In Hope of a Third Movement, By Nader Naderpour, Translated by Farhad Mafie
In the seventh century, the Arabs defeated Iran and imposed Islam on Iranians. For Nader Naderpour, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the second Islamic invasion. In Naderpour’s opinion, Iranian thinkers (he avoided the word intellectual because of its connection with Iranian leftists, as he explains in his endnotes) tried twice—unsuccessfully—to rid themselves of Islam, especially of Islamic governmental rule.
Here Naderpour explains why two historical “thinkers’ movements,” as he calls them, failed, and he describes how a third movement is needed to help Iran and Iranians rid themselves, once and for all, from the tyranny of Islamic domination.
Understanding Erfan, the first “movement” that Naderpour addresses here, is key to appreciating Naderpour’s position. Erfan is often incorrectly associated with Sufism. Naderpour makes clear that Erfan was a product of Iranian thinkers and that it was a philosophical ideology, not a religion.
The second “movement,” according to Naderpour, was the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, when Iranian thinkers tried to separate church and state, that is, to end Islamic rule over Iran.
This, then, is the background to what Naderpour hoped would be the Third Movement.
In one of his poems, the great French poet Baudelaire1 saw the world as a child with a wide appetite and a fascination for pictures and patterns2. That child’s view is much like early man’s perplexed view of the world and of religion. Like a child’s early memory, man’s deepest thoughts stay with him forever.
But just as one child’s memories are not those of another child, one man’s view of religion varies from another man’s view. There is no one single vision. Not surprisingly, then, if we look at this point carefully, we realize that not all societies view the world similarly. As different tribes at different places in different eras considered their worlds, their observations differed and so did the religions they created.
Each tribe’s observations are its own, reflecting that particular time and place and the particular psychological and traditional makeup of that tribe. If man had realized the true meaning of “authenticity,” no tribe would ever impose religion on another tribe. Each nation’s religion, race, and culture are interconnected, and their interconnections are hidden. Because each is designed to work with the other two, changing one naturally affects each of the others as well as the whole. Thus Arabs and Jews and other tribes that have kept religion, race, and culture unified and harmonious have more effectively survived difficulties throughout history.
But unfortunately, the history of mankind has shown its inability to practice the meaning of “authenticity” many times, and one of the best examples of this inability is the dominance of Islam over the Iranian people, a dominance that has remained in our ethnic memory. Since I have explained the reasons for that dominance extensively in another article3 , I will now only briefly mention the first reason for the domination [beginning in the seventh century] of Islam over our country, namely, the unhappiness of the Iranian masses due to obstinacy and profit-seeking among specific groups, including Zoroastrians, priests, and government officials. Undoubtedly, the second reason was the neglect of the Iranian thinkers at the time. They neglected the fact that none of the Semitic religions, despite their familiar slogans of “brotherhood and equality,”4 could adequately fit the Aryan race and culture. Although these two elements (brotherhood and equality) in ancient Iran had common roots with the Zoroastrian religion, Islam grew from a different race. Marrying Islam to the concept of brotherhood and equality was impossible. But people in the late Sassanid era were so discontented that they were willing to overthrow their system of government and instead accept the “brotherhood and equality” that was promised to them by Islam.
Of course, the fact that many religions share similar beliefs and principles does not mean they are the same.
In simpler terms: In the religions that stem from Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and in the Aryan faiths (Brahman5, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism) there exist extensive differences, because Semitic roots differ so widely from Indo-European roots.
The thinkers and the masses at the end of the last Sassanid era neglected this point. In their desire to overthrow the government and establish a just system, they considered the Islamic army a “freedom-giving force” and welcomed them. For the next two centuries these people willingly gave to the victorious Arab Muslim army all their belongings.
But their neglect eventually caused them to repent. Gradually they realized they had been deceived when their Arab conquerors neither established a just system of government nor lived up to their promises of “brotherhood and equality.” As this deception made the Iranians repent what they had done, they began military, political, and religious uprisings against the Arabs.
Abu Moslem Khorasani, Yaghoube Layse Saffari, Hosh-Ben-Monaagha, and Babak Khorramdin became heroes in Iran’s history. But all these uprisings failed, and as the heavy weight of the agony of repentance remained in the cultural memory of thinkers (more than others), they tried to fight back Islam with a similar weapon and destroy its power from within.
To attain their objectives, in the ninth century they created the school of Erfan, a school of thought that gradually became powerful due to its assimilation of the ideologies of Zoroastrianism, Mānavi, with the knowledge of Buddha’s Nirvana6, and the philosophy of the unity of self or Pantheism. And due to its Iranian, Hindu, and Greek roots, Erfan quickly became an ideology with the potential of worldwide acceptance. Erfan tried to destroy all the world religions and establish itself as the only ideology to unite mankind. This is why one of first promoters and thinkers of Erfan, Hossain ibn Mansour Halláj, an Iranian living in Baghdad, in one of his poems said basically:
I thought about religions and studied them very extensively, and then I realized that there is only one principle and many branches. Therefore, don’t ask anyone to accept any religion since the acceptance of that religion will distance the individual from the main principle.7
But this ambitious custom, for reasons not appropriate to discuss in this article, gradually (in the interval between the tenth and the thirteenth century, when it flourished) limited its field of attack and intelligently created the thinking of Tarighat in the structure of the Islamic philosophy of Shariat.
Yes, Erfan, in my opinion, is the first philosophical resistance on the part of Iranian thinkers against the influence of Arab thinking that metamorphosed the four principles that are common in three Semitic religions, as follows:
Erfan did not accept the distance between God and Men in the Semitic religions, which is similar to the relationship between Master and Slave. And it considered every person as “a God manifestation” or a smaller version of that “great eternal spirit.” It converted the indirect path with religion as a middleman between the Creator and the Creature to a direct path between the Lover and the Loved. That is why when Hossain ibn Mansour Halláj said “God is within me and I am God,” he was hanged by order of the sharitmadaran [orthodox Islamic leaders] of that era.
Hossain ibn Mansour Halláj in one of his early poems basically said:
People in search of God are wandering on a dark night and they don’t find anything except indications. They go toward Him via imagination and assumptions and they ask the skies, “Where is God?” But God is within them.8
Almost five centuries after Halláj, Hāfez restated the same concept, but in such a way that he was not hanged:
For years my heart desired the crystal ball 9
something that it already had, was requested from a stranger
The pearl that is transcended away from its shell
was asking the lost, the path to the sea
The disbeliever had God with him the whole time
Though he couldn’t see God, he was asking Him from afar
I took my concern to the great master at night
Who solves problems intuitively
He said: The friend that was hanged
his crime was that he was unveiling secrets
- Erfan considered man’s eating corn or an apple and then being thrown out of the Garden not as a sin encouraged by Evil but instead as the symbol of men’s acceptance of responsibility and also his hope. The first sin is the instrument of intimidation of man, his pledge of worship, and his slavery to God. In this way Erfan replaced Constraint and Submission with Choice and Knowledge in man’s life. “The seed that men ate was Knowledge,” as Abulsaeid Abulkhair and Mohammad ibn Monavar said in the book Asraro Tohid.
The three religions consider death the beginning of the requital and the path for resurrection, as a ladder for advancement of Soul. On the other hand, in Erfan Soul takes the steps from inanimate to vegetable to animal and then to the fourth step, human. Finally, in Erfan death takes Soul to the next steps, angel, and finally to nonexistence, or as Molavi said, “Where it cannot be thought of.”
Based on this belief “Soul” dies many times, but each time it reaches a higher state and finally is transformed to that “great spirit of eternity.” We must hear the story of this transformation from Molavi:
I died from stone and rose to vegetation
I died from vegetation and rose to animal
I died from animal and became man
Why, then, should I be afraid? When did I ever lose by dying?
Next I shall die from man
Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels
Then I will soar higher than angelhood
To become what cannot be imagined
As the water from a jar pours into the running stream
It disappears in the stream and becomes the stream
Then I become nonexistent, as nonexistent as love
It tells me “We all will return to God.”10
Erfan has relocated heaven and hell from its Semitic positions (heaven in the skies, the reward for good behavior, and hell in the depths of the earth, the punishment for bad behavior) to the present life in this world. In the Semitic religions, the forces of good and evil are based on God and Evil respectively, but Erfan considers them as the opposing nature of man’s earthly existence. And it suggests abstinence (meaning the avoidance of sin) not in order to go to heaven or to avoid hell but to escape the imprisonment of desires and needs. As a Mystic thinker wrote:
Heaven is the moment of our calm time
And hell is a spark of our useless pain 11
Anyway, the direct, straightforward sayings of the first Mystic thinkers (Arefs) in the late ninth century—similar to Bayazid Bastami and Hossain ibn Mansor Halláj—were transformed to the cautious words of Fakhr od-Din Araghi and Farid od-Din Attar in the thirteenth century, and finally they were transformed to the religious words of Rumi in the fourteenth century. But these transformations never reduced the opposition of the sharitmadaran [orthodox Islamic leaders] against Erfan.
In other words, a series of events taught the Mystic thinkers that it is better to oppose Islam by using words from Islamic stories and books and by borrowing the tone and the words of religious storytellers and religious promoters. But some [orthodox religious authorities], like Imam Mohammad Ghazālī, did not fall for this trick, and they did not stop writing against Erfan, which they considered the enemy of Islam. Those who were not writers prepared the instruments for killing Mystic thinkers like Eynol Ghozat Hamadani and Shahab od-Din Sohrevardi, just as they had hanged the first Mystic martyr, Hossain ibn Mansour Halláj.
To summarize the activities of Erfan from the late ninth century to the end of the fourteenth century, we can only say that this is the first significant Iranian thinkers’ movement after the Arab attacks, a movement that failed in its desire for world dominance and its opposition against Islam because it was limited to a small circle of thinkers12 and it was not able to penetrate the masses. It did, however, influence Persian poetry and other writings, and it created some of the greatest masterpieces of Iranian literature from that era.
Historically, the destruction and weakening of the original Mystic ideology is marked by the invasions by Genghis and Tayemour. From the late fourteenth century until the end of the fifteenth century, Iranians tried to forget all the killings and destruction and all their pain by using religion as an escape. And more and more, they accepted “religious restraint” and “God’s will,” and in doing so they distanced themselves further from freedom and choice, which Erfan offered. And finally, individuals such as Shah Haydar Ardebili and Shah Nematollāhe Vali arose who associated themselves with miracles and generosity. But they fought over power and wealth to such an extent that the names Haydari and Nemati evoke memories of their competitions and their debates to this day.
In fact, their followers named their groups Haydari and Nemati after these leaders. From the beginning of the Safavid government when the Shi'ite religion became strong, these groups combined elements of Erfan with Shi'ite beliefs to create Sufism, somewhat imitating Erfan but very much dedicated to religious beliefs. After this mixture (which, again, had no relation to Erfan) many large and small groups and cults were created, some of which still have followers today. There is not enough time to discuss them in this article.
After the failure of Erfan to oppose Islam, from the late fifteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, Iranian thinkers became introverted and offered no new ideas comparable to Erfan, first due to the governmental and social difficulties after the Tayemour era and secondarily due to the heavy domination of the Shi'ite religion and its different varieties during the Safavid and Ghajar eras. And they showed neither a desire nor a willingness to understand and analyze Mollah Sadra’s attempt to return to the beginnings of Erfan.
Their “answer” to the meaningful attempts of the Iranian thinkers in the first five centuries was stagnated thinking for the next five centuries. And they carried the coffin of religious ideologies on their shoulders until after the Iranian–Russian wars during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah Ghajar.
In fact, only after Abbas Mirza’s army’s losses to the armies of the Czar did a group of Iranian thinkers realize how far Iran had regressed and how far the Western world had progressed. And then, during the reign of Naser od-Din Shah Ghajar, the followers of these thinkers supported a Constitutional government, and thus began the second significant Iranian thinkers’ movement after Islam’s attack on Iran.
From the Renaissance and from the European Era of Enlightenment, the Constitutional evangelists learned the principle of separation of religion and state and the principle of reliance on nationalistic identity13 , and they believed that if the Islamic army had not defeated the Sassanid government [in the seventh century] and if Iranian culture and civilization had continued its natural course, we Iranians would not have fallen behind the West, and our country would have been on the same level as Western countries. Therefore, the reason that Iran was left out of the civilization caravan was because of Islam, and they believed that to pass through the era of “regressive Islamic mentalities” Iran needed to bridge Ancient Iran and the New Europe, and this bridge is Constitutionalism. Its two columns are separation of religion and state and replacement of religious identity with national identity.
In other words: Thinkers such as Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, Abdol-Rahim Talebof Tabrizi, Mirza Fath-Ali Âkhundzadeh, and Malkam Khan considered Constitutional government the vehicle for reaching modernity, and by “modernity” they meant “becoming Westernized.” Simply put, their belief was to get away from “religion” and get closer to “nationality.”
It can be said that the Constitutionalist thinkers acted more wisely than the originators of Erfan. And instead of opposing and fighting Islam, they interpreted their two main principles for the masses (that is, the separation of religion and state, and the replacement of religious identity with national identity) in such a way that Iranian religious leaders did not oppose them but, instead, provided them with support and understanding.
Then, the Constitutional thinkers devised an intelligent trick to pass civil laws and substitute them for religious laws—a first step toward separation of religion and state—and to establish the National Consultative Assembly [the first house of the Iranian Parliament] for the Iranian people. Further, they promised people that the laws passed in this Assembly would provide equal rights for everyone and remove class discrimination.
Then, in order to fight the power of the highest level of Shi'ite leadership (i.e., Vali-e Faghih), the principle of “Monarch without responsibility” was presented to the public, that is, acceptance of the King as the symbol of national unification of all the Iranian tribes. The King, not a religious leader, would be the last judge of complaints and the highest level of referee for issues among the Iranian tribes. And in critical historical events, the King’s command would have more power than a religious leader’s order (i.e., Fatva).
Despite its intellectualism and its opposition to religion, this strategy was intelligently interpreted to the masses, and as a result, the common people understood the dual Constitutional principles and rose against their despotic rulers and created the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.
It must be said that those dual principles succeeded, but without freedom of thought and expression, without freedom of elections, and without freedom of forming political parties. And in the era of the Pahlavi Dynasty [1925–1979], the leaders (despite overstepping their symbolic Constitutional roles) were able to neutralize religious influence and religious autocracy in the infrastructure of the educational, judicial, legislative, and executive systems. They were also able to achieve a level of modernity, the Westernization of Iran, which was the wish of the Constitutionalists and evangelists. This situation continued until the recent Islamic Revolution in 1978–79.
But it cannot be ignored that a group of recent thinkers, instead of benefiting from Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, gave their heart to the Russian October Revolution, and from all of Western culture they accepted only the ideology of Marx and Lenin. The original pro-Western Constitutionalists were called “Monavarolfekr” [that is, “The Enlightened” or “The Thinkers”]. And Iran’s Tudeh Party [Iran’s official Communist Party] named the new group of thinkers “Roshanfekr” [that is, “The Intellectuals”], a name that later became widely used by all. Of Western thinking, these groups knew only Marxist philosophy; if they were familiar with other philosophies, they did not openly acknowledge them. They considered Marxism the best and most comprehensive tool for understanding the world, and they probably still do.
These intellectuals, in accordance with their principles and beliefs, opposed not only Islam but also all other religions. And since their opposition—contrary to promoters of Erfan and Constitutionalism—was based on a foreign ideology (that is, the notion of “the entire world as one nation”), not on their interest in Iranian nationalism and culture, they could not create any significant intellectual movement. And the best evidence to support this statement is the political behavior of Marxist intellectuals: They interrupted the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry [in 1951]. They participated in overthrowing the Mosaddegh government [in 1953]. And finally, in the 1960s, some adopted religion (for example, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who adopted religion only superficially, and Dr. Ali Shariati, whose religious beliefs were genuine and heartfelt; their followers united with Khomeini and his team in the 1978–79 revolution).
Therefore, let us put aside the recent Marxist movement and also the inclinations of Iranian intellectuals toward Marxism–Islam (which never established any base among the majority of people, and even if it had, it would not be counted as an Iranian ideology), and let us analyze the characteristics of Erfan and Constitutionalism, the two Iranian thinkers’ movements after Islam:
- Erfan and Constitutionalism were both created as a result of Iranian military defeats, the first after the domination of Moslem Arabs, and the second after the Russian Czar’s victories.
- Erfan and Constitutionalism both fought against religion—Erfan with its “sinful” statements by Halláj (“I am the God”), the aggressive words of Bayazid, who screamed “Man sold his God for a bite of the apple… . Heaven is only a game for children14,” and finally, with the sarcastic words of Hāfez: “My father sold the story of Heaven for two grains / I would be a bastard if I didn’t sell it for barley,” and Constitutionalism with its principles of separation of religion and state and replacement of religious identity with national identity.
- Erfan and Constitutionalism were both designed and developed by thinkers, but Erfan stayed within their exclusive circle, while Constitutionalism penetrated among the masses.
From this analysis we can conclude that the success of any ideological belief depends on its penetration among the masses, and one of the conditions of this approach is to pay attention to people’s emotional sensitivities, especially their religious beliefs. Because direct and open opposition to religion creates the opposite results (as witness the Eastern Bloc after the collapse of the Communist government), religious power and its penetration among the people actually increases. Perhaps due to the same direct conflict, Erfan was originally rejected by the masses and was never able to find its way among the Iranian people. Also, perhaps due to the Constitutionalists’ indirect opposition to religion, their ideologies were disseminated deeply among many people, and they were able to gain supporters such as Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan.
But I believe the reason for the eventual failure of both movements—despite the difference in their approaches—is, as Erich Fromm15 observed in comparing Marxism with Freudianism, that Marx never paid any attention to “individual man,” and Freud missed the “human society” completely. Therefore, neither of their ideologies is complete. If we accept the logic of Erich Fromm, we can say that Erfan identified the path to resurrection as an individual journey but did not address social challenges. On the contrary, Constitutionalism was purely a social ideology and did not prescribe any medicine for individual pains.
And we Iranians—with or without awareness—have experienced the resulting disappointment from these two movements in our lives today. In addition, if every military loss—like our losses to the Arabs and the Russians—stirs us to think, then we now have a heritage of dual loss, from ourselves and also from outside. With a different interpretation, even though the recent domination of turban-wearers on Iran was not the result of an attack by foreign forces, it has created a condition in our country similar to the condition when the Arabs attacked our country [in the seventh century]. So we can say that the establishment of the Islamic Republic marks the rule of the Arabs over Iran again. And we should not forget that the domination of the same turban-wearers was indeed followed by an attack by foreign forces. And our Persian homeland—after an eight-year war—was defeated by the Arab Iraqis.
Therefore, we can say that creating a third significant thinkers’ movement (after Erfan and Constitutionalism) is a necessity of our time. The solution does not lie in Erfan, that is, in an individualistic ideology, but instead in the two principles of Constitutionalism, namely, separation of religion and state, and replacement of religious identity with national identity. In other words, the solution lies in an ideology based on modern nationalism, and that nationalism, in addition to protecting individual rights and group rights of all Iranians, must also guarantee equality among genders, races, and religions for all Iranians.
But first, the idea that I am talking about is not nationalism itself but is based on nationalism, and second, achieving this nationalism is not possible without safeguarding the financial and spiritual welfare of the people, nor is it possible under the rule of a military or a theocratic government.
Now, after this second Muslim occupation of Iran, it is time for Iranians to establish the third significant intellectual movement in Iran.
- 1“The Voyage” in the collection Flowers of Pain (Les Fleurs du Mal) by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867).
- 2Translator: Baudelaire’s poem opens as follows (translated by William A. Sigler):
To the child, passionate for maps and stamps,
The Universe is equal to his appetite.
Ah! That the world looks large in the clarity of lamps
But tiny in hindsight.
- 3Please refer to (a) “Conflicts of Blasphemy and Religion in Hāfez,” Nima, No. 2, Winter 1989 (1367), Los Angeles, pp. 11–38, and (b) “East in Exile and Exile in the West,” Iran-Nameh, No. 2, Spring 1371, Washington, pp. 251–264. [Both articles are by Nader Naderpour.]
- 4Translator: “brotherhood and equality” is an old Mazdaki slogan familiar to Iranians in the Sassanid era. (The word Mazdaki refers to both a follower of Mazdak and to his beliefs. For more information, see Mazdak in the Translator’s Notes section.) The Iranian Salman Farsi, an Arab sympathizer who aided and abetted the Arabs in their conquest of Iran, taught the Arabs this slogan in an effort to help identify the Arab forces as Iranian supporters. Farsi’s strategy was very successful: The slogan ultimately weakened the resistance of Iranians against the Arabs.
- 5Translator: In Hinduism, a follower of Brahma. Hindus believe in three Gods: Brahma the great God, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. At the heart of Hinduism is the pantheistic principle of Brahman, that all reality is a unity. They believe the entire universe is one divine entity.
- 6Translator: In Buddhism, Nirvana, release from all worldly desires and limitations, is the ultimate objective. Nirvana is a transcendental condition that cannot be defined or described; it is neither a place nor a state of mind. When the Buddha was asked where someone goes when he has attained Nirvana, he answered, “Where does a flame go when it is blown out?”
- 7Please refer to Ali Mir Fetrous: Halláj, 5th ed. Tehran, Iran: Kar Publisher, pp. 154–155.
- 8Please refer to Ali Mir Fetrous: Halláj, 5th ed. Tehran, Iran: Kar Publisher, pp. 154–155.
- 9Translator: In Persian myth, the term “jam-e jam” refers to Jamshid’s bowl, which he used to see the future.
- 10Please refer to Jalaludin Molavi: Masnavi Manavi, The Nicholson Edition, Vol. 3. Tehran, Iran: Toloue Publisher, pp. 574–575.
- 11This is the second line of a Rubáiyát that Sadegh Hedayat relates to Khayyām, but it can’t be found in any reputable copy of Khayyām’s collected poems.
- 12I have selected the term andishvar (in Persian it means “thinker”) as the synonym for the French term intellectual. This term is given to those selected few in the West that due to their capabilities in comprehending the great historical thinking movements have the competence of judgment among them. Neither of the two terms monavarolfekr (“enlightened”) and roshanfekr (“intellectual”) gives this meaning in Persian
- 13The Renaissance, meaning “new birth,” is the name of the fifteenth–sixteenth century movement that freed the European continent from the domination of the church. The Renaissance opened the doors of Europe on one side to ancient Greek culture and on the other side to modern science and industry.
- 14Please refer to Ali Mir Fetrous: Halláj, 5th ed. Tehran, Iran: Kar Publisher, p. 149.
- 15Erich Fromm, German psychologist and sociologist (1900–1980), who became a U.S. citizen and wrote various books, such as The Art of Loving and The Fear of Freedom.
Here Naderpour uses this slogan to blame the thinkers of that time for not warning the people of the obvious trick, for not showing them that this foreign force had no intention of establishing “brotherhood and equality” among Iranians. Of course, the Iranian people eventually learned the truth behind this stratagem, but only after paying dearly for this lesson.