Days of God
James Buchan examines both the politics and the theology of the Iranian Revolution.
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About Khomeini himself, Buchan is withering. Born in 1902, Khomeini impressed his teachers early and by the 1950s already occupied a clerical perch in Qom (Iran's Vatican) that officially made him marja, or "source of emulation," for the whole restive set of shah-hating Iranian clergy. The shah had secularized the country, banning headscarves and imprisoning religious dissidents. Tapping religious fervor, Khomeini called for immediate Islamic government. At the same time he drew on nationalist sentiment by accusing the shah of imitating the West and scorning his own Persian heritage. Buchan makes a good case that this latter charge is deserved: the Pahlavis spent a great deal of embarrassing time romancing various minor Eurotrash royals, the better to link the Peacock Throne to the ruling houses of Greece and England.Skip to next paragraph
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But even when right, Khomeini approached the world with Olympian disdain – and not only for secular figures like the shah, Buchan says, but also for the very religious traditions of which he was a part. Buchan quotes Khomeini's letter condemning the 1971 bash thrown by the shah at Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian kingship. "It is a typical Khomeini piece from that time, uncompromising in its argument, pungent in its argument, credulous of hearsay, mistaken in matters of fact." Khomeini claims that Shiite clergy have always opposed kings, when in fact Shiite clergy had long put themselves at the service of Safavid and Qajar kings, to mutual benefit. Journalist Peter Jennings buttonholes Khomeini on his triumphant flight to Tehran in 1979 and asks him what he feels on returning to his home country as its leader. The Imam responds with one word: "Nothing." This impassive reply reminds one of Orwell's great line about Gandhi, that some who aspire to be holy have never been tempted to be human.
The character who comes across as most human in this story is Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini's prize student and anointed successor but ultimately loathed by his former teacher and placed under house arrest. Unlike Khomeini, Montazeri is a man of earthly temptations (mostly for sohan, the saffron-infused pistachio brittle that is a Qom specialty and perhaps the most addictive candy known to man) and evolving views. He helped lead the revolution but later rebuked Khomeini publicly for the latter's summary executions and indifference to justice. Montazeri died in 2009, after what one Qom cleric told me was a long period of shunning by the city's hard-liners. Buchan clearly views him as a minor hero.
This book breezes through the last twenty-five years, since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, in just a few pages. A sequel may be in order. For now, though, "Days of God" is a balanced portrait of an unbalanced time, and one of the most distinguished books about a revolution that has still not reached its conclusion.
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications including The New Yorker, Good magazine, and The American.