Despotic Measures, Crackdown of Dissidents and Boiling Pot of Anger

  July 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Despotic Measures, Crackdown of Dissidents and Boiling Pot of Anger
At the time there were few students, and Reza Shah exerted great pressure on the clerics. They were mistreated and their turbans were removed. In the seminary of Isfahan, political matters were not discussed and the students did not read any newspapers.

The prominent role played by the clergy in the opposition to the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s had been difficult to foresee during the preceding decades. Disappointed and disillusioned by the failure of the Constitutional Revolution from 1906 to 1911, which had sought to replace the absolutist monarchy with a parliamentarian democracy, to introduce a constitution and to reduce foreign influence, the Shi’ite clergy had turned its back on politics and returned to its traditional position of quietism. According to this position, only the Imams have the legitimacy to rule. In the absence of the Twelfth Imam, who according to Shi’ite tradition went into hiding in AD 874, all government is considered illegitimate and the clergy is supposed to abstain from any participation in politics. This position was notably represented by Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Haeri-Yazdi (1859 – 1937), who on the invitation of the local clergy in 1922 had moved his seminary to Qom. As the location of the tomb of Imam Reza’s sister Fatemeh, this city in the arid plains south of Tehran had formerly been an important teaching centre but it had declined in importance by the 1920s. It was only on the initiative of Haeri-Yazdi that its seminaries were revived and rebuilt.

In the following decades, the city attracted an increasing number of scholars and students and eventually eclipsed the other centres of Shi’ite learning such as Najaf, Isfahan or Mashhad. When in 1925 the former cavalry officer Reza Khan deposed the last Qajar ruler and proclaimed himself Shah, he initially maintained a position of polite respect towards the clergy. However, his programme of state-controlled modernisation and centralisation soon led to conflict. Inspired by the policies of the Turkish President Kemal Ataturk, he sought to modernise State and society through the adoption of modern science, technology and bureaucracy as well as certain outward forms of Western customs and culture. Central goals of this programme included the reform of the education sector and the justice system, which were traditionally controlled by the clergy.

In 1928 Reza Shah introduced a reform of the judiciary which profoundly transformed its traditional structures. Although the new code of civil law remained influenced by Islamic law, the penal and criminal law was reworked according to the Western model. Furthermore, the informal religious courts, which until then had played an important role in the judiciary, were abolished and replaced by a system of secular courts under the control of the State. This meant that the clergy not only lost an important source of income, but also one of its central functions: the interpretation of the law and the administration of justice. Reza Shah also introduced a reform of the school system. With the establishment of free secular state schools, the traditional religious school (maktab) organised by the local mullah, which in most villages and towns had held the monopoly on education, lost its dominant position and was eventually abolished along with other confessional schools. The religious foundations (waqf) that had served to finance the schools and other religious institutions were placed under state control and their funds appropriated to finance the new school system. In 1928, Reza Shah also introduced new dress rules. He prohibited the wearing of the veil in public and only allowed those clerics who conformed to the State’s definition of this function to wear the traditional garment of the clergy. Prior to this reform, any person could wear a turban and cloak (aba) and call himself mullah, even if he earned his living as a farmer or trader. Henceforward, only those who had received a religious education and passed an official exam were entitled to this privilege. As recompense they were freed from the compulsory military service which had been introduced in 1925.