Become a Fan

« The Myth of Secular Inevitability: Iran, Islam, America, Israel and Palestine | Main | Iran is a Threat to the World, Which is not the World »

20 June 2009


Mohammed Husain


You raise an important question. The independence of Shi'i scholars in history in a way priveleged them. Now with the emergence of a state at the top of whom is a religious scholar, there isn't such stark independence. So then, have we moved back in time? Are we setting ourselves up for disaster.

Well, a couple points are in order. One I don't think the 'ulama and the state have merged completely despite having heavyweight religious scholars in the government with a great deal of political power. There are many maraje' who stand outside the state and who have large followings (probably at least 7 or 8 in Iran), and also other maraje' elsewhere in other countries, like Ayat. Sistani. They will always maintain a great deal of latent political power because their authority comes through the many many years of studying and teaching, and also the large following that is required for them to be recognized as marja'. Once they attain this level of scholarship it is difficult for even the state to strip them of legitimacy at least as far as their rulings go. And if those marja' were to even come close to a consensus on any matter, that would have huge implications if it was directed against the state. It should be remembered that though Khamene'i is the velayat al-faqih, that doesn't mean that Iranians or any other shi'i muslims are compelled to follow him as a marja'. Also remember the expediency council supervises the leader's performance, so this is another place where the battle of interpretation

The second thing: one of the reasons we see a progressive creative synthesis coming out of Iran is because Islam is no longer just playing an oppositional role as it does in so many other places. It has to actually negotiate with modernity, in a way that is not necessary when it stands on the sidelines as simply an opposition. So for instance, you see that in family law in Iran, its required that if a man seeks to take a second wife he requires the permission of the first. This, to me, is the development of Islamic law. It becomes part of Islamic law, and not just Iranian civil law because its ratified by 'ulama are seen to have religious authority. Another example, biomedical technology and cloning research is being funded and promoted in Iran because of the clear rulings given by the religious leadership and ultimately their encouragement of it. (Check out an interview with Dr. Nasr, the man who cloned the first goat in the middle east: http://www.presstv.com/programs/player/?id=98553, in which he speaks about this). Another example would be abortion laws in Iran, that permit the abortion of fetus before 120 days if the fetus is shown to have a recognized devastating disease.

Now going back to your original point. You are right there is no guarantee that religion and politics won't go sour. But it should be remembered that though there might be some superficial similarities, velayat al-faqih, as defined in the Iranian constitution is nothing like the papacy, in that the velayat al-faqih is more than anything the arbiter of factional disputes within the government. He does not propose or ratify laws that might reflect his particular understanding of Islam. (the parliament proposes (mostly non-clerics), the GC ratifies (mostly clerics)). Many of the domestic functions of the government occur at other levels, so that in most instances the VF is trying to build consensus among disputing parties rather than imposing a novel, decisive position.

Mohammed Husain


Check out the commentary of Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, professor of North American studies at Tehran University, who himself voted for Mousavi.


Also on NPR:


And an old interview with Guernica magazine:

Haroon Moghul

Your points are intriguing, and I am aware of all these decisions. But your points are weakened by your argument that the Supreme Leader is a superintendent; he no longer is that. He is now a politician, choosing sides (what is and is not true is not as important in this case, as Hasan/wakeup pointed out, but what the image is in the minds of many Iranians.) The system has lost an aura, and to reinforce it with state authority means a religious office, dependent on a high degree of respect for the presumed impartiality of an office, makes the politicization of religion still more dangerous. There is no going back after this, and it is hard to see how the system will not damage the Shi'i 'ulama through such politicization, violence and partisanship.

That too is a part of politics, no?

Thanks for the links.

Haroon Moghul


You wrote:

"Many of the domestic functions of the government occur at other levels, so that in most instances the VF is trying to build consensus among disputing parties rather than imposing a novel, decisive position."

Except in this one glaring instance, where he is in fact, as you correctly stated, "imposing" ... a "decisive position". He is now part of one faction, instead of head of the state. That is the reality of things; the country is sharply divided, with clerics on both sides, and Khamenei picked one side (and ran w/ it.) He now disagrees with major maraje', except that he can put them under house arrest and penalize them, and they cannot do the same. And he is not even their equal in scholarship.

That's what I'm driving at. It's quite dangerous. Maybe not now, maybe in a few years -- maybe in decades. But when religion and power fuse and society divides...

Mohammed Husain

No doubt, Khamene'i has made a decisive decision favoring one faction.

I wonder though, how much of this division that we are witnessing is the result of the mixing of religion and power; and how much of it is do to other particularities between the candidates and the election process. I think there is a tendency as Westerners, to look at Iran and disproportionately attribute its problems to a lack of secularity. Their might be other explanations, but usually this one is favored. That's not to say that we should never appeal to such an explanation, only that we should be aware that such a tendency exists.

Anyone who's followed Iranian politics knows that the level of mudslinging in this election has been unprecedented (i'm not suggesting that you don't know this). I think that really charged and emotionally intensified atmosphere to the point that some sort of clashes became a real possibility. Of course, one can't ignore the way that Ahmadinejad's policies themselves polarized people and other such factors. But the election campaigning process build of a level of emotional fervor that I think has exploded.

The comments to this entry are closed.