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The seemingly limitless powers of Ayatollah

Nov 01,2022 - Last updated at Nov 01,2022

RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA  —  The nationwide protests in Iran over women’s rights and abuses by the religious morality police have once again shined a light on the country’s ruling clerical class and the seemingly limitless powers of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a two-tier government. The first tier, ostensibly representing the sovereignty of the people, includes a president who serves as the executive of a highly centralised state, a parliament charged with creating and debating laws, and a judiciary that vets and interprets those laws. The second tier, representing the sovereignty of God, consists of just one man: the Supreme Leader, or Faqih.

The Faqih has an absolute monopoly over state power. He appoints the head of the judiciary and can dismiss the president at will. He is the commander-in-chief of the army and he can veto any law passed by Parliament. The office is both anachronistic and utterly unique, allowing for the institutionalisation of clerical control over all aspects of government.

It is also heretical. Far from being the foundation of Shiite Islam, as Iran’s clerical regime claims, the concept of the Faqih represents neither the historical consensus nor the current majority view of Shiite political thought. It is a wholly made-up office, concocted by the man who first claimed the position for himself: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Shi’ism, like Christianity, is messianic. Shiite doctrine posits that the temporal world and all its imperfections will be swept away by the appearance of a figure known as the Mahdi, who will one day rule over the earth. Until then, all governments are temporary and illegitimate, as any exercise of direct political power would be considered a usurpation of the Mahdi’s divine authority. Thus, for most of the last 1,400 years, Shiite clergy have refused to interfere in governmental affairs, instead adopting a position of political quietism.

To be sure, Iran’s leading ayatollahs did fight alongside the country’s merchants and young intellectuals to create the first indigenous democratic movement in the Middle East. The Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906, as it came to be known, resulted in the creation of a progressive constitution guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms for all Persians, an independent parliament (the National Consultative Assembly), free elections, and a clear separation of powers.

But the Constitutional Revolution was short-lived. In 1921, a British-backed military coup established the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. The constitution was discarded, parliament was defanged, and the state reverted to dictatorship.

The Pahlavis brutally suppressed any political activity by the clergy. While a few prominent clerics participated in Iran’s second revolution of the century, the so-called Nationalist Revolution of 1953, it wasn’t until Iran’s third revolution, in 1979, that the clergy left the mosques and entered government.

That development owed everything to Khomeini’s unprecedented interpretation of the Mahdi. Countering 14 centuries of Shiite doctrine, he argued that, in the absence of the Mahdi, the sole legitimate leader of the Islamic state, political power should rest in the hands of the Mahdi’s representatives on Earth: that is, the clergy. Put another way, rather than waiting for the Mahdi to return at the end of time to create the perfect society, the clergy should be empowered to create the perfect society for him so that he will return at the end of time. Khomeini called this theory the Valayat-e Faqih, or “the guardianship of the jurist”.

This was an astounding assertion and a radical religious innovation in Shiite Islam. Yet, Khomeini went even further, arguing that political authority should rest not with the whole of the clergy but with a single “supreme” cleric. He then insisted that, as the deputy of the Mahdi, the supreme cleric’s authority should be identical not just to the Mahdi’s, but to that of the Prophet Muhammad himself. “When a mujtahid [a qualified jurist] who is just and learned stands up for the establishment and organisation of the government,” Khomeini wrote in his political treatise Islamic Government, “he will enjoy all the rights in the affairs of the society that were enjoyed by the Prophet”.

No Muslim cleric had ever made so startling a proposal. The notion that any human being could have the same infallible, divine authority as the Prophet contradicts centuries of Islamic theology. The theory was so plainly heretical that it was immediately rejected by almost every other ayatollah in Iran, including Khomeini’s direct superiors, the Ayatollahs Boroujerdi and Shariatmadari, as well as nearly all the grand ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, the religious centre of Shiite Islam.

What made Khomeini so alluring was his ability to couch his radical doctrine in the populist rhetoric of the time. Once his colleagues had been intimidated into silence and Iran’s pious masses had been stirred to action, Khomeini was free to seize control of the post-revolutionary government. Before most Iranians knew what they had accepted, he had injected his interpretation of the Mahdi into the political realm, transforming Iran into the Islamic Republic and proclaiming himself the country’s first Faqih: the supreme temporal and religious authority.

In 1989, Khomeini died and the office of Faqih passed to his hand-picked successor, Ali Khamenei, with little clerical or popular resistance. Even though the Faqih was supposed to be Iran’s most learned religious authority, Khamenei was little more than a mid-level cleric, not even an ayatollah, with thin credentials. Nevertheless, he was given the office largely because practically every other qualified religious authority in Iran, including Khomeini’s first choice as successor, Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, had decried the doctrine of the Faqih as anathema to Islam.

Now 83 and in ill health, Khamenei is widely believed to be grooming his eldest son, Mojtaba, a cleric of even lower rank than he was when selected, to succeed him as the next Supreme Leader. That would strip away any last remnant of religious legitimacy the office still maintains, exposing the Faqih for what it actually is: a synonym for Shah.

Should that happen, the protests that would follow could dwarf the uprisings we are seeing today. Already, one of the most frequent chants heard on the streets during the current protests has been “Mojtaba, Bemiri, Rahbari ro Nabini”: “Mojtaba, We’ll See You Die Before Becoming Leader.”


Reza Aslan, an Emmy- and Peabody-nominated producer, is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the author, most recently, of “An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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