Qom, Iran – The year was 1979. An Islamic revolution had just overthrown Iran‘s powerful US-backed king, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was now in charge of what for centuries had been an ancient empire.
In the months after Khomeini seized power, Iran’s revolutionaries began the difficult work of rebuilding government institutions using Islam as a guide.
The first major act of the new leaders was to hold a referendum. On March 30 and 31, the shaky leadership asked all Iranians over the age of 16 a simple yes or no question: should Iran be an Islamic republic?
Looking back, it may seem strange to ask that of a country that had just experienced a successful Islamic revolution. But even though Mohammad Raza Pahlavi – the shah of Iran – was gone, Iranians remained divided about what they wanted the future to look like. At the time, the Islamic Republic of Iran was far from a foregone conclusion.
In one of his first speeches after returning from exile, before the revolution had taken hold, Khomeini seemed to know he would have to put his leadership claim to some kind of vote.
“I must tell you that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that evil traitor, has gone. He fled and plundered everything. He destroyed our country and filled our cemeteries. He ruined our country’s economy,” Khomeini said.
“I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me.”
But even after Pahlavi’s removal, revolutionaries were hit by infighting, the new government was still suppressing anti-revolution dissent in parts of the country, and just weeks before the referendum tens of thousands of women marched in the streets of Tehran to protest against a new mandatory veil law.
For Khomeini and his supporters, the referendum was a way to legitimise their rule. Nearly 99 percent of Iranians voted in favour of abandoning Iran’s old constitution and using Islam as the blueprint to write a new one. The vote and its results were scrutinised by critics all over the world. But in December, Iranians voted again in favour of ratifying their new Islamic constitution.
Today, defenders of the Islamic system of government point to the referendum as a democratic mandate for Iran’s current theocratic system.
It’s one of the lesser known events of 1979, but the referendum was a pivotal moment that fused religion and politics, and transformed Iran’s legislative landscape.
Iran’s transformation from empire to the Islamic Republic began in Khomeini’s hometown of Qom in the 1960s. One too many fiery speeches admonishing the royal family forced him into exile in 1964. He spent 15 years away from home, much of it in another city of religious scholars – Najaf in Iraq. But that didn’t stop him from criticising the shah of Iran for making concessions to Western powers that he saw as a violation of Iranian sovereignty.
He smuggled letters and bootleg cassette tapes into Iran, using an underground network of mosques and seminaries. His speeches, played in homes around the country, became the bedrock of the revolution to come.
Mahmoud Mohammadi Yazdi is the caretaker of Khomeini’s family home in Qom. He was one of Khomeini’s students and a young man at the time of the revolution. He was with him during his exile in Najaf and says Khomeini’s primary motivation was to improve the lives of ordinary people.
“He was perfect in every way,” Yazdi said. “Everyone liked him.”
Khomeini’s followers remain fiercely loyal. At his request, Yazdi risked his own life to return to Iran as part of a first wave of the revolution.
“We all accepted whatever he said,” Yazdi said. “Two years before the revolution, he wanted someone to come to Iran [and] he said it is dangerous but there is no one to go but me. I told him if he is OK with it, I would go.
“I came here and I faced hardships, but it was not a big problem. I was arrested here in Qom and later I was released. But if [the authorities] knew why I was there, they would never have let me go. We believed what we were doing was the right thing. We all thought the same way; it was just for God and Imam [Khomeini].”
Khomeini was becoming much more than a champion for common people. His revolution changed him as much as it changed Iran, transforming him from dutiful Muslim leader to monumental political figure. He may have considered his actions at the time to be a spiritual calling. But the wheels he set in motion decades ago made religion a right of passage for modern-day Iranian political life.
Getting anything done in the capital, Tehran, often means getting the blessing of Muslim leaders who oversee elected officials. In place for 40 years, this system has made Qom, Iran’s religious heartland, one of the most important cities in the country.
“If before the revolution, very few young people were interested in entering [Islamic seminaries], today many youths that would have been educated in universities in the past are entering [Islamic seminaries],” said Seyyed Ali Mousavi, a professor in one of Qom’s many religious institutions.
Before the Islamic Revolution, Mousavi said, religious scholars were primarily concerned with how Iranians conducted their spiritual lives. After 1979, their public role changed drastically.
“After the [1979 Islamic Revolution], other than their social role, clergies took on political roles,” he said, adding, “not just in parliament, they even entered other branches of government. So, they became more influential.
“Today, the impact of seminaries and clergies on the social space of Iran, as well as politics, is greater than in the past. It has meant clergies have dual roles, and that both have been expanded. Firstly, in society and secondly in the ruling class.”
For Iran’s younger generations, the religious study has become a precursor to any ambitions of government work. The city is filled with young men and women in their 20s, hoping to someday climb the political ladder in the capital.
One seminary student running between classes was clear in his assessment about the value of religious education in modern-day Iranian politics.
“The most important issue in any society is its ideology,” he said. “The ideology of Islam is the best and the clerics of Qom have the right ideology. So, because it is where the clerics are, Qom is Iran’s most important city.”