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A Shi'ite Victory That Subverted Shi'ite Tradition

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A supporter holds a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 (photo by Reza Deghati)

A supporter holds a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 (photo by Reza Deghati)

For devout Iranian Shi'a, the Islamic Revolution, 30 years ago this week, seemed like a dream come true.

It put their Shi'ite faith at the front and center of national life -- and made Tehran, at least in its own view, "the leader of the Islamic world."

And yet, by merging political with religious power, Ayatollah Khomeini's theocratic revolt helped produce a peculiar paradox: It subverted centuries-old traditions of Shi'ite Islam in which senior clerics remained largely independent of the state, with which they worked on a consultative basis.

The result, three decades later, is that the Tehran regime is now suffering from marked erosion within Iran of its claims to religious legitimacy -- even as it tightens its political grip over traditional networks of Shi'ite authority in the region. And that split in the Shi'ite world has key implications for Western policymakers.

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian-born scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the U.S. capital, studied for years at Iran's Qom seminary -- the center of the Shi'ite religious world.

"What is ironic is that instead of empowering the clerical establishment, [the revolution] made the clerical establishment a puppet of the government," Khalaji says.

"So, the clerical establishment has lost its independence, its social popularity, and so on; and instead, the government, in 30 years, has been transformed into a military-economic-religious complex."

Break With The Past

Khomeini's revolution broke with centuries of Shi'ite tradition.

The key change was velayat-e faqih -- the concept that political and religious authority reside in one person: the Iranian supreme leader.

At the time of the revolution, many clerics opposed that concept, considering it an illegitimate tool for legitimizing the regime's religious authority. Many senior clerics and their followers were arrested -- a move that plummeted the revolution into the crisis of religious legitimacy from which it has yet to emerge.

That legitimacy crisis was exacerbated with the appointment of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor. Khamenei was not -- and is still not -- seen by many Iranian clerics as a senior enough religious scholar to be supreme leader.
What is ironic is that instead of empowering the clerical establishment, the revolution made the clerical establishment a puppet of the government


One leading ayatollah in particular, Hossein Ali Montazeri, has frequently criticized Khamenei's religious qualifications, tyrannical rule, and reliance on security forces, even though he supported the fundamental concept of velayat-e faqih.

Montazeri's home and office have been attacked by security forces and he was placed under house arrest in 1997, where he remains.

The Qom seminary, seen by the regime as the potentially biggest source of threats to its religious legitimacy, also came under siege by Khomeini.

Repressive Measures

The revolutionary leader brought the seminary under his political and ideological control, including setting up an extrajudicial Special Court for Clerics, which has imprisoned, tortured, and executed a countless number of clerics and students since its establishment shortly after the revolution.

Khameini, wary of his own weak claims to religious legitimacy, has intensified those efforts to control the Qom seminary. He has flooded it with government money and special offices, including intense security surveillance of senior clerics, including the Qom office of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world's most senior and respected Shi'ite clerics.

Al-Sistani is said to disagree with velayat-e faqih -- a position that is discernible in his own actions in Iraq, where al-Sistani has argued for a separation of political and religious authority.

But there's one thing al-Sistani has never done, U.S.-based scholar Khalaji says: publicly comment on the theory that the Iranian supreme leader retains all Shi'ite authority, political and religious.
The seminary in Qom is under the political control of the Iranian authorities


"He did not approve the theory of the guardianship of jurists, as Khomeini did; at the same time, he did not oppose it. He has said nothing about this theory," Khalaji says.

"He has said nothing about the theory of the religious government. He never criticized the Iranian regime on anything. He is very cautious because he knows very well that if he confronts the Iranian regime, he would lose his assets, his centers, his popularity -- everything."

Shi'ism Abroad

Iran, in the decades since the revolution, has worked to advance its influence and power over Shi'ite clerics around the region. Khalaji says the regime has penetrated and politicized Shi'ite clerical networks from Kuwait and Iraq to Lebanon.

Many of these networks are used by Iranian-backed political militants, such as Hizballah in Lebanon, and have helped make Iranian regional leadership quite popular among non-Iranian Shi'a.

But Khalaji says Shi'a outside Iran often have a distorted image of his country.

"They do not see the prison [Khamenei] has. They do not see the moral police attack young people on the street. They do not see the economic pressure Iranian citizens bear now. They don't see any of the negative aspects of Khamenei's rulings," Khalaji says.

The regime's seizure of the Qom seminary and crisis of religious legitimacy have left a very different situation at home. Iranians, fed up with the state's overbearing presence in religious life, no longer want to pay their religious taxes and have come to feel antipathy toward many clerics.

"Although they remain religious," Khalaji says, "they want to define their religiosity themselves."

As senior independent religious figures like al-Sistani gradually disappear from the scene, Khalaji believes the regional Shi'ite landscape will become even more dominated by Iranian-controlled clerical networks -- all of them animated by an Iranian-controlled political agenda.

From the revolution's perspective, that's perhaps seen as a successful development. But it still leaves a legitimacy crisis that, like a thorn that can't be removed, festers in the heart of the state, threatening to spread infection.
30 Years After

As Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, RFE/RL looks at the legacy of the revolution and its effect on Iran and the world. More

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