London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Is Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei created from the same substance as angels?
The question is part of a galaxy of theories and counter-theories used to build up his personality cult as a figure beyond and above mere mortals. In the 17th century the theologian of Isfahan Mullah Muhammad-Baqer Majlisi devised the theory according to which God created the whole of universe for the sake of the descendants of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and her cousin and husband Ali Ibn Abi Taleb. The 11 Imams who followed Ali were “special fruits of creation.”
Since then the theory has been extended to all other descendants of the Imams.
Last Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared that praying at the tombs of all descendants of the Imams was a sure sign of “true commitment to the Qur’an.” Earlier, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani went even further by claiming that visiting those tombs was “an integral part of Islamic worship” and that Khamenei, as a descendant of Hussein, the third Imam of Shi’ism, should be regarded as a figure “on par with the Prophet.” For his part, Ayatollah Reza Taqawi, head of the National Council of Friday Prayer Leaders, said in a sermon last Friday that the key purpose of collective prayers in mosques was to “renew and reassert the bond that Muslims have with the Vali-e Faqih,” that is to say Khamenei as the current representative of the Ali-and-Fatima lineage.
That lineage is blessed with special attributes that border on the miraculous. The daily Kayhan, published under the supervision of Khamenei’s office, ran an editorial about a visit the “Supreme Guide” paid to Shiraz, Iran’s ancient cultural capital.
“Though it was not spring, flowers were already in bloom and nightingales were chirping,” the editorial said. “The air was filled with a pleasant scent and the sun was shining brighter than ever.” The reason? “Agha [the Master] was coming.”
“That kind of sycophancy has always been practiced in Iran and other ‘oriental’ lands,” says Hamid Daneshvar, a researcher in Islamic traditions. “However, traditional boot-lickers did so for material gain and did not mix their cocktail of inanities with religious themes. What is new and potentially problematic is the attempt to give Khamenei a prophetic status. For most Muslims, that would be sailing too close to the wind.”
To be fair, Khamenei himself has on occasions expressed discomfort with the excesses of his followers.
On at least two occasions he publicly demanded not to be called “Imam,” reserving the title for Ali and his 11 male descendants. According to sources close to his entourage he was also opposed to a scheme to draw his portrait by growing trees in many of Iran’s foothills so that people looking down from aircrafts flying above would see the image of the “Supreme Guide” everywhere. (In the end only one such project was completed.)
Each year, the Leader’s Office receives thousands of odes (qasidas) praising Khamenei’s supernatural qualities, but few are included in his official website. One ode, published last spring, compares Khamenei to “divine wine” that when drunk by true believers brings them closer to the “Absolute Truth.” A Chinese lady, Amineh Hua, newly converted to Islam, has written a poem in Chinese and Persian, relating how she “bursts out into tears of joy” when she pronounces the Leaders’ name. Another gentleman, Taraz, labeled “Qatar’s National Poet” by the Iranian media, describes Khamenei as “the Heaven in which all Muslims shine as a billion stars.”
“The least one can say is that Khamenei, while titillated by such flattery, is also embarrassed by it,” says a theologian—speaking on condition of anonymity—who knows the Leader. “My guess is that he is not sure whether such flattery is prompted by self-interest or genuine belief.”
However, on that score he has been ignored by many of his real or pretending admirers. Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is one such. For him the word “Imam” is synonymous with Khamenei. Nasrallah is also record-holder in the number of superlative adjectives he has used to praise the Iranian “Supreme Guide.”
Nasrallah’s deputy Naim Qassem has gone further by writing a book, commissioned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, with the title The Revival Leader.
In it he claims that Islam was either dead or moribund when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Tehran. However, Khomeini had to cope with post-revolution turmoil and the eight-year war with Iraq and couldn’t devote all his attention to bringing Islam back to life. That “divine task” was left for Khamenei, who, thanks to his exceptional qualities, gave Islam a new life which has helped it “humble the kuffar [infidels] and expand in all directions.”
Whether or not Khamenei is embarrassed by his cult of personality remains a matter of speculation. There is evidence that he is not embarrassed and maybe even encouraging his adulators.
For example, when the “Arab Spring” started he claimed that the uprisings were inspired by the Khomeinist revolution and his leadership of it. He created a special unit, headed by his foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, named the Islamic Awakening Office, to “lead and manage” the Arab uprisings. He then dictated a letter, signed by Velayati, to Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt telling them how to “manage the revolution” by purging the armed forces, setting up revolutionary courts, and liquidating opponents as the Khomeinists had done in Iran.
Earlier this year, Khamenei published an “open letter” to the “Western Youth” inviting them to adopt his ideology. Last month a special office was created to translate and distribute that letter and recruit people in the West to pursue its goals. Another “research center” employing dozens of people is devoted to “seeking the deepest meanings” of Khamenei’s writings. The trouble is, apart from more than 1,000 speeches he has made since 1979, he has no writings of his own. He has also translated one book by Pakistani Islamist Abul-A’la Maududi, two books by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and a few poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Khamenei’s personality cult hit a new low last month when his office organized an international conference of Muslim medical doctors. Over 400 doctors from 68 countries came to Tehran, all expenses paid, to learn from “Khamenei’s thoughts” how to “push the frontiers of medical knowledge beyond imaginable limits.”
“Though he knows nothing about medicine, the Leader was not embarrassed,” says a former Khomeinist official now in exile in London. “He may have fallen for his own personality cult.”
Khamenei is certainly better educated than the late Khomeini. At least he can speak and write correct Persian and Arabic, something the late Ayatollah never managed. From available evidence Khamenei also has a better knowledge of Islam and its history than Khomeini did. Nevertheless, Khamenei has never been accepted as a theologian or Islamic scholar, but as a political leader, bestowing on him a degree of dangerous ambiguity.
That ambiguity enables him to hit much higher than his weight by using his political position as long as the going is good. However, the slightest sign that his political power may be on the wane or seriously challenged could expose him as a prophet without armor.
And that, in the context of Iran’s violent politics, created of the same substance as angels or not, is a dicey situation to be in, to say the least.