Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Mullah Who Could Melt A Snowstorm - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

Mourners during Azizullah Khoshvaqt’s funeral. (AAA)

Mourners during Azizullah Khoshvaqt’s funeral. (AAA)

Until just a month ago few people had heard of Azizullah Khoshvaqt. Most of those who had heard knew him as just another of the 200,000 or so mullahs spread across the spectrum of Iranian life. To a smaller number, Khoshvaqt was an advisor to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. The two also had family bonds. One of Khoshvaqt’s daughters is married to one of Khamenei’s sons.

Now, however, a book presented as Khoshvaqt’s biography claims that he was more- much more. “Hidden Pearl” was published last year amid general indifference. Few people read it and no one reviewed it (It had a print run of 1,000 copies, according to the daily Kayhan).

Last week, however, there was a rush to buy the book with all available copies snatched up within 48 hours. Following this, Kayhan, published under Khamenei’s supervision, urged the book’s author Abbas-Ali Mardi to rush new editions onto the market. That Khoshvaqt enjoyed special favor in Khamenei’s household was highlighted when the “Supreme Guide” personally led the man’s funeral procession.

Mardi’s book depicts Khoshvaqt as the favorite disciple of the late Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussein Tabataba’i who died in 1981. Shi’ite scholarly folklore represents Tabataba’i as heir to Mullah Sadra of Shiraz often acknowledged as the last great Iranian religious philosopher.

Tabataba’i was a charismatic figure and, in his private life, a model of purity. To describe him as a philosopher, however, would be off the mark if only because religion, the realm of belief and certainty is quite distinct from philosophy which is the domain of doubt and speculation. The chief function of philosophy is to pose questions while religion’s chief claim is that it has the answers.

Attending Tabatabai’s lessons, especially those held in the evenings at his home, was always a pleasure even for those whose interest in religion is only cultural. His elegant language and his tremendous ability to conceptualize elements of his faith appealed to a wide range of scholars, including the French scholar of Iranian Shi’ism Henry Corbin. Known as the “Allameh” (The All-Knower), Tabataba’i even included among his fans no lesser a personality than Empress Farah, the wife of the Shah. Another enthusiastic follower was Hussein Nasr who headed Empress Farah’s office and who has done more than most to popularize Shi’ism in the United States.

I interviewed Tabataba’i in 1970 regarding the manner in which a grand ayatollah emerges as “Marja’a Taqlid”. He dismissed the question by suggesting that there were “more important issues to consider”, his deep blue eyes and ringing Azerbaijani accent barely hiding his humor.

With all that in the background, readers of “Hidden Pearl” (ad-Dorrat al Maknouna) would be surprised by the assertion that Khoshvaqt was Tabataba’i’s favorite disciple and rightful successor.

“Hidden Pearl” provides little evidence that Khoshvaqt enjoyed a special position in Tabataba’i’s household. Khoshvaqt is presented as an Ostad (master) of Ethics and a grand ayatollah and a Marj’a al-Taqlid (Source of Emulation). Overall, however, the image that emerges is one of an apparatchik theologian with barely hidden messianic pretensions.

According to the book, Khoshvaqt regarded the scientific vision of existence as one that doomed mankind to destruction. People like Galileo and Copernicus were guilty of trying to destroy “the sacred quality of the cosmos”. Other scientists depicted the limits of perfection for mankind, thus mocking the religious concept of “The Perfect Man” (al-Insan al-Kamil).

“Hidden Pearl” claims that Khoshvaqt possessed “super-human qualities” that enabled him to melt down a snowstorm,” and also to “feel” the true intentions of the “Hidden Imam.” It was because of those qualities, if not Khoshvaqt’s actual communication with the Mahdi, that Khamenei regarded him as something of a last resort on theological issues. Khamenei has described Khoshvaqt passing as “a great tragedy for Islam”.

He is also quoted as advising the Iranian leadership to “when facing a storm, cling onto Khoshvaqt’s robe.” Clearly, Khoshvaqt was something of a guru to Khamenei.

Another mullah, Kazem Siddiqi, goes further by claiming that Khoshvaqt was “far above what humans could imagine.”

“He was one of Allah’s owlya (confidants) who are offered cups of knowledge by Imam Ali himself,” Siddiqi is quoted as saying.

The book depicts Khoshvaqt, who died in Mecca during Haj al Umrah last month, as a man who believes he is living at the end of times. What he sees coming is “the decisive battle” between the “armies of the Imam” on the one side and “the forces of kufr” (unbelief) on the other. One event that could hasten the coming battle “at the End of Time” is the Islamic Republic’s success in developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

According to the book, Khoshvaqt believed that what people did in their daily life affected the way nature was “modulated by the Creator” to provide a response. For example, if Iranian women became lax about their hijab, Tehran could be hit by an earthquake that could kill millions of people. Women who tanned their skin made the pillars of Islam tremble with incalculable consequences.

The book offers only glimpses of Khoshvaqt’s political life, clearly trying to build his image as a great theologian preparing Islam for the return of the Mahdi.

Khoshvaqt, however, is known to have played an influential political role behind the scenes. He was one of three mid-ranking mullahs who were elevated by official propaganda to the position of “grand ayatollah.” Another was Mujtaba Tehrani who died just weeks before Khoshvaqt. Now only one of the three is still alive: Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The trio built a reputation as pillars of Khamenei’s position as “al-Faqih al-Wali” (Theologian-Guardian) and “Supreme Leader of Muslims” throughout the world. Khamenei has used the trio to issue fatwas (religious edicts) against his political enemies. Twenty years ago, Khoshvaqt issued “fatwas” ordering the assassination of several Iranian intellectuals during Muhammad Khatami’s presidency. More recently, Khoshvaqt, Tehrani and Mesbah-Yazdi described the leaders of the opposition Green Movement as “infidels” with “no place in Islam.”

The three had vastly different scholarly backgrounds. Tehrani was the product of the Qom hawza (seminary) and a traditionalist mullah. Khoshvaqt dabbled in philosophy by attending Tabataba’i’s classes. Mesbah-Yazdi was a part-time pupil of Ahmad Fardid, Iran’s best-known disciple of Heidegger.

The trio played a crucial role in creating an alliance of mullahs and elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Six years ago they helped propel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into the presidency. Over the past two years, however, the trio turned against Ahmadinejad, suspecting him of harboring secret designs to push the mullahs out of politics.

“Hidden Pearl” provides a partial, though no less instructive, glimpse into the mindset of a coterie that, for the time being at least, dominates Iranian politics in the name of the “Hidden Imam.”

I wonder what Tabataba’i would have said had he read this book about his supposed disciple.

Dorr Maknun (Hidden Pearl)
The Life of Ayatollah Azizullah Khoshvaqt
By; Abbas-Ali Mardi
234 pages
Published by Amir-Kabir in Tehran, 2012

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

More Posts