The controversy among the clergy over
who should lead the Islamic state
January 2, 1997
From "The Islamic State and the Crisis of Marja'iyat in Iran," by Maziar Behrooz, originally published in Comparitive Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Vol XVI, No. 2, 1996). Behrooz is a visiting lecturer in hisotry at the University of California, Berkeley.
As long as Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was alive, the support for the Islamic state under the rule of the Jurist (velayat-e faqih) and his decree on the Absolute Rule of the Jurist (velayat-e motlaqeh faqih), backed by his prestige and popularity and the state authority, guaranteed his position and that of the Islamic state.
But his death in June 1989 caused major new problems for his successors. At the core of the new crisis was the fact that the clerical leadership, who supported the notion of the Rule of the Jurist, could not accept any of the living marja's (sources of emulation) as the Leader of the Republic. This meant that the Islamic state had come into conflict with one of the pillars of the Shi'i ulama hierarchy.
To rectify the situation, supporters of the Rule of the Jurist (none of them in the position of Marja'iyat, the institution of the source of emulation), changed the constitution in June 1989, and the requirement of the marja'iyat for the Leader dropped. Next, the president, Hojat al-Islam Ali Khamenei, was selected by the Council of Experts (Majlis Khobregan, a constitutional body empowered to select the Leader and change the constitution) as the new Leader.
Clearly, the choice of Khamenei, who was soon after addressed as ayatollah but whose ijtihad (jurisprudence) credentials are disputed, was a political one. The apparent non-availability of a reliable marja' for the ruling jurist was filled by naming Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki as marja' for former Khomeini followers.
Araki was a 100-year-old obscure theologian whose credentials as a marja' was, at best, in doubt. His selection by the middle- and lower-ranking clergy now in charge of the post-Khomeini state was clearly a transitional choice designed to by time until a more opportune time. What was clear, however, was that the notion of the Rule of the Jurist had already gone through a radical change and was now separated from the institution of Marja'iyat immediately after Ayatollah Khomeini's death.
While Araki proved to be the right choice and proved cooperative by asking muqalids (emulators) to follow Ayatollah Khomeini's directions, the fact remained that the new Leader, Khamenei, was unable to issue authoritative decrees as a marja'. Araki was chosen as the acceptable marja' while both Grand Ayatollahs Golpaiegani and Najafi were viewed with respect by the state and Grand Ayatollahs Kho'i and Tabataba'i were totally ignored.
The transition period came to an end in 1994, when first Najafi and Kho'i, Golpaiegani and finally Araki died between 1989 and 1994. Kho'i's death (summer 1992) resulted in the Islamic Republic of Iran calling Golpaiegani the marja'-e kol, but his death (December 1993) followed by Araki's death (December 1994) started a new crisis and showed that the IRI's preparations were inadequate.
With the older generation of marja's gone, a new group of younger mujtahids (jurisprudents) were poised to become the marja's of Iran and Iraq. These were Grand Ayatollahs: Mir Mohammad Ruhani in Qum, Ali Hosseini-Sistani in Najaf, Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qum, as well as Tabataba'i in Mashhad. To these must be added the clerical leadership's attempt to introduce Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a viable marja'.
Among the above Mujtahids, Tabataba'i, Sistani and Ruhani are known as marja's who have little or no sympathy for the notion of the Rule of the Jurist.
Tabataba'i, under house arrest, is basically immobile and unable to have much contact with his supporters since the early days of the revolution. His center, in Mashhad, although an important center of learning and home to the tomb of the eighth Shi'i Imam, is less important than the city of Qum which has become the major center of clerical activity in Iran. These factors seem to have helped to lessen Tabataba'i's importance.
Ruhani, an Azarbaijani Iranian, certainly seems to have the credentials to be a marja'. But reports suggest that he has been under pressure and has even asked to be allowed to leave the country.
Sistani was Kho'i's student and heir apparent. He resides in Najaf-Iraq, has apparently succeeded Kho'i as the undisputed marja' of Iraq and has even gained ground among the Shi'as of Lebanon. Similar to Kho'i, Sistani is of the old school and disagrees with notion of clerical rule.
All of the above three are unacceptable to the clerical leadership of the IRI and their position as marja' can prove to be a serious challenge to an Islamic state which has been left with no marja'.
The case of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri is the most complex one. A student of Ayatollah Khomeini and a militant clergyman during the anti-imperial regime struggle, Montazeri was an enthusiastic supporter of the Rule of the Jurist and was Ayatollah Khomeini's heir-apparent from 1985 to 1989.
Montazeri became a victim of factionalism and his fall from grace was initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini in March 1989. While still the heir-apparent, the IRI referred to Montazeri with the title of grand ayatollah, but upon his dismissal, Ayatollah Khomeini did not address him with appropriate title, putting his Marja'iyat in doubt.
Now that most of the marja's are dead, the question of Montazeri's position as a marja' and perhaps his future political activities has come to the fore. After being removed at Ayatollah Khomeini's suggestion, Montazeri moved to his old occupation of teaching in Qum and avoided politics so long as Khomeini was alive. After Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Montazeri occasionally issued declarations of protest, criticizing IRI policies.
It seems that while he was removed as the heir-apparent, his position as a marja' among many supporters of the IRI did not vanish. At one point a member of Parliament suggested that over 100 members were his muqalids.
Also since 1989 Montazeri has been actively building up his powerbase in clerical circles attracting many students. While the government has attempted to discourage people from accepting him as their marja', it seems that he is fast becoming a viable marja' with the right credentials and perhaps the only one who accepts the notion of the Rule of Jurist accompanied by strong reservation and criticism of the state.
Although official state publications constantly attack him and state security agencies place many restrictions on his activities, the popularity of the combative Montazeri is growing.
Recently, 20 high-ranking mujtahids who support the Rule of the Jurist have published a letter supporting Montazeri's marja'iyat, suggesting that though Ayatollah Khomeini had removed him as heir-apparent, his standing as a marja' had not diminished among those who support the Rule of the Jurist. Among familiar signatories of the letter are such figures as Ayatollahs Abdol Karim Musavi-Tabrizi, Mahdavi-Kani, and Tavasoli, the former head of Khomeini's office.
The fact that Montazeri is a supporter of the Rule of the Jurist, however, has not helped his case with the IRI leadership. He is viewed as someone who left the scene in disgrace and many of those in power today had helped bringing about his downfall. His return as a viable political pole, backed by the position of marja'iyat, is a threatening specter to many.
It is clear that in December 1994, the IRI could not view any of the available maja's as either desirable or acceptable. To find a remedy, the IRI leadership took the unprecedented step of attempting to interfere in the process of choosing a marja'. This was a seemingly impossible task which, nevertheless, the IRI leadership and media began to promote aggressively while Khamenei remained silent on the subject.
There were three major problems with this strategy, which eventually led to its defeat. First, Khamenei as the Leader was a political choice from the very beginning. His credentials as a mujtahid are in doubt as it is not clear if he has written his own resaleh (canon guide).
Second, even if he was a mujtahid, his overnight promotion to the rank of Marja'iyat by the state propaganda machinery went against the traditional, and firmly-rooted, process of a mujtahid earning respect and reputation by laboring in Shi'i learning centers.
Third, the whole notion of the state dictating who should or should not be a marja' went against the tradition of the free will of the muqalid to choose his marja'. The state's aggressive promotion of Khamenei (who is referred to as "The Leader of the IRI, the Islamic Revolution and Moslems of the World" by the IRI media) actually hurt his position, since his promotion, at the expense of more legitimate candidates, left little room for retreat.
While Khamenei remained silent on the issue, personalities such as Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the head of the Judiciary, argued that in the Islamic Republic, the Ruling Jurist and marja' were one and the same. Yazdi also interjected a new element into the criteria for choosing a marja' which is a radical departure from Shi'i traditions.
He suggested, while arguing the case for Khamenei, that in an Islamic state the marja'iyat candidate's political credentials (i.e., his knowledge and competency in political matters) takes precedent over the traditional criteria for the institution. This meant that a mujtahid may become marja' solely based on his political acceptability, a process clearly in conflict with the traditional marja'iyat. Furthermore, Yazdi's approach signaled a definite departure on the part of the IRI clerical leadership from traditional criteria for choosing a marja'.
The IRI leadership's attempt to promote Khamenei as the new marja' failed when faced with the Shi'i traditions of Marja'iyat. The failure probably became known when unofficial feedback obtained by polling major Shi'i centers suggested that the attempt was unacceptable.
To remedy the situation and try to exert some kind of influence, the IRI leadership took tree steps. First, to arrange a retreat for Khamenei, by having him refuse the offer of marja'iyat for Iran (as he explained, due to other heavy responsibilities), but agreeing to be the marja' for the Shi'as outside of Iran.
His acceptance of marja'iyat for Shi'as outside Iran has neither traditional nor theological precedence in Shi'ism. Marja'iyat can be, and in modern times it increasingly is, transitional. A marja' in Iran can have muqalids in Lebanon or Pakistan. The problem of national borders was not an issue in the crisis of marja'iyat and his eligibility for the position.
Second, to dilute the list of candidates for marja'iyat, some ulama supporters of the IRI named six mujtahids, without naming any of the above-mentioned marja's, as eligible candidates for the position. Khamenei suggested that there were hundreds of mujtahids available and eligible to become marja's. This policy does not seem to have succeeded in diverting attention from the above mentioned four marja's.
Third, and perhaps the most important outcome of the crisis of Marja'iyat in Iran, is the IRI's perception of a conflict between the ruling of he Leader and one of the marja's. As noted, according to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, a religious decree issued by a Leader/marja' had precedence over other marja's. Now, according to Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the head of the Council of Experts, the decree of Khamenei (a non-marja') also had precedence over the religious decree of a marja'.
The developments cited above have initiated a process of change in the Shi'i concept of an Islamic state. Furthermore, in little more than 18 years, the above developments have started to radically define the position of the ulama vis-a-vis the state, a development that would have been unimaginable had it been attempted by a secular-state.
It seems that while, by taking over the guardianship of the state, the goal of the Islamic leadership of Iran was to bring the traditional conflict between secular state and the Shi'i ulama (clergy) to an end, in practice further polarization has occurred.
While the concept of the Rule of the Jurist has come to mean domination of the state by middle- and lower-ranking ulama, the higher-ranking ulama (namely the marja's) all stand opposed to the Islamic state. Once again, the Shi'i marja's stand against a state which is being run by men who claim their competency not on religious bases, but on political and revolutionary credentials.
While the dominant figures among the IRI statesmen are members of the ulama establishment, the very fact that they are lower- and middle-ranking and that they emphasize their political credentials (as against their religious credentials) as criteria for controlling the state, suggests that a process of semi-secularization is under way.
The institution of marja'iyat has been an integral part of the Shi'i-usuli clerical hierarchy since the 19th century. Furthermore, it had been instrumental in giving Ayatollah Khomeini the necessary credentials to become the revolutionary leader that he was and to initiate the doctrinal changes that he did.
The very separation of the institution from the notion of an Islamic state signified a crisis in Shi'i doctrine as well as in IRI politics. The outright hostility of the current marja's suggests the deepening of the crisis.
The above development has created two long-term political problems for the IRI. First, as the conflict grows, and as the IRI's other seemingly insoluble problems (particularly economic) continue, the ordinary Shi'i believer may find it more convenient to turn to his/her traditional religious center (i.e., marja's) in order to voice dissent. This would undoubtedly bring the conflict between the Islamic state and her institution of marja'iyat into open political confrontation.
The outcome of such an encounter could only further aggravate the legitimacy problem of the post-Khomeini Islamic state. Already, the higher-ranking ulama, under the banner of the institution of marja'iyat, are moving to their traditional role of opposing the state with seemingly traditional reasoning, i.e. the illegitimacy of the state in the absence of the Lord of the Age (Imam Zaman, twelfth Shi'i Imam).
Second, no matter how much the Islamic state would like others to believe that it can function independent of the traditional ulama hierarchy, it is still very much dependent on binding religious decrees for legitimizing some of its actions.
The suggestion that a non-marja' may issue a binding religious decree is neither plausible or enforceable, unless the high hand of the state is willing to act upon it by accepting the consequences.
nah dekhaalat -- Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri's controversial
views on velayat-e faqih, in Persian
* Khaah pand gir, khaah... -- Montazeri's response to attacks following his speech, in Persian
* Responses to the Montazeri speech:
- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Leader of the Islamic Republic -- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Head of Expediency Council (Majma' Tashkhis Maslahat) -- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, Head of Experts Council (Majles Khobregan) -- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Statement from Experts Council -- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, Judiciary Chief -- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari , Spokesman for Majlis Hezbollah faction (pro-Khatami)- Hamshahri (Persian)
-Ayatollah Javadi Amoli -- Hamshahri (Persian)