Iran Rising

The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic

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Amin Saikal
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Amin Saikal frames Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic as a study of the Iranian government’s oscillation “between its religious legitimacy and pragmaticpolicies … over the last four decades and the reason for it” (2). While the history of Iranian politics in the period following the 1979 revolution is certainly a worthy object of ongoing study, Iran Rising deviates from the norms of academic scholarship on Iran in a number of ways; it suffers from linguistic and terminological imprecision, appears shallowly researched, and, as a work of historical scholarship, operates according to outdated assumptions about historical agency. 

Saikal claims that “the normal Persian transliteration is used” for the Persian words that appear in Iran Rising (xiii). However, its transliterations do not adhere to the systems of the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES)Iranian Studies, or the Library of Congress. Moreover, his transliterations are internally inconsistent; for example, on the same page, he transliterates the same Perso-Arabic vowel as “o” on one line and as “u” on the next—he spells one word Mobarez and the other Anjuman (53; for the sake of consistency, I will adhere to the IJMES standard in this review). This imprecision also extends to both the meanings of terms as well as their spellings. 

Iran Rising’s conceptual framework rests on this faulty religious and terminological foundation. Saikal characterizes the interplay of jihādī and ijtihādī elements as the driving tension of post-revolutionary Iranian politics; these are the two poles between which the above-mentioned oscillation occurs. Saikal translates jihādī as “combative” and ijtihādī as “reformist” (4). He uses “the terms ‘traditionalists,’ ‘conservatives,’ and ‘hard-liners’ to refer to jihadis and ‘reformist’ and ‘moderates’ to identify ijtihadis” (xiii). Elsewhere, he even presents internationalism as an ijtihādī inclination (8). However, this neglects the ways in which the term ijtihād has actually appeared within the tradition of Shīʿī legal scholarship, where it is not simply “independent reasoning,” as Saikal has it, but rather is instead more specifically defined as “expending of one’s utmost effort in the inquiry into legal questions admitting of only probable answers” (Aron Zysow, “Ejtehād,” Encyclopedia Iranica, 2011). Ijtihād, therefore, refers to a scholarly practice rather than a political orientation, and the active participle derived from it, mujtahid, refers to a rank within the clerical hierarchy. However, many of these practitioners of ijtihād advocate political positions that Saikal would likely call jihādī (in that they fall on the conservative or anti-reformist side of current Iranian politics). This, in turn, suggests that the jihādī-ijtihādī binary may not be as applicable as Saikal suggests and is, at the very least, an unstable foundation for an academic book.

The above imprecisions may be unlikely to trouble a non-specialist, but they are unfortunately symptomatic of a more general tendency toward neglect of scholarly norms—a tendency Saikal’s research also evinces: Iran Rising’s relies almost entirely on secondary sources, most of which were written in English; I only counted five Persian sources in the book’s bibliography. Moreover, most of these Persian sources were published outside of Iran (the BBC’s Persian Service appears frequently). The bibliography, therefore, suffers from a severe lack of Iranian primary sources, a major oversight for a book published by an academic press. The weakness of its sources is only one of a number of methodological shortcomings; Saikal’s fundamental assumptions about historical agency being another major point of concern.

Iran Rising’s basic narrative suggests that Saikal believes in the “great man” theory of history. He seems to assume that Āyat Allāh Khumaynī and his close associates were themajor force in shaping Iran’s revolution-and-immediate-post-revolutionary history, just as Khumaynī’s successor, Āyat Allah Khāminahʾī and other prominent politicians have been responsible for events in Iran since Khumaynī’s death. At one point, Saikal writes that the revolution “opened the arena for what emerged as a radical Shia Islamic order under the leadership of the Shah’s main political and religious opponent, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini”—neglecting both the centrality of leftists to the revolution, and the dependence of the revolution and what followed it upon a much larger portion of the population than one cleric returning from exile (24). Similarly, Saikal appears to believe that the central question of the post-Khumaynī era is how Khāminahʾī “succeeded in exercising as much, if not more, power and authority than his predecessor” (94-95). Such emphasis on particular personalities has long since fallen out of favor with academic historians and, although one may attempt to defend Saikal’s approach as a symptom of Iranian Studies’ particular underdevelopment as a field, a number of other more promising works on the history of Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic have not centered on the aforementioned personalities, and instead studied networks of actors. As early as 1994, Annabelle Sreberny and Ali Mohammadi’s Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution focused on the centrality of activist networks’ circulation of tapes and leaflets to the building of a revolutionary movement in Iran. More recently, Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi’s 2019 Revolution and Its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran (University of Minnesota Press) has taken a more network-focused approach to the intellectual currents that shaped Iranian politics after the revolution; and Naghmeh Sohrabi’s 2019 article in IJMES, “Remembering the Palestine Group: Global Activism, Friendship, and the Iranian Revolution” focused on the centrality of informal networks to Iranian activism in the immediate pre-revolutionary period. 

In spite of these shortcomings, Iran Rising’s account of events is basically accurate and it may therefore be of some value to those seeking an introduction to recent Iranian history and its most prominent figures. Unfortunately, those seeking deeper historical scholarship, or a nuanced analysis, may have to look elsewhere. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ames is an Independent Scholar based in New York. He received his doctorate from Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in May 2018.

Date of Review: 
July 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.



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