men and boys were tolerated.
The social reforms instituted by Reza Shah Pahlevi were
modeled on the perceived advantages enjoyed by people in the industrialized
West. Religious leaders adamantly resisted. They recognized that in enacting
reforms in the realms of hygiene and dress, the state was appropriating
their powers as the guardians of purity.
upended the Pahlavi reforms, leading to a drastic reversal in women's
rights. The compulsory veil was imposed for women in public. Women and men
no longer enjoy equality under the law, with evidence from a man worth twice
that of a woman. Child marriage was allowed once more, with the
age of marriage reduced from 18 to nine for girls (revised to 13) and 15 for
boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive
husbands. The husband's right of unilateral divorce was reinstated. New
policies encouraged temporary marriage.
Despite the formal
reintroduction of child marriage, the mean age of first marriages for young
women has continued to rise from around 19 before the revolution to 24
today. The revolution has maintained the momentum of the Shah's literacy
campaigns, with literacy rates exceeding 95 percent for both sexes. A
majority of college students are now women. Companionate marriage, with
couples freely choosing their partners, is becoming the norm.
The revolution's outward momentum was blocked by Saddam Hussein's Iraq,
which launched an unprovoked attack in 1980, leading to a war that cost as
many as one million lives. Saddam's use of chemical weaponry underpins Iran's policy of developing a nuclear capability.
By James Buchan
The Guardian, June 27, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Ahmad Kasravi was born in modest
circumstances in 1890 in the Turkish-speaking city of Tabriz in north-west
Iran. Bred up for the Shia clergy, his life was changed in 1905 when the
Shia clergy became aware of some of the wider consequences of Enlightenment
ideas. They were shocked to learn that liberty included liberty not to pray
or wash, and equality might even be extended to Jews, Christians, and
Zoroastrians. The new parliament, instead of merely interpreting and
enforcing sharia, would give law to the Muslims.
This break in the
alliance between clergy and liberals is the dominant theme of modern Iranian
history. It has permitted a succession of government coups d'etat from 1908
to 1979. The two groups together mobilized millions of demonstrators over
the winter of 1978/79 and sent Muhammad Reza into exile. The Iraqi invasion
of 1980 and the eight years of war forged a solidarity that persisted into
From a historical point of view, the most
likely outcome of recent events is despotism. Kasravi saw the parade of Shia
ceremonies that punctuate the Iranian calendar, the cursing of the early
caliphs, and the self-flagellation and mourning for the prophet's family, as
mere mechanisms for despotic control. The prophet Muhammad performed no
miracles, but the Iranians know better. Khomeini loathed popular
superstition. Not so his successors.
Kasravi became more and more
anti-clerical. In the course of the 1930s, he came to argue that the Shia
itself was a perversion of the prophet's Islam. That brought him to the
attention of Muhammad Navvab Safavi, who had
founded the terrorist group Fedayan-e Islam.
Brought to trial for his anti-clerical stance in Tehran, Kasravi was
butchered in 1946.
AR Another excellent article from Jamie Buchan,
whose expertise on this topic is considerable. See his 1999 novel
A Good Place to Die, set in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. I knew
Jamie when we were students at Oxford.