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The University of Southampton

HIST1145 From Shah to Ayatollah: The Establishment of the Clerical Power in Iran (1979 to Today)

Module Overview

The 1979 Revolution unexpectedly established a clerical regime in Iran for the first time in its history. What were the roots and consequences of this Revolution? This module surveys this history from an anti-Shah movement initiated by university students culminating in the 1979 Revolution, to the Islamic Revolution. The 1979 and Islamic Revolutions are often discussed as one and the same in the current historiography. In this module you will test the validity of this historical narrative. You will also reflect on the rise and consolidation of the clerics’ power: did this originate in the nineteenth century when the clerics became increasingly involved in politics or is the clerical regime better understood as a result of modernising forces in the twentieth century? In doing so, you will get to grips with some of the major concepts in Islam, including the formation of Islam, the relationship between religion and politics, differences between Shi’a and Sunnites, and the concepts of spiritual and political authority.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The historical background of the rise of the ulama
  • The key concepts in the Constitution of the clerical regime
  • The historical and socio-political contexts within which the clerical regime took shape
  • The emergence of ‘reformism’ from within the clerical regime
  • The relationship between Islam and modernity
  • The internal (local) and external (international) factors that contributed to what is called ‘export of the Islamic Revolution’
  • The representation of Islamic power in the media
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Read primary and secondary sources critically
  • Explain, and engage with, the different historiographical approaches, in writing and in discussion
  • Express your own view when engaged in scholarly debate
  • Structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered presentations and essays
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Use a range of perspectives in problem-solving
  • Critically analyse a diverse range of source material
  • Organise and structure material to write and present confidently
  • Participate actively in group discussions and debate
  • Communicate a coherent and convincing argument in both oral and written formats


This module studies the establishment of the clerical regime in Iran from 1979 onwards. It will examine three major phases of the rise of the ulama (the Shiite clerics) to power: their status and activity under Mohammad-Reza Shah (1941-79), the 1979 Revolution, and the Islamic Revolution. These two Revolutions are often perceived as one and the same in the current historiography. The module will analyse this predominant discourse by reassessing the events that led to the anti-Shah Revolution of 1979 that ended with the Shah’s departure to exile. The anti-Shah movement was reflected in the first Constitution drafted by the Paris Circle intellectuals (who accompanied Khomeini in Paris) on the model of the French Fifth Republic Constitution. It was after the departure of the Shah that the clerics began creating their own state through a series of projects that they call Islamic Revolution. The clerical regime is founded on an everlasting ‘Islamic Revolution’ to the Day of the Resurgence of Mahdi (Messiah of the Shiites). This phase was inaugurated by a new Constitutional Order that resulted in the creation of several Clerical Councils. The history of the Islamic regime has been marked by a persisting tension between two parallel constitutions: a Constitutional Law initially drafted by the Paris circle that guaranteed the sovereignty of people through universal suffrage, and an Islamic Constitution that altered the first Constitution to include clerical councils (such as assembly of the Islamic Experts, the Guardian of the Revolution, etc.) with the aim of institutionalising the sovereignty of the ulama. In a teleological manner, modern historiography re-wrote history of the clerics by arguing that their rise to power was the culmination of a historical process that dates back to the early nineteenth century and through which the clerics aimed to take power. It was the 1979 Revolution and the creation of the Islamic regime that gave rise to this historiography (H. Algar, V. Martin, S. A. Arjomand, Shahrough Akhavi, etc.). This module will consider whether the rise of clerics to power and the consolidation of their power was a phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries rather than rooted in the history of the nineteenth century. In addition, the module will also study the major concepts in Islam, such as the formation of Islam, relationship between religion and politics, differences between Shi’a and Sunnites, and the concepts of spiritual and political authority that have always been thorny questions since the rise of Islam. This debate will be applied to the history of clerical regime in Iran. The seminar topics will likely include: The position of the Shiite ulama in Iran in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries The authority of Shiite jurist consults (marja’ taqlid = Source of emulation) The Shah and Khomeini Shari’ati and Modern Shiism Ayatollah Khomeini, before and after 1979 After Khomeini Ayatollah Khamenei and Oil revenue The Clerical power and anti-Americanism

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • Short Lectures • Seminar Discussions Learning activities include • Independent reading using resources available in the library • Using and examining primary sources • Note-taking in lectures • Active participation in class discussions You will use reading lists provided by the module convener to guide your reading and preparation for weekly seminars. You will be expected to make contributions to seminar discussions based on your preparatory reading.

Completion of assessment task20
Preparation for scheduled sessions45
Follow-up work45
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Kingshuk Chatterjee (2011). ‘Ali Shari’ati and the Shaping of Political Islam in Iran. 

Ali M. Ansari (2006). Iran, Islam, and democracy: the politics of managing change. 

Ali M. Ansari (1998). Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi & the myth of imperial authority. 

Ervand Abrahamian (1993). Iran between two revolutions. 

Nikki R. Keddie (2003). Modern Iran, Roots and Results of Revolution. 

Ervand Abrahamian (2008). A History of Modern Iran. 

Ervand Abrahamian (1993). Khomeinism, Essays on the Islamic Republic. 

Ali M. Ansari (2003). Modern Iran since 1921: the Pahlavis and after. 

Abbas Milani, The Shah, free download, PDF.

Janet Afary, (1996). The Iranian constitutional revolution, 1906-1911: grassroots democracy, social democracy & the origins of feminism. 

Ali M. Ansari (2012). The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran. 

Hamid Dabashi (2006). Theology of discontent: the ideological foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. 

Aziz al-Azmeh (2009). Islam and Modernities. 

Janet Afary (2005). Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: gender and the seductions of Islamism. 

Nikki R. Keddie (1999). Qajar Iran and the Rise of Reza Khan 1796-1925. 

Ali M. Ansari (2006). Confronting Iran: the failure of American foreign policy and the roots of mistrust. 

Stephen Kinzer (2004). All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal, on-module feedback:  non-assessed oral presentations  tutorials to provide consultation on assessed essays  guidance and advice in class on preparation, completion and presentation of assignments  regular work with primary sources to prepare for the essay and examination exercises The link between assessment and learning outcomes • The commentary exercise will test your ability to think analytically about primary sources provided in the class (including speeches or statements to the press) and situate them in the broader historiographical debates about clerical power in Modern Iran. • The essay and exam will be used to test your knowledge of the Islamic regime, and relationship between traditional and modernity in Iran today. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. The presentations (by you and your fellow students) and your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated by these presentations will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written sources. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the essay and examination exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions. Responses from tutor and your fellow students to your presentation will also give you formative feedback.


MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary exercise 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Examination  (1 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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