"...a Muslim reformation that...has finally awoken and is now slouching
toward Medina to be born."
The following text is adapted from the book:
Reza Aslan "No god but God," Random House, (2005).
You can read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. The
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"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful," the IranAir pilot intones
as our plane glides to a stop at Tehranís Mehrabad Airport. There is a nervous
shifting in the seats around me. The women sit upright, adjusting their
headscarves, making sure their ankles and wrists are properly covered, while
their husbands rub the sleep from their eyes and begin gathering the belongings
their children have scattered in the aisle.
I lift my head to look for the two or three faces I have been carefully
observing since boarding the plane in London. They are the younger, single
passengers on board, men and women who, like me, are in their late twenties or
early thirties. They are dressed in ill-fitting clothes that look as though they
were purchased in second-hand stores -- awkward, long-sleeved shirts; dull
slacks; unadorned headscarves -- all meant to appear as inoffensive as possible.
I know this because this is precisely how I am dressed. When I catch their eyes,
I can see a glint of the same anxiety that courses through my body. It is a
mixture of fear and excitement. For many of us, this will be the first time we
have set foot in the country of our birth since the revolution forced us from it
As part of an effort to reach out to the massive Iranian diaspora who fled to
Europe and the United States in the early 1980ís, the Iranian government
recently issued a tentative amnesty to all ex-patriots, announcing that they
could return to Iran for brief visits -- once a year and not to exceed three
months -- without fear of being detained or forced into completing their
mandatory military duty. The response was immediate. Thousands of young Iranians
began pouring into the country. Some had never known Iran except through the
nostalgic tales of their parents. Others like me had been born here and were
spirited away when we were too young to make decisions of our own.
We disembark and slip into the steamy early morning. It is still dark, but
already the airport is bursting with arrivals from Paris, Milan, Berlin, Los
Angeles. A raucous crowd has gathered at passport control in nothing resembling
a proper line. Babies scream. An unbearable odor of sweat and cigarette smoke
wafts through the air. Elbows jab me from all sides. And suddenly I am flooded
with memories of this very same airport twenty-five years ago; of linking arms
with my family and shoving our way through a frantic mob, trying to leave Iran
before the borders closed and the airplanes were grounded. I remember my mother
crying out, "Donít lose your sister!" I can still hear the terrifying
breathlessness of her voice, as though she were warning me that if I let go of
my little sisterís hand, she would be left behind. I gripped her fingers so
tightly she began to cry, and dragged her roughly toward the gate, kicking at
the knees around us to make way.
Twenty-five years and four suffocatingly long hours later, I am finally at the
passport window. I slip my documents through a slot in the glass to a young,
lightly bearded man in broken spectacles. He flips through the pages
absentmindedly while I prepare my well-rehearsed replies as to who I am and why
I am here.
"What is your point of origin?" the agent asks wearily.
"The United States," I reply.
He stiffens and looks up at my face. I can tell we are the same age, though his
tired eyes and his unshaven jowl make him appear much older. He is a child of
the revolution; I am a fugitive -- an apostate. He has spent his life surviving
a history that I have spent my life studying from afar. All at once I feel
overwhelmed. I can barely look at him when he asks, "Where have you been?" as
all passport agents are required to do. I cannot help but sense the accusation
and dejection in his question.
On the day Khomeini returned to Iran, I took my four-year old sister by the hand
and, despite my motherís warning not to venture outdoors, led her out of our
apartment in downtown Tehran to join the celebrations in the streets. It had
been days since we had gone outside. The days preceding the Shahís exile and the
Ayatollahís return had been violent ones. The schools were closed, most
television and radio stations shut down, and our quiet, suburban neighborhood
deserted. So when we looked out of our window on that February morning and saw
the euphoria in the streets, no warning could have kept us inside.
Filling a plastic pitcher with Tang and stealing two packages of Dixie Cups from
our motherís cupboard, my sister and I snuck out to join the revelry. One by one
we filled the cups and passed them out to the crowd. Strangers stopped to lift
us up and kiss our cheeks. Handfuls of sweets were thrown from open windows.
There was music and dancing everywhere. I wasnít really sure what we were
celebrating, but I didnít care. I was swept up in the moment and enthralled by
the strange words on everyoneís lips -- words I had heard before but which were
still mystifying and unexplained: Freedom! Liberty! Democracy!
A few months later, the promise of those words seemed about to be fulfilled when
Iranís provisional government drafted a constitution for the newly formed and
thrillingly titled Islamic Republic of Iran. Under Khomeiniís guidance, the
constitution was a combination of third-world anti-imperialism mixed with the
socio-economic theories of legendary Iranian ideologues like Jalal Al-e Ahmad
and Ali Shariati, the religio-political philosophies of Hasan al-Banna and
Sayyid Qutb, and the traditional Shiite ideals of Islamic populism. Its founding
articles promised equality of the sexes, religious pluralism, social justice,
the freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful assembly -- all the lofty
principles the revolution had fought to attain -- while simultaneously affirming
the Islamic character of the new Republic.
In some ways, Iranís new constitution did not differ markedly from the one
written after the countryís first anti-imperialist revolution in 1905, except
that this constitution appeared to envisage two governments. The first,
representing the sovereignty of the people, included a popularly elected
President who would serve as the executive of a highly centralized state, a
Parliament charged with creating and debating laws, and an independent Judiciary
to interpret those laws. The second, representing the sovereignty of God,
included just one man: the Ayatollah Khomeini.
This was the theory of the Valayat-e Faqih ("the guardianship of the jurist"),
which Khomeini had been developing during his years of exile in France. In
essence, the Valayat-e Faqih proposed that in the absence of the Imams (the
divinely-inspired saints of ShiĎism) the countryís "most learned cleric" (the Faqih, also called the
"Supreme Jurist") should be given "the responsibility of transacting all the
business and carrying out all the affairs with which the Imams were entrusted."
Khomeini was not the first Shi'ite theologian to have made this claim; the same
idea was formulated at the turn of the twentieth century by politically minded
clerics like Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri (one of Khomeiniís ideological heroes) and
the Ayatollah Kashani. But what was startling about the Valayat-e Faqih was
Khomeiniís insistence that the Faqihís authority on earth must be equal to the
infallible and divine authority of the Imam. In other words, Khomeini had made
himself a saint whoís ever decision was binding and whoís very authority was
It is a sign of the great diversity of religious and political thought that
exists in ShiĎism that most other ayatollahs in Iran -- including his superiors,
the Ayatollahs Boroujerdi and Shariatmadari -- rejected the Valayat-e Faqih,
claiming that the role of Muslim clerics in post-revolutionary Iran was merely
to preserve the spiritual character of the Islamic state, not to run it. But
what made Khomeini so alluring was his ability to couch his radical theology in
the populist rhetoric of the time. He thus reached out to Iranís influential
communist and Marxist factions by reformulating traditional ShiĎite ideology
into a call for an uprising of the oppressed masses. He wooed the secular
nationalists by lacing his speeches with allusions to Iranís mythic past, while
purposely obscuring the details of his political philosophy. "We do not say that
government must be in the hands of the Faqih," he claimed. "Rather we say that
government must be run in accordance with Godís laws for the welfare of the
country." What he often failed to mention publicly was that such a state would
not be feasible except, as he wrote, "with the supervision of the religious
leaders." Consequently, Khomeini was able, by the power of his charisma, to
institute the Valayat-e Faqih as the model for Iranís post-revolutionary
government, paving the way for the institutionalization of absolute clerical
Still, Iranians were too elated by their new-found independence and too blinded
by the conspiracy theories floating in the air about another attempt by the CIA
and the U.S. embassy in Tehran to reestablish the Shah on his throne (just as
they had done in 1953), to recognize the implications of the Valayat-e Faqih.
Despite warnings from the provisional government and the vociferous arguments of
Khomeiniís rival ayatollahs, particularly Ayatollah Shariatmadari (whom Khomeini
eventually stripped of his religious credentials despite centuries of Shiite law
forbidding such actions), the Iranís new constitution was approved in a national
referendum by over 98 percent of the electorate.
By the time most Iranians realized what they had voted for, Saddam Hussein,
encouraged by the United States and furnished with chemical and biological
samples by the CDC and the Virginia-based company the American Type Culture
Collection, launched an attack on Iranian soil. As happens in times of war, all
dissenting voices were silenced in the interest of national security, and the
dream that had instigated the revolution a year earlier gave way to the reality
of a totalitarian state plagued by the gross ineptitude of a ruling clerical
regime wielding unconditional religious and political authority.
The intention of the U.S. government in supporting Saddam Hussein during the
Iran-Iraq war was to curb the spread of Iranís revolution, but it had the more
disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. It wasnít until the end of the war
in 1988 and the death of Khomeini a year later that the democratic ideals
embedded in Iranís constitution were gradually unearthed by a new generation of
Iranians too young to remember the tyranny of the Shah but old enough to realize
that the present system was not what their parents had intended. It was their
discontent that fueled the activities of a handful of reformist academics,
politicians, philosophers, and theologians who have embarked on a new revolution
in Iran not to secularize the country but to refocus it on genuine Islamic
values like pluralism, freedom, justice, human rights, and above all, democracy.
As the eminent Iranian political philosopher, Abdol Karim Soroush, has defiantly
remarked, "We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be
democratic but that it cannot be otherwise."
Iranís previous revolutions in 1905 and 1953 were hijacked by foreigners who
interests were served by suppressing democracy in the region. The revolution of
1979 was hijacked by the countryís own clerical establishment who used their
moral authority to gain absolute power. This new revolution, however, despite
the brutally intransigent response it has thus far received from Iranís clerical
oligarchy, will not be quelled. Thatís because the fight for Islamic democracy
in Iran is merely one front in a worldwide battle taking place in the Muslim
world -- a jihad, if you will -- to strip the traditionalist Ulama of their
monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam, and pave the way for the
realization of the long-awaited and hard-fought Islamic Reformation that is
already under way in most of the Muslim world.
The reformation of Christianity was a terrifying process, but it was not, as it
has so often been presented, a collision between Protestant reform and Catholic
intransigence. Rather, the Christian Reformation was an argument over the future
of the faith -- a violent, bloody argument that engulfed Europe in devastation
and war for more than a century. Thus far, the Islamic Reformation has proved no
For most of the Western world, September 11, 2001, signaled the commencement of
a worldwide struggle between Islam and the West -- the ultimate manifestation of
the clash of civilizations. From the Islamic perspective, however, the attacks
on New York and Washington were part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims
who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern
world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting -- sometimes
fanatically -- to the "fundamentals" of their faith.
This is a cataclysmic internal struggle taking place not in the deserts of the
Arabian Peninsula, where the Islamic message was first introduced to the world,
but in the developing capitals of the Muslim world -- Tehran, Cairo, Damascus,
and Jakarta -- and in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and the United States
-- New York, London, Paris, and Berlin -- where that message is being redefined
by scores of first and second generation Muslim immigrants. By merging the
Islamic values of their ancestors with the democratic ideals of their new homes,
these Muslims have formed what Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim intellectual
and grandson of Hasan al-Banna, terms a "mobilizing force" for a Muslim
reformation that, after centuries of stony sleep, has finally awoken and is now
slouching toward Medina to be born.
About the author: Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan has studied religions at Santa Clara University, Harvard University,
and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He holds an MFA in fiction from
the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he was also visiting
assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. His work has appeared
in The Nation, Slate, and The New York Times, and he has been profiled in USA
Today, U.S. News & World Report, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Born in
Iran, he lives in Santa Barbara and New Orleans. See