Clerical Cooperation and Islamic Radicalism in 1940s Iran

By Mina Yazdani
Submitted to Session P4506 (Inventions and Reinventions in Modern Twelver Shi`i Islam, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
On 15 September 1944, Muhammad Parvin Gunabadi (d. 1979), a member of Iran’s parliament, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Muhammad Sa’id (d. 1973), expressing his concern about disturbing news coming in from different parts of the country where a “coordinated plan” had been executed and commotion now seized the populace. He went on to inform the Prime Minister that some five hundred religious groups in Khurasan had formed and were preparing a “major uproar.” Parvin Gunabadi’s letter was a rare attempt by a member of the parliament to prevent anti-Baha’i attacks that had exacerbated since Reza Shah’s abdication. During the 1940s, the Baha’i population of Iran faced mob attacks, raids, arsons, looting, and even sporadic murders. Murderers, often acting collectively, were never punished. In rare instances where the government arrested the culprits, the joint action by a number of clerics exerted pressure on the government to release them. A salient example was the murder, in 1949, of a Baha’i physician in Kashan. Eight individuals connected with the Fada’iyan-i Islam, a radical organization devoted to militant propagation of Islamic ideals together stabbed Dr. Soleyman Birjis to death. Collectively, they went to the police headquarter and confessed to his murder, and were put under arrest. However, the joint, immediate and organized actions of Ayatollahs Burujirdi, Kashani, Bihbahani and a number of other clerics prevented the judicial system from any further actions. The killers were all exonerated, and immediately released. This was despite the known conflicts, if not blatant animosities between Ayatollah Burujerdi, the sole marj‘-i taqlid of the Shi‘ia at the time and the highly influential and politically active Ayatollah Kashani. Exploring the newspapers of the time, pertinent governmental documents and memoirs of the individuals involved, this paper suggests that the government’s inability or unwillingness to challenge fiery clerics and radical Muslims in their attacks against Baha’is, practically, empowered and emboldened these individuals and groups preparing them, over time, for the fervent opposition against the government itself. Furthermore, the joint action of the otherwise rival clerics to protect the murderers of Baha’is provided the clerics with experience that they later used, against the government, first in 1964, and in 1979, during the Islamic Revolution.