This article will argue that although there were many reasons for the Iranian Revolution, the main cause was fundamentally Shi’ite religion and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in sustaining and succeeding with the revolution.
There are other causes to consider when analysing the revolution. By the late 1970s, monarchies were fading around Europe and the Middle East, in Italy, Albania, Greece, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia and Afganistan. Furthermore, the Pahlavi monarchy had also only recently been founded and within four years Reza Pahlavi, an officer in the Iranian Cossack Brigade, was named to the throne and crowned in April of the 1926. These factors combined to mean that the Iranian Pahlavi regime had little support..
Another cause was the nature of the Pahlavi regime; both Reza and his son Mohammed Pahlavi ruled very autocratically. Even though schools, factories, and industry were creating a new middle class, this middle class were allowed no power. The suppression of the press, parliament and intellectual life meant that they were practically unable to have a voice in Iran. This was a significant cause of the revolution as there was widespread disillusionment towards the regime in Iran.
As a result of Pahlavi having no dynastic claim to the throne, he actively encouraged modernity in Iran. He introduced public education, the civil service, a new legal code and the beginnings of modern industry. However, this modernisation was in conflict with his suppressive and autocratic rule, and arguably this conflict was a significant factor in the cause of the Iranian revolution.
The significance of Shi’ite religion in the revolution is, for many people, a religious upsurge in response to corruption in high places of the government and growing materialism. However, it must also be noted that others have seen it as a rejection of the modern and western world seeping into Iran. In order to understand this we must look back at the history of Shi’ism and its fractious history with the state. The separate development of the religious and secular powers of Shi’ite Islam in Iran can be said to be a large contributor to the 1979 revolution; Shi’ite Islam is hostile to temporal authority because religious power associated with justice must always be at power with temporal powers associated with injustice. Therefore, by Shi’ism guidelines, the religious institution must always be hostile towards a secular government; this underlying tension is very important in the cause of the Iranian Revolution.
Indeed, the history of Iran is seen by Shi’ism as a decline of Islam; more and more corruption of holy law as temporal, ‘illegal’ power was increasingly imposed. Rulers were encouraged not to attempt to gain temporal power because of the failures of the first three Imams – Calphi Ali, and his sons Hasan and Hosein. It is therefore purported to be the duty of all Muslims to be against the government; essentially, secular governments must be bad as they do not carry the interests of the Imams and Islam. Elwell-Sutton points out that ‘the contradictions and tensions inherent in this view are evident’. It was these tensions between Shi’ite Islam and the government which were so significant in causing the Iranian Revolution.
Religion and specifically Shi’ite Islam was the main cause of the Iranian Revolution, as it was the tool that Ayatollah Khoimeini used to mobilise the masses and to subsequently take power in 1979.