Iran’s ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei is not a travelling man.
He has not set foot out of Iran since 1988 partly for fears that an international arrest warrant issued against him by Interpol on behalf of a German court, which found him guilty of ordering the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, may cause him a spot of bother.
He is also reluctant to travel inside Iran, cocooning himself in his palace in the foothills of Alborz.
So, it is something of a surprise that the ‘Supreme Guide’ has found enough time this month to visit Qom, a provincial centre some 90 miles south of Tehran, on two occasions.
Mr. Khamenei, who has declared himself Leader of All Muslims and must therefore be extremely busy, was able to spend 12 days in a city that opens onto The Great Salt Desert.
To be sure, The Great Salt Desert is not Qom’s sole tourist attraction.
The city is also home to the huge mausoleum, complete with a beautiful golden dome, that is supposed to contain the remains of one Fatimah al-Ma’asoumah, a sister of the eighth Imam of the duodeciman Shi’ites Ali Ibn Mousa.
Fatimah was nine years old when she died of dysentery on her way to Mash’had, northeast Iran, where her brother is buried.
In the 18th century, the Qajar kings decided to turn Qom into as major centre of Shi’ite learning and pilgrimage.
The reason was that Iran had lost Najaf and Karbala, the ‘holiest’ of Shi’ite cities in Mesopotamia to the Ottomans. Mash’had was also less attractive because it was too close to the frontier with Central Asia and thus exposed to possible raids by Tatar, Uzebk and Turcoman hordes.
By the 1920s, Qom had established respectable seminaries and attracted students from all over the world. And it was not much later that, for the first time, a mullah living in Qom, Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi, was acknowledged as Shi’ism’s highest clerical authority.
Since then, and despite many ups and downs, Qom has maintained
its position as a major theological centre. Today, Qom boasts 52 seminaries, with almost 60,000 students, and 247 research centres that employ over 5000 people. The city and its suburb at Jamkaran, where the Hidden Imam is supposed to have a line of communication through a well with the faithful, attract almost 10 million visitors each year.
Today, however, there is a sense of unease in the city.
This has two reasons.
The first is growing competition from Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.
Since the way to Iraq’s ‘holy’ cities was re-opened in 2003, an estimated 12 million pilgrims, many from Iran, have visited Iraq.
More interestingly, a growing number of teachers and students are moving from Qom to Najaf. According to one estimate, which we could not independently confirm, some 4000 teachers and students have re-located to Najaf and Karbala.
Something else may also be of concern to those Iranian mullahs associated with the government.
A growing number of Iranians are choosing Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani as their marj’aal-taqlid or Source of Emulation in theological matters. The problem for pro-government mullahs is that, although Iranian, Sistani lives in Najaf and has turned down invitations to visit Iran.
Today, Sistani may be the most poplar cleric in Iran while his presence in Najaf is a magnet diverting attention, and resources, from Qom.
Sistani’s representatives are active in over 30 Iranian cities, collecting the sahm-e-imam, the imam’s share, of voluntary donations by the faithful.
Sistani is not the only senior cleric to give Najaf a special place. The Iraqi ‘holy’ city is also home to at least a dozen other grand ayatollahs, some of Iranian ancestry.
Today, Najaf is a booming site of building activity, much of it financed by Iranian investors.
Liberated from state intervention, Najaf is on the way to reviving the Shi’ite dream of a clerical elite that is not in the pay of any government and thus could act as a counter power on behalf of society.
The second reason for unease in Qom is that a growing number of senior clerics who are adopting an openly critical stance vis-à-vis the government. Grand ayatollahs such as San’ei, Bayat and Dast-Gheib make no secret of their opposition to the system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
With the mood of opposition against the system spreading since the disputed presidential election of 2009, pro-government mullahs such as Mesbah Yazdi and Makarem Shirazi have seen their audiences shrink.
Worse still, days of haggling with the ayatollahs and theological students, did not help Khamenei secure recognition for his claim of being an ayatollah.
An autodidact, Khamenei did not secure a formal education because of his involvement in clandestine political activity that earned him bouts in prison and internal exile.
There is little doubt that Khamenei is better educated than Khomeini when he won the title of ayatollah in 1963.
Khomeini was unable to write a single paragraph in Persian without making half a dozen spelling and grammatical mistakes. Nor was he able to speak correctly. In contrast, Khamenei writes and, an excellent orator, also speaks correct Persian. Despite years in Najaf, Khomeini never learned Arabic. Khamenei however, is a master of that language which he taught himself. Khamenei has also learned English, mostly with the help of teach-yourself audiotapes.
Politically, Khamenei is Iran’s highest authority.
When it comes to the religious hierarchy, however, he cannot pretend to be an ayatollah unless he fulfils several conditions.
The first is to be publicly recognised by established ayatollahs as a peer. This cannot be done unless Khamenei publishes a thesis, called risalah, with the stamp of approval from at least one grand ayatollah.
During the past three years, Iran’s media have occasionally reported that Khamenei has completed his thesis.
However, by the time he visited Qom this month there was still no sign of it.
In Qom, some theological students greeted the ‘ Supreme Guide’ with mocking cries of: Where is Your Risalah?
It is clear that the regime is slowly but surely losing the confidence and support of the’ holy’ city.
Moreover, the seminaries are unwilling to swallow the claim that, because of his position in a political system, Khamenei should be acknowledged as The Leader of All Muslims.
In Qom, many mullahs are worried about being associated with a political system that may have passed its sell-by date.
Some are distancing themselves from the regime.
Others are trying to hedge their bets.
Still others are thinking of moving to Najaf.
Khamenei tried to cool the nerves. However, he may have made Qom more nervous.
According to Irna, the official news agency, in one meeting he told the mullahs present: ‘If we go, you will all go!’
Not very reassuring.