The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran
Author: Roy Mottahedeh
Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York, 1985
Review by: Lauran Walker
The Mantle of the Prophet, by Roy Mottahedeh, attempts to raise from the dust a gentler time in Iran, a time of individualism and a time of poetry. By guiding the reader through two thousand years of history, he retains that Persian culture has always managed to survive. He succeeds in his attempt to cast doubt in the minds of the readers, with regard to myths, by opening up an unknown world, that of the mullah, while at the same time, expressing his concern for the future of Iran. He cannot dispel the myths completely, as even he confirms some of the horrors, but he is successful at telling the other side of the story. A story that clearly should be heard. Interspersed through the book is poetry from Mowlana, Hafez, Omar Khayam, Ghazzali, and Ferdowsi, some of Persia's greatest poets. This gives a feel for Persian culture that is rare and rich in texture. A part of Iran which is most often overshadowed by religion and politics of today's world.
In fact, Persian poetry came to be the emotional home in which ambiguity that was at the heart of Iranian culture lived most openly and freely. 164
This is where Mottahedeh develops his theme. He contrasts this firmly rooted Persian culture, with the changing times of the last century, in which a resurgence of traditional religious values crossed the line, interfering and indeed merging with political values, and therein, slowly squeezing two millennia of Persian culture so tightly, that today, six years after the 1979 Revolution, it is in jeopardy of being lost forever.
The Mantle of the Prophet is written on three levels: an individual level, through the life story of Ali Hashemi; a religious and educational level, through interactions, observations and dialogue of the mullahs; and, a national level, through the politics and growth of Iran. These three levels are cleverly interwoven to discuss events and beliefs leading to the fall of Iran .
The protagonist, Ali Hashemi, born in 1943, is a Shi'a mullah and a sayyed, "a man entitled to wear the prophet's color green."16 It is through Ali's eyes that the reader is introduced to Iran. Ali is from Qom, a well known city in Iran for its mullahs, and the reader endeavors with Ali along his path of becoming a Shi'a mullah. Through his formative years, Ali shares his anger, elation, doubts, and despair and faith. A turning point in Ali's life is marked by a newspaper article in which Algerian freedom fighters were trapped in a cave and burned alive by French troops. Ali cannot find consolation in God, and he "finds if amazing that such an important change in his thinking should have taken place in a few minutes."115 Ali also studied Sufi mysticism in which he "saw the light"140, acquiring a knowledge that has been guarded in secrecy, since the beginning of time. While in prison, Ali had come "close to despair, and he thanked God... that he had found himself before he came out."265 After the revolution, Ali was overwhelmed at seeing the green banner secured to the top of the mosque, declaring Islam's victory yet, he "felt surprisingly uneasy about what this banner might bring for the future..."16
The duality of Mottahedeh's Iran is most clearly seen through the 'andaruni' and the 'biruni', the inside and the formal outside of the Persian home, respectively. "The mosque and the bazaar are the two lungs of public life in Iran."34 Here, the soberness of the mosque is contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. However, Mottahedeh alludes to their commonalty. If one considers that the andaruni and biruni each have a garden and a pool, and that the mosque and the bizarre are shared community areas, herein lies a common thread. And along this thread is where the ambiguity is found. Mottahedeh takes this thread of ambiguity and defines Iranian life and Iran. Before the fall of the Shah, beliefs, individuals, education, religion, and politics were allowed to rest idly in this ambiguous gray area, under the guise of "God willing, its a goat."181 Just as a pious muslim who has been sprayed with water from an unseen animal prays that it is a goat and not a dog, (as water from a dog is polluted), so too can Iranian life continue as a multi-faceted ethos. Just as one consciously decides not to turn his head and look, to identify which animal has splashed water upon him, so too can one choose not to concern himself with the lifestyles of his neighbour. "In no place do things wet and dry burn together as they do in Iran."282.
Mottahedeh believes that "Skepticism seems to have lived a secret half-life throughout the history of the Iranian Islamic tradition..."104 Sufis were for the most part, unaccepted by mullahs, yet they were still able to exist in Iran. 'Erfan' the mystical knowledge of the Sufis, "has many enemies among the mullahs...(and) survives without scandal by being discreet." Bahá'ís, after the initial executions in the 1850s, and some concessionary executions given to Borujerdi in 1955, were also tolerated in Iran. "Quiet believers were tolerated as long as they publicly conformed with religion or at least did not publicly challenge it."104
For at least a thousand years administration of justice in Islamic Iran had been a loosely sewn and frequently resewn patchwork of conflicting authority...208
Most cases were judged very informally, such as in one of the biographical accounts of Shafti. On fourteen depositions by fourteen mullahs, he made a ruling with regard to a property dispute, without giving consideration to other evidence, or giving due process to the second party. Only later, during a casual conversation, did he learn that there was no proper claim to this property, in accordance to Islamic law. The decision was reversed as informally as it was first judged. As Sheikh Ansari taught, matters were settled according to "reason or tradition."211 People were also given the privilege to appeal matters, until such time as a desirable compromise was reached.
The inspiration for this book came when Mottahedeh learned that the basic education of a mullah was the trivium of,
grammar, rhetoric, and logic...which they continued to constitute the foundation of the scholastic curriculum as it was taught in many parts of medieval and Renaissance Europe.8
The overlapping elements, where east meets west, can be seen in the trivium graduates. The West producing men such as "the saintly and brilliant theologian Thomas Aquinas,"8 and in the East "thinkers such as Averroes."8 Mottahedeh describes the history of the Islamic educational system from its inception, discussing teachers such as Avicenna, quoting from Roger Bacon as saying,
...the greatness of Aristotle had been recovered primarily through the Arabs 'and in particular Avicenna, Aristotle's imitator, who completed philosophy as far as he could.'87
The wide-ranging philosophies of Sayyed Nematollah and Kasravi are also discussed. M discusses the transition of the system with the implementation of the secular school system, in the 20th century, the brainchild of Isa Sadiq, in which the era of the maktab, the Quran school, ends and the madrassah barely survives. The secular educational system's ambiguity can be seen as it was a "...strange mixture of nineteenth-century French and mullah education."66
Ali Hashemi was also caught in this gray area. He referred to Qom as "something very alien and very familiar."24 Ali enjoyed music and was not against it as was mullah tradition. He was a product of two worlds, the traditional madrassah, and the new secular system. He belonged to two 'dowrehs', groups, one with "both pious businessmen and mullahs"337 and one with "secularized professors."337 Even though Ali's life was a dichotomy, he was still a respected mullah. One event where we see a great struggle was when Ali failed to stand up for his Bahá'í professor, when he agreed with him, but instead had a friend tell him that he had"...departed for the common good."361
Nineteenth century Iran, however, was in general a land of blurred distinctions, ill defined jurisdictions and overblown rhetoric.
An example which Mottahedeh cites were titles. Most titles, such as jurisconsult, prince and even mullah, were adopted by self-appointment, or given as a token of respect or affection to one another, qualifying factors being unnecessary. Temporary marriages was another part of life which rested in the gray of ambiguity. Ali's own mother convinced him to take a temporary wife, while others, saw these women as little more than common prostitutes.
The Tehrani people are described as a collection of "montazh,"270 derived from the French 'montage', a construction of imported parts. There are also many references to Rostam, a traditional hero, and to the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, which is a rare and highly valued book, recounting the history of Iran. Mottahedeh impresses that Iranians still hold dear their pre-Islamic history. Even Pavriz, Ali's childhood friend, called out while in prison, for the "Lion of God and Rostam, the son of Zal."270
As with the andaruni and the biruni, religion and politics had always been separate entities. Mottahedeh argues that it was this area of ambiguity which appeased them. It was not until the time of Reza Shah when the lines of division began to dissolve. The fabric of this eclectic society did not unravel, as one might hastily observe, rather, it began to ravel, pulling society together through nationalism and erasing the gray area.
Mottahedeh discusses the changes that were implemented by Reza Shah and carried forward by his son Mohammed Shah. A new Ministry of Justice was installed and a new code of law which "ran against thirteen centuries of Islam - and more particularly Shiah - tradition."225 Titles were banned and people were "obliged to choose a fixed family surname...And, 'mullah', had become a legal classification." The maktub was eliminated, and the missionary, Jewish, Christian and Bahá'í schools were closed. The preferred secular education made an appeal to the Iranian youth
...the Mohammeds, Hosains, and Fatemehs from traditionally religious backgrounds felt themselves obliged to answer and thereby to take a stand, as they had never done before in that world of ambiguity between Iranianness and Islam.313
In Arabic, the literal translation of mullah means "client" and "master",232 as these religious privileged had always served the people. However, during the course of the twentieth century, the role of the mullah began to change. Just as they had taken a leading role in the Tobacco Protests of 1891, and during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, mullahs were taking centre stage once again. Harnessing this growing nationalism, they were becoming political activists, especially the young 'talebehs', students. Previously, the mullah, while respected was laughed at as a man "overwhelmingly preoccupied with two subjects: his income and narrow-minded rulings of the law."352 With growing nationalism, people now had more in common with their mullah. They had mutual problems, a common enemy, if you will. Religion and politics were now meshing as a single force. As Mottahedeh astutely points out,
"...the more you (the people) identified with the concerns of the local religious activists, the more the gulf between you (the people) and the government widened."353
Mottahedeh argues that the fall of Iran was a natural progression of the rise of the Shi'a clerics through social, political and economic change and the inner struggle with external Imperial powers and colonial influence. Throughout history, Iran has constantly battled with Imperial influences. Mottahedeh discusses Mossadegh's attempts to court the Americans for support against the British, and then while striving for nationalism by reclaiming Iran's oil industry and ousting the British, that he still wavered with regard to external pressures, by allowing himself to be influenced by the Persian Communist Party, which was backed by Russia, and eventually brought about his downfall. This pattern was evident in all Iranian politics, and was readily exploitable. No mullah took advantage of this 'Imperial' opportunity, and the widening gulf between the people and their government, more that Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini was a respected mullah, and a talented erfan mystic, not unlike our protagonist, Ali Hashemi. However, although Ali respects Khomeini, and attended his lectures in Najaf during Khomeini's exile, their philosophies differed. Where Ali is our liberal moderate mullah, Khomeini believed in the "guardianship of the jurist"247, a state run by Islamic politics. Mottahedeh brings two incidents, to light: a talabeh, who was killed during a 1963 government raid in the Faiziyeh madrassah in Qom, and a blanket bill passed in 1964, in which all Americans were given diplomatic immunity. "Even to the relatively obedient parliament it smacked of the old regime of capitulations."245 Here, the reader can appreciate Khomeini as being the defender of the common man, and of Iran, against an oppressive dictatorship, willing to kill its own people and sell the country's soul. Now, certainly, The Mantle of the Prophet is not a book designed to defend Khomeini, but to enlighten the reader as to how he came to be.
As Saadi had written, "Either choose not to make friends with elephant drivers, or build a house fit for an elephant."337 Clearly, Reza and Mohammed Shah were constructing a very different house. Iran's vast montazh was tied together by "the presence of the central government and the shah."272 The fall of the Shah, in 1979, created a vacuum, and Iranians were now forced to step from the shadows of ambiguity, and to take a stand.
Among every category of Iranian there seem to be large numbers who see the love of ambiguity that gave Iranian culture a flexible exterior and a private interior as something no longer tenable, a freedom that history no longer permits.379
This 'love of ambiguity' was part of what gave rise to the inner struggle in Iran, and now Iranians were forced to choose. To choose between fundamentalism and modernism - liberalism, between traditional values and western values, between Islam and persecution, between Iran and exile.
Unfortunately, in striving for nationalism, Iran went one step too far and attempted to solve the "enigma that was unsolvable",164 and has sacrificed its pluralistic society. Ali, speaking in regard to the brutality of the new breed of mullah, said,
But I know for a fact that years ago, they (mullahs) would walk out of their way to avoid stepping on an ant.389
And, now, a man reminiscent of a boy, who had once watched the war of the red ants against the black ants, must now bare witness to another war, black ants stamping out black ants.
As Dr.Abdol Karim Soroush, speaking at the University of Toronto, November 23, 1995, said, there must be a balance "between the ever-changing world and the unchanging word of God." Clearly Khomeini's Iran has tipped the scale in favour of God, and little else. It has turned inward as never before, raveling itself in a regressive tail-spin. As it seems to many that Iran, as Hosain, has donned its own shroud.
The Mantle of the Prophet appears to be a series of short essays uniquely tied together with the life of Ali Hashemi. This enhances the read, as the reader can ease through the pages of the heavier historical accounts of religion and politics, sifting through two thousand years of names, knowing that the entertaining life of Ali will soon resume, and give a more personal view. It is extremely well-researched, well-written and as a Persian friend of mine who perused the book stated, 'it has the most respected' of Persian sources, such as Ali Matin-Daftari and Dr. Ehsan Yar-Shater. It is an exhilarating read. I truly could not put it down.
Ali's character is delightfully refreshing from a western point of view, lending great insight into the life of the mullah, and giving a new understanding to the rise of Khomeini. Ali Hashemi is a pseudonym for a man Mottahedeh admires and deeply respects, but I am sure that some part of Ali is Mottahedeh himself, or perhaps one of his other fictitious and entertaining characters. As a Zoroastrian, I am sure that he is deeply affected by this regression of Persian culture.
My only criticism would be that at times, Ali appeared to be conspicuously absent from the book, and I query whether he is typical of Iranian mullahs or the very rare exception. As my real question would be, how long until we can witness, as many Persians say, 'the Iran of tomorrow'? Ali is the device, and the voice, for all those Iranians in despair, not of the downfall of an autocratic regime, but by the rise of a theocratic regime, of possible greater consequences, the extinction of the Persian culture.
As in the story of Noah's Ark, the earth of tomorrow's Iran is safely stored in the minds of those like Ali, a mind "that would not purchase the deluge for a drop of water."267. Ali prays that "the intellectual tradition he has so painstakingly mastered should not be lost in the storm."390 Ali did not flee Iran, with his family, but chose to stay and finish planting his seeds. As his gardener tells him, "they won't survive long in the flat."17 I certainly hope that these seeds survive long enough to find fertile ground, as they are surely, figurative seeds, the seeds of knowledge.