Iranian Religious Intellectuals and the “Islamist Left”


A review of Disenchanting Political Theology in Post-Revolutionary Iran: Reform, Religious Intellectualism and the Death of Utopia, by Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi.

When Islamic revolutionaries jumped the fences of the US Embassy compound in Tehran on November 4, 1979, they also precipitated two other historic steps for Iran: on the one hand, the ensuing hostage crisis prompted condemnation and demonization by Western powers, pushing Iran into the role of pariah state in global politics; and on the other hand, it enabled a “second revolution,” in which those who questioned Ayatollah Khomeini’s growing power and its basis in a particular, contentious reading of Islam were purged. The embassy crisis, in other words, consolidated the authoritarian, theocratic-populist political order of the Islamic Republic. At that stage, few had imagined that among those staunchly Khomeinist hostage-takers, several would one day regret their actions and turn into voices of moderation, tolerance, dialogue and democracy in Iran.

What made those who paved the way for the supreme rule of a cleric become disenchanted with the political order they had brought into being? How did they convert from ideological legitimators to internal dissidents? And why did they, after a decade of political marginalization, resurface and rise to prominence in the 1990s? In a comprehensive, eloquent, and sophisticated dissertation, Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi attempts to answer these questions by tracing the historical evolution of the so-called “religious intellectuals” (rowshanfekran-e dini) and their associated political currents, “the Islamic left” and the reformists.

The dissertation is informed by an immensely broad reading of political, sociological, and philosophical literature. It draws on a number of methodological approaches, most notably from Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock of the Cambridge School of the historical study of political thought. These (as well as J.L. Austin and Judith Butler’s) approaches to the language of politics (and politics as language) are applied throughout the analysis of the religious intellectual production: articles, editorials, essays, sermons, speeches, monographs, memoirs, etc. – a vast material in Persian that Sadeghi-Boroujerdi has studied meticulously, and from which he provides excellent translations and stringent transliteration of key concepts.

Sadeghi-Boroujerdi sets the stage in Chapter 1 by outlining the religious intellectuals’ mode of production as political interventions, and the religious intellectuals as public personages rather than mere producers of knowledge. In order to analyze the intellectuals as authors, agents, and actors in a matrix of political, tactical, professional, and personal relations, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi draws on Gramsci’s discussion of hegemony and authority and on Bourdieu’s notions of “field” and “game.” The intellectuals and their production play into a struggle for political influence and social capital in post-revolution Iran, and as such, the intellectuals operate in tenuous public and semi-private spaces for critique and criticism – perpetually bound to observe (and sometimes, strategically transgress) the shifting “red lines” for debate set out by coercive powers in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The intellectuals draw on a number of resources to navigate censorship and repression: their credentials, their religious identity and their social networks, personal relationships, and familial ties across the political landscape.

These resources are not always enough to keep the intellectuals safe from harm; but nonetheless, they have been able to expose and challenge a number of critical, sensitive, and complex points at the heart of Iranian politics. These include the post-revolution state’s appropriation of religious doctrine, the divinization of political authority, the utopianism of revolutionary ideology, the unequal distribution of power, and the contentious issue of legitimacy. The religious intellectuals have championed the virtues of gradualism, reform and rationalism over revolution, zealotry, and extremism. The larger context of these debates is of course the question of what the Islamic Republic is and what it should be.

In order to properly grasp this context, Chapter 2 is devoted to an exposition of the ideological lineages on which the political theology of the Islamic Republic was forged. For this purpose, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi focuses on three key activists and thinkers who in the Pahlavi Era envisioned the state as a vehicle for a far-reaching moral and political transformation of society: Navvab Safavi (leader of the radical Islamic group Fada’iyan-e Eslam), Ali Shariati (intellectual and sociologist) and Khomeini. Through the oeuvres of these thinkers, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi outlines three inherently contentious ideas: the establishment of an Islamic state, the ideologization of Islam, and the endowment of supreme political authority to a cleric. When these ideas were sought materialized in the Islamic Republic, and then failed to produce the promised utopia on earth, religious intellectuals would address them critically from political, historical, philosophical, and theological perspectives.

The history of the religious intellectuals is woven together, through inter-personal relations and through a number of nodal points in Iran’s institutional landscape, with that of the so-called “Islamic left.” In Chapter 3, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi details how this “Islamic left” came into being after a split with “the right” in a key clerical/political organization in the late 1980s over not only issues of economic policy, but also factional rivalries that were exacerbated by the removal of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri as heir-designate to Khomeini in 1989. The “left” was marginalized in parliamentary politics during the early 1990s, and instead created new avenues through the above-mentioned nodal points: in the editorial teams of newly-established progressive journals and newspapers, in more or less informal reading circles, in particular university faculties, and in government think-tanks.

Around these nodal points ousted parliamentarians met intellectuals who had grown wary of post-revolutionary purges, a devastating war with Iraq, and factional infighting. Many of these intellectuals had been among the pioneers and unswerving supporters of the Islamic Republic but had by the 1990s become disillusioned with the ascendance of the conservatives and with the technocratic government of Rafsanjani. Foremost among these intellectuals were Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. In Chapter 4, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi explains how the two – the former a once-radical ideologue who had been busy Islamizing universities and purging liberals in the early 1980s, and the latter a mid-ranking theologian from Khomeini’s circle of disciples – had by the 1990s become firm critics of “jurisprudential Islam” and of “official readings” of religion. To investigate Soroush and Shabestari’s arguments against the doctrinaire, utopian, and violent ideologization of Islam, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi employs a theoretical framework derived from the works of Michael Freeden (with reference to Clifford Geertz, Karl Mannheim, Daniel Bell, and others).

Soroush and Shabestari struck a nerve not just among peers and in Islamic leftist circles, but also in universities and, from the mid-1990s, in a broad segment of the population disenchanted with the conservative clergy and eager for social change. In that sense, the religious intellectuals played a key role in the societal surge that led to former Minister of Culture Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victory in the 1997 presidential elections. As Chapter 5 shows, the new reformist government of “The Smiling Seyyed,” under unmistakable influence of Soroush and Shabestari, significantly broadened the space for debate, reinvigorated civil society, and fueled a rapidly proliferating and increasingly bold press. All of this facilitated the dissemination of religious intellectual ideas to a much broader public.

Sadeghi-Boroujerdi analyzes how Khatami discussed the key issues of “law,” “guardianship,” and “legitimacy” in his capacities as religious intellectual and president. As with other chapters, the analysis is both deep and broad: it looks into the social micro-level of domestic politics, networks, and institutions in the Islamic Republic while also stretching back to debates among clerics during the time of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11). Contrary to less reflective presentations of Khatami’s era, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi diligently explains why Khatami was not willing to become the great constitutional reformer that some had hoped – and why reformists constituted a diverse, internally divergent network rather than the monolithic and unified entity implied in the prevalent term “reformist camp.”

The spotlight turns to the former intelligence officer and key strategist of the reformist movement, Sa’id Hajjarian. Providing more interesting biographic detail, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi outlines the evolution of Hajjarian’s conception of “sovereignty” and “political development”: the ambition of limiting state power (particularly restraining the unelected Guardian Council’s ability to strike down legislation) while increasing popular participation in electoral politics through more inclusive, less elitist channels. Sadeghi-Boroujerdi discusses how these ambitions, qua Hajjarian’s strategy of “pressure from below, bargain from above,” were translated and not translated into the reformist government’s policy – and how Hajjarian’s ambition surpassed that of Khatami. In 2000, Hajjarian was shot in the face by an unknown assailant, most probably in retaliation for his persistent critique of the hidden powers in Iran. But even before that, Hajjarian had realized that in the ever-growing arbitrary and violent coercive power and economic empire of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran was facing the specter of what Weber named sultanism.

Mostafa Malekian is often overlooked in most Western literature on Iranian intellectual life. Chapter 6 introduces this popular intellectual, who was once aligned with the hardliner cleric Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi but would become disillusioned, break with the latter’s violent philosophy, and launch a career as independent, pacifist intellectual. By the 2000s, Malekian could lay claim to having surpassed the project of religious intellectualism that seemed to have reached a dead-end. Sadeghi-Boroujerdi provides an interesting insight into Malekian’s anti-utopian, cosmopolitan, and individualist religious philosophy that caught the attention of a large segment of jaded Iranian youth in the second half of Khatami’s presidency and onwards. By way of an “ethical turn,” Malekian shifts focus from the collective project of emancipation through Islamic revolution and reform towards the subjective project of self-development, thus championing a “spiritual” rather than “religious” intellectualism.

The dissertation concludes with a summary of the various aspects of modernity, religion, politics, and ideology with which the intellectuals have struggled in post-revolution Iran – from the tactical concern with reform policy and factional interests to the more profound and far-reaching questions of the democratization of Islam.

In a literature that tends to focus on either individual intellectuals or more broadly on reformism or political Islam, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi’s dissertation is a successful combination of both: it connects important dots to generate a comprehensive historical understanding of religious intellectualism as a phenomenon in post-revolutionary Iran, while giving insights into the lives, times, and works of key thinkers. It is a sober, balanced, and well-documented addition to our knowledge about the inner workings of Iran’s political landscape, and the sociological and biographical observations from this landscape are particularly interesting. Based on rigorous reading of not only Persian-language primary sources and secondary literature, but also of an impressive range of Western works on philosophy, history, and social science, the dissertation knits together a coherent narrative across Iranian, Islamic, Western, and global scales.

It is this kaleidoscopic reading that enables Sadeghi-Boroujerdi to contextualize, analyze, and even evaluate and criticize the at times convoluted arguments and complex ideas in question: placing the Iranian religious intellectuals within several layers of thought, from Locke, Heidegger, Hayek, and Popper to al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Shariati, and Khomeini. As a book, the dissertation will become a highly valuable contribution to Iranian Studies, to Islamic Studies, and to intellectual history.

Rasmus Christian Elling
Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhagen

Primary Sources
Articles, editorials, monographs, edited volumes, article collections and memoirs in Persian
Iranian newspapers, journals and newsletters
Sermons and speeches

Dissertation Information
University of Oxford. 2013. 431 pp. Primary advisor: Homa Katouzian.

Image: Sobh-e emruz newspaper relating closure of Salam, one of the media bastions of the ‘Islamic left’.

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