The Islamic Republic of Iran is founded on the idea that clerics should exercise political power by virtue of their ability to interpret the divine will, a principle questioned by theologians and intellectuals.

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:29

Soroush’s Critique


The philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (m. 1945) is regarded as one of the most prominent critics of the concept of velayat-e faqih, i.e. the guardianship of the jurisconsult which underlies the Islamic Republic of Iran. As an hermeneuticist, he holds that man is never able to fully understand God’s true will, which is why fundamentally different views on religion should be tolerated and ideas that have not proven successful should be discarded, regardless of who formulated them. He accuses the clerics and, of course, the Supreme Jurisconsult, Ayatollah Khamenei, of claiming a monopoly on religious interpretation. In a nutshell, he argues that since it is funded by the khums (a tax paid on goods, Editor’s note), the clergy becomes a class, and is thus concerned about maintaining its privileges, leading at last to the fossilization of religious thought.


In the Islamic Republic of Iran, levelling criticism against the monopolization of the interpretation of religion has a particular meaning: it is an implicit critique of the concept of velayat-e faqih. By arguing that the religious understanding of the vali-e faqih (the Supreme Jurisconsult) is merely human and therefore a fallible interpretation of religion, Soroush undercuts the authority of the Supreme Jurisconsult and his claim to absolute obedience. Therefore a devout Muslim would not necessarily have to believe in velayat-e faqih, which is no more than just a reading of religion, one amongst many. According to Soroush, velayat-e faqih is a “phenomenon in need of perfection”. However, in his writings an explicit rejection of velayat-e faqih as governing model in Iran cannot be found: as long as it is legally established, Soroush will not oppose it.


Another argument that Soroush brings forth against velayat-e faqih is his rejection of political taqlīd (imitation). Like Ali Shariati (1933-1977) and sheikh Morteza Ansari (1781-1864), Soroush thinks that clerics can only be a “source of imitation” (marja‘ al-taqlīd) concerning cultural issues, but not concerning political issues. In the 1970s, Ali Shariati called for the concept of taqlīd to be redefined and emphasized that taqlīd should be reduced to the public’s consultation of a cleric exclusively in certain cases, namely “practical and juridical matters that are of a technical and scientific nature.” According to Shariati, taqlīd should not be the absolute and unquestionable adherence to the knowledge, faith and judgement of the clerics. Regarding the unmediated, direct relationship between God and man as an essential principle of original Islam, Shariati even deemed the practice of ijtihād (the interpretative effort) not the duty of a mujtahid (a qualified interpreter, Editor’s note) alone, but rather of every single Muslim. The message of Islam can be understood by everyone, but only through studying the religious texts.



Adherents of the Orthodox Shiite Doctrine


The concept of the guardianship of legal scholars belongs to the irrefutable basic elements of Shiite doctrine. At least according to Ayatollah Khamenei, as he claimed on the occasion of the 10th centenary of Khomeini’s death. In fact, we could say that the opposite is the case. However, many clerics that reject velayat-e faqih, are quietists. Expressing critique publicly does not conform with their self-conception, because that would be an undue interference in politics, a practice that they reject. Furthermore the Islamic Republic does not treat its critics very well, as the examples of Mohsen Kadivar, Abdallah Nuri and Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri show, the threat of prison sentences or house arrest is only too real.


Even in Khomeini’s times the velayat-e faqih was not undisputable. On the contrary, many clerics from Qom were against velayat-e faqih, and those who endorsed it still did not agree with the revolutionary leader coming to power through a “popular revolution” instead of being elected by other Ayatollahs.


In 1981 liberal cleric Reza Zanjani declared:

“The monopoly of juridical and theological decisive power that has been created in Iran is un-Islamic. Titles like ‘leader’ or ‘supreme leader’ are not Islamic. No comparison can be made between the Catholic Church with its hierarchy and structures and the leadership of the Shiites”.


The critique of conservative Ayatollah Hasan Qomi went along similar lines. He wrote:

“The true clergy does not want political power… and does not approve of the clerics that govern us. The true purpose of the clerics is to counsel the people and inform them.”


However, among those thinking that the guardianship of legal scholars in times of the major Occultation (the period in which the twelfth Imam is absent from the visible world and does not communicate with it, Editor’s note) would be illegitimate, there are at least two groups that—in contrast to the quietists, with whom they share this view—do not refrain from interfering with politics. For example, the organization called Hojjatiye also rejects the velayat-e faqih, namely because they hold that the twelfth hidden Imam, Editor’s note) will return. Velayat-e faqih would in this case be preventing or delaying the Mahdī’s return by implementing Islamic laws and thus counteracting corruption and vice.


Another still active organisation in Iran, that isn’t that much quietist, is called Mahdaviye. Like the Hojjatiye, the Mahdaviye holds the opinion that any political rule whatsoever would be illegitimate until the return of the 12th Imam.



The Advocates of the vekalat


Critics of velayat-e faqih mostly were or are advocates of the theory of vekalat. Within the inner-Shiite debate about the legitimacy of political power they hold a view that diametrically opposes the idea of velayat. While the supporters of the latter consider the assignment of God’s authority to rule to one or multiple legal scholars (in Arabic wilāya, in Persian velayat) as legitimate, other religious dignitaries believe a representative system (in Arabic wikāla, in Persian vekalat) to be legitimate, that is the assignment of the government mandate to representatives elected by the people. They support the notion of civil legitimacy (mahsruiyat-e madani), according to which sovereignty belongs to the people, from which emanates all power.


To the advocates of vekalat, Muhammad Hossein Naini (m. 1936) is a prominent pioneer. The government he suggests indeed follows Islamic laws, but respecting popular sovereignty. In his book Tanbīh al-umma (The Awakening of the Community) he holds the opinion that the state’s sole purpose is to maintain its inner order and to protect itself from outward enemies, as a sort of “night-watchman state”. As its primary purpose is to maintain order, the government is installed by the people. Consequently, citizens have the right to abolish a government if it fails to meet those obligations.


Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1906-1986), who also belonged to the vekalat advocates, even recognized a limited legitimacy of kingship, as long as it did not degenerate into tyranny. During the revolution, he just asked for the implementation of the 1906-1907 Constitution, as did also Khomeini in his book Kashf al-asrâr (The Unveiling of Secrets). After the national referendum on the future form of government, Ayatollah Shariatmadari, in May 1979, stated in an interview that Islam does not ask the clergy to meddle in state affairs, except if the parliament implements an anti-Islamic legislation. This statement however was later revoked, probably under pressure. In December 1979, shortly before the referendum on the new Constitution, the Ayatollah criticized the power of the Guide to be in conflict with article 56 of the fundamental Charter, according to which no one can contest the sovereignty of the people, since this right would have been granted to him by God. According to Shariatmadari, who claimed that the velayat-e faqih was not necessarily Islamic, the Supreme Leader’s fullness of power curtailed the people’s sovereignty.


While Khomeini accepted Islam as the only source for legislation, Ayatollah Shariatmadari only advocated an Islamic system that would respect the principles of Islam. Until the return of the twelfth Imam, he regarded an Islamic government to be a utopia. For his critique, Khomeini had him placed under house arrest, forbade him to continue wearing a turban, and ordered that his title of Grand Ayatollah be withdrawn.


After the revolution, also Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani (1911-1979) voiced critique about the political involvement of the clerics and the problems this would have entailed. Indeed, while an ordinary government would be replaced when making mistakes, people would lose their faith if an Islamic leader would commit misdemeanours. All mistakes made by the leader would automatically be attributed to religion. Taleqani cautioned against the revolution turning into a dictatorship of the clergy; the state should be the custodian of individuals and must not be turned into a pawn serving the interests of a few individuals. Instead of velayat-e faqih, Taleqani recommended a council republic.


Even Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995) rejected the velayat-e faqih inasmuch as it intrinsically calls for the monopoly of the clergy on the interpretation of religious sources. Bazargan’s critique of velayat-e faqih, which he most notably expressed in his analysis entitled Velayat-e motlaq-e faqih (The Absolute Rule of the Clerics), was based mainly on Shiite legal sources. This booklet was secretly distributed by Bazargan’s party, the Nehzat-e azadi (freedom movement), but was never officially printed. In an interview with Islamic studies scholar Wilfried Buchta in 1993, Bazargan chose distinct words regarding the velayat-e faqih. He said that from a political point of view, the velayat-e faqih should be considered a form of despotism and a backslide into the kind of state the revolution had tried to overcome. From a religious point of view, it would be a form of shirk (idolatry) and a totalitarian cult of personality. According to Bazargan, clerics must not engage in politics on the basis of their privileged religious status. Furthermore, although the Qur’an has established the main rules of government, it would be the task of Parliament to adjust these rules to the present circumstances. In absence of the Imam the people would have to govern themselves. “Absolute kingship” was only due to God and divine power could not be delegated to the clergy, but solely to the people as a whole.



Velayat with Vekalat: Montazeri’s Interpretation


Grand Ayatollah Montazeri (1922-2009) was the highest ranked cleric who did not radically reject the velayat-e faqih. Even so, he accepts certain elements of the vekalat-theory and speaks of the need for a social contract between the Supreme Jurisconsult and the people. Montazeri had been appointed as Khomeini’s successor, but was then degraded by the Leader of Revolution in March 1989.

In 1997 he went back to the political debate with Mohammad Khatami’s victory, and he publicly warned the newly elected President about Khamenei interfering in his political affairs simply because he claimed to be above the Constitution.


During a conference, Montazeri explained that the Iranian founding fathers, to whom he also belonged, never had in mind to establish a system like that of today's Iran. The Supreme Jurisconsult was thought to be assigned an oversight function and should guard the three state authorities from violating Islam but should not meddle with state affairs. Only in the event that society had moved away from the “way of Islam” the Supreme Jurisconsult should have stepped in. Moreover, this appointment should have taken place following an election and should have been temporary.

According to Montazeri, in 1979 the Fathers had unequivocally opted for a Republic, which is the rule of the people, and had envisaged both political parties and press freedom. Montazeri accused the Supreme Jurisconsult currently in rule of having perverted the intentions written into the Constitution and having created a dictatorship of legal scholars in Iran.


But the most relevant of his “revelations” was that according to which it was he and not Khomeini who had suggested to enshrine “the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult” in the Constitution. According to Montazeri, when he proposed this idea of government, Khomeini simply remained silent. The other attendees criticized this idea heavily, but interpreted Khomeini’s silence to be approval. If indeed Montazeri was the actual architect of the “guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult”, his critique as well as his call for revising this notion gain importance. Besides, if this were the case, the doctrine of the “guardianship of the Jurisconsult” should no longer necessarily be considered the sacrosanct heritage of the state’s founder.


Basically, Montazeri thought that the whole conception of the doctrine of the state and of the Islamic Republic was obsolete, as its initial meaning for the most learned legal scholars was to guard the state. By introducing the new definition of the Supreme Jurisconsult in 1989—who by that definition is not the Supreme Jurisconsult anymore—a parallel institution to the office of the President came into being. Yet, Montazeri asks: what distinguishes the holder of this office from the qualification of the President? Both of them are clerics, both of them with a rank not all that high, and both must have political foresight and competence.

While these qualities are required by the Constitution when it comes to the Supreme Jurisconsult, they are taken for granted in the figure of the President, Montazeri writes. What is this parallel institution needed for, if it does not vary from the office of the President? Montazeri did not acknowledge the argument put forward by Khamenei’s followers, according to which the Supreme Jurisconsult was vested with divine legitimation.


Instead, he stated that, according to Shiite law, no one else besides the Imams is exclusively designated by God. The Supreme Jurisconsult must be legitimized by popular will.

Montazeri however offered an explanation for how the dominant interpretation on velayat-e faqih came into being. Divine legitimation had to be “fabricated”, because Khamenei was expected to take over the position of the vali-ye faqih.


It should be added that in the last few years several critics have gone public, questioning the abundance of power of the Supreme Jurisconsult and advocating the sovereignty of the people.

Among them Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi (b. 1925), Mohsen Kadivar (b. 1959), Abdallah Nuri (b. 1949) and Jalaloddin Taheri (1926-2013) are undoubtedly the most prominent figures. In their writings and statements Montazeri’s name is repeatedly mentioned and they refer to him in their argumentation. In this way, Montazeri’s demand for strengthening the republican element within the conception of the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult and for regarding the people as the sovereign, gained prominence.


Kadivar and Nuri were Montazeri’s students, Azari-Qomi on the contrary for a long time was one of his fiercest opponents. The latter was a member of the Assembly of Experts that elected Khamenei as Supreme Jurisconsult and above that, being the editor of the newspaper Resalat, he was the spokesman of a parliamentary group that supported the current Supreme Jurisconsult. In numerous articles Azari-Qomi defended Khamenei against those who criticized him for his lack of qualifications.


Besides that, Azari-Qomi strongly advocated for Khamenei to possess absolute power. That Khamenei was not a “source of imitation” should not result in reducing his powers. Azari-Qomi even went as far as to say that Khomeini’s ordinances would only be valid if Khamenei confirmed them.


Only in 1997 Azari-Qomi started criticizing Khamenei’s fullness of power and even suggested that he should install Montazeri as a kind of representative who would be responsible for taking care of religious issues, whereas Khamenei himself would focus solely on political matters. With no radical change in politics—said Azari-Qomi—the people “will throw us into the dustbin of history”.

Kadivar as well as Nuri have come to prominence in the past few years. Besides former President of the Republic Khatami, Nuri, a theologian, surely is the most prominent politician from the faction of reformist forces. He held the office of Minister for Internal Affairs until parliament, dominated by conservatives, degraded him. Khatami subsequently appointed him as deputy President of the Republic. In the spring of 1998, he was elected as Chairman of the Tehran City Council.


Shortly after his announcement to run for the parliamentary elections, the “Special Tribunal for Clerics” accused him of numerous misdemeanours that reached as far as to vilifying Islam. However, the articulate defendant who in the 1980s had numbered among the most loyal supporters of state founder Khomeini, utilized his trial to deliver a sweeping blow against official Iranian policy, unprecedented in the Iranian public sphere.

He contested the divine powers of Revolutionary Leader Khamenei and defended Khamenei’s biggest critics. He said he was proud to have published Montazeri’s letters, which had caused a sensation as they were a plea for far-reaching democratic reforms, but he lamented that: “Day after day we hear expressions like ‘traitor’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘corrupt’, ‘dirty’, ‘greedy’ and ‘the naive sheikh’, to insult Montazeri.” Nuri, who already on the occasion of the revision of the Constitution in 1989 had criticized the abundance of power in hands of the Supreme Jurisconsult, declared that the Assembly of Experts had a monitoring function towards the Supreme Jurisconsult and should observe its task. The Assembly of Experts should meet more often and provide its minutes to the public. Overall, he advocated ascribing more importance to the people’s rights (hoquq-e mellat) established by the Constitution.


As the trial was televised live, what Nuri had to say about Montazeri and his critique of Khamenei, gained wide-spread attention in Iran. Furthermore the reform-oriented press covered the trial daily on their frontpages.

The dominant opinion among the commentators was that expressed by the newspaper Sobh-e emruz, according to which:

“The trial against Abdallah Nuri, as bitter and unfortunate as it might be, has the upside of reflecting reality as it is seen by a large part of Iranian society.”


On September 27th, 1999, Nuri was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. Another student of Montazeri had a similar fate. In 1999 Mohsen Kadivar was sentenced by the Special Tribunal for Clerics, too. He was accused of defaming Ayatollah Khomeini, misleading the people by spreading lies, endangering the system and supporting Montazeri.


Kadivar has elaborated his views on velayat-e faqih in several books in which he admittedly does not directly attack the Supreme Jurisconsult, but rather he tries to illustrate that neither the Qur’an nor the traditions of the Imams call for the institution of the velayat-e faqih.


Moreover, he elaborates that from a rational viewpoint, it is not imperative. He himself rejects the idea of velayat, because it generally assumes a level of immaturity in people. According to this concept, people require a guiding uncle or shepherd. Kadivar explains that this thought would contradict the basic principles of Shiite law, which looks to the maturity of man and his autonomy as a starting point. Since the concept of velayat regards man as immature and only accepts the opinion and the judgement of the vali (the jurisconsult), Kadivar regards velayat-e faqih to be incompatible to democracy at its root.


What Montazeri has uploaded to the internet, surely can be compared to a political bomb and probably is the harshest criticism ever levelled against the velayat-e faqih in the history of Iran. Also, his ideas have been released to the general public through his most famous students, which was effective as good publicity.


Nevertheless, the approach taken by Soroush seems more interesting: while Montazeri does not intend to abolish the velayat-e faqih, but rather wants to democratize the office, the system as proposed by Soroush and which is based on his proposition that religious cognition is changeable, does not involve the velayat-e faqih anymore at all. That is why Soroush has to solve another tricky problem: can one live according to secular legislation and still define oneself a Muslim?


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation