Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Basij: Iran's Revolutionary Guardians (and How a Revolution was Islamized)

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center, front) with Basij commanders

Following the overthrow of Muhammad Reza, the last of Iran's Pahlavi autocratic absolute monarchs (shah) in early 1979, the charismatic revolutionary leader, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni, and his supporters ushered in a new autocracy, one which wedded itself to his peculiar theory of wilayat al-faqih (vilayat-e faqih, in Persian), the "guardianship of the (supreme) jurisconsult." Khumayni reinterpreted the concept of "wilayah" ["authority"] and argued that in the absence of the twelfth Imam, who Shi'is (hereafter "Shi'i" refers to Twelvers) believe will return at a divinely-appointed time from a mystical occultation or "hiding, authority should rest with the "most learned" jurist and "the fuqaha" ["scholars"]. The grand ayatullah outlined his socio-political views in a series of lectures in early 1970 in the Iraqi shrine city of al-Najaf, where he was then living in exile, which were later published as a monograph under the title Hukumat-e Islami [Islamic Government]. Such authority had long been denied a temporal ruler by generations of Shi'i 'ulama, including those during the period of the first Twelver Shi'i state, the Safavid empire (1501-1722).

Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni

Khumayni's revolutionary theory was much debated and not accepted by many Shi'i religious scholars ('ulama), including the then senior grand ayatullah living in Iraq, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Abu'l Qasim al-Kho'i, and Iran's senior grand ayatullah, Al-Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Shari'atmadari, who Khumayni and his acolytes later accused of fomenting a rebellion in his native Iranian Azerbaijan and then stripped of his scholarly rank (an unprecedented move). Many other respected Shi'i 'ulama of the period also rejected Khumayni's theory, including Ayatullah Muhammad Jawad Mughniyyah (who penned the earliest refutation in 1979, Al-Khumayni wa Dawlah al-Islamiyyah, "Khumayni and the Islamic State") and Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Iraq, who put forth his own theory of governance (wilayat al-ummah) that did not include clerical rule. Despite his criticisms, one of Mughniyyah's most famous works, al-Mathahib al-Khamsah ("The Five Schools"), was translated by Ansariyan Press, a major publisher of Shi'i works, including translations into English. The book is a compendium of general juridical views on a wide range of issues according to religious scholars and jurists in Islam's five largest schools of juridical thought: Ja'fari (Twelver Shi'i) and the four Sunni schools: Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi'i. In other instances, Ansariyan translated works and excised portions, such as with Prof. Hamid Algar's Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (Four Lectures), in which the lecture on 'Ali Shari'ati was excised (see Algar's introduction in the book for more details).


The Iranian Revolution was brought about by a broad-based popular movement of groups spanning the social and political spectrum, from the Marxist Tudeh Party and other socialists to leftist middle class intellectuals to eccentric religio-political splinter groups like the Mujahideen-i Khalq (who espouse a weird "Islamist-Marxist" ideology) and Iranian religious scholars, both traditionalists and revolutionaries like Khumayni. Contrary to popular belief in some circles, the revolution was not initially "Islamic" in nature, but was subsequently Islamized after the flight of the shah. Khumayni and his allies in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), which was headed by one of his former students, Ayatullah Muhammad Beheshti, moved decisively to marginalize or block their onetime revolutionary allies and now political rivals, including many Iranian 'ulama who did not buy into the Khumaynist line. The latter included respected religious leaders such as Ayatullah al-Sayyid Mahmoud Taliqani and, later, Grand Ayatullah Shari'atmadari. Taliqani's support for the formation of a parliamentary electoral system was ignored and he withdrew from public life for the last six months of his life in 1979.

The new Iranian constitution was drawn up by a committee dominated by the IRP and other allies of Khumayni, and it enshrined his theory of wilayat al-faqih as the basis for the new governmental structure. Khumayni was to be the first "guardian jurisconsult," the first faqih, despite the fact that he was not the most senior member of the Iranian 'ulama. Following his death in June 1989, al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei became the new faqih, a position often referred to as the "supreme leader" of the republic (Rahbar-e Jumhuri-yeh Islami). Upon assuming office, he adopted the scholarly title "ayatullah" and then "grand ayatullah," despite the fact that he was only a mid-level member of the 'ulama with a rather paltry set of juridical and theological writings to his name.

'Ali Khamenei

Among the new social institutions that were founded in the days following the 1979-1980 Islamization of the new social and political system were the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Inqilab-e Islami, IRGC) and the popular volunteer militia and social network popularly known as the Basij (pronounced "Baseej"). The new system's first major challenge came in the form of a series of regional revolts in various provinces, including Iranian Kurdistan in 1979 and Iranian Azerbaijan in the early 1980s. Both were suppressed with brutal force. The second major challenge came from several militant political movements, including the Mujahideen-i Khalq, which carried out a deadly campaign of assassinations and terrorist attacks against the regime in heavily-populated urban areas of the country. In June 1981, they bombed the headquarters of the IRP, killing over 70 people, including many senior party leaders, among them Ayatullah Beheshti. In response, thousands of Mujahideen members were arrested and many were executed.

Basij youth group

The IRGC and Basij played an integral role in the Iranian response to the invasion of the country by Saddam Husayn in September 1980 and the resulting Iran-Iraq War that dragged on for eight bloody years. The Iranians were initially taken by surprise and were largely unprepared for a war. Many of the country's most experienced military officers had been executed, since they were seen as agents of the former regime, the autocratic monarchy. To stem the advancing Iraqi army, hundreds of thousands of volunteers (Basij) were sent to the front with more experienced units from the IRGC and regular army. Human waves of Basij ran through minefields to clear them, leading to thousands of casualties. These young men were imbued with a ritual sense of martyrdom, imagining themselves as the successors to Shi'i "saints" of old, such as Imam Husayn bin 'Ali, the third Shi'i Imam who was martyred in 680 C.E. on the barren plain of Karbala in Iraq standing against injustice.

During the war, the Iranians were aided by anti-Saddam Iraqi Shi'i exiles, such as those in the Badr Corps (Faylaq Badr), the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now called the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council). The Iraqis were aided by the Mujahideen-i Khalq, who were funded by Saddam until 2003 and who maintained military bases in Ba'th-ruled Iraq. In the end, the Iranians were able to halt the Iraqis and launch several (failed) campaigns of their own into Iraq itself. The war ground to a stalemate and ended with a ceasefire in the second half of 1988.

Women's Basij unit

Today, the Basij is a broad-based social institution that includes local branches all around the country, which include not only organized "people's militia" and auxiliary security forces but also youth scouting groups and civilian social units. There are units of both men and women Basijis (members of the Basij). Contrary to some reporting, the Basij is embedded into the fabric of the society. The precise number of members in all of the Basij sub-divisions together is unknown, with estimates (or guestimates) ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the low millions to nearly 20 million. Basij units have proven to be effective auxiliary security forces and have been used throughout the late 1990s and into the 21st century, including during the aftermath of the contested Iranian presidential elections this June, to crack down on social dissent and activity that is seen as being "anti-government." Some Basij security forces are uniformed while others are plainclothes, with the latter being used to infiltrate crowds and other gatherings. At the local level, the Basij is akin to a social institution, running, as mentioned before, youth groups and other civil and religious activities.

Pro-government activists

Faqih 'Ali Khamenei, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the Basij, and the IRGC, meets regularly with Basij commanders and rank-and-file members. In late November of this year, he held such a meeting were he "received thousands of Basij members," referring to them as "the key to survival" and "national dignity." He referenced their role in defending the country from Saddam's invasion in 1980, noting that without them, the result of the Iraqi invasion may have been different (i.e., it may not have been stopped). Khamenei also noted that the institution is not composed solely of paramilitary and security forces, a fact that I noted earlier.

Khamenei meets with Basij scouts

The Basij, Khamenei noted, were one of the pillars of the revolutionary system: "As long as a Basij-inspired spirit of sincerity and doing unrequited services exists among people, especially the youth, the enemy could not deal any blow to the country, the revolution or the Islamic System," (in this case, a system based on a peculiar ideology referred to by many scholars of modern Iran and Muslim politics as "Khumaynism.") It should be noted that some of the most outspoken critics of Khamenei and the existing governmental system are 'ulama, including Grand Ayatullahs Hossein 'Ali Montazeri and Yusuf Saanei and Hujjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar. The four grand ayatullahs in al-Najaf, Iraq, including al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani, and Lebanon's Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah do not support the Khumaynist model either.

The official news release about Khamenei's November meeting with Basij members can be read in Persian, Arabic, Azeri, Urdu, and English.


Alexander said...

Roxanne Varzi discusses the role of the Basij and the Iran-Iraq war in producing Islamic(ized) citizens of the Iranian state in her book "Warring Souls." If you haven't already read it, I highly recommend it; it's one of my favorite books on post-revolutionary Iran.

I have to ask you about the transliteration scheme you're using - in my opinion, it seems a bit inconsistent. If I may, I would suggest that you decide whether you are transliterating Persian words and names according to Persian phonology or Arabic (standard) phonology, and stick with it. For instance, روح الله خمینی is most commonly transliterated as "Ruhollah Khomeini", which closely corresponds to the Persian pronunciation. An Arabic-based transliteration (which some scholars use) would be something like Rūḥullāh Khumaynī. However, your transliteration ("Ruhollah Khumayni") is confusing because it represents the Persian vowel اُ [o] in the first name as 'o' (Ruhollah) and in the surname as 'u' (Khumayni). Similar issues apply to most of the other Persian names and terms you've mentioned here.

I apologize for being pedantic and nitpicky, but I've noticed that your posts always have a high degree of attention to detail and you take care to use your own transliteration scheme, so I thought you might benefit from my humble suggestion. I would be happy to help you flesh out a consistent transliteration scheme for Persian, if you should need any assistance.

(By the way, I haven't had time to comment on your other posts recently, but I do read them all :) Also, I will soon be applying to Indiana's Near Eastern Languages & Cultures program; I'll send you an email about that shortly).

إبن الصقلي said...


First, thank you once again for your very kind words and especially for taking the time to read and comment.

Second, thank you also for the recommendation. I have not read Varzi's work.

Third, you are completely right about my sometimes arbitrary transliteration style. And there is no need to apologize. You're spot on (and even if you weren't, I want readers such as yourself to comment and critique).

I do, as you note, tend to favor "Arabicized" transliteration into English even with other Islamicate languages. However, I also transliterate some words based (also) on personal preference. A frequent example are words that end with taa marbutah, e.g.:

"Shari'a" vs. "Harakat"

For whatever reason, I prefer "Shari'a" without the "-ah" or "at" ending, even if it would be closer to the actual spoken pronunciation. I also tend not to like adding it to adjectives such as "Islamiyya" or names such as "Ibn Taymiyya".

The third factor sometimes at play is "searchability" (via search engines) or "common transliteration," which I do sometimes maintain, such as with "Ruhollah" (though I do go with "Khumayni" instead of the usual, in non academic materials, "Khomeini," so these two things are a bit contradictory, I admit).

I'll try and do a better job sticking to a single style of transliteration ("Arabicized"), though I can't promise you won't see a bit of arbitrariness still!

Good luck with your applications, and yes, please let me know, if you want, how the IUB is going.

Alexander said...

That makes sense. I also use the more popular spellings of some names and words (Ahmadinejad and Mousavi rather than "Ahmadinezhad" and "Musavi," which I'd normally prefer, for instance).

Thanks for the well wishes. Right now I'm still figuring out exactly which professors I would want to work with, so I can get in touch with them and mention them in my application. If you don't mind, after I've done that I'll let you know who I'm interested in; I'd very much like to hear your opinions if you happen to be personally familiar with some of them.

إبن الصقلي said...

Happy to...though perhaps not in public on the blog. ;-)