Theoretical Models of Explaining the Islamic Revolution: Liberation Theology as an Alternative Framework

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 A PhD Candidate in Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


Previous research on the causes of the occurrence of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran have concentrated on the analysis of the political and economic components of this significant political event. Others have considered  the social, historical and even broader contexts surrounding the popular uprising which led to an unforeseen political change in a revolutionizing country.  However, some scholars have shown the importance of the core ideological component of this revolt. In the first part of this paper, the authors examine the three main theoretical approaches used for explaining the cultural features of Iranian Revolution, i.e.,  symbolism (symbolic interpretation), culturism (interpretation based on assumptions about Iranian culture),  discourse-based (interpretation based on discourse analysis). A comparative analysis of these approaches shows serious and fundamental weaknesses in their explanatory power to determine the impact of the cultural factors on the Iranian Revolution. The authors assert that symbolism, culturism, and discourse analysis are not compatible with the past events, and are incapable of explaining the complexities of this political phenomenon.
Accordingly, in the second part, the  "Islamic liberation theology" as an alternative theoretical framework is introduced, and the impact of Islam and Shi’ism is studied to make the advent of the revolution at that time clear and understandable. They attempt to find answers to two research questions: 1.What is the most appropriate theoretical framework to explain the cultural component of the Iranian revolution? 2. Why and how did the Islamic liberation theology as the most important cultural component, lead to the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi regime in Iran? In the research hypothesis, it is stated that Islamic liberation theology is the most appropriate explanatory factor of the 1979 revolution in Iran. The qualitative single- case study of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was carried out by the interpretation of past events and the analysis of arguments contained in the previous studies of the revolution and contemporary Iranian politics. Given the social context of  the 1950s and 1960s conditions in Iranian society, Shi’ism as a form of Islamic liberation theology was understood and accepted by the majority of Iranians, because it promised freedom from oppression, justice, and independence,  just to name a few social and political rights. The Shiite scholars presented  the idea of the creation of a new socio-political order to replace the old order which was centered on an absolutist monarchical system of government.
The overwhelming Iranian support in a national referendum which led to the declaration of Iran as an Islamic Republic after the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime in the country is an indication of the importance of the role of Shiite religion as the main variable of the cultural component of the revolution. In the months leading up to the Iranian revolution, Islamic liberation theology replaced the foremost competing ideologies, forcing the opposition groups to form an asymmetric alliance with Islamist revolutionaries. Finally, the discussion of the merit of the "Islamic liberation theology" as a useful framework to explain the cultural aspect of the 1979 revolution is the main focus of the concluding part. The use of this theoretical approach is suggested to provide better understanding and explanation of how the revolutionary change occurred in Iran.


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