Seldom has such a murky notion so fired the minds of Iranians as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenini's plan for turning Iran into an Islamic republic.
Partisans claim creation of such a republic will cure all Iran's ills, make the country a way station between capitalism and communism, shift most decisions to the individual and ensure a minimum of government intervention.
Adversaries fear the shah's muchhated dictatorship is about to be replaced by one run by the Moslem clergy. Religious minorities, women, leftists, much of the educated Westernized middle class -- all have their reasons for fearing a tyranny of the trubans.
To these critics the idea of an Islamic republic conjures up visions of an amalgan of Islamic societies such an Libya, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, of thieves' hands severed, adulteresses stoned and journalists whipped.
To the Islamic republic's proponents thest three countries are prime examples of what they do not want for Iran.
Yet Mehdi Bazargan, a close Khomeini aide who has tried to modernize Islamic thinking, sees no contradiction in stating that his model is Islam at is existed during and 10 years immediately after the time of the prophet Mohammed. That was nearly 1,300 years ago.
For Bazargan and other contemporary reformers, the seeming contradiction is only that. In their desire to modernize Islam and have it embrace the contemporary world, they have long insisted that Moslems must go back to their roots and discard conventional religious ethics, which they say led to corruption, decadence and decline of their societies.
Ali Shariati, a university lecurer who died in 1974, propounded the theory that the holy Koran was a revolutionary tract. His half-ideological, half-inedalistic views have fired a whole generation of Iranian university students and his vaguely socialist message has deprived Marxism of many young recruits here.
The reformers' goal, it has been said, is to take Islam from the dark corners of the mosque to the streets, shops and classrooms, to implement it in daily life.
Experts are now said to be hard at work in various commissions trying to define exactly what the Islamic republic should be.
The problem is that merchants, workers, intellectuals and middleclass progessionals all have views -- and more often than not their collective views do not agree. Nor do the opinions of learned clerics writing on the subject converge.
There is even confusion about what Khomeini thinks. Increasingly, he is said to see himself as a revolutionary not just for Iran or the Islamic world, but for the world at large.
He is reported to have little use for his fellow clerocs, considered too conservative and unwilling to share his revolutionary views.
He wants to keep them off his planned revolutionary council and provisional government.
Yet in a book published under his name serveral years ago, which Khomeini aides now say is being revised, he is quoted as saying, "The real governors are the theologians themselves, and thus the government must rightly belong to the theologians, not to those who, due to their ignorance of the [Islamic] law, must follow their guidance. They inherit directly from the prophet and the imams the right of government over the people."
Another Moslem divine, Ayatollah Allameh Nuri, argues that any legislative body in any Islamic government cannot be considered independent because "in Islam God is law giver and Legislator."
Some close Khomeini aides claim that the Islamic government structure will be even more democratic and open than Western systems of government.
Some want a unicameral legislature. Others foresee an upper house of clerics and religious-minded citizens who would act as thesenior chamber and exert the kind of pervasive power enjoyed in England in the 15th century by the House of Lards and the bishops.
An elected lower house in theory would have only an advisory role, but in reality would carry out most decisions.
These complications arise from the notion that the laws of Islamic societies have been "given" once and for all in the Korean and the Theology and jurisprudence based on the prophet's sayings.
On more practical matters, specialists claim to discern policies on econmics and legal and social codes.
Wealth, according to these policies, should be equally distributed even to the point of paying everyone the same wages regardless of the job performed -- a goal that undoubtedly would take some time to achieve. Interest on loans would be abolished. Banks would make money on proits from investments.
Arguments continue between the socialist-minded proponents of nationalization and laissez-faire capitalists who favor private property. In any case, no present holdings seem to be in jeopardy.
The bazar merchants have backed the revolution and traditionally want as free a hand as possible -- and that means no government interference in their affairs if they can get away with it.
Some more radical advisers would like the accumulation of wealth and especially its transfer to heirs prohibited.
Worker participation may become a reality. Started under the shah, it never accomplished more than scaring off foreign capital investment.
Legal and social codes are the greatest cause of controversy. Depending on which specialist is talking, the sharia , or rigid Moslem code of law, will or will not be engorced. That law, in theory, includes severing hands for some forms of theft, stoning adulteresses and whipping those who drink alocoholic beverages.
At the very least, all law on the books, as well as future bills, will be reviewed to ensure that they are not a threat to public morals.
In any case, most bars, nightclubs, liquor stores and movie theaters have been burned by militant Moslems who have also put the torch to breweries and to Tehran's notorious red light district.
Khomeini, in interviews, has done little to allay the fears of censorship when he made the exercise of freedom of speech, press and assembly conditional on the otherwise undefined "national interest."
Film, theater, radio and television must serve Islamic goals, he has said, and dance halls are sinful. Ayatollah Nuri has talked of an "era of purification."
Still, as eminent a specialist as Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani insists that women will have full rights to work, property and divorce. Many Westernized women, however, find little joy in feeling obliged to don the full-length chador covering their bodies from head to toes to avoid dirty looks or worse on the streets.
Taleghani said "women can even breast-feed their babies, exact pay ment from their husbands for housekeeping and join the political struggle."
But, he said, "there are certain constrainst on women exercising political leadership."
A woman could become a cabinet minister, but only if no competent man were available, he said.
"Organic differences" between men and women were such that Islam had given men more responsibility in running society, he said, "and given women more responsibility in the formation of future societies."
As for corporal punishment laid down under Ilamic law, he said that "at the time of the prophet," a 10-year period, "only one or two hands had to be cut off for theft," because the deterrent was credible.