The Quran Instead of the Crown

Maxim Alontsev on tradition and modernism in the 1960s–1980s’ Iran

Celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Iran, 12–16 October, 1971
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The public program accompanying the retrospective of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art will be taking place until August 28th. During the first lecture, the iranist Maxim Alontsev spoke about the conflict between two intellectual paradigms—modernism and traditionalism—in Iranian cultural and political life of the second half of the twentieth century. 

The atmosphere of the Iran of the 1960s can be very accurately described by the poem “Winter” by the one the most prominent Iranian poets Mehdi Akhavan-Sales: The eyes see no more — but one step ahead / We pass silent and sombre with our tumbling tread. He describes a ‘“bitter cold,” the total alienation in which people were terrified to even talk to each other. This was the life of Iranian intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century up until the Islamic Revolution. 


In 1921 the brigadier-general of the Cossack BrigadeCossack BrigadeIn 1878 during his trip to Europe, the Persian shah Naser al-Din Shah Qajar was amazed by the uniforms, equipment, and horse riding skills of the Cossacks who escorted him through the Russian annexed parts of the South Caucasus. He asked Russian rulers to send officers to Persia in order to create a Cossack cavalry regiment. Russian authorities agreed, since they saw it as an opportunity to strengthen their influence in Persia. Reza Khan and his associate, journalist Zia'eddin Tabataba'i organized a coup d'état. Cossak Brigade forces led by Tabataba'I enter Tehran, and Reza Khan becomes the head of Iran. Virtually under the control of the two major empires in the region—British and Russian, until 1925 Iran is secretly governed by the previous Qajar shah, until in December 1925 when Reza calls in a constituent assembly, becomes the monarch, and founds the Pahlavi dynasty. 

Reza Shah’s main goal was to establish a modern state in Iran. Together with his allies he carried out a series of powerful reforms which can be called “modernizing.” The shah reformed the country’s judiciary and legal systems, introducing the civil code: he abandoned Sharia law in favor of a legal system similar to the European variety. The major event that transformed the visual image of Iran was the 1936 Kashf-e hijab decree, banning all types of the Islamic traditional clothing in public. 

Seeing how the government forces were much weaker than those of the local tribes, Reza understood that Iran was in a desperate need of a modern army. Thus, he introduced conscription, allowing him to gather the force —the calling-card of the new, modern Iran. Another landmark of the reforms was the Trans-Iranian Railway linking the north of the country and the coastlines of the Caspian with the southern regions and the Persian Gulf, as well as the very first university in the country, the University of Tehran. 

However, Reza’s reform initiatives were only guided by his own ideas of what modernity was. That is why his policy is referred to as authoritative “modernity” and the last word should be put between quotation marks. Reza’s state controlled almost every aspect of life—for example, photographing Iranians in traditional clothes was banned as it was seen as backwards by the Shah and contradicted the policy of the new, modern Iran. 

Reza had his own ideas about the nation too, the origins of which he saw in the pre-Islamic past. Both Reza and the engaged media often alleged that Iranians were the descendants of the Aryans, the word Iran being the derivative of the Ancient Persian *arya—“Arian.” This led to the spreading of racial and national ideas and to a rapprochеment between Iran and Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union demanded that Iran, according to the Soviet-Iranian Treaty, participated in the struggle against Germany. Reza refused and, consequently, allied forces entered Iran. Reza had to abdicate in favor of his son.

Reza Pahlavi while serving as Minister of War in the 1920s and his coronation day on April 26, 1926

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The New Shah and His Opponents

As far as the rights and freedoms are concerned, the reign of Mohammad Pahlavi is considered to be the most liberal period in the modern history of Iran. The new Shah granted amnesty to all political prisoners and abrogated the most controversial laws adopted by his father. At the same time, oppositional forces gained strength, supported by foreign powers. With the help of the USSR, the Tudeh Party advanced on the Iranian political stage—they would gather demonstrations and gain representation in the Iranian parliament and government. However, in 1949 there was an attempt on the Shah’s life: the communists were accused and the Tudeh Party was banned. 

Another important oppositional force in Iran was the National Front, the movement for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry—during all these years the country’s oil industry was partly controlled by the British Empire. Together with the allies, the leader of the organization Mohammad Mosaddegh entered parliament and adopted a law on the nationalization of the oil industry. Mosaddegh was appointed Prime-Minister and broke the partnership with Britain. Still, in 1953, backed by the British and US intelligence, the Shah won back the power: there was a coup, Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown. The Shah was welcomed by friendly demonstrations; he had defeated his main enemies: communists and nationalists. 

Top: Harry Truman and Mohammed Pahlavi in the White House's Oval Office. USA, 18 November, 1949
Abbie Rowe / National Archives and Records Administration

Bottom: Mohammed Pahlavi at Schiphol Airport. Netherlands, December 31, 1949
Nationaal Archief

White Revolution

Back in power, the Shah initiated a series of reforms meant to transform Iran into one of the largest economies if not of the world, then at least of the region. This project was referred to as the White Revolution, formally the Shah and People Revolution. One of its main acquisitions was the empowerment of women who were granted the right to vote; at the same time measures were taken to eradicate illiteracy. High hopes were put on the land reform aimed at creation of middle-class landowners. 

Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, one of the leading members of the Shiah community, was the most ardent opponent of the White Revolution. He was arrested after his anti-Shah appearances. Students of his theological seminary rallied in his support—a wave of searches and arrests swept the seminaries. The Shah found himself facing a choice: to kill Khomeini or to isolate the man. He decides to ban Khomeini from Iran and gets down to fighting his political enemies from within. In 1957 the Shah created the secret police known as SAVAK, which caused terror through its practices. In 1963 the Iranian parliament became essentially bipartisan, and after 1975 the parliament developed into a de-facto single-party institution. All the politicians were required to join the Rastakhiz Party, literally the Resurgence Party. 

In 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out, resulting in an oil embargo against Western countries who supported Israel. Iran, however, did not join the embargo, and the oil money came pouring into the state budget. 

The Shah’s ambitions grew further, and Iran was expected to become the major force of the region. These expectations took shape in the festivities dedicated to the 2,500th Year of the Foundation of the Imperial State of Iran which took place in 1971 in Persepolis. The elaborate celebration was full of pre-Islamic Iranian symbols, Persepolis being the capital of the first Iranian dynasty of Achaemenids. The Shah read an oath at the tomb of the Achaemenids, and a theatricalized military parade was held with the participants dressed as Achaemenid warriors. The Cyrus Cylinder was the focal point of the event—it was a document edited by the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great, granting freedom to all of the nations under his rule. Cylinder became an instrument of propaganda, bearing testimony to the fact that as far back as two thousand years ago the Iranian state cared about human rights.

The Third Path

At the same time, seeing clearly both the flaws of the communist program and the deficiencies of the Shah’s modernization, Iranian intellectuals continued their quest for the third path. This quest, however, was set against the background of total ideological control: the Shah was everywhere—on book covers, in the newspapers, and on television. 

Ali Shariati was one of the most influential Iranian intellectuals with a European background. He offered new conceptions of Shia rituals and symbols which made the Battle of Karbala, when Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet, was killed—the main event of the Shia history. The battle became the fault line between the Sunnites and the Shiites: in Shia Islam, the martyr’s death of Husayn led to the strengthening of the martyrdom cult. The Battle of Karbala was fought on the 10 Muharram; this is why Shariati came up with the following motto: “Every day is Ashura (10th day of the month), every month is Muharram, and every land is Karbala.” According to Shariati, a Muslim cannot be a simple practitioner of faith—they should be a warrior of revolution. 

Another important figure of the period is Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. In 1963 he published the book Westoxification, which became his manifesto. Western influence here is depicted as a disease: Al-e-Ahmad believed that Western culture inflicts serious damage onto Iran, and the country should have chosen another way. Al-e-Ahmad wrote: “One thousand years ago the famous Iranian poet Nasir Khusraw has already said everything, and his words are always with me. To him I owe my writing abilities, not to Newton nor to Sartre.”

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad in various years
Wikimedia Commons

Shah Raft

In late 1977 the US President Jimmy Carter visited Iran and pronounced his famous words about Iran being an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world and depicted Shah Mohammad Reza as the keeper of peace. 

A week later an article called Red and Black Colonization was published. The disgraced Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini is the hero of the text. The article states Khomeini is not Iranian, but an ethnic Hindu, and that he is a mere tool in the hands of the colonizers: red colonization being the Communists, the black one—Khomeini. The article sparked outrage among Iranians, demonstrations arise in the streets in support of Khomeini, but they were violently suppressed. There were victims. Fourty days later, during the mourning for the dead according the Shia Islam, a funeral procession moving down the streets become a riot again. The manifestations lasted for several months. 

The Shah dismissed the head of the SAVAK and promised free elections in June 1979, but the unrest carried on. Black Friday, September 8th, 1979, when military forces shot protesters, became the tipping point. In his attempt to keep power, the Shah went to an extreme and appointed Shapour Bakhtiar, leader of the National Front, to the position of the Prime Minister—but it was too late. 

On January 16th, 1979, the headline that appeared on the front pages of the Iranian newspapers was “Shah Raft”—(The Shah is Gone). The grammatical form of the phrase is extremely relevant—for the first time ever the Shah was referred to using the familiar form of the noun, as if it were no one in particular. This marked the definitive departure of the Shah from Iran. The one who did come back was Khomeini, and ten days later he announced the victory of the Islamic Revolution. In 1979 a referendum was held in Iran and the country was proclaimed an Islamic Republic. Iran set off on the road to the introduction of Islamic norms, cultural revolution, and education reform.

Translated from Russian by Liya Ebralidze

The next event of the public program will take place on July 31. Iranian cinema researcher Yekaterina Dolinina will discuss the film industry in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Please register here.

Front page of the Kayhan newspaper of January 16, 1979 with the headline "The Shah is Gone"
Wikimedia Commons
Maxim Alontsev
Specialist in Iranian studies and Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies at the Higher School of Economics.