Shi’ism Before the Iranian Revolution


A review of “In Their Place”: Marking and Unmarking Shi’ism in Pahlavi Iran by Aaron Vahid Sealy.

Perhaps the Islamic Revolution was a curse for historians. As Aaron Sealy’s dissertation points out, the temptation to explain modern Iranian history, especially the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah (r. 1941-79), as a long prelude to the inevitable triumph of the Shi’ite ulama can blur our understanding of the past. Sealy asks why the ulama’s attitude toward Mohammad Reza Shah flipped in a decade. When the CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 toppled Mohammad Mosaddeq’s government, the Shi’ite ulama largely supported Mohammad Reza Shah. Yet, when Ayatollah Khomeini was arrested for his criticism of the Shah’s regime in 1963, a significant number of the ulama embraced an early form of Shi’ite nationalism and joined the uprising against the Shah. Classic studies in the field attribute the 1963 uprising to such factors as the supposedly innate revolutionary nature of Shi’ism, Khomeini’s leadership, or the ulama’s conflicting material interest with land reform. Instead, using British and American archival documents as well as Persian memoirs and periodicals, Sealy expands on Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi’s call to link the uprising to the collapse of the hitherto ignored anti-Baha’i campaign in 1955. He argues that the 1963 uprising was a culmination of a historical process of cultural reorientation since the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, with the 1955 anti-Baha’i campaign and its aftermath as a crucial event that consolidated the place of Shi’ism in the nation. Thus, as he notes in Chapter 1, the crucial period between 1941 and 1963 witnessed the “unmarking of Shi’ism” (p. 2), which paved the way for the triumph of nativism starting in the 1960s and the rise of revolutionary Shi’ism.

Chapters 2 and 3 investigate the Islamic revival during the period 1941-1954, a germinating period for Shi’ite nationalism. At this crucial time, the transition from Reza Shah’s iron fist of dissent suppression into a young, diffident shah resulted in loosened control over political activism. Islamic organizations like the Feda’iyan-e Islam, albeit small in size, flourished and collaborated with some members of the ulama, who in turn were supported by the CIA, which considered Shi’ism as the bulwark against Communist threats. The proliferation of Islamic organizations and interactions among them facilitated the creation of an “Islamic sphere,” where the contours of the “Muslim nation” were initially defined. The diverging visions of fringe Islamic organizations could gain wider influence only by finding a common ground with the clerical establishment and less devout Iranians. The solution was anti-Baha’ism. Borrowing ideas from secular intellectuals’ anti-Baha’ism, the Baha’i community, often called a “political party” by its opponents, was identified as a threat to national security and an enemy within, who, unlike other religious and ethnic minorities, seemed indistinguishable from Shi’ite Iranians. Thus, in contrast to the anti-Baha’ism before the 1940s that framed the argument in terms of apostasy, anti-Baha’ism from the 1940s functioned as a unifying populist cause for the Muslim nation to eradicate the internal Other to Shi’ite nationalism. Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi, in contradiction to his characterization in the historiography as a quietist, pressured the government to put Baha’is “in their place” (p. 113) and sent itinerant preachers to the provinces to inspire “local action,” if not outright use of violence that fringe Islamic organizations and their patrons like Ayatollah Shirazi preferred. Therefore, after 1941, Baha’is came to exemplify an enemy within the nation, a role that Hindu nationalists assign to Muslims in India in the observations by such scholars as Partha Chatterjee and Peter van der Veer.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine the catalytic event of 1955 that cemented the schism between the ulama and Mohammad Reza Shah after the Shah decided to prioritize satisfying his foreign patrons over the ulama’s demands. In 1955, anti-Baha’ism exploded as Baha’i identity entered the public sphere, symbolized by the conspicuous dome of the National Baha’i Center and the community’s intensified effort to expand the faith in Iran. The Shah initially tried to consolidate his amicable relations with Borujerdi by allowing the broadcasting on state radio of Ramadan sermons by Hojjat al-Islam Falsafi. Falsafi first attacked Tudehs (members of Iran’s Communist Party), but shifted his attention to Baha’is, whom he labeled as “traitors” and “agents of a foreign power” (p. 139), thus presenting the issue as a struggle between the citizenry (mardom), represented by the ulama, and Baha’i foreign pawns. After a series of Baha’i properties were destroyed and Baha’i-owned businesses were boycotted, the Shah soon faced the mounting pressure to end the crisis from the United States and Britain, who perceived the situation as “a failure to adequately restrain Islam” (p. 278) and demanded the Shah to “put the ulama ‘in their place’” (p. 176). The solution was to destroy the dome of the Baha’i National Center under military occupation as a symbolic act and end the campaign there. This was intended to save face for Borujerdi and Falsafi and show the state’s seriousness to protect the Baha’is internationally while not appearing to be defending Baha’is domestically. Yet, the widely shared perception among the ulama that the Shah changed his position due to American pressure made him an accomplice in selling out the nation to foreign powers. Thus, the Shah was pushed to the other side in the people’s struggle led by the ulama against Baha’is and their foreign patrons. It was equally problematic that, in response to the entry of Baha’i identity into the public sphere, Shi’ite religiosity reentered the public sphere through the mass media and public squares, where the ulama conflated the citizenry with the Muslim nation. These words continued to be used over and over when Borujerdi and Falsafi demanded the dismissal of Baha’is from the civil service and the military, a demand to which the government could not afford to succumb.

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the anti-clerical policies that followed the collapse of the anti-Baha’i campaign. After the Shah changed his alliance, he executed anti-clerical policies laid out by the United States and Britain, whose goal was to weaken the ulama and push back Shi’ite religiosity from the public sphere in order to secure political stability. Therefore, Moharram rituals were tightly controlled to prevent any potential violence, and a number of the ulama were arrested for instigating anti-Baha’i feelings. In other words, the state, backed by its foreign patrons, prescribed what forms of Shi’ite practices were acceptable. Feeling disempowered after 1955, Borujerdi temporarily abandoned overt political involvement, until Asadolah Alam introduced a top-down revolution that included female enfranchisement and land reform as a way to forestall the kind of bloody revolutions that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. Sealy argues that Borujerdi’s distribution of fatwas against the top-down “revolution,” as well as his earlier political involvement at key moments indicate that Borujerdi was not a quietist as he is often characterized. Thus, when Khomeini rallied the ulama to protest the White Revolution in 1963, he was “maintaining the clerical opposition by building upon the fatwas and mobilization employed by Borujerdi” (p. 384). By the time of Khomeini’s confrontations with Mohammad Reza Shah in 1963, the Shah, and by extension the Pahlavi regime itself, became the archenemy of Islam who tried to “realize the interests of Israel and her agents (i.e. The Baha’is)” after destroying Islam (p. 400). Khomeini went even further in 1964 when he criticized the Shah’s enslavement of the Iranian people (in reference to the status-of-forces agreement with the United States) and continued, “the influence of the religious leaders is… harmful to you traitors, not to the nation!” (p. 412), thus articulating an alternate sovereignty of the Shi’ite nation to replace the illegitimate Shah’s rule that served his foreign patrons, not the people.

In the final section of the concluding chapter, Sealy discusses why the anti-Baha’ism of 1941-1963 is all but forgotten in Iranian historiography. He follows Afsaneh Najmabadi’s argument that ideological historiography cannot accept episodes that “threaten the foundations premises on which their ideology rests” (p. 431). For Shi’ite nationalism to be primordial, its origin as an imagined community in contradistinction with the Otherness of the Baha’i community needs to be effaced. Remembering this origin would also reveal the contestation over the Shi’ite nature of Iran, which would put in question the future of the Shi’ite nation. After all, as Sealy notes, “collective amnesia is the glue that holds nations together” (p. 421). The conclusion is followed by three appendices: 1) The Number of Baha’is in Iran in the 1950s; 2) Religion and Nation under Reza Shah; 3) The Imbrie Affair.

This dissertation makes an important contribution to the scholarship on Shi’ism and nationalism, especially since the period between 1941-1963 has so far received relatively scant attention, except in discussions of the oil nationalization issue. Many works on the Iranian Revolution start their narratives in the early 1960s, when nativism gained momentum and Khomeini revolted against the Pahlavi rule. But Sealy’s dissertation sheds light on the uncertainty about the nature of the Iranian nation in the 1940s and 1950s and demonstrates the crucial transformations in Iran’s religious nationalism prior to 1963. It invites scholars to think about the changes that competing strands of Iranian nationalism may have gone through during the same period. It also encourages scholars to integrate studies of religious minorities in Iran into broader historiography. Finally, the comparative perspective that Sealy provides throughout the dissertation between Shi’ite nationalism and other nationalisms makes the work highly relevant to students of nationalism in other historical contexts.

Mikiya Koyagi
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Texas at Austin

Primary Sources

National Archives, College Park, Maryland
The National Archives, Public Record Office
United States Department of State
National Spiritual Assembly
National Foreign Assessment Center

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2011. 521 pp. Primary Advisor: Juan Cole.


Image: From the collection of Aaron Sealy.

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