Shiism has a problem with majority rule
By Sohrab Mahdavi
January 30, 2001
The affable letter of Majid Tehranian ["Rah-e
sevom"] once again proves how well-meaning thinkers lodged abroad
are incapable of grasping the most elementary factors that figure into
the equation of power in the Islamic Republic, and how by appealing to
commonplace reasoning they are only out to satisfy their sense of nostalgia
and sentimentalism about Iran without wanting to return until their fanciful
ideals have seen the light of day. Tehranian's
That Tehranian's intentions are valiant and honorable is not in dispute
here (though one still needs to prove it, if not to him, then to oneself;
after all, "good intentions pave the road to hell," and one must
always be on guard). But the slew of baselss assertions that shine through
the monitor are mawkish to the point of disturbing.
The cream of the argument can be gleaned early: "Our religion is
one of unity and homogeneity, not division and divisiveness.. Our religion
is the religion of freedom of conscience and expression." It is always
a mistake to assume that within any cult or faith in Islam there has always
-- or at times -- been unity. Islam has spawned countless cults and schools,
which have in turn branched out in infinite directions.
Whether reactionary or progressive, these branches have taken on a life
of their own, and though attempts at reconciliation have always been there,
at no time has the Muslim Umma been entirely content in counting itself
entirely in an indivisible universality -- the way, for example, the Catholic
church has been the pre-eminent representative of Catholicism around the
While one of its six principles of jurisprudence has revolved around
ejma' (consensus), Shiism has never accepted the right of the majority
with ease, or without devising trappings that would make that right contingent
upon the approval of a religious figure of eminence. The historical dispute
between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam has hinged on this particular
issue. The roots of this dispute must be sought in the worldview of each,
and not in some quixotic concoction of principles.
Shiism is a minoritarian force. This is not to appeal to an economy
of numbers. A worldview maybe minoritarian while holding the consensus
of the majority or, conversely, grudgingly holding to principles while
being in a qualitative minority. The virtue of the highest figure of representative
Shiism is precisely that he maintained integrity in the face of a veritable
The legend of Ashura is borne on the wings of an insubordination to
the rule of the majority. This is the only way that one can explain the
eminent position of Shiite luminaries such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi who
are not only tolerated but held at high esteem by those currently in the
minority. Here are samples of Mesbah's views:
* "From the beginning of the creation of man until this day, the
cultural situation has never been as critical as that of our society today.
Today they say religion is a [personal] choice. today the situation is
decisive. Today is a state of emergency."
* "If the right of the public is truly a legitimatising force,
then let's assume that people decide to vote for the rule of Yazid or Haroon
ul-Rashid or Reza khan Pahlavi and the like. In that case, would their
government, in the eyes of God and the Messiah, be legitimate and founded
* "People are deceived on various pretexts and this is due to their
* "Where religion is under attack, principles are put to question,
the blood of martyrs is stepped on, and skepticism enters the religion,
one must not sit back because it is freedom and democracy. Unfortunately,
even those who are supposed to defend the truths of religion are now in
the dark. What kind of Islamic government is this whose state of women's
covering is so [licentious]?"
* "Islam does not want its leaders to distribute [power] among
themselves only because they want to avoid bloodshed and damage to public
interests - sacrificing the exigencies of the Islamic society and exigencies
of God to individual interests. It is one more proof of the victim-hood
of Amir al-Momenin that he has followers like us."
These are not effusions of a rogue religious figure. Throughout the
history of Islam minoritarian figures have voiced similar sentiments, ready
to line up their (few) numbers against those who have been deemed a threat
to the sovereignty of God on earth.
It is precisely because Shiism is a minoritarian religion that it so
strongly supports a messianic outlook on history. History is not deterministic,
but is moving in the direction of the kingdom of the Messiah (even if one
day away from Armageddon). While it "waits" for the day of truth,
the messianic force will not be content with the rule of majority (god
forbid, democracy), but only that of the infallible jurist, which, by implication,
is bound to open the way to that kingdom by his failure.
Tehranian may cringe at the quotations above (which, by the way, have
all been offered in the past five months), but the truth is that by not
considering the place that these assertions occupy in the political philosophy
of "our" religion, he is bound to misjudge and patronize the
readers of his letter (the people of Iran).
No wonder his letter is reduced to a series of truism that can be summarized
in a sentence, and which could have easily been uttered by a father to
his sons: "It is good to be good to each other, to respect the rights
of each other, to believe in our interests, to be happy."
Mohammad Khatami's reading of religion is simply one in a field that
gravitates around many. One may conceivably assert that it reflects the
will of the people, but one should never underestimate the power of the
minority in holding its ground against the mostly-silent force of the majority.