Explaining Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its Legacy
The protests in Iran today have raised many questions on the Islamic Revolution and its legacy. This article explains Khomeinism as a political ideology and attempts to answer why Iran failed to export its revolution to other Islamic countries.
Analyzing Ervand Abrahamian’s Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (1993) and Simon Wolfgang Fuchs’ “A Direct Flight to Revolution: Maududi, Divine Sovereignty, and the 1979-Moment in Iran”, this article argues that: (i) Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was politically expedient. He dressed a selection of Western political concepts in Islamic language and justified as well as historicized his ideas using examples from the history of Shia Islam. (ii) Iran was unable to export its revolution to other parts of the world, including its Muslim majority neighbouring countries like Pakistan because it had found the instrument of mobilization and justification for its revolution in the history of Shia Islam.
Khomeini was a Populist?
Abrahamian argues that the term “fundamentalist” that is usually used to label Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is not only confusing but also misleading in the context of the Iranian Revolution. He gives eight reasons to argue that Khomeini was not a fundamentalist. Further, the author goes into Khomeini’s ideology and views- especially his views on the state and the society, the Constitution of Iran and Khomeini’s political testament to argue that the term “populist” better fits Khomeini because his views and his actions resemble Latin American populism.
The author further highlights various conceptual inconsistencies in Khomeini’s ideas. There are several instances when Khomeini reacted to the emerging circumstances by changing his views, hence he was politically expedient. For years he had argued against women’s suffrage because it was un-Islamic but then Iran’s constitution implemented universal adult suffrage and Khomeini now argued that it was un-Islamic to deprive women of their voting rights. Hence, what was earlier un-Islamic later became Islamic. Khomeini essentially did a political interpretation of Islam (Quran and Islamic history) and dressed several Western political concepts like enqelab (revolution), jomhuri (republic), tabaqat (classes) in the Islamic language to make them appealing to the Muslim majority masses of Iran. Since Iran is a Shia majority nation, he provided justification for his views from Shia history. Khomeinism, thus, instrumentalized Islam for bringing about a revolution in Iran. However, it raises several questions- why would the masses follow? Why would they accept inconsistencies in Khomeini’s thought, especially when something that was considered un-Islamic earlier was declared Islamic later? Since politically expedient means were deployed to bring about the revolution, was the Iranian Revolution more about the consolidation of Shia identity in the world rather than an Islamic revolution?
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Why Iran was not able to Export its Revolution?
Fuchs explores the engagement of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) with the post-revolutionary Iran. He analyses various JI leaders’ travelogues and several JI publications to argue that initially JI was enthusiastic about the revolution but it slowly grew concerned about the same around the early 1980s. JI initially thought that the Islamic Revolution in Iran was the realization of JI founder Maududi’s concept of hakimiyya ilahiyya (God’s sovereignty). In order to not miss the woods for the trees, they first ignored the sectarian implications of the revolution. They also turned blind eye to the top-down model of the revolution. Since JI has always advocated the bottom-up approach to bring about Islamicization of the society, Iranian Revolution did not fit into their ideology.
However, when it was apparent that it was the Shia history of Islam and the Shia model of governance that was being deployed in Iran, JI grew concerned. At home, JI also found itself being called out by Sunni organizations for appeasing and being soft on Shia. In order to highlight the JI’s distancing from the Iranian Revolution, Fuchs cites the example of the absence of Irani delegation and absence of any mention of the Iranian Revolution at a seminar hosted by JI in Lahore in November 1989, where several international delegations were present, to discuss the questions and the challenges facing the ‘Muslim World’. Fuchs does not however inform if there was any Shia Islamist organization from any other country present at all among the 30 organizations that were represented at the seminar.
Anyway, JI’s engagement with post-revolutionary Iran raises a question- did JI expect too much from Khomeini? As argued by Abrahamian, Khomeini was pragmatic and in order to get support from the majority, it was realistic for him to address his message to the Shia majority population of Iran.
Since it is apparent that Khomeini’s selective use of history and language of Shia Islam appeared sectarian to JI, forcing the organization to practice social distancing from the revolution, it would be safe to assume, within the context of the information provided by Abrahamian and Fuchs, that Iran was unable to inspire a revolution in other Muslim majority countries, like its neighbouring country Pakistan, primarily because it adopted the language and history of Shia Islam. That would explain why Iran has not been able to export its revolution to other Islamic countries.
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This article analysed Ervand Abrahamian’s Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (1993) and Simon Wolfgang Fuchs’ “A Direct Flight to Revolution: Maududi, Divine Sovereignty, and the 1979-Moment in Iran”, to argue that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was politically expedient. It further argued that Iran was unable to export its revolution to other parts of the world, including its Muslim majority neighbour countries like Pakistan because it had found the instrument of mobilization and justification for its revolution in the history of Shia Islam and therefore had sectarian implications.