The Islamic Revolution

Published 18 Jan 2017

The 1978 political turbulence that put an end to the millennium-old monarchy in Iran has become known as the “Iranian Revolution.” Officially, it is called the “Islamic Revolution,” a notion emphasized by the new sovereigns and their loyal supporters in order to justify the rule of the Shiia clergymen and their Islamic principles. (Bernard Lewis, 2004).

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The “Revolution” replaced the existing political order with a theocracy, a development incongruent with trends prevalent elsewhere in contemporary history wherever there has been a revolution. The incongruency is apparent not merely because a revolution had taken place, but because it had occurred under the leadership of a traditionalist Moslem clergy, who were striving to materialize their long term objective: the establishment of a theocracy.

In fact, it is surprising to note that until the early 1970s Iran was undergoing a transition toward a more secular society, with the role of religion diminishing in regard to political affairs. The outspoken revolutionary and reformist opposition forces were mainly secular in their orientation. Their domain of influence was expanding, making them a likely candidate to replace the existing regime. Then, in the 1970s, a renewed Shiia revitalization movement began. This movement gained momentum and penetrated almost every segment of the population. It conquered certain social territories that had been the stronghold of the former secular political groups. Simultaneously, it strengthened and expanded its influence among the lower classes and rural people.

This movement even found access to those members of the middle class who were better educated than most other Iranians. It was a great success for the proponents of Islamic rule, for now they had easy access to the group with the most significant political potential in the country–the urban middle class. This stratum included most of Iran’s politically hotheaded college students, younger white-collar employees, and young officers in the administration of Iran’s growing industrial system. These groups included most of Iran’s long-time opponents of the regime, who were thoroughly experienced in radical activities under repressive rule. They were people with the knowledge and skills of political persuasion. It was not, therefore, the size of this stratum that was significant, but its political potential.

It became increasingly apparent that a redirection of the national struggle was in the process and that events were moving in favor of Islamic activists. Building upon this movement, different Moslem groups were encouraged to expand their activities, both in political and nonpolitical affairs. Some groups attempted to appeal to all classes with their political objectives and demands for a national uprising against the regime.

As the struggle proceeded, during 1977-78, the Shiia groups under Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership managed to unify the major opposition forces over the objective of pushing the Shah out of office. This objective brought nearly all the opposition groups under a single leadership. As a result, the leading clergy who commanded the alliance of the insurgent masses rose to the position of leader of the opposition groups, speaking with a national voice. This promotion was not only political; simultaneously, it imposed the clergy’s objectives and preferences upon the people.

Such activities at the leadership level were complemented by the entrance into the movement of millions of people who had very little previous political experience. A power was created that could easily crush any resistance, could silence any other alternative suggestions, and was obedient to the clergymen who had established themselves as the leaders of the uprising. The contribution and power of the small, but highly influential, new middle class was becoming insignificant compared to that of the urban lower class and the rural people. These earlier activists found themselves powerless to exert any determining influence upon the new course of social change.

The energies that now moved the masses were beyond the control or command of the new middle class. The slogans, for example, during the early wave of the uprising in the winter of 1978, were “Freedom and Independence.” By the end of the year, they had become “Freedom, Independence, and the Islamic Republic.” The former reflects the earlier phase when secularists were still in the lead, and the latter reflects the time when the clergy leaders and their supporters had become a dominant force. The original political demands, for which the secularists had fought for years and to which they had tried to educate the populace, were fading away in the uproar of escalating revolution.

Those demands were overstepped by an Islamic fundamentalist revitalization movement that had attracted millions of newcomers to the realm of revolutionary politics. Ideologically, the secular group found themselves to be like a gust of wind lost in a hurricane. They had helped the genie out of the bottle only to find themselves caught in his vise-like grip. The movement was entering a new phase. (Nikki R. Keddie, 2003).

In this phase, the demands of nearly all political forces that did not belong to the clergy-led groups were either removed from the agenda or pushed down on the list. Very little opportunity remained for secular demands, even if they were made by Moslem intellectuals. The revolution of the secular groups and the consequences of the earlier activists’ efforts were swallowed up by the Shiia revitalization movement. The immense national power was now invested in a clerical leadership.

Millions of devoted Shiia Iranians listened eagerly to these leaders as both political commanders and religious authorities. Millions of others obeyed them, at least as a political leadership. In this way, it was possible for the Shiia activists to elevate Ayatollah Khomeini to a leading position as a personification of the “People’s Revolution,” as both its spokesman and commander. Thus, a theocracy was born. (Nikki R. Keddie, 2003).

The Iranian experience provides valuable data and certain insights into some key theoretical issues in sociology. It could contribute to the sociology of modernization, the sociology of revolutions, and the social study of culture and religion.

Since the Iranian Revolution is only a single case and a case that seems to be historically specific, we may be prevented from over generalizing based on Iranian findings. However, the event raises certain issues and addresses certain questions that could shed some light on the shortcomings of existing theories. One such shortcoming is in the area of theories of modernization. Theoretical works on modernization were begun by pioneering sociologists and were later pursued by those in communications. As it had begun with the works of earlier theorists such as Daniel Lerner, modernization was viewed as a process that had great social-psychological consequences.

What these attempted to do was trace the consequences for the material modernization of a society in terms of the internal (psychological) changes that take place within the inpidual. They further expanded these concerns in order to learn more about what facilitates or hinders the process of modernization of inpiduals. The Iranian case may suggest a need to look at the facilitators and impedances that are of a class and political nature. The breakdown of the inpidual’s internal constraints against modernization, which the existing theorists tend to focus on, is not sufficient to understand both the modernization and counter modernization developments.

As the Iranian case clearly shows, modernization is not viewed by the people who are subject to it as a value-free experience. It is understood as favoring certain groups more than others, and therefore becomes a political or even a class-domination process in the eyes of the people. It is this sort of cognitive mapping of modernization that is the key to understanding the cultural and religious revitalization movements that were active in Iran, and may potentially develop in many other Middle Eastern countries. (Christin Marschall, 2003).

Similar arguments may be made about the theories of revolution. There exists a tendency for certain social theorists to try to reduce revolutionary events to causal models. Moreover, they tend to focus on monocausal explanations. The fact, as the Iranian Revolution seems to suggest, is that it might be futile to look for a single cause. Rather, one may need to favor a holistic approach. Again, it must be asserted that while none of the causal explanations can probably be rejected, even the monocausal ones, they do seem to only show a glimpse of revolutionary events.

This theoretical issue could be raised about the potential sources of change generated by culture. If culture is viewed as a homogeneous medium, as in most cases it is, then it may closely resemble a static entity, a passive one that could not be the source of major social changes. What makes the Iranian culture and Shiiaism a potential ground for the generation of political forces is the dualism that is embedded in it. It is not just a series of justifications, historically formed by the interests of the ruling classes; nor is its content all anti-ruling class sentiments. It is both.

The dynamism that could make culture and religion two important sources of change arises from this very fact of dualism. In the case of the Revolution, it was the antiruling class elements of Iranian culture and Shiia Islam that became the seedbed of radicalism that represented itself as revitalization movements. Such movements may well parallel other drives, such as those caused by material and group interests. For certain strata of people, the impetus could quite reasonably be cultural or religious movements, and nothing more. (Bernard Lewis, 2004).

Surely, there were and still are many Iranians, acting and sounding as radical as any other “anti-imperialist” and “anti-ruling class” activists, who still sincerely believe that they revolted to vitalize their religion, that Shiia revitalization is indeed a revolutionary act, that the Revolution was definitely for Islam, and that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for that cause. For this category of people, ideologies, motives, supportive sentiments for revolutionary actions, and the ideals for which they have striven all have originated from their religion and culture. (Bernard Lewis, 2004).


  • Bernard Lewis (2004). From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East; Oxford University Press
  • Christin Marschall (2003). Iran’s Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami; Routledge Curzon
  • Nikki R. Keddie (2003). Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution; Yale University Press
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