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  • State, Class, and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution
  • Misagh Parsa (bio)

Sociologists have often explained the Iranian revolution in terms of an ideologically driven movement. Some have argued that in the years preceding the revolution Iranians adopted an ideology that favored fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, which explained the establishment of theocracy. Said Amir Arjomand, for example, discounted economic interest and social class in the revolution and instead highlighted ideology, tradition, and legitimacy. According to Arjomand, rapid social change led to dislocation, normative disturbance, and disorientation.1 To reintegrate themselves into the community and reaffirm their collective cultural identity, dislocated individuals and groups embraced an Islamic revival from the mid-1960s onward. As the central authority disintegrated, the clergy extended its religious authority to the vacuum created in the political sphere and assumed leadership. Specific features of Shiite Islam such as the theodicy of suffering, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, and Shiite millenarianism enabled the clergy to harness traditional religious sentiments in the struggle against the regime.2 Mansoor Moaddel also presented an ideological analysis of the revolution. He acknowledged that the policies of the shah’s regime generated economic difficulties and discontent for broad segments of the population but argued that Shi’i revolutionary discourse was responsible for transforming social discontent into a revolutionary crisis.3

Similarly, Theda Skocpol analyzed the Iranian revolution through an ideological perspective. She maintained that although the shah’s policies adversely affected major classes and collectivities, the force that toppled the shah was rooted in the “traditional centers of urban life and in networks of Islamic communication and leadership.” 4 Skocpol claimed that Iranian urban communities located in bazaars were responsible for possessing the solidarity needed for popular revolts. According to Skocpol, the Islamic clergy, who led the bazaars, could claim as well or better than the monarchy to represent authentically the will of the Hidden Imam. The Shiite belief in the story of Husayn’s willing martyrdom in the just cause of resisting the usurper caliph, Yazid, inspired devout Shiites to continue opposing the shah in the face of repression and death. Finally, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini himself presented an ideologically driven analysis of the Iranian revolution when he remarked: “I cannot and I do not accept that any prudent individual can believe that the purpose of all these sacrifices was to have less expensive melons, that we sacrificed our young men to have less [End Page 3] expensive housing. . . . No one would give his life for better agriculture. Dignity is better than full bellies. Iranian masses have fought only for God not worldly affairs.”5

Many of the analyses of the Iranian revolution are heavily influenced by the revolution’s outcome and the rise of a theocratic state. Some analyses are reductionist and oversimplify the complexity of the revolutionary struggles. Other analyses are clearly tautological. They begin with certain outcomes of the revolution—a large-scale popular uprising against the shah, Khomeini’s leadership, the death of protestors at the hands of the military—and then use these very developments as explanations for the revolution. Both genres of explanation largely ignore the complexity of the revolutionary processes and struggles. The fact that Iranians formed a broad coalition against the monarchy and overthrew the government does not mean that Iranians lived in urban communities that enabled them to mobilize and revolt. In fact, even the bazaar was highly stratified along economic dimensions, generating a great deal of conflicts in the years prior to the revolutionary struggles. Bazaaris did not constitute traditional communities with the Islamic clergy leading their political activities. In fact, bazaar politics diverged at times from that of the clergy in the decades prior to the revolution. As we shall see, the major players during the revolutionary struggles were not uprooted or disoriented individuals negatively affected by large-scale social transformations. While large-scale transformations did uproot segments of the population, the very process of uprooting actually undermined the solidarity structures of these newly urbanized groups and reduced their capacity to act collectively. Empirical evidence does not support any significant role in the revolution by uprooted populations.6

Finally, these explanations attribute considerable power to Shiite ideology and clergy. In these explanations ideology...


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