The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, by Roy Mottahedeh. New York: Simon & Schuster. 384 pp. $17.95. The first turning point in Ali Hashemi's life was when a friend in his Islamic study group read an article out loud about the progress of the Algerian revolution against French colonial masters. The article described how the French had surprised hundreds of Algerian guerrillas in a desert cave. Although surrounded, the Algerians -- including women and children -- refused to surrender, so French troops poured a flammable liquid into the cave, then stood back to watch them burn alive.
Ali was outraged. ``For the French, a Muslim is not a human being: they don't care if they kill one or one thousand . . . God punish them! The success of the Algerians will be the example that will make all Muslims burn with a kind of fire they will never forget.'' The Iranian youth then decided that ``Iran and the Islamic world needed a champion against the Europeans, or else no one would pay for the lives consumed in Algeria and everywhere else where people struggled against oppression.''
Twenty years later, Ali and his Iranian compatriots had their champion in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But Roy Mottahedeh's superb ``The Mantle of the Prophet'' is not just another book about the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is instead a moving and brilliant journey through the life of a young Shiite intellectual, as well as an odyssey through two millenniums of Iranian civilization. On a broader level, it is also ``the story of the third world, where disappointment at the yield of a generation or more of nationalism, Westernization, and socialism has fostered a return to older and more deeply rooted valu es.''
Ali Hashemi (a pseudonym) is, in effect, not just one man. He is a literary device, a reflection of the innermost thoughts and experiences of many men who spent time with the author, a Princeton professor and noted authority on the Middle East. The scope of Motta-hedeh's narrative is immense, his prose simple and eloquent, rich with the human dimension of history.
Ali Hashemi, the son of a mullah, grew up and studied in Qom, the center of religious training in Iran. There never seemed any question that he would carry on the tradition of religious leadership. His education included study in the late 1960s under Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then in exile in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. Yet Hashemi's life was still a quest as he flirted with other ideologies.
In one of many articles Hashemi wrote as a youth under various pseudonyms, he analyzed in 1971 the similarities between the goals of Ernesto (Ch'e) Guevara and Islam. ``Did not the Koran say, `And why should you not fight for the cause of God and of the oppressed?' Above all, was not Ch'e Guevara's vision for the future ultimately a religious and Islamic vision? What `striving' Muslim could fail to agree with him that, as he said, `the sacred cause is the redemption of humanity through struggle,' or fai l to agree with his vision that men would eventually be purified by their struggle?'' All paths eventually led him back to Islam.
Shortly after the article was published, Savak, the Shah's draconian secret police, picked up Hashemi. But even in prison he continued his mental exercises. By coincidence, he had tucked Nehru's opus, ``Glimpses of World History,'' in his pocket. In his 6-by-12-foot cell, Hashemi began a dialogue with Nehru, filling the margins and flyleaves with reactions in tiny scrawl.
In response to Nehru's comment that religion ``often cared little for the mind,'' he protested: ``Not true of Shiism,'' Islam's so-called second sect (the other being Sunni) and the dominant faith in Iran. For Hashemi ``it seemed impossible in an unjust world to claim that any moral system could be closed and balanced without any other-worldly dimension. But Ali also wanted to argue that religion too progresses and at its best it too could be the voice of the exploited.''
Hashemi's three-week detention was brief by the standards of Iranian justice. But the experience helped cement his opposition to Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who many Muslims felt was abandoning the Islamic soul and identity in order to shape Iran into a Western imitation. Opposition grew until the 1979 ``revolution of the word'' had toppled the Shah, who left Iran carrying a box of Iranian soil as his father had done in 1941, during his own forced abdication.
The story does not stop there. In one of the best accounts of the mood inside Iran during the first six years of the revolution, the author explains the disillusionment that set in under theocratic rule. For many, the old elite had simply been replaced by a new elite, often as ruthless as the men it ousted.
Hashemi retreated into the isolation of his garden and religious studies in Qom, where he had been elevated to the status of ayatollah. He was anguished over the shattered promise, caught between his love for and deep belief in Islam and his questioning of the rigidity of the new state.
The answers were not those he had expected when he burned for the Muslims to find a means to replace oppression with Islamic justice. Instead, he could only apologize: ``Ali keeps telling mullah friends who share his distaste for the purges and killings other mullahs have directed, `But I know for a fact that years ago they would walk out of their way to avoid stepping on an ant.' ''
Robin Wright is a former Beirut correspondent for the Monitor. Her book, ``Sacred Rage: the Wrath of Militant Islam,'' will be published by Simon & Schuster later this month.