Ayatollahs will determine Iran’s succession

Friday 25/09/2015
Rule of the Ayatollahs. A session of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, on September 1st.

London - I once asked a cleric in Iran how one qualified as an “ayatollah”. “Well,” he mused, “you used to have to study.”
That had been my under­standing. Such has been the impor­tance of ijtihad (“independent rea­soning”) in Shia Islam that standing among fellow clerics depended for centuries on learning and compe­tence, particularly through pub­lishing a range of original work.
The issue of who is, and who is not, an ayatollah resonates with the approach of February 2016 elec­tions for the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses Iran’s supreme leaders. There is a reason­able chance the assembly will in its next eight-year term pick a suc­cessor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 and underwent prostate surgery in 2014. But there is little clarity as to how much clerical ex­pertise the leader must have.
In recent decades, Iran has seen “ayatollah inflation”. In his 2000 book Who Rules Iran? German scholar Wilfried Buchta estimated the number of ayatollahs at 5,000, with the vast majority apolitical. “No one knows,” an Iranian journal­ist in Tehran told The Arab Weekly. “Thousands certainly, perhaps tens of thousands.”
According to the Oxford Ency­clopaedia of the Islamic World, the term “ayatollah”’ was first applied during the latter part of the Qajar dynasty (1796-1925) in Iran, but not among Shia Muslims elsewhere: it may have imitated the title zill Al­lah (“shadow of God”) traditionally applied to Iranian Islamic rulers.
“Then in the 20th century, the title Ayatu’llah (“the sign of God”) became customary for designating a marja’ at-taqlid,” wrote Moojan Momen is his 1985 Yale publication An Introduction to Shi’i Islam.
The marja – or “source of emula­tion” — was a cleric, or small num­ber of clerics, acknowledged as the most pre-eminent. Later, as the number of ayatollahs increased, a marja was called ayatollah ozma, or grand ayatollah.
In 1979, the Islamic Republic implemented Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e fa­qih (“guardianship of the jurist”). This gave the leading cleric a pre-eminent say in the state under the supervision of an assembly of sen­ior clerics, so ensuring the suprem­acy of Islam over politics, even as an elected parliament made laws and held the government to account.
But in Khomeini’s last years, it was clear there was a problem. Khomeini had removed as dep­uty leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, the leading cleric after Khomeini supporting velayat-e fa­qih, for criticising a wave of execu­tions of political prisoners in 1988. So Khomeini designated as his suc­cessor Ali Khamenei, a far from sen­ior cleric and no ayatollah.
When the Experts Assembly con­vened after Khomeini’s death in 1989 it duly chose Khamenei and a subsequent constitutional change removed the rule that the leader needed “learning and piety as re­quired for the function of marja”. Instead, the leader was required only to have qualifications fit to is­sue fatwas (religious rulings), mean­ing he might not even be an ayatol­lah.
“The separation of the function of faqih and marja did not mean the separation of religion from politics,” writes Ulrich von Schwerin in a new biography of Montazeri*, “but rather established the supremacy of politics over religion. Henceforth, the state did not receive its legiti­macy from the faqih but the faqih depended on the state for his own legitimacy.”
While the assembly conferred the title of ayatollah on Khame­nei, many clerics never recognised this, even when it was announced he would act as a marja for Shia outside Iran. Montazeri’s support­ers soon questioned Khamenei’s qualifications and in 1997 Montaz­eri gave a speech telling the leader; “You are not a marja’-e taqlid and you bear no resemblance to a mar­ja’-e taqlid.”
Would-be candidates for the 2016 election will be assessed by the watchdog Guardian Council, six of whose 12 members are appointed by Khamenei. In the last election, in 2006, the council refused to pass both reformist clerics and many fol­lowers of the fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mes­bah-Yazdi.
As to possible candidates for leader, May’s choice of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, 83, as chair­man of the assembly did not per­haps indicate he is likely to succeed Khamenei but it did reveal opposi­tion to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashe­mi Shahroudi, who is relatively young at 66 and had been seen as Khamenei’s likely preference.
“The choice of leader will be 100% politics,” said the Iranian journalist. But despite its devalua­tion, and despite not being a formal requirement for leader, the title of ayatollah still carries weight, and it is interesting that some conserva­tives have started calling Sadeq Larijani, head of the judiciary, an ayatollah.“There has been such an inflation of the title that by now probably all the people under con­sideration (for leader) hold the ti­tle,” Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii said. There is at least one exception: no-one is yet describ­ing President Hassan Rohani as an ayatollah, although there is specu­lation in Iran he could emerge as a possible leader.
* Ulrich von Schwerin, The Dis­sident Mullah: Ayatollah Montazeri and the Struggle for Reform in Revo­lutionary Iran, I.B. Tauris, 2015.