Iran: A Tale of Two Ashuras – From Dissent to Repression



200_khomeini_dec_30_2009“Shi’ism is the Islam which distinguishes itself and determines its direction in the history of Islam with the ‘no’ of the great Ali Ibne Abi Talib” (Dr. Ali Shariati in Red Shi’ism)
The Ashura protests of December 1978 had marked the beginning of the end of King Muhammad Raza Shah Pahlavi. And the Ashura massacres in Iran this past weekend are likely to go down in history as the beginning of the closing chapter of the Iranian Islamic revolution that had overthrown the Shah.

Like other successful revolutions of the twentieth century, Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution had its own Grundnorm – basic norm or order, from which all laws receive their recognition and validity. This fundamental framework from which the laws of post-revolution Iran were to flow was the doctrine of “Velayat e Faqih” – a form of theocracy postulated by Khomeini in his book “Hokumat e Islami (The Islamic Government)”.The doctrine enunciated by Khomeini had assigned the trusteeship over the people (Velayat) to the (Shiite) Islamic jurist (Faqih). This over-lordship of the jurist virtually usurped the sovereignty of the people and vested it in one person – the Faqih.

Theocracy and its various manifestations are not alien to the orthodox Shiite Islam but even in its traditional form it is a heterodoxy that draws inspiration from the public declaration of their dissent by its earliest leaders.

Whether it was Ali Ibne Abi Talib who declined – for six months – to take the oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr – the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Hussain Ibne Ali’s armed resistance -on the Ashura day – against Yazid’s emirate or the shackled Zainab binte Ali’s lecture to Yazid and his courtiers, the imagery of Shiite Islam is replete with dissidence, difference of opinion and non-conformity.


Actions and politics of Ali Ibne Abi Talib in the post-Muhammad (PBUH) era i.e. rule of the first three caliphs, form the beginning of a primordial democratic opposition in Islam. Even after pledging allegiance to the first caliph Abu Bakr, Ali stayed away – due to doctrinal differences – from the Ridda wars called by the former. During the second caliph, Umar ibnal Khattab’s reign, Ali acted as the chief counsel to him and a judge but openly differed with him on many occasions in interpreting the Shariah laws.

And then there is the famous “no” that Dr. Shariati has alluded to, that was uttered by Ali at a council appointed to choose Caliph Umar’s successor. This ‘no’ cost him the caliphate, which subsequently was awarded to Uthman bin Affan. But Ali went on to remain the voice of plebian opposition and supported such outspoken figures as Abu Dhar Ghiffari who were critics of the of aristocratic tendencies emerging in a hitherto fore egalitarian body politic.

If the Shiite accounts of history are to be accepted, Ali had made his claim to Muhammad (PBUH)’s succession well known to the general public and indeed had his own partisans.

Through the same annals it also becomes abundantly clear that Ali did not exercise the military option in support of his claim. The unfinished sermon of ash-Shiqshiqiyyah, attributed to Ali, depicts his restrain, exercise of caution, patience and non-violence, very well.

Ruhollah Khomeini took it upon himself to induct in the Shiite Islam a religious monarchy of sorts – something that had never been envisioned by Ali and his descendants. This was more dangerous than the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or National Socialism in that it afforded him the power and presumed legitimacy to declare himself the temporal manifestation of the divine power – the Naib e Imam or the deputy of the Hidden Imam. The Shiite faith maintains that their twelfth Imam viz. Muhammad Mahdi is in occultation and would reappear as the promised messiah.
Among the modern revolutions, the Iranian revolution was probably the most popular one at the time it toppled the incumbent. Many in Iran and around the world were tempted by the messianic connotations of the word Naib e Imam and a revolutionary message flush with rebellious imagery drawing upon Ali and Hussain’s persona.

The popularity of this revolution might have been sufficient for granting legitimacy to Khomeini as a ruler. Nevertheless, purges and mass executions of revolutionary comrades, fellow travelers and enemies alike, ensued, allowing Khomeini and his allies to impose their Velayat e Faqih dogma as the Grundnorm. And in the process he elevated himself to the status of Imam Khomeini – not just the Naib or deputy Imam any longer. What was otherwise unlawful was made lawful through demagogy and coercion.
The successful revolution had thus completed laying down its law – a tradition of dissent had transformed into dictatorship. The neo-Safavids clad in the robes of Ayatollahs had arrived and the Shi’ism departed from the mosques of the masses to become a next door neighbor to the seminaries of Qom.

“The Red Shi’ism changes to Black Shi’ism. The religion of sacrifice and struggle changes to the religion of mourning”. Thus records Dr. Shariati the collusion between the Safavid monarchs and the clergy. But the words ring truer today.

Today, the people of Iran are struggling to overthrow this dictatorship and to achieve a truly democratic polity where no narrow elite can impose its will and monopolize the levers of power. They are also trying to bring Iran into the modern world, where religion has become a matter of personal conscience rather than a tool of social control. This is not a matter of getting rid of religion. It is an attempt to push the evolution of religion forward in order to keep it alive as a living, adapting tradition and not as the dogmatic handmaiden of the clergy that it has become.

This indeed is a worldwide trend, not just an Iranian phenomenon. Perfect democracy does not exist in any society, but increasing democracy is ascendant worldwide. As society evolves, some aspects within every religion are used to push this agenda forward, but others become tools in the hands of those who are fighting to hold on to ancient privileges or those who are trying to impose new dictatorships upon people.
In this struggle, Shiite Islam has historically stood with the rebels and dissenters of the Islamic world in opposition to ancient autocracies and new forms of fascism.

Unfortunately, Khomeini and his successors have opted on too many occasions to go in the opposite direction. It is time to reclaim the revolutionary and progressive heart of Shiite Islam and use the power of its martyrs to create a new secular, democratic and egalitarian Iran and a new progressive and secular Muslim world.

With its ancient civilization, language and rich history, Iran is in unique a position to act as a crucial civilizing influence and a source of organically rooted positive social change in the entire Muslim world. But to do this, the dictatorship of the clergy has to end.
If the Iranian rulers are able to see the writing on the wall and adapt, they will ignite the greatest positive change in that region in centuries. But if they opt for increasing oppression, they will lose a golden opportunity to break out of centuries of stagnation in the Muslim world; stagnation that is creating an ever widening gulf between a modernizing world that is able to unleash the creative energies of millions of individuals and a Muslim world that is unable to adopt and use even the imperfect forms of democracy and the rule of law that human society has evolved after centuries of creative effort.

(The authors teach and practice medicine in the USA and can be reached at )
(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of POLITACT.)

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