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What Went Wrong in Iran? Part 2 - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Wilayat al Faqih & Despotism

One hundred years ago, Ayatollah Naeini, the most famous theoretician of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, wrote a brilliant book about the theory of constitutional revolution. Fortunately, this book has been translated into Arabic by Salih Kashif al Gheta, who belongs to the Jaafari School (1904-1979).

At first, some sections of this Arabic translation were published in the Al Erfan magazine in the early 1930s. Other sections were later published in the Al Mawsem magazine (Issue No 5. Volume 2/1990). Rashid al Khayoun published a translation of Ayatollah Naeini in his book “Al Mashroota Wa al Mustabada’ [Constitution and Despotism], and the Institute of Strategic Studies in Baghdad also published a copy of this in a book entitled ‘Tanbih al Ummah wa Tanzih al Mila’ [The Awakening of the Nation and the Purification of the Sect].

Naeini as a Grand Ayatollah and as a famous expert on Usul al Fiqh [root of jurisprudence] was the first person in the history of Iran to interpret the concept of religious despotism. Naeini emphasized the concept of Aql [dialectic reasoning] and believed that Islam was compatible with progress. He also argued that the most intolerable form of tyranny is the tyranny imposed by a religious state.

In the last chapter of his book, Ayatollah Naeini concentrated on two majors topics: ignorance and despotism.

‘Researching all the damned forces in the current state; the first is focusing on the present forces and the origin of these destructive factors, which are the ignorance of the nation and its lack of knowledge of the Sultanate-related functions and rights of the people. It is also completely clear that knowledge is the source of happiness just as ignorance is the source of the profuse evils and is the way to reach rock bottom. The second is an offshoot of religious despotism and treating this force after the treating the previous one is most difficult firstly because it is deep-rooted in hearts and minds and secondly because it is considered part of religion. It is equivalent to the desires of despotism, nothing else. It was shown by members of the spiritualistic presidency under a religious banner. They tricked the ignorant nation because of its ignorance and lack of experience in religious requirements of obedience,’ (Al Mashroota Wa al Mustabada, p387-389)

What is the root of religious despotism? Naeini had made a clear mistake as he believed the root of religious despotism stems from the era of Muawiya.

However it is clear that we can spot the roots of religious despotism in ancient Iran. It is amazing that this theory migrated from Egypt to Iran, from Iran to Greece and Rome, and from here to the Islamic Caliphate in the time of the Ummayads.

The King was considered to be a representative of God in ancient Iran. Interestingly, in a Friday prayers sermon made on 26 June following the election, Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami described Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech as being God’s speech!

Therefore this idea is part of Iran’s ancient philosophy of politics. I believe that Dr Mohammad Abed al-Jabri explained this issue better than anyone in his classic book ‘The Critique of the Arab Mind’ in which he wrote:

‘The value of Khosrau [Sassanid Emperor] pervades the field: religion is submission of man! Everything revolves around Khosrau and Khosrau is present in everything and in the Persian conscience his presence resembles the presence of Allah. The truth is that the religion and supreme authority were twins, not only in the political and social systems of the Sassanid state but also in the hearts of its protectors…and this is where obedience to Khosrau and obedience to Allah were clear issues that were not up for debate. And this is where breaking away from obedience to Khosrau begins by escaping the dominant religion. The revolution against Khosrau’s rule begins here with a revolution in religion,’ (The Critique of the Arab Mind, Volume 4, p250).

It seems to me this idea has a deep-rooted historical background in Iran. Prior to the Sassanid era, and even before the Achaemenid era [550 – 330 BC], we can find some similar methods of governance in ancient Egypt. When Moses went to the Pharaoh’s palace to speak to the Pharaoh and to rescue the Bani-Isreal [Israelites], Pharaoh Ramses II told his supporters “Leave me to slay Moses; and let him call on his Lord! What I fear is lest he should change your religion, or lest he should cause mischief to appear in the land.”

In his Tafsir al Kabir [The Large Commentary] Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote:

“These words are intended to show the reason for his death, which was that his presence makes either corruption of religion or mischief in the land inevitable. As for corruption of religion, when Moses was seeking to challenge their religion, the people believed he was trying to corrupt the true religion. As for mischief in the land, it is inevitable that the nation would agree on this and that would happen because of disputes and the stirring up of conflict. And when the people loved their religion more than their money, without doubt Pharaoh began to talk about religion and said, ‘What I fear is lest he should change your religion’ and then mentioned mischief in the land saying, ‘or lest he should cause mischief to appear in the land.’

The Pharaoh frankly proclaimed to his people that he was their God. This was the cornerstone of religious despotism. Some thinkers believe that Plato’s theory of a philosopher-king also has Persian roots.

Perhaps, the golden rule of “give and take”, which is very important in the business world, also applies to the world of ideas. All Iranian kings, Egyptian Pharaohs, and Greek and Roman Emperor’s, believed that religion was the best justification for tyranny.

We can find many movements in human history where the main demand was freedom and justice, and most of these were against religion. The question then is why did these movements rise up against religion? The answer is clear; because most of these religions were supporting tyrannical regimes, or that such regimes used religion to justify and protect their grip on power. Marxism was one such movement that rose up against religion, famously believing religion to be the opiate of the masses.

I believe that the concept of the Wilayat al Faqih is the final chapter of religious despotism. According to this Islamic criteria, we are supposed to compare the behavior of a leader with Islamic values, however on the contrary, it the Wali Al Faqih [Supreme Leader of Iran] himself must embody these Islamic values.

For example, may Iranians, including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi believe that the result of the recent presidential election were corrupt. They believe this election to be one of the greatest frauds to have been perpetrated in the history of Iran. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei believes these election results to be a great victory.

How can we compare such different ideas?

On 14 July, Mir Hossein Mousavi, along with his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, visited the family home of Sohrab Erabi, a protestors who was killed during one of the demonstrations that took place in Tehran. In fact, Sohrab Erabi’s family were only informed of his death 25 days after he had been killed. He was shot in the heart. Therefore how can Mir Hossein Mousavi, his supporters, and Sohrab’s family accept Ayatollah Khamenei’s advice [to accept the election results]? How can they remain silent?

In Quranic terms, the Wilayat Al Faqih was established upon the principles of Mohabbat and Muvadda [Love and Affection] rather than force and fear.

Years ago, when I was a member of parliament in Iran, we visited Havana in order to participate in an inter-parliamentary session. Upon our return, we met with Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his very small room. All of us, including Khatami, [Ali Akbar] Velayati, [Ali Akbar] Nategh Nouri, and [Mohammad] Emami Kashani were sitting upon the floor when Ayatollah Khomeini offered us some advice. He told us that when he was giving his lecture on morals in Qom, he realized that the eyes of his audience would fill with fear when he talked about hell and punishment. However when he talked about heaven, and God’s mercy, their eyes were full of love and tears.

As a young revolutionary Muslim, it seemed to me that the best way to reach God is through Mohhabat. In other words, I believe that the Wilayat Al Faqih is based upon Mohabbat [love], not fear, or threat.

There is a key verse in the glorious Quran that interprets the role of love between the prophet, Muslims, and God. Obedience without love is impossible; there is no room for hatred and despotism. This verse is the cornerstone of every sect and branch of Islamic mysticism.

‘Say: If ye do love Allah, Follow me: Allah will love you,’ (Aal Imran: 31)

There is a very close relationship between love and obedience [as a result of love] and it is said that man can understand a thing by looking at its opposite.

In the Quran we can see another kind of obedience in the form of the Pharaoh’s style of governance:

‘Thus did he make fools of his people, and they obeyed him: truly were they a people rebellious (against Allah)’ (Al Zukhruf: 54)

In Yusuf Ali’s English translation of the Quran, he translated the term ‘Istikhfaf’ as ‘to make fool of people’. It is clear that despotism has always used ignorance in this manner. Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first Prime Minister following the revolution, once said that the revolution was a reaction of ignorance against a tyrannical regime. An Iranian poet, Badkhoobehi, commented on this by writing;

“In the beginning, we targeted the injustice,

But our arrows there weren’t from knowledge’s bow.

I wish, in the beginning, we had targeted the ignorance.”

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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