In the political terminology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are many references to the history of Islam, and Shia Islam in particular. These references are made, often by hardliners, to compare ongoing or previous political events with specific historic episodes.
The compromises that were made during the early decades of Islam are among the most-invoked examples of such historic episodes. These compromises range from certain peace treaties to political agreements that were made between the Prophet Muhammad or certain Shia Imams on the one hand, and their enemies on the other.
This article will briefly explain the most important compromises of this kind, as well as their political implications, and provide a few examples of the manner in which they have been used as metaphors or similes in Iran’s political discourse.
The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah
Hudaybiyyah was a truce treaty signed in 628 AD between the Muslim community of Medina and the Mecca pagans of the Quraysh tribe. The parties pledged to refrain from attacking the other side, as well as their allies, for 10 years, but two years later, the truce was broken when one of the tribes that was allied to the pagans attacked the allies of the Muslims. As a result of the breach of this treaty, Muslims invaded Mecca and conquered the city in 630 AD.
In Iran’s political literature, the treaty of Hudaybiyyah may be invoked in two different contexts. Somewhat moderate figures refer to this treaty as proof that avoiding conflict and making peace — even with the enemies of Islamic Republic — is in line with the teachings of the prophet.
It was in the same context that, on May 29, 2014, Hassan Rouhani said: “The great prophet of Islam always relied, at war or peace, on wisdom and reason...With regards to the Hudaybiyyah peace, which seemed unfair to the narrow-minded, the prophet gained a victory that could not even be achieved by a hundred wars. This provided a golden opportunity for Islam to propagate its message, and stabilized Islam and the prophet’s rule.”
Another view, which is mainly supported by the hardliners, regards the treaty of Hudaybiyyah as being a tactic to pave the way for defeating the enemy (the conquest of Mecca that took place two years after the treaty).
For instance, on September 17, 2013, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, likened the Supreme Leader’s decision to accept a nuclear compromise with the West to the treaty of Hudaybiyyah. Mr Jalili said that through the treaty, the Muslims were able to stay safe from the “wars imposed by” the Mecca pagans, and to use this opportunity to finally bring about the “Conquest of Mecca.”
Negotiated Conquest of Mecca
The Muslims conquered Mecca, the most important stronghold of the Arab pagans (the Quraysh tribe), in 630 AD. Before the conquest of Mecca, Abu Sufyan, the most influential Quraysh chieftain, who had realized that the Muslim troops were far more numerous than those of the pagans, met Muhammad and converted to Islam. The two sides then negotiated a peaceful surrender of the Mecca pagans, according to which, apart from 10 specific individuals, the other inhabitants of Mecca, including Abu Sufyan and his family, would not be punished.
The Conquest of Mecca is mainly referred to in Iran in two different ways: first, to advocate a non-violent and merciful reading of Islam, and second, to refer to a —desired — devastating victory for the Islamic Republic.
One example of how the first meaning has been applied are the remarks made by ex-president Mohammad Khatami, on August 26, 2014, when he said: “The Prophet, after the Conquest of Mecca, pardoned all those people who had oppressed, killed and looted the Muslims, and said that they could live freely. The hardliners said that the [conquest] day was the time for revenge and bloodshed, but the prophet said it was the time for kindness, and granted general amnesty.”
An example of the second meaning is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks on May 24, 2007, when he compared the conquest of Khorramshahr during the Iran-Iraq war with the Conquest of Mecca. At the beginning of the war in 1980, Iraq occupied a number of cities, and Khorramshahr was the most important one. It was liberated in May 1982.
After the Prophet Muhammad’s passing in 632 AD, a group of elders from the Muslim society gathered in a place named the Saqifah to appoint the prophet’s successor. At this gathering, Abu Bakr, a senior companion of Muhammad, was selected to be the first caliph and the Muslim elders pledged allegiance to him. The Saqifah is a significant episode in the history of Shia Islam because Shias believe that the prophet had declared Ali, who later became the first Shia Imam, as his successor, and that the Muslim elders had no right to appoint another successor. The Sunnis disagree with the Shia version of facts, believing that the prophet had not appointed any successor.
In the political discourse of Shia Iran, the Saqifah episode has often been considered to be the most significant diversion from the path of pure Islam, and the beginning of the disregard of the real teachings of the prophet. Iranian hardliners even invoke the Saqifah to reject democracy, insisting that the people’s vote does not signify the legitimacy of the rulers.
In this regard, Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a pro-Khamenei ayatollah and a prominent hardline theoretician, said on March 12, 2011: “The designers of the Saqifah were the first founders of the so-called Islamic democracy, by saying that people had to appoint the Prophet’s successor. Some believe that democracy is the West’s gift to us [the Muslims]; but this is not a contemporary initiative, it is the ominous gift of the Saqifah designers who said people had to determine the rulers.”
The arbitration (hakamyyiat) was a compromise that ended the Battle of Siffin, the second Muslim civil war. The battle took place in 657 AD between Ali, the first Shia Imam, and Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad Caliphate in Levant (present-day Syria). According to the Shias, at the end of the battle, Ali’s army was on the verge of victory, but the Levant troops demanded that the two parties stop the battle and resolve their disputes through “arbitration” (hakamyyiat). As a result, the majority of Ali 's troops refused to continue the war. Contrary to his desire, Imam Ali was then forced to stop fighting and accept arbitration, which finally ended the battle and stabilized the rule of Muawiyah in Levant.
The arbitration episode has been repeatedly invoked in Iran’s political discourse, especially by the supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who liken him to Imam Ali. The hardliners often refer to the arbitration to warn against betraying or disobeying the Leader in the middle of his confrontation with the enemies. This episode is also invoked as a metaphor for the danger of transforming success into failure out of simple-heartedness and through trusting the negotiation tactics of the enemy.
For instance, Ahmad Alamolhoda, an influential associate of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Leader’s representative in the province of Khorasan Razavi, likened the nuclear agreement (the JCPOA)to the arbitration (hakamyyiat) on May 18, 2018. He referred the US decision to abandon the nuclear agreement and said: “The Leader predicted that this agreement would not be implemented and that they [The Americans] were not trustworthy. He also set certain conditions [for the agreement] that were not met. However, they [the critics of the Leader] said later that the agreement was the Leader’s fault. Isn’t all this similar to the arbitration episode?”
Imam Hassan’s Peace
In 661 AD, Hassan, the second Shia Imam, agreed on a “compromise” arrangement with Muawiyah, the Umayyad caliph. The compromise prevented a devastating war between the Sunnis and the Shias, but solidified the Sunni Umayyad dynasty’s hold on power, at the expense of the Shias.
The Imam Hassan’s peace with the enemy has often been invoked by the moderates to insist on the necessity for Iran to adopt peaceful solutions, especially with regards to foreign rivals or enemies. On the other hand, for the hardliners, “compromise” is a negative term; therefore, they have often shown no interest in emulating the political behavior of Imam Hassan — that is, a negotiated compromise. For instance, in a fiery speech in 2000, Ayatollah Khamenei said that if the United States exerted too much pressure on the Islamic Republic, the result would be the "repetition of the Karbala event" (Imam Hussein’s fight to the death against Yazid), not the “imposed peace of Imam Hassan.”
However, even the hardliners, when they have been forced to accept some kind of compromise, have resorted to the Imam Hassan’s peace as supporting evidence. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei said on August 13, 2014, on the eve of Hassan Rouhani’s first trip to New York as president: “Diplomatic skills mean acquiring flexibility and power skillfully and promptly. Another definition for it would be heroic flexibility, for which Imam Hassan’s Peace Treaty is the most glorious historical example.”
Imam Reza’s Crown Princeship
Reza, the eighth Shia Imam and the only Imam buried in Iran, made a historic compromise with Ma’mun, who became the seventh Abbasid caliph in 789 AD. Ma’mun, whose mother was Iranian, offered Imam Reza the role of Crown Prince and invited him to Marv (Iran), his capital, which he accepted. According to the Shias, Ma’mun invited Imam Reza to his capital to prevent the Shias from rebelling against the caliphate, but did not really want the Imam to become his successor. The Shia historians say Imam Reza was finally poisoned and killed in 818 AD on the orders of Ma’mun.
The Shias believe that ruling the Islamic society was the Shia Imams’ divine right and that all Sunni caliphs were illegitimate. Imam Reza’s decision to collaborate with a so-called “usurper” ruler is, therefore, against the uncompromising image that the Shias portray of their Imams’ attitudes. So it is not a surprise that, in the political discourse of the Islamic Republic, there is very little mention of Imam Reza’s decision to accept Ma’mun’s invitation. When the Imam’s compromise is mentioned, it is often portrayed as a calculated manoeuver to spread the Shias’ message toward distant parts of the Islamic world.
For instance, Ayatollah Khamenei said, on September 7, 2014, that Imam Reza “designed and operated a divine, measured plan that not only neutralized the caliphate’s plans [to put the Imam under control], but in contrary, resulted in spreading and propagating the Shia ideas in the Islamic world.”