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How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics

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.

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