The Qum Protests and the Coming of the
Iranian Revolution, 1975 and 1978
In June 1975 and January 1978, seminary students in the shrine city of Qum, Iran,
staged public protests against the regime of Shah Muhammad Riza Pahlavi. In both
instances security forces forcibly suppressed the protests. Yet the ﬁrst incident gener-
ated almost no public outcry, while the second incident echoed throughout Iran and
quickly became a rallying point for revolutionary mobilization. What was diﬀerent
about Iran in mid-1975 and early 1978 that might account for these diﬀerent reactions?
This article examines three widely credited explanations: economic downturn, widening
political opportunity, and organizational mobilization of the opposition. The exami-
nation of economic and political explanations uncovered little evidence of signiﬁcant
diﬀerences between the two time periods; organizational explanations, by contrast,
accounted for signiﬁcant shifts in 1977 among the moderate and Islamist opposition,
with the Islamist opposition in particular exhibiting a sense of optimism and eﬃcacy
in the weeks before January 1978. This changed self-perception appears to be the most
likely explanation for the wave of protest that followed the suppression of the Qum
protest of January 1978.
Qum Protest 1975
On the eve of 5 June 1975, the anniversary of violently repressed protests in
1963, seminary students gathered for commemorative services at the Fayzi-
yah Seminary in Qum, Iran, and raised chants for Ayatullah al- Uzma (Great
Sign of God) Ruhullah Khomeini.
This was a signiﬁcant event, as pub-
since he was exiled in 1964. Anti-shah demonstrations, planned by the stu-
Social Science History 27:3 (fall 2003), 287–325
Copyright © 2003 by the Social Science History Association
Social Science History
dents in advance, began in the seminary’s central courtyard after evening
Security forces, apparently prepared for such an event, surrounded
the seminary and prevented the students from taking their demonstration
to the streets. Into the evening and throughout the next days, with crowds
supportive of the protestors gathering around the seminary, security forces
lobbed tear gas into the courtyard and alternately ordered the students out
and forced them with a water cannon to stay in. On one occasion, the secu-
rity forces tried to gain entrance to the seminary via neighboring rooftops
but were beaten back by students throwing bricks and rocks.
On 7 June, the ranking oﬃcer in Qum telephoned a leading religious
scholar, Ayatullah Kazim Shari at-Madari, asking him to mediate. Shari at-
Madari did not respond (Guzarish-i kamil 1976: 6). As the day drew on and
military reinforcements arrived in Qum, the students inside the Fayziyah
Seminary also sought mediators. They telephoned the religious leaders of
Qum but received little assistance, aside from food. One religious leader sent
a representative to speak with the protestors but only to recommend that they
make a deal with the authorities to avoid arrest.
The leaders of the semi-
circle’s position,’’ Shaykh Murtaza Ha iri explained the next day.
world is run by two powers, the West and the Communist East, and ‘‘we here
are only a tool in their hands. They will not allow us to come to power. These
boys [the seminary students] will only be sacriﬁced.’’
At noon, the city of Qum shut down in a sympathy strike. In the after-
helicopter that ﬂew in low over the seminary. The students continued their
protests and hung out a large red banner, written in bad handwriting (inten-
tionally, so the authors would not be identiﬁed) and praising Khomeini and
the 1963 uprising. Red symbolized the blood of martyrs, they later explained,
chagrined that the color was widely taken as sympathy for communism.
In the afternoon of 7 June, security forces moved the crowd away from
speaker, the chief of police issued a warning to the students, instructing them
to stay in their rooms, and at dusk, several hundred commandos attacked
via neighboring rooftops. Some students resisted with sticks and stones for
half an hour. The authorities continued to beat students for another hour
while at the same time breaking all the windows and doors in the seminary.
station (Shirkhani 1998a).
We can be reasonably certain, in hindsight, that there were no fatalities,
but ‘‘rumors of deaths spread quickly’’ at the time. ‘‘Eight were said to have
(Fischer 1980: 125). Commandos were said to have thrown several students
oﬀ the roof to their deaths and then to have loaded the bodies into police and
gendarmerie vehicles so that casualties could not be counted.
The shah considered the incident serious enough to make a public
statement attributing this ‘‘ugly and ﬁlthy’’ event to ‘‘the unholy alliance of
black reactionist[s] and stateless Reds’’ (New York Times, 11 June 1975, 10).
Authorities shut the Fayziyah Seminary. It was still closed, a vivid reminder
of state power, during the seminary student protests of January 1978.
Qum Protest 1978
On 7 January 1978, Ittila at [The news], an afternoon newspaper in Teh-
ran, published an insulting proﬁle of Khomeini by a pseudonymous author.
‘‘These days,’’ the article began, ‘‘thoughts turn once again to the colonial-
ism of the black and the red, that is to say, to old and new colonialism.’’ The
alliance of the black and the red went looking for a clerical mouthpiece two
decades ago, the article continued, in order to dupe the devout. When the
plot ‘‘proved unsuccessful with the country’s high-ranking scholars, despite
special enticements,’’ there was only one man left for the job. ‘‘Ruhollah Kho-
meini was an appropriate agent for this purpose,’’ the article said, making a
rare reference to Khomeini in the Iranian press since his exile in 1964.
Reaching Qum at dusk on the seventh, the newspaper article immedi-
ately caused a stir. That evening, seminary students gathered, passed around
the article, and hand wrote copies to be posted about town—they could
not aﬀord to buy copies of the paper on their spare student stipends, and
photocopying was not a safe activity for oppositionists in Qum. The stu-
dents added the addendum: ‘‘Tomorrow morning, as a protest, meeting at
the Khan Seminary.’’
Independently, eight radical scholars gathered late in
derous article. ‘‘Something must be done,’’ a midranking scholar told his col-