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Numerous passing mentions of the Babi and Baha'i Faiths in the context of Iranian political history, including some background of contemporary anti-Baha'i activity.

Iran and the Muslim World:
Resistance and Revolution

by Nikki R. Keddie

pages 74-75, 150-151, 157, 171, 178, 228-229, 251-252
New York: New York University Press, 1995


In the contemporary Western mind, the term "revolution" conjures up images of militant Islamic fundamentalists marching in the streets. Yet before this century, both militancy and revolution were more characteristic of Europe. Addressing this phenomenon, Nikki R. Keddie here examines why Iran has, in modern times, seen so many revolutions. Skeptical of the traditional stress on the role of the Shii religious school, Keddie focuses on Twelver Shiism, illustrating how Iran's dominant religion has changed dramatically over the course of history. For centuries it was politically quietist, coexisting and cooperating with the powers that be. But, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a new clerical, economic, and political autonomy evolved, one allied with a nascent clerical hierarchy tied to the bazaar classes. These two forces, as well as Iran's semi-colonial status and its multi-urban geography, resulted in the oppositional Shiism so prominent today. The first book to address extensively the revolutionary nature of Iran, of Shiism, and Muslim militant movements in comparative perspective, Iran and the Muslim World also explains why Islamic politics have become so popular recently in many parts of the Muslim world and considers the connection between anti-Western and anti-Israeli feeling, stressing the role of religious identity. The book will be of interest to anyone interested in revolution and social and political revolt, the Middle East, Iran specifically, and Islam in general. (From

[page 74]

...In the centuries before heavy Western influence in Iran we do not find large or multi-urban revolts under the Safavids (1501-1722) or in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. We do, however, have a partially multi-urban revolt, that of the religiously "heretical"

[page 75]

and messianic Babis, in the mid-nineteenth century, before major economic changes resulted from relations with the west. The Babi revolts centered largely in towns or small cities, unlike later revolts, but they were similarly multi-centered with popular participation. Some have argued that the Babis evinced some Christian ideological influence, or that the dislocating influence of Western trade in undermining Iranian crafts and in having a differential impact on Iranian merchants was already strong enough to have affected this revolt, but others doubt these things. Clearly, the simultaneity of the Babi movements had more to do with the death of Mohammad Shah in 1848, the imprisonment of the messianic Bab, and the prevalence of activist messianic beliefs among the Babis than they did with western-influenced socioeconomic or intellectual impact.

The Babi revolts showed that some multi-urban activism was possible even before modern communications like the telegraph and various forms of printing were involved, and before the ulama-merchant alliance of the classic later type was a central factor. There were, to be sure, persons of merchant and ulama origin in the Babi movement, and it seems probable that some elements of their ideology and urban ties entered into this movement.1

After this, multi-urban movements of the "classic" type are found in the Tobacco Protest of 1891-92 and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, both occurring in a period when telegraphic communication was important as were western trade and imperialism, but well before the rapid modernization of the Pahlavis. Pahlavi modernization, however its phases are described, clearly introduced a new political and socioeconomic situation, characterized by centralization and the increasing construction of government-controlled or encouraged modern industries, communications, and institutions....

[page 150]

Sabeans (Mandeans)

Like Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, the Sabeans are a protected People of the Book. According to some scholars, this community was not really one of those intended by the Quran when it named protected people, but it was later so regarded. (They might have been protected in any case, since the Zoroastrians are not named in the Quran but came to be protected both for practical reasons and because they were judged to be scriptural monotheists.) The Sabeans live in Khuzistan near the Iraqi border, and are also found in Iraq. Like Armenians and Jews, they work in precious metals, work that is shunned by Muslims for religious reasons, and they are also agriculturalists. Syncretic and partly esoteric, their religion has been described in various ways. In Muslim lands they may say that they are Muslims (without trying to hide that they are Sabeans), and to Christians that they are Christian. Their religion has some Christian elements, and Westerners have sometimes dubbed them “Christians of Saint John the Baptist.” The Iranian Sabaeans are neither numerous nor politically important, and very little has been written about them or about their fortunes under various regimes.16


Although they are the largest non-Muslim minority in Iran, numbering perhaps 250,000 or more, they are also the most troubled. Unlike the above communities they are not protected People of the Book. What is more serious, from the point of view of fundamentalist Muslims, they descend from a religious movement that broke off from Islam, and conversion from Islam is prohibited in strict

[page 151]

Muslim law. To add to their difficulties and present danger, the headquarters of their religion happens, by historical chance, to be located in the present-day Israel. Some Muslims therefore believe, especially if their leaders say so, that Baha’is are closely tied to Israel even though they have taken an officially neutral position in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Baha’is descend from the messianic Babi religion, which arose in the l840s when a young Shirazi declared himself to be, first, the gate (bab) to the last imam and, later, the imam himself, returned as the messianic mahdi. He produced a new scripture and declared that mankind has a progressive series of prophets and scriptures, which will continue with a future prophet. The Babis led revolts and were persecuted, particularly after an attempted assassination of the Qajar shah, after which a number of them went to Iraq. There, one of two claimants to be the Bab’s successor also claimed to be the predicted future prophet and wrote new scriptures that greatly changed Babism in an internationalist, pacifist, syncretic, and liberal direction. This was Baha’ism (named after its founder, Baha’ullah), and it won over most Babis. (Only a very small, secret remnant of the followers of the original Babi creed remains in Iran.)

Despite the fact that Baha’ism requires its followers to eschew political activity, Baha’is have often been politically suspect in Iran and have frequently been made scapegoats. Their failure to oppose the Qajar shahs in the constitutional revolution caused many to see them as the shah's partisans. The Pahlavi shahs, even though they took anti-Baha’i measures, were believed by many to favor the Baha’is. In Muslim countries, people are regarded as belonging to the religious community of their parents or grandparents unless they have publicly converted to another religion (this is also true in Western countries for religious minorities, such as Jews and Muslims), and thus persons in the Pahlavi government whose backgrounds were Baha’i, or part Baha’i, were often considered Baha’is. Such persons included Amir Abbas Hoveyda, prime minister for twelve years, and a few other government figures. They were also dubious accusations about some persons in Savak, though there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Savakis were born Shi'as, and accusations against the Baha’is were mainly false pretexts for persecution.

The Baha’is have never been a recognized religion in any country that calls itself Muslim, since their recognition would go counter to strict Islamic law and sentiment. Non-recognition does not automatically mean persecution, however, and for most of the twentieth

[page 152]

century in most Muslim countries, including Iran, Baha’is have been treated little worse than other religious minorities. Yet, many ulama in Iran have disliked this fact, and in 1955 they pressured the shah into destroying the Baha’i temple in Tehran and carrying out other persecutions. Later, though, the shah halted persecutions and seems to have favored somewhat a few persons of Baha’i and other minority background, possibly since they were more likely to be beholden to him than Shi’a Muslims. The governmental and economic power of minorities was greatly exaggerated by their opponents. Like some other religious minorities, Baha’is tended to be well educated, and those who had good educations were in a position to get good jobs, some of which brought them into contact with Westerners.

Given the fact that the Jews and Christians have not suffered nearly as much persecution as recently experienced by the Baha’is, it appears that it is chiefly the Baha’i's lack of legitimate religious status under strict Muslim law that has rendered them vulnerable. Relatively few Baha’is have been able to leave Iran, and most remain there in fear. Among officials and other executed after the revolution, persons of reputed Baha’i background were disproportionately numerous; and in 1981 the visible leaders of the Baha’i community were executed, and Bahai children were turned away from school unless they converted to Islam. One charge against executed Bahai leaders was that they were “Israeli agents,” although few Jewish leaders were killed under this charge. Some fear a forcible attempt to obliterate Baha’ism in Iran, and the community understandably feels very threatened.

[page 157]

...The second, non-Isma’ili, line of Shi’ism became increasingly quietist politically, was represented by high officials at the court of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, and increasingly deferred messianism into a distant future. Although a number of different sects and views were found in both major Shi’i lines, the second, more quietist line finally coalesced in the doctrine (which was at first one among many) that the Eleventh Imam, who some said died without a successor, in fact had an infant son who disappeared, but who remains alive on earth and will return at an unknown future time as Mahdi. At first many expected his imminent return, but not those high-ranking Abbasid Shi’i officials who seem to have promoted the doctrine of disappearance and occultation, largely to remove any potential of conflict between theoretically infallible imams and temporal rulers. In time, Twelver Shi’is became accustomed to an indefinite wait for the Mahdi — somewhat similar events occurred in early Christianity — and so the distant Mahdi became more a source of vague comfort about an indefinite future than an Incitement to revolt. Indeed, he was made to discourage revolt or efforts to bring him back before his time. In both Shi’ism and Sunnism there have been various self-proclaimed mahdis and revolts around them, especially in times of social stress, such as that of the early Western socio-economic impact, but in Shi’ism mahdism has, grosso modo, gone from early periods of being a frequent incitement to revolt to a predominantly comforting distant future, deferring revolt in view of the fact that basic change in this world can come only through a return of the Mahdi that cannot be hurried. In rebellious periods rebels would say that decline and disorder were the predicted signs that the return of the Mahdi was near, but theirs was nearly always a minority voice. Hence, the idea of the Mahdi has, at different times, been either rebellious or anti-rebellious, depending on circumstances more than on abstract doctrine.2...

[page 171]

... The Khomeini government, after going through phases of ousting liberals and secularists from the government, nationalizing parts of the economy, and purging or executing liberals and supporters of the old regime, as well as Baha’is and especially Mojahedin-e Khalq, has since 1982 come to look more and more rightist. This fact is hidden from Americans by the government’s anti-Western rhetoric, and by the ascription of terrorist acts in places like Lebanon and Kuwait to followers of Khomeini. On the latter point there is, as of December, 1983, no proof of direct ties of these groups to Khomeini, although they are following tactics reminiscent of some of the early followers of the Iranian revolution. As for anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric, it can hardly be abandoned by Khomeini at this point, since it made up such a large part of the programme that brought him to power; moreover, he has need now of a “Great Satan” on whom to blame his very grave economic problems and the growing discontent over a war that he insists on pursuing. The real internal trend to conservatism, however, has shown up, among other places, in the veto by the Council of Guardians of bills for land reform and the nationalization of foreign trade. In these moves the council, a kind of instant Supreme Court that can declare measures un-Islamic, was following the ideas of the richer bazaar merchants and manufacturers, who do not want to see their property expropriated and the revolution further radicalized...

[page 178]

...Like the early Shi’i rebels, these tribes had a messianic view of Shi’ism, with elements of religious extremism and egalitarianism. Once the Safavids took power, like other originally rebellious dynasties in the Middle East such as the Abbasids and Fatimids, they quickly adapted to ruling class ideas and realities. The Iranian ruling class centered on land and bureaucratic office, and the Safavids put down their unruly and autonomist tribal followers in favor of Iranian bureaucrats and landlords, along with a few ulama of Arab origin imported to strengthen Shi’i leadership and ideology. The Iranian ulama remained largely allied with the ruling class through most of the nineteenth century, as suggested by their cooperation with the government to suppress the “heretical” Babi religious movement in the 1840s, out of which the persecuted (mainly because apostate) Baha’i religion emerged in the 1860s.

Yet by the late nineteenth century the Iranian ulama were no longer overwhelmingly reliable allies of the ruling class, as were, to a greater or lesser degree, the great majority of ulama leaders in the wold. Why this change toward periodic opposition occurred is not well understood ..

[page 228]

...Most of these movements were marked by a greater concern to promote normative Islam as found in the Quran, the Muslim Traditions, and the law books. Both the Quran and Islamic law had arisen in periods of expanding trade, and this law was useful to the rising local class of traders. In addition the movements tended to be normative on matters of morals and mores found in the Quran and Islamic law, such as no gambling, no alcohol, and modest dress and behavior for both men and women. They introduced veiling to parts of Sumatra and West Africa that had not known it before, and some of which scarcely know it today. Although the average

[page 229]

Westerner sees veiling as a sign of a decline in women’s status, the reality is more complicated. From the first text we have about veiling, from the Sumerians, down to anthropological reports today, it is clear that veiling was in part a sign of status that freed many women from heavy physical labor.18 In addition, a jihad leader like Osman Dan Fodio educated female children to a higher level than they had known before. Veiling certainly has negative features, but these are better known.

We may say that these movements both reflected and added to both gender and class differentiation, the latter as a result of their state-formation and favoring of traders, bureaucrats, and religious intellectuals. In some cases, as in a Bengal movement, they also represented the interests of the lower classes.

Interestingly Iran, which in the twentieth century has had two revolutions, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries predominantly followed a more evolutionary path of religious change. This was represented especially by the rationalizing Shaikhi movement that began in the eighteenth century and continued influential in the nineteenth. Out of it grew the militant mahdist Babi movement of the mid-nineteenth century, which finally brought in new doctrine and scripture and engaged in unsuccessful revolts. Later in the century the great majority of Babis moved to follow a leader who again modified doctrine and adopted a pacifist, internationalist faith known as Baha’ism. A minority, called Azalis, stuck closer to Babi doctrines, and many of them participated in anti-Qajar politics.19 Such a group break from normative Islam is unparalleled in modern times.

The next great wave of Mahdist or jihad movements occurred as a reaction to Western conquest; as noted the Sumatran Padris and Indian "Wahhabis" ended up fighting the British and the Dutch. Long and important wars were fought by Abdel Qader in Algeria against the French, Shamyl in the Caucasus against the Russians, and the Senussis in Libya against the Italians, and there were also lesser movements. There were also movements that can be related to Western intervention, as Holt has related the important Mahdist movement in Sudan to Western suppression of the slave trade and the resulting economic dislocations.20 These movements are easier to interpret than their predecessors, as they combine a desire to protect one’s own territory against outsiders with Islamic injunctions against unbelieving rulers. Like the earlier movements, they tend to stress Islamic normative themes more than had been done before...

[page 251]

...The connection of women and of their position in society with resistance and rebellion has appeared periodically in Islamic history, being recorded especially in movements considered deviant or heretical by establishment Muslims. Women have been prominent in Sufi movements that broke with normative Islam in various ways, including, often, having greater equality for women, more mixing of men and women, and more women leaders and intellectuals.

In addition to their higher position in Sufi groups, women also tended to be more equal to men and more involved in activist rebellious movements, which traditionally were mostly heretical or considered as such. One of the most common charges made against heretical rebellious movements was that they practised communism of women, a charge already found with the pre-Islamic and semi-communistic Mazdakites in Iran, who were blamed for influencing early Islamic rebels. The charge of community of women was used against various radical medieval Shi’i movements, including the important Qarmatians. and goes down through history, being made even against the modern Babis and Baha’is. As we often have little genuine information about these movements, since their works were

[page 252]

usually destroyed, and must rely on what was said by their enemies, it is usually hard to say what this charge meant. Insofar as it went beyond being one of many indications that the position of women was a crucial question for believing Muslims, and politico-religious deviance was associated with horrifying sexual deviance, investigations have suggested that the charge was based on a more egalitarian position of women in these movements and a probable visible role for them. Also, some scholars say that women may have been taken from polygamous households and slave harems and married to surplus single men from less wealthy classes...

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