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From Here to Mullahcracy, or, Iran Is Not a Theocracy

By Reza Aslan

Landscape of Qom, Iran
Landscape of Qom, Iran. Photo credit: Mostafa Meraji

When escalations between the US and Iran heat up, times are rife with America’s skewed perceptions of the country. As editor Lila Azam Zanganeh writes in the introduction of her essay collection My Sister Guard Your Veil, My Brother Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices, “[t]here are those who believe, at times too hastily, that Iran is at core a Western-loving nation that can hardly wait for America to save it from its own bloodthirsty leaders. And there are those who are convinced that Iran, by and large, is a nation of Allah-worshipping, gun-toting terrorists.” Later on, she points out that “Iranians live in a far more complex and schizophrenic reality,” which isn’t always apparent to us based on what US news outlets show us. Especially when it comes to Islam’s role in Iranian society. Who better to show us the reality of living there than Iranians themselves? In his essay from the book, Reza Aslan chronicles a trip to Qom, the Rome of mullahs, and uncovers why Iran is not a theocracy but a mullahcracy.


At least once a month, my cousin Afshin drives a carload of British or German tourists from Iran’s sprawling capital, Tehran, to one of the country’s many tourist destinations—either the glorious, lyrical city of Shiraz, the ancient ruins of Persepolis, or the palatial gardens of Isfahan. Few people ask him, as I have done, for a ride to Qom, the religious capital of Iran. The very name of the city makes Afshin squirm. He suggests a trip to Mashad, instead.

“Why not visit Imam Reza?” he says, referring to that city’s patron saint.

I remind him that his brother, Saleh, lives in Qom and that he would be happy to see us. Afshin grunts, starts the ignition, and pulls onto the dry desert highway, reluctantly heading south toward Qom. It is a scorching morning; the heat rising from the asphalt casts an eerie nimbus on the road before us.

I can’t blame Afshin for not wanting to go to Qom. It is difficult to describe the anger and contempt that most Tehranis feel toward the clerical regime. In Tehran the word akhoond—Persian for “cleric” or “mullah”—is a swearword. One might say to someone acting in a shady or despicable manner: “Don’t be such an akhoond!” Before the revolution, clerics were pushed to the head of the line in grocery stores and given the best seats in restaurants. Now, people push roughly past clerics in stores, whispering obscenities; a cleric enters a restaurant in Tehran and one can practically hear the hiss rising from the tables. There was a time when taxis would be emptied so a cleric could ride comfortably. These days, a taxi is almost as likely to run a cleric over than pick him up.

But Qom is a city crawling with clerics, confident and in control of the country. For centuries this dusty provincial town and its famed Feyziyeh Seminary have served as the “Vatican” of Shiism. The Ayatollah Khomeini studied in Qom, as did Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In fact, nearly every Shiite cleric in the world has at one time or another passed through the hallowed gates of the Feyziyeh to be taught the traditional Shiite sciences: Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, rhetoric, and theology. What they do not teach in Qom, however, is politics, or economics, or government administration, or international affairs, which is odd, since Qom’s graduates no longer just run Iran’s mosques and madresehs (religious schools); they now run Iran. 

Too often, Iran’s baffling, bi-polar government is dismissed as a “theocracy.” But Iran is actually not a theocracy. A theocracy suggests rule by God, and, as any Iranian will tell you, God is noticeably absent in Iran. In a theocracy, particularly an Islamic theocracy like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Quran is the only constitution. Yet the Islamic Republic is constructed upon a remarkably modern and surprisingly enlightened constitutional framework in which are enshrined fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, education and peaceful assembly. Iran’s constitution calls for equality under the law with regard to race, ethnicity, language, and even sex. It provides for a comprehensive amendment process as well as the opportunity to launch national referendums to decide the course of the country. Most importantly, Iran’s constitution stipulates that all domestic affairs must be administered “on the basis of public opinion expressed by means of elections,” thus establishing an empowered legislature and a strong, independent executive. All of this exists under the moral guidance of a single clerical authority—the faqih—who is appointed by an “assembly of experts” based in Qom, which, in turn, is directly elected by the people (if no single religious authority is qualified for the post, then the assembly chooses a “Supreme Court” of three to five clerics).

In theory, the faqih was intended to be a Papal figure who would ensure the “Islamic character” of the state. However, in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution, the parameters of the office were dramatically altered as Iran’s powerful clerical establishment – helmed by the overwhelming charisma of Iran’s first faqih, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who himself invented the post) – put into effect a series of constitutional amendments and judicial rulings that spectacularly extended the scope of their power. They then relied on their control of personal militias and extensive numbers of Orwellian sub-committees to wrest control of the provisional government from the hands of the rather capable, if dour, technocrats who had been appointed to lead Iran after the fall of the Shah. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded in 1980, the time for debate and dissent over the nature of the Republic was over. What had begun as a vibrant experiment in Islamic democracy quickly deteriorated into an authoritarian quagmire– a state ruled by an inept clerical oligarchy with absolute religious and political power. Qom is the heart of that power.

Afshin and I arrive in Qom during the noon prayers. The streets are deserted, save for a few late stragglers shuffling into the mammoth Hazrat-e Massoumeh Mosque anchored in the center of town. The shops encircling the mosque are shut and bolted. There is an expectant stillness in the air. Not even the grey-and-white flecked pigeons galumphing across the plaza emit a sound. It is as though the mosque has inhaled the city into itself in a long, bated breath. A few moments later, a rumble echoes through the square and all at once a mass of worshippers is exhaled onto the streets. The city bursts to life. And suddenly, Qom appears like any other college town: overrun with cheap, bustling restaurants, open-air markets and dark, smoky coffee shops where students are crammed in every nook . . . Except these students are clad in the elegant dark robes and regal turbans of clerical privilege.

Afshin parks the car and together we make our way through the bustling streets toward the Feyziyeh. The school is usually closed to visitors, but Saleh, who is a cleric and teacher here, meets us at the gates and escorts us inside. Right away, I can tell Afshin is uncomfortable. He resents seeing Saleh in his clerical garb. He’d rather imagine his brother dressed in the drab slacks and uncollared shirts they liked to wear so long ago, when they were Marxists on the front lines of a promising revolution that sought to rid Iran of the loathed regime of Muhammad Reza Shah.

These days, there is a tendency, both in the West and in Iran, to view the revolution of 1979 as an Islamic revolution instigated at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini. This is an historical fiction that emerged out of two and half decades of post-revolutionary propaganda. The truth is, there were dozens of voices raised against the Shah; Khomeini’s was merely the loudest. In fact, a full 10% of Iran’s population actively took part in the overthrow of the Shah, thus making it the largest popular revolution in modern history. Feminists, communists, socialists, Marxists, secular democrats, westernized intellectuals, traditional bazaari merchants, die-hard nationalists, religious fundamentalists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, men, women and children; nearly every sector of Iranian society was represented in the revolution of 1979. Khomeini’s genius was his intuition that in a country steeped in the faith and culture of Shiism, only the symbols and metaphors of Shiite Islam could provide a collective language with which to mobilize a disparate coalition that had little in common save its virulent hatred of the Shah.

By the time the Shah was ousted and the Islamic Republic was born, both Afshin and Saleh had been lured away from their Marxist roots by Khomeini’s mystifying Shiite populism. In the 80s, Saleh entered the Feyziyeh spurred by the dream of establishing a new kind of nation—one both democratic and Islamic, both quintessentially Muslim and uniquely Iranian—while Afshin fought on the front lines of the battle against Saddam Hussein to ensure that dream would survive. In the 1990s, Afshin and Saleh were brought together again, this time as leaders in the energizing reform movement that gripped Tehran in the wake of the stunning presidential election of Muhammad Khatami in 1997 and whose goal was to unearth the democratic principles of the constitution that had been blithely ignored for more than a decade. But Khatami proved unable (some say unwilling) to propel the reform movement to its fruition. He withdrew his support, allowing the movement to disintegrate under mass arrests, torture and murder. The reform movement fractured and Afshin and Saleh went their separate ways. Saleh returned to the Feyziyeh to fight for democracy from within the system; Afshin now claims that the system itself is the problem and must be abandoned.

Inside Saleh’s cramped apartment, the three of us sit on a thick Persian rug, well worn from centuries of students crouching at the feet of their teachers to exchange questions and answers in an ancient Socratic method that has served as the foundation of Shiite training for generations. We sip tea through sugar cubes lodged between our teeth and I ask Saleh to explain the theory behind clerical rule.

“There are many ways to get from Tehran to Qom,” he says. “We could take a car, a bus, a plane, or we could walk. But the cleric is the one who has spent a lifetime studying the map. He has taken the trip many times. He knows with certainty which is the best way. And if he declares ‘by plane,’ then everyone follows him.”

“But if I choose to walk, won’t I still get to Qom?” I ask.

“Of course. However, the path will be longer and more arduous.”

“And if two clerics differ on the best path, which one is right?”

“Technically the senior-most cleric—the one who has taken the trip most often. But really, they are both right. It is up to you and I to decide which one to follow.”

And therein lies the central paradox of the Islamic Republic. Shiism is a religion founded upon open debate and rational discourse. In its nearly fourteen hundred-year history, no Shiite cleric has ever enjoyed unconditional authority over another Shiite cleric of equal learning. Nor has any cleric ever held sole interpretive powers over the meaning of the faith. The Shiah have always been free to follow the cleric of their choice, which is in part why Shiism has blossomed into such a wonderfully eclectic faith. It is also why the majority of Shiah both inside and outside Iran no longer view the Islamic Republic as the paradigm of the Shiite state, but rather its corruption.

In truth, the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a Republic. It can be described neither as a theocracy nor as a democracy. Iran is something else entirely. It is a “mullahcracy,” a bizarre hybrid of religious and third world fascism that, like the fascisms of the past, has become an embarrassing example of populism gone awry.

Before rising to leave I ask Saleh one final question. “Is this the Islamic Republic you had dreamed of? Is this what you fought for?”

Saleh shoots a quick glance at Afshin before stretching his gentle, bearded face into a gloomy half-smile. “No,” he shakes his head. “This is something else entirely. I can’t even remember what happened to that dream.”


About the Author

Reza Aslan is a renowned writer, commentator, professor, Emmy-nominated producer, and scholar of religions. A recipient of the prestigious James Joyce award, Aslan is the author of three internationally best-selling books, including the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. His producing credits include the acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers and the upcoming Chuck Lorre comedy, United States of Al. He is the host and Executive Producer of Rough Draft with Reza Aslan.