Ghoncheh TAZMINI

Ghoncheh Tazmini, Doctoral candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury (United Kingdom)

When Khatami was swept into office there was considerable talk of freedom and a considerable amount of hope for political plurality and civil rights. Although the bulk of the electorate supports his call for reforms he has had to contend with the conservative faquihship and the Council of Guardians. Substantive reform has not been achieved, as the Islamic hard-liners are reluctant to sway from a rigid, doctrinaire Islam. Before they contemplate reform, the hard-liners must treat Islam as the flexible, adaptable doctrine that it is, rather than an immutable and static dogma. The Jadidists of Central Asia adopted this approach when they chose to reconcile Islam with modernity in order to resist the challenges facing society. They translated Islamic reform into a broad cultural movement that focused on education, progress, openness and a return to pure Islam. The Jadid case illustrates that the Iranian elite can also respond to societys calls for modernity under the rubric of Islam.


After sweeping to victory with 77 percent of the popular vote, on 8 June, 2001 Irans President Mohammad Khatami was confirmed as president for a second four-year term by the countrys supreme leader in an Islamic religious ceremony attended by several hundred top government, religious and diplomatic officials. In his confirmation speech, the reformist Khatami repeatedly emphasized the rule of the people within an Islamic framework, adding it was his responsibility to do carry out the peoples aspirations for change. In spite of the sanguine rhetoric, it was painstakingly clear that the heady optimism surrounding Khatamis first electoral conquest had snuffed out to a degree.

Khatamis fight for greater political freedom and a relaxation of the Irans strict religious laws have been largely stifled, with newspapers banned, journalists jailed and his efforts to cooperate with the unyielding conservative clerics generating less than fruitful results.

Granted, Iran has seen vast social improvements over the last four years but economically life remains harsh and politically, it is still constrained.

The reality is that the increasingly discontented masses looking at Khatami to articulate their aspirations have put pressure on the President for a near-impossible task. Problematic is Irans dual leadership and the diverging inclinations of the popularly-elected President and the clerically-selected Leader (rahbar) of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also referred to as the supreme jurist (faqih). On one pole stands Khatami upholding the rule of law (hokumat-e-quanun) and civil society, on the other Khanemei, representing the rigid tenets of hokumat-e eslami (Islamic government), the slogan of the Islamic Revolution.1 Whilst Khatamis political discourse is widely supported, it is Khameneis ideological stance that prevails, along with his supreme political position.

Nevertheless, the masses are not bereft of hopethe second electoral success, the reformists parliamentary victory a year ago clearing out the hard-line conservatives are historic conquests in a nation under the thick cloak of the Islamic theocracy. But these developments are not indications that the reformists, albeit wholly backed by the electorate, can achieve substantive transformation. Instead, it is a stentorian bellow to the clerics that it is they, rather than Khatami, who have one last chance to save the Islamic Republic.

Whilst Khatamis advocacy of civil society, openness and political development through participation stands in stark contrast to the Khomeinis revolutionary rhetoric, it is not opposed to Islamic principles. Islam is not void of the conceptual resources, flexibility and dynamism required for the governance of a modern state. The Sharia, or Islamic law, espouses democratic ideals such as right (haq), justice (adl), consultation (shura) and equality (musawat). Its political philosophy stands firmly against authoritarian rule and stands for individual liberty and representative government.2 Underpinning this philosophy is the principle that the Islamic government is only by the consent and council of the people. This is unequivocally expressed in the following Koranic verses: that which is with Allah is better and more lasting for those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for sustenance (42:36, 38).

What is clear is that the letter and spirit of Islam does embody the core democratic principles that govern Western societies. Thus, it is conceivable that the immense pressure for democratic reforms could be accommodated within the scope of the Islamic ideology. This, of course is a thorny issue, but if the Islamic Republic wants to see the silver jubilee of the Revolution, the conservatives entrenched in the power structure must become cognizant that sooner or later the system must either bend or snap.

The question of how to accommodate the gap between Islam and modernity has been addressed by an array of intellectuals and theologians. Indeed, many constructive debates have emerged, attempting to reconcile Islam as the state ideology and pressures from a society posing demands for a modern secular, democratic state. However, whilst the dialectics emerging have been thought provoking and even contentious, they erroneously concentrate on questions cast in monolithic terms: Islam vs. secularism, fundamentalism vs. democracy or tradition vs. modernity. The issue here, however, is not whether one system (whole or in part) is superior to the other but that societal demands in Iran happen to be inclined toward the latter concepts. The focus should be on bridging the gap between the two systems rather than simply highlighting their differences or similarities.

Another methodological issue in seeking a solution to the crisis in Iran is the tendencies of scholars to apply a hermeneutic approach to the study of Islamic modernity. In my view, seeking to determine whether there is room for elements of modernity in the Islamic republic by interpreting the Sharia and the Koran is a highly subjective undertaking. What is more, such an approach invariably produces conflicting groups that seldom reach a consensus on what is prescribed in the Koran and what is not, leaving the debate inconclusive and open-ended. What is urgently required is a realistic assessment of the current crisis challenging the Islamic leadership and the realization that the scope of Islam must be broadened to accommodate the increasingly restless calls for reform.

Indeed, conservative Islamists cringe at this prescription, choosing to interpret the Sharia and the Koran in the most rigid and doctrinaire fashion. To them, Islam and its core tenets are immutable and incongruous with the demands raised by Iranian societyany accommodation would entail the reforming of Islam with ideologically incompatible principles. Such an unrelenting approach is highly precarious in light of the sociopolitical climate in Iran where almost 80 percent of the masses stand behind the reformists.

These statistics speak for themselves: if change does not come from above it can very well come from below. Indeed, increasing resentment toward the religious establishment and disillusionment with President Khatami could very translate into resistance, rebellion or (dare I say) revolution. Whilst the specter of a movement from below is unlikely any time soon (a lot is lackinga revolutionary ideology, organization, leadership of a movement, not to mention other structural factors required to weaken the regime) it is not inconceivable considering the numbers in opposing the reactionary hard-liners.

What Is To Be Done?

I shall make the case that the current leadership can respond to social and political challenges and thereby forestall resistance from below without abandoning the Islamic paradigm. By drawing on the Jadid movement for cultural reform that occurred amongst Turkestani Muslim elites in Central Asia in the early 1900s as an example of Islams successful encounter with the modernity, I make the claim that Islam can also be creatively extended in Iran to accommodate societys aspirations. The argument presented will not prescribe the Jadidists case as a blueprint for reform, rather it will offer their case as an example of how a Jadid (new) and adaptable Islam was developed in order to adapt to modern conditions.

The proposed approach, it should be noted, will only make sense if political Islam is treated as an ideology, rather than a sacred dogma. For when Islam is dealt with as simply a religion, a holy creed or the word of God, it becomes static and fixed, particularly when it is interpreted and applied dogmatically. At present, in Iran, Islam is treated as the state religion rather than the state ideology. The problem with this approach is that it does not make room for reform; as such, it has not been able to address the needs of a steadily evolving society. This is because a religion cannot be modified even when pragmatic considerations call for ita political ideology, however, can. A political ideology is not the word of God and historically it has been molded and reshaped according to the exigencies of the state.

This is the compromise that the Iranian hard-liners need to adopt in order to keep the existing political regime in power. At the apex can stand the esteemed principles, goals and values of Islam but at the bottom of the pyramid must rest practical considerations (which may very well entail the extension or broadening of Islam). Nevertheless, until Islam is treated as the monolithic state religion rather than a flexible, pragmatic ideology, such accommodation will not be achieved and the inevitable will happen. A more tolerant and lax approach to the interpretation of Islam is requiredone that makes room for the institutionalization of changes society calls for.

The examination of a historical precedent such as Jadidism can illustrate a situation in which Islam, for the sake of survival, had to be reinterpreted in light of the imperatives facing society. It can also provide valuable insight on how the challenges facing society gave birth to an Islamic reform movement that attempted to reconcile Western modernism with Muslim principles. Khatamis Iran, or rather, Khameneis Iran faces a similar situation where a fair majority is demanding certain western-oriented reforms. Thus far, it has not responded effectively and has demonstrated that it is not willing to concede to this new orientation. The Jadidist case will demonstrate that it is possible to institutionalize much-needed reform under the unwavering banner of Islam.


In the case of the Jadidists, it was the conquest of Central Asia by Tsarist Russia that prompted the movement for the reform and renovation of the Islamic way of life. At its forefront stood a small segment of the Muslim intelligentsia who had gained exposure to Western ideas, political discourse, and sociopolitical forms of organization as a result of the conquest. Sharing a sense of decline and impending doom as a result of Russian colonization, the intellectuals agreed that progressive reform was imperative to avoid extinction. Independence from colonization and development of the Ummah (the Islamic community), they maintained, could be achieved through an Islamic renaissance based on cultural reform.

For this task, the Muslim reformers turned to Jadidisma well-defined program of action first elaborated by Ismail Bey Gasprinskii, designed to address societal problems facing Muslim society. Born in the Crimea in 1851, Gasprinskii (1851-1914) carried out an unremitting attack against the ills of Russian Islam from the late 1870s until his death in 1914. Through his journalistic activities he propagated the idea that the status of Muslims could be raised through broad reform of the curriculum and the method of instruction in the Muslim schools (maktabs).3 He wrote that the old method (usul-e-kadim) consisting solely of learning the Koran and other religious texts by heart had to be replaced by the new method (usul-e-jadid).4 His new method was based upon the phonetic principle of reading, as opposed to blind memorization of Arabic texts. As well, Gasprinskii also advocated the acquisition of modern knowledge, through the introduction of certain standard subjects into the Madrasah (Islamic seminaries) curriculumincluding arithmetic, geography, history, literature and the Russian language. He also wrote widely on the creation of new civic institutions, and the improvement in the position of women in Muslim society.5

The Jadidists were faithful disciples of Gasprinskii maintaining that only through the cultivation of knowledge was it possible to liberate themselves from the Western domination of their cultural, educational, and other institutions. What the Jadidists believed was that the decline of their community was attributed to its departure from the true path of Islam. When Muslims pursued pure Islam, the Jadidists argued, they were recognized as world leaders in the sphere of education and innovation. This departure was also seen as a major factor in the Islamic worlds political and military decline. Thus, the solution adopted by Jadidists was a return to pure Islam. But pure Islam was based on a rational and pragmatic interpretation of the scriptural textsthe prerequisite for this was a command of modern knowledge, and for that reason Gasprinskiis program of usul-e-jadid appealed to them.

To complement the modernized education system, the Jadidists also imported the latest mode of cultural production, transmission, and sociability to harmonize progress, science, the nation and Islam. Through publishing, theatre, benevolent societies, Jadidists created a public space in which a younger generation of thinkers marginalized the authority of the traditional carriers of Islam. Most of the publications in the early 1900s echoed a similar message: that Muslims wake from their stagnation of tradition, and welcome and embrace the elements of modernity introduced. Gasprinskiis followers and supporters also founded the first modern-style Muslim political parties and Muslim nationalist organizations.6

Seeing that education formed the core of the Jadid movement, an effort was made to send many young men to study abroad, especially in Turkey. Among these students was Abduruf Fitrat, who went to Istanbul in 1908. His writings depicted the aims of the Jadidists and the outline of their program. He explained that the reason Muslims were in an abysmal political and economic situation was not due to Islam but to the Muslims poor practice of the religion. He, like so many Jadidists, was of the opinion that Islam was progressively oriented and dynamic.7

Nevertheless, the Jadid system was not welcomed by all; in fact, it was met with heavy opposition, particularly by the kadimists, a segment of the religious establishment that regarded attempts to introduce changes as heretical and they strove to maintain the old or kadim system.8 The kadimists opposed the Jadidists, whom they considered reactionary and obscurantist, while the Russians regarded the latter as a threat because they were opposed to Russian colonialism and absolutism. The Jadidist method of teaching, however, did not get the chance to replace the traditional Islamic education of the maktab or to compete with the tsarist and later Soviet education systems.9


As a Muslim movement for reform, albeit short-lived, Jadidism is a very pertinent example of adaptation and accommodation of what many perceive as immutable and inflexible. This brief exposition is an attempt to offer a new approach to the understanding of Irans encounter with modernity. More specifically, it endeavors to draw attention to the elasticity of Islam and its ability to reshape itself when confronted with sociopolitical, economic or external challenges. Jadidism was not a revolution but a movement for reform, in this case, prompted by the need to resist colonization, backwardness and extinction. However, what is significant is that the Jadidists hoped to face the detractors of Islam with modern means, in other words, through the adoption of Western ideas and practices which, paradoxically, they regarded necessary for the survival of darulislam (the realm of Islam). The beauty of their approach was that they aimed to assimilate elements of modernity into their way of life, in the context of Islam.

The situation in Iran is one where the forces of change lean toward modernity with the bulk of society appealing for civil right, plurality and democratization. The conservative Islamic establishment in Iran needs to somehow assimilate these demands, which, so far, it has proved incapable of doing. Like the Jadidists, the hard-liners must begin reinterpreting Islam and broadening its scope in order to make room for elements of modernity. Whilst this is easier said than done in rigid, unyielding regime, the hard-liners have to take into account that they face a similar reality that the Muslim intellectuals of Central Asia facedimminent and certain extinction if change was not hastily incorporated. But the Jadidist case can also provide the mullahs with the assurance that it is possible to reconcile elements of modernity under the apex of Islam. The only major task is to convince them that what they need to do is not simply seek to return to the straight path of Islam but instead to chart its future direction.

1 See: Said Amir Arjomand, Civil Society and the Rule of Law in the Constitutional Politics of Iran under Khatami, Social Research, Vol. 67, No. 2, Summer, 2000, p. 46.
2 See: Abdullah Ahmed An-Naim, Sharia and Basic Human Rights Concerns, in: Ch. Kurzman, Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Oxford UP, Oxford, 1998, p. 222.
3 Gasprinskiis primary propaganda tool was the newspaper Terjuman (The Interpreter), a dual language (Russian and Ottoman Turkish) newspaper he published himself between 1883 and 1914.
4 See: E. Lazzerini, Turkic Modernism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: An Insiders View, Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 16, No. 2, April-June, 1975, pp. 245-277.
5 See: A. Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 89.
6 See: L. Polonskaya et al., Islam in Central Asia, Ithaca Press, Reading, 1984, pp. 58-59.
7 See: M. Mobin Shorish, Back to Jadidism: Turkistani Education After the Fall of the USSR, Islamic Studies, Vol. 33, Summer-Autumn 1994, pp. 163-164.
8 See: H.B. Paksoy, Crimean Tatars, in: Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and Soviet Union, Vol. 6, Academic International Press, 1995, pp. 139-140.
9 See: A. Benigsen and C. Lemercier-Quelquejay, Les musulmans oubliés. LIslam en Union soviétique, Paris, 1981, p. 42.

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