Is opposition to the rule of a mullah in Iran tantamount to the denial of God? This is the question that is peppering political and religious debate in Iran these days.
The debate was launched last week by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati during a conference to define Islam. Friday Prayer Leader for Tehran, Jannati, also holds the politically more important post of Secretary of the Council of the Custodian of the Constitution (CCC) and is, thus, one of the most powerful mullahs within the regime.
The CCC consists of six mullahs and six ‘common people’ jurists and holds the right of veto over legislation passed by the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament.
Addressing the conference, Jannati claimed that on ‘”rare occasions” some “special personalities” among the clergy would be chosen by “Divine Power” to rule over the lesser mortals.
Jannati also claimed that the system of Walayat al-Faqih, or rule by the theologian, was “a fundamental principle of Islam.”
“Rejecting Walayat al-Faqih means rejecting God Himself,” the ayatollah claimed. “We must consider Walayat al-Faqih one of God’s edicts on earth.”
During the conference, the message was further hammered in by another mullah, Ali Sa’idi, who represents the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“Today, there could be no proper Islam without absolute obedience to the Supreme Guide” Sa’idi said. “Those clerics who stand against the Supreme Guide must be pushed off the stage.”
Earlier, another mullah, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, had claimed that “compared to the gift of Walayat al-Faqih, all of God’s beneficence is as of naught.”
The attempt to define, or rather redefine, Islam came in response to another debate provoked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his philosophical guru Esfandiar Masha’i who have been trying to market their “Iranian school” as a new brand, much to the chagrin of pro-regime mullahs.
A new poster that declares “the Iranian school is the way to progress and salvation” has just been put up in many government offices throughout the country.
As defined by Masha’i, the so-called “Iranian school” is a mixture of values espoused by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, and the teachings of Islam which appeared over 1000 years later. Masha’i demands that Cyrus be acknowledged as being equal to the Semitic prophets mentioned in the Koran and the Bible.
Debating what is Islam and what is not may sound strange in a country whose rulers, since 1979, have claimed to represent “the truest of Islamic systems.” It may be a sign that the ruling establishment, which consists of several thousand mullahs and their allies within the military and security services, is experiencing a loss of confidence.
Last year’s split over the presidential election and the continued tensions caused by workers’ strikes and growing middle class discontent have sapped the regime’s claim of legitimacy. At the same time, there are signs that at least part of the clergy may be prepared to openly reject Khamenei’s claim of being the Supreme Leader of Islam throughout the world.
Partly to address that problem, Khamenei has made an unusual visit to Qom, the “holy” city south of Tehran where many of the better known mullahs reside. However, the visit seems to have highlighted the split.
In one meeting, the “Supreme Guide” was faced with students of theology chanting “Where is your thesis of Ijtihad?”
In Shi’ism, no mullah could use the title of ayatollah without publishing an ijtihad thesis approved by at least one grand ayatollah. Khamenei, whose supporters call him ayatollah, has not done so.
Periodically, government-controlled media have published reports that Khamenei would soon publish his thesis, known as the “risala al-marjaiyah”, promising that it will be “the greatest text of Islam in centuries.”
Some prominent ayatollahs of Qom have already come close to challenging Khamenei’s position.
Grand Ayatollah Asadallah Bayat Zanjani has rejected the claim that denying Walayat al-Faqih is tantamount to abandoning Islam. Grand Ayatollah Yussuf San’ei, for his part, sees the present system as “despotism using Islam as a pretext.” Grand Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani has gone further by asserting that mullahs should not assume political positions. All three refused Khamenei’s demand for a meeting during his recent visit to Qom.
Even Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Dast-Gheib, a member of the regime’s nomenclature, has expressed concern that attempts at pushing Khamenei’s cult of personality beyond certain limits could undermine the “Islamic system” created by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
Trying to heal the rift within the establishment, Khamenei has called on his allies among the mullahs to seek “compromises.” Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani has been charged with reconciling the political factions. At the same time, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, who is also a major businessman, has been ordered to try to bridge the gap with dissident clerics who regard Walayat al-Faqih as an innovation (bid’aa) by Khomeini.
The ruling mullahs, however, face graver threats to their rule.
With the Iraqi Shi’ite “holy” city of Najaf no longer closed by Saddam Hussein’s despotic rule, some Iranians are looking to its clergy for guidance on religious matters. Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani is emerging as the primus inter pares of the Shi’ite clergy, thus reviving an old tradition. For the past 300 years all but one of the grand marja’a al-taqlid of shi’ism have been based in Najaf. (The exception was the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Borujerdi who lived in Qom.) Even when Khomeini was alive and in power in Tehran most believing Iranians regarded the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassem Mussawi Kho’i as the top marja’a.
Of even greater concern to the ruling mullahs is the fact that half of Iran’s population of 75 million were not born when Khomeini seized power. Another quarter are too young to remember the murderous mullah. Thus, for two- thirds of Iran’s population, the spectacle of mullahs fighting over what is and what is not Islam is either irrelevant or pathetic. A majority of Iranians are more interested in education, job opportunities, social security, and the rule of law than esoteric debates among often semi-literate mullahs.
Soheil Soheili, a mullah in charge of religious places in Iran, complains that Iranians no loner build mosques. In a speech in Tehran last Sunday he claimed that the country needed at least 72,000 new mosques. Before the revolution, private citizens financed the building of mosques. Now, private citizens don’t build mosques. Soheili insisted that the government should foot the bill.
Before Khomeini seized power, mullahs enjoyed some popularity thanks to their tacit or open hostility towards the ruling establishment.
By seizing power, Khomeini transformed the mullahs into the ruling establishment thus depriving them of their political raison d’etre.
By seizing power, the mullahs lost the people. By opposing the present regime, some mullahs are trying to recover at least part of that lost position. However, regardless of how Islam is defined and redefined next in Tehran, they may find that it is already too late. A taboo has been broken.