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What Went Wrong in Iran? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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What went wrong in Iran? What is the main reason behind the current crisis in Iran? It seems that Iran is now divided into two, between the government and the people. It is also clear that any government is capable of gathering a crowd of people in order to show that it has popular support. I believe that it will be impossible to uncover the root cause behind the crisis in Iran without first examining the evolution of the theory of the Wilayat Al Faqih. In the following article I intend to examine the evolution and changes seen in this theory.

Sheikh Mahmud Shabistari’s famous collection of poems, Gulshan-i-Raz [The Gardens of Secrets] is the bible of Persian mysticism. In it Shabistari wrote the following on the evolution of language:

“Since the language of each is according to his degree of progress,

They are hard to be understood of the people.

He who is perplexed as to these mysteries

Is bound to learn their meaning”

It seems to me that the evolution of language is based upon the evolution of theory, and this in turn is based upon the evolution of one’s views as an intellectual, philosopher, or politician.

We have a rich literature that deals with the evolution of ideas and theories based upon our Islamic heritage. For instance, in the Holy Quran, there is the extremely important verse that serves as an explanation of the behavior of God Almighty.

“All that are in the heavens and the earth entreat Him. Every day in (new) Splendour doth He (shine)!” [Al-Rahman, Verse 29].

The term “day” in this instance does not have the definition that we are used to. In his brilliant Quranic interpretation “Tafsir Al-Nukat Wal Ayoon” Imam al-Mawadi wrote;

“Ibn Al Bahr narrated: There are two epochs which are known as days. One of these is all the days of worldly existence. The other is the Day of Judgment. During the days of worldly existence we will experience.trials and tribulations, whilst on the Day of Judgment we will face the [final] reckoning and be rewarded or punished.

The second meaning of this verse is God verifying his exercise of power everyday during the days of worldly existence.

There are two opinions that explain this;

Firstly, this could mean the prophets that were sent for every age and time, and the power that is exercised is the message brought by each prophet for that time. In this case the term day references an “age” or “epoch.”

The second opinion is that God’s actions are felt every single day [with day signifying a 24-hour period].”

Based upon the Old Testament, God created the world in six days. However this was before God created the Sun and the Earth. How can there be a “day” without a night?

I remember in the summer of 1980 the first Assembly of Experts was preparing the Constitutional law for referendum. An important discussion took place between Dr. Beheshti and Ayatollah Montazeri. Back then, Montazeri was Speaker of the Assembly and Beheshti was serving as his deputy. When Ayatollah Montazeri began to explain his view on his role and power, Dr. Beheshti informed him “During the last session your view was different.”

Ayatollah Montazeri promptly replied “Every day I shine in new splendor.”

Dr. Beheshti replied “Not just everyday, every hour you shine in new splendor.”

There is another example of this; Jalaluddin Rumi famously wrote “The Sufi is the son of time.” This is a view that is not only present in Islamic mysticism, but also in other schools of thought and literature.

Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1967 – 10 December 1936) was an Italian dramatist, novelist, and short story writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. One of his books entitled “Uno, Nusseuno e Centomila” (One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand) deals with this issue. This novel was Pirandello’s last and perhaps greatest work. In this novel he deals with some of the issues of the human condition, and concentrated particularly on the idea that human beings are predisposed to change their mind when confronting a new situation. It therefore seems to me that Karl Popper’s theory of critical rationalism has its roots in Pirandello’s work.

To cut a long story short, Ayatollah Shabistari, Rumi, Pirandello, and Popper share some common ground [with regards to their view on change and evolution]. It is therefore clear that intellectuals, philosophers, and even politicians, change their minds all the time.

It is over thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, and the crucial question facing Iranian society at this current political, economic, and social crossroads is with regards to the role of the Supreme Leader of Iran and the concept of the Wilayat Al Faqih from which he derives his power.

Let us concentrate on this issue, and particularly on the question; Did the theory of the Wilayat Al Faqih change over time under Grand Ayatollah Khomeini?

In my opinion, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a mystic, a poet, and a Jurist, changed his thinking with regards to this theory. Let us first look at the theory of the Wilayat Al Faqih, and then we will discuss the changes that took place between 1970 and 1988.

We will divide the evolution in the theory of the Wilayat Al Faqih into three parts. One can think of these as the roots, the trunk, and the fruit of the Wilayat Al Faqih.

Najaf period, 1964 – 1978

Khomeini’s book “Hokmut-e Islami: Wilayat al-Faqih” [Islamic Government; Guardian of the Jurists] is a compendium of thirteen speeches delivered by Khomeini during his stay in Najaf between 21 January and 8 February 1970. The theory that this book discussed went on to become the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic of Iran and something which the country’s constitution is based upon.

In the first chapter of the book, Khomeini says “The subject of the government of the jurist (Wilayat Al Faqih) provides us with the opportunity to discuss certain related matters and questions. The governance of the faqih is a subject that in itself elicits immediate assent and has little need of demonstration, for anyone who has some general awareness of the beliefs and ordinances of Islam will unhesitatingly give his assent to the principle of the governance of the faqih as soon as he encounters it; he will recognize it as necessary and self-evident.”

Based upon this, it is clear that Ayatollah Khomeini believed the Wilayat Al Faqih theory to be applicable upon every Muslim. It is also equally clear to me that Ayatollah Khomeini mixed four separate genres in coming up with this theory, namely; the mystical, the philosophical, the juristic, and the political.

As you may or may not know, the term “Wali” is an extremely complex one, and conveys several multifaceted meanings. It is a word derived from the Arabic term “Wilaya” which means to have jurisdiction or guardianship over something. However technically “Wilaya” simply means rule or power although in another sense of the word, it could also mean friendship or loyalty. Ayatollah Khomeini used this term to refer to the same power traditionally held by the Prophet and the Twelve Infallible Imams of the Shiite sect.

In the Hokmut-e Islami, Khomeini writes “If a worthy individual possessing these two qualities arises and establishes a government, he will posses the same authority as the Most Noble Messenger (pbuh) in the administration of society, and it will be the duty of all people to obey him.

The idea that the governmental power of the Most Noble Messenger (pbuh) were greater than those of the Commander of the Faithful or that those of the Commander of the Faithful were greater than those of the faqih is false and erroneous. Naturally, the virtues of the Most Noble Messenger (pbuh) were greater than those of the rest of mankind, and after him, the Commander of the Faithful was the most virtuous person in the world. But superiority with respect to spiritual virtues does not confer increased governmental powers. God has conferred upon government in the present age the same powers and authority that were held by the Most Noble Messenger and the Imams (pbuh), with respect to equipping and mobilizing armies, appointing governors and officials, and levying taxes and expending them for the welfare of the Muslims. Now, however, it is no longer a question of a particular person; government devolves instead upon one who possesses the qualities of knowledge and justice.

When we say that after the Occultation, the just faqih has the same authority that the Most Noble Messenger and the Imams had, do not imagine that the status of the faqih is identical to that of the Imāms and the Prophet. For here we are not speaking of status, but rather of function. By “authority” we mean government, the administration of the country, and the implementation of the sacred laws of the Shariaa. These constitute a serious, difficult duty but do not earn anyone extraordinary status or raise him above the level of common humanity. In other words, authority here has the meaning of government, administration, and execution of law; contrary to what many people believe, it is not a privilege, but a grave responsibility.”

During a meeting with some families of martyrs in 1978, Khomeini also said “One of the duties of a jurist is, if a man treats his wife wrongly, to first advise him, and then punish him, and then – if he sees that it will not get better – perform the divorce. You agree that this is the Wilayat Al Faqih. Wilayat Al Faqih is a gift to the Muslims; a gift given by Allah.” [Sahifah Nur, v 10, p 87-88].

Najaf and Qom, 1978 -79

Since the first demonstrations broke out in Qom and until the eventual victory of the Islamic Revolution and the approval of the Constitution by the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khomeini did not mention the concept of the Wilayat Al Faqih. It was clear that Khomeini was the undisputed leader of the Islamic Revolution, and so in other words, this theory was already being practiced on the ground. However Khomeini did not make reference to the Wilayat Al Faqih, and nor did any of his close aides, such as Ayatollah [Hossein Ali] Montazeri, Ayatollah [Morteza] Mothari, Ayatollah [Dr. Mohamed] Beheshti, as well as Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Ayatollah Khamenei. As a result of this, the last Prime Minister to serve under the Shah, Shapour Bakhtiar described Islamic government as an absolute unknown category.

It seems to me that Ayatollah Khomeini and his close circle of confidants who initiated the revolution were very clever as they knew that publicizing the theory of the Wilayat Al Faqih would not have been appropriate during that time. Jalal Farsi, a famous radical cleric gave an interview to the Abrar newspaper in which he said that Ayatollah Khomeini cheated the West. Khomeini’s objective was always the Wilayat Al Faqih, even when he pretended to be concerned with democracy and freedom and defending the republic.

This is a very important conclusion as Farsi was responsible for editing Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches about the Wilayat Al Faqih in 1970 which were later published in the “Hokmut-I Islami: Wilayat Al Faqih”. Controversy surrounds this book, especially over how much of this book’s success is due to its persuasive power, and how much is as a result of the political skill of its author.

Many observers of the Iranian Revolution maintain that while the book may have been distributed to Khomeini’s core supporters in Iran, both he and his aides were very careful not to publicize the concept of the Wilayat Al Faqih as they were well aware that secular and moderate Islamic groups that were crucial to the revolution’s success would be irreconcilably opposed to a theocracy. Only after Khomeini’s supporters consolidated their grip on power did the Wilayat Al Faqih concept become known to the general public, and it was later written into the country’s Islamic constitution. Amazingly, in the original first draft of the constitution prepared by Dr. Hassan Habibi no mention whatsoever is made of the Wilayat Al Faqih.

Third period, 1980 – 88

During the first decade following the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, now Supreme Leader of Iran, changed his attitude on a number of important issues. On one hand, Ayatollah changed his opinion about music and cinema; however he also put forward a very important idea, namely allowing a two-third majority of parliament to ratify laws that contravene the constitution and Shariaa law. After Khomeini’s death, one word was used to describe the Wilayat Al Faqih, and that is absolutism. This was the beginning of a new story in Iran and the last presidential elections and the crisis that the country is currently facing are the fruits of this.

Ataollah Mohajerani

Ataollah Mohajerani

Ataollah Mohajerani is an Iranian historian, politician, journalist and author. He was Mohammad Khatami's first minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran. He also served as speaker of the Cabinet. He later became the president of the Iranian International Centre for Dialogue among Civilizations.

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