Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda and the Project of Religious Reform

The year 2016 marks the 110th anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution and the 60th anniversary of the death of Ali-Akbar Dehkhodā (d. 1956). Dehkhodā was a journalist contributing to the weekly social democratic paper Sur-e Esrāfil (henceforth SE) in 1907-1908. He published a series of satirical columns under the title Charand-o-parand and several editorials. SE adopted an uncompromising anti-colonialist position and routinely exposed the machinations of Western diplomats in Iran, specifically those of Russia and Great Britain. The paper was critical of the new monarch Mohammad‐Ali Shah, who began a relentless battle against the new constitutional order. SE was also heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideas and dabbled in contemporary European discussions on social democracy. But by far the paper’s harshest criticisms were reserved for the clerical establishment, those from the lowest ranking members of the caste of mullas, who were blamed for propagating superstition, and those belonging to the highest echelons (mojtaheds) such as Shaykh Fazlollāh Nuri, who had openly sided with the anti‐constitutionalist faction.
What is very little discussed about this classic work of Persian literature is that SE also initiated a new discourse on religious reform in a series of editorials written by Dehkhodā that called for the establishment of a rationalist Islam based primarily on the Qur’an and the legacies of early Islam. These editorials continued the work of the freethinker Sheikh Hadi Najmabadi in the late nineteenth century. SE’s criticism of the religious establishment centered on the argument that popular and ritualistic Shi’ism, which focused on veneration of the imams, was anathema to both early Islamic principles and the requirements of a modern rational religion. A close reading indicates that Dehkhodā was undermining three central pillars of Shi’ism – the notions of khātamiyat (the idea that prophecy ended with Muhammad, which he reinterpreted in a creative way by suggesting that each individual must take responsibility for his actions), shafā‘at (intercession, especially that of Shi’i imams), and mahdaviya (the reemergence of the Twelfth Imam). This line of argument was later continued by Shariat Sangelaji in the 1930s-1940s and ultimately was incorporated into Kasravi’s Pak Dini in the 1940s. This paper is based on a new translation of Charand-o-parand by Afary and John R. Perry (Yale UP, 2016) and Afary’s work-in-progress on the rationalist school of reform in modern Iran.