The institution of Construction Jihad (Jahad-i Sazandigi, hereafter CJ) dates back to the Iranian Revolution. While CJ’s origins were rooted in the rural reconstruction and development policies that were instituted during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi from 1941 to1979, the organization was a product of the period that started with the departure of the Shah from Iran on January 16 and the return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 1, 1979.
CJ was established and mobilized to fulfill the revolutionary promises made in 1978-79 to bring reconstruction and development to the country’s approximately 70,000 villages. CJ consisted of thousands of activists and volunteers undertaking an ambitious development campaign and spreading revolutionary and religious values throughout the countryside, where over half the population resided. To this end, the organization built roads, bridges, schools, libraries, clinics, and baths, delivered electricity, water, medication, and vaccinations, provided inputs, credit, guidance, and assistance to farmers, herders, and artisans, disseminated books and films with revolutionary and religious content, distributed copies of the Qur’an and other Islamic texts, and organized clerical sermons, prayer groups, and study sessions.
“The essay also analyzes a speech that Khomeini delivered to further mobilize and expand the organization from above at the state level, with pressure and influence from founding jihadists. By relying on interviews with former jihadists, the first section of the essay argues that their motivations were profoundly personal and patriotic,….”
Based on extensive fieldwork and original research in Iran, this essay examines the motivations of CJ members (a.k.a. jihadists) in establishing and joining the organization from below at the societal level. The essay also analyzes a speech that Khomeini delivered to further mobilize and expand the organization from above at the state level, with pressure and influence from founding jihadists. By relying on interviews with former jihadists, the first section of the essay argues that their motivations were profoundly personal and patriotic, as some of these individuals aspired to improve the developmental and socioeconomic conditions of their native provinces and villages, and others around the country. These motivations were also highly altruistic, religious, and nationalistic in that CJ’s members and volunteers were driven and committed to help the poor and serve God and country, particularly in the midst and wake of the revolution.
Through the content analysis of the speech by Khomeini announcing CJ’s official establishment as a revolutionary organization on June 16, 1979, the second section of the essay posits that he sought to leverage and intensify the altruism, piety, and nationalism of other activists and citizens in order to persuade them to participate in CJ. Thus, as a grand ayatollah (āyatullāh ʿumẓā) and source of emulation (marjaʿ taqlīd) – the highest-ranking cleric in Shiʿism – Khomeini promised and proffered current and prospective jihadists spiritual rewards (savāb) and other religious incentives.
This research makes a unique scholarly contribution by shedding light on the recruitment, mobilization, and expansion of a significant yet understudied institution in the Islamic Republic’s history and its evolution over time. While CJ is considered among the Islamic Republic’s most important revolutionary organizations and has parallels worldwide, it has never received sustained scholarly attention. This essay is one of the few scholarly works to use CJ as a central unit of analysis. The essay also contributes to the extant literature on the Iranian Revolution that recognizes the Islamic Republic’s high capacity to mobilize mass support. However, the existing literature largely limits this capacity to a top-down and unidirectional process by the fledgling state, which channels the revolutionary and religious fervor of activists into new and parallel, military and administrative institutions. This essay adds nuance to this process by revealing both the societal and state-driven motivations and mechanisms behind the establishment and expansion of CJ, as well as the recruitment and mobilization of its members and volunteers.
More broadly, this specific case study shows that Islam, particularly when combined with nationalism, can be a force for recruitment, mobilization, cohesiveness, and commitment among activists and volunteers who are engaged in faith-based development in Iran and beyond. In the process, political and religious elites can further advance their interests by instrumentalizing and innovating Islamic concepts related to development, humanitarianism, and other pursuits. While such an approach may benefit these elites, it also elevates the expectations of activists and volunteers, and causes them to become disillusioned when they perceive elites as manipulating and deviating from the pious principles they espouse.
Mobilization from Below (February 11 – June 16, 1979)
Between February 11 and June 16, 1979, founding jihadists mobilized at the grassroots level to establish and join CJ. In interviews and discussions, former jihadists perceived and portrayed the organization as a popular and participatory movement (nihżat-i mardumī va mushārikatī) that mobilized spontaneously (khūdjūsh) from the bottom-up (āz pāyīn bih bālā) during this initial phase of the revolution. Several founding jihadists were university students who joined and helped establish CJ while mobilizing around their native provinces and villages outside of Tehran. On university campuses in Iran and abroad, these individuals became increasingly politicized and radicalized while organizing and joining student associations, anti-government demonstrations, and other political organizations and activities. During and after the Shah’s departure and Khomeini’s return, these individuals returned to their native provinces and villages, and others around the country, to establish CJ branches, recruit volunteers, and deliver projects and services to lower class residents in immediate and surrounding areas.
Before CJ officially became a revolutionary organization on June 16, its founding members established branches, recruited volunteers, and delivered projects and services at the grassroots level with the provisional government’s blessing and encouragement, but with limited material and financial support. As such, CJ members and the volunteers whom they recruited initially relied on their personal initiative, kinship networks, and private resources. The provincial and rural backgrounds of some founding jihadists personally motivated them to improve the developmental and socioeconomic conditions of their native provinces and villages, and others around the country. One former jihadist described how he and other members and volunteers had worked endlessly and tirelessly because they had wanted to improve these conditions in their province of Isfahan.
“These individuals’ stated aversion toward materialism and their emphasis on self-sacrifice, communalism, and the greater good underscored their idealism, altruism, nationalism, and religiosity as much as their support for radical and populist policies, such as land expropriation and income redistribution. “
Aside from being motivated to improve the developmental and socioeconomic conditions of their native provinces and villages, former jihadists highlighted nationalism and religion as ideological motivations for joining CJ. Former jihadists of a more nationalistic and religious bent emphasized they had joined the organization strictly on a voluntary basis to help poor and disadvantaged villagers. These individuals insisted they had worked long hours to complete projects, received no money or minimal compensation (approximately US$100 per month maximum) to perform their work, and reluctantly took what they needed from a communal pot to cover their expenses for food, lodging, and travel. These individuals’ stated aversion toward materialism and their emphasis on self-sacrifice, communalism, and the greater good underscored their idealism, altruism, nationalism, and religiosity as much as their support for radical and populist policies, such as land expropriation and income redistribution. With respect to nationalism, former jihadists emphasized they had established and joined CJ due to a nationalistic desire to serve and rebuild their country. One former member described having been driven by a sense of freedom, ownership, and empowerment regarding the ability and possibility to control his own destiny and influence the fate of the organization and the country.
In terms of religion and to strengthen CJ’s religiosity and attract volunteers, founding members of the organization had initially called it the “Jihad for Construction” (Jahad baray-i Sazandigi) before likely influencing Khomeini to name it CJ when announcing its official establishment as a revolutionary organization on June 16. According to a former jihadist, CJ’s name did not equate jihad with a military struggle, but a developmental one through a divinely inspired effort to better society (the smaller jihad or al-jihād al-āṣghar) and the self (the larger jihad or al-jihād al-ākbar) through moral purification and spiritual advancement, as espoused by Khomeini in his writings. CJ’s members and volunteers internalized these concepts and applied them to what was perceived as a sacred mission to undertake and improve rural reconstruction and development.
“According to a former jihadist, CJ’s name did not equate jihad with a military struggle, but a developmental one through a divinely inspired effort to better society (the smaller jihad or al-jihād al-āṣghar) and the self (the larger jihad or al-jihād al-ākbar) through moral purification and spiritual advancement, as espoused by Khomeini in his writings.“
Former jihadists insisted they had established and joined CJ for the spiritual rewards they would ostensibly receive in the afterlife (ākhirat) for doing God’s work and pleasing God. As will be further described below, when announcing CJ’s official establishment as a revolutionary organization on June 16, Khomeini was likely influenced by pious CJ members to use the concept of spiritual rewards to facilitate and promote the organization’s recruitment, mobilization, and expansion. By doing so, Khomeini created elevated expectations, but also high disillusionment among some of these members, particularly after they were offered monetary compensation for their efforts. At the same time, Khomeini likely invoked this concept in an effort to salvage and maintain his religious and political authority, legitimacy, and credibility among these members.
Some former CJ members expressed their disappointment with Khomeini and other officials for offering salaries to the revolutionary organization, subsequently professionalizing it as a government ministry in 1983, and, in the process, diluting its revolutionary and religious élan and voluntary altruism. Other former members expressed their reverence for the charismatic Khomeini, who had offered them and others spiritual inspiration and guidance. Moreover, some former members contradictorily complained about the government and bureaucracy’s initial lack of material and financial support for CJ when it had existed as a revolutionary organization. In response, some of these individuals and others had pressured the state for greater resources and later lobbied it to convert the organization into a ministry so that its members and volunteers could receive a steady paycheck and a higher status. Such counterpoints demonstrated CJ’s internal diversity and fragmentation that contributed to its longer-term vulnerability and susceptibility to elite preferences and designs regarding its ultimate demobilization and institutionalization as a ministry.
Mobilization from Above (February 11 – June 16, 1979)
On February 4, 1979, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan prime minister of the provisional government. Bazargan was affiliated with the Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI), the main political bloc in the provisional government. During the next week, the provisional government was challenged and clashes ensued between Khomeinists and royalists in the military. On February 11, the military declared neutrality and the Shah’s prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, resigned. That day, the provisional government approved the initial charter of a new rural reconstruction and development organization called CJ. The fact that the government did this on its first day demonstrated that supporting CJ was a matter of the utmost urgency.
While swiftly endorsing CJ’s charter, the provisional government did not approve the official establishment of the organization or offer financial support for its activities until four months later, on June 16. The provisional government’s initial reluctance to fully support CJ stemmed from an ideological and political preference by the FMI to restrict CJ and other revolutionary organizations and rely instead on the bureaucracy and the Bazargan-appointed ministers to run the state. At this early stage, Khomeini and his clerical faction, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), deferred to Bazargan and the FMI because they possessed greater experience and expertise in governance. However, between February and June of 1979, CJ members and other radical revolutionaries pressured Khomeini and the IRP to disregard the bureaucratic preferences of Bazargan and the FMI by supporting CJ’s official establishment as a revolutionary organization. Jihadists believed that this outcome was already a foregone conclusion given their de facto presence in the provinces and villages. Immediately following the transfer of executive power from Bakhtiar to Bazargan on February 11, CJ members interpreted the provisional government’s endorsement of their charter as a green light to mobilize to the provinces and villages, and begin undertaking projects, delivering services, and performing activities there, even before developing a formal structure.
After April 22, Khomeini’s approval for the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a revolutionary organization and a parallel institution to the army encouraged CJ members and other radical revolutionaries to press harder for CJ’s official establishment. Despite reluctance or downright disapproval from Bazargan and the FMI, Khomeini delivered a nationally televised speech on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) on June 16 announcing the official establishment of CJ as a revolutionary organization and a parallel institution to the Ministry of Agriculture and other ministries. While CJ had been mobilizing from below in the provinces and villages, Khomeini’s speech facilitated and accelerated the organization’s recruitment, mobilization, and expansion from above in Tehran. The speech was influenced by and designed to appeal to CJ members, other radical revolutionaries, and provincial and rural constituents. At the same time, the speech inspired and mobilized urban youth and other citizens with higher radio and television access to join CJ.
“While former jihadists may have been reinforcing a nationally constructed narrative, they repeatedly cited the speech as one of their inspirations for joining and participating in CJ more than thirty years after doing so”
While former jihadists may have been reinforcing a nationally constructed narrative, they repeatedly cited the speech as one of their inspirations for joining and participating in CJ more than thirty years after doing so. In his speech, Khomeini used highly emotive concepts to impart a sense of individual and collective purpose to a diverse audience comprising thousands of students, youth, villagers, and other citizens who participated in CJ or considered doing so. In an atmosphere charged with revolutionary fervor, Khomeini’s speech employed familiar framing carried from the revolution, invoking altruism, unity, nationalism, piety, and reconstruction to maximize the power of his call for recruitment into CJ.
To begin with, Khomeini emphasized certain terms to instill altruism and unity in current jihadists and potential recruits. In his speech of approximately seven hundred words, Khomeini repeated the terms “help” (kumak) and “brother/ brotherhood” (barādar/ barādarī) four times. Much like the functionality and application of the term “comrade” in communist organizations, the term “brother” or “sister” (khahar) induced members of CJ and other revolutionary organizations to refer to each other as such in an attempt to promote group solidarity. Toward the same end, Khomeini twice uttered the unifying catch phrase “all together [toward reconstruction]” (hamih bā ham [bih sāzandigī]), which founding jihadists had adopted as the organization’s official slogan and influenced Khomeini to do the same.
Additionally, in his speech, Khomeini sought to appeal to Iranians’ sense of nationalism and piety as he signaled his intent to uphold the “ways of the nation and Islam.” Carefully selecting his words, Khomeini emphasized nationalism by referring to Iran not as a community of Muslim believers (ummat), but as a nation (milat) – a term that he repeated fifteen times. By emphasizing the “nation,” Khomeini not only attempted to promote solidarity within CJ, but national unity within the country during a period of revolutionary instability and uncertainty. As a grand ayatollah and source of emulation, Khomeini infused his speech with religious rhetoric, symbolism, and incentives. By utilizing the expression “self-sacrifice” (fidākārī) twice, Khomeini not only reminded Iranians of their national duty to join CJ, but also insinuated that, for Iran’s Shiʿa, participation in the organization was akin to the martyrdom experienced by Husayn at Karbala. The fact that Khomeini publicly proclaimed the organization’s name as Construction Jihad implied that a sacred duty was incumbent upon every Iranian Muslim; thus, Khomeini’s speech reminded current jihadists and potential recruits of their individual and collective religious obligation to perform jihad by taking part in CJ. In an attempt to maximize recruits, Khomeini equated membership and participation in the organization with the sacred duty of jihad.
In his speech, Khomeini boldly declared that participation in CJ offered equal, if not more, spiritual rewards as visiting the holy shrines in Iraq and embarking on the pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj) – one of the five pillars of Islam and a duty that all Muslims, if physically and materially capable, are required to undertake at least once in their lifetimes. Khomeini also used the term “salvation” (najāt), which carried the double entendre that participation in CJ would physically rescue the villagers from poverty and would spiritually lead members toward heavenly salvation. From the standpoint of traditional Shiʿism, these statements were among the many unorthodox and controversial rulings that Khomeini had issued during his tenure. A notable example occurred in January 1988 when Khomeini famously asserted that practicing the pillars of Islam (prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage) was secondary to preserving and furthering the public interest (maṣlaḥat). The fact that Khomeini leveraged spiritual rewards as a recruitment tool for CJ demonstrated his proclivity for making innovative pronouncements and instrumentalizing religion for political gain from the beginning of his rule, if not before.
“The fact that Khomeini leveraged spiritual rewards as a recruitment tool for CJ demonstrated his proclivity for making innovative pronouncements and instrumentalizing religion for political gain from the beginning of his rule, if not before.”
Beyond religion, Khomeini’s speech and his emphasis on the Iranian nation over the Islamic community highlights nationalism’s importance as a mobilizational mechanism and its centrality to Iranian identity, even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Islamic Republic has attempted to distance itself from the Persian or ethno-nationalism of the Shah by promoting Iranian nationalism in an attempt to maximize popular legitimacy and political support among all citizens, including those that belong to ethnic and religious minorities. And yet, the Islamic Republic’s inability to fully divorce itself from Persian nationalism, combined with its Shiʿi-centric rather than Pan-Islamic ideology, known as the Guardianship of the Jurist (vilāyat-i faqīh), has subjected these minorities to systematic discrimination. As a consequence, and despite the activities of CJ and other institutions, the pronounced developmental and socioeconomic disparities that had existed under the Shah between the Persian-majority central provinces and the ethnic and religious-minority peripheral ones have persisted and worsened, leading to rising discontent, conflict, and instability.
From below, CJ members and volunteers mobilized to the countryside, where they undertook an ambitious development campaign and spread revolutionary and religious values. These individuals were driven by altruistic, pious, and nationalistic values to help the needy and to serve God and country while eschewing material rewards in favor of spiritual ones. Consequently, some of these individuals developed heightened expectations of Khomeini and other elites, and became highly disillusioned when they offered monetary compensation, even while other jihadists lobbied for it. From above, Khomeini and other IRP officials sought to marginalize the FMI-controlled bureaucracy and build a base of support among radical and religious revolutionaries. To this end, and under pressure and influence from founding jihadists, Khomeini employed discourse and framing that sought to leverage and intensify the altruism, piety, and nationalism of other activists and citizens in an effort to persuade them to join CJ. In the process, and in an innovative fashion, Khomeini offered them spiritual rewards and other religious incentives to mobilize the organization and advance the interests of the IRP and the fledgling revolutionary state. The case of CJ reveals the complex and nuanced dynamics behind the societal and state-driven recruitment, mobilization, and expansion of activists and volunteers in revolutionary Iran. Not to be overlooked, Iranian nationalism played an equal, if not greater, role as Shiʿi Islam in motivating jihadists to deliver developmental assistance to provinces and villages, even if this ideology was tainted by religious and ethnocentrism that excluded minorities.
Eric Lob is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the politics of development in the Middle East and beyond. Lob’s forthcoming book is entitled Iran’s Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation after 1979. Based on fieldwork in Iran and Lebanon, the book examines how the Islamic Republic instrumentalized development to consolidate power domestically and project influence abroad. His articles have appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Iranian Studies, Middle East Critique, The Middle East Journal, and Third World Quarterly, among other publications.
 On spiritual rewards, see Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shiʻi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʻism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 233-34.
 See Theda Skocpol, “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution,” Theory and Society 11.3 (1982): 265-83; Farideh Farhi, States and Urban-Based Revolutions: Iran and Nicaragua (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 106-14; and John Foran and Jeff Goodwin, “Revolutionary Outcomes in Iran and Nicaragua: Coalition Fragmentation, War, and the Limits of Social Transformation.” Theory and Society 22 (1993): 217-39.
 See Hamid Algar (ed. and tr.), Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981), 349-429.
 See Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002), 73-5; and Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 165-66.
 See Eric Lob and Nader Habibi, “The Politics of Development and Security in Iran’s Border Provinces,” The Middle East Journal 73.2 (2019): 271-77.