The Future of the Marjayia

This article was first published in The Almajalla magazine.

The current form of religious leadership over the Shi’ite community, marjayia, was founded in the 1830s when Mohammed Hassan Najafi became the first transnational Shi’ite religious authority (marja) in Najaf, Iraq. Najafi created a universal patronage network through which he received religious taxes and endowment incomes, and appointed religious representatives from Shi’ite cities in Iraq to India.
In the 16th Century, Shi’ite jurists (mujtahids) had established a new conceptual theory describing the relationship between community leaders and Shi’ite worshipers. According to the theory, each worshiper should either reach the highest educational level in Shi’ite jurisprudence (ijtihad) or follow a living person who has attained such a level. The theory of ‘following’ (taqlid) was intertwined with another significant theory, which permitted Shi’ite jurists to receive religious taxes on behalf of the infallible and hidden twelfth Shi’ite Imam. It is believed that this Imam will return at the end of time to establish a just global government. Thereafter, a new form of Shi’ite leadership emerged that both provided the monarchy with legitimacy and was protected by it, but was also financially independent from it.
Ever since, the marjas have been the highest religious authorities in Shi’ism and are followed by a large number of Shi’ite worshipers on mainly juridical issues. While there is no theological justification in classical Islam for a clerical class, today’s clerical establishment is the principal religious institution in the Muslim world, and especially in the Shi’ite world.As Mohammed Arkoun (a late modern scholar of Islam) said, “Islam is theologically Protestant and politically Catholic.” In contrast to the papacy and the Catholic clerical institution, the Shi’ite marjayia is quite a recent establishment that was only started about 200 years ago. Another way in which the marjayia differs from the papacy is that the marjayia does not need to be in the hands of a single person. The most important difference, though, is that unlike in the papacy, the marjayia’s authority is personal and not institutional.

Before the 1830s, the Shi’ite leadership was utterly local. Each region had jurists whom the lay people followed, to whom they paid their taxes, and from whom they received religious and juridical advice. The modern world—especially modern telecommunication and transportation— transformed local Shi’ite leadership into a transnational institution.
The 21st century will witness a new form of religious authority in the Shi’ite community, which is neither local nor transnational. The emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the confluence of religious and political authorities in Iran was a fundamental turning point. However, the absence of Ayatollah Ali Sistani (B. August 4, 1930) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (b. July 16, 1939) from the scene would be a benchmark for the new era.

Politics of Marjayia in the Modern Time
In theory, Shi’ite jurisprudence tasks a marja with issuing a fatwa, or a religious ruling, but leaves their followers to decide on the applicability of God’s order to specific cases and subjects. For instance, if a marja states that drinking wine is forbidden, it is his follower’s duty to make sure that the liquid inside the glass is not wine but water. Followers should ask their marja only general questions and are responsible for applying his verdict to specific cases on their own. In practice, though, followers ask their marja advice on specific issues and circumstances. Thus, the marja’s religious authority has expanded from jurisprudence to politics and society.

Masoomiya madrasa in Qom

A significant turning point was Mirza Mohammad Hassan Shirazi’s 1891 fatwa that forbade the use of tobacco. This fatwa was a response to Nasser Eddin Shah Qajar of Iran granting the British Imperial Tobacco Company the exclusive rights to produce, sell, and export all of Iran’s tobacco in return for annual royalties. Later, the Shi’ite marjas in Iraq—who were predominantly Iranians—intervened in Iranian affairs by supporting either the pro- or anti-constitutional movement. The founding of Qom Seminary in 1921 was a regarded as a necessary step in creating a powerful clerical establishment inside Iran and decreasing the influence of Iraq-based marjas’ over Iranian society and politics. The Shi’ite marjayia, however, continued to remain a transnational entity. Religiously, a marja’s fatwa is valid for his followers, regardless of where his followers reside.
Since the marja’s authority was transnational and he was not limited in terms of the subject matter he could issue fatwas on, he was free to meddle in politics—especially the politics of countries other than the one in which they resided. This was deeply problematic. Although the founding of Qom Seminary in the early 20th century partially solved this problem for the Iranian government, it did not fix it indefinitely. The emergence of the Islamic Republic and the repressive policies of Saddam Hussein against the Shi’ite community and its clerical establishments in Iraq diminished the political influence of Iraqi marjas in Iran.
Although the Islamic Republic was not able to completely resolve the tension between the clergy and the modern state, the regime’s control over the clerical establishment in the region stole much of the Shi’ite clergy’s freedom in political affairs. The Islamic Republic has made its clergy the richest in Shi’ite history and enabled them to have access to government and non-government resources that was denied to them in the past. By legitimizing its banking system, the Islamic Republic paved the way for marjas to use banks instead of accumulating cash in their houses. The Iranian regime has also provided exceptional opportunities for clergy to get involved in business. The Internet has also opened the door to a new world for marjas. These modern forces are shaping a new era in Shi’ite leadership.

Characteristics of the New Leadership
The first feature of the new era in Shi’ite leadership is that religious authority is separate from political authority. By this, I do not mean secularization or a separation between government and religious institutions. Separation, in this case, means that those clerics who do play a political role and assume political positions are not necessarily marjas or mujtahids. Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Muqtada Sadr in Iraq are examples of ambitious clerics who did not study Shi’ite jurisprudence in seminaries enough to be considered a mujtahid.
Consequently—and this is another feature of the new era—marjas’ views on politics have become less important than before. This separation mainly started in the 20th century, when spokesmen and groups promoting Islamic ideology tried to differentiate themselves from the traditional clerical institutions. An example of this trend is Mojtaba Mir Lohi, known as Navvab Safavi, who founded Fadaian-e Islam, the first fundamentalist Islamist group in pre-revolutionary Iran. There were many other militant clerics in Pakistan and the Shi’ite Arab strongholds who were more comfortable working with lay people than the clergy. Their desire to mobilize people differed from that of the marja: while the marja represent the most conservative side of the religious spectrum, the militant clerics’ organization and ideology were motivated by radical political action. Khomeini was a historical exception.
From this separation, another characteristic emerges: the eclectic approach of followers to the marjas they followed. In the past, a follower followed his marja on all issues on which that marja had an opinion. Many political and non-political reasons have led today’s followers to selectively obey the opinions of their marjas. For instance, many practicing female worshipers follow a marja on numerous religious issues but do not follow him on those fatwa which suggest discrimination against women, such as polygamy or the wearing of the hijab. Many worshipers also distinguish between private religious issues and public issues that a marja is not necessarily an expert on. For example, in Lebanon many Shi’ites follow Ayatollah Sistani on issues related to prayer, fasting, hajj, marriage, and divorce, but not on politics. On politics and social issues, they might listen to Hassan Nasrallah, Khamenei, or other political leaders. Therefore, the relationship between marja and follower has greatly changed, and the follower is not a passive practicing worshiper. Today’s followers, especially women, have much more agency in reshaping the relationship between their community and its leadership.
Another aspect of the new era is that a marja’s financial resources are no longer confined to religious taxes. In the past, marjas collected religious taxes and endowment incomes, and stocked them in their own houses or those of their representatives. This money was then distributed among the clergy or spent on building and running madrasas, mosques, charities, and so on. Today, marjas can benefit from government aid. They have the economic advantage to run businesses, make investments, and import and export goods. In the past, a marja’s popularity and following was based on his financial capability. Today, this is no longer the case. Khamenei, for example, is the richest marja in the Shi’ite world—not because of his ability to attract followers, but because of his access to government resources. If Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, former chief of the Iranian judiciary, claims to be a marja and opens an office in Najaf , it is not because of his ability to create a vast network of patronage for himself, but rather because tremendous business opportunities were provided to him by the Iranian government. This fundamental change makes marjas more independent of their followers but also more dependent on the economic frameworks set up by governments.
However, marjas have lost their monopoly over religious institutions. Not only does the Iranian government fully control Iran’s clerical establishment (and partially Iraq’s) and other religious institutions, but in the future there will be many religious institutions that marjas will not be able to have any control or supervision over. Influential non-marja clerics, government agencies, radical lay Islamists, and other type of people will be able to run religious institutions without relying on arrangements with marjas, allowing for dozens of forms of authority parallel to the authority of the marja to emerge.
The marjas will remain the representatives of conservative Islam. Due to the ever-changing nature of the Shi’ite community’s social policies, forms of religiosity are constantly evolving. When the religious discourse of the marjas becomes less attractive to the upper-middle and upper classes, educated women, and the youth, these groups will invent their own religiosity. Reformist discourse created by religious intellectuals, which reemphasizes spirituality and morality over jurisprudence and theology, would consequently be more appealing. However, the marjas will still be a model to follow for millions of Shi’ites who adhere to an unreformed version of Shi’ite jurisprudence. As in Judaism and Christianity, where the orthodox and the catholic respectively continue to live as they have done for centuries alongside several other forms of Christianity and Judaism, conservative Islam—crystalized in traditional clergy—will also survive alongside other forms of Shi’ite authority.
In the new era, marjas will need to act more within the framework of the nation-state. If Sistani does not react to Iranian politics or Bahraini politics, it will be because the marja’s ability to influence other governments or peoples has been significantly reduced. The marjas would prefer to be quietist; otherwise they will be influential only in local politics. Despite the fact that globalization and the Internet would enable marjas to proselytize for their marjayia throughout the world and attract followers and religious taxpayers no matter where they live, the marja institution will ironically become more local. Globalized communication tools allow more jurists to claim marjayia, and the pluralism of marjayia and its competitive nature would be quite unprecedented. The age of the universal marja who could monopolize religious authority is over. Marjayia does not survive by inheritance. When a marja dies, his office will continue to run his charities and other organizations for a while. His assets would not be transferred to a new marja; therefore, every marja must build up his marjayia from the beginning. This enables more people to take the path of marjayia without the need for being the protégé of a previous marja.
Over the next few decades, the tension between Shi’ites and Sunnis will become a major element in reshaping the politics of the Middle East. Shi’ites in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey will play a bolder role in the political dynamism of their own country. This change of status coincides with the decentralization of the Shi’ite leadership and a significant reduction in the role of marjas, who represent mostly conservative Shi’ites and influence their religious practices more than their social and political behavior. In the future, non-marja authorities will play a greater role. It will be interesting to observe how these authorities—the Iranian government (amongst others), clerical figures who lack high religious credentials, lay Islamists, and reformist religious intellectuals—will play a wider and deeper role in politics of Shi’ite community.


Supreme Succession; Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran

This policy focus was originally published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has given no signs of imminent departure from the political scene, both the confrontational nature of his recent actions and the still-ticking Iranian nuclear clock raise important questions about what will happen upon his death. Will the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps subordinate the new Supreme Leader and focus on domestic issues, thereby cementing its status as the main player in Iran’s political, military, and economic spheres? Or will the new government become even more radical than Khamenei’s and carry on his bellicose foreign policy? Answering these questions requires a clear understanding of the Islamic Republic’s current power structure, its past approach to leadership transition, and the closed-door nature of its most important political decision.
In this Policy Focus, Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji shows how the succession question could present a unique opportunity for Washington to soften the regime’s anti-American posture or, failing that, to ensure that the IRGC’s ambitions do not jeopardize other regional states.

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Iran’s Regime of Religion

This article is published in Journal of International Affairs (Columbia University) Vol. 65 No. 1 Fall/Winter 2011 page 131

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This article demonstrates how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran’s uncertain future.


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The Iranian Clergy’s Silence

This article was first published in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 10
on July 12, 2010

“What we see is a military government, not the rule of the Shiite jurist.”

–Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri’s 2009 open letter to Shiite religious authorities in Islamic countries.

On June 13, 2010, when Mehdi Karrobi, the reformist candidate in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, paid a personal visit to the home of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in the Shiite holy city of Qom, dozens of militants also descended on Sanei’s residence to disrupt the get-together. The militants were members of the Imam Sadeq Brigade 83, a paramilitary unit consisting of young radical clerics that is under the direct command of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These days, the brigade functions as one of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s main instruments of suppression against clerics and others that oppose the regime. In the early morning hours after ransacking Sanei’s office, the brigade stormed adjoining offices that belonged to the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, causing a great deal of property damage. These were but the latest actions undertaken by the theocratic regime against Ayatollahs Sanei and Montazeri—both religious leaders that supported protesters and the anti-government demonstrations that swept Iran in the wake of the country’s disputed presidential elections in 2009. Indeed, only several days before the raid on Montazeri’s offices, it was reported that Khamenei traveled to Qom with plans to visit the Shrine of Masoumeh (the sister of the eighth imam recognized as legitimate by Shiites). Ayatollah Montazeri was buried at the same shrine, but the regime ensured that his tombstone was removed on the day of Khamenei’s arrival.[1]

Over a year since Iran’s hotly disputed 2009 presidential elections and the subsequent violent crackdown on the opposition Green Movement, the Iranian regime is continuing its campaign to suppress and discredit Shiite clerics. Not unreasonably, Iranian democrats and others in the opposition expect Shiite religious scholars to react to these affronts and to defend their own against the Islamic regime. And yet, by and large the clerical establishment has remained silent against the regime’s attacks. What accounts for this silence of so many?

While there are several explanations why the clerical establishment has been unwilling to defend reform-minded clerics against the regime’s attacks, what is clear is that the Shiite clergy’s silence does not stem from indifference. In fact, there is a fundamental tension between Iran’s clerical establishment and its theocratic government whose roots date back to the very inception of the Islamic Republic and, in important ways, even farther.

Relations between Shiite clerics and the Iranian state have been problematic and fraught with tension ever since the Safavid era, during which Shiism was adopted as the official religion of Iran. Before the Safavid period, few Shiites recognized or required an explicitly religious basis for political legitimacy, nor were they prone to advocate rebellion against the government. According to this classical view, everyone was obliged to support and obey the sultan—even though he acquired power by force and illegitimate means—because it was the sultan and the institutions of the sultanate that was charged with guarding and protecting the territories of Islam against infidels. However, by making Shiism the official ideology of the government, the Safavid rulers inadvertently helped to overturn this tradition of clerical self-subordination to temporal political power. In fact, many Shiites at the time believed that the establishment of a religious government before the return of the Hidden Imam was not legitimate; others within the clerical establishment believed it was necessary and sought to defend the Safavid regime.

As a consequence of this politicization of religion, Safavid rulers helped inaugurate a new historical phase of tension between Shiite clerics and the state, as well as a new era of competition within the clerical establishment itself over what the clergy’s proper relationship to political power should be. Often times, these intra-clerical rifts came to be reflected in an overtly political and bureaucratic struggle over whom among the clerical ranks would hold which offices in the government, including powerful state positions like the qadi, or judge. After the Safavids fell, influential kings tended to ignore the clerics altogether and fragile rulers invariably sought rescue from clerics. Such tensions within the clerical establishment and the rifts between clerics and kings lasted for nearly four centuries.

Ayatollah Khomeini intended to solve this tension between religious authority and political power once and for all by implementing the idea of velayat-e faqih—or, the guardianship of the jurist. In effect, his theory sought to unify the religious and political authorities in a new form of Islamic government and Shiite hierocracy; at the top of this new regime was the ruling jurist, a position that united both king and cleric. But the history of Iran since the Islamic revolution has shown that Khomeini’s vision has largely failed, and that the Shiite clerical establishment has not fully incorporated itself into the state apparatus.

The Khomeinist concept of “Islamic government” is rooted in an expressly modern ideology that has little basis within the religious and political traditions of Shiism. In 1979, when Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mobilized people to courageously come into the streets and risk their lives for the sake of the Islamic revolution, many tradition-minded religious authorities stiffly resisted his political outlook and agenda. While Khomeini sought to overthrow the Shah and bring a decisive end to the monarchy, Shiite tradition historically accepted the monarchy and its institutions. Many Shiite scholars, in fact, considered the sultanate, not the republic, to be functionally in partnership with religion, and the kind of government that was best-suited for Muslims. For instance, Sayyed Abul Hassan Isfahani (1867-1946), an eminent religious authority, or marja, wrote that the “greatness of the sultanate is the highest dream of any devout Shiite, because the independence of an Islamic country, its security, and the immunity of Islam and Muslims depend on it.”[2]

Because of this traditional preference for the monarchy, many modernizing reform movements have faced stiff resistance from Shiite clerics in Iran. For example, after the decline of the Qajar dynasty, Reza Shah Pahlavi claimed that he sought to establish an Iranian “republic” similar to the one founded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha in Turkey, but Iranian clerics prevented him by arguing that the republican system was against Islam. As a consequence, Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to inaugurate the Pahlavi dynasty and rule Iran by continuing the tradition and institutions of monarchy.

When the Islamic revolution erupted in 1979, some high-ranking Shiite clerics openly criticized Khomeini for provoking ordinary people to rebel against the Shah and the monarchy. Exposing these people to the government’s violent reprisals was seen by many as a violation of Islam. In a 1965 meeting in Najaf, Ayatollah Mohsen Hakim, an Iraqi marja with an extensive following in Iran, confronted Khomeini, saying that “the way you resist [against the Shah’s regime] is not right, because we do not have a weapon and power. Our weapon and power is people, and they are looking to see where the wind is blowing.” Khomeini responded, “I did not do anything without research and reliable documents.” Hakim asked, “How will you answer to God for this bloodshed [that you’ve brought upon the people]?” Khomeini replied, “Imam Hossein rose up and he and some others became martyrs. Why was that? It was for saving Islam. Therefore we have to protest against Shah.”

At this point, Hakim became visibly upset. “Sir!,” he angrily retorted, “you compare yourself to Imam Hossein? Imam Hossein was an [infallible] imam whose obedience was obligatory for all worshipers and he was a knowledgeable person who was entrusted by God… shedding one single drop of blood of an innocent would bear a great responsibility before God.” According to a witness, Khomeni was at a complete loss for a response, and “then silence reigned.[3]”

In addition to the ongoing dispute between traditionalists and modernists, there are intractable struggles over the concept of Islamic government among modern Shiite scholars as well. Most modern jurists concur that, at bare minimum, an Islamic government is one that implements the Sharia, or Islamic law. Yet among these scholars, there has emerged virtually no consensus about the extent to which sharia law should, or even could, be implemented within a society for it to be properly considered ‘Islamic.’ (In the traditional Shiite legal system, the full implementation of sharia requires the presence of an infallible Imam. Since traditional Twelver Shiites believe the Twelfth Imam has gone into occultation, they consider the full implementation of Islamic law to be impossible at this moment in time—until his return.) Moreover, there is even less agreement among modern Shiite scholars over whether the implementation of Islamic law in a society requires the political rule of a Shiite jurist. This principle—that a jurist must rule, or velayat-e faqih, for Islamic law to be properly implemented—is of course the core tenet of Khomeini’s revolutionary teaching, upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979. And it has laid at the crux of intra-Shiite religious and political disputation ever since.

One of the most prominent early opponents of Khomeini’s theory of the rule of the jurist was Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1905-1986.)[4] He was a recognized marja long before Khomeini, and was trusted by the Shah’s regime. Shariatmadari was also the most open-minded marja of his time. He tried, for example, to modernize the educational system of the Shiite religious seminaries, and he also sought to introduce clerics to the study of the modern humanities. Furthermore, Shariatmadari was well known for his resistance to the creeping politicization and radicalization of the Shiite clerical establishment.

Shariatmadari argued that clerics and jurists should not assume positions in government or seek political rule. He believed religious scholars should only involve themselves directly in government in the event that the government has collapsed—and even then, only for the purpose of helping to form a new government and re-establish order. According to Shariatmadari, only the absence of political institutions justifies a jurist’s direct intervention in political affairs; otherwise, the jurist is authorized only to judge a government based on Islamic criteria while sympathetically advising its rulers to respect and apply Islamic law.

In sharp contrast to Khomeini, Shariatmadari did not believe that there should be a paramount position for one special jurist to serve as the “ruling jurist,” or vali-ye faqih. In fact, while he recognized fundamental inequalities among religious scholars of differing ranks and learning and spiritual cultivation, Shariatmadari believed that all religious scholars were of an equal rank before government, or with respect to temporal political powers. He simultaneously maintained that religious authority was far superior to that of the temporal, political authorities who administered a society’s government. For these reasons, he believed religious scholars should not diminish their positions and demean themselves by seeking to occupy political office or play a political role.[5] For Shariatmadari, running a country was not essentially a religious job, as anyone who was qualified could occupy a governmental position—even an infidel, provided that he was respectful of Islamic law and rituals. In essence, a political ruler’s role was not unlike that of a plumber’s: One can appoint a ruler to govern a society just as one can hire a plumber to fix the pipes in one’s house.[6]

The learned, quietist teachings of scholars like Shariatmadari were not the only reason Shiite clerics resisted Khomeini. In fact, many clerics felt that the Khomeinist revolution did not go far enough. They had assumed that an Islamic republic would apply the sharia codes in all realms of human activity. However, when these scholars discovered that Khomeini was more tolerant than them regarding women and other issues, they condemned his government for failing to be sufficiently Islamic. (Ayatollah Sayyed Hassan Qommi, who was under house arrest for more than two decades after the revolution, is a leading proponent of this kind of criticism of the Islamic Republic.) In today’s Iran, there are still marjas who find fault with the current Islamic government from this perspective. For instance, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani has fiercely criticized President Ahmadinejad’s decision to appoint several women as ministers of his cabinet.[7]

Of course, not all clerical resistance to the Islamic Republic has been based on principle. In fact, many Shiite clerics, both within Iran and without, opposed Khomeini’s revolutionary agenda for entirely personal reasons—just as many clerics today oppose Ayatollah Ali Khamenei because of their own personal grievances and vendettas.

Ayatollah Khomeini was especially adept at creating personal enemies within the clerical establishment. Few people in the history of Shiism engaged in publicly attacking and humiliating other clerics as frequently as Khomeini did. In his speeches and statements, Khomeini chastised high-ranking ayatollahs who disagreed with his principle of velayat-e faqih. He called them “stupid,” “blithering,” “backward,” and “monarchist clerics” who had been “deceived by colonialism,” and were “enemies of Islam and its prophet” as well as loyal to “American Islam” (a phrase meant to describe a liberal and pro-Western understanding of Islam). In 1987, Khomeini stated in an open letter to clerics around the country that “the extent to which your old father [himself] has been agonized by this petrified group [clerics who believe in separation of Islam and state] was much more than any pressure and difficulties by others.”[8]

Because of this antagonistic history between Khomeini and elements of the clerical establishment, some clerics to this day regard Khomeini—and Khamenei as well—as a tyrant who rose to power through illegitimate means and by selectively purging his clerical opponents. Others who early on championed the revolution expected that Khomeini would bring them to power; when Khomeini failed to do so, these clerics felt slighted and began to hate him. These personal disputes continue to shape the inner workings of the clerical establishment, and of the Islamic regime as a whole.

The success of Ayatollah Khomeini in implementing his theory of the rule of the jurist after the 1979 revolution has placed Shiite clerics in a very difficult position. For the first time in the history of Shiism, the revolution had installed an ayatollah in the position of the king; for many, this made the idea of the implementation of Islamic law seem possible. At the very least, it made the clerical establishment’s conventional reluctance to involve itself in political activity seem antiquated. Moreover, after decades of living under authoritarian and erratically secularist rule during the Pahlavi period, Iran became home to the only government on earth that was run by a Shiite scholar. This historic development was thus popularly invested with even divine significance—and especially within the Shiite community, which had experienced centuries of persecution at the hands of hostile governments.

The Islamic revolution thus dramatically transformed the Shiite clerical establishment’s relationship to Iranian political institutions, opening up entirely new horizons for political thought and endeavor. At the same time, the revolution created entirely new dynamics for which the clergy was ill-prepared. For example, before the Islamic revolution, a cleric might have accrued tremendous prestige and authority by popularly opposing an unjust government, and by portraying this conflict as a struggle between spiritual and temporal powers. But with the establishment of an Islamic state, any clerical opposition to the theocratic regime came to be seen as an internal fight between clerics, with both parties able to damage each other’s religious legitimacy and prestige.

In the years since the revolution, the formation of a new Shiite clerical hierarchy and the increasing concentration of power in the office of the supreme leader and jurist have rendered it increasingly difficult for clerics to register even mild criticisms of the Islamic regime in public. In fact, for a cleric to oppose the supreme leader and the religious hierarchy is seen as tantamount to dissenting politically with the most fundamental principle and institution of the theocratic regime itself—i.e., the absolute authority of the jurist.

The further institutionalization of the Islamic hierocracy has been reinforced by cultural practices within the Shiite community as well. Traditionally, Shiite jurists sought to avoid public disputes among themselves over non-scholarly issues as a way of pretending that they were pious and did not care about worldly affairs, only higher ones. While they openly squabbled amongst themselves over scholastic matters, the clerical community strived to portray itself to society at large as united on virtually all matters of consequence. After all, the clerics routinely claimed that as a class they were obligated to the highest of standards, as they professed to being the “heirs of prophets” (al-ulama warathato al-anbia) whose primary task is the safeguarding of the interests of the Islamic territories (Bayzato al-Islam) and preventing them from falling into chaos.

In addition to this, there are other important factors why clerics have generally been reluctant to publicly oppose or criticize the Islamic Republic. First of all, the supreme leader or jurist was declared to be a jurist unlike any other. To enforce his rule within the hierocracy, the supreme leader is able to exert his authority through a range of coercive instruments—including, perhaps most notoriously, through a body known as the “Special Court of Clerics” (Dadgah-e Vizheh-ye Rowhaniyat). This special court operates under the direct supervision of the supreme leader, and it does not follow the juridical procedures and laws of the rest of the country.

Since its establishment, the court has become well-known for its brutal and humiliating treatment of clerics of all ranks. For example, Ayatollah Shariatmadari was “tried” in this court. He was accused of being involved in a military coup to overthrow the regime and assassinate Khomeini, when in fact his real ‘crime’ was attempting to challenge Khomeini’s legitimacy as a ruling jurist. His dossier was closed after many of his followers and relatives were arrested or executed, and Shariatmadri himself was shown on state television making a “confession” and begging for Khomeini’s pardon.

In addition to the special court, the Islamic regime has developed a range of other techniques for enforcing its rule within the clerical establishment. Among other things, the Islamic regime claimed direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of clerical institutions, and this fundamentally altered the clergy’s access to financial resources.[9] To begin with, the Islamic government confiscated much of the property that belonged to Iran’s traditional religious authorities. In turn, this property was placed under the control of the supreme leader. For example, Dar al-Tabligh (the House of [Islamic] Propaganda), which was owned by Ayatollah Shariatmadari, became a base for Daftar-e Tablighat-e Eslami-e Qom (the Office for Islamic Propaganda), the head of which is appointed by the supreme leader.

Khamenei also exercises considerable control over the clerical establishment directly through his own office. Ahmad Marvi, a cleric and former intelligence official, is the deputy in the supreme leader’s office who deals with clerical affairs. The Ministry of Intelligence also supervises the establishment through its deputy on clerical affairs. Evidently other paramilitary units like the Imam Sadeq Brigade 83 have a significant role in intimidating the clerics and oppressing independent voices.

In more recent times, Khamenei’s office has spearheaded the computerization of the management of the clerical institutions, which has thereby helped the supreme leader establish even more control over the clergy’s financial resources and dealings. Before Khamenei, every marja had his own financial section where subordinate clerics registered to receive their salaries. But under Khamenei’s financial system, all payments from marjas to clerics, or from one religious institution to another, first have to pass through a centralized office run by the Center for the Management of Qom Seminaries. Therefore, these payments ultimately require approval from the supreme leader’s representatives. The Center for the Management of Qom Seminaries also maintains a comprehensive database about the marjas’ properties, assets and income. The supreme leader utilizes this data to manage the marjas’ financial activities.

Even Ayatollah Sistani—the preeminent marja of Najaf, Iraq, who has always enjoyed considerable autonomy from the Iranian hierocracy, and who represents a more traditional Shiism—cannot operate his office or manage his religious-financial network within Iran (and in some cases in other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Syria) without cooperating with the Iranian regime.

Before the revolution, ordinary clerics were financially dependent on marjas. Today, however, most clerics also receive financial support through institutions run by the state and by the supreme leader. Furthermore, in order to demonstrate his financial and religious supremacy, Ayatollah Khamenei pays salaries to clerics much higher than the amount paid by the marjas. While most marjas supposedly rely on religious taxes, the supreme leader presides over the wealthiest and most profitable economic institutions in Iran, such as the Oppressed Foundation and the Imam Reza Shrine and affiliated companies. Today, religious marjas altogether provide but a small percentage of the clerics’ financial needs. By contrast, the government and Khamenei himself are primarily in charge of financial issues in Shiite seminaries, especially in Iran.[10] As such, the economic role and authority of the marja has been systematically reduced, just as the regime’s authority and power over Shiite financial networks has been enhanced.

Moreover, since its establishment the Islamic Republic has created an entirely new network of institutions—seminaries and dozens of research institutes, community centers, and libraries—whose principal purpose is the propagation of an ideology favored by the regime. The regime actively uses this influence to promote ideas beneficial to its goals while at the same time sidelining those ideas and religious teachings that are not. This has ultimately allowed the Islamic regime to dominate the intellectual life of Iran’s clerical establishment. This has been especially the case since the deaths of Grand Ayatollahs Abul Qassem Khoei, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi—all eminent scholars who opposed many aspects of the Khomeinist agenda. Following their deaths, the traditional centers of religious authority that operated as a religio-political check on the newly formed hierocracy went into steep decline, and a younger generation of clerics reared by the Khomeinist regime has come to occupy positions of great religious and political influence.

For clerics who are on the Iranian regime’s payroll, life is full of special privileges and perks. The government underwrites a hefty budget for religious institutions, making today’s Iranian clerical establishment the wealthiest in any period of history. Well-connected clerics and marjas favored by the regime are involved in lucrative business deals, receive exclusive governmental benefits, and can borrow large amounts of money from banks without sufficient guarantees for repayment. What’s more, many charities in Iran owned by marjas and other high-ranking clerics are doing business through corrupt dealings with the government.

The Khomeinist doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist requires that all clerics be subject to the orders of the supreme leader and jurist—just as any other Shiite worshiper would be. This doctrine is premised on the view that the ruling jurist is the heir of the Prophet Muhammad and the representative of the infallible Hidden Imam and benefits from all of their divine authorities. The supreme leader thus has the authority (velayat) over everything even beyond the Sharia and the country’s constitution, granting him—at least in principle, though there are always limits to this in practice—enormous powers over society in general and the hierocracy in particular.[11] What justifies the authority of the ruling jurist beyond the sharia or constitution is the interests of the regime. According to Khomeini, the expediency of the regime or its interests overrules all Islamic laws. In this vein, some have claimed, for instance, that marjas cannot use religious taxes without the approval of the ruling jurist. It has additionally been argued that “fatwas by marjas that deal with public issues can come into practice only after the approval of the ruling jurist.”[12]

Therefore, within the Islamic Republic, what an individual jurist believes or the quality of his scholarship is of little significance; what matters most is how, within the structure of the hierocracy, the ruling jurist chooses to define his relationship to other individual jurists. In other words, jurists do not deal with the supreme leader and his office as a fellow or even as a superior member of a religious community, but instead as the head of an expansive military-economic-political corporation.

And for members of this corporation in good standing there are abundant rewards. The very constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on a series of discriminations in favor of clerics. For instance, the head of the government, the head of the judiciary, all the members of the Assembly of Experts, the six members of the Guardian Council, the Minister of Intelligence and several other positions should be necessarily mujtahid or jurists. A secular democratic government that removes all discrimination, including policies that favor clerics, would not be an ideal government for the overwhelming majority of jurists and clerics, whether they like the existing political system or not. What the Iranian people might consider an ideal alternative to the current regime is not so for the majority of clerics. The Islamic Republic has systematic sought to deprive clerics of their independence and tarnished their reputations. Despite this fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran is still widely viewed as the most favorable government for clerics in the history of Islam.

The Islamic regime’s utilization of an array of both coercive instruments to punish anti-regime tendencies as well as incentives and other perks to encourage and reward pro-regime behavior—not to mention the clerical establishment’s own desire for self-preservation and well-being—helps to explain why a great majority of Iranian Shiite clerics have, on balance, kept silent about the government’s violence against peaceful demonstrators following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections.

But the Shiite clergy’s silence and failure to respond to the regime’s oppressive violence has also brought to light something much more fundamental: that is, any clerical opposition to the regime, whether actual or potential, currently lacks an intellectually coherent and compelling Islamic alternative to the Islamic regime, and more specifically, a religiously-sanctioned theory about the relationship between Muslim jurists and the state that offers an alternative to the Khomeinist teaching that the jurist must rule.

This fact is apparent among those within the clerical establishment who claim to seek reform of the Islamic regime by making it more “Islamic.” While there is a wide range of opinions over what kinds of reforms are necessary for the regime to become more Islamic, no members of the clerical establishment have been willing to articulate an alternative to the theory of the rule of the jurist. Marjas like Ayatollah Youssef Sanei, for instance, may single out regime actions—such as the government’s violent crackdown against protesters—as being ‘un-Islamic,’ but they also make statements that unconditionally back the Khomeinist doctrine of the rule of the jurist. Other reformist clerics have voiced their frustrations with the supreme leader’s decisions, though have fallen short of criticizing the theory and institutions of the ruling jurist. For instance, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Dastgheib has criticized Khamenei because he feels that he is entitled and even obligated to do so by the constitution of the Islamic regime itself: as a member of Assembly of Experts, Dastgheib is part of a body whose job is to appoint the ruling jurist and supervise him. The assembly is also theoretically authorized to dismiss the ruling jurist if it determines that he has failed to operate properly or lost the necessary conditions.

While they might take issue with the repressive and erratic policies of Khamenei’s government, it seems that most clerics would prefer that the Islamic Republic survive. Indeed, many of the clerics who have been routinely identified as being part of the opposition appear to have reined in their support for the Green movement and sought reconciliation with the regime. They might have contentious debates among themselves over differing visions for reforming the Islamic regime, but they have been unable to offer an Islamic alternative to the rule of the jurist.

For these reasons, many in Iran and elsewhere have begun to look to Iraq for a new Shiite theory concerning how to structure the relationship between the jurists and the state. The revival of the Najaf Hawza and of a more traditional, politically quietist form of Shiism in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam regime has indeed begun to reshape the internal dynamics of the Shiite world as a whole. And yet, it may well be a mistake to assume that Najaf will provide an alternative Shiite way of organizing religious authority and political authority that would challenge Iran’s Khomeinist doctrine and institutions—at least any time soon.

In a recent meeting with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Ali Sistani expressed deep concerns about the conflict between Rafsanjani and Khamenei and what this meant for the future of the Islamic Republic. He told Rafsanjani, “If you [Rafsanjani and Khamenei] stay united, all problems will be solved. I know that you have said that for you [Khamenei’s] word is the last and that you would follow him, but I read your interviews with Mr. Ziba Kalam [a political scientist from University of Tehran] and found out that you [and Khamenei] have many [theoretical and jurisprudential] differences between you two.” The reporter who witnessed the discussion said that Rafsanjani failed to convince Sistani that he actually follows and obeys Khamenei.[13] This exchange suggests that, for Sistani, theoretical issues or matters of principle do not have the same importance as practical issues—including, foremost, the political unity and survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a powerful Shiite government grounded in the doctrine of the rule of the jurist.

Indeed, historically, Shiite jurisprudence has generally been guided more by practical considerations about the public interest than by theory-based or moral argumentation. Nowadays, the ultimate goal of Sistani and the jurists of the Najaf Hawza is to safeguard the clerical institutions and the interests of the marjas throughout the Shiite world. Their experience of living under the Saddam tyranny in Iraq taught them how quickly hostile political rulers can devastate these clerical institutions. Therefore, Sistani and Iraq’s clerical establishment will likely not take any action that will weaken or threaten Iran’s government and Ayatollah Khamenei, as they see the survival of the Islamic Republic as a powerful Shiite state as the best protection for Shiism and its most cherished institutions.

For the forseeable future, Iraqi Shiism will remain in important ways under the Iranian clerical establishment’s shadow. Iraq’s seminaries today have only a few thousand clerics, whereas there are nearly three hundred thousand in Iran’s seminaries. Wherever he might hail from, the aspiring Shiite cleric simply cannot become powerful if he is separated and disconnected from Qom.[14] Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics may not agree with a maximalist interpretation of velayat-e faqih and might sympathize with some anti-government religious strata of Iranian society, but they will most certainly restrain themselves from confronting the regime head-on or collaborating with its opponents. Iraq’s clerics, who are very much in the margin of the transnational Shiite clerical establishment, cannot afford this confrontation with the Islamic Republic, especially given their current vulnerabilities. For example, without Sistani’s office in Qom and his other facilities and properties in Iran, it would be extremely difficult for him to operate his marjayya. As such, barring the collapse of the Islamic Republic—an event that would be catastrophic for Shiite clerics, because of their unprecedented proximity to the political order—the future of the clerical establishment and of Shiism as a whole for the next several decades will likely be shaped more by developments in Qom than by those in Najaf.

While many within the Shiite clerical establishment have benefited enormously from the Iranian regime, they also cannot be completely happy with it. The clergy’s prestige and authority and wealth fundamentally depend on the people’s trust. Without that trust, those whom the clerics seek to lead will not follow them in religious or other matters, and will not pay them their religious taxes. The Islamic Republic, by providing clerics with exclusive political and economic rights and benefits, has increasingly undermined the clergy’s traditional independence from the state, and thereby placed the clergy’s future ability to win the people’s trust in jeopardy. To the extent that the clerical establishment is seen by ordinary Iranians as being close to the regime—or for that matter, complicit in its authoritarian and unjust rule—then it, too, will become the object of the opposition’s enmity.

Most senior clerics do not accept the Khomeinist doctrine of velayat-e faqih in its maximalist interpretation. After all, the maximalist interpretation of “guardianship of the jurist” effectively destroys the traditional position, prestige and functions of the jurist because it equates the jurist with ordinary people insofar as the jurist, like the people, is obligated to obey the ruling jurists in anything that relates to the public sphere. And yet, due to the intellectual poverty and the decadence of contemporary Islamic thought in general, clerics are unable to generate a new and alternative theory or conceptual framework for explaining sociopolitical realities and outlining a practical plan for reforming them.

For these reasons, many Shiite clerics have begun to return to older, pre-revolutionary Shiite theories about government, including the theory of sultanate. While this may be interpreted as a turn away from the Khomeinist principles that inspired the Iranian Revolution, it also represents an implicit acceptance of the authoritarian regime that the revolution created. Increasingly, the ruling jurist is seen as a sultan whose legitimacy from a religious point of view is of little relevance. In this theory of the sultanate, what matters most is that the sultan has the ultimate power. Since clerics can neither reform the current system from within Iran through political means nor advise the people on how to overthrow it (due to their lack of a coherent intellectual alternative to velayat-e faqih), more increasingly see the supreme leader as a sultan-like figure to whom obedience is obligatory for all. According to this perspective, even if this sultan doesn’t respect or fully implement Islamic law, and even if this Muslim leader might brutally punish his subjects (like Supreme Leader Khamenei) in the interests of protecting the Islamic regime, the jurists still dub him legitimate because a strong sultan whose strength is enhanced through loyalty of his subjects is best able to secure the Shiite territories and protect them from foreign aggressors.

Moreover, in today’s Iran, and because of the current government’s crackdown on elements of the religious establishment, a growing number of clerics have begun to take refuge in the tradition of taqiyya—a legitimate Shiite practice of deliberately disguising one’s religious or political beliefs in order to protect one’s life, money or safety. In this, Shiite clerics justify their general silence about the Islamic regime’s injustice and brutality toward the Iranian people by recalling a saying of Imam Ali, the Shiite’s first divine guide: “During civil disturbances be like an adolescent camel who has neither a back strong enough for riding nor udders for milking.”[15]

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This article will appear in Volume 10 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute.


[1] See the report:,,5687709,00.html

[2] Manzoor al-Ajdad, Sayyed Mohammad Hossein, Marjaiyat dar Arsseh-ye Ejtima va Siasat, (Tehran: Shirazeh,1379) p. 157.

[3] Jafarian, Rasool, Tashayo dar Iraq, Marjaiyat dar Iran, Moasseseh-ye Motaleat-e Tarikh-e Moasser-e Iran, (Tehran, 1386) p. 95.

[4] For a short biography of Shariatmadari see: Milani, Abbas, Eminent Persians, The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979, Syracuse University Press, 2008, vol. 1, pp. 367-376

[5] Rooznameh-ye Ettelaat, 23 khordad 1358 & Nashriyah-e Khalq-e Mosalman, 1 Mehr, 1358 & 22 Mehr, 1358

[6] Hosseini Shirazi, Sayyed Monir Al-Din, Khaterat, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, (Tehran, 1383) p. 256

[7] See Raja News report about this issue:

[8] Khomeini, Ruhollah, Sahifeh-ye Noor, Entesharat-e Vezarat-e Farhang va Ershad-e Eslami, Tehran, 1384, Vol. 21, p. 273

[9] For a detailed account of government control over the clerical establishment see: Khalaji, Mehdi, “Nazm-e Novin-e Rowhaniyat” in Iran Nameh, Tabestan va Paiiz-e 1387

[10] Khalaji, Mehdi, Last Marja, Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2006, available online:

[11] See Khomeni, Rouhollah, Sahifeh-ye nor, vol. p.

[12] Hajjarian, Said, Az Shahed-e Qodsi ta Shahed-e Bazari, Tarh-e no, Tehran, 1380, p. 90

[13] Rooznameh-e Jomhoori-e Eslami, 9/3/1388

[14] For instance, Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Fazlallah, a Lebanese jurist who entered into a bitter fight with the Iranian regime over marjayya, has in recent years finally reconciled with the Islamic Republic (he later opened an office in Qom). In early 90s when Khamenei was announced a marja, the Islamic republic spent millions of dollars in Lebanon to discredit Fazlallah and campaign for the marjayyat of Khamenei in Shiite community. This led to Fazlallah’s resentment and he cut his relationship with Iran for a number of years. But he knows very well that not having an office in Qom would pigeonhole him as a local marja, and not as a transnational leader.

[15] Imam Ali, Nahjul Balaaghah, (Potomac, MD: Ahlul-Bayt Assembly of America, 1996). 263


From the Prison of the Shah to the Prison of Khamenei

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wearing the mantle of Mohammad Taghi Khalaji, addresses the people of Qom upon his return to the city on March 1st, 1979. Khalaji is the young man directly above him, in the white turban




In the very cold winter of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, returned to Qom, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world, for the first time after his long exile. A huge crowd came out that day. As he made his way to the stage, passing through those who pressed together to see him, the ayatollah’s mantle fell off. Once he had settled in his chair, he noticed how chilly he was. “I’m cold,” he said. Within seconds, another mantle fell over his shoulders and wrapped him warm.
This mantle belonged to my father, Mohammad Taghi Khalaji. After my father draped his mantle over Ayatollah Khomeini’s shoulders, he went to the podium and gave the introductory speech on behalf of the clerical establishment, as well as the people of Qom. I never saw my father with that mantle again.
Right now, my father is in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran. He was arrested in his home in Qom on Jan. 12. On that day, he joined hundreds of Iranian citizens who have been arrested by the Iranian regime after the rigged election in June 2009. My family has been given no information — either by the Special Court of Clerics or by the Ministry of Intelligence — about any charges against my father. Furthermore, my father has not been allowed to contact us or hire a lawyer. The government’s denial of his basic legal rights is not unusual; it is the typical treatment of political prisoners.
The son of a farmer, my father was born in June 1948 in the province of Isfahan. When he was 5 years old, he moved to Tehran, where his three brothers lived. In 1968, after graduating from high school and then Shokooh English Language Institute, he started to work as a bank accountant. Although he came from a conservative religious background, he was the first in his family to become a cleric. Under the influence of the rising religious fervor in Iran, and despite his family’s discontent, he left his job in the bank and its good salary. In 1969, he moved to Qom with his fiancée — my mother, Mohtaram — and began to study in its seminary.
A revolutionary-minded young cleric, my father soon joined Qom’s pro-Khomenei clique and proved himself to be an excellent orator with an innate talent for scholarship. As he was making stunning progress in his theological studies, he employed his rhetorical skills in the service of the revolutionary cause. He was a disciple of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari and close to other founding fathers of the Islamic Republic.
For delivering speeches critical of the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he was arrested three times. The last time he was released, three month later in February 1979, the revolution had toppled the shah and established the foundations of a new government.
On Feb. 1, 1979, following the revolution’s success, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris. When he returned to his hometown Qom a month later, the conventional wisdom, shared by my father, was that Khomeini would leave politics to the politicians and return to teaching theology. But the course of history proved everyone wrong.
Khomeini was looking to realize his dream of an Islamic government that applied his authority as the “ruling jurisprudent,” or wilayet-e-faqih. Khomeini stayed in Qom for only a few months and, after suffering a heart attack, moved to Tehran. He governed the Islamic Republic from Iran’s political capital for the rest of his life.
During Khomeini’s time in Qom, my father became very close to this charismatic leader. Every day, he went to the home of Mohammad Yazdi, where Ayatollah Khomeini resided. Yazdi, now an ayatollah himself, served as the head of Iran’s judicial system for ten years under its current leader, Ali Khamenei. Parts of our families have remained in touch to this day: My younger brother is married to one of Yazdi’s close relatives.
But some of Khomeini’s tactics eventually alienated my father. To consolidate power in the clergy, Khomeini convinced Iran’s power-hungry clerics that they were the legitimate heirs of the Islamic Republic and deserved their own portion of the spoils of war against the shah’s regime — in other words, political power. Despite my father’s loyalty to Khomeini and his ideals, he became disgusted by these clerics and kept his distance from them. He decided to return to the seminary, and limited his social activities.
Nonetheless, my father’s views of the Islamic Republic remained naïve and optimistic. He was hugely resistant to the criticism of government behavior from both the secular and religious strata of society. Unconsciously, he resisted the belief that the revolution for which he sacrificed his youth could possibly lead to human rights abuses, executions without trial, the imprisonment of the innocent, and the suppression of freedom of speech.

After 30 years of study under some of the most prominent clerics in the Shiite world, in subjects ranging from fiqh (jurisprudence) to Islamic philosophy, my father became a mujtahid — an ayatollah who is forbidden from following another’s religious authority and must fulfill his own religious duties based on his own personal understanding. He also taught Islamic philosophy and Shiite jurisprudence and educated hundreds of seminary students, several of whom later became prominent political figures.
My father was quiet and pious then and has remained so. He followed the example of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was designated as Khomeini’s successor in 1985. After Khomeini ordered the execution without trial of approximately 4,000 political prisoners in 1988, Montazeri criticized him for issuing an order he considered contrary to Islam. For speaking out, Ayatollah Montazeri was stripped of his government position, and his family members and disciples were pressured by the regime to remain silent.
This moment was a turning point for revolutionary clerics like my father who were not contaminated by political and economic corruption. In one of his public speeches Montazeri, who was Khamenei’s teacher before the revolution, stated that Khamenei lacks sufficient theological training to issue fatwas and that his government is therefore illegitimate according to both the Iranian Constitution and Shiite law. Following this speech, the regime raided Montazeri’s house, confiscated his property, and exercised a tremendous pressure over his family and clerical circle, including my father. Nevertheless, my father remained quiet and continued to write religious commentaries on the Fourth Shiite Imam’s prayer book (Sahifeh-ye Sajjadieh) and the speech of Fatima, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter (Khotbeh-ye Zahra). He published several religious books and, when he was allowed, he delivered speeches in different cities in Iran without ever publicly criticizing the government.
My father was mostly isolated from politics and gradually became disappointed with them. However, the televised presidential debate between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi agitated him and motivated him to throw his support behind Mousavi.
During the unrest that followed last June’s election, when government forces arrested and killed peaceful demonstrators, my father began to speak out. He watched the footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, after she was shot by a Basij militiaman during a June 20 protest, replayed on television. After that event, he began calling me at midnight in Tehran for several nights, telling me that he could no longer sleep. He did not revolt against the shah in order to establish a regime that beat up peaceful demonstrators and shot innocent people.
One of his first speeches was in the Dar-Alzahra mosque in north Tehran, where reformists, including former President Mohammad Khatami, were gathering. In his speech, my father reiterated that he would like the Islamic Republic to survive. However, if Iranian leaders claim that they are following the example of Islam, its prophet, and its imams, then according to Islam, he argued, they must have the people’s consent to rule. He also criticized the Iranian regime for taking political prisoners, saying that the governments of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali insisted on the freedom of pacifist opposition. Therefore, they maintained neither an Evin prison, the famous prison in Tehran where the government still holds political detainees, nor a Kahrizak, the detention center where the government tortured and raped men and women for supporting Moussavi after the election.
We spoke after this speech. He was happy for the message that he had delivered and felt that he had done his religious duty. He considered that he and his compatriots were responsible before God for the revolution and therefore could not keep silent when human rights abuses were committed in the name of Islam. Despite receiving several warnings from the Intelligence Ministry, he continued to seize opportunities to speak out.
In his last speech, on the eve of Ashura in the residence of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in Qom, my father asked that Iran’s leaders repent to God for what they have done to the demonstrators and for suppressing the clerics who support the Islamic Republic but were merely constructively criticizing the current leaders’ behavior. This speech came a few days after the death of Ayatollah Montazeri. While Tehran and Iran’s other major cities were on fire after the rigged election, Qom was quiet until the passing of the dissident ayatollah. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Montazeri’s funeral and used the opportunity to demonstrate against Khamenei and the regime, all the ceremonies around the country for Montazeri were banned by the government. In an attempt to prevent more damage to the government’s legitimacy, the government waged a campaign against Ayatollah Sanei by shutting down his offices in different cities. My father was arrested a few days later.
By initiating a crackdown on peaceful protesters and suppressing the first generation of the Islamic Republic, the government has simultaneously discredited its Islamic legitimacy and undermined its revolutionary credentials. This regime has transformed my father from a man concerned with keeping Ayatollah Khomeini’s shoulders warm into an enemy of the state. This is a revolution that eats its own children. It places its survival at risk.

This article first was published in Foriegn Policy on January 19, 2010


The Dilemmas of Pan-Islamic Unity

This article is first Published on Friday, November 27, 2009 by Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 9

Throughout the 20th Century, the countries of Iran and Egypt have had a very complex relationship with one another. Among other things, Iran, a leading majority Shiite country that is also ruled by Shiites, and Egypt, the cultural and theological center of Sunni Islam, are home to two of the most important streams of modern Islamist revivalism—Shiite Islamism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. While the relations between Shiite and Sunni states and non-state movements have often been adversarial and even prone to violence, the relations between these two streams of Islamism, both of which stress as a matter of doctrine the ideals of pan-Islamist unity, have tended toward ideological convergence and collaboration. As one writer recently put it in an article on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website:
“Many commentators in the West still believe in the fairy tale that Sunni and Shia Islamists are at odds. Though most Sunni jihadists tend to see Shias as heretics and Hezbollah as a Zionist tool (go figure), the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most popular of the Middle East’s radical Islamists, and the Shia Islamists’ history of mutual influence and collaboration traces back to the first Islamic revivalists of the 19th century and the political thought of the Brotherhood’s own founder.”[1]
The Brotherhood’s origins may in fact be traced back to a Shiite cleric. The Persian activist-intellectual Said Jamal Assadabadi, who is perhaps more widely known today as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, was a key architect of the first wave of religious revivalism that swept across the Sunni world during the latter part of the 19h Century. After migrating to Egypt in 1871, Afghani began spreading his reformist teachings, and influenced a new generation of Egyptian scholars who became passionate advocates of pan-Islamist ideals. Afghani’s most famous disciple, Mohammad Abduh, would become the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar Seminary and a pioneer of the reformist socio-political approach to interpreting the Quran that underpinned the rise of salafism and its various streams. Later on, one of Abduh’s leading students, Rashid Rida, would take his teacher’s socio-political approach to the Quran in an increasingly more polemical and radical direction, becoming one of the first theoreticians of the Islamic state. Rida’s writings were enormously influential on the thinking of Hassan al-Banna, and by extension, Rida became one of the spiritual godfathers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until today remains the most influential and the broadest of all Islamist movements.
But the story doesn’t end there. In yet another twist in Muslim history, the Muslim Brotherhood would in turn requite Afghani’s gift to Sunni revivalism by directly stimulating the emergence of a unique form of Shiite Islamism in Iran in the 1950s. Indeed, the Islamic paradigm of pre-revolutionary Iran was profoundly shaped by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as by kindred Sunni movements such as the Indo-Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder SayyedAbul Aala Maududi.[2] In this way, Sunni revivalist ideology helped pave the way for the 1979 Iranian revolution that culminated in Shiite Islamism’s greatest achievement: the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Shiite Islamism and the Egyptian Brotherhood have continued to find ways to collaborate with each other in what they’ve sought to portray as their common Islamic struggle against the West and the reigning regional political order. Moreover, the Islamic Republic has been a continued source of inspiration for the Egyptian Brotherhood in its unfulfilled struggle for an Islamic state of its own. Yet despite their long history of cooperation in the spirit of pan-Islamism, religious differences have also complicated the relationship between Shiite Islamism and the Brotherhood, rendering their ideals of Islamic unity difficult, if not impossible, to implement in political practice.
The Return to the Quran
Throughout Islamic history, Sunnis have often criticized Shiite thought and practice for neglecting or, at best, paying insufficient attention to the Quran. That criticism—which is sometimes used to support the further claim made by radical Sunnis that Shiites are “rejecters” of Islam properly understood—is rooted in part in the fact that Sunnis privilege the Quran in their juristic or legal reasoning practices much more than Shiites do.
Sunni jurisprudence, for instance, relies principally on the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Mohammad as expressed by the hadith, as well as on the consensus of scholars (ijma) as passed down through the four recognized legal schools. While Twelver Shiite jurisprudence makes use of these sources, it also draws heavily from the example put forth by the twelve Imams–from Ali ibn Abu Talib to the so-called “Hidden Imam,” Muhammad Ibn al-Hassan. Shiite tradition recognizes these Imams as having had a special connection to God, and their knowledge of Islam is believed to be infallible. Indeed, to many Shiites, the hadith, or recorded sayings and traditions of these twelve Imams, carry the same legal and theological weight as the Prophet’s hadith. Some Shiite scholars even equate the Imams’ hadith to the Quran. This view, which is scandalous to many Sunnis, maintains that the early Imams had the authority to interpret the Quran and to reveal its hidden sense. This is the case even if, Shiites insist, an Imam’s interpretation appears to be in conflict with the generally accepted apparent meaning of the Quran.[3]
Because of these divergent Islamic paradigms, Quranic exegesis has historically not occupied as significant a place in the traditional curriculum of Shiite seminaries as it has in Sunni seminaries. In fact, for a long time, in the Shiite seminaries of Iran and Iraq, teaching and studying the Quran was not considered a suitable calling and was not prestigious enough for a high-ranking cleric. Quranic exegesis was appropriate to professional preachers, but it was not seen as the highest form of religious practice or scholarship, at least not as reflected in the faqih style of education and discussion that predominated in the Shiite seminary. Indeed, Quranic exegesis was even perceived as being potentially damaging to a Shiite scholar’s religious prestige–a traditionalist view that has persisted into the modern era in important ways. This is one reason why the late Ayatollah Abul Qassem Khoi–one of the most influential of 20th Century Shiite scholars, and the predecessor to Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani at the Najaf seminary–was deeply criticized by the Shiite faithful in the 1960s for publishing the first volume of a Quranic commentary, Al-Bayan fi Tafsir Al-Quran. The outcry over his focus on the Quran led Ayatollah Khoi to decide against publishing the rest of his commentary.[4]
In the modern era, however, Shiism’s traditional reluctance to engage in Quranic exegesis has been deeply challenged. This has been especially true as traditional Shiism has come into contact with certain reformist tendencies in the Sunni world, including the salafist call to “return to the Quran.” In fact, Egypt’s early 20th century Quranic commentators, which include most notably Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905) and his student, Rashid Rida (1865-1935), were instrumental in encouraging a similar tendency within Shiism. Under the influence of these Islamist reformist thinkers, Shiite scholars, especially those based in Iran, increasingly began to reorient the focus of their scholarship on the Quran and the practice of Quranic exegesis.
rezaRashid Rida was perhaps the most important modern Sunni scholar of the Quran in influencing the growth of modern Shiite exegesis. The founder and editor of the reformist journal Al-Manar, Rida’s prolific Quranic commentary is regarded widely by Sunni and Shiite scholars as groundbreaking and a herald of a new era of socio-political exegesis of the Quran. Since Rida had a solid upbringing in Islamic theology, Al-Manar reflected a classical Sunni point of view as well as a more traditional mode of theological argumentation (especially when compared with the works of later revivalists such as Said Qutb’s Fi Zilal al-Quran). Although Rida did not succeed in finishing his commentary on the entire Quran, he did manage to publish his exegesis of the holy book from its beginning chapter until Sura Tawbah, the ninth chapter.
While Shiite scholars learned from and appropriated many aspects of modern Sunni Quranic exegesis, they also sought to develop their own distinctively Shiite exegetical perspective. The Iranian scholar Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai (1892-1981) is widely regarded as the author of the most important work of Shiite exegesis in modern times, the 20-volume Al-Mizan fi Tafsir-s al-Quran. In many ways, Al-Mizan can be read as a counter-argument to Rashid Rida’s Al-Manar as well as a Shiite commentary. Tabatabai frequently mentions Rida throughout the work, and like Rida, his innovative interpretations of the Quran also seem to stop abruptly at Chapter 9, Sura Tawbah. On many key issues–from the ideal Islamic society, to justice, jihad, and other topics of Islamic jurisprudence–Rida’s influence on Tabatabai is undeniable. Yet at the same time, Tabatabai clearly went to great lengths to develop a uniquely Shiite socio-political exegesis of the Quran. This exegesis rejected outright Rida’s characteristically Sunni criticisms of the Shiite theory of the imamate, as well as Shiism’s belief in the infallibility and knowledge of imams.
One of the most significant implications of the modern Shiite scholars’ turn away from their tradition and toward the Quran is that it has helped pave the way for the emergence of a distinctly modern ideological and political interpretation of the Quran. In fact, the general discourse on ‘the return to the Quran’ found a most receptive audience among a new generation of thinkers that included clerics but also writer-intellectuals from the non-clerical class. These thinkers believed that the theological paradigm of traditional Shiism was not adequate to address the range of modern social and political challenges that Iranian society was confronting.
This intellectual ferment, caused by Shiism’s increasing interaction both with Sunni reformists (islahiyun) or revivalists and Western political ideology, led to the development of a special school of religious thought. For the first time in Shiism’s history, a religious view emerged from outside the clerical establishment. These new ideas emanated from doctors, engineers and other university-educated intellectuals who, thanks to their direct engagement with the Quran, felt themselves experienced and knowledgeable enough about Islam to render the traditional Islamic sciences and institutions unnecessary.
Once freed from the structural and theological encumbrances of Shiite tradition, groups like Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, the Islamic Socialist organization), and engineers like Mehdi Bazargan (Iran’s first prime minister after the 1979 revolution), and even revolutionary clerics like Mahmoud Taleqani (who blended Shiism with Marxist ideals, inspiring a generation of clerical revolutionaries) produced a new and unique type of Quranic commentary. This was intended to respond to the new socio-political requirements of the time, and its contributors were influenced by the secular ideologies of positivism and Marxism.[5] They sought to present Islamist ideology as a superior alternative to secular political ideologies—one that provided a cure for all of humankind’s problems, both on earth and in the hereafter.
It is true that these Iranian intellectuals greatly benefited from Shiite sources and notions. However, their emphasis on concepts like jihad and martyrdom were profoundly inspired by Sunni writer-intellectuals.[6] Just as jihad and martyrdom were central to the thought of Sunni intellectuals like Said Qutb, these issues also came to be two pillars of Islam for Iranian Islamic lay writers like Ali Shariati. In the works of Shariati and others, jihad and martyrdom are colored and formulated with reference to Shiite culture and literature. But the idea of highlighting those notions among many others, as an attempt to create an Islamic ideology, was greatly inspired and shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood’s writers and members.

The Revolutionary Clerics
The aggressive secularization policies implemented by Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled Iran as Shah from 1925 to 1941, aimed to block the Shiite clerical establishment from two institutions that they had traditionally ruled: the schools and the judiciary. These policies created a new generation of ambitious young Shiite clerics who became more and more alienated from Iran’s ruling elites and culture. In addition to their growing disaffection, these young clerics found themselves increasingly with little reason to continue to adhere to traditional Shiite thought and political practice, in which the clergy was seen as the source of legitimacy for the monarchy. For this generation of scholars, traditional Shiism seemed unresponsive and ill-equipped to address the dramatic transformations taking place in Iranian society. In their view, the Muslim Brotherhood’s teachings on the Islamic state provided a fresh, religiously authentic, and politically compelling solution to the challenges they faced.
navvabOne of Shiite Islamism’s most important founding fathers was a young cleric named Sayyed Mujtaba Mir Lowhi, also known as Navab Safavi (1924-1955). Safavi established a group called Fadaian-e Islam, or the “Devotees of Islam,” which led a popular movement against the Shah’s regime, and against the perceived corruptions of Iranian society from 1945 and 1955 that included a string of political assassinations. Like the early Brotherhood, the Fadaian-e Islam believed in a pan-Islamic ideology of religious purification and political revival. They rejected nationalistic ideology as inherently un-Islamic, and held that revivalist Shiites and Sunnis should unify in the face of Islam’s enemies, and struggle to repel modernity and its ideas from Islamic lands. The Devotees also held that Islam presents a perfect, comprehensive system for governing every aspect of human life. In their view, the only solution to the contemporary problems facing the Muslim world–including its backwardness and political weakness relative to Western countries–was the creation of a genuinely Islamic state that would implement the sharia.
Fadaian-e Islam’s ideological view and agenda not only paralleled that of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it appears to have been directly inspired by it. In 1954, Safavi traveled to Jerusalem, where he participated in an Islamic conference. There he addressed the Palestinian cause and intermingled with Sunni revivalists. After speaking at the conference, he traveled to Egypt and met with Brotherhood leaders, where he became intimately aware of the Sunni movement’s plight under the iron-fisted rule of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Egypt’s nationalistic, secularizing and autocratic leader. During his time in Egypt, Safavi actually penned a letter to the Egyptian president, excoriating him for his policies on the Brotherhood. Safavi wrote that the president’s “harsh reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood has provoked deep resentment in the heart of Muslims. Reconsider this issue and try to do something that would not bring you a painful regret.”[7]
After returning to Iran, Safavi began a campaign to promote the Muslim Brotherhood’s pan-Islamic ideology within his Persian homeland, and he successfully introduced the Brotherhood’s ideology to a new generation of Shiite clerics. When his Fadaian-e Islam was established, its members represented the first modern attempt within Iran to build an independent Islamic society–along with a militia–whose purpose was to reform Islamic life and to endeavor to establish an Islamic state.
The Palestinian cause lay at the center of Fadaian-e Islam’s revivalist ideology, and in retrospect, the Devotees appear to have played a pioneering role in making the anti-Israel struggle a central issue for the Iranian religious community, which hitherto had generally not concerned itself with Arabian affairs. In Safavi’s view, the battle against Israel wasn’t simply a local conflict, but part of a larger, regional Islamic struggle against modern government, including the Iranian monarchy.
In fact, one of the reasons for Safavi’s hostility toward the monarchy stemmed from an incident in which the Shah prevented Safavi from mobilizing and deploying 5,000 volunteers to fight against Israel. In a speech at the Faiziya religious school, Safavi said, “If we want to destroy Israel, we have to start from Tehran; that is to say we have to first eliminate [the] Pahlavi regime in order to be able to fight Israel.”[8] For Fadaian-e Islam, the Shah’s regime was politically and morally corrupt, and complicit in supporting the “Jewish occupier” of Palestine. The movement unleashed a campaign within Iran to delegitimize the monarchy on the basis of its relationship with Israel and its lack of an Islamic identity. The group encouraged high-ranking Shiite clerics to take a stand against both Israel and the Shah.[9]
The Shah’s regime eventually apprehended Safavi, and in the course of his interrogations, the Devotees’ leader revealed extensive contacts between his organization and the Sunni revivalist movement, including the Iraqi Jamyyat Montade Al-Nashr, the Syrian Jamyyat Al-Ulama, the Egyptian Shobban Al-Muslemin, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s various branches in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.[10] Because of these unorthodox relationships with foreign movements and the assassination of government officials like General Haj Ali Razmara, the Shah’s regime dealt with Fadaian-e Islam aggressively and condemned its leaders to death. Not surprisingly, the Arabian Muslim Brotherhood eventually emerged as a leading critic of Mohammad Reza Shah and his policies against Shiite Islamism.
Safavi’s Brotherhood-inspired Fadaian-e Islam left an indelible mark on Iranian religious and political life. Among other things, it helped to steel popular Muslim enmity against the monarchy, and ultimately laid the philosophical groundwork for the Khomeinist Revolution of 1979. One of the Devotees’ most decisive achievements, which lasts to this day, was its radicalization of the culture, ideas, and institutions of the Shiite clerical establishment.
For its part, the clerical establishment was initially split over Fadaian-e Islam and how to regard Safavi’s heterodox teachings. Safavi was of course himself a cleric, and many other younger scholars, including Ayatollah Abulqassem Kashani and Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, became early supporters of the Devotees against the regime and the perceived corruptions of Iranian society.
Yet despite the Devotees’ emergence from within the clerical class, the traditional strata of the Iranian clerical establishment–including the most revered and emulated religious authority of the time, Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Boroujerdi–shunned the Fadaian-e Islam and their ideas. Safavi dismissed the charges of the clerical establishment, claiming his movement followed a higher authority and ideals than the clerics and their traditional mores. For example, when Ayatollah Boroujerdi renounced Fadaian-e Islam’s use of coercive tactics in securing funding from the people to aid its struggle of creating an Islamic state, Safavi replied, “Our intention is to borrow from people. What we take is for establishing a government based on the model of Imam Ali’s government. Our goal is sacred and prior to these tools. When we established an Ali government-like state, then we give people their money back.”[11]
Fadaian-e Islam unleashed a string of pronouncements against the clerical establishment’s higher-ups. They found fault with the jurisprudence of Boroujerdi without explicitly naming him, and argued that traditional Shiite jurisprudence was irrelevant and unresponsive to the requirements of the modern era. Here, the Devotees’ assault on traditional authority resembled the attacks of revivalist movements like the Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami on the established ulama in the Sunni world. The Devotees even proposed a plan for dramatically transforming the clerical establishment so that it would best serve the establishment and goals of an ideal Islamic state.[12] Eventually, this line of attack went so far as to call for the excommunication of Boroujerdi from the clerical establishment and a call to defrock him of his clerical turban and mantle.[13] This request to forcibly remove a religious leader was the first of its kind in Shiite history. A few decades later, however, the defrocking of religious scholars who opposed Shiite Islamism had become common practice in the Islamic Republic.
Sayyid_Qutb_9Revolutionary Iran’s founders–including Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader–were all deeply influenced by Fadaian-e Islam, and by extension, by the Brotherhood revivalist ideology that undergirded Safavi’s teachings. In his autobiography, Ali Khamenei says that he entered into the world of politics under the influence of Navvab Safavi. Today’s Supreme Leader himself became an early champion and translator of the works of the Brotherhood intellectual, Said Qutb.
Had it not been for Fadaian-e Islam’s early sympathetic support of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of the philosophical writings of the Muslim Brotherhood might never have been as influential in Iran. But a massive process of translating Sunni revivalist authors from Arabic to Persian started less than a decade after Safavi’s execution. In addition to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s translations of Said Qutb, other Brotherhood revivalists–including Said’s brother, Mohammad Qutb–were also extensively translated into Persian. Besides the works of these Egyptian writers, the main writings of Abul Ala Mawdudi and other Pakistani and Indian Islamists were translated into Persian at around the same time. These books became the main source of nourishment for Iranian militant clerics’ sermons and writings during the pre-revolution era. [14]
Iran’s revolutionary generation discovered in the works of the Brotherhood a new conceptual apparatus that permitted them to both reject the sources of traditional Shiite authority and to elaborate a new Islamic ideology that aimed at being fully competitive with secular and modernist ideologies. Among other things, the Brotherhood’s writings provided enticing depictions of a militant Islam that sought political power, the implementation of the sharia, and resistance against the West and communism that helped shape the political rhetoric of Iran’s revolutionary era. But the Brotherhood thinkers also supplied theoretical nourishment for the development of a uniquely Shiite theory of the Islamic state. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini’s own theory of Islamic government, or “the Guardianship of Jurist” (vilayat-e-faqih), was elaborated under the influence of Rashid Rida’s Al-Imamat al-Uzma va al-Khilafat al-kubra, in which Rida theorized about the construction of an Islamic government ruled by Muslim jurists.[15]

Sectarian conflict and ideological alliance
The historically-rooted rivalry between Shiite and Sunni Islam is seldom addressed in the writings of modern Islamism’s spiritual fathers. In fact, writers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammad Abduh were more inclined toward the ideals of pan-Islamism and unity among Islam’s various sects. They sought to discover a common ground between divergent Islamic traditions on the basis of what they perceived as Islam’s original unity and its forgotten spirit of intra-Muslim solidarity. The ideal of Islamic unity also appealed to traditional Shiite and Sunni authorities such as the aforementioned Mohammad Hossein Boroujerdi at the Shiite seminary in Qom, and Shaykh Mahmoud Shaltut of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Seminary.[16]
Gradually, however, under the influence of Rashid Rida (who was more influenced by Wahhabi ideology than was his teacher, Abduh) and Said Qutb, Arabian Sunni revivalism began to exhibit some anti-Shiite leanings. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Shiite inclinations were noticed by some Shiite clerics, including Hossein Modarressi Tabatabai, who traveled to Lebanon and Egypt during the 1970s. In his travelogue Tabatabai wrote that it seemed as if the Brotherhood believed that it is a religious “duty to avoid Shiite books, not to read them and not to let others to read them, because [they believe that] Shiite books are ‘religiously misleading’ [i.e. they contain theological errors or immoral points].” [17]
As we’ve seen, Tabatabai’s motivation for writing Al-Mizan wasn’t simply to produce a modernist commentary on the Quran on the model of Rida’s Al-Manar. Rather, he sought to develop a uniquely Shiite exegetical mode that was critical of Rida’s Sunni views and supplied a Shiite alternative to them. One of Tabatabai’s most prominent disciples, Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli, taught a course in which he insisted that clerics should study Al-Mizan in order to inoculate themselves against the anti-Shiite influence of Al-Manar. Al-Manar, Ayatollah Amoli argued, “did nothing but ignore the hadith [in which the Prophet appoints Ali as the first caliph of Muslims] and hence, beginner students should avoid reading Al-Manar… unfortunately our [Shiite] seminaries, instead of following the path of Al-Mizan, are following the model of Al-Manar.”[18]
Ayatollah Amoli’s concern, that Sunni revivalist influences were leading Shiites away from Shiism as such, was an anxiety shared by many Shiite scholars at the time, including both traditionalists and reformists. In the politically-charged atmosphere in Iran, into which Islamist revivalist ideology was introduced, the underlying anti-Shiite tendency of the Muslim Brotherhood tended to be overlooked. In fact, some revolutionary clerics who translated the Muslim Brotherhood’s works mentioned in their “translator’s notes” that, while they might not personally agree with certain ideas expressed in those books, their concerns over intra-Islamic sectarianism were secondary to their primary goal of disseminating the ideological core of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the doctrinal differences between the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shiite Islamism that it helped inspire, could not be completely overlooked in favor of their mutually shared political agendas and pan-Islamic identity. This especially proved to be the case once the Shiite Islamists managed to seize power in Iran in 1979. Rather than merely reflect upon and advocate the creation of an Islamic state, Iran’s new rulers were forced to actually attempt to govern one. And while both Sunni and Shiite Islamism agree on the principle that the essential goal of the Islamic state is to implement the sharia, there are important discrepancies between different Islamic legal schools over what this actually means and requires. In a predominantly Shiite country like Iran, it was not surprising that Shiite clerics decided to propagate their own uniquely Shiite understanding of the sharia.
Thus, while Iran’s revolutionaries insisted on the pan-Islamist character of their revolution, their uniquely Shiite identity, and the Shiite character of their regime stoked concerns and even fears among Sunnis. These have served to complicate Iran’s subsequent efforts to export its revolution and to become the leader of the pan-Islamist revival.
The Dilemmas of Transnational Ideology
The concept of Muslim unity lies at the core of many, though clearly not all, steams of Sunni and Shiite revivalism. As a political ideal, Islamic unity has often proven to be a powerful rhetorical tool in efforts to mobilize diverse peoples in the service of a common political agenda. Indeed, that political agenda often becomes the reason for Islamic unity itself: Sunni and Shiite Islamists routinely claim, for example, that resistance against the West requires that Muslims put aside their religious differences. Perhaps most notoriously, Iran’s championing of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Gaza, is one way in which the largely Persian and Shiite Islamic Republic has sought to curry political favor and prestige within Arab and predominantly Sunni countries. This has certainly been a successful strategy for Iran in that it has helped the Islamic Republic win the hearts and minds of many elements, not only within Hamas but also within the larger Brotherhood universe in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.[19]
Yet despite its political utility, and despite the fact that both Brotherhood and Shiite Islamists see Muslim unity as a requirement of religious law, Islamic unity is difficult to justify much less sustain by existing Sunni and Shiite religious paradigms. In fact, from the perspective of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and theology, neither Sunnis nor Shiites are able to find sufficient common ground for convergence, since the points of divergence between these two branches of Islam are over concepts that define their respective religious beliefs and practices. Even the concept of God in both sects is shaped differently, and by two separate conceptual apparatuses. Of course, this has not prevented modern Sunni and Shiite Islamism, with their expressed contempt for the pieties and other encumbrances of Muslim tradition, from striving to find new ways to transcend their historically-rooted differences.
The 1979 Iranian revolution—and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent efforts to export its revolution across the Muslim world, including to Sunni Arab societies—has marked the most ambitious effort to date to overcome these differences. Both the Brotherhood and the emergent revolutionary Shiite state have continued to seek to work together in a cross-national framework to promote Islamist ideology and political unity. Yet this agenda has also presented challenges for both movements. Among other things, it has required these movements to effectively ignore or to seek to minimize the legal and religious aspects of their respective traditions, and to focus more on Islam’s political dimension. Yet as a purely political matter, the spirit of transnational, intra-Islamic solidarity has proven difficult to sustain over the long term in an era where politics is shaped not only by religion, but also by national and other identities.
The triumph of the 1979 revolution alarmed the Arab regimes. This was so because of revolutionary Iran’s belligerence toward them and its consequent expansionist regional policies. The Arab regimes were also fearful because Shiite Islamism’s success in toppling the Shah’s pro-Western, secular government encouraged Sunni Islamists to think that their own secular rulers could be overthrown. Within this context, it was not surprising that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at first welcomed the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, despite their divergent religious identities.
But the Brotherhood’s public support for Iran faded after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by Khalid al-Islamboli on October 6, 1981 and the Egyptian government unleashed a new wave of repression against groups espousing pan-Islamist ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood subsequently became more reticent in its praise of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran, for its part, would eulogize Sadat’s assassin Islamboli as a martyr). Under Mubarak’s rule, crackdowns on the Brotherhood in Egypt forced the group to conceal its pan-Islamic ambitions. Other developments—including the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for nearly a decade from 1980-1988, and exacerbated already tense relations between Sunni and Shiite and Arab and non-Arab populations throughout the Middle East—further worked to exert pressures on the pan-Islamist rhetoric and agenda of the Brotherhood. [20]
In part, as a consequence of the new pressures to downplay its pan-Islamic ideals in its political discourse, the basic religious differences between Sunnism and Shiism became a central problematic for the Brotherhood’s ideology. For instance, in January 1982, Umar Tilmisani, then the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the Egyptian weekly magazine al-Msuwwar: “We supported him [Khomeini] politically, because an oppressed people had managed to get rid of an oppressive ruler and to regain their freedom. But from the doctrinal point of view, Sunnism is one thing and Shiism is another.”
The more the Sunni-Shiite divide was conceived by the Brotherhood as a problem of religion, the more the Brotherhood’s thinkers sought to develop religion-based means to overcome it. In 1985, for example, Tilmisani wrote in the Egyptian magazine Addawa (no.105) that “the convergence of Shiism and Sunnis is now an urgent task for the jurists.” He added, “The [early] contact between the Muslim Brotherhood and [Iranian clerics] was not done in order to make Shiites convert to Sunni Islam, but the main purpose was to comply with Islam’s mission to converge the Islamic sects as much as possible.”
Despite this and subsequent efforts to discover a new basis for Sunni-Shiite convergence, political developments have continued to frustrate the Brotherhood’s search for Islamic unity. In recent times, the general resurgence of Iranian power and influence has stirred up considerable controversy within Sunni Arab circles, including within the Brotherhood, over what Iran ultimately seeks, and what, in turn, should be the proper Sunni and Arab reaction to it. On this issue, the Brotherhood is deeply divided between those who adhere to a pan-Islamist ideology and those who primarily see the Brotherhood as a Sunni, Arab, or nationalist movement. This internal Brotherhood debate will continue to be a defining dynamic in Sunni revivalism’s future, with no clear resolution in sight.
Meanwhile, Shiite Islamism has sought its own resolution to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the dilemmas posed by the contradictions between its identity as a pan-Islamist movement and its actuality as ruling over a predominantly Shiite state. This resolution was found in a ruling elaborated by Ayatollah Khomeini that held that the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader is authorized to overrule what is prescribed by the sharia in favor of the regime’s interests. Khomeini made it clear that in any contradiction between Islamic law and the interests of the regime, the ruling jurist is obligated to prioritize the interest of the regime and to ignore the sharia. Accordingly, the Islamic government remains in an emergency state and considers safeguards to its survival its top priority, above both national and religious laws. On October 27, 2009, in a public speech, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of Revolutionary Guard said, “The Islamic Republic is a divine sacred government whose safeguarding is prior even to performed prayer”—(that is, the defense of the republic has priority over Salat or Namaz, the obligatory Islamic prayers).
In practice, this view has meant that Iran has pursued Islamic unity as a principle of its foreign policy while simultaneously pursuing more exclusivist and discriminatory policies at home in accord with regime interests. The Iranian government, for example, has destroyed Sunni mosques and seminaries in the politically restive southeastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, and exercises a comprehensive discriminatory policy against Sunni Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan. The government appears to be less biased toward the Brotherhood’s Iranian-based branch, whose activities actually appear to be favored by the government.[21] Internationally, however, the government uses its relations with Sunni groups to serve its own agenda, with little concern for religious differences or for that matter, for stirring up sectarian conflict. The Islamic Republic has even forged strong working relations with anti-Shiite Islamists.[22]

Despite the historically-rooted political and religious rivalry between Shiism and Sunnism, various currents of modern Islamist revivalism, including most especially Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Shiite Islamism, have sought to overcome their respective traditions and to forge ever closer ties between Islam’s two branches in the spirit of Muslim political unity. Present day circumstances have given rise to new common ground, new boundaries and new frameworks between the two groups for ideological convergence and cooperation. As a consequence of this, both sects have taken on roles radically different from those they once played in the traditional world.
And yet, none of modern Islamism’s various ecumenical efforts to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide have been particularly fruitful or politically sustainable over the long-term. Despite their common sources in modern reformism and decades of efforts by both Sunni and Shiite clerics to peel away their traditional differences, problems inevitably arise when one of these branches of Islamism exercises power. These problems emerge, in part, from a basic ideological contradiction within some strands of Islamism between the ideals of pan-Islamic unity and the principle that Islamism’s primary goal is to implement the sharia. Since the latter goal requires seeking guidance and a model from the schools of traditional jurisprudence, efforts to implement the sharia inevitably reflect an exclusivist or religiously partisan character.
Nevertheless, the ideal of Muslim unity persists in large part because of its political utility. The Islamic Republic of Iran especially has used it to make alliances with Sunni groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to promote its foreign agenda. As such, while the mistrust between Shiites and Sunnis is not easily resolved, modern Islamist ideology has created common ground for cooperation between these historically rival sects.
This article appears in Volume 9 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute.
Keywords: Shia, Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Khomeini, Pan-Islamism

[1] The official website of the Muslim brotherhood:
[2] For a brief account on the influence of the Pakistani group, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, on Iranian Islamic fundamentalism see: Enayat, Hamid, Modern Islamic Political Thought (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982) pp. 69-110.
[3] For the theological stats of “Imam” in Twelver Shiism see: Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, Le guide divin dans le Shi’ism original, Aux sources de l’ts of “Imam” in twelver Shiism see: Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, Le guide divin dans le Shi’ism original, Aux sources de l’ésotérisme en Islam, (Paris: Verdier.1992).
[4] Al-Khoi, Al-Sayyed Abul Qassem Al- Moussavi, Al-Bayan fi Tafsir Al-Quran, Dar-Al-Twohid lennashr wa al-towzi, Al-Kuwait, fourth edition, 1979. In 1962, Morteza Motahhari, an acclaimed disciple of Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai said, “Almost a month ago, one of our scholars traveled to Atabat (four Shiite holy cities in Iraq). He said, “I met with Ayatollah Khoi. I asked Ayatollah Khoi, why did you quit your tafsir (Quranic commentary) course?” Khoi replied: “There are some problems and difficulties in teaching tafsir.” I told him in Qom Allameh (Mohammad Hossein) Tabatabai had continued his tafsir course and spent most of his time on that. “So why [you do not do the same]?” Khoi said “Mr. Tabatabi has sacrificed. He has lost his social credibility:” see Motahhari, Morteza, Majmooe-ye Asar, Nashr-e Sadra, Tehran, 1387, Vol. 24, p. 534.
[5] Hemaidah Al-Naifar has described Moujahedin’s and Sayyed Qutb’s Quranic commentaries as two examples of an ideological interpretation of the Quran: see: Al-Naifar, Hemaidah, Al-Insan wa al-Quran wajhan le-wajh; Al-Tafasir al Quraniya Al-Moasara, Qeraaton fi Al-Manhaj, Dar Al-Fikr, Syria, 2000.
[6] For a discussion about jihad and martyrdom in Said Qutb’s thought and a comparison between him, Khomeini and Mawdudi as three leaders of radical Islam see Cook, David, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp.138-143.
[7] Khosrowshahi, Sayyed Hadi, Fadaian-e Eslam, Tarikh, Amalkard, Andisheh-ha, (Qom: Kolbeh-ye Shorouq) p.147.
[8] Khaterat va Mobarezat-e Shahid Mahallati, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, Tehran, 1376, p. 25, cited from Jafarian, Rasoul, p.197.
[9] Influenced by the Navvab group’s propaganda, many clerics issued a fatwa and banned trade with Jews. There were some other clerics who refused to do so. One of them was Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari who said, “Iranian Jews are our countrymen.” See Milani, Abbas, Eminent Persians: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979, (Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 2009).
[10] Jafarian, Rasoul, Jaryan-ha va Sazman-ha-ye Mazhabi-Siasi-e Iran, Az Rouye Kar Amadan-e Mohammad Reza Shah ta Enqelab, Sal-ha-ye 1320-1357, chap-e nohom, (Tehran: Khane-ye Ketab, 1387) p. 207.
[11]Ibid, p.213.
[12] Here, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the rivalry and clashes of Fadaian-e Islam and the clerical establishment in Iran, and the tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni clerical establishment in Egypt and elsewhere.
[13] Rahnoma, Ali, Niroo-ha-ye Mazhabi bar Bestar-e Harakat-e Nehzat-e Melli, (Tehran: Gam-e no, 1384) pp.57-76.
[14] Ayatollah Ali Khameini translated Al-Mustaqbal le haza al-Din, (Ayandeh dar Qalamrov-e Islam, Entesharat-e Sepideh, Mashhad, 1345), (Eddea Nameh-I Alay-he Tammaddon-e Gharb va Resalat-e Islam, Mashhad, 1349, with his brother Hadi); Tafsir-o fi Zelal Al-Quran (Tarjomeh-ye Tafsir-e fi Zelal Al-Quran, Tehran, 1362–this translation was completed before the revolution). Khamenei’s brother, Mohammad, also a cleric, translated Qutb’s Khasaes Al-Tassavvor Al-Islami (Vijeggi-ha-ye Ideology Islami, (Tehran: Moassesseh-ye Melli, 1354). More than ten other works of Said Qutb were translated later on by others. For a detailed report on books translated from Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani and Indian Islamists see: Jafarian, Rassoul, pp.378-388. Mohammad Ali Guerami, a cleric who translated Al-Adala al-Ijtimaiya fil Islam into Persian, cites one member of the revolutionary movement who admitted to the influence of the book on other mujahidin members. Guerami, who was imprisoned during the Shah’s reign, remembers that political prisoners were reading this book too. In the “translator’s preface,” Guerami states that the government should be run by clerics and Islamic jurists (faqihs), a philosophy which lives on until today in Iran. (Guerami, Mohammad Ali, Khaterat, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, (Tehran, 1381) pp.59-60).
[15] For a brilliant account of Rida’s treatise see, Kowtharani, Wajih, Al-Dowla wa Al-Khilafa fi al-Khitab-e al-Arabi Ebban al-Thowra al-Kamalia, Dar al-Talia, Beirut, 1996. In his book, Rida praised the leadership role that Iranian clerics played in the “Tobacco Movement” against concessions to the British in the early 1890s, and he argued that Sunni clerics should similarly engage in political struggle. He accepted Shiite criticism of the way Abu Bakr and Omar, the first two caliphs, were elected, and admitted the necessity of ijtihad in understanding the religious texts. Khomeini’s treatise Hokoumat-e Eslami, (Islamic Government), is clearly inspired by Rida’s book, especially in its concept of Islamic government, the role of clerics, and the constitution of a government state.
[16] For a detailed historical account of this tendency see: Brunner, Rainer, Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th century, The Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochment and Restraint, (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
[17] Moddaressi Tabatabai, Hossein, “Az Forat ta Nil; Gozari bar Mahd-e Adyan-e Bozorg va Tamaddon-ha-ye Kohan” in Khaterat-e Vaid, No. 14, Azar 1351.
[18] A report on his course is available online:جوادی+آملی،+المیزان،+المنار&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
[19] Although a Brotherhood offshoot, Hamas prefers to be seen as an independent Palestinian group, since their relationship with the Egyptian government, already tenuous, would be even more strained if Hamas were openly acknowledged to be connected to the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, itsuits Cairo to downplay the Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood link. As for Hamas’s links to Iran, during his February 2009 trip to Teheran, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal expressed his gratitude for the Islamic Republic’s ongoing generous support of Hamas, asserting that “the people of Gaza…have always appreciated the political and spiritual support of the Iranian leaders and nation.” According to state television, Mashaal said that “Iran has definitely played a big role in the victory of the people of Gaza and is a partner in that victory.” Iran was highly vocal in supporting Hamas during the recent Gaza War at a time when the Egyptian government was not. Iran, in fact, led the charge in seeking to embarrass and delegitimize the Egyptian government for its failure to openly help Hamas.
[20] With the end the war, in fact, the Muslim Brotherhood was among the first from the Arab Sunni world to openly seek to foster ties with Iran. At the request of Shaykh Ghazzali, Iran agreed to unilaterally release the Egyptian prisoners of war who were members of Iraq Army. The Brotherhood’s relations with Iran have since been strengthened.
[21] While many barriers remain to a formal link between Iran and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood operates a branch in Iran that has legal permission from the government to function and works within the framework of the Iranian constitution. The Iranian Muslim Brotherhood is headquartered in Tehran and has several branches throughout the country. The group has expressed its commitment to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and has promised to participate in the political process. Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah, a Sunni group in the Iranian province of Kurdistan, first claimed to be an independent organization for all Iranian Sunnis, especially in the northwestern and southeastern regions of Iran. (See, for example, But recently, Mohammad Mehdi Akif, the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide, stated that the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran has renewed its baya, or pledge of allegiance, with the Egyptian MB. He denied rumors of a split. (See for example, ) According to Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah’s mission statement, one of its requirements is that its members must be Iranian nationals. Support for ethnic, religious and sectarian freedom and rights, and the ideal of pan-Islamic unity are among the group’s goals. (The group’s mission statement is available online: Clearly the group has close ties with Iranian reformists and supported their candidate in a previous 2005 presidential election. Apparently Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah is the largest and most prominent Sunni group in Iran, enjoying the government’s permission to participate in political activity as well as in its own education program.
[22] For example, according to the New York Times, the Saudi authorities allege that the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf, Abdullah Al-Qaraqi, lives and moves freely about in Iran, along with more than 100 Saudis who work for him. The U.S. Treasury Department announced that Saad bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, was arrested by Iranian authorities in early 2003, but that “as of September 2008 it was possible that Saad bin Laden was no longer in Iranian custody.” According to the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, Saad bin Laden is now most likely in Pakistan


The New Order of the Clerical Establishment

The following is the English-language abstract of an article originally published in Farsi in Fall 2008. Read the full text of this article in the original Farsi.

The Iranian clergy in contemporary Iran bears little, if any, similarity with its traditional counterpart known as “Ulama.” The financial resources, social authority and networking, organizational features, and political status of the two are worlds apart. This article attempts to provide a historical explanation of the clergy’s new order and its transformation from a traditional institution to a rationalized, modernized, and bureaucratized organization under the political rule of the “Supreme Shiite jurist.”

Prior to the Islamic Revolution, the semi-independent clergy was perceived as the highest socioreligious authority in the land. The confluence of socioreligious and political authority after the 1979 revolution made the clerical establishment totally dependent on the government. Thus, Iran’s supreme leader is not only the head of the judiciary and the intelligence services and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but also the head of the Iranian Shiite seminary. Despite the fact that clerics receive hefty regular stipends from the government and many ayatollahs have exclusive privileges for all sorts of profit-making transactions, they are no longer the exclusive “manager of the sacred affaires.”

By making the clerical establishment the main ideological apparatus of the state, the government itself has officially become in charge of the “sacred.” This explains why the Islamic government uses its political mechanisms to suppress both “popular Islam” and “religious intellectualism.” “Popular Islam” and intellectuals’ liberal democratic interpretation of Islam both threaten the “official Islam,” since they extend the borders of the “” far beyond what the Islamic Republic defines and implements as the only acceptable version of the religion.

Read the full text of this article in the original Farsi.