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COMMENTARY No. 39

a CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE publication


LEADERSHIP IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC AND THE HIERARCHY OF SHI'A ISLAM

January 1994

Unclassified

Editors Note:

Since the author first dealt with the leadership structures in Iran (COMMENTARY #20, April 1992), a number of forces, and a number of deaths among the senior ranks, prompt a closer look at the hierarchy of power in Iran. The departure of the old guard raises central questions not only of succession, but of who decides.

Dr. Wm. Millward is the Strategic Analyst for the Middle East within the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.


All political systems are subject to a degree of internal tension and stress. At one end of the political spectrum the level of tension under individual or single-party dictatorships is relatively high and dissent is minimal or non-existent. At the other end the competition between parties and factions generates a lower level of stress intermittently at general elections or during debate on contentious legislative initiatives. In most democratic systems the principle of opposing or alternative viewpoints on public policy is built into constitutions or mandated by custom and tradition. Whatever the system, leadership plays an important role in defusing tension and promoting the efficient operation of the governing mechanism. Traditions of leadership in Iran, both in government and in the clerical institution, have recently sustained pressures and changes imposed by the exigencies of practical power, and a number of key deaths in the senior clerical ranks.

In the political history of Iran, the secular rulers of various dynasties have been especially intolerant of dissenting opinion, even from trusted lieutenants or first ministers, as challenges to their absolute authority and sovereignty. Ideally political leadership came from the individual who could concentrate a maximum of power and authority in a single persona. The imperial political tradition of past millenniums had established the principle of the monopolization of power in the person of the shah as the ideal of leadership. Division of the imperial ruler's authority into rival centres of power could only be sanctioned by an elaborate system of investiture and swearing allegiance to the shah of shahs. Any alternative would leave the polity vulnerable to attack from within and threaten its survival.

Authority and Leadership in Twelver Shi'ism

In the religious sphere, the ideal of leadership, as it evolved among the learned men [ulama] of Shi'a Islam in Iran and Iraq from the middle of the eighteenth century, was embodied in the most learned practitioners of the sacred law [shari'a] and its ancillary sciences. Recognition in this domain was only obtained after long years of study, teaching and writing in one or another of the seminaries in the principal shrine centres of the Shi'a world. A rough hierarchy of rank gradually emerged among the more learned of the jurisprudents and their students, culminating in the office of "source of emulation" [marja' al-taqlid]. Having succeeded as students, mullahs would then, depending on talent and intellectual capacities, pass through the ranks of Hojjatoleslam, Ayatollah, and eventually, a few would attain the rank of Grand Ayatollah [ayatollah al-'ozma]. Only the leading and older ayatollahs, and grand ayatollahs, would normally achieve the status of "marja'". This would depend on their producing a canon law guide [risala 'amaliyya] in their own name, and building up a reputation for learning and piety reflected in a body of published scholarship, and a large number of students and personal followers [muqallidun] who would take their guidance from the "source" and pay their religious dues to him or his representative.

Because the centres of religious training and scholarly activity were normally associated with the Shi'a shrine centres, of which there were several, leadership in the clerical hierarchy was normally diffuse and pluralist. Occasionally, within the community of Shi'a Islam in Iran and Iraq, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one or another of the great scholars and jurists among these "sources" would win recognition and gradually 'emerge' as pre-eminent, the primus inter pares of the Shi'a religious hierarchy. But this individual's authority could not be considered exclusive or monopolistic, as with his counterpart in the secular sphere, or with a Pope. The life-blood of the system has been the freedom of the practising Shi'i Muslim to choose which of the accessible "sources" he or she prefers as a guide for religiously correct behaviour.

Theocracy Replaces Monarchy - The Turban for the Crown

An alleged theocratic system of government was put in place in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 to accommodate the charisma and prestige of its founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leading figure in the hierarchy of the Shi'ite Muslim clergy [rowhaniyat]. The Shi'a clergy in Iran had functioned in effect as a separate and independent social institution with its own structure of authority, its own resources and revenues and its own influence with the public. To the ayatollah's standing as a prominent member of this institution there was suddenly added the authority normally associated with the political system of royal government under the shah.

The new political structure of the Islamic Republic had to provide for the concentration of the combined power and authority of these two institutions. The results of this combination were embodied in an Islamic constitution ratified on December 3, 1979, in which the dominant and final authority of the new system was enshrined in the office of Spiritual Leader or Vali Faqih, according to the principle of "the governance/trusteeship of the jurisprudent" [velayat-e faqih]. (See articles 107-112).

Under this new system and its constitution, the day to day business of government and the administration of public affairs were carried out by the ayatollah's followers, many of them members of the clergy themselves, but of much lower rank than the Spiritual Leader. The most trusted among the ayatollah's followers were those who had supported him during his long campaign of opposition to the Shah's government from 1962 onwards, especially those who had spent time in prison for their opposition stance. During the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the internal competition and rivalry in the new system was expressed sometimes through ideological factions, and sometimes through key personalities. The radical, left-leaning clergymen and their lay supporters in government in the mid-80s favoured policies which promoted self-reliance and government control over foreign trade, and prevented the concentration of capital or land holding in private hands. Their champions were figures like the former deputy-Speaker of the Majlis, Mehdi Karubi, the former Solicitor-General, Muhammad Khoeniha, and the former Prime Minister, Mir Hussein Mousavi.

In the opposite camp were those clergy and their lay counterparts, the so-called moderates, who endorsed a limited degree of foreign borrowing and investment, less state control over foreign trade, more active distribution and return of property to private ownership, and a more constructive approach to regional co-operation and foreign relations. The individual who gradually emerged as the leader of this faction was the then speaker of the Majlis, Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Whenever a legislative or administrative impasse arose between these factions, the issue would be referred to the ayatollah for final decision. While he lived the record shows he exercised a marvellous penchant for impartiality, sometimes favouring one side, sometimes the other.

When the founder of the Islamic Republic and its political system died in June 1989, changes were called for to adapt the workings of the system to new realities. He was succeeded at the top of the Islamic power structure by Ali Khamneh'i, a relatively low-level clergyman, but one of his trusted lieutenants who had by then gained a good deal of political experience as the incumbent of the largely ceremonial office of President, as well as a few scars from injuries received in an assassination attempt. The fact that he did not possess all the qualifications specified by the constitution for the top job meant that amendments were needed, and these were duly effected in the summer of 1989. It was no longer necessary for the Spiritual Leader to be a marja'; from now on it would be enough that he hold the highest degree of certification in canon law studies [ijtihad], have a reputation for piety, and political experience. [The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, (2nd edition - with amendments), Tehran 1410/1990. Art.109].

These same changes also abolished the office of Prime Minister and gave additional powers and authority to the new office of the Presidency. The first incumbent of this new power pole was the former Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. From 11 June 1993 he embarked on his second, and final, term as President and chief of the Executive Branch of the Islamic Republic. Some observers of the mechanics of power distribution in the Islamic Republican system are inclined to view its internal tensions as a reflex of inherent structural contradictions rather than a manifestation of the normal interplay of competition and rivalry between personalities and programs. The effective blockage of several cabinet appointments or the forced resignation of a minister by the radicals in the Third Majlis were impediments to the practical application of powers prescribed by the constitution as those of the President. Their objections to some of his policy and legislative initiatives proved to be less serious obstacles.

In the aftermath of the elections to the Fourth Majlis, some commentators were predicting a new confrontation between the conservative and nationalist forces aligned with the Spiritual Leader, Ali Khamneh'i, and his allies in the Majlis and the Council of Guardians, and those aligned with the President, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and his technocratic ministers and advisers who are hoping to push forward with a broad program of economic reconstruction and liberalisation. Such conflicts are fuelled as much by differing visions of the programs and policies needed to enable the governing system to deliver on its promises of economic progress as from structural contradictions inherent in the system.

Clergy-State Relations in the Islamic Republic

Before the Islamic revolution clerical attitudes toward the state could be characterized under three headings:

  1. Full membership in the state apparatus, and dependent on it for their livelihood. Such clergy were normally regarded by their peers with suspicion, and were frequently referred to by a variety of derogatory names, e.g. "court clergy" or "the sultan's preachers".
  1. Indifference and aloofness, the position taken by the vast majority of the Shi'a clergy, especially the Grand Ayatollahs.
  1. Open opposition from those who struggled against the state as the source of corruption and oppression. These were the group around Ayatollah Khomeini, who are now in power.

When a comparatively small group of younger and middle-level clergymen, supporters of Grand Ayatollah Khomaini, succeeded in capturing the apparatus of the state in the aftermath of the 1978-79 revolution, the relationship between them and their clerical colleagues in the shrine centres and seminaries was transformed. The change began slowly. The hierocracy now running the government was suddenly pre-occupied with a brand new set of problems for which they had had precious little preparation. Fending off a variety of rival claims to a share in power, while drafting an Islamic constitution, totally pre-occupied the younger clergy around the ayatollah.

But nothing succeeds like success, even in religious circles. While some junior clerics may have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the theocratic experiment that Imam Khomaini and his followers had set in motion, others enthusiastically embraced the enterprise, for their own reasons, including the opportunity it afforded for more rapid advancement and a new avenue of activity outside the austere and competitive environment of the seminaries of Qom, Mashhad and Isfahan. Many of those who came over to the new system were of younger years and more junior rank. Others carried on in their old ways and habits as if nothing had changed. A few more senior people without much success behind them in traditional terms were persuaded to join the regime and take positions in various ministries or the new structures of the revolution, such as the Council of Guardians.

A large number of traditional clergy of all ranks and stages remained at their stations following the revolution and carried on with their studies, or their teaching and other routine clerical functions. Their ranks were soon swollen by a deluge of new applicants seeking to join the seminaries and pursue religious studies. Official estimates suggest there are nearly 25,000 full-time students today in the various Qom seminaries alone. [Kayhan Havai, March 4, 1992. p. 15]. Such numbers require a substantial administrative structure to manage their affairs and a sizeable teaching cadre to meet their instructional needs. Judging from a critique of the old ways and methods still being used in the seminary system, made by the Spiritual Leader himself on a visit to the Faiziyeh school in Qom on February 20, 1992, there is still substantial resistance to change in the traditional seminary system, and that student problems resulting from excess demand might be preventing that system from fulfilling its basic tasks.

The Leadership Role

The uneasy and somewhat ambivalent relationship between the clerical and governmental institutions in the early years of the Islamic Republic was at least in part a function of Grand Ayatollah Khomaini's leadership. He treated his peers among the grand ayatollahs with diffidence and contempt at best, and intimidated or placed them under house arrest at worst. Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shari'atmadari, the acknowledged spiritual leader of the Azeri Shi'a Muslims in Iran, was confined to his home in Qom in 1979 when it was feared he might become an alternative pole of political power through his Islamic People's Republican Party. The party was dissolved and twelve of his Tabriz supporters were executed. Two years later, in what was called an "unprecedented move", he was stripped of the rank of marja'-e taqlid after accusations that he plotted to overthrow the government. "The clerical populists [around Khomaini] had done what no shah had ever dared to do." [Ervand Abrahamian, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin, London: I.B. Tauris 1989. p. 58].

For Imam Khomaini, the founder of the new system, the clerical institution was a secondary concern, to be controlled by firm action when necessary, but otherwise ignored for the more pressing business of building an Islamic political system. It may have been the ayatollah's ultimate intention to merge these two social structures into one comprehensive system of political and social control. While he lived, all his attention and energy—and those of his acolytes—were devoted to the immediate tasks of consolidating control of the political domain, and fighting off foreign invaders like Saddam Hussein. Perhaps because he sensed the time was not ripe, he may have preferred the strategy of leaving to his successors the problem of merging the two structures and thereby creating a more perfect theocracy.

The Succession Issue

The starting point for at least some of the tension and friction in Iran between the secular realm and religion [dunya and din] under the Islamic Republic, between the state and the clerical institution [dowlat and marja'iyat], has been the question of the succession. Many observers conclude that a key series of events surrounded the person of Husain Ali Montazeri, chosen as heir-apparent to Ayatollah Khomaini by the Imam himself in 1982 and confirmed in that role by the Assembly of Experts in 1985. He served in this capacity for four years, but, by all accounts, very reluctantly. He was removed unceremoniously from his role as heir-presumptive in March of 1989, by order of the ayatollah himself, perhaps under the influence of a campaign led by his son, Ahmad.

Ayatollah Montazeri's case is instructive in several respects. When he was chosen as Khomaini's successor in 1985, he insisted in a radio broadcast that one of the reasons he was reluctant to be considered for the role was "the presence of the great sources", by which he meant the other senior Grand Ayatollahs then present in Qom, most of whom, as contemporaries of Khomaini, were his teachers and much more learned than he. [FBIS, Daily Report-South Asia, December 18, 1985]. Nevertheless he himself was elevated to the status of Grand Ayatollah on his confirmation as Leader-designate, chiefly by the regime and its supporters. It is doubtful he was so considered by the opinion-makers in the ranks of the independent clerical establishment.

The chief reason why he would not have been accepted as a Grand Ayatollah by traditional standards at that time was the fact that he had spent so many years in prison, or in internal exile, where it was difficult if not impossible for him to read, think and write, and eventually publish his reflections as a contribution to the store of religious learning, especially in the fields of jurisprudence [fiqh] and its principles [usul]. And this isolation prevented him from normal teaching activity, another important way in which a senior cleric's knowledge and learning are demonstrated, and prestige acquired. More recently, since retiring to Qom in the early years of the new regime, he has been devoting himself to the normal pattern of activity by remaining there, teaching his classes and tending to the spiritual and practical needs of his many followers. He is also writing and publishing his researches, and depending on how these are received, it seems probable he will soon reach the status of Grand Ayatollah, if he is not so regarded already.

The main question attaching to Ayatollah Montazeri's future is whether he will ever allow himself to be enticed back into political life. It seems unlikely, considering how many of his relatives and supporters have been killed or otherwise damaged by association with him while he was an important player in the political arena. By criticizing the performance of many government officials while heir-apparent, he made opponents and enemies, some of whom are still in government and may be hoping to settle old scores. But his role as a spiritual guide and his potential as a political consultant are frequently confused by his adversaries. When ten Majlismen, including the head of the Majlis budget committee, Morteza Alviri, visited him in Qom in late 1991 in his capacity as a "source", it brought charges of political collusion and threats to the state. Only the timely intervention of the Spiritual Leader, Ali Khamneh'i, prevented Alviri's prosecution by the Special Court of the Clergy.

Supporters of the original concept of the unity of political and religious leadership [rahbari and marja'iyat] in a single person seized the occasion of the visit to Montazeri as an opportunity to voice their concern that the constitutional review committee had separated these two functions without due consideration for the effect this would have of weakening the Leader in a state which claimed to be both a political and a moral-religious enterprise [Kayhan Havai, February 5, 1992. pp. 15-17]. The answer to these concerns was that separating the two positions was in the best interest of both and in any event the state was paramount. The prerogatives of the Islamic ruler [

hakim], whether he be a marja' like Ayatollah Khomaini or not, are unlimited, in keeping with the principle of 'absolute jurisdiction' [velayat-e motlaqeh], and take precedence over the rulings [fatwas] of any Marja' or Mujtahid.

In purely political terms Ayatollah Montazeri represents a dilemma for the regime, a thorn in their side which cannot be extracted or excised. He continues to criticize the major players for policies and actions he believes detrimental to the revolution and harmful to the interests of Islam in general. The government responds by inciting its supporters to attack his home and teaching centre, occasioning damage and injury. This provokes a chorus of opposition from highly regarded sources, such as Grand Ayatollahs Araki and Golpaygani, and even staunch radical regime supporters, like Ayatollahs Sane'i and Taheri, condemning the government's response. Ayatollah Montazeri's continuing criticisms of regime failures are in line with the time-honoured tradition of clerical intervention in public affairs when the interests of Islam and the Muslims are thought to be at risk. It has led some to conclude that he intends ultimately to return to the political arena as the champion of true Islam and its authentic revolutionary program to challenge the pretenders and deviationists. [Jalal Ganjeh'i, Showra(France), 2:6, March 1993. pp. 51-2]. It may well be that the authorities would not be able to prevent his return to a political role, but they could certainly make his life difficult, and in any case, for personal reasons, the odds are against it.

The Departure of the Old Guard

The leadership debate in Shi'a religious and political circles in Iran and Iraq was heightened by the death on 8 August 1992 of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu'i in Kufah in Iraq at the age of 93. A native of the northwestern Iranian city of Khoy, the ayatollah migrated to Najaf in Iraq at the age of 13 to pursue his studies in that city's illustrious Islamic seminary. In the intervening 75 years he built himself a reputation as one of Shi'a Islam's great 'sources of emulation' and an outstanding scholarly personality. He is said to have had personal followers around the world. He supervised post-graduate studies in jurisprudence and its principles and groomed students to attain the level of ijtihad/Mujtahid over half a century. Many prominent figures in the Shi'a communities of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states were among his students.

Apart from his scholarly attainments (he was one of the first religious teachers to record his jurisprudence lectures on audio tape), he set up a worldwide charitable foundation [The Kho'i Foundation] with the object of catering for the needs of the followers of the Ja'fari [Ithna'ashari] school of Islamic thought worldwide. The foundation is headquartered in London and has branches in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Canada and Kuwait. He took the lead in establishing a seminary [Madinat al-Ulum - City of Knowledge] in Qom and Mashhad after the Islamic revolution. The foundation supports orphanages, schools, publishing houses, libraries and other social service institutions on a global scale. Among the great sources of emulation of his, and Ayatollah Khomaini's generation, his influence in the spiritual and social spheres, has reached further afield, without the dubious advantage of political involvement.

The key point about Grand Ayatollah Khu'i in the leadership debate was the fact that he never endorsed the principle of the "governance of the jurisprudent" [velayat-e faqih]. In his view the clergy did not hold the right to monopolize the governmental apparatus, only to participate in the process. With the death of this religious luminary, the ranks of the top leadership [Grand Ayatollahs] in the world of Shi'a Islam were thinning. Amongst the rough contemporaries of Grand Ayatollah Khu'i, only a handful survive mostly in Iran. To make matters worse, a prominently mentioned figure amongst the real or potential successors to Khu'i, Abdul A'la Sabzevari, died in Najaf at the age of 86 in August 1993.

The Shift of Power to Iran

When religion and state power were officially joined in Iran in 1979, the center of gravity of Shi'a Islam shifted to that country, away from its traditional sources in the shrine centres of Najaf, Karbala and Kazimayn in Iraq. Because of its larger population base, and its relative economic well-being, there was a sense in which Iran would have assumed even greater weight in Shi'a Islamic affairs even without the revolution. Added to these factors was the fact that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had made it a matter of policy to suppress the role and independent voice of the Shi'a spokesmen in Iraq as representatives of the believing masses. The regime targeted key individuals in the religious hierarchy for execution, prestigious figures like Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and members of his family. It is doubtless only the regime's pre-occupation with its international political and financial predicament that deters greater attention being given to the repression of the Shi'a establishment. But these concerns have not prevented forceful action against resistance movements among the Shi'a population of southern Iraq since the end of the second Gulf war.

Following the demise of Grand Ayatollah Khu'i a gradual consensus emerged, both in Iran and Iraq, that the clearly pre-eminent marja' of the day in the world of Shi'a Islam was Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpaygani of Qom, at the time 96 years of age and said to be even then in frail health. His position was strengthened by the official recognition afforded him by the Kho'i Foundation in London. There was little opposition to the recognition of his pre-eminent status from regime clerics. He was one of the founder members of the seminary system in Qom seven decades earlier and contributed significantly to its prestige as the main center of clerical knowledge and training in Iran.

Over the years he built a substantial establishment of his own, including an impressive library, teaching center and social services network, and earned the respect of all those associated with the howzeh in its traditional form. Ali Khamneh'i paid tribute to him and his accomplishments on the occasion of his visit to Faiziyeh in February 1992. Although cautious by nature, and highly conservative in most of his rulings relating to social concerns, he was thought to be essentially apolitical because he never publicly accepted or rejected the principle of velayat-e faqih in the sense it was given by Ayatollah Khomaini and his followers. A dissenting view is that he in fact compromised himself by flirting with the regime and even for a time contemplated becoming the Imam's successor to preserve religious and political leadership in a single individual. This may have reduced his credibility as a guardian of traditional standards with some influential ulama.

On 6 December 1993 Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani was rushed to hospital in Tehran in critical condition, and died there three days later. His demise reopens the question of leadership in the ranks of the clerical establishment and highlights the issue of who are the main contenders for this leadership in his absence. In the Islamic Republic by definition this whole matter assumes crucial political importance. It is scarcely a secret that some staunch regime supporters, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, chief of the judicial branch, would like to see the Spiritual Leader, Ali Khamneh'i, made a Grand Ayatollah and acknowledged as marja'. Many others, among them ardent supporters of the revolution, do not accept Ali Khamneh'i as a senior spiritual leader and draw a sharp distinction between his religious and political status. He can be head of state, but not of the clerical hierarchy.

The dilemma for the regime is that if they allow prominent or pre-eminent marja's to be recognized by a process they do not control, and without their approval, such figures could conceivably challenge a political system based on religious legitimacy, and are therefore a potential threat. Such is the case with the widely acknowledged Grand Ayatollah Hasan Tabatabai Qomi, 85, who has continued to oppose the principle of clerical control of government, and criticized its policies on a wide front. As a consequence his movements and activities have been severely limited by government interference. He and other representatives of the traditional clerical establishment fear that if the political authorities are able to determine who among the senior clergy will emerge as marja', then the religious hierarchy becomes subordinate to the state, and would in time be associated with discredited or failed policies. This could lead to popular rejection of the faith identified with such policies, and would represent "a threat to historical Shi'ism." [Iran Times (International), December 24, 1993].

Outlook

As long as Saddam Hussein survives as head of state in Iraq, the Shi'a Muslims of that country, leadership and populace, will have to live out their days under virtual siege. The central questions regarding the future of the relationship between the institutions of state and religion in the domains of Shi'a Islam pertain primarily to Iran. Who are the main contenders for the highest office in the traditional hierarchy—the marja'iyate—after the passing of Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani, and what will their attitudes be toward the state on the one hand, and the independent institution of the religious orders? Will they accept the politicization of the marja'iyate, or will they insist on the continuing role of the 'religious' or 'spiritual' marja', and especially the independent existence of the clerical institution [rowhaniyat] and its hierarchy? Will there be one individual who emerges as pre-eminent among them, or will there be several prominent marja's concurrently?

Answers to these questions can only be speculative. The one person who has more actual power to determine them is the Spiritual Leader, Ali Khamneh'i. Despite the concentration of authority in Iran, it seems likely that Najaf and its traditional weight in Shi'a circles will remain a sentimental favourite throughout the world wherever Shi'a Muslims live. It also seems certain that the traditional 'spiritual' marja'iyate will be preserved among the students of Grand Ayatollah Khu'i, whether in Iran or Iraq. In Najaf Shaykh Ali Sistani, age 62, is said to be assuming many of the functions and responsibilities of his mentor and gaining the allegiance of many of his followers. He may eventually assume the full mantle of his predecessor, but observers expect the rivalry with other students of the master, who are also contenders, to intensify now that Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani has passed away. [al-Wasat, No. 81, 16/8/93, pp. 16-18.].

Among the contenders for the succession to the leadership role of the traditional clerical institution after the passing of the old guard are several prominent marja's currently residing in Iran. A front-runner in the Qom Circle for Religious Studies [howzeh] is Mohammad Sadeq Rowhani, with many students and many more personal communicants, and broad support in the traditional commercial sector of the bazaar. Although popular, he suffers from a degree of isolation because he is known to oppose the prevailing situation in Iran (clerical control of the state) and is prevented from leading Friday prayers. Other names frequently mentioned are Husain Vahid Khorasani, whose lectures in Qom draw record crowds, and Javad Tabrizi. In Mashhad the most popular lectures are those of Ali Falsafi.

In theory the power of decision and choice of who will head the clerical institution among Shi'a Muslims is with the mass of believers. By choosing to follow the guidance of one marja' rather than another, and by paying their tithes to him or his representative, they show their preference. In practice the power of the state in Iran may be used to pre-empt this freedom to choose. Much depends on what plans the current Leader has for the future of the independent clerical institution. In his address to the assembled dignitaries in Faiziyeh in February 1992, the Leader made it clear he believes the old system in Qom is doomed. The curriculum, he said, needed revision to include more modern subjects; he advocated the "seminar" method of teaching to supplement or replace the traditional lecture; he urged greater use of computers, both for record keeping, and the editing of traditional texts; he chided the audience for not giving more emphasis and practical attention to the urgent business of mission work; he also criticized the standard practice of individual scholarly activity and urged more collective enterprises; he derided the fact that with all the students and stipends paid out in Qom, there was still no Arabic language journal produced there devoted to the problems of Islamic jurisprudence.

In October 1992, following his earlier visit to the Qom Religious Studies Circle in February, the Spiritual Leader, Ali Khamneh'i, is said to have addressed a letter to its teachers and dignitaries calling for wide-scale reforms and warning of the danger of voices urging that a certain distance between the Circle and the Islamic government be maintained. [Le Monde Diplomatique, juin 1993. p. 20]. In March 1993 the secretary of the High Council of the Qom Circle, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, reported to the Spiritual Leader on the plans and decisions of the Council to give effect to the reform recommendations he had made the year before. [FBIS, NES-5 March 1993, p. 63]. These moves have given rise to widespread apprehension that what the Leader has in mind is the ultimate nationalisation of the Religious Studies Circles in Iran, which would transform them into the Shi'a counterparts of the state-controlled religious universities and seminaries in Sunni countries, such as al-Azhar in Egypt. As a reward for his efforts in this enterprise, it is probable that Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has earned substantial credit for promotion to the rank of Grand Ayatollah.

In the few weeks since the demise of Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani the regime in Tehran has moved vigorously to take control of the succession and ensure the recognition of its own candidate, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki. It appears determined that the choice of the next ranking, or pre-eminent, marja' of Iran's Shi'a population should not be the result of the normal process but of a political imperative. What the constitutional review committee put asunder on the death of Ayatollah Khomaini, i.e. the political and religious leaderships, the current authorities now seem anxious to join together again. The reason may well be the perception that without the unity of these two spheres of authority in the hands of a single person they cannot provide effective leadership.

Opposition to Araki is reportedly widespread and vigorous, especially in traditional, pious circles, among other reasons because he has never bothered to issue a canon law guide nor distinguished himself as a teacher. [Iran Times (International), 24 December 1993. p. 16]. But he is sympathetic to regime interests, and at or near the century mark in age, is likely to be a transitional figure at best. Some observers see him as a stalking horse to give the regime a little more time to prepare the ground for the eventual appointment of the Spiritual Leader himself as "pre-eminent marja'" [marja'-e a'la]. This move would restore the unity of political and religious leadership [rahbari and marja'iyat] in the Islamic Republic. But it would be a risky venture for two reasons: Ali Khamneh'i is not a real marja' according to traditional standards, and he lacks the political charisma of his predecessor.

Reports circulated in the London Arabic daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat claim that a letter signed by 76 prominent religious figures who supervise religious training centres in more than twelve Iranian towns and cities, including Tehran, Qom and Mashhad, has been sent to Ali Khamneh'i opposing Ayatollah Araki and pledging support for Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Rowhani in Qom or Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Hosaini Sistani in Najaf. Even former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan is quoted as saying the public would never accept that the marja' should become "just another government appointment".

And now spokesmen for the regime, in defence of their choice, have turned the question of the next marja' into a foreign policy issue as well. The IRNA recently quoted Ayatollah Sane'i referring to "..those who think that with the help of their friends abroad they can take the Qom Circle in hand are grievously mistaken ...", thought to be an allusion to Husain Ali Montazeri. "We do not need the BBC to introduce our marja' for us; we want a marja' like the Imam [Khomaini] who humbled the arrogant with a single fatwa."

There are other indications that the Spiritual Leader intends to use the power and authority of his office to turn the independent clerical institution in Iran into a training and service organization for the bureaucratic needs of the Islamic Republic. Although he has treated some members of the traditional hierarchy very delicately, and shown great respect for Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani and his accomplishments, other indicators suggest he may become more aggressive in his efforts to absorb the clerical institution after the latter's passing. In his speech in Qom in 1992 Ali Khamneh'i suggested that the financial system of the howzeh needed to be rationalized. He even offered to support the budget required to accomplish this. He and his predecessor have shown little regard for traditional titles of recognition among the Shi'a clergy, demoting some and promoting others without due regard for normative criteria. One of the Leader's supporters recently suggested he be given the title of Imam, as with Ayatollah Khomaini. In one of its mid-summer issues last year the Tehran weekly, Payam, published what it claimed were the texts of several fatwas of Ali Khamneh'i, describing him with both titles of "Grand Ayatollah" and "Imam". [Iran Times (International), 13 August 1993]. Finally, the Special Court of the Clergy has played an important role in controlling and disciplining the men of the cloth from the early years of the revolution and is still used effectively to keep them in line.

If the Islamic regime in Iran decided, sometime in the next few years, to use the absolute authority of its Spiritual Leader [velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih] to pass a law in the Majlis requiring all citizens of the state to pay their religious dues to him [through a foundation he would establish for this purpose], as the representative of the Hidden Imam [the Mahdi], rather than the marja' of their choice, could the clerical institution survive economically as an independent social structure? Would it be able to retain its power to criticize government policy and to intervene strategically in public affairs when it believes the public interest is threatened, as it has done in the past?

Such a move on the part of the state, even a more theocratic one, would doubtless create an uproar and evoke ferocious opposition. It would be resisted strenuously by the more traditional-minded clergy and by many ordinary believers. But the state has its own rationale and monopolizes the levers of coercion. It also has key allies in the traditional clerical ranks, and more and more of its supporters are acquiring positions of influence in the shrine centres and theological seminaries. The power of the purse cannot be overestimated in the relationship between the two institutions. The absorption by the state of a relatively independent social structure like the clerical institution in Iran would be a net loss for all concerned.


The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

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ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/39


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