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What is the Wali Al Faqih? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat – Hezbollah’s Christian ally, General Michel Aoun, could not hide his confusion, nor could those listening to him hide theirs, when he was asked to explain the [Shiite] concept of the Wali Al Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists]. In fact nobody listening to Aoun’s statement could have explained this concept, and talking about this issue prior to the elections in Lebanon was nothing more than an attempt to frighten the Christians [in Lebanon] with something that has no clear meaning.

This exchange took place on a satellite television program featuring General Aoun a few days prior to the Lebanese elections. Aoun’s confusion [on the definition of the Wali Al Faqih] is justified due to the cultural and conceptual dimensions that have arisen [in Lebanon] as a result of the climate created by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, his deputy Sheikh Naim Kassem, and other leaders of the radical Shiite party that believe in the absolute power of the Wali Al Faqih. This is something that has been acknowledged by the party in spoken and written statements, as well as by Hezbollah’s actions.

The theory of the Wali Al Faqih emerged following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which saw the overthrowing of the Shah’s regime by the mullah’s and Ayatollah’s who came to power under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. This theory was subject to controversy from its inception. The Wali Al Faqih theory [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists] states that an Islamic Jurist [faqih] be given direct and legitimate control of Islamic Shariaa law of a state or of society in general. Traditional Shiite ideology believes in only granting full guardianship [absolute power] to the infallible twelfth hidden Imam [whose return is awaited for by Shiite Islam] as the twelfth imam [Imam al-Mahdi] is the only one qualified to hold such power.

According to Dr. Tawfiq al-Saif, a researcher who specializes in Shiite political jurisprudence, the successive states to take root in [modern-day] Iranian territory since the Shiite sect gained dominance in this region in the sixteenth century have constantly been in a state of anxiety and fear that the masses would rise up against them. According to research published by Dr. al-Saif in the Alkalima magazine [issue no. 50] the means by which these states remained in power was either through the naked use of power, or by relying upon the jurists to keep the public under control.

Dr. al-Saif added that Khomeini first published his Wali Al Faqih theory in 1970 in his famous book Hokumat-e Islami: Veleyat-e Faqih [Islam Government; Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists]. According to al-Saif, this theory “represents the theoretical formula developed by Khomeini and embodies a distinct shift in Shiite political discourse.” He also believes that Khomeini’s Hokumat-e Islami is “the only book in which Khomeini examined the idea of governmental legitimacy in a detailed and specialized manner. Although the issue [of governmental legitimacy] came up in part of Khomeini’s jurisprudential research, the [Wali Al Faqih] theory that Khomeini produced overtook this [previous Guardianship theories] and touched upon several cultural and political questions.”

In fact the roots of Khomeini’s Wali Al Faqih theory can be traced back to the Safavid dynasty [1501-1736] when the prominent Shiite scholar Ayatollah Muhaqiq al-Karki of Jabal Amel in southern Lebanon [where there is a historic Shiite community] granted Shah Tahmasp I the right to rule on his behalf [with the Ayatollah having complete control over all legal and juristic decisions]. Ayatollah al-Karki [was able to do this] in his position as an Islamic jurist [faqih] and thus a representative and deputy of the hidden Imam al-Mahdi.

In his book Hadaaq Al Ahzan [Gardens of Sorrow], Egyptian specialist on Iranian affairs, Dr. Mustafa al-Labbad indicated that the Wali Al Faqih theory first appeared in 1472 in Jabal Amel. According to al-Labbad, Mohamed bin Makki [also known as Shahid Awwal] expanded the role of jurisprudence in the lives of Muslim believers to include [authority over] the judiciary, as well as leading Friday prayers. Mohamed bin Makki coined the term “Na’ib Al-Imam” [deputy of the Imam Al Mahdi] which was a title given to al-Khomeini following the Iranian revolution.

One hundred and fifty years prior to Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran another controversy shook Shiite jurisprudence surrounding Imam al-Naraqi’s book Awaid al-Ayyam [Return of Days] with regards to the limits of the Wali Al Faqih’s authority. Al-Naraqi believed that in the Occultation era [era prior to the return of the hidden Imam] the guardianship of religion and the world which previously belonged to the Prophet and the Imams falls under the jurisdiction of a jurist [faqih].

Since its evolution, the Wali Al Faqih theory has faced objections. The core of these objections centres upon the extent of the Wali Al Faqih’s authority with regards to general, financial, and other issues in the absence of an infallible imam [Imam al-Mahdi]. Those who disagree on the extent of the Wali Al Faqihi’s authority use different evidence to back up their claims, the most prominent text used [for this purpose] is the narration of Omar Bin Hanzallah who upon discussing the dispute of two men said ‘we will look at who narrated our talk, and mediated what is halal [religiously acceptable] and haram [religiously prohibited], and upheld our rulings, for he shall judge [this issue], and I have put him as a ruler over you.”

However Ali Al Amin, the Mufti of Jabal Amel, objects to the Wali Al Faqih theory and believes that the above text does not agree with the Wali Al Faqih concept as implemented by Khomeini and his supporters, rather the text limits the power of the Wali Al Faqih.

In the general context of the Shiite framework, complete “legitimacy” is not present until after the return of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi. Khomeini saw this as a negative that would make it practically impossible to establish Shariaa Law and an Islamic government.

According to Dr. al-Saif, the paradox is that Khomeini, who benefited from the efforts of senior jurists and further developed the Wali Al Faqih theory, had little support amongst them. His popular support was amongst the bourgeois and the students. The Wali Al Faqih theory reached its zenith when Khomeini came to power aided by a broad coalition of left-wing Islamist and secular parties. Khomeini ousted these parties and ruled using the authority of the Wali Al Faqih, a theory that was opposed by senior jurists inside and outside of Iran. In Iran, Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari was put under house arrest until his death [for opposing Khomeini] while outside Iran Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei publicly opposed Khomeini’s interpretation of the Wali Al Faqih, as does Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The conservative trend within the Shiite marjas tend to support a lesser interpretation of the Wali Al Faqih that include juristic decisions, guardianship over orphans, the underage, and widows, under the famed hadith “the ruler is the wali [guardian] of those who have no wali.” In this content, the “ruler” means the judge, rather than the political leader. The renowned Lebanese Shiite jurist Sheikh Mohammad Jawad Mughniya also opposes Khomeini’s interpretation of the Wali Al Faqih theory. Even Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah is considered an opponent of this.

What must be noted is that opposing the Wali Al Faqih theory does not mean disregarding legitimate “Islamic” rule, which is something that both the radical Shiite and Sunni trends are demanding. Rather, in the Shiite case, it means disagreeing over whether a jurist should hold a monopoly on power. A nation is its own guardian, rather than a single jurist being appointed guardian of the entire ummah [Muslim community]. This is the essence of the disagreement between Shiite scholars over the theory of the Wali Al Faqih.

Khomeini successfully applied this theory [in Iran] and also [used it] to successfully drive out his religious and political opponents. In fact, Khomeini continued down this road and ousted his prospected successor Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri after he disagreed with Khomeini on a number of policies. As a result of this, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri also opposes Khomeini’s interpretation of the Wali Al Faqih.

Hezbollah is just one of the Shiite groups that believe in the Wali Al Faqih theory, which means taking political and theological direction from the Wali Al Faqih, which is a legitimate and unobjectionable duty according to those who believe in the absolute power of the Wali Al Faqih. This also applies to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was established by Iraqi Shiite theologian Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. However not all Shiite groups follow the Wali Al Faqih theory, and even those groups that do believe in the Wali Al Faqih theory are not automatically linked to Tehran and the current Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to Dr. Tawfiq al-Saif, a renowned writer and researcher in this field, the Shiite political scene with regards to the Wali Al Faqih is comprised of;

– Parties that believe in the absolute power of the Wali Al Faqih, and follow the rulings of the juristic ruler Ayatollah Khamenei. These parties include Hezbollah – and it must be noted that Hassan Nasrallah admitted to this himself – as well as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

– Parties that believe that a Wali Al Faqih should play a lesser supervisory role, and that this role is not linked in any way to Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. Among the groups that believe this are the Islamic Action Organization [Iraq], the Islamic Virtue Party [Iraq], the Sadrist movement [Iraq], and the Islamic Action Society [Bahrain].

– Parties that are committed to the [Shiite] religious framework but without committing to a special role for the jurists. This includes the Dawa party [Iraq] and the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society [Bahrain].

Al Saif indicates that the changes that have taken place in the political sphere of the countries that these parties belong to have contributed to the refinement and development of their ideology. This can be seen in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq dropping the words “Islamic Revolution” from its name, while Hezbollah also dropped this term following the Taif agreement in 1989. However this does not mean the collapse of the fundamental belief in the Wali Al Faqih, rather it simply shows that reality is being taken into account. This change is merely strategic.

The Wali Al Faqih theory turned the hope of a Shiite state into a reality, placing the Shiite into power, with a state, arms, and a distinct social outlook. The Iranian revolution was like an atomic bomb in the history of ideas.

Perhaps General Aoun will now be able to master his confusion, for the [simple] answer is that the Wali Al Faqih has the right to give orders that must be followed, whether these are on religion or life in general.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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