The Origins of the Religious Intellectual Movement
The new intellectual movement in Iran has grown from among the religious forces that brought the Islamic republic to power; but its origins go further back in history. It is, in fact, a product of four important events that have marked the recent history of this ancient land: the tobacco movement of 1892; the constitutional revolution of 1905-11; the oil nationalization movement of 1951-3; and the Islamic revolution of 1978-9 (see Keddie 1980, 1981 and Arjomand 1988, 1990). The first generation of modern Iranian intellectuals was faced with the colonial expansion of the West and the beginnings of the breakdown of the traditional social structures in the non-western world (see Algar 1973).
The early Iranian intellectuals were the first to raise the issue of the rule of law, which led up to what is known as 'the constitutional revolution'. The incorporation of the constitutional monarchy into the law was meant to limit the absolute powers of the monarch, which were perceived to be the main obstacle to modern progress. But constitutionalism never found institutional strength and was blatantly undermined by the Pahlavi modernizing dictatorship in the following decades.
Meanwhile, the Islamic ideological movement, consisting of modernist religious intellectuals and religious revivalist clergy, began to assert itself as a serious political force (see Dabashi 1993). The coalition of the religious modernists and the religious revivalists sought to enter politics as a strong force. In fact, it was successful in the following years in making the strongest challenge yet to the Pahlavi regime, a challenge that eventually led to the Islamic revolution, the fall of the monarchy and the institution of an Islamic republic in 1979.
With the Islamic revolution the intellectual environment radically changed. While in the 1960s and 1970s the intellectuals fought for a revolution against monarchic tyranny, in the 1980s they had to defend the revolutionary state against its enemies. In the 1990s, the change was even more radical. Now the post-revolutionary religious souls were faced with the unprecedented task of justifying and at the same time criticizing a religious government in the modern world.
In the 1980s, the revolutionary zealot enforcement of saintly virtues as the only qualification of enfranchisement by the Islamic state had left the nation divided, although this divisive nature of the early revolutionary sense of religious nationhood did not emerge for almost a decade because of the state of security alert caused by ideological, cultural and military threats against the Islamic revolution. Towards the mid-1990s, though, the cracking of revolutionary-ideological solidarity (based on enforcement of public piety and mass mobilization) revealed the divisions of the nation, which were partly a result of new needs and desires, and partly a reflection of the true diversities that were previously somewhat successfully contained or concealed. More than anything else, the economic needs of the nation demanded that the Islamic revolutionary state-with all its emphasis on spirituality, piety and otherworldly salvation-should provide for the 'secular' worldly needs and desires of a modern nation.
With the end of war also came the return of the vast army of young revolutionary enthusiasts, who had fought a heroic war against the external enemy, and now naturally demanded a share in the power, prestige and wealth of the revolutionary state. Other cultural, political, social and economic issues too required urgent attention following the war, such as defining a value system to defend the next generation of the Islamic revolution in a global world, clarifying the extent of the role of religion in the state, attending to the questions of social welfare, health, education and law and order, etc. or deciding on the extent of the role of government in the economy, and the sensitive issue of opening the Iranian economy to the global process.
In the early 1990s under the presidency of the influential cleric Ali-Akbar Hashemi- Rafsanjani, the state programme for post-war economic reconstruction whetted people's appetites for economic prosperity. But the failure of the state to maintain a sense of social and economic justice in peacetime (as a result of factional rivalry, economic mismanagement and decline in oil revenues) created a strong sense of social division, which in time became a source of increasing sentiments of discontent, waiting for an opportunity for expression. This was coupled with an intensifying sense of moral decay, which was reflected in expressions of concern (even in the official media) about corruption, violence, crime, drug abuse, prostitution, promiscuity and even homosexuality, which were prohibited by both religion and law.
Considering the huge youth population of Iran (almost half of the population of 65 million are in their teens or early twenties), it was natural that concerns about moral decay were more acute when it came to the nation's youth. This led to open criticisms (even within the revolutionary ranks) of economic corruption, political repression and cultural policies based on regulation or repression of desire. While the official media kept blaming the Western (mainly American) economic sanctions and cultural- communicational invasion for Iran's problems, some printed publications began to offer an outlet for critical views with respect to state policies.
Khatami himself came to the political scene as a reformist religious intellectual, a man of culture and knowledge, equipped with both traditional and modern education; someone who criticized the status quo, and was thus deemed by the electorate the best man to address the political, economic, educational, cultural and entertainment needs of the nation in the global context. The education, cultivation and ultimately enfranchisement of a new generation of youth were arguably his most challenging task.
Moreover, the modern middle class (a product of Pahlavi's modernization), which was virtually disenfranchised by the aggressive push of the jurists to revive the religious traditions, also began to express critical views. The modern middle class had suffered from massive revolutionary purges, as well as social and cultural restrictions. Many millions of the members of the modern middle class had chosen, often reluctantly, to go into exile, depriving the nation of the contributions of millions of its citizens (including many highly educated professionals, technocrats and academics) who did not subscribe to ascetic-revolutionary virtues.
The new intellectual movement therefore emerged in a situation where a shift in the focus of national development seemed inevitable. This shift meant that the concerns about the faith and morality of a society in the throes of decadence should be combined with attempts at fulfilling the social, cultural and economic needs of a young and highly educated nation with great potentials.
Religious Intellectuals and Hermeneutics
I should also stress the hermeneutic nature of the new intellectual movement in Iran. This is clearly a natural consequence of the quest (since the 1970s) to define the modern Islamic polity on the basis of new interpretations of sacred texts. The main concern of the religious intellectuals in this regard is to find acceptance for religious and subsequently political pluralism in the context of Islamic politics. Indeed, over the last four years concern for political pluralism has been the main force behind the inception of politico-religious disputes based on multiple interpretations of sacred texts, considered a time-honoured Islamic tradition by the reformists, and heretical innovation by the conservatives.
These contesting interpretations of Islam certainly have something to do with abstract doctrinal prejudices; but their primary significance is in the serious challenge they have created to the dominance of the conservative Shia jurists over the institutions of power (political, economic and legal). It should be remembered that the main source of the legitimacy of the political, legal and economic power of the conservative Shia juridical establishment is its religious authority, which is derived from its monopoly over what is considered to be the valid interpretation of the Shia religious texts.
Some theologians have attempted to reconcile the traditional religious science of tafsir (exegesis) with the modern science of hermeneutics in the context of Islamic theology. The theologian Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari, for example, has used the concept of 'hermeneutic understanding' of the Islamic sacred texts to highlight the limited nature of previous interpretations of such texts by scholastic Muslim jurists-interpretations that, he claims, are rooted in the traditionalist juridical understanding of society, politics, justice, ethics and human rights. He argues that such an understanding has historically limited the practice of the jurists in forming independent authoritative opinions on doctrinal and legal matters (ijtihad), and in issuing religious rulings (fatva) that are fit to address the modern political, social and economic problems of Muslims. This historical limitation, he stresses, questions the claims that certain interpretations of the sacred texts have eternal value.
According to Shabestari, hermeneutics is a scientific tool for discovering the most historically relevant meanings of the religious texts from among several possible meanings (Mojtahed-Shabestari 1375/1996, 13; see also Ricoeur 1991, 1992). In his view 'understanding' is a historical phenomenon shaped by the same historical processes that have created new conditions and possibilities for varied cultural and linguistic expressions. He echoes German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer when he writes:
What is said in a particular historical horizon (based on the historically specific experiences of human beings of themselves and their world) requires a special type of rendering and a new form of expression in order to be understood in another historical horizon. (Mojtahed-Shabestari 1375/1996, 14; see also Gadamer 1975, 1977)
In this sense, the role of the interpreter of the text in revealing its most historically relevant meaning is fundamental. The preconceptions, pre-judgments, pre-understandings and prejudices of the interpreter play a vital role in making the semantic rules fruitful in revealing the meaning of a text. According to Shabestari, the interpretation of the texts of tradition bent on understanding is in essence a critical engagement with the text by the interpreter. This critical engagement is based on two premises: that understanding is possible only through an interpretative process, and that there is always more than one interpretation of a text. In other words, the text is not the same as its meaning, which is to come out in the interpretative process, nor can the meaning be disconnected from the text, which constrains the degree to which preconceptions of the interpreter can limit alternative meanings.
For Shabestari, the hermeneutic interpretation of the texts of tradition, particularly the sacred texts, is the only means for human beings to understand the collective historical experience of humanity. Otherwise, it would be impossible for human beings belonging to the present historical horizon to understand the humanity of those who belonged to previous historical horizons. Aware of the inability of the hermeneutic approach to understanding the past to be a positive experimental science of history, Shabestari writes:
In order to perceive the reality and meaningfulness of the understanding of the texts of traditions, it is necessary to accept that we and the human beings from the past possess a common humanity. We should accept that, despite all historical developments that have made our experience different from the experiences of the past generations, we share in certain common and lasting experiences that pertain to our humanity. It is in light of this sharing that we can rediscover our own questions in theirs and find the connection between their answers to our questions. (Ibid., 29-30)
Many of the critics of the hard-line policies of the conservative authorities have adopted the interpretative approach to the understanding of religious traditions. The main thrust of the rhetoric of such critics is to express opposition to what they see as the attempts of the jurists-in-power to interpret the Muslim faith in support of the consolidation of their own political power. These critics also appeal to modern 'rationality' to expose the 'irrationality' and coercive nature of what they see as 'narrow' interpretations of religion and politics.
A daily theme of critique in the burgeoning reformist press over the past four years has been to question the claim of modern religious extremists to be the upholders of the purity of tradition. These extremists are themselves a modern phenomenon, an Iranian scholar argues, living in the modern world and using modern means to invent new versions of traditions (Ashuri 1998, 18-24). Pointing to the imbalance between frequent and overzealous references to the Islamic tradition and the use of modern security organizations and media networks to repress dissent and glorify violence, the critics of religious extremism express concern that resort to violence with the use of modern techniques is to strengthen a cruel and repressive form of relations of power in the name of a tradition which boasts about its contributions to human civilization, peace, prosperity and spirituality.
The new Muslim intellectuals of the late 1990s thus set out to be the modern critics of their social, cultural and political environment in response to the trend of traditionalization that prevailed in the political culture in the 1980s. The problem was that in Iran, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, the traditions had already been modernized largely through exogenous influences, particularly in the colonial period. Moreover, the problem of countries like Iran was one of the repercussions of a new phase of modernity, where the validity of all grand ideas and philosophical schools was subject to critique, questioning and re-examination; hence, the desire to return to traditions in order to resist the 'alien' Western modernity, and revive a sense of communal belonging and cultural security (Azimi 1998, 18-25; Shayegan 1992, 1377/1998, 18-26).
In Iran after the revolution, intensely emotional attachments to traditions drastically reduced the chances of any credible critique of the religious political culture (which was considered to be under siege), leading to a situation where the political use of repression and violence was justified as a strictly internal cultural issue. Any critique was dismissed as an insult and disrespect, or accused of being connected with a foreign plot. But in the new intellectual discourse, which emerged after the 1997 elections, respect for 'human dignity' in individual and collective form took priority over respect for a tradition that violated human dignity. The appeal to traditional 'authenticity' advocated by repressive political tendencies, which did not allow for diversity, was often considered by the intellectuals to be flawed.
According to the reformist Muslim intellectuals, just as science and technology in their global expansion have known no cultural boundaries, the modern quest for human dignity could not be confined by cultural limitations (Ashuri 1998, 18-24). They argued that the quest for human dignity, although it did not need to undermine traditional identities, could and should bring into question the repressive and violent nature of a return to an isolationist communal existence, which seeks to impose cultural purity and uniformity on the multicultural fabric of a modern society.
By promoting alternative interpretations of religion and politics in their publications, the intellectuals made a significant effort to form a critical understanding of the internal structures and functions of power. The main characteristic of the new religious intellectual movement in Iran is its attempt to create a balance between its native belonging and the broader modern world. This native discourse contains not only an attachment to the heritage of Iranian-Islamic tradition, but also a preparedness to welcome the opportunities offered by Western modernity. It has already proposed a democratic model of government as a serious alternative to traditional autocracy. The logic of democracy, if not its spirit, is increasingly promoted in reformist publications as an efficient and just method of government.
Yet the reformist intellectuals have had a lot of difficulty in tackling this task. Many believe that this is due to the weakness of the critical tradition in Iran, on the one hand, and the lack of a democratic tradition, on the other. In fact, like other Third World intellectuals, Iranian intellectuals are caught between two dif. cult tasks: one of 'deconstructing' their own traditions as part of their collective historical experience; and another of 'constructing' a yet undetermined identity, which can accommodate the uncertainties and tremendous opportunities of the modern world (Shayegan 1377/1998, 18-26).
Iranians are generally appalled by the opportunity created for deception and corruption by the official policy of imposing on the public an outward conformity to strict religious codes of behaviour. Over the last four years, the reformist press has become the medium of the intellectuals who have made it their business to disclose what they have seen as deception and corruption in positions of authority guarded by traditional sanctity. The growing trend towards talking openly about formerly taboo issues such as abuse of power under religious immunity, economic gains of the religious authorities and the failure of religious politics to provide social and economic justice and guarantee individual rights can be better understood in this context.
The preponderance of religious politics in post-revolutionary Iran has resulted in the critical engagement of Iranian intellectuals with their religious traditions. This may be the most significant feature of the current intellectual life in Iran, and could initiate a serious religious and political reformation. At stake here is the quest for the redefinition of the parameters of political legitimacy.
An Interpretative Contest for Power
According to the young jurist and theologian Mohsen Kadivar, the legitimacy of the Islamic political authority is based on both the 'rational justification' that it offers for its own exercise of power, and the consent of the people (Kadivar 1376/1997, 41-3). Kadivar has categorized the various theories of state in the Shia fiqh (jurisprudence) in relation to the thesis of velayat-e faqih (the politico-religious supreme authority of the jurist) and on the basis of their views of the sources of legitimacy of political power. Digging in more than a thousand years of Shia juridical tradition (fiqh), he highlights the lack of a detailed argument among the Shia jurists until the modern period about a coherent political philosophy. Indeed, apart from scattered attempts by the early jurists to argue for the authority of appointed jurists in religious matters (shar) and the rule of the legitimate king in secular affairs (urf), the bulk of political statements of the jurists belong to recent times.
Since the teachings of Islam have made it clear that God is the ultimate source of rightful legitimacy in all aspects of life, the main issue in Kadivar's discussion of legitimacy in Islamic political thought is to juxtapose two main competing views of the role of religion in politics (ibid. 52). One view believes that God has relegated political authority over a people to a 'chosen' group (the Shia jurists), and another insists that God has invested the people themselves with the authority to determine their political destiny.
According to the proponents of the first view, the divine authority in political and social management of the community (which is directly relegated to the Prophet and the immaculate Shia Imams) could be extended to 'just jurists' in the absence of the Prophet and the Imams (in the period of the great concealment or ghaibat-e kobra). In this view, the political authority of the divine is directly invested in the qualified jurists, and thus the consent of the people is immaterial. People are thus obliged to accept and obey the rulings of the appointed jurists. Government and the management of political affairs belong to the jurists and obedience is the duty of the people. According to the second view, however, God has conferred the political management of the Muslim community upon the people themselves as long as the principles of the faith are not violated. In this latter view, the role of the jurists is reduced to a supervisory one allowing the compatibility of the rule of the people with the religious laws to be ensured.
The critical position of the reformist tendencies after the 1997 elections with respect to theocratic interpretations of velayat-e faqih is a public manifestation of the opposing views of the relationship between religion and politics. It amounted to a direct challenge to the political power of the conservative jurist-rulers, which had remained virtually uncontested. Not surprisingly, this challenge involved new interpretations of religious texts. The main question was whether the authority of the state was divine, or emanated from basic rights of the people and the will of the nation.
A prominent critic of the absolutist understandings of the valayat-e faqih is the lay philosopher of religion, Abdolkarim Soroush, who has spoken of the 'revival of religion'; and in the heated atmosphere of accusations of heresy and apostasy, he is at pains to declare that his interpretation of religion is not a heresy. The long historical background of religious reformism in Iran has convinced the reform-minded Soroush of a major difference between the traditional and modern Muslim reformers. His view is that the traditional reformers (since medieval times) have believed that there was a timeless essence to the Sharia that must be kept immune against the influence of the 'eclectics' and 'sophists'. The present-day reformers, on the other hand, have the more difficult task of reconciling 'eternity and change' (see Soroush 1374/1995). This reconciliation, according to Soroush, has been needed to provide a balanced relationship between tradition and modernity, which would not fall into the trap of traditionalist and modernist extremism.
He also invokes the dialogical history of exegesis in Shia Islam, and particularly the history of various understandings of the Sharia, to dispute the views that advocate a prohibition on fresh interpretations of the Sharia. In his theory of 'contraction and expansion of the Sharia, Soroush refers to the Sharia as 'silent' (samet), which does not express any explicit meaning, and suggests that the meaning of the Sharia emerges out of the interaction of various understandings put forward by competing interpretations (ibid., 181). Obviously, his theory of 'contraction and expansion' has explicit political implications with respect to tackling the claims of the official clergy to the exclusivity of religious knowledge.
Soroush asserts, for example, that 'in the context of the theory of contraction and expansion, it is fundamentally impossible to conceive of a class or group that bears and preserves an official understanding of religion' (ibid. 35). He rejects such an official understanding because it is offered as 'an exclusive religious ideology' by those who get their 'power and subsistence' from it, whose 'material and worldly interests are mixed' and whose political power base and material survival are derived from it:
The matter of religion is too great an issue to be exclusively entrusted to the clergy. A clergy that supports itself through religion will gradually be converted to a body whose work will be aimed at preserving itself. When a person's livelihood depends on confirming and supporting the organisation of clergy, how can he think freely? (Soroush 1374/1995, 25-31)
Besides challenging attempts by an official class of theologians to monopolize religious knowledge, Soroush has tackled such political concepts as freedom, pluralism, democracy, human rights and civil society. He presents freedom and religion as mutually inclusive. 'Only free people can guard religion,' he argues, 'and it is in the shadow of such freedom that individuals can defend the religious life' (ibid.). This priority of freedom over belief, he adds, is what makes religious belief a meaningful experience rather than a mechanical discharge of duty.
Concerning the model of political rule, Soroush advocates a pluralist democracy in which the clergy as much as any other group have the right and obligation to participate in politics. In this sense, the clergy are not entitled to any special privilege as far as participation in politics is concerned; rather their desire for power must be determined by the respect and acceptability they are accorded by the nation.
On the concept of velayat-e faqih, Soroush's approach is based on his assumption that in the modern world a fundamental change has taken place in popular attitudes toward rights and obligations. He writes:
In the modern world speaking of human rights is desirable because we live in an age when people are more concerned with discovering and understanding their rights than their obligations. That the issue of human rights in our age is highly regarded, despite the abuses that are perpetrated in its name, is of extreme importance, and justifies every effort at its understanding. (Soroush 1376/1997, 419-43)
According to Soroush, what makes the acceptance of the current concept of velayat-e faqih and the Islamic government dif. cult is that this government is based on 'obligation,' whereas in the mind of modern humanity and the majority of modern political philosophies, the state ought to be subject to the 'rights' of the people. Government is no longer an instrument for the exertion of authority of the rulers over the ruled, he argues, but an instrument for rendering service and management.
Some intellectuals have advocated a mystical (irfani) interpretation of the Islamic traditions as most compatible with the spiritual and humanistic intent of religion. The main argument of the intellectual proponents of mysticism (irfan) is that the Iranian mystical tradition has fundamental compatibility with the requirements of freethinking and even modern political pluralism. In this perspective, the religious tradition of irfan is promoted mainly for its concern with the inward aspect of religious experience, and its scorn for external public piety achieved through strict regulation of social behaviour (Ashuri 1998). Accordingly, irfan is rooted in a tradition of interpretative understanding of sacred texts, which has refined and deepened the human understanding of religion, and has shown tolerance for multiple interpretations of religion.
Such understandings of religion have an affinity with the views of religious existentialist philosophers (e.g. Karl Jaspers), in which religion is defined as an experience irreducible to any specific form of conceptual or rational order, an experience that instils a moral anxiety in human consciousness. This anxiety is understood as an inner force, which makes faith a human affair whereby human beings remain faithful to their humanity in connection with a moral order that transcends social, political and legal systems, a moral order deeply rooted in human freedom and dignity. According to this alternative view of religion, faith should not be equated with a certain traditional form of order, which existed once and should be recreated or revived uncritically. God could not have intended for His religion to become limited to a specific form of outer appearances that marked a historically specific form of traditional order (Ashuri 1998).
This conception of religion is one of an expanded understanding of the sacred, which is connected at the same time with the depths of the esoteric and ontological relationship between man and his origin. In this sense, religion is a type of inner and eternal connection between God and human beings that, while overriding specific cultural and national boundaries, makes its presence felt in countless cultural, behavioural and institutional contexts.
In the political environment of Iran since the May 1997 elections, almost all aspects of the state-from its political philosophy, to its religious doctrines, to its specific social and economic policies-have been re-examined, and as a result their validity has been contested. At issue was a quest to redefine Iran as a modern religious polity and to reconstruct the society on a yet undetermined set of moral values that can, at one and the same time, preserve a religious identity and forge a modern nationality. In these uncharted territories, every aspect of life was affected by an intense political struggle, manifested at the rhetorical and institutional levels in the competition between two main political factions: the reformists and the conservatives. There were numerous examples of this kind of competition on a daily basis, reflected in the vocal criticisms of the reformist activists against the conservative clergy in power, on the one hand, and the heavy-handed reactions of the latter, on the other. Persecution, prosecution and sometimes imprisonment of reformist religious intellectuals by the conservative-dominated judiciary are a reflection of this political contest.
The reformist religious intellectuals were predominantly the children of the revolution. They were often the former students or scholars of the religious centres of learning. But their dismay at how Islam had been presented in the previous two decades pushed them towards thinking of a serious reformation in the religious tradition. They focused their attention on re-examining and reviving those aspects of the Shia tradition that had been neglected or pushed to the margins by the dominant juridical thought. Their effort was directed at reviving the tradition of tolerance and pluralism (tasahol va tasamoh), which they believed would reflect the more profound side of Islam by its emphasis on reason, freedom, justice, natural human rights, the responsibilities of a religious government with respect to the needs of human beings in this world and the attention given by Islam to building a civilized and at the same time spiritual social existence as a prelude to otherworldly salvation.
The activation of such intellectual trends in the religious community since the 1997 elections has contributed to a discursive understanding of religion, which promises to make it compatible with the modern concept of human dignity while freeing it from constraining behavioural and cultural codes. Politically speaking, it also promises to open up further the domain of the public sphere, contributing to the emergence of a grass-roots democratic movement. The defence of 'civil society' by reformist Muslim intellectuals, in the name of protection of an important part of social and communal activities against what they see as the repressive intrusions of the state and its official juridical version of religion, has already raised public awareness and interest with regard to individual democratic rights, which is reflected in the increased popularity of electoral politics.
The views of many of the reformist intellectuals represented the quest of the former revolutionaries to resolve the paradox of tradition-modernity in order to reconcile Islam with democracy, and redefine the relationship between the state and religion. The question that dominated the agenda of reform in Iran during Khatami's first term in office was how to address the conflict between traditional and modern understandings of the relationship between religion, state and society.
The most powerful political force arrayed against various shades of reformist forces over the last four years was the 'conservative' alliance, which controlled the main apparatuses of power. The conservative jurists, as the core of this alliance, often appealed to literal interpretations of religious texts, symbols and rituals, in order to legitimize an increasing concentration of power in their own hands in defence of what they saw as the purity of Islamic faith and culture. The traditionalist juridical understanding of the relationship between religion and politics had been bolstered by the success of the Shia religious establishment throughout Iranian history and gained an increasing amount of political legitimacy in the eye of the population (Akhavi 1980, 1983; Fischer 1980; Fischer & Abedi 1990). The ascendance of the Shia jurists to power after the victory of the Islamic revolution owed a lot to the success of the politically minded clergy in eroding the political legitimacy of the monarchic political order, replacing it with their own religiously based political authority.
However, as we have seen, with the establishment of the Islamic republic, two opposing views emerged with respect to the source of political legitimacy in the process of drafting the constitution: one that located the legitimacy of Islamic government in divinity; and the other that saw the people as the source of the legitimacy of Islamic political authority. The clerical proponents of the first view successfully used their religiously based political legitimacy to include the traditional concept of velayat-e faqih as the source of the authority of the burgeoning Islamic polity. But the proponents of the will of the people enshrined in the constitution the republican principle of popular political participation as a cornerstone of the identity of the state as a modern republic.
The current struggle between the conservative and reformist political discourses is rooted in the early contest between the two concepts of legitimacy. Since 1997, this struggle has been waged predominantly over two readings of velayat-e faqih. Although this struggle began in a religious context, with the intertwining of religion, politics and society in Iran since the Islamic revolution, religious disputes were inevitably extended from government circles and religious seminaries to the public arena. The dispute over the doctrinal issue of velayat-e faqih became the subject of broad political debate, making technical religious issues into issues of public policy which were everybody's business and open to everybody's judgement.
The debate over the question of velayat-e faqih represented an attempt to redefine the relationship between religion and state, and to clarify the form and nature of the Islamic republic as a religious-national polity. The struggle between the two versions of velayat-e faqih was characterized mainly by attempts to offer new interpretations of religious traditions to make them adaptable to the requirements of running a modern national polity. The reformist religious intellectuals, in fact, considered themselves collectively as a seat of alternative religious and political thinking in Iran. They offered a religious thinking that was loyal to the principal canons of Shia Islam, but tried, in Mohammad Iqbal's words, to 'reconcile eternity with change'.
In this paper, I have tried to offer a broad view of intellectual life in Iran today. I have particularly stressed the emergence of new forms of politico-religious critique that offer, in turn, new understandings of the role of religion in politics and society. These views are offered in the context of an intense struggle between various contesting discourses of power. They have taken various forms of expression, ranging from theological and juridical disputes, to mystical and philosophical arguments, to modern political and social debates. But because the Shia religious tradition has become the cornerstone of social, political and cultural life in Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they all play a part in the effort to offer alternative views of this widely shared religious faith and culture.
Dr Mahmoud Alinejadis an Iranian scholar based in Iran. He is conducting research on the emergence of the public sphere in Iran within a programme of 'Transnational society, media, and citizenship' in association with the International Institute of Asian Studies and the Amsterdam School of Social Science Research.
The first generation of modern Iranian intellectuals, men such as Akhund-zadeh, Malkam Khan and Mirza Aqa Khan, were mainly statesmen and social reformers who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the 1960s, such figures as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Ali Shariati, Mahmoud Taleqani, Mehdi Bazargan and Morteza Motahhari gave a definite ideological formulation to the Islamic revolutionary movement.
In Iran at the end of the millennium, there were about twenty million school students, two million university students and millions of graduates.
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