Iran Circa 1957: “Fossilized Unchanging Religion”; “The Bulk of the Population Unchanged by Reforms” Plus Ça Change…?

Just over four decades ago, Islamologist Maxime Rodinson (d. 2004) observed how Western academic treatment of Islam had devolved into reverent fetishism. “Understanding [of Islam] has given way to apologetics pure and simple,” Rodinson lamented.

The musings of the late Richard Frye, Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies Emeritus, epitomize the academic trajectory described by Rodinson. Frye who was dubbed “dean of the world’s Iranists,” passed away on March 27, 2014. His death elicited a hagiography from Iran’s current Foreign Minister Muhammad Zarif. The good Foreign Minister is perhaps better known for his role in manipulating international sanction for Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program, and laying a wreath, in the midst of the P5 + 1 “negotiations,” at the memorial for jihadist mass-murderer of U.S. soldiers, and Israeli civilians, Imad Mughniyeh. Zarif opined about Frye,

I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Richard Frye’s death. He was a true friend and a great scholar of Iranian studies.

Indeed, despite the misgivings of so-called “Iranian hardliners,” Frye had wished to be buried in Isafahan—a request allegedly approved by former “hardline” Iranian President Ahmadinejad, in 2007. Ultimately, Frye’s family decided to cremate his body in Boston, June 8, 2014, after waiting more than 2 months, to no avail, for official Iranian permission to inter his remains in Isfahan.

Regardless of Richard Frye’s academic “evolution,” which mirrored prevalent apologetic trends, in 1957, he published a clear, concise, gimlet-eyed assessment of Iran’s modern predicament, which, sadly, still rings true. Frye noted how the secularizing administration of Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) initiated

a concerted drive against religion by the government. Dervishes were driven from the city streets, the beloved passion play and celebrations during the month of Muharram [i.e., which included the bloody self-flagellation spectacles commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, and were often associated with violent attacks upon Iran’s non-Muslim minorities, especially Jews] were drastically curtailed, and in general the state interfered directly in religious affairs.

Frye added how Iran’s Shiite “mullas did not remain passive” in this contest with Reza Shah Pahlavi, but he “proved too str0ng for them.” Accordingly, as Frye elaborated, this polarizing “contest” created an unbridgeable chasm between a secularized urban minority, and the overriding majority Shiite Muslim masses, votaries of a “fossilized” religiosity.

The industrialization, and other material aspects of Westernization, introduced by Reza Shah into Iran, undermined the traditional religion. Some of the rites and practices of Shiite Islam were difficult to maintain in the ever growing cities. The new way of life which was emerging in the nascent industrial society frequently conflicted with the exigencies of a religion which had become fossilized in a feudal, rural society. The bulk of the population, the peasants, remained unchanged for the most part by the reforms of the dictator, and this only widened the gap between city and country. In the face of an unchanging religion and a religious group adamant to any new ideas from the West, the upper classes in Iran turned away from IslamThe natural reaction of the religious leaders to dissident secularists was to exclude them from the roles of their followers, to breathe a sigh of relief, and to close ranks to make their religion even more intolerant.

Six years later, in 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini delivered an address on the eve of the Ashura, which led to his arrest and the 15th Khordad [June 5th] movement. This speech—redolent with the popular Shiite religious obscurantism identified by Frye—was a watershed event which helped precipitate the retrograde “Islamic revolution” that toppled the rickety secular despotism of the Pahlavi regime, in 1978-1979. Khomeini’s 1963 rhetoric—punctuated by Shiite Iran’s conspiratorial Islamic Jew-hatred and anti-Westernism, along with a blatant rejection of equal rights for women—captures an Iranian mindset that prevails to this day.

Israel does not wish there to be any learned men in this country. Israel does not wish the Qur’an to exist in this country. Israel does not wish the ‘ulama to exist in this country. Israel does not wish to see Islamic precepts in this country. It was Israel that assaulted the madrasa [referring to an assault by Muhammad Reza Shah’s intelligence agents] by means of its sinister agents. It is assaulting us too and you, the nation; it wishes to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture and to appropriate your wealth leaving this country without. Anything which proves to be a barrier, or blocks its path is to be removed by means of its agents. The Qur’an is blocking its path; it must be removed. The religious establishment is blocking its path, it too must be removed; Fayziya [a madrasa in Qom] is blocking its path, it must be destroyed. The religious students might later prove to be barriers; they must be flung from the roof and their arms and necks broken. We are affronted by our very own government, which assists Israel in achieving its objectives by obeying her command.…(Y)ou take a look at the Bahai [a peaceful, brutally persecuted indigenous Iranian religious minority] almanac of two or three years ago, you will read: “Abdul Baha [a Bahai leader] advocates equal rights for men and women”; and this is the line that has been adopted by them. Then the ignorant Mr. [Muhammad Reza] Shah also steps forward and talks of equal rights for men and women!


Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at

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