[Book Review] Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar’s “Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran” (Columbia University Press, 2018)

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar’s eye-opening Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran is a profound contribution to literature on Iran, religion in politics and the greater field of political science. This work is exceptionally timely as Iran has been witnessing mass demonstrations and violence, which started months ago over the imprisonment and subsequent death of Masha Amini, after her arrest by the state-backed morality police, Gasht-e-Ershad, on charges of not wearing a proper hijab. (Mansoor). Tabaar’s study offers insight into the Islamic Republic’s actions during these events.

Tabaar primarily seeks to answer the question of motivation, is Iranian state driven by religion? His work expertly displays that religion is but a mere tool of the state, of Khomeini and of his followers/successors. Religion in Iran is a pragmatic tool used from Khomeini’s earliest days of revolutionary thinking to later governance and beyond, by which “religious narratives” are deployed as befits the political needs of the day (Tabaar 27-30). He concludes that there is no political Islam but rather politics of Islam, (Tabaar 4) a term that Tabaar defines as “the complex, variable appropriation and application of a rich, religious tradition to serve the ever-changing political imperatives of those who vie for power” (Tabaar 299-300).

This core argument that “religious narratives can change, change rapidly, change frequently, and change dramatically in accordance with elites threat perceptions”, can be broken down into five parts as explored over the course of the book (Tabaar 4). First, “elites instrumentally craft and deploy religious ideologies for political gain” (Tabaar 30-31). Second, ideologies develop according to the changing environment and threat perception of the elites and may even become contradictory. Third, said ideas are not fixed or permanent, but can change in many ways and evolve in any direction. Fourth, the changes are not accidental and are the result of deliberate proactive or reactive responses to events, and or changes in the system or their own position in it. Fifth, “elites use religion to manage factional politics”, the doctrines they use are relentlessly changing and come from within their ranks or from outside sources. They can be both new and old, fabricated, borrowed or the like and come from many disciplines from law to social sciences (Tabaar 30-31). Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for this description of state and elite action in Iran, while the remainder of the book provides evidence to back this framework.

To accomplish the task of exploring religious narratives as a tool of Khomeini and the regime, Tabaar formats his book in a narrative and semi-chronological format, to tell the story across 12 chapters of Khomeini’s and his followers’ positions.

To accomplish the task of exploring religious narratives as a tool of Khomeini and the regime, Tabaar formats his book in a narrative and semi-chronological format, to tell the story across 12 chapters of Khomeini’s and his followers’ positions. Starting from exile and the revolution to the rise of the Islamic republic and modern day. His chronology is framed with key points along the way with chapters focusing on the formation of the government, hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, death of Khomeini and his succession, the Green Movement, and the nuclear deal (Siavoshi 155-156). The second half of the book focuses on key events, which further illustrates his core argument and provides excellent evidence of the evolution of the ideology of the state and its use of religion. This is followed by a comprehensive conclusion which not only summarizes the entire book but places his findings into context and what they mean for the world and academia (Tabaar 299-307). As can be perceived from this description, Tabaar has written a proverbial masterpiece of research, each chapter features its own relative introduction and conclusion where he sets the stage and lays out his arguments for the section. Tabaar’s first two chapters alone do nothing more then set up the rest of the book; his arguments, sources, descriptions/definitions, focus and disclaimers, as well as preparing the reader with information on Khomeini, a historical backdrop of Iran and Shia Islam and more. Tabaar’s easy to read writing style makes this book a quintessential read, and his use of a wide range of sources is what makes this book truly comprehensive. Tabaar uses a combination of declassified documents, letters, interviews, news and media programs, diaries, and more (Tabaar 12).

Over the course of the book, Tabaar draws on numerous examples to support his approach to Iranian state and elite action…

Over the course of the book, Tabaar draws on numerous examples to support his approach to Iranian state and elite action, however, two are of special note. Firstly, is the propaganda surrounding the Iran-Iraq war, a conflict which Tabaar sees as just as much about internal politics as foreign policy. He notes that Khomeini uses several religious narratives to justify the war and energize popular support (Tabaar 148). Khomeini’s messaging even reached the Iraqis, where he framed the conflict of war on Iran as war on Islam and an unforgivable cardinal sin, a message which resulted in the defection of thousands of Shia Iraqis (Tabaar 153-154). But more telling is the pivot away from this messaging as part of his pragmatic approach to ending the war. Faced with an unwinnable conflict and needing a way out of a war that Khomeini had earlier framed it as a destined victory with God’s blessing. Khomeini began propagating a new religious narrative, one of peace. At that point Khomeini begins references the “Treaty of Hudaybiyyah” signed by the Prophet Muhammad in 628 A.D. (Tabaar 184-185).

Secondly, perhaps the single greatest example of Tabaar’s argument appears from a statement made by Khomeini in 1988, wherein he asserts unequivocally that “preserving the Islamic state superseded all other ordinances” (Tabaar 189-191). Placing politics above religion, this decree would inform later constitutional changes by his successor which would eliminate any and all challenges from other religious authorities. This decree is clearly in reference to factional power struggles that came towards the end of Khomeini’s life and his concern over what would occur after his death.  The decree was but one of the many pragmatic changes Khomeini made to keep the Islamic state, and his velayat-e-faqih, intact (Tabaar 189-191). The struggles as Tabaar explains are born from the strain of war and dysfunction of the new state, and the parallel state of the jurist, with competing internal roles controlled by differing factions. The policy coupled with other administrative reforms by Khomeini, before his death cleared the pathway of obstacles for his followers rise to power. For example, the new “Expediency Council” played counterbalance and mediator to the Majales jurists and the Guardian Council. In true form for Khomeini, when confronted with backlash from the conservative and religious parties over this secular decree, he reframed it in terms of religion, stating that the “Supreme Leader was not a mere executor of the divine laws… but rather was equipped with the same status and authority as the Prophet himself to abolish certain aspects of shari’a and replace them with new rulings” (Tabaar 189-191). This response to factional bickering in a post-war context would inform a new era of the Islamic Republic and pave the way to greater control for the next supreme leader and elites. (Tabaar 189-191). As well as provide legitimacy for any and all state actions going forward, essentially making any decision made by the state God’s undeniable will. This chief example of pragmatism in the face of factional challenges instilled a doctrine and mission of self-preservation to his successors, a mission they wholeheartedly followed, while also eliminating all religious opposition by affirming the supreme leader as prime religious and executive authority (Tabaar 301). His new acts and powers would even change the rules and requirements of succession, all but ensuring his successor would be one of his disciples (Tabaar 187-191). After his death, the state would become ever more factional, yet no faction would seek to deviate from this new style of absolute jurist state, but rather work within it. With the conservative factions using religion to reduce the cost of repression and the left using it in an opposite manner to resist repression (Tabaar 302).

Tabaar also makes several relevant sub points throughout the work the epitome of them being the reframing of the hostage crisis. This thought-provoking revision of the infamous event is a key highlight of Tabaar’s book. This information flips the script of the previous authorship which assumed that Khomeini purposefully undertook the action, as well as completely ignoring the strength and threat of the “Left”. Tabaar argues that the embassy takeover was a reaction to rising power amongst the leftist and communist factions, designed to undermine “Leftist” cohesion, as the “Leftist” groups were gaining momentum in part due to their anti-American and anti-imperial stance (Tabaar 111-116). The attempt as undertaken by the students was not sanctioned directly by Khomeini who at the time was in active negotiations with the US. However, once the action was done and publicized Khomeini wholeheartedly embraced it and benefited far greater than could have been estimated. It brought about the undermining of the “Left” and the strengthening of Khomeini’s own faction. Tabaar points out that the new information and documents available prove this distinction, with members of the raid even outwardly admitting to the goal of disarming the growing “Left” (Tabaar 111-116). With the students’ leader even claiming that if the students did not take the embassy someone soon would have. In the end the action cost the regime its relationship with the US and exacted a heavy long-term international price, but it allowed them to subdue a considerable threat to their rule and consolidate power (Tabaar 111-116).

Tabaar’s rigorous work lends itself to limited critiques. One such being the lack of a bibliography. The large repository of information that goes into this book would be greatly aided by source bibliography apart from endnotes.

Tabaar’s rigorous work lends itself to limited critiques. One such being the lack of a bibliography. The large repository of information that goes into this book would be greatly aided by source bibliography apart from endnotes. This would be incredibly helpful to seek out individual pieces of information. This notion was shared by fellow reviewer Dr. Anzalone who remarks that this is one of his only critiques (Anzalone 404). This sentiment of hard-to-find problems is shared by another reviewer, Dr. Peter Henne, who poignantly states he wouldn’t change a thing, other than the limited nature of the book’s theoretical discussion in the subsequent chapters after the introduction (Henne 1). This is not to say other non-format critiques don’t exist, Dr. Shabnam Holliday raises the concern over the lack of the inclusion of women in the modern chapters, pointing out that women were considerably involved in the government and in reform movements yet are largely left out of Tabaar’s work (Holliday 1245).

Tabaar’s Religious Statecraft is a masterpiece of writing that challenges popular notions of Iran’s ideology and identity and the motivation of its leaders. It is a piece that is both timely and immensely beneficial to the discourse of Iran and religion in politics as acclaimed by fellow reviewers Dr. Anzalone, Dr. Pete Henne, and Dr. Shabnam Holliday. Each in their review acclaiming the greatest strength of this book is Tabaar’s groundbreaking analysis of religion in politics (Henne 1-2, Anzalone 404, Holliday 1245). Tabaar’s work would also serve well in an educational setting. As each chapter moves alongside a historical timeline it would be an excellent resource for teaching the history of Iran, the Islamic Republic, and Khomeini’s rise and reign in a collegial setting. Its use as an interdisciplinary tool amongst political science, foreign relations, sociology and history makes it incredibly valuable to students, and professionals.

Thomas Reilly is a graduate student at George Mason University, pursuing his master’s degree in Middle East and Islamic studies.


Anzalone, Christopher. 2019. “Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran.” DOMES: Digest of Middle East Studies 28 (2): 403–4. doi:10.1111/dome.12172.

Henne, Peter S. (2020): Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran, Terrorism and Political Violence, DOI 10.1080/09546553.2020.1788836

Holliday, Shabnam. “Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran. By Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 392p. $60.00 Cloth, $29.99 Paper.” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 4 (2019): 1244–45. doi:10.1017/S1537592719003530.

Mansoor, Sanya. “What to Know about Iran’s Morality Police.” Time, November 10, 2022. .

Tabaar, Mohammad Ayatollahi. Religious Statecraft : the Politics of Islam in Iran. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Siavoshi, Sussan. “IRAN-Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran.” The Middle East Journal 73, no. 1 (Spring, 2019): 155-156. http://mutex.gmu.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/iran-religious-statecraft-politics-islam/docview/2202738563/se-2.