by Hamid Algar
Ayatullah Sayyid Mahmud Taleghani was born on Rabi‘ 1 4, 1329/March 5, 1911, in the village of Gelird in the Taliqan district of northern Iran.1 Although his career was spent chiefly in Qum and Tehran, he never lost touch with his native village; he frequently revisited it, sometimes taking with him those he had befriended in Tehran to partake of its purity and simplicity. The candor and rejection of pretension that were such marked features of Taleghani throughout his life were primarily, no doubt, inborn characteristics, but it may be that they were nurtured by this rural environment he never entirely forsook.
The earliest and possibly decisive influence on his life was that of his father, Hujjat al-Islam Abu ’l -Hasan Taleghani. After studying in the shrine cities of Iraq, first under the great scholar Mirza Hasan Shirazi (known as Mujaddid, “ the Renewer” ) and then under Ayatullah Mustafa Sadr, the elder Taleghani came to Tehran in 1317/1899 and began to preach and teach at various mosques in the city. He always insisted, however, on providing for his own livelihood, and practiced the trade of watchmaker until his death in 1350/1931. He also distinguished himself from the majority of his contemporaries among the Iranian ‘ulama by engaging in various forms of political activity, thus foreshadowing the more significant achievements of his son. He was an associate of Sayyid Hasan Mudarris, the chief clerical opponent of the Pahlavi dictatorship in its early years, and frequently held clandestine meetings in his watchmaker’s shop. He was also the leading figure in a circle of religious scholars and Islamically inclined laymen that met regularly in the house of Mehdi Bazargan’s father in Tehran to discuss religious matters and answer the queries of various non-Muslims, some of whom came to embrace Islam as a result. The circle also put out a magazine called Balaghy to which eminent figures such as the literary scholar Abu ’l-Hasan Furughi contributed.2 As a consequence of these activities, the elder Taleghani was repeatedly banished to various remote parts of Iran.
Ayatullah Mahmud Taleghani’s first teacher and mentor then was his father, this modest and militant scholar. For his advanced training in the religious sciences, he proceeded to Qum some time in the early 1930’s. There he studied at the Razaviya and Fayziya madrasas under Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri, the reorganizer of the religious teaching institution in Qum, and under Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Khwansari, Ayatullah Hujjat Kuhkamari, and Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Yazdi.
Like the elder Taleghani, Yazdi was a man of militant disposition. Arrested for political activity hostile to Riza Shah, he was assigned to forced residence at the shrine city of Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim, just to the south of Tehran. Ayatullah Taleghani went to visit him there, and Yazdi showed his pupil the marks left on his body by the whippings he had endured in prison. He implored him to devote his life to awakening the religious institution and directing its energies to the service of the nation. The whole of Taleghani’s subsequent career may be taken as a determined response to this plea of Ayatullah Yazdi.
He completed his religious training in 1318/1939, receiving certificates of ijtihad from several teachers. Then he immediately proceeded to Tehran, where he began teaching at the Sipahsalar madrasa and conducting clandestine sessions for the teaching of the Qur’an. Many of these sessions were held under the auspices of the Kanun-i Islam, an organization founded by Taleghani that met in a house on Khiaban-i Amiriya in Tehran and published a magazine called Danishamuz.3
Giving instruction in the correct meaning of the Qur’an and restoring it to its rightful, dominant position in Muslim society was one of the lifelong concerns of Ayatullah Taleghani; neglect of the Qur’an he held to be one of the major sources of Iran’s predicament. It seemed to him that the Qur’an was regarded either as an antique, of purely historical interest, or as a text for pious but mechanical recitation. “ Neither the world that is totally absorbed in science and invention nor the bankrupt world of the Muslims imagines that the Qur’an has any place in our lives,” he declared.4
Taleghani’s first essay in teaching the Qur’an led to his arrest and banishment from Tehran, but with the deposition of Riza Shah in 1941, he was able to return to the capital and embark on his career of religious teaching and political activism in earnest. He began teaching at the Hidayat Mosque, on Islambul Street in central Tehran; this mosque became inseparably linked with him, and remained the main center of his activity until the end of his life. The secularly educated young whom Taleghani aimed in particular to bring back to Islam were especially numerous among those who frequented the Hidayat Mosque. He pursued the same aim by giving numerous lectures to the Islamic societies that were springing up at the time, both in the universities and among professionals.
One of Taleghani’s chief concerns in addressing himself to the young was that they might be attracted to communism as an ideology of social change and political liberation unless Islam was presented to them in its true form and dimensions. This danger was real in the postwar period; the Tudeh Party was well organized, had a large membership, and enjoyed the powerful support of the Soviet Union. The communist threat to Iran manifested itself also in the patronage the Soviet Union extended to the separatist and anti-religious government of Ja'far Pishavari in Azarbayjan, and when the Iranian army advanced into Azarbayjan to sweep away the remnants of the Pishavari regime, Ayatullah Taleghani found it appropriate to accompany the troops as far as Zanjan, stimulating their religious and patriotic sentiments.5
Taleghani’s political activity was, however, more typically in collaboration with religious and political personalities opposed to the Pahlavi regime, such as Nawab Safavi, the founder and leader of the Fida’iyan-i Islam, and Ayatullah Kashani. With these two he shared a profound antipathy to Zionism, and he must indeed be counted as one of the earliest protagonists of the Palestinian cause in Iran. His ties to Safavi were particularly close. Safavi was a frequent visitor to Taleghani’s house in Tehran, and it was there that he found shelter when being hunted by the Shah’s police. Taleghani was also a major organizer of support for Dr. Muhammad Musaddiq in his campaign to nationalize the Iranian oil industry and curb the power of the Pahlavi monarchy. He frequently broadcast on behalf of Dr. Musaddiq, and did his utmost to prevent the split that took place between him and Kashani on the eve of the CIA-royalist coup of August 1953. In 1957, Taleghani founded the National Resistance Move ment (Nihzat-i Muqavamat-i Milli), the first broad-based movement of opposition to the resurgent Pahlavi dictatorship.
This earned him a second term of imprisonment, which lasted for more than a year. After his release, he returned to the Hidayat Mosque and soon resumed political activity. In 1960, he addressed a mass demonstration at the Maydan-i Arg, in central Tehran, fearlessly denouncing the policies of the regime. Public opposition to the regime had not been expressed so forcefully since the coup d ’etat of 1953, and Taleghani was arrested again. After his release the fol-lowing year, he joined together with Mehdi Bazargan and Yadullah Sahabi in founding the Iran Freedom Movement (Nihzat-I Azadi-yi Iran), a still extant organization that was the most widespread and effective oppositional group in the 1960’s. Arrested once more, in the company of the other leaders of the movement, Taleghani was released shortly before the uprising of Khurdad 15, 1342/June 5, 1963, which saw the emergence of Imam Khomeini as a national figure in Iran. Taleghani himself delivered a number of fierce anti-government sermons,6 and after the uprising had been put down, he distributed a celebrated brochure entitled “ The Dictator is Shedding Our Blood.” He was again arrested, and this time placed on public trial.
The trial was presided over by General Qarabaghi (last commander-in-chief of the Shah’s forces before the triumph of the Islamic Revolution), but Taleghani refused to be intimidated. He sat cross-legged on a chair, dozing through most of the seventy-seven sessions of the court, and when awakened and pressed for an answer to some question by the prosecution, he would answer only, “This court lacks the competence to try me.” When asked for a closing statement at the end of the trial, he contented himself with a recital of Surat al-‘Asr. He was sentenced to ten years in jail, but was released in 1968 after an international campaign of pressure on the Shah’s regime. It was during this period of imprisonment that Taleghani completed the early parts of his Qur’an commentary, Partuvi az Qur’an (“A Ray From the Qur’an”); some pages of this work are indeed transcripts of the lectures he gave to fellow prisoners on Qur’anic exegesis.7
After his release in 1968, Taleghani was temporarily prevented from resuming political activity, but in May 1970, when Ayatullah Muhammad Riza Sa'idi, one of the ‘ulama of Tehran, was arrested and tortured to death for denouncing the exploitation of Iran by American corporations, Taleghani organized mourning ceremonies at the Ghiyasi Mosque in Tehran. The ceremonies were declared illegal and Taleghani was arrested again, this time for a fairly short spell. In 1971, three of Taleghani’s former pupils and fellow inmates, Muhammad Hanif-Nizhad, Sa‘id Muhsin, and ‘Ali Asghar Badi‘zadagan, established the guerilla movement known as the Organization of People’s Mujahidin (Sazman-I Mujahidin-i Khalq). Although there were certain questionable aspects to the ideology and program of the Mujahidin—aspects that gave rise to the serious later perversions—the Mujahidin were originally viewed by a wide spectrum of Iranian Muslims as authentically Islamic and worthy of support.
Ayatullah Taleghani was foremost among the ‘ulama associated with them, and as a consequence he was arrested in 1971 and banished to the remote town of Zabul, near the Afghan frontier. He returned to Tehran three years later and resumed his secret collaboration with the Mujahidin. Within the Mujahidin, however, a change of ideological direction from Islam to Marxism was about to take place, facilitated no doubt by elements of materialism already present in the ideology of the Mujahidin but put into effect by the use of force against all dissenters. Taleghani was greatly disturbed by this development, and brought face to face with two of those responsible for it, Bahram Aram and Vahid Afrakhta, was threatened with death if he dared to speak out publicly. Shortly thereafter, Afrakhta was arrested by SAVAK and revealed to his interrogators the continuing links of Taleghani with the at least partially Islamic rump of the Mujahidin. Taleghani was thereupon arrested and condemned to ten years in jail.
This final confinement was brought to an end on October 30, 1978; as the mounting tide of the Islamic Revolution rapidly eroded the foundations of the Pahlavi state, Taleghani was released from Evin prison in Tehran to a tumultuous welcome from thousands of followers. From Neauphle-le-Chateau, Imam Khomeini sent a message congratulating him on his long struggle against the Shah’s regime and hailing his release as a further sign that “The battlements of the Shah’s imaginary fortress are crumbling.”8 Taleghani responded warmly, saying that he regarded his release as the result first of divine grace, and second of the struggles carried on by the Iranian people under the leadership of the Imam. He pledged himself to continued participation in the revolutionary struggle, and beseeched God to preserve the Imam for the sake of the Islamic Revolution.9
At the beginning of Muharram (December 2, 1978), Taleghani issued a statement denouncing the savage massacres being carried out by the regime, and called for mass participation in the mourning ceremonies that were to be carried out. Those ceremonies, he urged, should be political in content and should serve as a form of practical worship by destroying tyrannical rule and establishing Islamic government in its place.10 On the ninth of the month (December 10), Taleghani was at the head of a vast demonstration that proceeded to Freedom Square and ratified a twelve-point declaration calling for the establishment of an Islamic government under the leadership of Imam Khomeini.
After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, Ayatullah Taleghani performed several services important to its consolidation during the few remaining months of his life. When disturbances broke out in the Turkoman-inhabited regions of northeastern Iran and in Kurdistan, in many cases incited by remnants of the Shah’s regime working in grotesque harmony with leftist elements, Taleghani traveled to the affected areas to bring about reconciliation. He was a member both of the Revolutionary Council11 and of the Assembly of Experts that was elected on August 3, 1979, to prepare the constitution of the Islamic Republic. He was elected to the latter body with 2,016,851 votes, more than any other candidate received. A further proof of his widespread popularity came in the same month, when Imam Khomeini appointed him Imam Jum‘a of Tehran: millions of people came to pray behind him and hear his words in what was an exemplary revival of the Friday prayer rite.12
From the triumph of the Revolution until his death in September 1979, Taleghani strove constantly to maintain the unity of the Islamic movement—to prevent the emergence of dissension and the consequent weakening of the Islamic Republic. This led to certain misrepresentations of his political stance, both in Iran and abroad; it was suggested that he somehow represented an “ alternative” to Imam Khomeini, either independently or in collusion with Ayatullah Shari‘atmadari. Nothing could be further from the truth. This became particularly apparent in the course of an episode involving two of his sons in the spring of 1979. On April 12, they were arrested and held briefly for interrogation by a revolutionary committee in Tehran acting under the direction of Musa Namjuy (later Minister of Defense). One of the two, Sayyid Mujtaba, was involved in the group that organized the forceful Marxist takeover of the Mujahidin in 1975.13
Taleghani thereupon quit Tehran, not so much to protest what had happened as to prevent his partisans—both true and self-proclaimed—from creating a serious disturbance and threat to national unity. On April 18, Taleghani met with Imam Khomeini in Qum, and in a televised statement the following day, he proclaimed his unshakeable belief in the correctness of Imam Khomeini’s leadership. Even this did not silence all tongues, however, and on July 1, Taleghani found it necessary to reiterate the point with still greater emphasis:
We have in Ayatullah Khomeini so decisive a leader, one so imbued with faith and noble intentions that few can be found like him. Certain groups complain that they don’t have access to him. They have no reason to complain. He [Khomeini] has an attentive ear. Just as the Prophet did, he listens to what is said, and then orders what is both correct and feasible. Sometimes I go to Qum to discuss an important political matter, and the newspapers start making a noise; they speculate and write articles under banner headlines. But what takes place is an exchange of views. Whenever I begin to feel despair, I gain renewed confidence and determination from our decisive leader. If we are not grateful for his leadership, God will plunge us into torment as punishment for our ingratitude.14
Another misunderstanding concerning Taleghani’s role after the establishment of the Islamic Republic is that he was somehow inclined to leftist groups and favored their participation in the exercise of political power. However, as we have seen, one of the major concerns of Taleghani from the very beginning of his religio-political career was to stem the advances made by Marxism among Iranian youth. He differed from other religious leaders only in his belief that leftists could be won over to Islam by patient and respectful argument, a belief that he himself abandoned before his death. His disillusion with the rationality and sincerity of the left was caused in part by what he observed of their intrigues in Kurdistan and Turkmanistan:
Unfortunately, in the events that began in Kurdistan after the Revolution, in Turkmanistan, in the South [i.e., Khuzistan], the traces of leftist and pseudo-leftist groups were quite evident…. How much we tried to solve the problems through negotiations, through kindness, through talking things over, both with them [i.e., the separatists] and with the leftists, those infantile communists! A bunch of emotional youths, none of them older than thirty, imagine they are the guardians of the people! They imagine they are the guardians of our women! What need do our women have of guardians? If their rights are being trampled on, can’t they talk for themselves? Workers’ rights? What are they to these youths? Where are the blisters on their hands? All they do is sit and chant slogans. It is our Muslim youth who are out working in the fields under the burning sun—yes, and fasting at the same time. What kind of an achievement is it to sit here chanting slogans? I have sacrificed myself for the sake of these people…. Even our leader asked me, “Why are you so forbearing toward them?” I told him, “Perhaps they will be drawn back to our people by advice, by persuasion, by the changing circumstances of society.” They angered our leader, our leader who is so full of compassion and solicitude for the oppressed and deprived. Now let them taste the punishment for what they have done, the deeds they have committed. They no longer have any place among our people; let them go get lost!15
Taleghani did not utter any public condemnation of the Mujahidin, the group with whose founding he had been associated in the early 1970’s. There can be little doubt, however, that his warm support of them ceased even before the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the present leadership of the organization, waging a war of assassination against the Islamic Republic under the banner of an opportunistic and eclectic ideology, has no claim to Taleghani as a legitimizing patron. One of his daughters, A‘zam Taleghani, has recounted that her father strongly disapproved of their ideological positions, especially their view of economics as the determining factor in human affairs and their total rejection —at least in theory—of private property. He also opposed their political alliance with forces of the Marxist left, and met several times with the central committee of the organization in an attempt to convince them of their errors. These meetings ended in what appeared to be an acceptance of Taleghani’s admonitions, but he was not deceived. Returning home, he would tell his daughter: “ In my presence they say, ‘We’ll do whatever you tell us,’ but then in secret they go ahead and do exactly what they want.”16
On September 10, 1979, when Ayatullah Taleghani suddenly died, a massive outpouring of popular grief was unleashed.17 Imam Khomeini eulogized him as a new Abu Dharr, thus comparing him to the celebrated companion of the Prophet who endured constant banishment and poverty in the latter years of his life. He was buried at the Bihisht-i Zahra cemetery to the south of Tehran, appropriately close to the thousands of martyrs of the Islamic Revolution who lie buried there.
The gap created by Taleghani’s death continues to be painfully felt in Iran, two-and-a-half years after his passing. His disappearance from the scene, like the forcible removal of Ayatullah Mutahhari, Dr. Mufattih, Ayatullah Bihishti, Muhammad ‘Ali Raja’i, and Dr. Bahonar, has undeniably impoverished the intellectual and religious leadership of Islamic Iran. But, equally, there can also be no doubt of the permanence, strength, and viability of the cause to which Ayatullah Taleghani devoted his life. May he enjoy the mercy of Allah in the hereafter, and may his strivings always be emulated in this world.