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The exponential growth

The exponential growth of Islam in the past few decades has now made it the largest religion in the world, surpassing Catholicism for the first time just last month. And, while Islam continues to spread throughout the world, Iran remains in the extreme minority of countries that adopt Islam as an official religion. However, Iran is also one of only a few countries in the world to adopt a theocratic government, which came to life after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The slow boiling of Islamic opposition to Western ideas that influenced the Iranian Revolution had been growing for centuries, and the revolution of political Islamic leaders not only changed the country, it also alienated it from many Western allies, and created decades of struggle and war for the country that was once a powerhouse of the Middle East. In the distant past, Iran was once the center of the immensely powerful Persian Empire, which conflicted with its European neighbors on countless occasions.

With the growth of Islam during the first and second millennia, the Judeo-Christian West and Persia fought many wars, including the Crusades for control of the Holy Land. After European colonization of many Middle Eastern states, during modern times most of the Muslim world came under direct or indirect European control, and cultural life was increasingly shaped by European influences, although there were important movements of Islamic renewal that also had long-term significance. European expansion in Muslim areas was relatively limited during the eighteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire lost territories, but the continued existence of the empire itself was never in question. In the Indian Ocean basin Islamization continued alongside European expansion (Wuthnow, 1998, p. 390). The clashes that often occurred between Judeo-Christian colonists and Islamic natives led many Islamic scholars to push for greater power over their homelands, though they could not compete with the modern militaries of the West. For Iran, the only option was to be annihilated by colonial powers of ally with them, and they chose the latter. Movements of self-conscious reform developed during the transition to modernity in Iran.

Some local governors worked to create more efficient and relatively autonomous administrations. In these efforts Islam provided only the background for the political system as a whole. But throughout the Muslim world, there were also movements of reform with explicitly Islamic programs of renewal. Movements of renewal have been a long-standing part of Islamic history. By the eighteenth century there was a broad repertoire of traditions that Islamically based reform efforts could draw on. Scholars who had been on pilgrimage often would oppose local customs on their return.

Sometimes this would lead to open conflict with authorities whose position reflected the syncretism of earlier stages of Islamization. A tradition of renewalist jihad developed during the eighteenth century. Although it began as a more traditional renewalist movement, it soon became a part of the new, nineteenth-century pattern of conflict with European imperialism (Wuthnow, 1998, p. 391). Today, Islamic fundamentalism has been engaged in conflict with the West throughout much of the Middle East, culminating in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which Iran became a Muslim state.

The events that sparked the revolution began with the monarchy headed by Mohammed Reza Shah and his increasingly secular laws. During his dictatorship, the shah tried to secularize the country and to limit the power of the powerful imams, including the influential Ayatollah Khomeini, who at the time was in exile. After relaxing the country’s strict censorship laws in 1977, a series of demonstrations and protests erupted throughout the country (Hooker, 1996). In response to the dissent, Khomeini began issuing a large amount of protest material into the country, calling for the shah’s removal and the restoration of strict Islamic law.

The major protest movements stemmed from two groups, with one group being the religious opposition that demanded the country return to a society based on the Shari’ah and ulama administration, while the second group was a liberal movement that agreed with modernization and Westernization imposed by the shah, but disagreed with his rule as being a dictatorship lacking democratic ideals, economic freedom, and human rights (Hooker, 1996). The massive protests throughout Iran would eventually lead to the single event credited for pushing the revolution into high gear.

In Qumm, Iran, on January 9, 1978, a large protest by a group of students over the visit of U. S. President Jimmy Carter and governmental condemnation of Ayatollah Khomeini led to a massive crackdown by the government, and the riot police open fired on the crowd, killing seventy (Hooker, 1996). This was only the beginning of government violence towards protestors, and after the Islamic requirement of forty days to mourn martyrs, most protest against the shah’s government began and were subsequently met with more gunfire.

The violence increased exponentially throughout the year as protests grew, and more and more protestors were killed by government forces, culminating in “Black Friday,” the name give to September 8, 1978 when Iranian troops killed several hundred people during a Tehran demonstration (Hooker). The shah was forced to declare martial law as he increasingly lost control of his country and the support of countries around the world. The biggest blow to the shah’s government came towards the end of 1978, after months of strikes helped cripple the nation.

Though the shah had made attempts to have popular Ayatollah Khomeini return to Iran to quell the violence, the Ayatollah refused to enter the country while the shah remained in power. The Islamic religious month known as Muhurram, which celebrated martyrdom, proved too powerful for the government of the shah to contain. The protests numbered in the millions, government buildings were seized, nationwide strikes virtually shut down the country, and government officials were killed (Hooker, 1996). Within weeks, the shah left Iran and the Ayatollah returned to the elation of millions.

He would soon establish an Islamic republic, which while satisfying many of the hard-line Shi’ite Muslims, alienated many of the protestors that desired more democracy and secular freedom. The Shi’ism that ruled Iran proved almost as divisive as the government it replaced, and before long Iran was in a terrible war of attrition with Sunni-ruled Iraq. The Shi’ism in Iran would soon inspire Shi’ites all through the Middle East were inspired by the newfound power of Shi’ism, and from Arabia to Africa, Sunnis and Shi’ites engaged in sectarian violence.

This Islamic rift renewed by the Iranian revolution has spilled over into Pakistan to the African Transition Zone and from the Caucasus to the Philippines (de Blij and Muller, 2004, p. 330). Even though Islamic countries such as Iran continue to overcome these problems of internal strife, militant activists carry out attacks against allies of the moderates and those they views as enemies of the Muslim faith, including Israel and its allies, and Iran is often seen as a terrorist country support militant acts against Western allies.

Despite the revolution, Iran’s continued modernization slowed. Despite the guidance of the Ayatollah, few strong leaders of much consequence were elected or managed to serve with any real effectiveness. The ten-year war with Iraq devastated the country, and Iran ruthlessly poured hundreds of thousands of its young men into death and despair. In the early years of the twenty-first century, many of the Iranian people remained divided between conservatives determined to protect the power of the imams and mullahs and reformers intent on liberalizing and modernizing Iranian society.

In 2002, a conservative court sentenced a university professor to death for publishing a proposal for an Islamic “enlightenment,” leading to thousands of student protests (de Blij and Muller, 2004, p. 364). This shows that the citizenry are still conflicted as to whether the best direction for the country lies in Islam or democracy. Nationalism in the Arab world has risen since the revolution in Iran, and it is a rapidly spreading religion because of its cultural and political appeal and its universal message of peace, temperance and the brotherhood of man.

However, as the events in the Middle East continue to show, the message of peace and brotherhood sometimes fall on deaf ears.


de Blij, H. J. and Muller, P. O. (2004). Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. 11th ed. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hooker, R. (1996). Shi’a: The Iranian Revolution. World Civilizations. Retrieved April 10, 2008, from http://www. wsu. edu:8080/~dee/SHIA/REV. HTM Wuthnow, R. (1998). Islam. Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. Washington, D. C. : Congressional Quarterly, Inc.

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