Ayatollahs will determine Iran’s succession
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.