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Ideology, Religion, and the Iranian Revolution

Amir Nikpay

Translated by Dr. SadrodinMoosavi

Social changes and transformations, and the emergence and influence of modern ideologies which were not harmonious with traditional beliefs, attitudes, and social ideas have led to the appearance of new politico-religious discourses. With the emergence of new religiosity in the 1960s and 1970s and the revolution which occurred in the name of Islam in Iran, a new discourse began around the relationship between modernity and religion.

The fundamental question brought forth in this area is whether the development and spread of these new outlooks on religion as opposed to modernization are in reaction to it, or vice versa, are they the logical results of a process which has influenced various social, economic, educational, and cultural areas?

Can one talk of  ''religious modernization'' in Iran? Or in sociologists' lingo, can one say that modernization and religion are opposed to each other, or whether there is some kind of accommodation and congeniality between the two?

In other words, can we talk of ''religious renaissance'' or ''disappearance of religion"?

In order to study the roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, we are confronted with a literature in which some of the meanings and contexts of anthropology and sociology have been used in such a way that the borders between these are not very clear, and the dissection, analysis and description of the Iranian revolution are in turn based on these ambiguous and unclear contexts and meanings such as ideology, utopia, religion, and many other contexts which are used in the new discourse in the Iranian society and leave important effects and repercussions on the sociopolitical scene.

My goal in this article is not to proffer a new definition of these terms, rather, I intend to, after laying out and researching a few viewpoints, rely on another understanding in order to show how one can proceed from ideology to ''secular religiosity''. An understanding which, if we rely on descriptions we have hitherto have had of religion and secularity, seems contradictory and paradoxical. But if we become convinced that this is based on religiosities which have taken to the scene in response to the traditional-conventional religiosity, it becomes worthy of some thought. These new religiosities were able to establish a relationship with the majority of Iranians and in turn feed the energetic phenomenon of Iranian revolution.


Overall, there are three approaches to ideology:

 The neutral outlook.

The negative outlook, which begins with Napoleon and continues up to Marx of German ideology, especially the reigning paradigm of today which includes what is really the so-called "false consciousness" theory. Some Iranian intellectuals relied on this outlook in the years following the Iranian revolution to criticize the phenomenon of "ideologization of religion".

The positive outlook, which has begun from the Lenin era and had ruled up until the 1960s (especially among leftist intellectuals) in the West, and then entered the so-called Third World, particularly Iran.

Josephe Gabel is a theoretician who has published a book titled "False Consciousness" in 1962 about ideology. This book is especially important and the author talks about and criticizes four different approaches to ideology:

The outlook of the young Marx, which is a dialectical approach to ideology, and assesses it as a "a false vision of history". 

The approach of Engels, which is an historical attitude towards ideology and is the process through which an scholar knowingly chooses something.

The outlook of John Renoir, which is a sociological approach to ideology and expresses the interests of a certain group or social stratum.

The outlook of Altosir, which is a revisionist approach and according to which the "reflective system" must be separated from science and accept that that ideology injects information to social deeds and science plays a theoretical role.

After the study and criticism of these approaches, Gabel defines ideology, in just a few words, as “formulation of false consciousness”.

He uses the same method with respect to the meaning of utopia and reaches the conclusion that: "Utopian school of thought is one of the forms of false consciousness of social classes who seek to bring about change. Thus, ideology and utopia are two forms of partial understanding of social reality."

Social Image

Paul Ricoeur believes that one must go beyond the false consciousness as the meaning of ideology and look at the problems within a different framework. Thus he criticizes the Marxian view of religion and ideology.

In his viewpoint, social image is a set of ideology and utopia. Ideology deals with what Kant calls reproduction of imagination and is a weak and distorted image of a real thing or the reality itself. But utopia is what Kant called production of  imagination that is itself a source of creativity and innovation. In Recoeur's mind these two sets give meaning to human behavior and deeds, and one must not, when considering an ideology, look at the role and function of domination. In other words, where ideology saves the current reality, utopia questions its very fundamentals, thus creating a new meaning. Again, where ideology legitimizes power, utopia protests its fundamentals. Thus, ideology and utopia are two phenomena of the modern world, which cannot be set aside and ignored.

Another theoretician of social image is ConreliousCastoriadis, a French philosopher, psychologist, and sociologist of Greek origin. In his view, modern social images are based on an anti-nomic principle, that is, the "independence and political autonomy" of human beings and societies on the one hand, and what he calls the "essence of capitalism", which is in reality the "unlimited expansion of rationalism over humans and things, on the other. Therefore, ideology, in his viewpoint is related to this modern, technical perception which wishes to systematize and rationalize everything and can not be brought about in mythical or religious societies. But since ideology is a creation of the modern world and is one of the forms of symbolism, it can be overlooked.

In summary, in pondering and criticism of these two outlooks, we may observe: Ideology is a modern phenomenon which can be overpassed, while it is not necessarily something that can only be born in modern Western capitalist societies. Ideology can also appear in the societies moving from tradition to modernity and plays an important role in sociopolitical scene of these societies. As Edgar Morin puts it: “Ideology is best defined not through the break between "traditional society-modern society", but in relation to the classical mythical system: When a system of ideas is formed to be able to, in covert and imperceptible ways, accommodate magical or religious elements which are peculiar to myths or religion, this set of beliefs can stem from a philosophical source, whose foundations and principles have been generalized and popularized in various ideologies.

Myth and Political Ideology

A French anthropologist defines the characteristics of myth as follows:

Myth is the history of supernatural beings.

This history is considered as an event which is definitely real.

Myth always beckon towards a creator; meaning how something or an entity has been created by the gods, and thus serves as an example for actions and deeds of human beings.

Myth does not fit into the history of human beings because history is the foundation and creator of human beings.

Through understanding the myth, the roots of all affairs are known. An explanatory event by a myth can, in all situations, turn into something real. Myth is a phenomenon which can transform into an absolute reference and source. It determines the roots of an event in the framework of time and space and connect it to transcendence, meaning that the event transcends the framework of its time and space and gains the credence of an eternal phenomenon.

Pierre Ansart believes that myths, religion, and political ideologies are the three principle elements of social image. The role and product of political ideology in the modern world are akin to the same role myth and religions had in the ancient world. This hypothesis of Ansart does not hold true with respect to Iran and to what occurred in the name of a religious revolution, because in the case of Iran we are faced with a phenomenon whose various elements are intertwined (not that they have replaced on another) and have created such a complex and energetic movement.

A German philosopher, Ernest Casirer, believes: New political myths are artificial creations of smart people. They have realized that myths are created much in the same way that such modern war equipment as machine gun and warplanes are made.

Thus, some contemporary Islamic ideologues through the institutionalization of the historical myths of their societies tried to prove that these myths, like many modern ideas, are efficacious, and therefore tried to formulize a religious ideology.  

In Iran, we are faced with a phenomenon which is the offspring of our social image. This image is a mixture of the elements of religion, myth, utopia, and ideology. Looking from this vista, we must look anew at some debates about the identity and the role of the politico-ideological pioneers of the Islamic Revolution. We must decide, after a thorough look, which of these elements -- in the mind of the principle actors of this revolution – overshadowed others and reigned supreme.

Reformist or Religious Reformer?

For over a century the religious reformist movement in Muslim countries has emphasized the point that we must first gather adequate knowledge of our times and conditions in which we live; or in short, follow the “fashion” of the day. Of course religious reform has an unclear and ambiguous meaning, because various tendencies such as those inclined towards Socialism and Marxism as well as Islamist currents all claim religious reformism.

We must, therefore, study the current religious reformism from different perspectives, which do not necessarily equate a "religious school of thought"

with the specific meaning of "theology". Abdullah Laruie, a Moroccan historian and scholar believes: The Islam that is talked about so much these days is a new Islam which is more a sociopolitical ideology than a religious science and theology. This is precisely the reason that Orientalists who only know the orthodox Islam, or tourists who are exposed only to the common man's Islam encounter problems in understanding this new Islam.

The reformist movement seeks change; the reason being that in the view of its advocates there has been a rupture between Muslim societies and Islamic principles. Thus, religious reformists, while accepting Islamic principles, analyze and criticize Western thought or thoughts and by borrowing from it are influenced by it.

Without trying to equate Islam with ideologies, claiming to be Islamic, we must not dismiss out of hand their mutual influence on each other. The presence, encounter, and conformity of religion with realities led to the emergence of many Islams in the ideological sense as opposed to jurisprudential and theological senses.

Many political ideologies (whether reformist, revolutionary, liberal, socialist, etc.) claim being Islamic. Therefore, there are many varieties in this very reformism. Mohammad Arcun, a noted philosopher and historian of thoughts believes: Historians or sociologists do not disclaim or look over the existence of a central belief system among all Muslims, but scientists can not overlook the fact that various groups, cultures, and ethnic groups have tried to use Islam as one of the elements in identifying themselves and thus created in this way Indonesian, Pakistani, Turkish, Iranian, African,... Islams. Here, Islamic thought has yet to deal with an orthodox meaning of Islam, therefore more than ever before has concentrated on unity and the unifying forces of Islam. Modern criticism of various ideologies let it be proven that orthodoxy is an ideological requisitioning of the initial message the believers all want. This ideological requisitioning is done by a sociopolitical group. This matter (religious requisition of ideology) opens the theoretical argument with respect to the situation of religion and ideology.

Therefore, Islam appears in many faces. In other words, there are many reflections of Islam.  The current reformist movements in Muslim countries can be divided into two groups:

The politico-Jurisprudential religious reformism.

The political-ideological religious reform. Representatives of this group offer views and carry out their activities out of any formal religious establishment.

These two religious reformist movements have brought forth some new matters which are fundamentally different from customary sectarian differences.

But politico-jurisprudential religious reformism claims and seeks a multifaceted and comprehensive discourse whose aim is to Islamicize the society and its various structures through implementing religious laws. The establishment of a religious government is considered a jurisprudential necessity. Imam Khomeini, as the theoretician of "Guardianship of supreme jurisprudent" represents this school of thought. In the ideological-political religious reformism, stress is laid chiefly on the holy Quran, prophetic traditions, the Imams... but its stances are secular not jurisprudential. Reliance on sources and legitimization of political-social-economic structures are not a religious necessity, but a politico-ideological necessity. We can name Iqbal [Lahori] as the representative of this kind of religious reformism. He says: We are quite pleased to accept the Liberal movement in our modern Islam, but we must accept that the infiltration of liberal ideas occurs at a time when we are going through the most critical times in the history of Islam.

The political-jurisprudential religious reformism wishes to Islamize modernism, but the political-ideological religious reformism wants to modernize Islam.

When reformists talk of awakening or renaissance, we must bear in mind that they are leaving the religious sphere and get closer to the politico-cultural one, without shaking the religion or religious affairs which are necessarily a part of any renaissance or awakening.  Reformers talk of renaissance so that they become modern and fashionable without having anything to do with the fundamentals of religion itself.

They are trying to reconcile Islam with the Western thought without any critical analysis of the modern world which religion encounters today. Thus, they reconcile Islam with rationalism one day, and with socialism, Marxism, liberalism, ... on another. Religious reformism has fostered more ideologues than raising innovative thinkers. These reformers assume more of a defensive posture towards modernism instead of formulizing a particular innovative social idea.

In the view of Shaygan, religious reformers believe:

There is nothing wrong with Islam, it is Muslims who have become corrupt. Islam is like an overcoat which has been put on inside-out, which if turned over, puts everything right... They (ideological reformers) are well-informed about contemporary affairs but act on illusions and misinformation...They comprehend the decline and, at the same time, wish to progress and prevent those things which hinder this progress from marching ahead. They seek a shield from disasters. They think that problems emanate more from the institutes, which represent religion, and, therefore do not criticize the religion itself.

The politico-ideological religious reformism does away with the sanctity of the hereditary and traditional Islam and its official institutions. Thus the religious approaches, manners and customs also change and undergo transformation. Whenever some institutions and activities gain their independence and give up the tutelage of formal religious institutions and look for legitimacy inside these organizations and activities, they lose the sanctity they had assumed.

Political Religiosity in Contemporary Iran 

Crisis and conflict are inherent in modernism. Given this principle, when we looks at the history of the last century of the Iranian society, we find a society in the grips of crisis, meaning that, it is moving  "in" and "towards'' modernism. A move, which more or less encompasses all aspects of life, has changed them and weakened the structure of and traditional behaviors and conceptions.

For over a century, the Iranian society has become embroiled in a religious, cultural, political and social crisis. Modernism has gone beyond the framework of the behavior and speech of the society's upper strata and become the problem of a society that is troubled and looks for a solution.

Inserting a series of organizational techniques, political management, educational organizations, and reforming the thousands-year-old economic structure, and ... have caused new relationships to come to the surface. Family relationships, rural emigration to cities, entrance of mass communication means, and a widespread educational system, and ... have caused the traditional values and relationships to be questioned. Any kind of transformation and change is inherently accompanied with some break with the past and is resisted by forces that oppose changes in traditional relationships. But, in spite of the resistance and opposition, the perceptions change and new standards, representations and incentives replace the old ones.

For a revolution to occur in the name of religion, at least there must be some changes in the traditional and hereditary religiosity and new forces must first have entered the field. One can not have a revolution in the name of religion hand in hand with tradition and traditional religiosity. But to answer to the reasons for the occurrence of these changes lies in the answers to questions such as: In what way and through what kind of skirmishes and developments do the religious affairs assume a different form? Is it not that the effect of modern ideologies has caused many spiritual aspects of religion to disappear? If we talk about change among the faithful, what sort of change, what kind of reformism, what kind of ideologue, what kind of theologian, religious jurisprudent and intellectual, ... do we have in mind?

We can divide the political religiosity in the pre-revolution era into three categories:

Instrumental religiosity;

Ideological religiosity;

Politico-jurisprudential religiosity.

This division does not at all mean that there is a very precise and clear boundary in the political, social, and religious fields between them; but conversely it indicates that they share some proximity and closeness as well.

However, at times contradictions and differences between them become so outstanding that their political, social, and cultural consequences become very palpable, as these consequences have been evident before and after the revolution.

Instrumental Religiosity

Instrumental religiosity is based on two pillars: modernism and tradition. In view of instrumentalist approach towards religion, modernism must not attack our collective identity; an identity that has taken shape based on our Iranian nationality and adherence to Islam. 

In view of instrumentalists, who are not necessarily religious or believe in God, religion is used as an instrument to resist and confront the invading West and the West-toxicated elements, because religion is a cultural element as well which forms our collective personality and can have a mobilizing role against the enemy. In instrumentalist religiosity, Islam is not a belief system, ideology, theology, set of religious laws, and collection of worships and religious rules.

One of the representatives of instrumental religiosity is Jalal ale-Ahmad. In the 1960s, in an instrumental approach to Shiism, he described it as the most effective "vaccine" against  the "epidemic of West-toxication". In one of his books he observes:

“...What should be done in confronting the West's onslaught? We must hang on to some instrument so perhaps we could protect ourselves... What is my Iranian personality based on?...The collection of cultural elements belonging to the society in which I breathe form my personality. These elements are: religion, language, and literature which must all be preserved. "Each one of these elements is an instrument."

Ideological Religiosity

In this kind of religiosity revolution is the goal and Islam the means (and not the instrument), and in this perspective we are faced with politicizing a sacred thing, that is, the religious matter is brought down to the earth from the transcendence and this itself is one of the dimensions of secularizing the society and religion.  The most important conditions which brought about this kind of religiosity in Iran in the 1960 and '70s were:

The authoritative modernization of the imperial regime and the destabilization of some of the social, economic, educational, and cultural 

structures under the effect of the very modernization process.

Economic dispossession in some strata of the society (in spite of economic growth rates of 8 to 10 percent between 1966-76).

The ever increasing growth of the middle class of the society.

The existence of some epical, religious, millennial structures in the society.

The influence and effect of Leftist ideologies (especially Leninism and Third-World-centered outlooks). 

In a society with a closed political atmosphere which became ever more closed and oppressive by day and where the mythical-religious idea was alive and strong among many its strata some of the progressive intellectuals thought of directing their message to the urban, educated youth of the middle class who had more or less lost contact with the established religious institutions and thus tried to create, in their words, the "objective conditions of a revolution."

Ancient myths follow the path of revolution and the struggle between the oppressed and oppressors has practical usage in the field of political ideologies. In the language of phenomenological sociology, "modern politico-ideological" symbolism and "mythical-religious" symbolism intertwine with each other and produce a phenomenon called ideological religiosity which is also secular as well.

The discourse of this kind of ideological religiosity has an eye on the past and a look towards the future.  In spite of the fact that this discourse has put on a rational-systematic face and fundamentally feeds on modern sciences -- social sciences in particular -- its origins are safely based on mythical-millennial structures (fall, descent, migration, utopia) and some heroic personalities (messenger and savor) and in this way can establish ties with the social image or collective consciousness of a society.  

This ideological religiosity is not merely a political doctrine, and based on its epical core, it tries to formulate a worldview, a philosophy of history, a human philosophy, and a natural history as well. This ideological religiosity seeks a full-fledged revolution against the prevailing ruling system and continuously intertwines political freedoms and social and cultural changes with religious concepts.

Undoubtedly, Ali Shariati was the most important proponent of such reading of religion. He played an important role in rendering an ideological framework for religion and formed and framed it into a school of thought comprising a worldview and an ideology. He offered an ideological framework for the Shiite myths of martyrdom and expectation [for the savor], and talked about the revolutionary Shiism (AlawidShiism) as opposed to the reactionary (SafavidShiism).  

He was seeking an Islamic protestantism and harshly criticized the reading of the established religious institutions.Shariati was after bringing about an ideological government and society and was opposed to a religious government. He established  an ideological framework for religion and considered the political and religious affairs identical, but proposed that the ruling system and government, or the political symbol, to remain secular, meaning that he was not at all after a system of governance whose legitimacy was based on divine laws, extra-human, or extra-social sources. He wished to replace clerics with religious intellectuals.

Politico-Jurisprudential Religiosity

In this kind of religiosity Islam is the ends, revolution the means, and we are faced with sanctification of political matters. The roots of Islamist ideology must be sought in this kind of reading of religion and approach to politics.

The most important characteristics of this kind of religiosity are:

Total Islamic discourse in which political and religious affairs are   inseparable.

Seeking a religious government and society and the establishment and    implementation of sharia laws in such a society.

Opposition to secularism and nationalism.

Persistence on the principle of political radicalism.

In some of these characteristics politico-jurisprudential religiosity and ideological religiosity share outlooks, and in others, there are important differences between them.

From a religious jurisprudential stance, Islamicism must be sought in the struggles between the Specialists in the First Principles (Usulliun) and Traditionists (Akhbariun), and from a political standpoint its roots must be sought in the Constitutional Revolution (the religious-constitutional monarchy sought by Sheikh FazlullahNouri), in the National Movement (NavvabSafavi and Islamic Fedayeen), and the recent revolution (Guardianship of Supreme Jurisprudent). Thus, Islamicism is the most deeply rooted movement in the contemporary history of Iran from a political standpoint.

MortezaMotahari is the most prominent thinker of this kind of religiosity in Iran and in his writings describes the goal of the Islamic Revolution in the following manner:

The establishment of real and original Islam.

Deep, radical change in people's living conditions.

Putting end to injustice and oppression.

Reestablishment of rescinded Islamic laws.

In Motahari's view, Islamic values must form the foundations of any protest movement. For this purpose, he differenciates between the Islamic revolution and revolutionary Islam.

In the politico-jurisprudential religiosity, the reference system -- Islam – is not de-sanctified: God, traditions, the Prophet, and the Imams' sayings in a general sense, and Islamic jurisprudence in particular are used as foundations, and political discourse is based on them. This kind of political discourse is not closed and oblivious of realities and uses outside sources and achievements whenever needed. The sociopolitical and economic institutions are not de-sanctified either. In other words, the reference system (jurisprudential deification) becomes the basis for legitimizing or de-legitimizing the actions and behaviors in the society.

Politico-jurisprudential religiosity is not a turn to tradition and traditional management of sacred. Government institutions (constitution, parliament, division of powers...) are set up outside of traditional models, but the legitimizing systems is securely based on holy, divine principles and laws. The post-revolutionary government system was set up based on this understanding of religiosity. 


The emergence and influence of secular religiosity in the Iran of 1960-70s was discussed in this article. Based on the definitions rendered up until now of religion and secularization, this understanding would seem contradictory and paradoxical. But if we are convinced that this understanding signifies the religiosities which have entered the scene in opposition to traditional religiosities, it becomes ponderable and worthy of investigation.

The concept of secularization must be taken in a wider sense than in a mere sociological approach so as to be able to explain a series of modern phenomena (for example: decline and limitation of religious legitimization – divination -- of social institutions). Various contemporary theological schools in the West (secularization theology, liberal theology, feminist theology, and...), and the liberation theology in South and Latin Americas, and religious ideologies in Muslim countries and ... have offered a theological-ideological concept of secularization. 

In the modern world, secularization does not mean a complete and irreversible de-sanctification of religion; rather it is the de-sanctification of the established religion and a reorganization of religious forces. Any buts and ifs (ruptures) between the principles of religion and society would lead to the secularization of religion and would reduce it to merely a source of inspiration or limited belief. With such outlooks religion turns into a simple ideology and one of the consequences of this approach is the degeneration of the language of faith in the arena politics and the elimination of the deified dimension of the religion.

Religion must not be looked at merely from the standpoint of position religious institutions occupy. What is being called the approach or turn to religion has allowed the unclearness of personal and collective expectations --produced by an unstable and crisis-ridden society -- to come to the fore.  Lack of response to these expectations, and the feeling of depravation, by some social groups, lead the people to seek refuge in other ideologies, that is, the mythical-religious structures which is present in the social image of the Iranians.

The synthetic-eclectic and pluralistic approaches, which are a distinct characteristic of many of new religious outlooks, are signs of familiarity with, and fondness for the modern world.  Thus, there is an ambiguity with respect to relationships between religious and political affairs on one hand, and ideological, jurisprudential-canonical affairs on the other. One must try to understand the relationships between religion, ideology, jurisprudence, and modernity. As long as our social image does not allow us to differenciate between religious and secular (or laic) affairs, the disorderliness in and confusion of boundaries between political and religious affairs have some usefulness in the minds and worldviews of people: An ideologue can be an intellectual in whose viewpoint ideology dominates over religion, or a cleric might be a jurisprudent or a theologian in whose outlook religion rules over ideology.

Secualrization is not the complete de-sanctification of society; rather it is a reorganization of religion, religious forces, and re-forming of the sacred affairs in the society. In this sense, we reach the paradoxical principle in the Islamic Revolution of Iran: Ideologization of religion plays an important role the process of secularization of thoughts and the society. The precise appearance of the trend of secularization and laicization in the next few years and decades can not be predicted.

But what can be observed indicates that the developments and changes in some sectors of economical, social, and objective structures have further  deepened the gap between the Iranian society and traditional religiosity.

The legitimizing system prevailing in the traditional Islam has come under question by some jurisprudents, theologians, and in particular, religious intellectuals.

These changes and developments block any return to traditional, collective perceptions. Reference to religion is a very strong tendency in various classes and social strata, but the trend seems to indicate that we are heading towards an Islam, which is more a cultural reference than a system for the legitimization of political, social, and economic structures.

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