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a Muslim reformation that...has finally awoken and is now slouching toward Medina to be born."

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Sponsored link.

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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 reviews are fascinating to read.

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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 children.

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 unconditional.

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 control.
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 different.

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.

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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 http://www.rezaaslan.com

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Site navigation: Home page > World Religions > Islam > here

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Copyright © 2005 by Reza Aslan. Used by permission
Originally posted: 2005-MAY-01
Latest update: 2005-MAY-01
Author: Reza Aslan

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