Iran’s Islamic Theocracy and the Problem of Khashiyat (Fear of God): A Baha'i Perspective


Editor’s Note:  Aram Anahid is the penname of a learned Baha’i intellectual in Iran, who has previously contributed to Iran Press Watch and other sites (e.g.  Iran Press Watch is pleased to publish this fascinating, original and thought-provoking essay by this young intellectual of the Baha’i community of Iran.  (Incidentally, what appears below is not a translation; rather it is original composition of Aram Anahid.)

By Aram Anahid

Thirty years of theocratic rule has had a profound effect on Iranian religiosity. During the late 1970s, Iranians, who have long drawn upon their deep religious heritage to achieve a sense of identity, united behind their religious leaders to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty and unanimously vote for the installation of an Islamic republic in its stead. While it is now generally accepted that few had any idea of what the Islamic Republic that Ayatollah Khomeini had endorsed was supposed to look like, the general impression at the time was that Iran’s Shi’ite clergy were destined to create a uniquely Islamic democracy – one which was rooted in Islam’s liberating principles and values rather than Western ideas and thoughts.

In effect, the Islamic Republic of Iran turned out to be a system that is invested with democratically elected legislative and executive institutions, yet restrained by a set of councils and assemblies which are generally populated by clerics with close ties to the country’s Supreme Leader, and which supposedly act to protect the very “Islamic values” that the nation once arose to uphold. While these latter institutions, too, are at least to some extent either directly or indirectly elected by popular vote (for example, even the Supreme Leader is chosen, and can be removed, by an Assembly of Experts whose members are, in turn, elected by adult suffrage), an increasing number of Iranians have come to regard their structures and functions, at best, as undemocratic, and, at worst, as oppressive.

It is, thus, not surprising that a Gallup survey conducted during the years 2005 and 2006 indicated that only 12 percent of Iranians are now willing to put legislation directly in the hands of religious leaders, while another 26 percent think that religious leaders should only act as advisors to legislative bodies, and a majority of 56 percent believe that they should have no role at all in legislation.[1]  This is despite indications that most Iranians are still deeply religious. In fact, a 2007 Gallup survey concluded that while today only 14% of Iranians believe that Islam’s principles, values, and ethics should act as the only source of legislation, a majority of 63% still want these values and principles to be a source of legislation, but not the only source.[2]

The above survey indicates that Iranians still want their Islamic values and principles to have at least some influence on legislation. Their ideal mechanism of this proposed influence, however, has clearly changed. Not long ago Iranians regarded their religious clergy as expert Islamic jurists – the very best men to turn to in matters of Islamic law and justice. The general understanding used to be that as laymen who had no extensive understanding of Islamic law, the members of the Shi’ite community had to accept the decrees of their scholars of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in matters of Islamic jurisprudence. Now, however, most seem unwilling to endorse their Fuqaha (scholars of jurisprudence) and Mujtahidin (scholars of Islamic judgment) as legislators. This suggests that not many Iranians now see the decrees of these religious leaders as representative of true Islam. This may be, to a great extent, due to the fact that Iranians have largely reconsidered their mode of religiosity.

A research conducted by Abdolmohammad Kazemipur and Ali Rezaei concludes that between 1975 and 2001 Iranians dramatically shifted from organized to personalized religion and from a practice-centered mode of religiosity to a belief-centered one.[3]  For a country whose people arose, during the late 1970s, to uphold Islam as the foundation of their collective identity and the basis of their system of government, this amounts to nothing less than a complete U-turn.

Other studies suggest that, at least among certain groups and subcultures, an even more ambivalent attitude towards Islam in particular, and religion in general, can be discerned. Almost 40% of respondents who took part in an internet survey conducted by Association des Chercheurs Iraniens (ACI – “Association of Iranian Researchers”) in 2007 from within Iran declared themselves as nonreligious, while another 6.5 percent declared their religions as something other than Islam – both unusually high percentages for a country where official figures declare as high as 99.34% of the population as Muslims.[4]  To make the matter sound even more astounding, only 15.6 percent of men and 22.5 percent of women who participated in the survey declared that they practice their religions!

Although the survey results can hardly be considered representative of Iran’s population, it does imply that highly-educated young urban Iranians harbor a much less positive view of religion than the population at large. This is distressing for a society in which religion has long been an indispensible source of individual and collective identity. It is, therefore, not surprising that an increasing number of researchers have spoken about anomie among Iranian youth. In an analysis of a survey conducted by his team of 2500 young Iranians living in 10 major cities, Dr. Parviz Piran asserts that two tendencies are clearly visible among the younger generation of Iranians.[5] First is their alienation from social norms and values coupled with an inclination towards antisocial behavior, crime and addiction. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, is a visible inclination among them to pretend that they have internalized the formal rules of conduct attached to the roles that their society has assigned to them, while in fact they do not believe in those rules at all. According to Piran, individuals showing this inclination have usually developed two distinct and often contradictory lifestyles – one in their private lives, and the other in public. Piran discreetly blames the experience of life under constant fear of arrest, humiliation and punishment for “trivial” matters as the main cause of anomie among Iranian youth.

What Piran is, in effect, implying is that the Iranian theocracy’s failure to recognize its people’s civil rights and liberties lies at the very root of the current state of anomie that has overtaken the younger generation. The Iranian Revolution put Iran’s Shi’a clergy in a position to use the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the country to officially implement the very principles and values which they once could only preach. However, in their fervor to uphold these principles, what they chose to overlook was the fact that any raw attempt to reduce religion to law is likely to infringe upon the basic rights and liberties of individuals. This is due to the fact that unlike civil law, whose proposed goal is solely to regulate human social interaction in order to minimize harm, religion intends to transform an individual’s behavior, not just in the public domain but also in the private sphere. In Abdu’l-Baha’s words:

In the religion of God there is no freedom of deeds. No one can transgress the divine law, even if in so doing he harms no one. For by the divine law is intended the training of oneself and others. For to God, harming oneself or harming others are the same, and both are reprehensible. In hearts there must be the fear of God, and human beings must not commit blameworthy deeds. Therefore, the freedom of deeds that exists in civil law does not exist in religion.[6]

Law is primarily enforced by appeal to a direct threat of punishment, or an often indirect promise of reward. Fear of being caught and punished is enough to convince most people to obey the law most of the time. While this sounds sufficient in case of civil law where the proposed goal is to regulate, an outward regulation of behavior can hardly meet the purpose of religion, which is to nurture human beings and humanity. A religious system which chooses to train humanity by those means with which civil law is applied will not just fail in its goal, but will also severely limit the freedom of its subjects. It is due to this fact that Baha’i writings assert that while social order is upheld by means of reward and punishment, the banner of religion is uplifted by Khashiyat Allah, or the fear of God:

The word of God which the Abha Pen hath revealed and inscribed on the first leaf of the Most Exalted Paradise is this: Verily I say: The fear of God hath ever been a sure defense and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation.[7]

“Khashiyat Allah” is a Quranic term that refers to a sense of awe and reverence inspired by an individual’s recognition of the majesty of God. According to Tousi, khashiyat defers from khauf (fear) in that while khauf is a painful feeling brought on by the prospect of punishment, khashiyat is an emotional state induced by an individual’s recognition of the Absolute Greatness of God.[8] While both khauf and khashyiat are seen as psychological states that can cause obedience to God, the two operate differently. In the case of khashyiat, obedience is caused not by fear of punishment, but by the love of God.

The distinction between khauf and khashyiat finds expression in Baha’i writings:

In formulating the principles and laws a part hath been devoted to penalties which form an effective instrument for the security and protection of men. However, dread (khauf) of the penalties maketh people desist only outwardly from committing vile and contemptible deeds, while that which guardeth and restraineth man both outwardly and inwardly hath been and still is the fear of God (khashiyat Allah). It is man’s true protector and his spiritual guardian. It behoveth him to cleave tenaciously unto that which will lead to the appearance of this supreme bounty.[9]

Baha’i writings enjoin upon the leaders of the world to uphold religion, asserting that peace, justice, and welfare depend not only on the rule of law, but also on the authority of religion and the influence of khashiyat Allah:

When the Day-Star of Wisdom rose above the horizon of God’s Holy Dispensation it voiced this all-glorious utterance: They that are possessed of wealth and invested with authority and power must show the profoundest regard for religion. In truth, religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world, for the fear of God impelleth man to hold fast to that which is good, and shun all evil. Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine. Unto this will bear witness every man of true understanding.[10]

If the edifice of religion shakes and totters, commotion and chaos will ensue and the order of things will be utterly upset, for in the world of mankind there are two safeguards that protect man from wrongdoing. One is the law which punishes the criminal; but the law prevents only the manifest crime and not the concealed sin; whereas the ideal safeguard, namely, the religion of God, prevents both the manifest and the concealed crime, trains man, educates morals, compels the adoption of virtues and is the all-inclusive power which guarantees the felicity of the world of mankind. But by religion is meant that which is ascertained by investigation and not that which is based on mere imitation, the foundation of Divine Religions and not human imitations.[11]

Abdu’l-Baha’s assertion, in the above quote, that the authority of religion rests on its being “ascertained by investigation” and not “based on mere imitation”, reflects the fact that the influence of religion, unlike law, ultimately depends on the internal motivation of the believer rather than the external sway of reward and retribution. Even though from a Baha’i perspective khashiyat can superficially be defined as “the fear of God’s retribution or the hope of His reward”, Baha’i scripture attest that ultimately, a true Baha’i is expected to make her life’s choices independently of any such promise. This is perhaps most movingly demonstrated in Baha’u’llah’s Panj Kanz:

…I will tell you which people are worthy of listening to My utterances and attaining My presence. Suppose that a person is taken to a vast plain, on the right side of which are placed all the glories of this world, its pleasures and comfort, together with a sovereignty which would be everlasting and freed from every affliction and grief. On the left-hand side of this plain are preserved for eternity all the calamities, hardships, pains and immense sufferings. Then suppose that the Holy Spirit appears before this person and addresses him in these words: “Shouldst thou choose to have all the eternal pleasures that are placed on the right side in preference to the calamities on the left, not the slightest thing would be reduced from thy station in the sight of God. And shouldst thou choose to be inflicted with innumerable sufferings that are placed on the left, not the slightest thing would be added to thy station in the estimation of God, the Almighty, the Unconstrained.” ‘If at that moment this person were moved to choose, with the utmost eagerness and enthusiasm, the left hand of abasement rather than the right hand of glory, then he would be worthy to attain My presence and hearken to My exalted words. In this connection the Tongue of Grandeur, addressing the inquirers, says “If thine aim be to cherish thy life, approach not our court; but if sacrifice be thy heart’s desire, come and let others come with thee. For such is the way of faith, if in thy heart thou seekest reunion with Baha; Shouldst thou refuse to tread this path, why trouble us?[12]

It is, therefore, not surprising that in the very first few paragraphs of Kitab-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book – the basic text of Baha’i law), “the Charter of the future world civilization”, Baha’u’llah calls upon His followers to obey His commandments, not in anticipation of an external reward, but through love:

The Tongue of My power hath, from the heaven of My omnipotent glory, addressed to My creation these words: “Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty.”[13]

By choosing primarily to appeal to its subjects’ deep-felt devotion, the Kitab-i-Aqdas demonstrates that its mandate differs from that of many other codes of law. Perhaps this difference of mandate becomes most pronounced when the writings proceed to make the very implementation of the “laws of God” conditional upon wisdom, tact, and prudence; upon their not being in conflict with the law of the land; and upon the capacity of a society to tolerate those laws. It is in light of all this that, in the course of a thorough discussion of the dangers of direct involvement of religious leadership in politics in his Risalih-i Siyasiyyih (Treatise on Leadership), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argues that religious leaders should act as legislators of Divine laws, but leave the choice of their implementation to the wisdom and discretion of the state:

These souls are the fountainhead of the interpretation [Tashrii’, “legislation”] of God’s commandments, not of implementation. That is, when the government requests an explanation concerning the requirements of the Law of God and the realities of the divine ordinances, in principle or in a specific case, they must explain what they have deduced from the commands of God and what is in accordance with the law of God. Apart from this, what awareness do they have of questions of leadership and social development, the administration and control of weighty matters, the welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, the improvement of procedures and codes of law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy?[14]

It can now be safely claimed that if the Iranian clergy had chosen to assume such a role, the Islamic Republic would most probably have evolved into a much more competent and democratic system of government, one in which religion would lead but not coerce. Unfortunately, however, the experience of the Islamic Republic has once again demonstrated that it is only as long as religion succeeds in upholding its principles, values, laws, and ordinances by appeal to the voluntary choice of a government and people quickened by khashiyat and love that it can successfully contribute to the advancement of humanity. Because of this, while the prospect of quickly upholding the cherished values and goals of a religious system by other means might sound tempting at first, one should never become oblivious of the fact that by doing so religion can be adversely reduced to legalism.

If anything, a theocracy thus needs to uphold the civil rights and liberties of its people more than any other system of government. Failure to do so can lead, not just to the creation of yet another dictatorship, but also the destruction of the very norms and values that hold that society together. In the case of Iran, fortunately there are signs that indicate that large portions of society have so far succeeded in safeguarding their long-cherished values by drawing a line between the Islamic Republic’s intolerant legalistic religion and their own private understandings of a much kinder and more tolerant Islam. This situation, however, cannot keep on forever. In the end, the Islamic Republic will need to find the incentive and insight to reinvent itself as a system that  on the one hand is inspired by Islamic values and principles, and on the other is willing to uphold the rights and liberties of its people. Failure to do so can have potentially devastating consequences, both for Iran and for Shi’a Islam.



[3] Kazemipour & Rezaei, “Religious Life Under Theocracy: The Case of Iran”, Journal for the scientific study of religion, 2003.

[4] Hossein Ladjevardi, Navid Fazel, Iranian Identity and the Future of Iran,

[5] Parviz Piran, Iranian Youth and Social Transformation: Review of a Research,

[6] Translated by Juan R.I. Cole,  در دين اللّه حريّت اعمال نيست از قانون الهی نميتواند انسان تجاوز نمايد ولو ضرری بغير نرساند چه مقصود از قانون الهی تربيت غير و خود است چه عند اللّه ضرر خود و غير يکسان و هر دو مذموم است بايد در قلوب خشية اللّه باشد و انسان بآنچه عند اللّه مذموم است مرتکب نشود  لذا حريّت اعماليکه در قانون است در دين نيست.(مائده آسمانی، جلد 5)

[7] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 62

[8] الفروق اللغویه، ابی هلال العسكری، سیدنورالدین الجزائری

[9] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 92

[10] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 125

[11] Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 288

[12] Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 140

[13] Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p.20

[14] Translated by Sen McGlinn, اين نفوس مصدر تشريع احکام الهی هستند نه تنفيذ يعنی چون حکومت در امور کلّيّه و جزئيّه مقتضای شريعت الهيّه و حقيقت احکام ربّانيّه را استفسار نمايد آنچه مستنبط از احکام اللّه و موافق شريعت اللّه است بيان نمايند ديگر در امور سياسی و رعيّت پروری و ضبط و ربط مهامّ امور و  صلاح و فلاح ملکی و تمشيت  قواعد  و قانون مملکتی و امور خارجی و داخلی چه اطّلاع دارند (عبدالبهاء، رساله سیاسیه، طهران 1934)


16 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    June 4, 2009 1:46 am

    The comparison of “khashiyat Allah” and khauf in terms of obedience was thought provoking. I am a Westerner and I believe some of us from conservative religious backgrounds sometimes obey the commandments of God more out of fear than out of love for God. Fear of retribution or hell fire is not the best reason for obeying God’s commandments. Thank you for this very informative exposition.

  2. Alexander M Zoltai

    June 4, 2009 3:22 am

    Most enlightening!!!

    I am Baha’i and live in the United States; also from a religious tradition that stressed khauf…

    To receive such a dissertation from the beleaguered Cradle of my Faith is most heartening…

  3. Martijn Rep

    June 4, 2009 7:42 am

    Very well formulated, balanced and referenced. I much appreciate the effort of writing and the initiative to share this work.

  4. Sen McGlinn

    June 4, 2009 8:03 am

    An excellent essay. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha have a vision of the religious order and the political order as two separate and complementary organs in the body society, with different modus operandi but a common aim: the well-being of the people. Religion must not rely on coercion, since its goal is to inspire ethical action which elevates the individual, and nothing forced is ethical. The state must rely on coercion, since its core business is to protect the people and also to prevent free-loading by enforcing universal participation in projects for the common good. (See Gleanings CII). The two different ways of working, one by coercion and one with none, correspond to the two different kinds of fear. This argument for the separation and complementarity of religion and politics because they work in 2 different ways is quite different to the reasons that church and state were separated in the West: mutual suspicion and fear between religions and between religions and the state.

  5. John

    June 4, 2009 12:32 pm

    Sen, Just because a theocratic system has not worked in the past does not mean it cannot work in the future.

  6. Husayn Villar

    June 4, 2009 3:34 pm

    Dear friends, this This space in IPW is for commenting on the news or articles published here, not to become a forum on Baha’i Studies.
    The aim of IPW is to inform the world the tribulations of the Baha’is in Iran, and the efforts of the civilized world to support our brothers in the Cradle of the Faith. We must be careful not to stain with discussion that are no relevant for this purpose.
    But, of course, this is just a personal opinion.

  7. Bill

    June 4, 2009 4:33 pm

    This is a very thoughtful and enlightening piece that demonstrates the cautionary principles in the Baha’i Faith regarding the relationship of religious authority and human rights. The Baha’i principles go beyond the notion of theocracy versus secular government, to what the author describes (quoting ‘Abdu’l-Baha) as complementary roles. The author’s point is that the Islamic Revolution fundamentally failed to grasp the nature of revolution, democracy, and their interplay with the deeper spiritual sources in Islam. The revolution became a means to exercise power through external coercion; by so doing, it has effectively repelled a significant portion of the Iranian population from religion in general and Islam in particular. I expect that we will ultimately see the rule of the Ayatollahs disintegrat and the population of Iran make its decisions about religion in a very new direction. It would not surprise me to see an upsurge in Iranians who identify themselves as Baha’is.

  8. sb

    June 4, 2009 4:58 pm

    Dear Commentators,

    Thanks for bringing us to reality. Occasionally the heat of reaction can cause a defensive remark . . . this is is how most of us have learned to react to opinions we dislike, but we must look to a new standard:

    “Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with any one. If some one commits an error and wrong towards you, you must instantly forgive him. Do not complain of others.”

    – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, Page: 452

    Can we agree to use the information here for understanding and let the editors “edit”, if necessary? (Dear Editors, forgive us, we are learning.)

  9. Firooz R. Oskooi, M.D.

    June 4, 2009 10:37 pm

    Excellent in content as well as language! However, a common mistake by Baha’i scholars is that they apply what the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith addressed to the contemporary peoples and situations, they apply to the future as well!
    If one contemplates on the Baha’i elections and Houses of Justice, it becomes very clear that the most pure form of democracy is foretold and planned. That is the Kingdom of God on earth that Prophets and seers have dreamed and written about. I would like to know if there could be a better one!

  10. Dev

    June 5, 2009 2:51 am

    An excellent and thoughtful piece. As others have noted, the Baha’i vision of public governance transcends current understandings of civil and spiritual authority. Such conceptions of authority will surely evolve as new patterns of collaboration, justice, and service take hold. As indicated by the Universal House of Justice: “You have referred also to a number of extracts from Risaliy-i-Siyasiyyih, in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the damaging effects of the interference of religious teachers in political affairs. The inapplicability of these passages to the future role of the democratically elected Houses of Justice is clarified by study of the Bahá’í Writings on the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh.” (18 April 2001 to an individual)

  11. shahin

    June 5, 2009 12:31 pm

    Many many thanks, Dev! That was an excellent quotation from the Universal House of Justice. Many among us need paying attention to that.

  12. Grace

    June 5, 2009 9:17 pm

    I have enjoyed and appreciate this most excellent essay composed and documented by Aram Anahid. Reading it encourages me to consider the plight of our Iranian sisters and brothers (Baha’i, Muslim, and any minority group) who are suffering greatly in their society; some of whom are leading apparently conflicted lives, coping in a way that reflects the condition of anomie due to the unjust, unhealthy influence of religious control on government. I think the Iranian religious and government leaders, who are also my brothers and sisters, are misguided and in a state of turmoil as they perpetrate injustices out of fear while grappling with the undeniable influence of the mandate of this new era of change through Divine Revelation. They suffer and act from a lapse/lack of Faith, clinging to their own reactionary devices to preserve traditions that suit self-centered objectives. Let us offer prayers for the spiritual development of Iranian leaders, clerics, and people, as we do for ourselves.

  13. MM

    June 20, 2009 6:14 am

    This article, reinforced by recent Iranian survey results, exposes the disheartening (and ultimately enlightening impact) on Iranians’ spiritual life of a not merely coercive, but fully brutal power wielded by the State in the name of religion. Although it could not explore gray areas regarding how Baha’i majority societies might govern, it is not difficult to agree that the major thrust in the Baha’i Writings is an appreciation of diversity, voluntary change and the reluctance to use force. For that reason, the quote, nearly unique because of the rarity of its uncompromising tone, may serve to further illuminate the Baha’i Teachings on the subject.

    “O friends of God! Force and violence, constraint and oppression are condemned in this divine cycle, but to prevent the use of opium, all means must be employed, so that the human species may be delivered and freed from this great calamity. Otherwise, alas! for all the negligent before God.”
    (Abdu’l Baha)


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