Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The concept of Vilayate Faqih and the Islamic Revolution of Iran

By Mansur Ali
Revolution is broadly defined as, “A movement by various groups that are strategically located throughout society, when the state is weak and vulnerable, to acquire the powers and authority of the governing elite.”[1] This leads us to ask the question, ‘What are the causes of revolution, and in the case of Iran, are the causes of the 1979 revolution short-termed or do they stretch deep into Iran’s past?’ Social scientists have engaged in long debates in trying to pinpoint the root and exact cause/s of revolution. They have come up with a number of theories in their own disciplines.

Some social scientists are of the opinion that revolutions occur when there is a discrepancy between the value system of a society and the realities of its social life. This is known as the value-systems approach. The theory suggests that societies are homeostatic meaning that can adapt to changes and influences. But when society loses its capacity to adapt, it becomes disequilibrated, at that moment three factors; military weakness; the confidence of the revolutionaries in over powering the government and the strategy they use in doing that, work as a catalyst towards the revolution.

In the case of Iran, the Iranian society could not adapt to the rapid social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, thus it became disequilibrated. This was further accelerated by the reduction of oil prices after 1973 and president Jimmy Carter’s human right policies.[2]

A second group of scholars boil the causes of revolution down to aggravated psychological factors. They argue that revolution occurs because of a state of mind, a mood in society. People are frustrated with the regime and are in close contact with each other to form a critical mass. One scholar argues that people become frustrated when they perceive rather than actually experience a reduction in their social and economic opportunities. This again can be seen in the Iranian revolution with an economic recession in 1977, inflation and the industrialization of bazar markets, products such as the hand made rugs were now made with machines. The bazaris saw this as a threat to their economic and social opportunities. It seems to me that this was done on purpose to break the politico-economic strength of the bazaris, who were the major source of funding for the ‘Ulama.[3] Khomeini alone was donated £20 million by the bazaris whilst in exile in Paris.

A third theory suggests that revolution occurs because the state cannot meet the challenges of evolving international situations. International pressure especially from Washington was an important development leading to the Iranian revolution.[4] These are some of the theories used to understand revolutions. I will now turn my attention more specifically to the Iranian revolution.

The fundamental question that needs to be asked is, ‘what does it mean by the Islamic revolution? Does it mean that people will start practicing and become more pious after the revolution? And how does the Islamic revolution of Iran differ from other Islamic revolutions?’ The answer to this question is no! People do not become practising just because of a revolution. What it means by an Islamic revolution is that Islam is coming back into the political scene. The term Islamic revolution implies, in theory, that the state will be a theocratic one with God as the supreme arbitrator. Islamic revolutions have occurred before in Pakistan, Libya and Saudi Arabia, but the distinguishing characteristic of the Iranian Islamic revolution is that it was not a king or ruler who claimed the Islamic rule, rather it was a leader from the regular ‘Ulama.[5] The only similar case that I can think of, if it ever would have been successful, is the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The revolution was the culmination of public frustration and discontent with the Pahlavi state. The contenders who worked towards the revolution can be broadly put into four ideological fronts, in the words of Hamid Dabashi: “(1) The obviously and essentially religious, (2) The blatantly and patently secular, (3) The crypto-secular religious, and, finally, (4) The crypto-religious secular.”[6]

The secular front believed in the trinity of socialism, nationalism and democracy. Nationalism to the Iranian people was always a source of pride. They were always consciously aware of their ethnicity, even before and after the great shubiya movement in the seventh century. This can be seen in the very language of Iran. Iran is the only Muslim country in the Near East where Arabic is not spoken and written as the official language. Even today Iranians take pride in relating stories of kings from the Shahnameh of Firdawsi. The Pahlavi regimes modernization scheme was seen as a threat to the very identity of the Iranians. This consciousness of identity and fear of loss of identity gave birth to a number of nationalistic groups such as the National Party and the Fada’in e Khalq Party.

From the crypto-religious secular front, the name that comes immediately to mind is the Hizb-e Tudeh-e Iran Party (The party of the Iranian masses). Founded in 1941 by an Iranian born, German educated chemist and orthodox Marxist Taqi Arani. Right from its inception the Tudeh Party served as an instrument of Soviet policy in Iran. By 1965 a splinter group emerged which named itself as the Hezb-e Enqalabiy-e Tudeh (The revolutionary Tudeh Party), but later the name was changed to Sazman-e Marxist Leninisti-ye Tufan (The Marxist Leninist Organization of Tufan (storm)). The Storm party hardly gained any recognition and finally ceased to exist.

One of the reasons why the secular front failed to attain a measure of legitimacy in Iran is because of the lack of religious rhetoric. They completely overlooked the fact that Islam is an important part of Iranian culture. Those who recognized this took full advantage of it. They presented secular political ideas in the rhetoric of religious language. Even the religious front failed to do this, as they were too traditional in their approach. One of the most eminent proponents of this ‘Islamic ideology’ is the crypto-secular religious intellectual Jalal Ale Ahmad.

Ale Ahmad born in the house of a cleric had a strict Islamic upbringing. He was taught all the preliminary Islamic knowledge by his father and other clerics in his locality. He majored in literature from dar al-funun, after that he was sent to Najaf to gain further education in Islam, but he came back and decided to finish his secular studies. During this time he met Khasravi, who was an intellectual and was strongly opposed to the ‘Ulama. Ale Ahmad liked what the man had to offer. But Ale Ahmad shocked the world, to the uttermost disgust of his father, by joining the Tudeh party. Having a preliminary education in Islam Ale Ahmad very cleverly interjected his political ideas with Islamic teaching. He wrote his famous book Gharbzadgi (Westoxication) in which he is highly opposed to the westernisation of Iranians. Later in life Ale Ahmad became unhappy with the Tudeh group and turned back to Islam. He went for the Hajj, but by this time his mind was too saturated to accept Islam uncritically.

Towards the end of his life he wrote a book, which he called ‘Four Ka‘ba’. This book can be read like an account of Ale Ahmad’s evolution from a Muslim to a communist and then again a Muslim. The four Ka‘ba that he mentions are: USA, which is the Ka‘ba for most people in the world; Israel, which was the Ka‘ba for the early Muslims, and the Muslims of today can learn a lot from this race; USSR, which was a Ka‘ba for Ale Ahamd and all communists and finally Makka, which is the closest to his heart. Unfortunately Ale Ahamd never lived to see the revolution happen.

The ideological front that finally took the country to revolution was the religious, headed by the Shi‘a cleric Ayatullah Khomeini.

Ayatullah Ruhullah Khomeini was born on the 24th of September 1904, in a small village, 60 kilometres south of Tehran, called Khomein. He came from a family of religious clerics. He himself attained the title of ‘Ayatullah’ the highest cleric in Shi‘a Islam. A minimum of 3,000 jurisprudence problems needed to be solved to attain this title. He had a deep interest for mysticism and philosophy, which can be found profoundly in his books.

Khomeini was not always in the political limelight as one might assume. Higher authorities overshadowed him. He like many of his comrades wrote literature and delivered sermons against the government’s anti Islamic policies. Reza Shah ordered the unveiling of women and put a ban on the turban and clerical attire. His son Muhammad Reza Shah began to propagate Iranian culture near the end of his regime. The Persian title ‘Aryamehr’ (the sun of the Aryan race) was attached to his name. In 1971 the 2,500th year of the establishment of Persia was celebrated. The Iranian calendar was changed from the hijra of the Prophet, to the Iranian solar calendar. The Zoroastrian fire was introduced in the national birthday of the Shah, and a ban was put on the ‘Ashura plays, where people got together and acted out the incident of the Karbala.

The ‘Ulama saw the above-mentioned points and many others as a direct attack on Islam, therefore they lashed out against the regime. Khomeini’s first set of attack on the Pahlavi regime started in 1944; in a book he named ‘kashf asrar’ (secret exposed). Khomeini’s criticism of government policy attracted a large number student whilst teaching theology in a madrasa in Qum 1960. This led him to become the marja‘-e taqlid (source of imitation).

By the 1960s Khomeini was in direct confrontation with the government, which led to his exile to Iraq in 1964. Khomeini was not famous amongst the public yet. The fatal mistake that Shah made, which turned the whole nations eyes towards Khomeini, was that he openly slandered Khomeini by name in a semi-official newspaper called Ettela’at. This led to a massive protest in Qum by students of theology. In two days seventy people were killed. This newspaper incident, according to Keddie, is seen as the key point in the shift of opposition from the secular groups to the ‘Ulama.[7]

Looking at Khomeini’s life, we find a gradual process from a quietist to a revolutionary character. In a work written forty years before the revolution, it could be seen that Khomeini does not demand that clerics should rule, but their advice should be sought by the government. Martin Kramer is of the opinion that the revolution occurred because this fundamental role of the ‘Ulama was neglected. The ‘Ulama’s antipathy towards Iran’s subservience to the USA was only the symptom to this greater illness.[8]

Khomeini saw that Islam and Muslims were being alienated from the socio-politico-economic scene. Khomeini was not the first to notice this. Crypto-secular religious intellectuals such as Jalal Ale Ahmad and Ale Shari‘ati have written on this subject before. In fact Jalal Ale Ahamd has dedicated a whole monograph to this subject, which he called Gharbzadgi (Westoxication). Khomeini’s departure from these intellectuals lies in two points. Firstly Khomeini believes that the crisis is a threat to the very existence of Islam, whereas the intellectuals believe that it is a threat to the culture of Iran of which Islam is a piece in the jigsaw. And secondly, Khomeini assimilates these problems into a complex of philosophical and jurisprudential concerns. This issue is illuminated nowhere better the concept of vilayat-e faqih.[9]

If it is asked, ‘what is novel in Khomeini’s revolution?’ The answer, in my opinion, would not be the founding of the Islamic state; rather it will be Khomeini’s reading of the vilayat-e faqih.[10]

Vilayat-e faqih is the concept of the authority (velayat) of the jurisprudents (faqih) over the Muslim community. The velayat may be exercised in the following three areas: (1) guardianship over the personal and properties of the weak, such as the orphans, handicapped and widows. (2) Guardianship over the activities and property of the religious life of the community, such as the public endowment (awqaf) mosques, madrasas and holy shrines. (3) A general guardianship over the Muslim community, such as enjoining the good and forbidding the reprehensible and the guiding of political leaders.

These three areas are unanimous amongst the Shi‘a jurisprudents. But there is a fourth area, which is highly debated. This is where the velayat empowers the faqih to exercise political authority, i.e. to become the government. The majority of the jurisprudents do not accept this opinion. Even the ones that conform to this differ in its application. Sheikh Ali Tehrani opines that this is the collective job of the fuqaha (singular of faqih) and not the job of one man. He calls Khomeini’s claim for the authority of a single faqih to be a bid‘a (heretical innovation).[11]

Khomeini is of the opinion that the velayat should be given to only one faqih. This faqih enjoys the same authority as the Prophets and the Imams, however Khomeini denies the rank of the faqih to be the same as the Prophets or the Imams. Khomeini saw that people have been wronged and they need justice. In order to give them justice they need to be led, and he sees himself fit for this job. He does not claim for one moment that he is equivalent to the Imams, but his followers see him as the deputy of the Imams (na’ib Imam), thus giving him a divine sanction.[12] Some of his followers go to the extreme in calling him the 12th Imam who has emerged from the great occultation.

Khomeini goes about solving the alienation of Muslims and Islam from the political scene through the creation of a shari‘a milieu and through ideological unity (yek kalam). The velayat-e faqih is the institutional instrument for the realization of this milieu.

Looking at all the above mentioned facts, we can now safely ask the questions, ‘Was the Iranian revolution of 1979 an Islamic one, and are the roots of this revolution short termed or long termed?

Nikki Keddie is of the opinion that it was not exclusively an Islamic revolution rather it was also a social, economic and political one. Keddie identifies the roots of the revolution to be short-termed as well as long-termed going deep into Iran’s past, amongst which is the geographical characteristic of the country.[13]

According to Said Arjomand (The turban for the crown), although it looks like the revolution is rooted in the past and the Shah is digging up and reviving pre-Islamic Iranian culture, in reality the cause is short-termed. The Shah had no real interest in digging up the past. The reason he resorted to the past is because the monarchy is the only aspect of the Persian culture that had survived. By going to the past he tried to show that the monarch in pre-Islamic Iranian culture was the embodiment of God on earth, the primus inter pares. He should be followed without questioning and disobedience to him is tantamount to blasphemy. In doing this Muhammad Reza Shah actually wanted to modernize and secularise Iran from the influence of the ‘Ulama.

Abrahamain (Iran between two revolution) seems to be of the opinion that the causes of the revolution are short-termed, blaming it on the inflation and increase human right policy.

Dabashi opines that the revolution was inevitable, but the Islamic revolution was not necessarily inevitable. He says, “If there is any legitimacy in branding the Iranian revolution of 1979 ‘Islamic’ it must inevitably be because more Iranians, and more in Iranians, were touched and moved by words of patently or latently Islamic resonance than by any other. And that is reason enough to call it ‘The Islamic revolution.’… The Islamicity of the revolution ultimately rests on its theological language. The theology of discontent, calling God on one’s side when drafting a political agenda is but one, yet crucial, element in the mythology of revolt.”[14]

Dabashi is the opinion that the roots of revolution go far into Iran’s past. There has always been a tension between Islam and culture, and the revolution is yet another exhibition of this tension. In my opinion Dabashi was not successful in explaining why the revolution took place, but I think he has correctly pinpointed why the revolution took a political form i.e. Islamic.

In conclusion I can say that I would have to disagree that the revolution goes deep into Iran’s history. I think it is more to do with economic factors, international pressures and the Shah’s antipathy towards the ‘Ulama. I wonder if Khomeini never made it to the top, then would the revolution have taken an Islamic form???


Abrahamain, E: Iran between two revolutions, Princeton University press 1982

Arjomand, Said: The turban for the crown: the Islamic revolution in Iran, Oxford University Press 1981

Dabashi, Hamid: The theology of discontent, New York University Press

Kamrava, Mehran: Revolution in Iran: the roots of turmoil, Routledge, London and New York

Keddie, Nikki: Introduction, in Nikki Keddie (ed.): Religion and politics in Islam, pp. 1-18, Yale University Press

- Roots of revolution, Yale University Press

Kramer, Martin: Introduction, in Martin Kramer (ed.): Shi’ism, resistance and revolution, pp.1-18, Westview Press, Mamsell Publishing Limited

Rose, Gregory: Velyt-e- Faqih and the recovery of the Islamic identity, in Nikki Keddie (ed.): Religion and politics in Islam, pp. 166-88, Yale university Press
[1] Kamrava, Mehran: Revolution in Iran: the roots of turmoil, p. 8
[2] Ibid. p. 6
[3] Keddie, Roots of revolution, p.245
[4] Kamrava, Mehran: Revolution in Iran: the roots of turmoil, p. 6
[5] Keddie, Roots of revolution, p. 4
[6] Dabashi, Theology of discontent, p.10
[7] Keddie, p. 242
[8] Kramer, Introduction, in Martin Kramer (ed.): Shi’ism, resistance and revolution, p. 7
[9] Rose, Velayt-e- Faqih and the recovery of the Islamic identity, p.166
[10] Kramer, p.6
[11] Rose, Velayt-e- Faqih and the recovery of the Islamic identity, p. 170, footnote No. 14
[12] Kramer
[13] Keddie, p.1
[14] Dabashi, p.496

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