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How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics

Posters to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution in Isfahan [© Oasis]

Born as a revolutionary movement, Shi‘ite Islam saw the role of the ulama grow constantly and uninterruptedly during the course of its history until a genuine hierarchy, dominated by the authority of the marja‘iyya, was created from the nineteenth century onward

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-02-06 18:08:06

Born as a revolutionary movement, Shi‘ite Islam saw the role of the ulama grow constantly and uninterruptedly during the course of its history until a genuine hierarchy, dominated by the authority of the marja‘iyya, was created from the nineteenth century onward. After the Khomeinist revolution, this institution entered into competition with the office of the Supreme Iranian Leader and is, today, at a crossroads: will the Āyatollah al-Sīstānī be its last great exponent in Iraq?

Religions do not fall from heaven. Rather, their theological, ethical and political ideas and prescriptions are the result of historical and social developments and transformations which usually are shaped by the exchange with the surrounding forces. Even seemingly old and deep-rooted convictions which tend to be regarded as “traditional” are not to be taken for granted, because every tradition, at a certain time in the past, was “invented” and started as a new, more often than not revolutionary, innovation. Shi‘ite Islam in general and Twelver Shi‘ite political thought in particular are not an exception to this rule. In the course of its nearly 1400-years existence, it underwent a number of transformations that altered its character more than once. At the same time, however, the institution of the marja‘iyya which originated in the nineteenth century, offers many a remarkable parallel to the early Shi‘ite imamate. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this raises several momentous problems.


The Doctrine of the imamate

The classical Shi‘ite theory of the imamate was apparently a makeshift solution. It owed its existence predominantly to the total failure of early Shi‘ism as a revolutionary political movement. The series of defeats on the battlefield (the most painful of which was the Abbasid ousting of their previous allies after the successful revolution against the common Umayyad enemy) was sublimated by the certainty of belonging to the chosen people and by the unrestricted exaltation of the figure of the imam. It was during the tenure of the sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sādiq (d. 765), that the doctrine of the imamate was conceived, whose main characteristics were the absolute sinlessness and the omniscience of the divinely designated leader. Moreover, it was emphasised that the world could not exist without an imam, and the imamate was extended into the distant past, including the pre-Islamic prophets who were thus regarded to have concurrently been prophets and imams. At the same time, however, it was no longer deemed necessary that the imam was the actual political leader of the community. The imamate as the central spiritual and religious institution was thus separated from the power-political caliphate – henceforward, one could perfectly be a legitimate imam without having to become caliph. It goes without saying that in this scenario, the (Sunnite) caliphate was an illegitimate form of government. But as long as the imam in his capacity as supreme legal authority was around, the believers could come to terms with it.


The take-over by the ulama

One may read the early period of Shi‘ism as a continuous narrowing down of the group of legitimate claimants to the leadership of the community: the stipulation (which survived in the Sunnite caliphate) that the leader had to be a member of the Quraysh, i.e. the tribe of the Prophet, was first limited to the sub-clan of the Banū Hāshim (which excluded the Umayyads), then to the offspring of the first imam, ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib, before finally ending, at the time of Ja‘far, with the exclusive Husaynid genealogy which consisted of the descendants of ‘Alī’s son Husayn, the third imam who was murdered near Kerbela in 680. By this, both the Abbasids and other Shi‘ite competitors were successfully excluded from the legitimate imamate. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, as the imamites were dramatically understaffed. When Ja‘far’s son, the designated successor, died before his father, this gave rise to a major schism of the community; on two subsequent occasions, minors had to be acknowledged as imams.[1] The final blow came when the eleventh imam, al-Hasan al-‘Askarī, died in 874 without a successor being generally known. It took several decades to reach the consensus that the imam did have a son, Muhammad by name, who, however, had been concealed by God and taken into an occultation (ghayba).

Imamite Shi‘ism, it soon turned out, could exist without the imam, but the community needed religious and legal authority and guidance all the same. This was, in the long run, ensured by a two-stage process. The first, relatively short, phase consisted in considerably cooling down the eschatologically overheated expectation of the immediate Parousia of the imam. The idea of the occultation was per se not new, as several previous Shi‘ite currents had already made use of it before. What distinguished the imamites from them was the fact that now the imam’s return as the “rightly-guided” (mahdī) was no longer expected for the imminent future. Instead, it was postponed until the end of time when he would come back in order to prepare the Day of Judgement. By this fundamental resettlement which was accomplished between 874 and 941 CE,[2] the number of the imams was limited to twelve, and the previous imāmiyya was transformed into Twelver Shi‘ism (shī‘a ithnā ‘ashariyya), which eventually became the most dominant version of Shi‘ite Islam until today, marginalizing other currents such as the Zaydiyya or the Ismā‘īliyya. The second stage took much longer – approximately a millennium, as we will shortly see – and may be described as an ongoing process of rationalisation and self-empowerment of the class of the religious scholars and jurists (‘ulamā’, fuqahā’) who henceforward functioned as the hidden imam’s delegates.[3]

This process was initiated within less than a century by several eminent scholars such as Ibn Bābūya (d. 991), al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), al-Sharīf al-Murtadā (d. 1044) and “Shaykh al-tā’ifa” al-Tūsī (d. 1067), and their main tool for doing away with the imamite esotericism was reason (‘aql). By applying rationalist criticism, they not only managed to discard the traditions about the supernatural features of the imams – rather, they ensured that Shi‘ism was no longer entangled in a cyclical view of history, made up of disappearing and returning leaders, but instead followed a linear development crowned by a meaningful ending, namely the return of the final redeemer at the end of time. A necessary concomitant was the fact that Shi‘ite doctrine thereby was transformed from its earlier chiliasm centred around the figure of the imam to a system of law and jurisprudence. Yet the structural difference is smaller than it may seem, for ultimate religious authority and guidance were merely transferred from an institution based on a rather narrow genealogical descent (the imams) to one based far more broadly on meritocracy (the scholars). Just as the imams claimed to be divinely inspired and thus entitled to authoritative judgements which were binding for their followers, the ulama based their right to act on behalf of the mahdī on individual reasoning (ijtihād). And like the imams, they carefully restricted this latter capacity to their own class, thereby excluding the mass of ordinary believers who were obliged to abstain from independent reflection and to emulate (taqlīd) a jurist instead. Neither the imam’s presumed inspiration nor the rationalist scholars’ presumed qualification for ijtihād were in any way open to be questioned by the non-initiated, and a sharp separation of society into few mujtahidūn (those entitled to ijtihād) and many muqallidūn (those dependent on taqlīd) was the inevitable result. One may view this as a de-sacralisation of the imams’ rule – or as the beginning of a gradual sacralisation of the ulama’s rule.

The jurists’ adoption of ijtihād was by and large accomplished by the fourteenth century, when the so-called “school of Hilla”, above all its most famous scholar, al-Hasan Ibn Yūsuf “al-‘Allāma” al-Hillī (d. 1325), presented an elaborate and coherent system of thought. It is true that the two main aspects of this concept had a seemingly preliminary character: each mujtahid was entitled to his own reasoning, as none of them was regarded as infallible, and the ijtihād was limited to living scholars: “The dead do not have a say”, as al-Hillī laconically put it. But it was precisely this contrariness and need for constant scrutiny and revision that laid the foundation for the scholars’ continued intellectual and social importance. Endowed with the precious tool of ijtihād, helped by the legal incapacitation of the ordinary believers, and favoured by political circumstances (the Safavids had conquered Iran in 1501 and made Shi‘ism the official religion of the state), the ulama managed, between the Sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, to take over for themselves four important former prerogatives of the hidden imam: the collection of the religious taxes, the jurisdiction in the realm of corporal punishment (the so-called hudūd mentioned in the Qur’an), the direction of the collective Friday prayer, and finally the call for jihād.[4] That the Lebanese scholar ‘Alī al-Karakī (d. 1534), who contributed decisively to the spreading of Twelver Shi‘ism in Iran, was officially addressed with such pretentious honorific titles as “the imam’s deputy” (nā’ib al-imām) or “the seal of the scholars” (khātam al-mujtahidīn) was certainly not by coincidence, as the conviction that the jurists were the collective representatives of the imam had taken root.


The usūlī victory and the establishment of the marja‘iyya

The collective take-over of the mujtahidūn did not stand uncontradicted. The more the rationalist jurists assumed the role of the mahdī’s deputies, the stronger grew the voices of those who insisted that the imams’ ancient traditions (akhbār) were still and without exception valid and needed no further explanation. The Akhbārīs, as they were accordingly called, thereby rejected the jurists’ claim to authoritative reasoning in all matters of legal principles (usūl, hence their name Usūlīs) and dismissed ijtihād. According to them, all Shi‘ites continued to be muqallidūn of the imams, and it may be concluded that in their eyes there is no difference between the pre-ghayba period when the living imam was around and the time after he disappeared into occultation.[5] But if we apply again a non-theological structuralist approach and argue that there is no intrinsic difference between the social and intellectual role of the imams and that of the ulama – both being the conclusive religious authorities for the believers – we may just as well come to the opposite conclusion. The Akhbārīs, then, could be considered as those for whom a thick wall exists between the divinely inspired imams and mankind that cannot (and must not) be penetrated by human efforts at interpreting religious prescriptions. For the Usūlīs, it follows quite naturally, no such division exists, as their self-empowerment gradually put them in the imams’ place and effectively blurred the line between pre- and post-ghayba times.[6]

The dispute between the Akhbārīs and the Usūlīs which mainly took place at the Iraqi Shrine cities (‘atabāt) of Najaf and Kerbela was decided around the turn of the eighteenth century when the latter gained the upper hand.[7] The Usūlī dominance was to a considerable degree favoured by socio-economic aspects as well: the fact that the ulama acted as the recipients and administrators of the religious taxes and donations secured their economic independence of political powers and made some of them – especially those in the upper echelons – enormously wealthy.[8] At the same time, this development returned a remarkable amount of influence to the common believers who – though intellectually eclipsed by the scholars’ power of ijtihād – retained the economic decision whom to direct the financial donations to. The more popular a high-ranking scholar became, the more donations he received, the more students he could support who in turn would attract more believers, who would then pay their taxes to him and thus contribute to the scholar’s network – and so on. It was a circulation of religious authority, economic power and political relations that worked to everyone’s satisfaction, not the least because the Qajar rulers in Iran had no religious credentials of their own and depended on the ulama for legitimacy.

Belonging to the class of scholars (who from now on could justifiably be called a clergy) thus became highly rewarding, and it is quite telling that the ulama did not show the slightest interest when, in the 1840s, a messianic movement was on the advance, centred around Sayyid ‘Alī Muhammad Shīrāzī who claimed to be the gate (bāb) to the hidden imam, and later even dared to appear as the returned mahdī himself. On the contrary, the jurists forged an alliance with the government and saw to it that the Babi movement was excommunicated and persecuted. While it is true that this move revealed that the ulama could not preserve their quasi-autonomy without the backing of the state, it also contributed to the inner consolidation of the clergy. For around 1850, the idea began to take root that, beyond the continued dichotomy between mujtahidūn and muqallidūn, the most learned among the learned jurists should be a “source of emulation” (marja‘ al-taqlīd) also for the other, less learned mujtahidūn. The evolution of a hierarchy was the necessary outcome, based on the principle of scholarship (a‘lamiyya) and on the understanding that ideally, there should only be a single marja‘ at a time, though the option of having several marāji‘ simultaneously was not ruled out.[9] It was, to speak in Weber’s terms, the attempt at routinizing the ulama’s charisma by establishing the “office” of the marja‘iyya.[10]


Between two (or more) revolutions

The clericalisation and the gradual establishment of a hierarchy of Shi‘ite scholars were crucial events, but they did not yet amount to the politicisation of the ulama, due to the interdependency of the clergy and the Qajar state and because the Iraqi ‘atabāt were part of the Sunnite Ottoman empire.[11] The scholar who is usually credited with having been the first holder of the marja‘iyya is the Iranian-born Murtadā Ansārī (d. 1864), who resided in Najaf as a jurist specialised in commercial law and without any aspiration for politics. The same would have held true for his successor, Mīrzā Hasan Shīrāzī (d. 1895), who even fled Najaf and established a new study centre (hawza) in Samarra in 1874, in order to escape the burden and constraints of the marja‘iyya.[12] Circumstances – and the urging of the reformist activist Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (d. 1897) –, however, pushed him into the political arena, when the Qajar ruler, Nāsir al-Dīn Shāh, granted the monopoly on the Iranian tobacco trade to a British businessman; Shīrāzī reacted in December 1891 by issuing a fatwa which banned the consumption of tobacco to the believers, whereupon the Shāh had to rescind the deal. It was Shīrāzī’s only excursion into politics, and it happened more or less against his will, but it proved the potentially explosive force the supreme religious leadership of a Shi‘ite marja‘ could develop. This was apparently perceived by contemporary activists such as al-Afghānī, but for the time being, clerical interference in politics remained the exception.

During the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1906/07), it was the most unlikely coalition of western-minded constitutionalist intellectuals and a majority of the ulama which resulted in the establishment of a constitution that even provided the latter with a committee to check all laws for their compatibility with the sharia. While this stipulation remained theoretical as the committee was never convened, the ulama’s attitude towards constitutionalism was divided: a minority of them strongly condemned this concept as a Western import in opposition to the sharia; their most vociferous spokesman was Fadlallāh Nūrī who was finally executed in July 1909.[13] By contrast, the majority, including the Persian marāji‘ residing at the Iraqi ‘atabāt, fully endorsed the constitutionalist idea and declared it in harmony with Islamic law;[14] one of them, Mīrzā Muhammad Husayn Nā’īnī (d. 1936), even composed an entire treatise devoted to this issue.[15] But not a single jurist, neither among the supporters of constitutionalism nor among its contestants, ever claimed the right to direct political power for the clergy. For most of the twentieth century, until the advent of the Iranian Revolution, the Shi‘ite clergy nearly unanimously stayed quietist, even in the face of an inimical state power as was the case with the anti-clergy actions by Rezā Shāh in the 1920s and 30s.

A famous case in point is Hosayn Borūjerdī who was acknowledged as marja‘ al-taqlīd from approximately 1946 onward; he not only completely refused to get involved in any activities against the Pahlavi government, but even supported – a sort of déjà vu of the nineteenth-century clergy-state alliance against the Babis – the persecution of the Baha’is during the 1950s. Apart from this, he preferred to keep a low political profile and devoted himself instead to the administration of the hawza in Qom (which had been established in the 1920 by the equally apolitical ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Hā’irī) and to discreet (even if largely futile) efforts at reaching a reconciliation with the Sunnites. It was only after Borūjerdī’s death in 1961 and in the face of the increasingly oppressive rule of the Shah that a new tone within Shi‘ism, of a decidedly politicised character, could be heard; this tendency is inextricably linked to the person of Āyatollāh Rūhollāh Khomeinī.

In a series of lectures that he gave in Najaf (where he had been exiled after heading the anti-Shah opposition in 1963) and that later appeared in print, Khomeinī focused on the idea of the “Mandate of the Jurist” (wilāyat al-faqīh, sometimes also translated as “guardianship of the jurisconsult”). The expression as such was not new; Mullā Ahmad Narāqī (d. 1829) had been the first Shi‘ite scholar to claim this authority for the jurists, but he had done so in a comparatively vague way, and without entailing any consequences. Khomeinī, by contrast, had a far more precise idea as to what should be understood by this ambiguous term wilāya which traditionally denoted, on the one hand, the loyalty and friendship the believer owes to the imam, and, on the other, the guardianship that the jurists exerted over the legal minor and mentally retarded. For Khomeinī, this did not go far enough, and he asserted that this guardianship of the jurist included the Shi‘ite clergy’s right to political power over the believers. In early 1970 when he lectured to his students, this was still a largely theoretical consideration. Two things, however, played into his hands in the following years: the growing opposition against the Shah’s tyranny, which included an increasing need for determined leadership, and the fact that parts of this oppositional movement were operating with religious symbols which inevitably led to a radicalisation of certain aspects of Shi‘ism. The most important among these was the image of imam Husayn’s martyrdom in Kerbela: both leftist lay intellectuals such as ‘Alī Sharī‘atī (d. 1977) and middle-ranking clerics such as Ni‘matullāh Sālehī Najafābādī (d. 2006) transformed it – against the resistance of major parts of the traditional clerics and the marjaiyya – from a quietist mourning ritual into a revolutionary act of heroism. Husayn no longer appeared as a passive sufferer who resigned himself to God’s unfathomable will, but as an active revolutionary who stood up against the tyranny of the Umayyads. The parallels to the contemporary situation were obvious, and the slogan “every day is ‘āshūrā’, every grave is Kerbela” became one of the most famous battle cries of the revolution.[16]

When Khomeinī’s theory of wilāyat al-faqīh was embodied – by no means immediately, as even Khomeinī himself does not seem to have attached much importance to constitution making[17] – into the post-1979 Iranian political order, it soon revealed the enormous power in the hands of the “leader of the revolution”, as was now Khomeinī’s official title. After Borūjerdī’s death, he had emerged only as one among many marāji‘ who had to compete with his peers for the financial support of the muqallidūn. Now, for the first time in Shi‘ite history, a marja‘ was no longer dependent on the financial donations of the common people, but rather had a fully elaborated state bureaucracy at his disposal. Also for the first time in post-ghayba Shi‘ite history, a mujtahid not only claimed leadership over those muqallidūn who chose him as their model, but also, and uncompromisingly so, over the other marāji‘. While he could not prevail over the Iraqi marja‘iyya beyond the sphere of Iranian power, he did predominate over the Iranian clerics who were a potential challenge to his stature: his most famous victim, Āyatollāh Kāzem Sharī‘atmadārī (d. 1986) was formally stripped of his credentials and put under house arrest. Khomeinī took the final step in 1988, when he claimed for himself the “absolute Mandate of the Jurist” (wilāyat al-faqīh al-mutlaqa) whose powers even had priority over the fundamental religious commandments such as fasting, the pilgrimage, and prayer.[18] Although it was never openly stated, this brought him quite close to being identified with the mahdī himself, and in fact the title “imam” that was reserved for Khomeinī tacitly gave to understand that he had left the position of a “normal” marja‘ far behind. Whether Khomeinī thereby “integrated” two concepts of Shi‘ite political thought by redefining the idea of marja‘iyya, or whether his wilāya actually “eclipsed” the traditional role of a marja‘, is probably in the eye of the beholder.[19]

The more fundamental question, looming behind, whether Khomeinī’s theory was a radical break with Shi‘ite tradition, or rather its conclusive perfection, is open to scholarly dispute, too. On the one hand, no Shi‘ite mujtahid ever before claimed such an enormous amount of direct political power. Khomeinī transformed the traditional jurists’ law into a state law, and he aimed at establishing a strict compulsive hierarchy, into which the supreme jurist coerced the other marāji‘. On the other hand, however, we have to recall that the structural position of the post-occultation ulama was hardly different from that of the imams. When looked upon from this angle, Khomeinī appears more as the one who logically concluded the millennium-old self-empowerment of the religious scholars, and who also brought the hierarchical clericalisation of the marja‘iyya to a coherent, albeit radical, conclusion. Again, it depends on the observer’s predisposition to interpret the change from the imams to the mujtahidūn from the tenth century onward as a radical break between imamic divine inspiration and human epigone hair-splitting – or rather as a continuous and thoroughly humane move from one form of exerting religious power to another.


The Problem of Succession

The problem of succession had always been the Achilles’ heel of Shi‘ite religious authority. In this regard, the ninth century dilemma of finding a new imam was not too different from the Twentieth century debates after a marja‘’s death. Unlike in the nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, when everyone was patient enough to simply wait until a new marja‘ emerged by being acknowledged by mujtahidūn and muqallidūn alike, there was now an increasing tendency towards a bureaucratisation of the office. After the demise of Borūjerdī in 1961, several approaches to the office of the marja‘iyya were discussed, not only in view of the individual prerequisites for becoming a marja‘, but also with regard to the modalities of choosing a new marja‘. Some of the discussants (such as Mahmūd Tāleqānī) suggested the establishment of a council of ulama who should collectively take the responsibilities of the marja‘.[20] Such debates appeared to be more urgent in Iran during the 1960s, where the marja‘iyya had to grapple with the (at least nominally) Shi‘ite government. At the shrine cities in Iraq where the ulama were under growing pressure from hostile and increasingly tyrannical Sunnite rulers, the “traditional” form of the marja‘iyya prevailed. Under the marāji‘ Muhsin al-Hakīm (d. 1970) and especially Abū l-Qāsim al-Khū’ī (d. 1992), there was a growing internationalisation, and the representatives of the religious leaders were reaching out even to Europe and the West (e.g. in the form of the Kho’i Foundation in London), in order to safeguard their social and economic basis. Nevertheless, also in Iraq there were some occasional attempts at modernising the marja‘iyya; the most noteworthy among them was Muhammad Bāqir al-Sadr’s (d. 1980) proposal of an “objective” form of the marja‘iyya (al-marja‘iyya al-mawdū‘iyya), which aimed at creating an office consisting of several committees that would take care of the many administrative and educational functions of a marja‘. Given al-Sadr’s own standing in the hawza in Najaf which was overshadowed by al-Hakīm and al-Khū’ī, this plan never went beyond the theoretical stage. Also a later attempt, during the 1990s, by the Lebanese Āyatollāh Husayn Fadlallāh (d. 2010), at institutionalising the marja‘iyya in a way not dissimilar to the Catholic papacy, did not materialise.[21]

Khomeinī’s strong and unified marja‘iyya was thus, in the short term, the most successful model. Yet his exorbitant imprint on post-revolutionary Iran made the question of succession extremely complicated. Apparently, he foresaw this problem himself, as he initiated, shortly before his death in June 1989, a revision of the constitution, which basically turned the exigencies of the supreme jurist upside down. The qualification of marja‘iyya was dropped, and it was stipulated that the aptitude for ijtihād was fully sufficient. From being an office that only one year previously was regarded as even above basic religious tenets, it was all of a sudden scaled down to a post of not even mid-rank importance in the Shi‘ite hierarchy.[22] But it was only by this move that the survival of the wilāyat al-faqīh could be guaranteed; when Khomeinī demoted his own successor designate, Āyatollāh Montazerī, in March 1989, it was clear that no other contender for the office would be sufficiently qualified. ‘Alī Khāmene’ī (b. 1939) who finally took over the position of the “leader of the revolution” was formally promoted to the rank of Āyatollāh only upon his assumption of office, and the two functions of marja‘iyya and wilāyat al-faqīh were now officially separated. To a large degree, this difficulty was caused by the fact that even within Iran, support of Khomeinī’s theory was far from unanimous. While there had been open criticism outside Iran from the very beginning,[23] the Qom-based Iranian scholars could express their reservation only in a more subdued form. They did so by refusing to back Khāmene’ī’s aspirations of being recognised as sole marja‘ in the 1990s, following the deaths of the Iranian Āyatollāhs Golpāyegānī (1993) and Arākī (1994), and by endorsing instead seven Iranian marāji‘ (Khāmene’ī only being one of them). While Khāmene’ī’s international standing was thus thoroughly demoted, this did not hinder some staunch supporters of the wilāya principle, such as Āyatollāh Mesbāh Yazdī, to interpret the position of the supreme jurist as being chosen by God and therefore far above all human institutional control. His legitimacy, according to Yazdī, is derived solely from God, who would ensure that automatically always the most qualified jurist is in power, to whom everyone owes unconditional and absolute obedience.[24]

Such an extreme elevation which puts the supreme Shi‘ite jurist more or less on a par with the imam himself is, however, an exception shared by only a few ideologues and far more than any of the traditional marāji‘ would approve of. It is especially at the Iraqi ‘atabāt that this traditional form of the marja‘iyya survived into the twenty-first century, after ‘Alī al-Sīstānī (b. 1930) became generally acknowledged as the successor to al-Khū’ī following the latter’s death in 1992 – and after the hawza survived the heavy toll taken by the Ba‘th regime’s persecution in the 1990s. Like his predecessor, al-Sīstānī, too, was politically quietist, before the regime change in 2003 pushed him into the public limelight. Yet his cautious steering between the extremes and functioning as an arbitrator, while ostentatiously avoiding any direct involvement into politics (though he did get involved in the shaping of the post-2003 constitution) did not remain unchallenged. The young and low-rank cleric Muqtadā al-Sadr (b. 1973) openly defied him by calling for a “speaking hawza”, i.e. a politically active one, and by dismissing al-Sīstānī’s leadership as a “silent hawza”, incapable of taking care of the believers’ needs. A short, but violent civil war within Iraqi Shi‘ites in 2004 could be settled, but due to al-Sadr’s intransigence, the conflict is simmering until today.[25] The marja‘iyya at present is in a difficult situation of transformation – not for the first time in Shi‘ite history, as we have seen. It is at the crossroads between a traditional, amorphous and very informal pre-modern institution that in itself was the derivative of a long process going back to the occultation of the twelfth imam, and an international, globalised network maintained by every marja‘. ‘Alī al-Sīstānī as the highest – though not the only – authority for most Shi‘ite believers has occasionally be characterised as “the last Marja”[26] and it may indeed well be that after his demise the entire system of the marja‘iyya might completely change, all the more so as the position of the “leader of the revolution” in Iran is likely to be filled within the next few years as well. Only one thing seems to be rather certain: the management of Shi‘ite religion over the past millennium by mujtahidūn and marāji‘ has made the mahdī appear absolutely superfluous, although it is stipulated in the Iranian constitution (article 5) that the wilāyat al-faqīh is in force only during the absence of the twelfth imam, and although individual scholars (among them Muqtadā al-Sadr) are virtually obsessed with the mahdī’s figure. Given their own social and economic power, however, the ulama are likely to ward off also future ideas of a premature Parousia.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] The two minors were the ninth imam, Muhammad al-Jawād, and the tenth, ‘Alī al-Hādī; for a general depiction of the imams cf. Moojan Momen: An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam. The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism (Yale University Press, New Haven-London, 1985).

[2] This period was later named the “lesser occultation” (al-ghayba al-sughrā), during which the concealed imam was still in contact with the community through the agency of four so-called “deputies” (sufarā’); since then, any contact has been broken off, and the imam has disappeared into the “greater occultation” (al-ghayba al-kubrā).

[3] Cf. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi: “Réflexions sur une évolution du shi’isme duodécimain: tradition et idéologisation,” in Évelyne Patlagean, Alain de Boulluec (eds.), Les retours aux écritures. Fondamentalismes présents et passés, (Peeters, Louvain, 1993), pp. 63-81.

[4] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi: “Islam in Iran – x: The Roots of Political Shi'is,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 14, pp. 146-154 (online:

[5] Etan Kohlberg, “Aspects of Akhbārī Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Nehemia Levtzion, John O. Voll (eds.), Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1987), pp. 133-160 (on 135).

[6] Robert Gleave, Scripturalist Islam. The History and Doctrines of the Akhbārī Shīʿī School, (Brill, Leiden, 2007), pp. 79ff. and 101, has, however, shown that the Akhbārīs, contrary to their own claims, could not do without interpreting the imams’ sayings either.

[7] On the socio-historical background cf. Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War. The Politics, Culture and History of Shi‘ite Islam (I.B. Tauris, London, 2002), pp. 58-77.

[8] Abbas Amanat, “In Between the Madrasa and the Marketplace: The Designation of Clerical Leadership in Modern Shi‘ism,” in idem Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi‘ism (I.B. Tauris, London-New York, 2009), pp. 149-178, 267-273.

[9] Rainer Brunner, “Shi'ite Doctrine – ii: Hierarchy in the Imamiyya,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, online:

[10] Linda S. Walbridge, “The Counterreformation. Becoming a Marja’ in the Modern World,” in eadem (ed.), The Most Learned of the Shi‘a. The Institution of the Marja‘ Taqlid (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001), pp. 230-246 (esp. 240-244).

[11] Meir Litvak, Shi‘i Scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq. The ‘ulama’ of Najaf and Karbala’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998).

[12] Werner Ende, “Der amtsmüde Ayatollah,” in Gebhard J. Selz (ed.), Festschrift für Burkhart Kienast: zu seinem 70. Geburtstage dargebracht von Freunden, Schülern und Kollegen (Ugarit, Münster, 2003), pp. 51-63.

[13] Vanessa Martin, Islam and Modernism. The Iranian Revolution of 1906 (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1989), pp. 165-200.

[14] Abdul-Hadi Hairi, Shī‘īsm and Constitutionalism in Iran. A Study of the Role Played by the Persian Residents of Iraq in Iranian Politics (Brill, Leiden, 1977), pp. 87ff.

[15]Tanbīh al-umma wa-tanzīh al-milla, Baghdad 1909, Tehran 1910; cf. Hairi, pp. 109-151 and passim.

[16] Kamran Scott Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala. Shiʿi Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2004), pp. 87-112.

[17] Said Amir Arjomand, “Shi‘ite Conceptions of Authority and Constitutional Developments in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Rainer Brunner & Werner Ende (eds.), The Twelver Shia in Modern Times: Religious Culture & Political History (Brill, Leiden, 2001), pp. 301-332 (on 303-304).

[18] Ibid., p. 310.

[19] Walbridge, “The Counterreformation,” p. 234; Amanat, “In Between the Madrasa and the Marketplace,” p. 191, respectively.

[20] Ann K.S. Lambton, “A Reconsideration of the Position of the Marja‘ Al-Taqlīd and the Religious Institution,” Studia Islamica 20 (1964), pp. 115-135 (on 125f.).

[21] On al-Sadr’s theory, cf. Talib Aziz, “The Political Theory of Muhammad Baqir Sadr,” in Faleh Abdul-Jabar (ed.), Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues. State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq (Saqi Books, London, 2002), pp. 231-244; on Fadallāh cf. Rula Jurdi Abisaab, “Lebanese Shi‘ites and The Marja‘iyya: Polemic in the Late Twentieth Century,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36 (2009), pp. 215-239 (on 233f.).

[22] Said Amir Arjomand, “Shi‘ite Conceptions of Authority,” pp. 314ff.

[23] Mariella Ourghi, “Shiite Criticism of the Welāyat-e faqīh,” Asiatische Studien 59 (2005), pp. 831-844.

[24] Katajun Amirpur, “A Doctrine in the Making? Velāyat-e faqīh in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” in Gudrun Krämer, Sabine Schmidtke (eds.), Speaking for Islam. Religious Authorities in Muslim Societies (Brill, Leiden, 2006), 218-240 (on 228ff.).

[25] Amatzia Baram, “Sadr the Father, Sadr the Son, the ‘Revolution in Shi’ism,’ and the Struggle for Power in the Hawzah of Najaf,” in Amatzia Baram, Achim Rohde, and Ronen Zeidel (eds.), Iraq Between Occupations. Perspectives from 1920 to the Present (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2010), pp. 143-157 (on 146, 151ff.).

[26] Mehdi Khalaji, The Last Marja. Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism (The Washington Institute, Washington 2006),

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Rainer Brunner, “How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 22-35

Online version:
Text by Rainer Brunner, “How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics”, Oasis [online], published 1st July 2017, URL:

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