London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The young man had been waiting for hours before his “target” came out of his house.
“Could we have a word?” the young man demanded, stepping in front of the older man.
“Let’s have more than a word while I walk to work,” the old man replied.
The scene was unfurling in Tehran in 1940, just months before Soviet and British troops were to invade and occupy Iran’s capital city. The young man was one Mujtaba Mirlowhi, a pupil at the German technical school in Tehran. The older man was Ahmad Kasravi, a judge at the Penal Court and a rising intellectual star.
Kasravi had just published a new book bearing the title Shi’ism, subjecting the religious faith of a majority of Iranians to castigating criticism. The mullahs denounced the book from numerous pulpits, often without even reading it. But the book had found a wide readership, especially among the small but growing Westernized intellectual elite and university students. Many appreciated Kasravi’s Socratic method of subjecting every aspect of Shi’ite theology to incisive questioning.
Mirlowhi had sought the chance meeting with Kasravi in the hope of convincing the judge to withdraw his book. Very soon, however, it became clear that Kasravi firmly believed that Shi’ism was the root cause of Iran’s historic decline, and that he saw his book as the opening shot in a wider war against “rotten superstitions.”
Mirlowhi had cleared his “mission” with one Hojjat Al-Islam, Shah Abadi, who had issued a fatwa calling for Kasravi to be put to death. Mirlowhi had hoped that bringing Kasravi back to the “true path” would remove the need to kill him. Now, however, it was clear that the intellectual judge must die. But the project had to be postponed as a result of the Allied invasion in 1941 and the confusion caused by foreign occupation.
In the meantime, Mirlowhi had to sort himself out. Born in 1924, he was split between conflicting ambitions. At the German school, where he was seduced by pro-Nazi propaganda while training to become a metal worker, he dreamed of a career as engineer. At the same time, however, he was attracted by the prospect of training as an actor. Some of his schoolmates, notably Hamid Qanbari and Muhammad-Ali Jaafari, later became famous stars of Iranian theater and cinema. They persuaded Mirlowhi to attend a few evening classes in acting, but the teenager from Isfahan was also thinking of a religious destiny.
By the time he turned 18, the German school had been shut by the Allies and its staff scattered. Mirlowhi quickly found a job with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and dispatched to Abadan, over a thousand kilometers away, to work as technical handyman at what was then the world’s largest refinery.
It is not quite clear what happened in Abadan. The official narrative in the Islamic Republic, where Mirlowhi is regarded as the founding father of the ideology espoused by future “Supreme Guide” Ruhollah Khomeini, claims that the teenage technician clashed with British managers and was dismissed after just a year. Opponents of Khomeinism, however, claim that Mirlowhi was recruited by British intelligence as one of many religious individuals as part of a scheme to create an anti-Communist group motivated by Islam.
Veteran journalist Nassir Amini, who was one of Mirlowhi’s contemporaries at the German school in Tehran, remembers him as “a shy and withdrawn boy, certainly not religious at the time.”
At any rate, Mirlowhi appeared next in Najaf, having illegally crossed the border into Iraq with plenty of money, which he claimed he had saved from his wages. His critics were to claim much later that the cash had come from British contacts. At any rate, he now wanted to train to become a Shi’ite cleric. On the way to Najaf he had also dropped his original name, presenting himself as Muhammad Navvab Safavi. He later claimed that he had adopted the nom de guerre in order to confuse unnamed “enemies” who had pursued him from Abadan.
The newly minted “Navvab” attended a few religious classes with a number of ayatollahs, including Abdul-Hussein Amini, Muhammad Madani and Muhammad-Taqi Jaafari. But it was soon clear that the new student was not really interested in the intricacies of Shi’ite theology. He wanted to be a man of action. He was to claim later that he had learned all he needed to know about religion during his childhood from attending Friday classes at the Khani-Abad mosque in Tehran. In what was to become one of his many disappearing acts, Navvab vanished from Najaf after six months.
But where did he go? One theory is that he traveled to Jerusalem, then under British rule, perhaps to broaden his “Islamic” horizons. Another theory is that he traveled to Cairo, where he might have established contact with the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time. At any rate, in August 1941 Navvab once again appeared in Tehran as a member of Shah Abadi’s entourage. This time he was dressed as a mullah, complete with a black turban that designated him as seyyed, a descendant of the Prophet.
“The next time we saw him, the thin shy boy had grown into a tall man adopting a regal posture,” Amini recalls.
The pose suited the occasion as, shortly after his return, Navvab declared the birth of his new organization, the Fadayan-e Islam. It is almost certain that the total membership of the organization, patterned on that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, did not exceed a dozen. Among the early members were two immigrants from the Caucasus, Madani and Turkamani, who had escaped Soviet rule. Another early member was Mahdi Araqi, a bodybuilder from south Tehran who later broke with Navvab and accused him of serving the British. “I parted ways with the Fedayeen [Fadayan] because they established contact with the British,” Araqi wrote in 1979. A carpenter named Khalil Tahmasbi and Muhammad Vahedi, a junior cleric, were also members of the Fadayan-e Islam.
One issue that Navvab had to attend to was whether or not to try and repeat the duality created by the Brotherhood in Egypt. The Egyptian militants had a military wing for use in assassinating public figures and exerting pressure on opponents. At the same time, however, the main body of the movement focused on public education and the propagation of Islamic norms and ethics in society. Navvab’s immediate interest was to create a military task force as a means of exerting pressure and “accelerating the course of history.” The task of propagating Islamic values in the manner of the Egyptian Brotherhood was left to others. It began five years later, when an offshoot of the Fadayan created the “Anjoman Baradaran” (Society of Brothers), which shortly chose Sayyed Hassan Emami as its chairman.
Navvab felt that he needed to do something spectacular to be taken seriously as a major player in Iran’s confused and dangerous national politics at the time. In the spring of 1945, he revived the idea of killing Kasravi and managed to obtain a new fatwa on the subject. Some donor money secured four German-made Luger parabellum pistols. However, the attempt to kill Kasravi failed, and the Fadayan squad sent on that mission quickly fled. It was only in March 1946 that Kasravi was finally assassinated, with knives, in the Palace of Justice in Tehran during a public trial.
Surprisingly, the authorities did little to pursue and punish Kasravi’s murderers. Political assassination was a new phenomenon in Iranian politics and senior officials were paralyzed with fear. The shadowy Fadayan-e Islam recalled the medieval Hashashin (Assassins) led by the enigmatic Hassan-i Sabbah and based deep in the mountains of Alamut, northwest of Tehran. Protected by the fear generated by his group, Navvab set up a military training center in Fashafuyeh, then a remote suburb of Tehran. It was to that center that Navvab’s men took a young journalist, Majid Davami, blindfolded, for a visit. Davami was to report “a surrealistic scene in which teenagers and young men unable to handle a weapon were trying to learn to shoot.”
While learning to fire a gun, Navvab also tackled the bigger problem of building a political platform. This he did with help from a number of Muslim Brotherhood pamphlets that he had brought with him from his trips. After weeks of writing seemingly disjointed chapters on a wide range of issues, Navvab produced a booklet that was printed in an edition of 10,000 copies and distributed free of charge in Tehran and other major cities. As the title of his magnum opus, Navvab chose The Guide to The Truth.
The booklet had three sections. The first deals with the question of how Muslims should live in a society that, heavily influenced by the West, was no longer fully Islamic. The Fadayan leader reveals a surprisingly moderate posture vis-à-vis the West. He does not reject Western civilization outright. He cites Japan as a model for a non-Western society that is capable of taking from the West what is good and leaving what is bad. Thus, he accepts the heritage of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution with the important proviso that the elected parliament should not be able to pass any laws without obtaining the explicit approval of the Shi’ite clergy. In that, he refers to Sheikh Fazalallah Nuri, a mullah who preached religious legitimacy (mashrui’yah) against secular constitutionalism (mashrutiy’ah) in the early 1900s. (Nuri was later found guilty of fomenting sedition and hanged.)
More surprisingly, Navvab endorses monarchy as the best system of rule for Muslims pending the return of the “Hidden Imam.” He describes the Muslim king as like “the father of the Umma,” but warns Muhammad Reza Shah against “treacherous boot-lickers” who might abuse power through him. Later, of course, Navvab claimed, in his memoirs published by the weekly Khandaniha, that at one point in 1944 he had thought of having the young Shah assassinated but had changed his mind. Had Navvab established a link with the Shah’s entourage? The question has been debated in Iran for six decades.
In his book, Navvab is forthright in asserting that women cannot be equal to men and should limit their energies and ambitions to becoming good mothers.
Against the clergy
The second section of the book deals with the oil issue, then a hot political topic at the center of Iranian national debate. Interestingly, Navvab does not talk of nationalization as the best option, an idea later championed by a number of politicians including Mohammad Mossadeq and Muzaffar Baqa’i.
The third section of the booklet consists of a violent attack on the top echelon of the Shi’ite clergy. The main target is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Borujerdi, then regarded as the top Marja’ a Al-Taqlid, or Source of Emulation, in Qom. Navvab does not name Borujerdi, but his attacks leave no mystery about the identity of the target.
Navvab’s booklet had a profound influence on the small minority of Iranian clerics and intellectuals who regarded Islam not just as a religion but also a political ideology. Navvab’s work inspired Khomeini’s later book, Hokumat-i Eslami (Islamic Government), destined to become the theoretical foundation of the Islamic Republic. Navvab had endorsed the thesis that Iranians must live in a religious system, but he had not preached direct rule by the clergy. Khomeini went further by promoting velayat-e faqih and the exercise of power by clerics.
As far as political theory is concerned, Navvab’s book is no more than a superficial pamphlet designed to appeal to emotions rather than reason. However, it is an important document because of its insistence on direct action by individuals. Accepting that “the end justifies the means” several generations of Iranian Islamists, influenced by the Egyptian Brotherhood, believed that they could lie, cheat and even kill in the service of a noble goal: the establishment of true Islamic rule. Khomeini was not the only one to fall for Navvab’s charisma. Later, Ali Shariati, the theoretician of “Islam without the clergy,” also parroted much of Navvab’s assertions. Ali Khamenei, now the “Supreme Guide,” claims to have attended some of the meetings where Navvab spoke in Tehran in the early 1950s. “I was fascinated by him,” Khamenei writes. “The magnet of his personality would attract everyone.”
In immediate terms, Navvab’s influence as a theoretician of Islamist politics was negligible. However, his call for direct action found surprising resonance. His Fadayan and their associates ushered in an epoch of political murders unprecedented in Iran since the time of the Hashashin a thousand years earlier. Though it failed, an attempt on the Shah’s life was used as an excuse to ban the Tudeh Party, although the would-be assassin, Nasser Fakhr-Ara’I, had been a reporter with the newspaper Parcham Islam, and not a Communist. Several leading secularist journalists were also targeted. Muhammad Massoud, the flamboyant editor of Mard Emnrouz and Ahmad Dehghan, the publisher of the weekly Tehran Mussawar and a ferocious critic of Islamists were all killed.
The Fadayan carried out even more spectacular attacks. They assassinated Culture Minister Ahmad Zangeneh and former Prime Minister Abdul-Husain Hazhir. Later, attempts on the lives of Court Minister Hussein Ala and Hussein Fatemi, publisher of the daily Bakhtar Emruz, failed.
The Fadayan’s most spectacular attack came on March 7, 1951, when they assassinated the prime minister, Gen. Haj Ali Razmara, during a prayer gathering in Tehran’s principal mosque. At the time, in a message to Navvab published in The Banner of Islam, the new General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan Ismail Al-Hudaybi, congratulated his “Iranian brothers” on “the elimination of an agent of kufr [apostasy].” In later years the authenticity of the message from Hudayibi was questioned, on the grounds that the Egyptian was developing a new strategy aimed at leading the Brotherhood away from terrorism.
Terrorized by the Fadayan, the Iranian authorities did not bother to arrest, let alone punish, the assassins. The killers, at times accompanied by Navvab, visited leading clerics in Tehran, notably Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kashani, to publicize their impunity in a series of photo-ops.
Navvab toured a number of cities to market his ideology of direct action and find new Fadayan. Rumors were rife that he had strong protectors, including in the royal court and pro-British circles in Tehran. Historian Muhammad Amini claims that two weeks before Razmara was gunned down, Navvab was briefly received by the Shah. When Prime Minister Mossadeq was dismissed by the Shah in 1953, Navvab cabled his congratulations to the monarch and, according to reports that were never independently confirmed, was rewarded with an audience at the palace. At any rate, a week after the cable, Navvab was granted a passport and financial “contribution” to embark on a tour of several Arab countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and eventually Egypt.
Meeting Nasser in Cairo
In Cairo, Navvab met the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, but was also received by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a meeting highly publicized in Iran. In the meeting with the Brotherhood leadership in Cairo, the emphasis was on common action against “deviant trends in Islam.” In Jerusalem, then controlled by Jordan, he addressed an Islamic conference alongside representatives of branches of the Brotherhood.
One place where Navvab was not welcomed was Qom, the heart of Iranian Shi’ism. There, Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi saw the Fadayan as adventurers whose actions sullied the reputation of Islam as a religion of peace and reason. Thus, when Navvab and his two principal adjutants, Muhammad Vahedi and Muhammad Zolqadr, came to Qom for a gathering of the Fadayan, Borujerdi ordered his students, led by his chief bodyguard, Muhammad Lur, to drive them out of the city. This they did by throwing Navvab and his companions into the pond in front of the holy shrine of Ma’asoumah while a crowd of onlookers giggled.
The incident marked the turning of the wheel of fortune against the Fadayan. Having got wind that they were in danger of being arrested, Navvab and his immediate entourage went into hiding in September 1955. Navvab and most of his 100 or so associates were picked up in November and put on trial on a range of charges, including murder. Navvab and three aides, Tahamsbi, the man who killed Razmara, Zolqadr, the group’s chief organizer, and Vahedi, the group’s theologian, were sentenced to death and executed on January 18, 1956. During the trial, the group’s weakest link proved to be Navvab himself. He cried and begged for a royal pardon, to no avail. He would never know that a quarter of a century later his followers would be in power in Tehran, and that one of his admirers, Khomeini, would declare himself to be “Leader of All Muslims Around the World.”