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Intercultural Communication with the Islamic Republic

“Intercultural Communication with the Islamic Republic: What Translators and Interpreters Need to Know About Iran


The objective of this research is to overcome the misunderstandings in communicating, translating, or interpreting with modern Iran. Therefore, it is essential to acquire a greater understanding of the Islamic Revolution, its roots, how it is perceived as an act of political resistance rather than a question of faith and its impact on the Iranian people today. To illustrate the significance upon both translators and interpreters, I will specifically carry out this research by looking at the cultural and organizational preconditions in Islamic Revolution. The reason is because “the Islamic Revolution in Iran is a cataclysm as significant and as unprecedented in world history as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.” (1988, Arjomand) As a matter of fact, it was somehow surprising in terms of the conventional wisdom about revolutions, or in particular about the philosophy of history because the formation of clerical dominated Islamic state at the dusk of the 19th century could be regarded as “unthinkable”, yet the main problem here seems to be the fact that “revolutions” are always considered as acts of liberation towards progress and freedom. Nevertheless, it is clear that “a popular revolution overthrew a repressive despot was neither strange nor unique,” (Mohsen, 1994) but the main focus here is that “the role Islam played in precipitating the Islamic Revolution and its emergence as the hegemonic ideology in the post-revolutionary Iran” (Mohsen, 1994) is truly mesmerizing.

“Revolution can be defined as the collapse of the political order – the prevalent system of authority – and its replacement by a new one.” (1988, Arjomand) For that reason, it goes without saying that Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 will remain as one of the most amazing and startling events of the second half of this century. Despite that, replacement of the prevalent system of authority cannot be degraded into one single framework regarding to preconditions involved in the formation of its new political system during the revolution because the structure toward a revolution would require a higher level of complexity and a culmination of different key factors. Thus, in pursuit of these objectives, I will put an emphasis on the nature and evolution of Iranian state prior to the revolution in the light of the rise and political Islam in Iran and how translators and interpreters perceive all these factors while understanding modern Iran today.

One of the most significant factors in the revolution that should be comprehended clearly is the religion itself as a political tool shaping the political system in Iran because “the conventional wisdom portrayed religion as dying and anachronistic force whose appropriate place was in history book prior to the revolution in Iran.” (Mohsen, 1994) The reason is because under the Shah regime, the Shi’a ulama were suppressed, as the Shah triggered the secularization and capitalist developments amid Iran. In addition, “Iranians have always had an ambivalent attitude to religion. Convergences and clashes between religious and non-religious influences and aspirations have coloured many periods of Iranian history.” (Groot, 2007) Henceforth, overcoming the misunderstandings in communicating, translating, or interpreting with modern Iran plays a crucial role for both translators and interpreters

As it can be understood, Islam, as the faith of all Muslims, should be centred on the core of the very existence of the state itself, as one of the main regulators of the society with its political purposes. This kind of understanding clearly shapes every single corner of the culture itself as well. It is basically the instrumentalisation of the faith through certain impositions, which have political objectives, but it seems that there might be a problem because Islam itself is definitely not a monolithic concept contrary to the main belief. Therefore, it is hard to put this theory into practice. However, it is not a complete obstacle. “In practice, no two Islamism are alike because they are determined by the contexts within which they operate.” (Ayoob, 2004) Hence, what it is seen in Iran while translating, interpreting or communicating might require special effort for both translators and interpreters. Therefore, it can be easily said that what is happening in Turkey, for instance, cannot be valid for Iran. For that reason, the research will take organizational and cultural trajectories of Iran specifically into consideration to avoid ending up with monolithic generalisations regarding to Iran’s Islamic Revolution through the rise and evolution of political Islam to guide translators and interpreters regarding what they need to know about modern Iran today.

Understanding the politicisation of Islam in Iran requires a study of one of its most prominent religious figures in its history – Imam Ruhullah Al-Musavi Al-Khomeini. For that reason, Khomeini consists of one of the key factors of this research because it is vital to comprehend “the complex intellectual background to Khomeini’s vision and influences of both Islamic and Western ideas upon him” (Martin, 2000) Otherwise, translators and interpreters would miss the enormous piece of the cake consisting of the modern Iranian culture today.

Khomeini was born on September 24, 1902 into a family of strong religious traditions in Khumayn, a small town some hundred kilometres to the southwest of Tehran and it seems that he had always a great piety, seriousness and determination even when he was a young boy. The turning point regarding to his turbulent career in the future began when he was sent to study the religious sciences under the guidance of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri. “Ha’iri made Khomeini an heir to the traditions established by the great figures of the 19th century, traditions that included political activism as well as learning.” (Algar, 1981) The influence of Ha’iri on him remarks the very fact “the life of Imam Khomeini would be clear indication that the Revolution wrought by Islam necessarily begins in the moral and spiritual realm.” (Algar, 1981) The reason is because some of his great ideas were inspired not only by Greek thoughts given birth by largely from Plato and Plotinus, but also by Islamic thinkers such as Al Farabi, Ibn Arabi. Henceforth, Islamic state formation can be understood through “the evolution over time of Khomeini’s own ideas, with particular reference to the problems of authority and the incompatibilities of the sovereignty of the people and that of the Divine Will as manifested in the sharia.” (Martin, 2000)

What translators and interpreters need to understand mainly is that Imam Khomeini did succeed in forging a revolution and establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran. This was the beginning for a new era for Iran not only politically, but also culturally.  For that reason, the general principles of Khomeini’s political thought will be the main focus of the research while supporting his theology and philosophy with the upheavals happening in Iran prior to the revolution. It will try to cover his understanding of the alliance between religion and politics by touching upon the vital concepts such as velayet-e faqih to clear the misunderstandings in communicating, translating, or interpreting with modern Iran on behalf of translators and interpreters.

The formation of the Islamic state became a reality under Khomeini’s unique way of interpretation of Islamism and his way of implementing these ideas into the core of the state. However, the ideas could have remained as bare ideas, yet it is undeniable that during his magnificent career, he showed a prominent set of characteristics such as spirituality, erudition, determination, political genius and leadership. Under the light of his known determination upon the revolution, the research will also focus on organizational and cultural preconditions because the moral and spiritual realm within Islamic thought cannot stand alone for the whole change in a political system of a country and formation a total new cultural era in Iran. Khomeini’s thoughts were surely important key factors, yet it can be easily regarded that he needed other triggering factors to make his goals real. To illustrate that, organizational preconditions will be taking into consideration. Charles Kurzman explains the importance of the organizational preconditions in his “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” as following:

Revolutions occur when oppositional groups are able to mobilize sufficient resources to contest the regime’s hold on the population. In Iran, the Islamists mobilized the nationwide “mosque network” against the regime, but the mosque network was not a pre-existing resource for the Islamists and had to be constructed and commandeered during the course of the mobilization.

It sums up the fact that this “mosque network” created a pivotal moment for the change of the political system, as religious leaders were able to contact with people around Iran by having an access to every neighbourhood and village. Therefore, translating and interpreting modern Iran require a great amount of attention on this particular “mosque network”. Religious leaders supplied a common starting point for the collective action, which was very essential to the revolution. For that reason, it is important to revise these organizational preconditions in understanding of “the infrastructure for the religiously infected protests that emerged in early in 1978.” (Kurzman, 2004) On the other hand, cultural preconditions just prior to the revolution will be taken into consideration as well. The reason is because Iran has complex cultural structures within Islam shaping the political system. Charles Kurzman explains the importance of the cultural preconditions in his “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” as following:

Revolutions occur when a movement can draw upon oppositional norms, ideologies, beliefs, and rituals in a society. In Iran, the revolutionary movement drew upon Shi’i Islamic themes and practices, but it modified these cultural elements sometimes drastically, to make them conductive to protest. (Kurzman, 2004)

Literature Review

The review will cover an overview of the literature on Iran’s pre-revolution conditions by encompassing especially the previous decade before 1979 in the understanding of the motives behind the rise and evolution of political Islam as a communicative tool in interpreting and translating modern Iran today because contemporary Iran reflects the potential benefits, challenges and tensions in the incorporation of political Islam into the core of the state.

“Political Islam, or ‘Islam as political ideology’ is by no means a monolithic school of thought.[1]  For that reason, a wide range of socio-economic, political, cultural and intellectual factors shape the different interpretations of political Islam around the entire globe. Nevertheless, political Islam may be identified as the belief that “Islam as a body of faith has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world”.[2] Guilian Denoeux, as a political scientist, depicts political Islam as a “form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups and organizations that pursue political objectives. It provides political responses to today’s societal challenges by imagining a future, the foundations for which rest on re-appropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from the Islamic tradition.”[3]

Ayoob states that much of the existing literature and even academic discourse on the Muslim world assumes that there is no separation between the political and religious spheres in Islam. This kind of view draws its strength by Islamist rhetoric and especially the Islamic Republic of Iran is taken into consideration, where the atmosphere between political life and Islam is clarified in the Constitution and is crucial to the legitimacy of the post-revolutionary state, yet it goes without saying that Shi’a thinking regarding the relationship between Islam and politics has largely been subjected to quietism, the view that the religious establishment should stay away from active involvement in politics.

Although many of the clerics preferred to stay apolitical and did not try to take over the power before the Islamic revolution, Beinin and Stork narrate the history of political Islam in Iran, claiming that a great number of mullahs struggled against the Qajar and Pahlavi monarchies to establish the primacy of their authority. No matter how many mullahs struggled against the monarchy with local concerns, Beinin and Stork advocate that the doctrine of velayat-e faqih did not emerge in total isolation from other Islamist movements. Beinin and Stork argue that simple historical accounts of the evolution of political Islam often develop separate tracks for Sunnis and Shi’as. However, a closer analysis exhibits links between the Sunni and Shi’a strands of political Islam. Nonetheless, the dominant form of political Islam in Iran is inseparable from Twelver Shi’ism, the main variant of Shi’ism in Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini came up with his significant theoretical approaches regarding the doctrine of velayet-e faqih, or “rule of the Islamist jurist” during his exile years in Iraq. In the literature, Abdulaziz Sachedina forms an elaborative introduction to the velayat’e faqih. It focuses on the political sphere in which the notion is created and has evolved. Furthermore, he explains “the political and legal consequences of this specific point of view.”[4] To briefly explain, the theory favors the existence of the service of religious leaders “mainly as interim leaders”[5] on the behalf of the legitimate Islamic governance while waiting for the return of the hidden imam. In addition, Vanessa Martin states that “the clerical elite (fugaha) has the right to choose a man among their own ranks as the Supreme Leader or ‘ruling jurist’”[6] in Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. For that reason, it can be said that there is a deep modern nature in Khomeini’s thought and political strategy despite the popular belief in which his views on Islam and public life are generally described as traditional or backward looking.

Divine laws must be implemented as the foundation of an Islamic society. This is what the supreme political power means according to Khomeini’s belief.  Hence, it is clear that political leadership would require both the knowledge of Islamic laws and justice. By the same token, Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantel of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran illustrates significant examples from the revolutionary period and the rise of Iran’s current dominant forms of political Islam. Mottahedeh emphasizes the “variety and complexity of Iranian culture”, which results in remarkably diverse responses to the revolution and the process of political change, from the national to individual levels. [7]

The existing literature immensely proves that the majority of Iranians regard themselves as Islamists. It puts an emphasis on the complex structure of the Iranian politics, as it engenders a wide range of key points and their consequences that change the political sphere within the country. Much of the literature mentioned-above on political Islam in Iran narrates a dilemma between the forces of “tradition” and “modernity” because “the sate and the hierocracy are the two institutions of legitimate authority.”[8] For that reason, an irresistible conflict between traditional and modern concerns in terms of applying authority upon society as the legitimate key actor arises. For example, many scholars highlight decidedly modern currents in Islamist debates leading Khomeini’s views on the future of Iranian political structure. The literature emphasises a separation on authority before the wake of modernity, yet modernity apparently forced Islam into a period of revival, in which “the virtually complete differentiation and separation of religious and political powers were dissolved.” Consequently “Islamists have mastered the art of local politics and have built a formidable political machine that is able to get a high attention.”[9] Hence, a great amount of literature keeps repeating the modernity’s impact on formation of the political system as it has triggered the rise of political Islam in Iran. Therefore, the articles in Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity by Ramin Jahanbegloo illustrate an elaborative analysis of the relationship between Islam, modernity and political life in Iran. On the other hand, Zubaida claims that while “the project of the Islamic Republic is to Islamize state, society and culture, the basic processes of modernity in the socio-economic and cultural fields, as well as in government, subvert and subordinate Islamization.”[10] For that reason, the rise and evolution of political Islam gains a complex momentum in the history of Iran, which means that the formation of the new political regime does not only come from a monolithic framework, but rather from a diverse factors of interests in the process. Under these observations, the literature suggests that the rise and evolution of political Islam evolves around the notion that Islamic leaders have to consider practical circumstances and try to adjust their policies and discourses accordingly. This is basically what happened in Iran during the last decade prior to its Islamic revolution in which “secularization” was not reversed, but disguised behind the imposed symbols and empty rhetoric.


This study focuses on the rise and evolution of political Islam in Iran as the main driving force preparing the country for its 1979 revolution and help translators and interpreters overcome the misunderstandings while communicating, interpreting and translating modern Iran today.  Hoping to given an idea of how the rise and evolution of political Islam affected one of the most prominent countries in the Middle East by changing its political system in total, I am going to have an empirical study of Ayatollah Khomeini’s own unique way of interpretation of Islam as a political tool and his determination to trigger organizational and cultural preconditions existing in society to topple the Shah in order to establish an Islamic government.

An empirical analysis based on the existing literature upon Iran and the change in its political system through an examination of Khomeini’s political thinking is certainly not enough on its own to scrutinize the whole Islamic revolution itself. However, as Kurzman notes, Khomeini is the most important figure in the revolution during the process of establishing an Islamic government in Iran, as he was able to mobilize the masses to achieve his objectives:

“Indeed, the Iranian Revolution was one of the most popular upheavals in world history: 10 per cent or more of the Iranian population participated in the demonstrations and general strike that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. By comparison, less than two per cent of the population participated in the French Revolution and less then one per cent participated in the overthrow of Soviet communism.” (Kurzman, 2004)

It is clearly indicated by Kurzman as well that Ayatollah Khomeini successfully overthrew the conventional understanding upon Islam in which the religion is depicted as dying and anachronistic force and belongs to the old history books. For that reason, heading from Kurzman’s explanation regarding the importance and distinctiveness of Ayatollah Khomeini, I began with a historical analysis of Shi’i Islam in understanding the conditions, which developed and gave a starting point for Khomeini himself. This sort of analysis of Shi’i Islam helped me understand how Shi’ism within Islam forms a political activism under the light of its different interpretations through religious leaders. Particularly Twelver ideology amid Shi’i creates a vacuum for the establishment of “vilayat-e faqih” principle whose significance consist of the basis of the Islamic state according to Khomeini. Henceforth, the historical analysis upon the separation within Islam itself guided me to build my research on the rise and evolution of political Islam because, for instance, the Twelver ideology notes the necessity of the guidance of a religious leader in the absence of the Imam clearly and it can be easily seen that Khomeini used this notion successfully:

“The notion – wilayat – is based on the idea that it is necessary to form a government and establish an executive structure. Any motivation in this way is included in wilayat. We believe in wilayat and hold that the Prophet (s) appointed a caliph in obedience to God. Therefore, it is vital for Muslism to form a government and wilayat takes its starting from these notions to form an Islamic state.” (Khomeini, 1964)

Using the separation in Islam and the first basis of the “vilayat-e faqih” principle, the research tries to find an answer regarding the legitimacy (Mashuriyaah) of a religious leader and his leadership for the new political system while I was aiming at engendering a different understanding upon revolution. For that reason, I wanted to have a true grasp of Khomeini’s mentality before constructing the cultural and organizational conditions Islam that he had used throughout the revolution. The historical analysis formed a clear path for the legitimacy, as it was built upon “proper” interpretations by directly Khomeini himself. As a consequence, the research discusses the fact that neither force nor heredity can serve as a source regarding the legitimacy of an Islamic state with an empirical study of Khomeini’s own claims and writings before and throughout the revolution. He considers two factors for legitimacy of an Islamic government in his writings: Divine legitimacy as a primary factor and public allegiance later on. It goes without saying that the government structure under the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali’s was based on Divine legitimacy. To illustrate briefly then, in research, I have tried to create an understanding of his motives while building his legitimacy upon the necessity of an Islamic government before explaining the cultural and organizational preconditions which accelerated the revolution.

After dealing with Khomeini’s political thinking upon Islam as a driving force in the revolution, I moved to discuss and tried to understand how he drew his strength upon his legitimacy to give the starting point for an Islamic revolution. Therefore, I focused on specifically Kurzman’s work – “Unthinkable Revolution” because his work systematically builds the revolution upon different taxonomies and I highly regarded the two of them as the most important ones in the revolution. First, I discussed the cultural preconditions that triggered the revolution at the end of 1970s. Kurzman notes that a combination of a constructionist and structural approach may not be possible as the former expresses that movements form novel frames through the conditions while the latter clears that success in the revolution comes from the pre-existing cultural frames. For that reason, I did prefer to follow a constructionist way of seeing the revolution and did try to give specific examples of religious ceremonies, traditions and practices as a part of the Shi’i culture.  Here the idea that I defended was that “revolutionary movement constructed its own culture” (Kurzman, 2004) drawing its strength from Khomeini’s interpretations of religion within Iranian society. Consequently, an analysis of Kurzman’s cultural preconditions along with different examples within Shi’i Islam formed a different point of view by differentiating the research from the ones who based on structural approach. Then later on, heading from the cultural preconditions, I tried to analyse the organizational preconditions. The organizational preconditions could be regarded as an extension of cultural explanations because of the mobilization of the mosque network within Islamic culture, yet what is prominent here was the fact that the political activism was somehow integrated into the mosques, which were the most important organizational structures that forged the ideas among the common people in Iranian society. For that reason, I preferred to analyse the organizational structure of the mosques in my research to give a brief and a fresh view on the revolution because this helped me understand how collective actions can be mobilized for certain individuals’ political aims and in the end, I compiled the notion that Khomeini with his political determination and activism manipulated the pre-existing cultural frames and integrated them into other organizational structures.


One of the most significant factors in the revolution that should be comprehended clearly is the religion itself as a political tool shaping the political system in Iran because “the conventional wisdom portrayed religion as dying and anachronistic force whose appropriate place was in history books prior to the revolution in Iran.” (Mohsen, 1994) Nevertheless, the clerics with the leadership of Khomeini were able to give the religion a new pace. For that reason, the research will start focusing on the religion itself as the primary force while building the cultural and organizational preconditions later on. Then, the main preoccupation to be addressed is the Shi’ism within Islam in understanding Khomeini’s unique way of interpreting the state formation under a new political system regarding the religion. Then, from where does this significant separation come within Islam?

The friends and followers of Ali thought that when the Prophet passed away, the caliphate and religious authority belonged to Ali. This idea emerged from the fact that Ali had a close relationship with the Prophet, but as it can be imagined, there were criticism against this idea regarding Ali and his legitimacy. Therefore, this criticism resulted with a separation of minority from majority. This minority, as it can be understood, was the followers of Ali and these followers were defined as the “partisans” or “shi’ah” of Ali. As it can be seen, this very the same situation can be applied in translating and interpreting in which distinct paths can emerge.

The separation within Islam also formed other traditions and practices. This is extraordinarily important because the existence of Khomeini as a significant leader within Iranian society was a result of an historical accumulation of different practices, which emerged in Shi’ism. For instance, the concept of the Twelve Imams plays a crucial role shaping the change of the political system in Iran in the revolution. These Twelve Imams are known as the spiritual successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and according to this belief, they are extra-ordinary figures who can not only dictate over the community with rightfulness, but also are able protect and interpret sharia and the true meaning of the Qur’an. The main problem upon Twelve Imams emerged with the last Imam because all of the Imams met unnatural deaths. However, the last Imam did not face the same faith. According to Twelver belief he is living in occultation. The occultation of the last Shi’a Imam (the Mahdi) created a problem: Who was going to guide the community and convey the true meaning and interpretation of the Qur’an in his absence. Modern Iran deals with the problem by appointing religious scholars that does not exist in Sunnism. The religious leader of the Shi’a community must be a scholar learned in the texts and traditions, but also skilled in the art and science of rightly interpreting them, a process called ijtihad. Gaining both the knowledge and the heuristic skills takes time and training at the hands of established and recognized teachers. At the last stage, they take the title “Ayatollah” – Sign of God. Ayatollah Khomeini reinterpreted the Qu’ran and the traditions to argue that the most learned religious scholar must be not only the religious leader of the community, but also its political leader. This doctrine, called the “rule of the jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih) Henceforth, the Iranian Islamic Revolution should be considered carefully under Khomeini’s thoughts regarding Islam – Shi’ism – and politics.

The cornerstones of Khomeini’s political thinking should be based on his approach resulting from the concepts of religion and politics. It is because he did not hesitate to repeat what he interpreted regarding especially these two variables. In order to understand the specific dynamics of a religion, one should refer to the dominating key points of that specific religion. Keeping this in mind, Imam Khomeini came up with an enhanced framework in which he carried out his ijtihad and furthered his political thought as well.

If the religion is itself politically oriented, then the place of the religious leader in the new political system that has dreamed of for a long time will be significant. Then, it goes without saying that the leaders of every faith are considered to be the symbols of that faith For that reason, generally speaking, it would not be wrong that see that the Prophets and the Imams did not keep themselves away from politics in their lives. Especially regarding the Prophet’s way of life, Imam Khomeini states that “the Prophet’s policies on internal and external affairs indicate that one of his tasks was his political activity.” (Algar, 1978) This was actually signifying his desire upon going back in time when the political and spiritual leaderships were not separate.  Nevertheless, he needed to advance his argument on the necessity of forming a government under a religious leader in the absence of “the Imam”, which was mentioned earlier with the Twelver belief. For that reason, Imam Khomeini holds that there should be no separation of religion from politics.

According to him, the state as an institution is so vital that Islam is actually identical with an Islamic government. Establishing an Islamic government will not only help him achieve justice, but also provide a basis for executing the word of God. This specific feature of Islam is not related to the Prophet’s time, but it is applicable to the other times including the period of the absence of Imam as well. Therefore, vilayat-e faqih (an Islamic jurist) will be an inevitable part of the new political system in Iran in his mind. In addition, he will make his argument on solid grounds by explaining his reasons on the legitimacy of this jurist in the new Iran.

At this point, I would like to examine the short-movie “Diplomacy” in which a great example is given above-mentioned fact about Khomeini’s unique way interpretation and how it creates different facts.  translating and interpreting has become one of the most prominent tasks because the languages themselves did not only exhibit a sort of an obstacle in terms of communicating solemnly between two different languages, but also between two distinct cultures. For that particular reason, the short-movie “Diplomacy” is an important example to show that interpreters play significant roles in communicating. During the short-movie, it is clear to see that we, as translators and interpreters, have the power to change and shape the world of culture. Therefore, today’s Iran can be a tricky subject to deal with while translating and interpreting. It is because that it has been already mentioned in the research that Islam is not a monolithic way of thinking, which means that many different interpretations and understandings are quite possible within the same framework. Then, the main struggle here is that how we, as translators and interpreters, perceive the world around us. In the movie, the tension upon nuclear power between the United States and Iran is expressed. The two ministries try to settle down the frameworks of the deal on behalf of their countries. However, the main problem is that both of the diplomats cannot speak each other’s languages. Therefore, interpreters become essential part of the conversation, as they are the only two human beings in the room who can actually build the bridge up which is required for a solid communication between two countries. Nevertheless, the most astonishing part in the movie is that the conversation is not interpreted in the “rightful” way. One here can discuss what “rightful” is, but my fundamental task as a future translator/interpreter is to clarify that how important how we translate and what translate.

In the movie, the U.S diplomat is not happy with the on-going developments regarding the nuclear issue. Thus, she would like to state that the U.S would not tolerate further arguments upon that, so Iran needs to take the step back. This is basically what she wanted her interpreter to convey to the Iranian diplomat, but the thing is that the way she conveyed the message was so intense and demanding that Iranian interpreter knew what sort of problem could arise if he translated as exactly she said. For that reason, he preferred to choose another path to follow in which he lessened the tension and directed the conversation into another way with the help of the other interpreter as well. Here is primary argument then: If the translators and interpreters find this freedom within their field of work, they can be regarded as some sort of Gods who can direct what we believe in, how we perceive the world around us. This is what happened in Iranian Islamic Revolution long before it started in terms of the accumulation of the knowledge and cultural interpretations of the greatest works of Greek thinkers by Khomeini and his supporters.

Khomeini was so clever that he “manipulated” the knowledge that has existed for many years in Greek culture, interpreted it into his own culture and literally created a new era in Iran. He built the ideas into the core of the state itself to promote the continuity of his legacy after even he deceased. Today, what we see in Iran is the horrendous fact that how a man as an interpreter of his own people could be the decisive factor in the society. Therefore, we, as the future translators and interpreters, carry the power to change and shape while communicating, interpreting and translating. At that point, “Diplomacy” becomes an important stone while understanding this power, but more than that, this whole research upon the Islamic Revolution expresses the wildness of the power that Khomeini had gained over the time while interpreting what Islam might mean.

“We are all duty-bound to rise up against this person – the shah. An active uprising, a national uprising… I would be the first to take up arms, if I could.” (Kurzman, 2004) These were Khomeini’s own words regarding the necessity of an Islamic revolution in Iran, so his political determination and his unique way of constructing a new political system should not be underestimated. For that reason, after explaining the change in the concept of power in Khomeini’s thoughts on the political system of the country, the research will focus on two important key concepts as accelerators of the revolution, which are cultural and organizational preconditions. For the sake of the research, the focus is primarily on the last decade prior to the revolution.

When all the other Muslim countries in the region are taken into the consideration, Iran has the biggest Shi’i population. “This distinctiveness is frequently cited in cultural explanations of the Iranian Revolution, which suggest that the religion of Iran is conducive to a revolutionary mind-set.” (Kurzman, 2004) Nevertheless, it seems that culture, as a concept could be quite tricky. Therefore, in here, what should be understood carefully is that whether the culture itself takes an active role in shaping societies’ destinies or societies themselves set up the rules. From different point of views, the answer seems to be “both”, yet Kurzman discusses that a combination of a constructionist and a structural approach may not be possible. The former expresses that movements form novel frames through the conditions while the latter clears that success in the revolution comes from the pre-existing cultural frames. To briefly explain this, one might ask the question if the existing forty-day mourning cycle in Iran made the country more likely to have a revolution or not. The answer must be no because “the revolutionary movement later changed the meaning of the mourning cycle.” (Kurzman, 2004) Henceforth, it can be quite clear that radical Islamists in the country themselves manipulated the pre-existing cultural frames under the leadership of Khomeini in order to succeed in forming a new political system in Iran. The reason is because Islamist did not only politicize morning rituals but many other cultural traditions in Shi’i Islam such as a Ramadan. Therefore, to some certain extent  “revolutionary movement constructed its own culture” (Kurzman, 2004) as a driving force while toppling the Shah and establishing the new Iran.

The rise and evolution of Islam increased with the politicisation of the religion and its cultural practices, which come along with it. For instance, Khomeini restlessly repeated that the successful outcomes in resistance could only be achieved through taking active role in every circumstances including religion as well.  In 1978, he stated, “this year, the holy month is a model for revenge against the injustices of the regime.” (Kurzman, 2004) Consequently, Islamists within Iran transformed a wide range of religious rituals and ceremonies into political events. For that reason, it can be said that the political consequences of the cultural practices became a direct result of the success in revolution, not a cause of it. Kurzman explains this as following:

The Islamists intentionally transformed the traditional practice on explicitly pragmatic grounds: to mobilize the masses. When the transformed practice ceased to perform this function, they merely stopped using it, as was the case in June 1978. When they felt it would be useful, they could turn to it again. (Kurzman, 2004)

One another great bullet point transforming the collective action in the process of forming the religious authority into the core of the state under cultural preconditions was the language of martyrdom. Intensification of the protests in the late of 1970s increased naturally the atrocities and apparently Islamists were able to use this function to canalize their goals. “Shi’i actvists have no regard for their personal safety and consider martyrdom in the cause of Islam to be an honour.” (Kurzman, 2004) This meant that the radical Islamists within the society would not mind going further against the regime in terms of violence. Therefore, the idea of martyrdom became an indispensable part of the revolutionary discourse, but it is an undeniable fact that it was a last choice for individuals.

Khomeini’s political determination on the rise and evolution of political Islam and its implementation into the core of the state as a new political system in Iran would not mean anything without triggering other key players upon the revolution as it was mentioned earlier. Throughout the end of the 1970s, “the monarchy had become ever more remote and disconnected from the attitudes and concerns of the people” (Axworthy, 2013) while Khomeini was gaining power even though he was in exile. Islamism was rising as if it was representing the true identity of the Iranians, whereas the Shah and his understanding of the modernity were corrupted and secularisation meant resentment in the eyes of the Iranians as though it was something external to them, forced upon them by Americans in particular. There was waste and corruption and huge inequality within the society. Apparently, all these accumulations in Iran were the beginning remarks of something bigger.

It seems that “the most important failures were primarily political.” (Axworthy, 2013) At end of the 1970s, the state was not totalitarian in Iran, but it did not mean that it was free either. It was obvious that the dynamics were heading in the wrong direction, which ended up with a total change in the political system of the country. Nevertheless, “movements emerge not from rootless and isolated individuals, but from the institutions that provide the solidarity and resources needed to press collective action.” (Kurzman, 2004) Henceforth, it was vital for Khomeini to trigger the collective action within Iran to make his objectives real. For that reason, organizational preconditions should be taken into consideration, as Khomeini’s thoughts and ideas on Islam as a political tool has been already discussed in the research.

One of the most prominent ways to state the notion of organizational preconditions seems to be done through explaining the biggest “network” at that time in Iran – “mosque network”. In the mid-1970s, the number of the existing mosques was around 9,015 in the country and Kurzman mentions the importance of them as following:

These buildings constituted a massive institutional network, perhaps the largest civil organization in the country. The mosque network, linked by religious leaders around Iran, reached into every single neighbourhood and village, providing spatially and culturally central locations for collective action.  (Kurzman, 2004)

This illustrates the fact that the role of the mosque network in the revolution cannot be avoided. In Shi’i Islam, mosques enjoy a certain level of authority unlike the Sunni Islam. While mosques are organized hierarchically under a state administration in Sunni countries, religious figures in Shi’i Islam were able to gain their powers independently from the state. After acknowledging this, it can be said that Shah made a mistake by assuming that “material prosperity would yield to political stability, and that his faith in ancient bond between people and monarch would be justified by economic success and renewed gratitude.” (Axworthy, 2013) That was an honest mistake because in the meantime, mosques and religious centres in Iran became distinct locations where people met, talked, prepared, organized and grew at the dusk of the corruption and inequality across the country. Nevertheless, it did not mean that mosques directly became the main places for political activism. Such generalisation would lead the research into a false direction. The reason is because the concept of Quietism in Shi’i Islam was technically “forbidding” political engagements, but obviously, Khomeini did not support this notion to some certain extents. Apart from that, there was also a general fear within the society, as the state repression was tremendous upon the people. Not only secularist oppositionists were getting arrested and exiled, but also the Islamist oppositionists were facing the same problem with the Shah’s policies.  On the other hand, even though the mosque network played a crucial role in the revolution, not all the leading clerics were supporting these radical Islamist thoughts. “The replacement of the monarchy with an Islamic republic led by a single religious leader – Khomeini’s goal – was a novel view, not widely shared by other scholars. (Kurzman, 2004) Apparently, there were clerics claiming that the removal of the dynasty would be unnecessary. Instead, the clerics should be working on the constitutional rights that they could gain through legislation. However, the mosque network turned into a huge social mobilization to create a likelihood collective action against the state. Kurzman sums up the issue as following:

“The mosque network, in other words, was not controlled by the Islamists at the outset of the revolutionary movement. It was controlled by some cautious senior scholars who had to be convinced to join forces with the radicals. ‘Everybody has got to strike,’ one militant religious scholar told another in Mashhad in February. ‘We cannot just strike by ourselves.’”(Kurzman, 2004)

These senior scholars along with the leadership of Khomeini who was in exile needed to develop some tactics in order to trigger and accelerate the pace of the revolution. For that reason, three important ways were used to convince those who remained moderate. The idea was that “the opposition to revolution would be more costly – in moral, public relations and even physical terms.” (Kurzman, 2004) For that reason, radicals primarily focused on senior scholars. They tried to embarrass them publicly, which might lead them to a more revolutionary position. Khomeini’s charismatic leadership was combined with this repetition upon senior religious scholars as it is indicated in the following:

“If they consider it proper, if they regard themselves as belonging to the nation of Islam, if they consider themselves to be Shi’a, let them give some thought what needs to be done.” (Kurzman, 2004)

The need for a change in the political system was inevitable. Thus, gaining the support of senior religious scholars was just a beginning. These radicals needed to use the repression that they were exposed to. Basically, they rejected the idea of a peaceful transition in the revolution while senior scholars were repeating a complete dignity and calm in the protests. Eventually, the constant lobbying against those who remained moderate became beneficial in terms of the Islamists’ goals. When the Pahlavi dynasty was toppled, most of the clerics were silenced or forced to join the revolutionary movement. Then, it can be clearly stated that the whole mosque network was used in mobilization throughout the revolution.


“The Iranian Revolution of 1977-79 was the first in a series of mass popular civil insurrections, which would result in the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in dozens of countries over the next three decades.” (Axworthy, 2013) Unlike most of the other uprisings that would topple dictators in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia and Africa, the result of the Iranian struggle was not the establishment of liberal democracy but of a new form of authoritarianism in the political system within Iranian legal structure. However, except for a series of short battles using light weaponry in the final hours of the uprising, the revolutionary forces themselves were overwhelmingly nonviolent. “The autocratic monarchy of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi faced a broad coalition of opposition forces, including Marxists and constitutional liberals, but the opposition ultimately became dominated by the mullahs of the country’s Shia hierarchy.”  (Groot, 2007) Despite severe repression against protestors, a series of demonstrations and strikes over the previous two years came to a peak in the fall of 1978, as millions of opponents of the Shah’s regime clogged the streets of Iran’s cities and work stoppages paralyzed the country. The Shah fled into exile in January 1979 and exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic.

All the events accumulated are considered; especially in the last decade prior to the revolution it was not an enormous surprise to see the fact that a change was about to come in the Iranian political system. The research primarily tried to focus on Khomeini’s political thoughts and how they emerged and how they gave a huge pace to the revolution itself. For that reason, before explaining the cultural and organizational preconditions triggering the revolution, the research narrated that the Imam’s political thinking actually draws its strength from 1300 years of Islamic philosophical and theoretical inquiry into the core and the structure of the government, its relationship to religious and temporal affairs and its relationship to social change and social revolution within the Islamic world and beyond “because the Iranian clergy has been a primary agency of political protest and social change at least since the late nineteenth century, Ayatollah Khomeini is not a unique revolutionary symbol within Iranian society, nor is his theory of government particularly original.” (Ismael, 1980) However, it is an undeniable fact that his impact on revolution was a huge success, as he was able to change the whole political system of the country. For that reason, the purpose of the research was to place his political thought in the last decade prior to the revolution in understanding of the preconditions that he was able to accelerate and his conception of the structure and the function of government this could be inevitably achieved through a revolution in Iran and the just society could exist only within an Islamic government must exist.

Preconditions provided by the culture itself suggest that the revolution resulted from the long-standing practices existing in Shi’i Islam. For instance, the research tried to explain the concept of the martyrdom, which intensified prior to the revolution, to show that what certain ways are adapted during the revolution by the Islamists, yet it was just only one side of the story. Islamist did not only use such concepts, but they were also able turn the Shi’i calendar of religious events into their political activities with Khomeini’s thoughts such as forty-day mourning ceremonies. Nevertheless, the dominant view of the research is that the pre-existing cultural practices do no necessarily inherent political activism within themselves. “The politicization of forty-day mourning, for instance, was as much a departure from tradition as an expression of it.” (Kurzman, 2004) In order to accelerate the thoughts of Khomeini’s into real sense of action, the Islamist went further with politicization of these cultural practices especially prior to the revolution. For example, the observance of Ramadan, the ceremonies of Muharram and the bases of religious authority somehow ended up being a political activity simply in the 1970s, yet there is a fact that “the revolutionaries did not draw on culture so much as redraw it.” (Kurzman, 2004)

Organizational preconditions prior to the revolution help the society’s transformation under Khomeini’s political thinking toward a revolution, so it was not a surprise, especially when the resources of the mosque network is considered. Here, organizational preconditions actually built an understanding that Islamist movements largely depended on the religious sites, lines of communication and relations of religious authority. No matter how the religion itself in Shi’a thinking was against the political activism, Khomeini was able to turn the general point of view on that into a different understanding and the religious leaders were tempted to join the revolution to protect their religious institutions and they viewed Islamist activism as an invitation to state repression. In order to take an advantage of the mosque network, Islamists persuaded or pressured the non-revolutionary leaders to cooperate or step aside. They devoted themselves to this in 1970s under the guidance of the Imam Khomeini. Even though they were successful on this, it must be an obligation to state that “this resource was an outcome of mobilization, not a prerequisite.” (Kurzman, 2004)

Eventually, despite the positive developments in the country such as the economic growth, there was an undeniable opposition against Mohammad Reza Shah. For that reason, the strong Shi’i opposition against the Shah and the country came to close to a situation of civil war. The opposition was lead by Ayatollah Khomeini who lived in exile for a long time. Finally, on January 1979, the Shah left Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February. Then, in April, after a landslide victory in a national referendum in which only once choice was offered, which was Islamic Republic – yes or no –, and Ayatollah Khomeini declared an Islamic republic with a new constitution reflecting his ideals of Islamic government.



Algar, Hamid. 1981. Islam and Revolution.

Arjomand, Said Amir. 1988. The Turban for the Crown, The Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Axworthy, Micheal. 2013. Revolutionary Iran, A History of the Islamic Republic.

Groot, Joanna. 2007. Religion, Culture and Politics in Iran from the Qajars to Khomeini.

Ismael, J.S and Ismael, T.Y. 1980. Social Change in Islamic Society: The Political Thought of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Kurzman, Charles. 2004. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran.

Martin, Venessa. 2003. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran.

Milani, M. Mohsen. 1994. The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution from Monarchy to Islamic Republic.

Parsa, Misagh. 1989. Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution.

[1] Ayoob, M. (2004) “Political Islam: Image and Reality”, World Policy Journal (Fall 2004), p. 1

[2] Ayoob 2004, p. 1.

[3] Beinin, J. and Stork, J. (eds.) (1997) Political Islam:">Essays from Middle East Report (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[4] Sachedina, A. (2001) “The Rule of the Religious Jurist in Iran”, in Esposito and Ramazani 2001.

[5] International Crisis Group 2002, p. 3.

[6] Martin, V. (2000) Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran

[7] Mottahedeh, R. (2004) The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Oxford: One World Publications), p. 5.

[8]  Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: Islamic Revolution in Iran, 75, 83

[9] Gerges, The Islamist Moment: From Islamic State to Civil Islam?, 390

[10] Zubaida, S. (1997) “Is Iran an Islamic State”, in Beinin and Stork 1997, p. 105.

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