Where Twelver Shiism Went Wrong

“Makes me want to puke! All these islamic titles: Hojjatolislam, ayatollah, grand ayatollah, blah, grand blah, blah blah…..”

That was one reader’s reaction to a recent blog in which I argued that reforming the IRI from within ultimately would prove to be a lost cause. He didn’t have an issue with my argument. He was just couldn’t stomach the fancy Shiite titles I had to use in making it.

And you know, I could see his point. I get sick of hearing the titles too because I think they have a lot more to do with puffing up their holders than anything else. They’re worth taking a closer look at, however, because they are central to what’s gone wrong with modern Twelver Shiism. More on that below, but first a bit of history:

Following the disappearance of the 12th and last Shiite Imam in the 9th century, there were no Ayatollahs waiting around to fill his shoes. Interpreting Islamic law instead was left to the discretion of four intermediaries who were supposedly in direct communication with the hidden Imam. When the last of these intermediaries died, leaving no successor, the Shiite community was without any clear leaders who could interpret and rule on Islamic law. Gradually a class of male scholars known as mujtahids began to emerge to fill the gap, and over the centuries, took on more and more of what had once been the duties of the Imams. Despite the emergence of these mujtahids, however, for most of the second millennium there wasn’t much of a hierarchy to Twelver Shiism and as a result, it was a largely decentralized affair.

Of course, Twelver Shiism and politics were intertwined even back then—the Safavid dynasty being the prime example—but in most instances the politicians used religion to amass power as opposed to what we see today, where religious figures use politics to amass power.

So when did modern Twelver Shiism go wrong and evolve into the political monster we see today in Iran? For my first example I’ll start by looking at the late 1700s, when an internal battle took place within the Twelver Shiite community.

On one side were the Akhbaris, a group that wanted to get rid of the mujtahids because they believed the Qu’ran and hadith clearly spelled out everything one needed to know regarding Islamic law. On the other side were the Usulis, who believed the Qu’ran and hadith needed to be correctly interpreted to be truly understood, and that only the mujtahid were capable of rendering these correct interpretations.

A pointless internecine religious battle on one level perhaps, but on another it was a fight over power and politics. Because even back then being a mujtahid wasn’t always just about interpreting Islamic law. Sometimes it was about collecting money, and followers, and land, and using these things to exert influence. Take away the religious justification for the existence of mujtahids and you have taken away their power.

The Usulis won decisively, which meant the mujtahids came out on top as virtually uncontested gatekeepers between the masses and the divine. This strengthening of the mujtahid position went a long way towards creating a climate whereby Twelver Shiism could be easily politicized. Without it, individual Twelver Shiites would be hard-pressed to amass significant power and Iran wouldn’t be the country it is today. So that’s one example, in my book at least, of where Twelver Shiism went wrong.

Another example I’d point to is the determination that some mujtahid gatekeepers were more important than others. Which brings us back to where we began—the fancy titles. In the 1800s, after defeating the Akhbaris, unofficial Usuli titles started to spring up: Hojjat o Islam, or proof of Islam, for middle-ranking mujtahids;  Ayat o Allah, or sign of god, for accomplished mujtahids; and then the granddaddy title of them all, Ayat o Allah Uzma, or Grand Ayatollah for the mujtahids deemed to be ‘sources of emulation’ to their followers.

The development of these mujtahid titles, and the more structured mujtahid hierarchy that came with the titles, allowed for a further consolidation of religious power and the emergence of influential individuals who, if they chose to do so, could leverage this religious power in the political arena.

Enter Khomeini.

Plenty of Grand Ayatollahs before Khomeini dabbled in politics but it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Khomeini developed his idea of velayat-e faqih that Twelver Shiism was asked to take yet another big step in the direction of politicization. Although in one sense this was a radical break from Shiite traditions, in another sense it just represented the logical culmination of the gradual politicization of Twelver Shiism that has been going on for centuries.

I can’t include this as a definitive third example of where Twelver Shiism went wrong because it remains to be seen whether, in the end, Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih will be accepted by the broader Twelver Shiite community. I doubt that it will, given the resistance to the theory among the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf who tend to believe the mixing of politics and religion demeans both. But with Khomeini’s radical experiment—the Islamic Republic of Iran—still limping along, the final verdict has yet to be rendered.

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