The relationship between Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and modernity is a controversial one. Views on the issue can be divided into three categories: progressive, regressive and post-modern.
From a progressive standpoint, the Iranian revolution is seen as a step towards modernity, despite some problems. A regressive standpoint compares Iran’s revolution with regressive or reactionary revolutions such as Nazism and Fascism. The post-modern view, initially promoted by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, sees this revolution as a movement beyond modernism, though Foucault later changed his mind on this.
In reality, the Iranian revolution occurred within the framework of the discourse of political Islam, but it can be considered as a transition to a specific type of modernism, called “Iranian modernism.”
This viewpoint is based on several hypotheses. The first one is that revolution is a means to political change in a situation where political change through other means is blocked. This is a fundamentally modern perspective. In Aristotle’s Politics, revolution is viewed negatively and is never considered an option for development and progress. In Islamic thought, except for the Mu’tazilah school and Zaidiyya Shi’ism, uprisings have always been opposed because of the chaos that accompanies them. Muslim scholars refer to a famous Hadith from Imam Ali that repression is better than upheaval.
In Iran, the idea of revolution began to be viewed positively for the first time in the “Constitutionalist” era at the start of the 20th century. Mirza Naini justified it in his work Tanbih al-Umma [Warning the Umma—the Islamic community of believers], with an approach rooted in religious jurisprudence.
The second hypothesis is that modernism can take non-Western forms. From this perspective, modernism is a kind of struggle in which the thoughts and interpretations of the past are challenged by modern thoughts, but in a specific local context.
As far as Iran is concerned, this challenge emerged in both religious and secular intellectual currents. This challenge first appeared in the Constitutionalist era and has waxed and waned since then. There is no doubt that it was influenced by Western ideas, but it should not be considered as being wholly foreign.
Based on these two hypotheses one can argue that Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a modernist phenomenon, despite some tensions between the forces it unleashed.
The Iranian revolution was realized within the framework of the discourse of political Islam. It was seeking to establish a system born out of Islamic teachings. Political Islam had demarcated itself from capitalism and communism, the two dominant ideologies of that time. It included three trends: leftist, moderate and jurisprudential. These three tendencies shared criticism of traditional interpretations of Islam.
Therefore, the ideology of the Islamic Revolution took shape in confrontation with conservatism and was based on religious fundamentalism. The leftist inclination was led by Ali Shariati and Mohammad Nakhshab; the moderate branch was led by Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, Ayatollah Ali Taleqani and Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti; and the third branch by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri.
The conservatives promoted an authoritarian interpretation of political Islam following the victory of the revolution and established the rightist branch of political Islam, in conflict with Shariati, contrary to the recommendation of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Political Islam did not inherently oppose concepts such as freedom, democracy, republicanism, human rights and independence, and even sought to justify them. This convergence was reflected in the expression of the ideals and objectives of the revolution and the slogan, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”
Ayatollah Khomeini also insisted on adherence to freedom, democracy and republicanism and maintained that these concepts must be interpreted as they are commonly in the world. Revolutionary forces also formed an alliance of traditional and modern forces, and this alliance was instrumental in the victory of the Islamic Revolution.
During the revolutionary upheaval, modernist forces were steering the movement and traditional entities, such as the clergy, and religious bases, such as mosques, were effective in mobilizing people. All this was under the leadership of the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership role was accepted by both traditionalists and modernists. Throughout the years leading up to the revolution, Khomeini always opposed the leadership of the clergy. That is why there was no reference to the principle of velayat-e faqih, the doctrine of clerical rule, in the draft constitution.
Modernist elements were more effective than traditionalists in expressing their ideology, ideals and objectives. This modernism was defined within the framework of religious teachings and thinking, and did not please conservatives.
For traditionalist conservatives, a revolution accompanied by violence was unjustifiable, and that is why they rejected revolutionary acts as unacceptable. They believed that establishing a religious government was impossible until the return of the last Shi’a imam. In contrast, the revolutionary forces wanted an Islamic government, but a forward-looking one based on spiritual revival and political reform, and not salafism. They did not seek a new Islamic caliphate, or to take society backwards. Instead, they sought a pure Islam that backed such values as freedom, equality, the rule of law and the sovereignty of people.
Therefore, the Islamic Revolution was a “modern” project, and the existence of modernist elements in the constitution and in the Islamic Republic were the two main achievements of the revolution.