The Intertwinement of Religion, Culture and Politics in Early Modern Iran

  May 31, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Intertwinement of Religion, Culture and Politics in Early Modern Iran
Political aspects of religious ideology between the 1920s and the 1940s were complex. In the constitutional era, a spectrum of languages around Shi’a Islam, political change and socio-cultural modernity was deployed by ‘ulama and intellectuals with religious backgrounds.

For some the defence and well-being of Islam were the criteria for acceptance or rejection of constitutional change, while for others education and gender relations were test issues and symbols in their engagement with modernity. ‘Ulama withdrawal from the political arena from the 1920s was not just rejection of secularism, but a position within a repertoire of political possibilities and religious thinking. Their defensiveness and anger flavoured the language of opposition alongside assertions of Shi’a lslam as central to virtue, order and identity. When the leading mujtahed ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’eri Yazdi, famed for his cautious and defensive approach to politics, protested directly about steps ‘openly contradictory … to the law of Islam’, he combined traditions of remonstrance with those of confrontation.

Defensive responses, whether public or discreet, were not the only elements in the repertoire of discourse on religion and politics. It included traditions like that of ‘al-Afghani’ advocating Muslim realignment to modernity, or mujtaheds such as Tabataba’I and Na’ini whose writings provided endorsement for constitutionalism, or the preachers, activists and writers who brought religious discourse into constitutional and nationalist politics. On the activist side the careers of ‘political mullas’ such as Sayyid Hasan Mudarris and Abu’l Qasim Kashani bridged the clerical involvement of constitutionalist times and developments in the 1940s. Until his suppression, Mudarris was an effective exponent of a pragmatic party politics whereby ‘ulama adapted to and defended the gains of the constitutional era in alliance with secular politicians. Kashani, who was to be more prominent in the 1940s, appears in the 1920s as active in anti-British politics in Iraq, and supported Reza Khan/Shah, whom Mudarris opposed. The visibility of such individuals showed the ongoing possibility of ‘ulama participation in ‘modern’ politics, which, while curtailed by more aggressive secularism and repression in the 1930s, embodied ongoing experiments with the politics of religion in modern settings.

Such experiments took various cultural forms. Within religious practice and institutions themselves even limited discussion of the need for reform provoked ideological controversy and had political edge. The career of an ‘alim like Mirza Reza Quli ‘Shari’at Sangalaji’, combining writing and proselytising on reformist issues, relationships with Reza Shah and participation in modern intellectual life in Tehran is an example.45 He wrote critiques of Shi’a practice within Shi’a reforming tradition, and had contacts with the leader of Reza Shah’s programme of legal secularisation. His calls for rigorous and purified forms of Shi’a Islam grounded in the Qur’an and monotheism provoked debate and condemnation. His preaching and discussion meetings parallel initiatives by thoughtful mullas like Sayyid Abu’l Hasan Taleqani in Tehran, and the contacts formed by Muhammad Taqi Shari’ati as a school teacher in Mashad. They could also be compared to the work of the ex-‘alim ‘Ali Akbar Hakamizadeh whose critical writings were published in the 1930s, and who like Sangalaji was attacked by Ruhollah Khomeini in his 1940s text The Unveiling of Secrets. The fact that the production of this text was supported by Tehran bazar merchants, as others supported Taleqani, or challenged Ha’eri Yazdi’s ideas of reform, indicates the diversity of discourse and opinion. State repression meant that the reform of Shi’ism and its alignment with ‘modern’ circumstances explored in these initiatives also involved hostility to ‘despotism’.