Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Shah and the Marja’s Power Struggle | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – French journalist Eric Rouleau, who worked for the French Le Monde newspaper, said that in an interview with the Shah of Iran, he asked him about a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini in which he criticized lavish spending on celebrations of 2500 years of rule under the Shah system. The Shah answered angrily: who is Khomeini for me to have to answer to? Rouleau said: this is just a journalistic question, I’m just asking for your opinion. The Shah answered: I will not answer your question because Khomeini is neither Iranian nor Persian. He is Indian, and I do not answer to Indians.

This story symbolizes the power struggle that emerged between the Shah and the Marja. Historically speaking, the religious Marja in Qom had its own voice and independence, but it was never posed a threat to the Shah. Therefore, when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi sensed danger, he had no choice but to try to eliminate the Marja by moving it from Qom to Najaf. The conditions were favourable as the Hawza in Qom had no clear Marja after the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi and Qom was divided on the way that it should deal with the Shah’s behaviour at a time when Khomeini was emerging and a number of Hawza students were practicing politics and even military activity.

Lebanese intellect Hani Fahs, who witnessed several developments during that period in Iran, said that Khomeini was distinguished in his political work in the sense that he gradually developed “a political project” for his own movement. “Imam Khomeini was no exception to the religious figures in Qom, in particular, and in Iran in general, in terms of his political work. I remember that the Iranian Constitutional Revolution that took place between 1905 and 1911 was led by religious figures and graduates of the Hawza in Najaf. Then came Ayatollah Modarres and Ayatollah Kashani who participated in the first coup against the Shah along with Mohamed Mosaddegh and his companions.

This is how the Constitutional Revolution broke out from Najaf under the leadership of senior Iranian jurists. Religious figures of Iranian origin participated in the Great Iraqi Revolution against British occupation in Iraq.

There was also the 1963 White Revolution in Iran, a set of agricultural reforms launched by the Shah. It led to deterioration in agricultural production and the standards of living amongst farmers and an increase in the levels of migration to the cities. It allowed foreign investment companies to control production and markets. US and Israeli companies were about to dominate all sources of national wealth.

This reminded the Iranians of the British monopoly of tobacco in the late nineteenth century and of the fatwa issued by Mirza Muhammed Hassan Shirazi against the usage of tobacco and led a public movement to bring such activities to an end.

By remaining overtly opposed to the Shah, Khomeini maintained the traditions of Ayatollahs in Qom from Mirza Muhammed Hassan Shirazi in the mid-nineteenth century to Ayatollah Haeri and Ayatollah Borujerdi in the mid-twentieth century.

These Ayatollahs continued to oppose the Shah from Qom whereas Khomeini took opposition on to the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz. In the early twentieth century, under the Qajar Dynasty, Iran was subjected to Russian influence in northern Iran, and British influence in the south where the oil fields were located.

Times were hard both economically and socially and people would visit their religious Marja in different cities to complain about their suffering. The feudalists allied with influential Russians and Britons so religious figures staged a protest in 1906 (the Mashrutiyat Revolution) against the Qajar rule, and Russian and British influence. Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, an important Marja in Qom at the time, managed to limit the power of Muzaffar Aldin Shah forcing him to write what came to be known as the 1906 Constitution.

A number of Khomeini’s teachers at the Qom Hawza played an active role in the Mashrutiyat Revolution such as Ayatollah Mirza Javad Tabrizi, Ayatollah Muhammed Ali Shah Abadi, and Ayatollah Sayyed Ahmad al Khonsari. During the 1920s, Khomeini used to leave his classes in Qom and head to the Iranian parliament in order to listen to contributions made by Sayyed Hassan Modarres, a prominent religious and political opposition figure at that time known for his sharp tongue.

Following World War I, Britain, the influence of which expanded in Iran following its victory in the war, established a new cabinet under Mirza Hasan Khan Vozuq al Dawla. During his tenure, a controversial agreement was signed in 1919 between Iran and Britain that concluded that military and financial affairs would be conducted under the auspices of British advisers.

However, Ayatollah Modarres rejected the agreement and encouraged the Qajari Shah not to bow to British pressure. Disputes emerged and the Iranians staged protests in the north and south. He resigned and the British appointed Sayyed Ziaeddin Tabtabaee as Prime Minister who reached an agreement with a British army officer and Minister of Defence Reza Shah to occupy Tehran and imprison opposition figures including Ayatollah Modarres, speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Only three months later, Tabtabaee resigned and was replaced by Reza Shah who went on to oust the last Qajar Shah of Iran [Ahmad Shah Qajar] in 1926, marking the beginning of the Pahlavi Dynasty. During his reign (1926-1941), Reza Shah was influenced by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk in Turkey. He prohibited religious activities in Iran and banned men from wearing turbans and women from wearing Hijab. He also got rid of the Islamic calendar, banned Ashoura and Friday prayer sermons and imposed military service on students of theology.

However, Reza Shah, backed Germany during World War II and sustained heavy losses after it was defeated. The Allies invaded Iran and Tehran fell into the hands of the Allies in 1941. Britain decided to oust Reza Shah and expel him to Italy, and replaced him with his son Mohamed Reza Shah.

Meanwhile, the Hawza Qom, headed by Ayatollah Haeri, found itself in the eye of a political storm. However, after Haeri passed away and was succeeded by Ayatollah Borujerdi, the Hawza became less absorbed in politics, and Khomeini, who had become a prominent figure in the Hawza, abstained from political activities in Qom out of fear that this would cause rifts. He avoided becoming involved in politics unless assigned to do so by Borujerdi himself.

In his memoirs, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current Chairman of the Assembly of Experts who was one of Khomeini’s students in the Qom Hawza, said that the reason that Borujerdi believed that the Hawza was so weak was that it needed to be taken care of internally, after the Shah had taken several strikes against senior Ayatollahs in the Hawza in order to weaken their political positions. Furthermore, the Hawza at that time was suffering from disputes between Ayatollahs over the reforms that the Shah had called for. The priority was to restore strength to the Hawza and to work on internal cohesion. Under Borujerdi, Khomeini was appointed advisor for political affairs and Hawza issues.

Despite the differences in opinion and Khomeini’s reservations about Ayatollah Borujerdi’s political performance, Khomeini did not criticize Borujerdi overtly, even if he backed policies that were not welcomed by Borujerdi in practice.

Hani Fahs told Asharq al-Awsat, “As far as I’m concerned, the relationship between Khomeini and Borujerdi was not a troubled one. The circumstances surrounding Borujerdi were difficult as some of the people around him had powerful influence causing his performance to appear troubled, especially following the failure of the Constitutional Revolution and the subsequent coup against the revolution (e.g. Fazlollah Nouri who took back some of his reformative demands) and separation of the Kashani and the Mosaddegh movement and the Shah returning to power with US support and Soviet approval.”

When Mohammed Reza Shah attempted to change the constitution in the early 1950s to strengthen his authority, the Hawza objected and became irritated by vote rigging in the parliamentary elections. Mohammed Reza Shah sent his Prime Minister to visit the Hawza, and Ayatollah Borujerdi and Ayatollah Kashani sent Khomeini to meet him. The Hawza was clear and united in its position; it wanted to limit the Shah’s powers.

The Hawza was motivated by the masses and by other national powers in Iran. The Shah was unable to change the constitution in the way that he wanted, which encouraged Khomeini to openly demonstrate further against the Shah.

However, despite the Hawza’s opposition to the Shah’s policies, overthrowing him was not its main goal at that time. Iranian thinker Mohsen Kadivar told Asharq al-Awsat that the aim of religious figures in the Hawza was to force the Shah to change his policies. He said that at that point, the revolutionary current was yet to crystallize and emerged gradually in Qom as it was, in fact, influenced by the Iranian masses among which several revolutionary currents were moving from right to left.

The decisive point of Khomeini’s involvement in politics came following the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi in 1961, giving Khomeini more room to move. However, the Shah wanted to weaken the Hawza in favour of the Najaf Hawza in order to eliminate the pressure that religious figures were putting on Iran. The Shah visited the Hawza Ilmiyya in Qom after Borujerdi’s death and delivered a speech at the shrine of Fatima Masoum. In his speech, he stated that an obstacle stood in the way of achieving his father’s goals for Iran and went on to stress that from that day, his father’s goals for Iran would be achieved.

The Shah then sent a message to Ayatollah Hakim in the Najaf Hawza in which he expressed respect and appreciation. Hakim did not interfere in Iran’s affairs, but the Shah wanted to convey a message that, in his opinion, the Marja was now in Najaf following the death of Borujerdi, in order to marginalise the Marja and Ayatollahs in Qom such as Khomeini and Shariatmadari for example. This period was significant in the “conflict of wills” between the Hawza and the Shah.

One year after Borujerdi died, the Shah made constitutional amendments to the municipality election laws, and eliminated the precondition that one had to be a Muslim to vote or be a candidate, and cancelled the Quran oath and gave women the right to become candidates.

Khomeini called for an emergency meeting to be held in Ayatollah Haeri’s house. He objected to Article 1 because, in his opinion, it gave the Bahai sect access to government institutions. The Shah sent a message to Qom’s senior Ayatollahs addressing them as “Hojjat al Islam” and urged them to deal with matters related to jurisprudence and public guidance rather than politics and to present their opinions regarding the constitutional amendments carried out by the Shah.

The Hawza however had taken on a more revolutionary tone following the death of Borujerdi. Khomeini ordered his students to take to Iran’s streets, and for six months, the streets were crowded with demonstrators. The Shah was forced to send messages to Ayatollahs, except Khomeini, to state that he had withdrawn his decision to make constitutional amendments. But Khomeini insisted that this retraction should be publicized, and so it was published in an official newspaper.

Hani Fahs said that the Shah failed to notice the increasing opposition against him coming from the Hawza; he believed that the real threat came from the leftist and national liberal movements in Iran, and these movements paid a heavy price for this. When the Shah announced that he had been subjected to a failed assassination attempt, dozens of opposition figures from the leftist Tudeh party were detained, and Ayatollah Kashani, speaker of the lower house of parliament, who was close to the National Front movement leader Mohamed Mosaddegh, was also detained.

The armed Fadayan-e Islam movement that was founded in the heart of Qom by Navvab Safavi, a student of theology, did not face many restrictions and became popular instantly among the Hawza students in Qom before it expanded further. The movement strengthened Khomeini’s reputation as a strong opposing figure to the Shah.

Amid difficult economic, social and political conditions in 1963, the Shah announced the White Revolution focusing on agricultural reforms, the elimination of illiteracy, and profit sharing. Khomeini, however, criticized some negative aspects of the White Revolution such as the importation of products from abroad. Khomeini argued that the reforms violate the Constitution as it gives the Shah too much authority. He said to his supporters, “The target now is not the government but the Shah himself.” Demonstrators took to the streets all over Iran and the strikes began, which pushed the Shah to declare a national referendum for the reforms and he also decided to visit Qom.

Khomeini issued a fatwa against receiving the Shah and the residents and religious figures of Qom boycotted his visit. The referendum was carried out and Khomeini urged the religious figures to continue the strike; but in March 1963 the Shah decided to react by ordering a raid on Al Fayziya Madrassah, the largest theological school in Qom.

After the Shah had taken the decision to open an Israeli embassy in Tehran in early 1963, Khomeini met with Ayatollahs in Qom and decided to send a message to the Shah in protest during Ashoura. Consequently, on June 4, 1963, Khomeini was arrested and was taken from his home in Qom to Tehran before he was later released to be kept under house arrest in Al Davoudiyah, approximately 12 kilometres away from Tehran.

Yet demonstrations continued until Khomeini’s release in April 1964. While Khomeini was imprisoned, a movement within the Hawza emerged under the leadership of Ayatollah Shariatmadari that questioned the benefits of the revolution against the Shah and its chances of success. It was the right time for the Shah to make the most of this opportunity and widen the rift within the Hawza.

Mohamed Ali Mohtada, an Iranian journalist at the Ettelaat daily newspaper believes that in the 1950s and 1960s there was cooperation and an exchange of roles between the liberalist and leftist currents on the one hand, and the religious current on the other. Ali Mohtada told Asharq al-Awsat that such coordination and communication revealed the differences between the two currents. Each current used to consider itself the “the fundamental current” that motivated the protests against the Shah.

The National Front movement always felt that its members were imprisoned and punished more than the religious figures who in turn would state that they were also subjected to prison sentences and that they mobilised the masses through their fatwas.

In the 1950s, religious figures and the secular National Front movement formed a coalition in parliament. The head of the National Front Mohammed Mosaddegh, backed by Ayatollah Kashani, put forward a draft law to nationalize Iranian oil. This was rejected by the government that argued that Iran is unable to run its oil affairs. Mosaddegh and Kashani reacted by stirring up the masses and announcing a strike and Kashani issued a fatwa to this effect urging the Bazaar, the centre of Tehran’s economy, to go on strike, and this is what happened.

Demonstrations, strikes and acts of violence continued, forcing the Shah to allow Mosaddegh to assume his position as prime minister after his victory in the elections. But the disputes between Mosaddegh and the nationalist movement on the one hand, and Kashani and religious figures on the other began to emerge. After Mosaddegh assumed his post, religious figures criticized him on the basis that he did not believe that there was a role for the religious scholars or Kashani. Mosaddegh wanted Kashani and the religious figures to withdraw and let the technocrats run government as he believed in separating religion and politics, which was completely unacceptable to the religious figures of Qom.

According to several sources, while the US was preparing for a coup d’etat to overthrow Mosaddegh, Kashani spoke to Mosaddegh on the phone and told him about the plot. He told him that the religious body could help him against the Shah and America’s plans for a coup. Mosaddegh did not take the warnings seriously on the basis that he had the support of the masses. The US was successful in carrying out its coup in August 1953 and Mosaddegh was detained before he was expelled and a new government was appointed. Mosaddegh was ousted, Kashani’s position weakened and Navvab Safavi executed. It was a new beginning for Iran’s religious figures.

Khomeini attributed the success of the coup d’etat, the failure of the Mosaddegh-Kashani movement and the execution of Safavi to the lack of “a public defence force to protect the revolution.” Khomeini then began to expand the revolution from the Hawza and universities to the streets, factories, Bazaar and even the army.