If hostility or indifference to serious intellectual culture has been a growing trend within the Atlantic world over the past decades, in Iran, where Jalal Al-e Ahmad penned On the Service and Treason of Intellectuals over forty years ago, arguably the reverse is true. When Habermas visited Tehran in 2002, and Rorty two years later, thousands flocked to attend their speeches, overflowing the lecture halls. A daily supplement to the Etemaad newspaper, shuttered this past February, could likely contain an interview on Austro-Marxism, an exegesis of Kant, or fifteen pages given over to contemporary Iranian novelists and poets, available at almost every kiosk. Not for nothing did the cultural theorist Dariush Shayegan describe the country as the Germany of the Islamic world—the land of philosophy. It could be said that Dariush Mehrjui’s mischievous portrayal of the post-revolutionary Iranian intellectual scene in his 1990 film Hamoun retains its bite: a failed philosopher torturing himself into an existential tizzy, occasionally spouting half-hearted leftist slogans from his younger days, while his boss lionizes the East Asian capitalist miracle. But nevertheless, this is a field in flux: Iran’s is a fast-changing society, in which received ideologies—whether the Islamic Republic’s theocratic nationalism, or varieties of Western liberalism and ‘modernization theory’—inevitably clash with uneven social, political and economic realities. Written before the 2009 presidential elections, and the rise and fall of the Green Movement, but scarcely outdated by those events, Mehran Kamrava’s Iran’s Intellectual Revolution attempts an up-to-date mapping of the outcomes.

Kamrava joins an already crowded field. Hamid Dabashi’s Theology of Discontent (1993) subjected the pre-1979 writings of Iranian religious thinkers, both lay and clerical, to a microscopic examination, reconstructing their ideological stances in the light of the legitimacy crisis of Pahlavi modernization, and lending a Furet-tinged wholeness to the role of Shia Islamic political thought in the prelude to the Revolution. Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West (1996) covered wider territory. In Saidian wrapping, it offered a sociology of the clergy as organic intellectuals of the popular classes, radicalized in opposition to the Shah’s 1960s education and land reforms which eroded the ulama’s status and religious-endowment lands. Equipped with capable orators, strong local networks, a robust ‘counterculture’, centralized leadership and a blueprint for action, the clergy, Boroujerdi argued, was the only force poised to compete for political power in 1979. More broadly, his book traced the development of a ‘nativist’ discourse in Iranian thinking, which dichotomized all social questions into their relation with an essentialized West. A decade later, Abbas Kazemi’s Sociology of the Religious Intellectual Movement in Iran (2004) was one of many works that presented the ‘new religious intellectuals’ of the 1990s—the best known being Abdolkarim Soroush—as epistemological agents of Iran’s belated acceptance of modernity, able to indigenize the ‘grand concepts’ and craft a path to the religious democracy epitomized in the early rhetoric of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. In Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s collection of essays, Islam and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Iran (2008), Soroush is cast as a democratic theologian, exemplifying how the politicization of Islam has in fact secularized the sacred in Iran, the unintended outcome of a religion made public in every sense of the word.

Kamrava, based at Georgetown University’s outpost in Qatar, might broadly be assimilated to this approach. His book’s title is something of a misnomer: rather than an ‘intellectual revolution’, it schematizes a triangular intellectual contest between three ‘distinct yet overlapping’ discourses, expressions of different ‘ideological identities’: conservative-religious, reformist-religious and secular-modernist. The first is the officially sanctioned discourse of the traditionalist clergy, many of whom were active in the Revolution, and whose rule was consolidated in the 1979 Constitution, which enshrined the position of ‘Supreme Religious Guide’—the velayat-e faqih, or Absolute Jurisconsult—at the pinnacle of the state. The second trend, emerging out of the first, and in reaction to it, is ‘articulated primarily by intellectuals who were themselves once key figures within the post-revolutionary establishment’. From the late 1990s, it found itself ‘unexpectedly but quite happily’, on Kamrava’s view, ‘in political tandem with “the reform movement”’, and thereafter has shared the same ‘often-bumpy road’. The third discourse is a refurbished secular-modernist one, still ‘somewhat embryonic’. Successive chapters of Iran’s Intellectual Revolution discuss the key thinkers of each trend. Unlike Boroujerdi, for example, Kamrava offers no sociological contextualization for his intellectual pen portraits, nor any empirically grounded assessment of the relative weight of the three discourses within Iranian society. But his summaries of the various bodies of work are crisply efficient.

An introductory chapter situates today’s thinkers as the fourth generation of modern Iranian intellectuals, following Ramin Jahanbegloo’s influential characterization of a ‘fourth wave’. The first generation had emerged around the period of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution; the second was broadly associated with the developmental project of the Pahlavi dynasty; the third was the ‘revolutionary generation’ of the 1960s and 70s—against which, from the 1990s onwards, the fourth wave has sought to define itself. It might be thought that the religious conservatives, by definition, would stand outside this classification. But upon examination, the ‘tradition’ of the traditionalists turns out to be of rather recent date. Kamrava distinguishes four tendencies within ‘conservative-religious discourse’: ‘Hezbollahi’ radicals, including most basij members, past and present; Islamic councils, active on campuses and in professional associations; traditionalist clergy, including most Friday Prayer imams and the Leaders’ Representatives on state bodies; and (more adaptable) neo-conservatives. Regrettably, though, Kamrava focuses only on the latter two, as responsible for ‘the most serious production of ideology’, omitting any discussion of the means by which Iran’s revolutionary institutions, such as the barely studied basij, reproduce and renew themselves.

The key differences between the traditionalist and ‘neo-conservative’ clergy centre around the role of ijtihad, or interpretation of the holy scripture: who can practise it and how it should be done. This naturally emerged as a huge question for the post-revolutionary government, as Shia clerics struggled to run an oil-producing state and mass-consumer society on the basis of an essentially pre-modern jurisprudence. Traditionalists emphasize the value of the experience and worldview gained by years of religious study; only those with the correct training—the ulama, or learned ones—possess the knowledge necessary to produce new interpretations. For Kamrava, the arch-representative of this tendency is the Qom-based Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who explains:

The Islam that we believe in is what has been interpreted by the Twelve Imams and, alongside them, by fourteen centuries of juridical work by the ulama. That is the interpretation that informs our understanding of Islam. If there are new interpretations that call for alterations to the teachings of Islam and the creation of a new Islam, we want nothing to do with them. And I do not think the average Muslim wants anything to do with this new Islam either, or with Muslim ‘Babs’ [doors to new exegeses] or ‘Martin Luthers’.

This Burkean disquisition then adds that the responsibilities of an Islamic government include ‘social and economic development’, ideally led by a velayat-e faqih. The transference from religious jurisprudence to political jurisprudence is not new, conservatives argue, but has been required since the days of the Prophet by the conception of Islam as a ‘total’ religion. In fact, of course, Islamdom has always made prudent allowance for wide variations of local custom and mores wherever political rule was involved. In Mesbah-Yazdi’s formulation, though, legitimacy comes not from a social contract, cultural norms or political institutions such as constitutions and elections, but from above: ‘No one has the right to rule over others unless given the legitimacy to do so by God.’ On this basis, the velayat-e faqih is the leader of the state because the ulama deem it so in accordance with their ijtihad. This—almost avowedly circular—justification for rule underpins the more infamous quotes by Mesbah-Yazdi, often used as political fodder by the reformists, on the unimportance of Iranian elections or mass participation in political life. Whether the ulama are best represented by the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member body of clerics that appoints and can dismiss the Supreme Guide, and whose typical member is an septuagenarian, is another issue.